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Fringe Firsts 2014 Week 1!

OK, so here’s our sparkling first week Scotsman Fringe First list!

CUCKOOED by Mark Thomas, at the Traverse Theatre
CONFIRMATION by Chris Thorpe, at Northern Stage @ King’s Hall
MEN IN THE CITIES BY Chris Goode at the Traverse
CHEF BY Sabrina Mahfouz at the Underbelly, Cowgate
THE COLLECTOR by Henry Naylor at the Gided Balloon
SPOILING by John McCann at the Traverse

Congratulations to all these terrific winners – and on to next week!

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The Carousel, Unfaithful

THEATRE
The Carousel
4 stars ****
Unfaithful
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

IT WAS PHILIP LARKIN who said it, in his much-quoted poem about family, This Be The Verse.  “Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf…”   In the second part of her great female trilogy – first glimpsed last year in Stellar Quines’s award-winning production of The List – the French-Canadian writer Jennifer Tremblay focusses on mothers and daughters, rather than on the men of the family; and the rich range of emotions she conjures up, over  75 minutes, certainly goes far beyond misery.

She does, though, take a strongly fatalistic view of how difficult women find it to avoid living out the emotional patterns bequeathed to them by their mothers; and so, in Maureen Beattie’s stunning solo performance, we see a woman in her forties, with three young sons, travelling to sit by the deathbed of her mother Florence, while also trying to “talk” to her long-dead grandmother, Marie.  In Muriel Romanes’ magnificent production, she speaks against a background of domestic and religious detail – shoes, windows, archways, images of the virgin – superbly evoked by John Byrne’s softly gilded wall of a set, with exquisite lighting by Jeanine Byrne; and the story she tells is often a harsh one, of real or threatened abuse, betrayal or abandonment.

If betrayal by men helps shape these women’s lives, thought, they seem far from helpless in the face of it.  And in Maureen Beattie, Tremblay’s beautiful stage poem finds a performer who can conjure up all the faces of woman evoked in The Carousel, and more; child, mother, crone, victim, warrior and gorgeous seductress, all fully present in a fine text-based  performance that unfolds into a rich and glorious piece of total theatre.

Owen McCafferty’s Unfaithful, on the main stage of Traverse One, is also a 75-minute family drama, featuring a woman’s response to the possibility of betrayal; McCafferty’s theme, though, is a more strictly contemporary one to do with the nature of sexual boredom, and our 21st century response to it.

So in Unfaithful, we first meet 58-year-old Tam, standing in a hotel bar having a pint, and being chatted up – slightly improbably, but iresistibly – by the gorgeous twentysomething Tara.  Then we meet his wife Joan, who decides to take her revenge in the most vivid style; enter a young male “escort” called Peter, meeting Joan in a room in a the same hotel.

It has to be said that for all the energy and wit of the writing, the basic situation of McCafferty’s play is well-worn stuff, much less interesting than the charged political dialogue of his 2013 play Quietly; and Gary McCann’s design for the show seems correspondingly excessive, whirling whole fitted kitchens and bedrooms into place for ten-minute scenes of routine Afternoon Play dialogue.  Rachel O’Riordan production features a quartet of magnificent performances, though; and Benny Young and Cara Kelly are superb, funny and heartbreaking as Tam and Joan, a middle-aged couple on the cusp of disaster, somehow finding the creativity and wit to negotiate their way through.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24, 24.
pp. 290, 363

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John McGrath at EIFF

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CELEBRATING JOHN MCGRATH AT EIFF 2014
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LAST WEEKEND, with all the glamour we could muster, Scotland’s critics celebrated the 12th annual edition of the Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland, on the gorgeous stage of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow.  And as usual, it proved impossible to get through the day without reference to the huge legacy of John McGrath, the founder of the ground-breaking radical touring company 7:84 Scotland; not least because this year, our guest star was the superb stage and screen actor Bill Paterson, a founding member of the first 7:84 Scotland company who, back in 1973, created and toured McGrath’s legendary political ceilidh show, The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

McGrath, though, was not only a man of the theatre.  In 1973, he was already 38 years old, and had enjoyed a stellar career both as a “straight” playwright in London, and as a television and screen writer and director, most famously on early episodes of the groundbreaking television drama Z Cars.  Throughout his working life, he strove to combine his passions for stage, television and film, often transferring his stage work to the screen, and writing, directing or producing a huge range of films, from short documentaries to mainstream movies like Billion Dollar Brain and Carrington.  And now, McGrath’s work in film and television is set to be celebrated in this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, with a programme of ten films which he wrote and/or directed, ranging from the 1968 version of his play The Bofors Gun, starring Nicol Williamson, through the acclaimed 1974 Play For Today film of The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Oil,  to later work like his elegiac 1993 drama The Long Roads, starring Edith MacArthur and Robert Urquhart as an elderly couple from Skye travelling round a changed Britain, on a final visit to their five children.

“We hadn’t initially thought of this season in terms of doing something relevant  to the referendum,” says EIFF director Chris Fujiwara, who has given the McGrath season the overall title Border Warfare. “But Dick Fiddy of the British Film Institute put the idea for a McGrath season to me, and the more I learned about his work, the more excited I was by the strength and timeliness of it, and of McGrath’s thinking about the relationship between television, film and theatre.

“As for the politics of the work – well, for me, it’s less about the particular ideology McGrath was proposing, than about the feeling that he was creating work out of a deep involvement in the culture of the people around him, and that the audience was a dynamic, active part of that same cultural process – not just some anonymous global public waiting to be entertained or manipulated by some  “universal” product.  McGrath is widely known as a great man of the theatre; but this is a chance for people who are primarily interested in film to think again about how he experimented across the media of stage, television and film, and about the deep cultural distinctiveness of his work, which is something we try to celebrate in all the films we show here.”

Chris Fujiwara adds that the overall theme of this year’s Film Festival is Transformation, and it’s hard to think of a single word more relevant to McGrath’s work; Bill Paterson says that he still thinks of 1973 as “the year of the Cheviot” – the year that changed everything, creatively and politically, for all the members of that company, and for thousands who saw the show.  And what’s clear is that McGrath’s passionate drive to combine popular forms of entertainment with powerful drama that addresses real underlying issues of politics and power, is as relevant to film and television as it is to theatre; and as relevant today as it was back in 1955, when young John McGrath completed his national service, and set out on the Long Road that ended only with his premature death, in 2002.

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War Horse, Manipulate, And The Transformation Of Puppet Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAR HORSE, MANIPULATE, AND A NEW AGE OF PUPPET THEATRE for Scotsman Magazine 1.2.14.
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ON THE great stage of the Festival Theatre – full of smoke and lurid light, conjuring up the hell of the western front during the First World War – the huge horses stamp and whinny, pawing the ground. Along with the men who ride them, they’ve been ordered to make a suicidal cavalry charge, across fields of barbed wire, into a storm of machine-gun fire; and as we watch, we see them rear and thunder towards us, towering over the stage, preparing for the mighty leap across the wire that offers their only chance of survival.

This is one of many unforgettable scenes in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s legendary production of War Horse, created in partnership with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, and now at the Festival Theatre; and it comes as a decisive reminder of how the world of puppet theatre has been transformed, over the last generation. Back in the 1970’s, world-class puppet theatre still often meant a tiny jewel of European classic drama or fairytale, acted out in a small dark room by gorgeously-dressed 12-inch marionettes.

Now, though – with the whole range of mask and puppet traditions from across the planet swirling together in an inspired new age of invention – puppet theatre can mean almost anything, from the huge, transparent sculpted horses of War Horse, to the dazzling range of visual and object theatre from Europe and America featured in Scotland’s annual Manipulate festival, which arrives at the Traverse Theatre on Monday. This is a world in which anything from a fragment of cloth to a shadow on a wall can take on life, breath, personality, menace; and it’s certainly not a world of child’s play.

So what is it, in our culture, that has powered this transformation in the world of puppetry and “object theatre”? In the first place, the use of puppetry instantly frees theatre from the obligations of naturalism, and therefore helps live theatre to carve out a distinctive place in a world of 21st century dramatic experience dominated by big screen dramas; in War Horse, audiences are thrilled, in
part, by the fact that their own imaginative power to see the puppets as horses is a vital part of the show. This simple truth has made puppetry extremely fashionable in 21st century subsidised theatre, so much so that it sometimes seems as if almost every show has its obligatory puppet element, whether it adds anything or not; although this movement has also helped to shape beautiful shows like the recent Vox Motus/ National Theatre of Scotland/ Tianjin People’s Theatre co-production, Dragon.

At an even deeper level, though, it seems to me that the new power of object theatre has something to do with a zeitgeist that is moving on from the human-centred view of the universe that characterised the modern age. In a negative sense, this shift in world-view can simply act as an excuse for the withdrawal of sympathy from our fellow human-beings, and its re-focussing onto objects or animals that we imagine as wholly innocent and lovable.

At its finest, though, this development suggests something else; a growing awareness, at an almost molecular level, that all life on this planet is interdependent, and that human welfare truly depends on the quality of our relationships both with other animals, and with the physical resources of the earth. In that sense, the fact that it takes three meticulously trained human actors – head, heart and hind – to bring each great War Horse animal to life, visibly breathing, stamping and shifting, is an overwhelmingly powerful metaphor; a huge act of love and care, from one species to another, that speaks to the shifting consciousness of our time, and seals the huge success of this beautiful and disturbing show.

War Horse at the Festival Theatre until 15 February; Manipulate Festival at the Traverse Theatre, 3-8 February, and at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, this weekend.

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A Conversation Without End: Why David Cameron Is Wrong To Expect A “Once And For All” Decision On Scottish Independence – Column 3.8.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 3.8.12
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ON TUESDAY of this week, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, took a few hours off from his Olympic duties to pay a flying visit to Scotland. His arrival coincided with the publication of a Fabian Society poll showing that support for Scottish independence is on the slide again; the latest figures suggest that only 30% of Scottish voters are sure that they want independence, whereas 54% are pretty sure they want to stay in the Union.

It’s therefore not surprising that David Cameron used his few hours in Scotland to give Alex Salmond and the SNP a bit of a dressing-down onthe subject of the independence referendum, planned for the autumn of 2014. He demanded that SNP mninisters abandon all talk of a two-question referendum, offering a choice of more devolution to those who do not want full independence; and said that Scotland should settle the separation question “once and for all”, in a simple yes-no referendum.

And of course, if you view the world from the perspective of the Thames Valley, this kind of talk makes a fair amount of sense. Whatever the Tory back benches may think of Scotland’s historically high levels of public spending, British governments tend, once in office, not to like the idea of losing Scotland. If the place contains only a tenth of the UK’s population, it has a third of the landmass, and an even higher proportion of the coastline and natural resources. Governments therefore tend to conclude that the high cost of delivering services in Scotland is a price worth paying, for control of such a large chunk of land and sea; hence the Prime Minister’s wish for a swift and decisive vote, to get the independence question out of the way for good.

The truth is, though, that the state of the Union, as seen from Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness, is not as simple as that. It is true that a majority of Scottish voters do not want to leave the Union at the moment, and that the SNP are unlikely to win a referendum in 2014. Yet it’s also true that the presence of a right-wing government at Westminster – and the Coalition is certainly that – almost invariably causes a long-term increase in support for greater Scottish home rule; if Scots are happy with Danny Boyle’s spectacular Olympic Opening Ceremony vision of a welfare-state Britain, they are – with few exceptions – repelled and angered by the privatising instincts of Conservative ministers like Andrew Lansley and George Osborne.

Then again, the “Better Together” campaign to defend the Union suffers from the increasingly weakness of the unionist parties in Scotland, where the SNP contiunes to dominate the scene, in terms of grass-roots effectiveness. The Labour Party in Scotland is rated as boring and ineffective by a large proportion of Scots; and the two Coalition parties are hopelessly unpopular, barely scraping a fifth of the vote between them. On the big television screen, the Union may be looking a little more attractive than it did five years ago. But on the streets and in the communities of Scotland, it is dangerously short of persuasive advocates; indeed some members of the Scottish Labour Party launched a campaign, this week, to bring together Labour supporters who back independence, and are not prepared to toe the unionist party line.

If David Cameron understood Scotland a little better, in other words, he would understand that in such a complex and constantly shifting relationship, there is never going to be a “once and for all” answer to the question of the Union; it is a marriage always under negotiation, and always vulnerable to a major loss of enthusiasm on one side or the other. Even if the SNP were to win a “yes” vote in 2014, we would only be at the beginning of a long, infinitely complex negotiation about the precise meaning of independence in the 21st century, and about how the social union between England and Scotland would express itself, following a formal political separartion.

And if the Better Together campaign win their “no” vote – well, the Unionist parties seem to have invested all their hopes in the idea that if Alex Salmond is humiliated in his own referendum, then the nationalist “threat” will disappear in a puff of smoke, and they will be able to put constitutional issues on the back burner, perhaps for a generation.

Yet those parties should note this: that if support for the SNP does not translate into support for independence, then neither does support for the Union necessarily mean support for Unionist parties. On the contrary, all three of them are likely to pay a heavy electoral price for playing such petty politics with Scotland’s political future, in their stubborn refusal to join Alex Salmond in offering Scottish voters the constitutional option they most want, which is substantially enhanced home rule within the UK. And once the referendum is over, voters are likely to compensate for their rejection of independence by returning in droves to the SNP; if only because they will have observed how much more attention and respect Scotland enjoys at Westminster and elsewhere, when it maintains a high level of SNP support, and refuses to be taken for granted.

It’s Scotland’s fate at the moment, in other words, to be best represented and best understood by a nationalist party whose central aspiration most Scots still do not share. Scots do not want to be separated from the people of England; not from Danny Boyle, not from Bradley Wiggins, not even – so it seems – from the Queen. Yet in the end, it is always the voters of England – more than 90% of the UK’s population – who decide what kind of Britain we live in; whether the welfare state of Danny Boyle’s dream, or the hard-faced neoliberal Britain of insolent bankers and savage welfare cuts. And so long as England’s voters are free to reshape the nation according to their own lights, Scotland must also be free to decide that it prefers a different path. Not inevitably, but possibly; not necessarily through independence, but perhaps through greater devolution; and with no final answers at all, in what is – and always should be – a conversation without end.

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STUC Motion – Future Of Scottish Media

REVISED STUC MOTION 2012

Congress recognises that free, responsible, diverse and challenging
media play a vital role in the life of any democratic society, and
therefore notes with concern the mounting threats to their existence in
both Scotland and the UK, due to the decline of the economic models that
traditionally supported them. Congress especially notes:
1) the devastating consequences for journalists’ pay, working conditions
and authors’ rights
2) the collapse of ethical conduct in some newspapers, engendering
hostility from politicians and public, and a threat of legislation which
may restrict investigative journalism, as well as unacceptable invasions of
privacy
3) the rise in unverified ‘free’ journalism provided by PR and other
unpaid sources
4) the widespread exploitation of unpaid interns
5) the rapid decline in the availability of local newspapers produced
locally
6) the specific threats facing the Scottish media, with print journalism in
Scotland suffering round after round of cost-cutting
7) the difficulty in gaining sufficient income from online media to finance
serious journalistic activity.

Congress calls on General Council to urge the Scottish Government to set up
urgently a Commision of Inquiry into the future of the media in Scotland,
and to call on all member unions and the Scottish Government to promote the
survival of thriving and responsible media, including:
a) supporting the creation of a Scottish Digital Broadcasting Network.
b) supporting the development of trust models of media ownership, such as
the Scott Trust which owns The Guardian and Observer group
c) campaigning for the development of new forms of community media
d) identifying and prosecuting media behaviour that breaches privacy laws
e) developing new regulatory mechanisms to replace the discredited UK Press
Complaints Commission.
f) encouraging the development of new sources of funding for investigative
journalism, including academic institutions, and foundations concerned with
civil society and democracy.

NUJ Edinburgh Freelance Branch
NUJ Edinburgh and District Branch
Passed at STUC, Inverness, April 2012

Kidnapped

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KIDNAPPED at the Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, for The Scotsman 20.4.12
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3 stars ***

IF SCOTLAND is in the middle of a debate about what kind of nation it wants to become, then Cumbernauld Theatre’s new small-scale version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s great novel reminds us of one of the most passionate and subtle responses to that question in all Scottish literature. Set a few years after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Kidnapped famously explores the developing friendship between young Lowlander David Balfour, and the charismatic Alan Breck Stewart, a romantic Jacobite outlaw; and in their relationship, we see played out all the cultural tensions between Highlanders and Lowlanders, Protestants and Catholics, pragmatic conformists to London rule and romantic rebels against it, that still haunt Scotland today.

Ed Robson’s production will tour to 20 theatres and halls across Scotland over the next five weeks, and everyone who cares about Scotland’s past and future will enjoy aspects of the show. It could have been a much finer effort, though, if Robson had done three things differently.

First, despite some magnificent moments between the two main characters, his two-hour adaptation is too obedient to the book, with its slightly irritating boys’-own-paper opening. Secondly, his three actors need help in focussing on the story, and not just rolling out the old Scots stereotypes; although Peter Callaghan makes a fine job of the compelling and dangerous Alan.

And finally, Robson should have trusted his story, rather than garlanding it with every fussily fashionable staging technique in the current tick-box book, from redundant puppetry to live video. For it’s significant that none of this, in the end, has as much raw theatrical power as Scott Hoatson’s straight monologue delivery of the story’s great closing paragraph; in which David walks on into the heart of Edinburgh to continue his life, without the companionship and inspiration of the Highlander who has become, in some deep way, his own lost other self.

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