Review: Cyrano de Bergerac, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

McAvoy: Ayes and Nose

Cyrano de Bergerac

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Evelyn Miller and James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Marc Brenner

It is testament to the brilliance of Cyrano de Bergerac – French dramatist Edmond Rostand’s famous 1897 play about the warrior poet with the super-sized nose – that it has proved to be amenable to such a range of adaptations. For instance, the late, great Scottish poet and dramatist Edwin Morgan translated Rostand’s classic (which is set in 1640, in the midst of the Franco-Spanish War) into a beautiful Scots.

   Morgan’s version received a fabulous production, directed by Dominic Hill for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre Company, in 2018. It is difficult to imagine a staging more different from Hill’s (a gloriously imaginative evocation of 17th-century France) than the latest, street smart version by acclaimed English director Jamie Lloyd (which has just completed a week-long residency in Glasgow ahead of a transfer to New York next month).

   Lloyd’s staging boasts a new, sometimes touching, often very funny script by celebrated dramatist Martin Crimp and – to the great excitement of many movie goers – the services of Scottish film star James McAvoy in the title role. Full of confident swagger, the production combines Rostand’s historical romance with the 21st-century hip hop culture of London’s diverse working-class youth.

   Rostand, famously, wrote his play in rhyme, and Crimp has channelled that masterfully into the language of hip hop and the rhythms and rhymes of contemporary spoken word performance. At times, the actors – who are kitted out in modish streetwear – engage in competitive rap.

   In other moments the piece seems like a poetry slam. The production is even graced by beatboxer Vaneeka Dadhria, whose talents are used, ingeniously, both as part of the musical score and as an integrated element in the dramatic soundtrack (to recreate the sounds of battle, for example).  

   Played on designer Soutra Gilmour’s super-minimalist set – which is created in a style one might call benevolent brutalism – the piece casts McAvoy’s Cyrano as a Scottish outsider. Clad in a tight puffer jacket and designer jeans, the X-Men star does not wear a prosthetic proboscis (director Lloyd preferring that we imagine the poet’s enormous nose).

   Cyrano hides his anguish at his unattractiveness to women (and, in particular, his beloved distant cousin Roxane) behind a veneer of literate bravado. Like Brian Ferguson in the Citizens’ staging, McAvoy achieves a brilliant balance between his character’s robust ebullience and his underlying pain and vulnerability.

   It is remarkable how quickly the actor enables us to suspend our disbelief and attach to the pathos of his performance a huge schnozzle that isn’t actually there.

   In the midst of a universally fine cast, Eben Figueiredo shines as a humorously self-deprecating Christian (the handsome, but inarticulate soldier who wins Roxane’s heart with poetry written by Cyrano). Tom Edden is also superb as the repugnant aristocrat, the Count de Guiche. However, Evelyn Miller’s strident and smart Roxane is the cream of the supporting cast (particularly in the drama’s powerful denouement).

   The self-conscious coolness of the production often requires actors to stand facing the audience, even when their characters are interacting with other figures on stage. Even if one finds this irritating at times (as, I confess, I did), it does give the heartbreaking final scene between Cyrano and Roxane – in which Lloyd dispenses with the deliberate distancing of his actors – a truly powerful intimacy.

   A sell-out in Glasgow, where enthusiastic audiences snapped up tickets to see McAvoy (one of the city’s most famous sons), this Cyrano isn’t necessarily worthy of the raucous standing ovation it received on Wednesday night. It is, however, a bold and excellently performed modernisation of Rostand’s enduring romance.  

Cyrano de Bergerac plays BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), New York, April 5 to May 22: bam.org/cyrano

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on March 27, 2022

© Mark Brown

Special report: Scotland’s theatre artists stand up for Ukraine

Scotland’s theatre artists stand up for Ukraine

Glasgow’s Tron Theatre hosts a performed reading of a modern Ukrainian classic to raise money for the DEC Ukraine Appeal.

Special report by Mark Brown

Natal’ya Vorozhbit

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine goes into its second, brutal month, people in all walks of public life are asking themselves what they can do to assist the Ukrainian people. That is certainly true of the Scottish theatre community, which is hosting a major fundraising event at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow on Tuesday, March 29.

   Under the direction of the Tron’s artistic director Andy Arnold, a cast of 25 actors will present a rehearsed reading of The Grain Store, a modern classic by Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit. All proceeds will go the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Appeal.

   Vorozhbit’s play was selected following discussions Arnold had with a number of theatre colleagues, including the playwright Nicola McCartney, who is a personal friend of the Ukrainian writer. The Grain Store is a powerful piece about an early-20th century cataclysm in Ukraine.

   The drama is set in a Ukrainian village during the Holodomor, the famine manufactured by the Soviet authorities in the early-1930s. A consequence of Stalin’s chaotic policy of forced land collectivisation, the famine took the lives of almost four million Ukrainians.

   In its depiction of loss and suffering, and its sheer scale, Vorozhbit’s play seemed to Arnold to be “right for the occasion”. Early in the piece we encounter the “agitators”, a street theatre company whose job it is to promote the Soviet system. As such, they encourage the rural population to demand that supposedly wealthy peasants, known as Kulaks, hand over their food to the people.

   This state-sponsored “agitation” sets neighbours against each other, and, finally, leads to catastrophe. “There’s one moment in the play, when people are dying of starvation”, Arnold comments.

   “Then it’s announced that an American journalist is going to come and visit the village. So [the Soviet authorities] get the people who are still healthy enough to stand, put them into smart clothes, and put loads of food on the table.

   “They have the people practising dancing to create this image of a wonderful, healthy village. They try to keep the people away from the food until the journalist arrives, so that they can film it.”

   Arnold was astonished to hear recently of an event during the current Russian invasion that carries echoes of the pathos and the bleak humour of this scene from Vorozhbit’s play. “I heard last week that, in one of the besieged cities in Ukraine, where people were starving, the Russians brought a truck of food, and they had a film crew with them.

   “Even though the people were starving, they all refused flatly to have any of it.” In the end, the director says, the Russian forces had to resort to having members of their own ranks pretend to be grateful Ukrainians eating the food gifted to them by their invaders.

   Vorozhbit herself will be painfully aware of the terrible similarities between aspects of the Holodomor and the current catastrophe in her homeland. Her friend McCartney reports that the dramatist is now a refugee in the Austrian capital Vienna, where she has fled with her 11-year-old daughter and her mother.

   The Ukrainian writer has sent a letter to her Scottish theatre friends, which she has asked to be read out at the Tron during the fundraising event. In the letter, Arnold says, the playwright explains that, “she’s left her husband, a writer, in Kyiv, ready to fight, with a gun in his hand.”

   The charity event is intended, Arnold says, to reflect “some sort of connection between us, as theatre people in Scotland, with the theatre community in Ukraine.” Come March 29, the director and the large cast will spend all day rehearsing the play and. “You can do quite a lot in a day”, says Arnold, who intends to be on-stage throughout the performance, facilitating the movement of the actors.

   Arnold was mentored earlier in his career by the late, great Polish stage director Tadeusz Kantor. “He used to be on-stage, often moving his people about”, Arnold remembers. “I’m going to be on-stage reading key stage directions and moving the actors about, if they’re not quite sure where they’re going.”

   Although the cast will be seated at times, this will not be one of those rehearsed readings in which the actors sit on chairs for the entire duration and simply read from their scripts. Arnold wants the players to move around the stage, from-time-to-time, to give a sense of the movement of people depicted by Vorozhbit’s play.

   One of the reasons The Grain Store was selected for the March 29 event was that it enables a large number of actors to get involved. Arnold is not finding it difficult to assemble a cast of 25 players.

   “There were a few people I contacted who said they weren’t available”, the director notes. “But when they found out what it was, they said ‘right, I’m going to make myself available.’”

   On the night, the play will be read by a diverse company ranging from trained actors among the Tron Theatre’s staff to long-established stars of the Scottish stage, such as Alison Peebles and Gerry Mulgrew.

   The Tron will be paying all of the actors for a day’s rehearsal, plus an evening performance. However, Arnold adds, “they’ve got the option of donating it on to the charity, which I know a lot of them will do.”

   In another expression of solidarity from within the theatre community, the set and costume designer Tom Piper has made a special donation. Piper designed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Grain Store back in 2009.

   The original drawings for that show are being framed and will be available for purchase at the Tron, with all money raised going to the DEC Ukraine Appeal.

   “We’ll just work away”, says Arnold, “and try to find any other ways we can to raise money for the appeal.”

The rehearsed reading of The Grain Store will take place on Tuesday, March 29 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. For tickets, visit: tron.co.uk

This article was originally published in the Sunday National on March 27, 2022

© Mark Brown

Review: Van Gogh Alive, Festival Square, Edinburgh

Van Gogh for the TikTok generation lacks substance

The “multi-sensory experience” arrives in Edinburgh amidst much promotional fanfare. However, it offers an expensive and disappointing day out, writes Mark Brown

Projections of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Photo: Richard Blake

The self-declared “multi-sensory experience” Van Gogh Alive has pitched up – in a large, white tent in Festival Square in Edinburgh – for a four-month residency. The work of a company called Grande Experiences, it is billed by its producers as a “truly unforgettable” event that is like “no ordinary art exhibition.”

   The latter point is incontestably true, because there are, in fact, no art works in the show. What there is instead is a risible reconstruction of Van Gogh’s room in Arles, in southern France, which visitors are invited to enter to have their photograph taken. There is also a small, embarrassingly silly walk-through room consisting of mirrors and artificial sunflowers.

   However, the pièce de résistance of the “experience” is the large, central space in which one is inundated by multiple projections of photographs of Van Gogh’s pictures, either in their entirety, in detail or, sometimes, with elements of the paintings animated. This supposedly “immersive” experience is achieved by the show’s much-vaunted SENSORY4™ technology (i.e. up to 40 projectors working in conjunction with surround sound).

   What this means in practice is that the audience member stands in the large, tented gallery space while photographic reproductions of paintings from a given period of Van Gogh’s life (his time in Paris, for instance) are projected onto multiple screens around them. The images are intercut with quotes from Van Gogh, and screens on the floor flicker with related imagery, such as real life colour film of a wheat field.

   Meanwhile, short snippets from well-known pieces of classical music (such as the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’s opera Lakmé, which was popularised in British Airways adverts) are played through the sound system.

   We worry (do we not?) about young people being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of short burst images that internet culture bombards them with. Simply seeing lots of something for a brief time does not amount to a deep engagement with it. One is not so much “immersed” in the images as submerged by them.

A small room consisting of mirrors and artificial sunflowers. Photo: Richard Blake

   This show’s rapid, 360-degree “immersion” in reproductions of the Dutch master’s paintings feels very much like Van Gogh for the TikTok generation. In one moment there are irises everywhere. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they’re gone, and we’re onto another period in Van Gogh’s life.  

   I make the point about the images here being mere photographic reproductions for an important reason. Great though it is to have prints, posters, books and postcards in which art works are reproduced, we know that such reproductions are no substitute for seeing the original art work.

   The reason for this is that no camera, no matter how advanced, can reproduce the visual effect created by the artist’s application of paint to canvas. Ironically, this is truer of Van Gogh’s work than it is of the pictures of most other painters.

   The Dutchman’s paintings may seem infinitely reproducible due to their extraordinary use of colour and their vivid expressiveness. However, photographic reproductions of Van Gogh’s work cannot capture the physical passion with which he painted, and, indeed, the famously luxurious, even profligate, way in which he applied paint to canvas (sometimes directly from the tube).

   Van Gogh Alive is marketed as a family show. If I wanted a child to get a sense of what makes Van Gogh the distinctive genius he is, I would far rather take them to Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum to look at the artist’s wonderful portrait of the Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid.

   There one can see in all its glory the swirling energy of the painter’s style and, indeed, the palpable pleasure he took in the physicality of the paint itself. Being up close with one of Van Gogh’s paintings is far more “immersive” – in visual, emotional and spiritual terms – than anything achieved by Grande Experiences’ 40 projectors.

   The only sensible boast that the producers of Van Gogh Alive can make is that there are a lot of images. That is unquestionably true, but their show’s attitude to the work is deadening and conspicuously commercial.

   It takes 45 minutes, the people at Grande Experiences tell me, to watch the entire “story” (such as it is) that is depicted in their show. In reality, so brief and, in technical terms, so repetitive are the various segments in their offering that you would do well to be in there for half-an-hour.

   That’s not a lot of “entertainment” for the very considerable ticket prices that are being charged for the show. A brief visit to Van Gogh Alive will set you back £23 for an adult and £17.50 (including booking fee) for a child aged between five and 16 (that’s £81 for a typical family of four).

   Compare that with the forthcoming exhibition of the actual art works of Barbara Hepworth (which opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art next month), which is priced at £14 for adults and £12 for children. Nor should we forget the programme for Van Gogh Alive (a glossy regurgitation of the material in the show), which is a steal at a tenner, or, indeed, the overpriced gift shop.

   As I left the press viewing of Van Gogh Alive I suddenly understood the rage of the parent who has shelled out for one of those notoriously terrible “Winter Wonderland experiences” at Christmas time. Having wound the children up into a frenzy of excitement, they arrive in a muddy field to find an unenthusiastic Santa puffing on a fag, standing next to a dejected reindeer with a broken antler.

   This show might be slicker than that, but it is barely less transparent in its philistine, profiteering proclivities. Notably, in trying to entice audiences with the “stars” who attended the show’s opening night party in Edinburgh, Grande Experiences’ PR people could come up with no-one more famous, or discerning, than comedian Craig Hill.

   Van Gogh Alive? If Vincent really was still with us, I suspect he would be fulminating against this shameless, and soulless, attempt to cash in on his name.

Van Gogh Alive is at Festival Square, Edinburgh until July 17: vangoghaliveedinburgh.online.red61.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on March 20, 2022

© Mark Brown

Review: The Metamorphosis (2022), Tron Theatre, Glasgow

A classic transformed

The Metamorphosis

Tron Theatre, Glasgow


Review by Mark Brown

The Metamorphosis: Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

When, in March of 2020, the Scottish Government announced the first Covid lockdown (including, of course, the closure of theatres) Glasgow’s Tron Theatre was hosting a genuinely remarkable stage production. Based upon Franz Kafka’s great novella of the same name, and co-created by Scottish theatre company Vanishing Point, the Tron and their Italian collaborators Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione, The Metamorphosis had wowed audiences and critics during the mere five performances it was able to stage before the national shutdown.

   Two years on – with the on-going (albeit vaccine attenuated) pandemic now overshadowed by the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine – the production makes a welcome return to the Tron stage ahead of a tour to Dundee, Inverness and Edinburgh. Seeing the show again now, one is struck by how sharply Kafka’s narrative and adapter/director Matthew Lenton’s staging of it speak to the experiences of restriction and isolation that we have all just been through.

   In Kafka’s story, Gregor Samsa famously wakes “from troubled dreams” to find himself “transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” A human mind trapped inside an arthropod body, Gregor (modernised here as a delivery cyclist) is unable to communicate with his terrified and increasingly hostile family.

   Even his ever-loving sister Greta begins to lose her empathy for this frightening creature that eats slops and seems to prefer to live in dust and filth.

   Exactly how to represent Gregor visually on stage is a challenge for any theatre-maker who is bold enough to tackle Kafka’s deeply psychological story. In 2013, for example, Edinburgh International Festival audiences saw the great Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo play Kafka’s protagonist quite literally, as an animal, in a memorable costume that comprised a turtle back and long, feather antennae.

   Fascinating though Wu’s representation of Gregor’s physical plight was, Lenton’s preference for a more psychological and allusive portrayal (in which we see the central character in human form) is more rewarding. As in 2020, this only slightly re-cast production has Sam Stopford playing Gregor’s disembodied human mind, while Italian actor Nico Guerzoni performs the role of the wretched, transformed Gregor.

   Wearing identical striped pyjamas, Stopford and Guerzoni (whose Italian language – foreign to Gregor’s family – stands in for the protagonist’s animal noises) evoke their character’s plight with tremendous power and sensitivity. Thanks to the brilliance of Kenneth MacLeod’s set design and Simon Wilkinson extraordinary lighting, the universally excellent supporting cast is often seen through a dream-like haze.

   They portray the family’s moral terror and economic desperation with a combination of plausible pragmatism and, in-keeping with Kafka’s mordant wit, moments of laugh-out-loud humour. Alana Jackson captures the anguished desperation of Greta, while Elicia Daly and Paul Thomas Hickey play Gregor’s parents with a gloriously understated, bleak comedy.

   Mark Melville’s music and sound are impressively unobtrusive, yet wonderfully atmospheric. Indeed, they melt into the superbly complete visual and aural aesthetic of a piece that honours Kafka’s story magnificently.

At Tron Theatre, Glasgow until March 26, then touring until April 16. For further information, visit: vanishing-point.org

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on March 20, 2022

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview of The Metamorphosis, by Vanishing Point theatre company and Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione

The Transformation of a Kafka masterpiece  

Closed down by the pandemic after just five performances, Vanishing Point theatre company’s version of Franz Kafka’s famous novella The Metamorphosis wowed the critics. Now it makes its eagerly awaited return, writes Mark Brown

Nico Guerzoni as Gregor in The Metamorphosis. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Two years ago – when the Covid-19 pandemic had already wreaked havoc in China and Italy and the countries of the UK were on the brink of their first lockdown – Scottish theatre company Vanishing Point premiered its remarkable staging of Franz Kafka’s great novella The Metamorphosis. A co-production with Italian company Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione, the piece – in which Gregor Samsa famously awakes to find himself “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” – would prove to be unintentionally prescient for a society in which people would soon be confined to their homes and cut off from loved ones.

   The production had only five performances at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre before the great shutdown. Director Matt Lenton remembers the “atmospherically weird limbo” of the days before lockdown, “which felt like a Kafka story.”

   Twenty-four months later, the “new normal” finds us gripped by anxiety over the war in Ukraine. It is, Lenton says with dark humour, a good time to bring the piece back for a four-city tour of Scotland (beginning in Glasgow, before taking in Dundee, Inverness and Edinburgh). The director is “delighted”, he says, to be reviving The Metamorphosis now, “when we have a whole new global crisis.”

   Audiences may well find that the production “sheds a different kind of light” on the Ukraine conflict, he suggests. “That, ultimately, is the brilliance of Kafka. He’s able to put the human being at the centre of the socio-political mess.”

   It’s hard to disagree with Lenton’s assessment of Kafka as a writer of fictions that are powerfully universal and profoundly humane. For example, both The Metamorphosis and, his magnum opus, The Trial are widely considered to speak insightfully to the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, despite both being published years before Hitler came to power.

   Creating a stage production of The Metamorphosis presents the theatre-maker with a problem. “Kafka said he never wanted the creature [that Gregor has become] to be illustrated”, Lenton explains. “He wanted his readers to imagine the creature.

   “If you visualise the insect too specifically, it makes it easier for the reader, or the audience member, to say, ‘oh, that’s not me!’” Such a disassociation from Gregor and his plight would run contrary, both to Kafka’s original intentions and the purposes of Lenton’s production.

   Readers of the novella are with Gregor throughout, and they create their own visualisation of him. They also associate deeply with the protagonist’s awful predicament.

   Gregor’s human mind is trapped in the most un-human-like body. It’s a situation that overflows with metaphorical possibilities.

   Lenton’s solution to this “challenge” is to have Gregor performed in human form, leaving us, the audience, to imagine his physical transformation. The character is played by Italian actor Nico Guerzoni, who attempts to communicate, not in the crackling insect noises of the novella, but in un-translated Italian.

   The production goes to some lengths, in other words, to render the character of Gregor as human as possible. In fact, it’s worth noting that Guerzoni is a trans actor, who identified as female when Lenton first knew him. There are interesting parallels, the director believes, between the persecution that the transformed Gregor faces and trans people’s experience of oppression.

   In Kafka’s book, Gregor’s sudden, unexplained and catastrophic metamorphosis is bound up with his employment as a salesman for a highly bureaucratic company. Lenton’s version updates that aspect of the story, casting the unfortunate protagonist as a modern day delivery cyclist.

   In the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, the director observes, many eastern and central European writers – such as Dostoevsky, Gogol and Kafka – were “fixated on the bureaucracy of work environments.” The nature of work in European societies has changed markedly since then, he notes.

   Now, he continues, the so-called “gig economy”, in which employment is much less certain and precarious, has come to the fore. Lenton is pretty sceptical of “these contemporary companies that call employees ‘partners’, but there’s no partnership at all.”

   Indeed, some employers in the gig economy, such as Uber, have stood up in court and denied that they even are employers. They have contended, instead, that they merely provide apps, and that the private hire drivers and delivery workers who use the apps are “independent contractors”.

   For Lenton, such arrangements make the huge gig economy companies “faceless” in relation to their employees. “That’s the facelessness that you see in Kafka’s The Trial and The Metamorphosis.

   “You see representatives of the bank in The Trial. In The Metamorphosis, the boss turns up at Gregor’s door within minutes of him being late for work.

   “But the organisation behind those individuals is faceless. It’s just this big machine.”

   If the casting of Gregor as a contemporary delivery cyclist is a thematic choice, it is also, as Lenton explains, a visual one. “When I was thinking about this show, and asking myself ‘what would Gregor be?’ I was seeing all these people riding around with these great, big beetle-like bags on their backs.”

   Gregor’s entrapment may be strongly connected with his sense of duty (he labours at a job he hates in order to save his family from poverty), but it has many more metaphorical implications. For instance, Gregor’s physical transformation enables his family to increasingly dehumanise him.

   The incremental erosion of the family’s sympathy for Gregor is reminiscent, for Lenton, of the stages in the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. “I wanted a similar process with Gregor.

   “At the beginning, he’s wearing stripey pyjamas, but the audience shouldn’t see them as anything other than stripey pyjamas. It’s only the context of the end of the show that makes them look like a different kind of pyjama.”

   From the world of work in the 21st century to the shadow of the Holocaust, Kafka’s novella continues to be frighteningly rich in meaning. Lenton’s bleakly humorous, visually impressive production is worthy of the great work of literature upon which it is based.

The Metamorphosis tours March 16 to April 16. An abridged, two-actor version (titled The Metamorphosis: Unplugged) will tour April 25 to May 20. For further information, visit: vanishing-point.org

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on March 13, 2022

© Mark Brown

Review: The Scent of Roses, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Theatre
The Scent of Roses
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Review by Mark Brown

Peter Forbes and Neve McIntosh in The Scent of Roses. Photo: Tim Morozzo

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, wrote WB Yeats. So it is in The Scent of Roses, the latest, ensemble play by leading Scottish dramatist Zinnie Harris.
   The marriage between Luci (Neve McIntosh) and Christopher (Peter Forbes) is so spectacularly on the rocks that Luci has resorted to the tactic of locking the pair of them in their bedroom – a move that is both disquieting and (in Harris’s hands) hilarious. Caitlin (Leah Byrne) and her former teacher Sally (Saskia Ashdown) had a romantic relationship before Caitlin had reached the age of consent – a blood-soaked Caitlin now seeks to re-establish relations under the pretext that she has just run over and killed a bird on her bicycle outside Sally’s house.
   Add to this Helen (Maureen Beattie), whose academic career is a success, but whose personal life is as catastrophic as those of the drama’s other characters, and one has what looks like a random pile-up of human crises. Or one would, were it not for the fact that the five characters’ back stories are intricately interconnected.
   The play is structured like a series of interrelated narratives represented on a piece of stained glass. Harris (who also directs) has then, deliberately, smashed that glass into pieces, only to then carefully reassemble its fragments.
   The numerous personal and interpersonal cataclysms that have befallen this quintet of broken souls are framed within the greater, overarching crisis of climate change. The latter, existential crisis is represented by an unnervingly hot Scottish summer and the consequent (and symbolic) deaths of birds.
   Harris’s attempt to reflect the brokenness of the relations between and within her characters through the fragmented structure of her play is bold and clever, but it comes at a cost. For one thing, the strands are too many, leaving the play seeming somewhat overwrought – one can’t help but feel that four plays are struggling to free themselves from the constraints of this amply supplied script. For another, as the playwright reassembles her narrative, scene by scene, the picture of interconnected crises that she creates seems – paradoxically – too neat.
   Each of the plots slides too tidily into place. The various strands don’t parallel each other so much as find points of perfect narrative connection that grate against the emotional messiness of the various subject matters.
   Disappointingly, this almost forensic neatness denudes the drama of its emotional impact. This is a source of considerable frustration, as we know Harris (author of the unparalleled Scottish tragedy Further Than the Furthest Thing and the brilliant Aeschylus adaptation This Restless House) to be a master of the emotive stage play.
   The piece’s failure to land a palpable hit on the heart is a pity, given that both play and production boast numerous strengths. The cast is universally superb, with McIntosh, in particular, giving bleakly comic expression to the mordant wit sewn through Harris’s script.
   Tom Piper’s fabulous, intelligently adaptable stage design (built, appropriately enough, by a company called Splinter Scenery) is simultaneously utilitarian and symbolic. Ultimately, however, as Harris glues those carefully created shards together, one waits in vain for the play’s emotional undertow to arrive.

Until March 19. Tickets: 0131 248 4848; lyceum.org.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 9, 2022

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/scent-roses-review-drama-whose-narrative-shards-slide-tidily/

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview of Stand By, by Adam McNamara

Stand by for a truly honest police drama

Former police officer Adam McNamara is reviving his “warts and all” stage play about Scottish policing, writes Mark Brown

Stand By by Adam McNamara. Photo: Eoin Carey

Recent months and years have not been kind to the reputation of the police. The rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, the sharing of photographs of the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry by officers of the Met, and revelations of appalling misogyny, racism and bullying at Charing Cross police station in London have all contributed to a collapse in confidence in the police.

   Here in Scotland, the inquiry into the death in 2015 of Sheku Bayoh – a 31-year-old father of two from Sierra Leone – whilst in the custody of police officers in Kirkcaldy is on-going.

   However, despite the mounting evidence of a deeply worrying culture of discrimination and violence within the UK’s police forces, the representation of the police in television drama remains overwhelmingly positive. According to Adam McNamara, a former police officer of seven years standing, most TV cop shows haven’t moved much beyond the Dixon of Dock Green stereotype of the kindly Bobby on the beat.

   Indeed, it was McNamara’s first-hand experience of working on a BBC police drama that led him to quit the project and turn, instead, to writing the stage play Stand By. Set among riot police who are awaiting orders in the back of a van, the play (which premiered in 2017) reflects the writer’s experience within the police service.

   After two years working on the BBC drama The Job, McNamara was, he says, “so jaded” that he had to pack it in. “The police advisers that they have [on TV police dramas] feel that they have to continually show the police in a really positive light”, the playwright continues.

   For example, the perceived need to sanitise the police, combined with matters of taste and decency, led to a farcical situation over the use of language. “The c-word gets used quite a lot within the police”, comments McNamara.

   “The BBC said, ‘oh, we can only use that once.’ I was like, ‘once an episode?’ And they said, ‘no, no! Once a series!’”

   Unable to thole the BBC restrictions, the former cop turned to the comparatively uncensored space that is theatre. On stage, McNamara says, “we don’t have that issue [of restrictive producers].

   “My play is taken from my own experiences [as a serving police officer]. Conversations that I’ve had, or heard, incidents that I’ve attended, the opinions of cops that are never really shown on television.”

   Stand By premiered at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews in 2017, before going on to have a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe of that year. Pleased though he was to receive positive reviews in Edinburgh, McNamara was particularly delighted to get positive feedback from police officers.

   “I really wanted cops to say to me that they enjoyed it”, he explains. “And that’s what I got from them, which was brilliant.”

   Which is not to say that the play paints a positive picture of the police or policing in the 21st century. McNamara remembers online criticism, during the 2017 run of the play, which accused his drama of being recruitment propaganda for the police.

   He considers that to be a ludicrous suggestion. “If people see this play and it makes them want to join the police, they shouldn’t be allowed to join”, he says.

   “This is a warts and all story. This is about the people who, yes, put themselves in harm’s way, and I know there have been a lot of good cops.

   “But I also know there are a lot of quiet cops. There are a lot of cops who don’t want to rock the boat.

   “They don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. They don’t want to complain about colleagues, because there’s a culture in the police that’s very like criminals, where you don’t grass people up. That is inherent in the police.”

   The writer “doesn’t care”, he says, if some cops or commentators challenge the veracity of his picture of the internal culture of the police. “I’ve seen it and I’ve heard it, and I didn’t say anything. I was part of the problem.”

   Writing the play was, McNamara says, a process of personal “catharsis” for him. “I feel that the police should be held to the highest standards at all times. People should do that when they’re in uniform as well.”

   It is incumbent on serving officers, he believes, to “call out” bad and discriminatory practice by fellow police officers. “We used to have question and answer sessions after shows”, he remembers, “and some police bosses would stay behind and try to defend the status quo.

   “They’d say things like, ‘there’s a lot of poetic license in this play, right?’ And I’d say, ‘no, there isn’t.’”

   McNamara’s time in the police was spent in Dundee and Angus. Dealing with an overwhelmingly white population, he recalls stopping a person of colour only once in his seven years of service. Many Scottish officers have a similar experience of predominantly white populations, and can be “apathetic” about police racism as a consequence, the writer believes.

   All of which leads to the inevitable question, what led McNamara himself to leave the police force? “Because I’ve always wanted to be an actor”, he says, simply.

   A friend coaxed him into auditioning for drama schools as a mature student. He soon found himself on the acting course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). “On my last night shift in the police I was assaulted four times and dealt with a suicide”, he says, “and on the Monday I had a movement class.”

   From there McNamara – who, as well as being the author of Stand By, plays one of the officers in the drama – was soon being advised by award-winning stage and screen writer Gregory Burke (of Black Watch fame) to turn one of his screenplay scenes into a stage play. The result is Stand By.

Stand By tours Scotland between March 11 and April 9. For further details, visit: scottishtheatreproducers.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on March 6, 2022

© Mark Brown

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Scottish Opera

Glorious Dream emerges from the shadows

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre Royal, Glasgow


Review by Mark Brown

A scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: James Glossop

An attempted elopement to evade a prohibitive law, an abduction of a human infant by supernatural beings, the transformation of a man into an animal, and the god-like coercion of a spritely minion by the King of the Fairies. These are just some of the dark imaginings that are laced through Shakespeare’s famous comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

   It is little wonder, then, that the play, and indeed Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera based upon it, end with the aforementioned subjugated sprite, Puck, apologising for any offence that may have been caused. As with the Bard’s other great comedies (take Twelfth Night, for example), the humour is attended by other, darker and more serious matters.

   These dramatic contrasts and combinations are in abundant evidence in director Dominic Hill’s new production of Britten’s adaptation for Scottish Opera. From the very outset, the director’s setting of the piece is paradoxically bleak and beautiful.

   That it is so is down, in no small measure, to the superb work of set and costume designer Tom Piper and lighting designer Lizzie Powell. Through the carefully lit gloom of the woods, sleeping beds are suspended in mid-air, while the hyper-active Puck (the excellent Michael Guest) flies chaotically through the air and tumbles clumsily to the ground.

   Much of the action of the opera – from the corporeal shenanigans of the confused Athenian lovers to the spectral interventions of the fairies – takes place within the golden frame of a glass cube. Appearing, simultaneously, like both a stage-within-a-stage and a beguiling box of charms, it serves both as an enchanted forest and an Athenian palace.

   The dark-yet-comic atmosphere of the production connects perfectly with Britten’s music, which (like the libretto, co-authored by Britten and Peter Pears) is splendidly faithful to Shakespeare’s play. By turns, ethereal and martial, premonitory and romantic, Britten’s score (which is given gorgeous expression by the orchestra of Scottish Opera under the baton of Stuart Stratford) is a masterpiece of modern dramatic music.

   A universally impressive cast is led by American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Scottish soprano Catriona Hewitson (a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist for 2021/22), as the fairy queen Tytania. The sheer heights to which Zazzo’s extraordinary voice ascends make him the perfect choice for the otherworldly Oberon.

   Both in performance and in costume, Zazzo embodies the magical, playful and cruel aspects of his character. Hewitson, too, is a picture of gorgeously-sung confidence, whether she is commanding the wonderful chorus of children (who represent the fairy army) or is cursed to fall in love with the ill-fated Bottom after he has been transformed into an ass.

   Hill’s staging is marvellously funny in its comical moments. David Shipley’s playing of Bottom is gloriously lively and hilarious, while the amdram troupe’s “tedious brief scene” is a nicely-executed hoot.

   Above all, the production is blessed with a constant and captivating vision. This Dream is a memorably complete rendering of Britten’s opera.  

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 1-5: scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on February 27, 2022

© Mark Brown

Review: Moorcroft, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Football play is coming home

Moorcroft

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Moorcroft. Photo: John Johnston

A female writer, a men’s football team. No, I’m not talking about novelist Val McDermid’s principled intervention following her beloved Raith Rovers’ recent signing of striker and (according to the finding of a civil court) rapist David Goodwillie.

Rather, I’m referring to Moorcroft, the debut play of young Renfrewshire-born dramatist and actor Eilidh Loan. Contrary to some reports, this new production at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is not a world premiere.

In fact, the piece was originally presented at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. What can be said of this revival (which is directed by Loan herself) is that, in finally being staged in the west of Scotland, the play is undeniably coming home.

Telling the story of Garry (the excellent Martin Docherty) and the mates who made up a six-a-side team in the 1980s, Moorcroft is a compelling exploration of working-class male experience in urban Scotland. Touching on such subjects as homophobia, racism, domestic violence (by men on younger men), alcoholism and terminal illness, the piece would, in the hands of a less gifted playwright, be in danger of degenerating into tick box worthiness.

However, Loan’s palpable empathy with the men who people her play raises the piece above the average issue-driven social drama. What she has created, instead, is a carefully crafted 90 minutes that ranges from laugh-out-loud humour to gut-wrenching sadness.

In these days of prosecutorial identity politics and almost arithmetical calculations of “privilege”, Loan makes a fascinating, working-class female intervention. The masculinity of these young men – who create their football team (nicknamed “The Croft”) to ward off the boredom of unemployment, poorly paid jobs and inevitable hours in the pub – is much more complex than that ubiquitous, one-dimensional adjective, “toxic”.  

Which is not to say that the play shies away from tackling some of the more unsettling, sometimes outright appalling, aspects of the men’s culture. For example, when Sean Connor’s Paul belches his putrid, anti-gay bigotry all over his mates, he is merely putting into working-class vernacular the kind of homophobic prejudices that were contained in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Clause 28 and in the then Tory Prime Minister’s favourite right-wing newspapers.

Yet, there is also, in the social ties that bind these seven men together, shared experience, solidarity and (whisper it) love. These aspects of far-from-toxic masculinity are woven through the play like golden threads.

Played on designer Carys Hobbs’s minimalist, and deceptively versatile, set, Loan’s production clicks along beautifully, punctuated by surprisingly effective moments of choreography. The drama’s nicely observed comedy finds its pinnacle in the wonderfully oddball character of Mince (who is played with glorious humour and authenticity by Martin Quinn).

The ‘80s setting also means that the piece boasts a fantastic soundtrack, ranging from New Order’s Blue Monday to Divine’s dance floor classic You Think You’re a Man.

Smartly written, humane and boasting a universally fine cast, it’s little wonder that Loan’s production is garnering standing ovations. As Garry and the boys would have it: ‘Mon The Croft!

At the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until March 5: tron.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on February 20, 2022

© Mark Brown

CLARIFICATION: Following the publication of this review, the Tron Theatre was in touch to explain that the original performances of Moorcroft at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London were of scenes from the piece as a work-in-progress. It is, therefore, true to say that the Tron production is the world premiere of Moorcroft as a complete and finished play.

Interview feature: Afghan human rights activist Mohammad Naveen Asif speaks out about the collapse of his country to the Taliban

Scots-Afghan human rights campaigner condemns the West’s ‘betrayal’ of his country

Priti Patel must grant asylum to Afghans in the UK, says Mohammad Naveen Asif

Mohammad Asif, chair of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation pictured in the Southside of Glasgow. Photograph: Colin Mearns
Mohammad Naveen Asif. Photo: Colin Mearns

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

BY MARK BROWN

Mohammad Naveen Asif is a well known figure in Scottish public life. Founding director of the Scotland-based Afghan Human Rights Foundation, he is a well-established campaigner against racism, and a fighter for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

   Asif came to Scotland as a refugee from Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. In the two decades that he and his family have been living in this country, his tremendous contribution to Scotland’s civic life has been recognised by many people, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has become a friend.

   When I meet him on the southside of Glasgow, Asif is in the midst of trying to advise desperate friends and relatives in Afghanistan who are attempting to escape from the re-emergent Taliban regime. He is, he tells me, horrified by the rapid return to government of a violent, ultra-conservative force that is “barbaric and brutal”.

   As an observant Muslim, Asif has always resolutely opposed the Taliban’s ideology, which is rooted, he says, in Saudi Arabian, Wahhabist distortions of the Islamic faith.

   Asif shakes his head disbelievingly at the claims by US and British political leaders that they are surprised by how quickly the pro-US administration in Kabul fell to the Taliban. Having created the conditions for the current catastrophe in Afghanistan, he says, the Western powers are now “putting the blame on others”.

   American and British leaders “knew quite well” what would happen when they withdrew their forces, he continues. Washington and London had intelligence reports months ago that made it clear that, in the absence of the US and its allies, the Afghan Army would be unable to prevent the Taliban sweeping to power.

   The US and British governments “didn’t listen” to those intelligence reports, he says. “The reason they didn’t listen is that they don’t care about Afghans.”

   Asif feels considerable contempt for US President Joe Biden’s assertion that the US was in Afghanistan, not on a “nation building” mission, but solely to defeat Al-Qaida. He agrees with those who consider Al-Qaida, a terrorist organisation built by the wealthy Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, to be a Frankenstein’s Monster created in large part by US foreign policy.

   Throughout the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and beyond, into the early-1990s, the leaders of the Islamist Mojahedin in Afghanistan, including bin Laden, were, says Asif, the “close friends” of the US. The Americans provided the Mojahedin with training, weapons and money.

   “None of [the Mojahedin] was called ‘terrorist’ [by the Americans], they were called ‘holy warriors’”, Asif comments. Indeed, he recalls, at the outset of the Soviet-Afghan War, the US was so keen to foment Islamist opposition to the Soviet Union that President Jimmy Carter sent his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to a refugee camp for Afghans in Pakistan. He was there, in effect, as a recruitment officer for the Mojahedin.

   Brzezinski was “chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is Great’] in the camp”, Asif says. The American official also stood at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, pointed towards Afghanistan and told the prospective Mojahedin fighters, “that’s your land, reclaim it from the infidels.”

Brzezinski at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 1980

   This, the Scots-Afghan activist says, was how the West helped to build an Islamist fighting force, complete with bin Laden’s “Afghan Arab” component, that would later give birth to Al-Qaida. It was a force that would also prove a fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban.

   Asif’s words cannot be easily dismissed as mere conjecture. Everything he says about these issues is a matter of established public record.

   Nor can they be dismissed as harking back to irrelevant history. The Soviet Union withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan in 1989. The September 11 attacks on the United States happened a mere 12 years later.

   Asif considers the 9/11 attacks to be “atrocities” against innocent people. However, he adds, he agrees with the position taken by politicians such as “Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway”, and with the campaigners of the Stop the War Coalition, all of whom opposed the US/British led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

   Like them, he believes that the US must look at its own role in creating the very forces that turned so violently against America in September 2001.

   The opposition to Tony Blair’s drive for Britain to join the US-led invasion of Afghanistan has been justified, Asif comments, by the obvious “failure” of the West’s mission in his homeland. It’s justified, too, by what he calls the West’s “betrayal” of the Afghan people.

   That betrayal includes, he adds, the much-vaunted Doha Agreement, signed in February 2020, between the Taliban and the US. It was, he says, a dirty deal by which the Americans allowed the Taliban to carry out atrocities on the Afghan people, on condition that they didn’t attack US forces as they prepared to leave the country.

   Asif has no respect for the former Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, who fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as the Taliban forces approached Kabul. Ghani has portrayed himself as a regular refugee who fled his country with nothing but the clothes he was standing in.

   Asif, however, considers him and his associates to be “cowards”. Ghani and his ministers were, he says, a corrupt puppet regime of the Americans who lived lavish lifestyles with “stolen money” that was supposed to have been spent on the Afghan people.

   Like the US and British governments, Asif comments, Ghani has abandoned 38 million Afghans to their fate. The activist fears for his country folk, not least because there is little sign of the huge international effort needed to provide asylum for every Afghan who would seek sanctuary from the Taliban regime.

   He is outraged that, even now, as Afghanistan descends into chaos and, soon, he fears, civil war, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is proceeding with her draconian Nationality and Borders Bill. Instead of tightening up Britain’s already strict controls on immigration and asylum, Patel and the UK government should be extending the right to asylum to far more than the 20,000 Afghan refugees it has offered to accept over the next five years.

   Indeed, he continues, shamefully, Patel’s Home Office continues to threaten Afghan asylum seekers in Britain with deportation to their catastrophe-stricken homeland. The Home Office must, he says, “reverse all of their decisions refusing asylum to Afghans”.

   Moreover, every Afghan living in the UK who is currently going through the asylum system must have their hearings cancelled and asylum granted. What possible reason, Asif asks, could Patel have for continuing to put Afghans through such assessments of their asylum cases when it is obvious that “they have nowhere else to go”?

   Following my interview with Asif, the appalling suicide bomb attacks at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport by the terrorist group known as Isis-K (the Islamic State of Khorasan) took place. I contacted him following the bloodshed, to express my grief and to ask for his response to the attacks.

   The events were, he told me, “so sad” that he had “no words to describe these atrocities”. He was, however, happy for me to quote his brief social media statement about the attacks. It read simply: “This is all because of the American and British failed intervention [in Afghanistan].”

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 29, 2021

© Mark Brown