Reviews: Cyrano de Bergerac, Tramway, Glasgow & The Yellow on the Broom, Dundee Rep (Herald on Sunday)

THEATRE

Reviews by Mark Brown

 

Cyrano de Bergerac

Tramway, Glasgow

Until September 22;

then touring until November 10

 

Cyrano 3 - Scott Mackie, Jessica Hardwick, Brian Ferguson - Credit Mihaela Bodlovic
Scott Mackie, Jessica Hardwick and Brian Ferguson in Cyrano de Bergerac.                               Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Glasgow’s great repertory playhouse, the Citizens Theatre, is now closed for a huge, two-year, £19.4 million refurbishment and redevelopment. During this time the Citizens company will relocate to the internationally-renowned Tramway arts venue.

The Citizens’ opening gambit at its new home, a staging of the late Edwin Morgan’s celebrated Scots rendering of Edmond Rostand’s French classic Cyrano de Bergerac, is a bold and beautiful beginning to the company’s residency. Directed by the Citz’s deservedly acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill, in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, the show meets Rostand’s flights of imaginative fancy with flamboyance, wit and verve.

When we first meet Brian Ferguson’s huge-nosed Cyrano he is a boorish-yet-witty theatregoer, driving the foppish actor Montfleury from the stage with jibes and threats of violence. It isn’t long, however, before we are converted to the ranks of the admirers of the poet-swordsman.

This Cyrano is as eloquent and humorous in his Scots tongue as he is fearless and skilful in battle. His bravado, it is clear, is but a cover for the embarrassment he feels on account of his famously prodigious proboscis.

The object of Cyrano’s undying, but undeclared, love (his beautiful cousin Roxane) is, she thinks, in love with Scott Mackie’s handsome soldier Christian. Jessica Hardwick plays the beloved woman with a glorious combination of irony and panache, and in richly enunciated Scots.

In this three hours of theatre we are transported, often by way of sumptuous and varied live music, from the playhouses and restaurants of Paris to the bloody battlefield of Arras. It is a perfectly paced tale of bravery, poetry and unrequited desire.

Tom Piper’s set is a fabulous work of abstract modernism, dominated by a metal stairway on wheels and illuminated by neon signs. Not to be outdone, Pam Hogg’s costumes are a deliciously ingenious, often outrageous collision of Scotland and France, inspired by Rostand’s 17th-century.

Played by a universally superb company (which includes such excellent actors as Keith Fleming and Gabriel Quigley), Hill’s production is a tour de force that captivates, amuses and, ultimately, breaks one’s heart.

For tour dates, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

 

The Yellow on the Broom

Dundee Rep

Until September 22;

then at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling,

September 26-29

 

Yellow on the Broom
The Yellow on the Broom. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Yellow on the Broom, Betsy Whyte’s memoir of her early life as a member of a traveller community in Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s, is an important document. Its account of the stigmatising and injustice (including police violence) faced by travellers in Perthshire and Angus is sobering (not least as much of it will be familiar to traveller and other minority communities in Scotland today).

In this revival of Anne Downie’s 1989 stage adaptation, directed for Dundee Rep by Andrew Panton, we see the traveller family unjustly expelled from a farm without pay and unfairly threatened with eviction from their flea-infested rooms in Brechin. We witness, too, the bigotry, passed down from adults to children, which manifests itself in a nasty schoolyard conspiracy against the young Bessie Townsley (as Whyte then was).

Actor Barrie Hunter is given the pleasurable task of representing the good in the scaldie (house-dwelling) community. Playing both Bessie’s enlightened and supportive Brechin headmaster and the wonderfully eccentric, comic and hospitable aristocrat Cameron (who thinks he’s a Jacobite in the time of Charles Edward Stuart), Hunter brings, by turns, a warm humanity and a delightfully energetic craziness to the production.

Indeed, the cast is generally impressive, not least recent graduate Chiara Sparkes, who plays young Bessie with real emotional depth.

For all this, one can’t help but feel there is something a tad couthie, not to say laboured, in the play’s straight delivery of Whyte’s chronicle. The presence on stage of the overseeing, older Bessie (played here by Ann Louise Ross) only serves to highlight the piece’s origins in autobiographical prose, rather than theatre.

Designer Kenneth MacLeod’s set, with its fake rocks and malfunctioning camp fire (which puffs out a gratuitous extra flame when it’s extinguished), adds little to the production’s fragile sense of theatricality.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on September 9, 2018

© Mark Brown

 

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Review: Road, Leeds Playhouse

THEATRE

 

Road

Leeds Playhouse

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Road - Robert Pickavance as Prof. Photo - Kirsten McTernan
Robert Pickavance as Prof. Photo: Kirsten McTernan

In June the West Yorkshire Playhouse was renamed the Leeds Playhouse. At the same time it closed its auditoria for a major revamp, which should be finished 12 months from now.

In the interim the venue has opened a “Pop-Up Theatre”, containing two performance spaces, in the backstage area of the building. A special ensemble of actors has been put together to perform the year-long “Pop-Up Season”.

It speaks volumes about the UK’s antediluvian ideology of eclectic repertory programming that the ensemble’s first production should be Road, the earliest play by Lancashire dramatist Jim Cartwright. First staged in 1986 at the Royal Court theatre in London (where it was revived last year), the piece epitomises a stubbornly enduring strand in supposed “realism” on the British stage.

In Road, which is set on a depressed and impoverished street in a northern English town during Thatcher’s Eighties, we see many of the tropes that would feature in Cartwright’s more famous 1992 drama The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. The working-class community living on the titular “Road” is characterised by joblessness, neglect, bitterness and the desperate refuges of numbing drunkenness and alienated sex.

There is little director Amy Leach’s lively and professional staging can do about the depressing predictability of what is not so much a play as a collection of bleak character portraits. From the excellent Robert Pickavance’s rancid and dubious old man Prof, to girls on the town Carol and Louise (played with impressive vitality by Elexi Walker and Tessa Parr), Cartwright’s parade of archetypes rarely advances beyond two dimensions.

The writer employs narrator Scullery (an all-seeing, subterranean degenerate played by the fine Joe Alessi) in a fruitless attempt to give his (at two-hours-forty-minutes) overlong play some sense of cohesion. However, there is precious little rhythm or momentum in Cartwright’s formulaic swinging back-and-forth between rudimentary pathos and lurid comedy.

Even when the playwright alights on something genuinely emotive (such as the suicidal despair of young couple Joey and Clare), he soon retreats into the garish and obvious. Ultimately, Road is like a brutally uncomfortable collision between Alan Bleasdale’s iconic 1980s TV drama Boys from the Blackstuff and painter Beryl Cook’s patronising caricatures of working-class life.

Played on designer Hayley Grindle’s appropriately hyper-realistic set, this is an accomplished staging of a ragged cigarette end of British theatrical pseudo-realism.

Until September 29

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 8, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/roadleeds-playhouse-reviewspirited-staging-horribly-outdated/

©Mark Brown

Review: Cyrano de Bergerac, Tramway, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

Cyrano de Bergerac

Tramway, Glasgow

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Cyrano 1 - Brian Ferguson and Jessica Hardwick - Credit Mihaela Bodlovic
Brian Ferguson and Jessica Hardwick in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Glasgow’s famous repertory theatre, the Citizens, will be closed for the next two years while it undergoes much needed redevelopment work. In the meantime the Citz company takes up residence in the celebrated Tramway arts venue.

How better for artistic director Dominic Hill to open his account in his temporary abode than with this gorgeous staging of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac? Using the late Edwin Morgan’s remarkable, muscular-yet-poetic Scots version of the play, and performed on a purpose built thrust stage, this telling of the tale of Cyrano (the legendary poet, musketeer and unhappy owner of an enormous nose) is a fabulous extravaganza.

At the outset, Morgan’s Cyrano is a roaring, rhyming ruffian. Storming into his favourite theatre, he expels the dandyish actor Montfleury from the stage with a tongue that is as sharp as his blade.

It isn’t long, however, before the superb Brian Ferguson has transformed the brash swordsman into an agonised, romantic balladeer. Certain that he could never be loved by his beautiful cousin Roxane on account of his stupendous schnozzle, Cyrano helps Scott Mackie’s handsome-but-uncultured soldier Christian to woo the lady in verse.

If Ferguson is dynamic and, ultimately, movingly sympathetic in the title role, his performance is equalled by Jessica Hardwick’s playing of Roxane. Resplendent in costume designer Pam Hogg’s fabulously excessive gowns (inspired by the pre-revolutionary aristocracy of Rostand’s France), the actress gives us a romantic heroine who is not only sardonically knowing and comically daring, but also, in the play’s heartbreaking conclusion, poignantly human.

The wonderful lead actors are joined by a truly exceptional supporting cast. Keith Fleming (as the foppish, aristocratic officer De Guiche, among others) is typically excellent, as are such fine players as Nalini Chetty, Gabriel Quigley and Ewan Somers.

Tom Piper’s set is a Brechtian delight. Roxane is swirled around the stage atop a wheeled metal staircase. The Siege of Arras is announced in bright red neon. Hill’s staging is a co-production between the Citizens, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, and looking at what they have achieved, it’s clear why this production required the resources of Scotland’s three biggest theatre companies.

Hill has scored many palpable hits in his seven years with the Citizens company. This magnificent Cyrano (which boasts a fantastic live musical score by Nikola Kodjabashia) will, surely, go down as one of his best.

At Tramway until September 22, then touring until November 10: nationaltheatrescotland.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 6, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/cyrano-de-bergerac-tramway-glasgow-review-fabulous-extravaganza/

©Mark Brown

Reviews: BambinO, Edinburgh Academy & South Bend, Gilded Balloon @ The Museum, Edinburgh

OPERA & THEATRE REVIEWS

 

BAMBINO

Seen at Edinburgh Academy

Touring until September 22

 

SOUTH BEND

Seen at Gilded Balloon @ The Museum, Edinburgh

Touring until September 22

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

BambinO - Hazel McBain as Uccellina. Photo credit James Glossop.
Hazel McBain as Uccellina in BambinO. Photo: James Glossop

BambinO, a chamber opera for babies by 2017 Sunday Herald Culture Award winner Lliam Paterson, has been revived for a richly-deserved, recent Edinburgh Fringe residency and a current Scottish tour. A co-production between Scottish Opera, London-based performing arts company Improbable and the Manchester International Festival (where it premiered last year), this delightful operetta has wowed infants and adults in Manchester, Paris and New York (among other places).

We often hear credit being given to the filmmakers behind such movie franchises as The Incredibles and Paddington for their capacity to entertain children and adults simultaneously. Similar praise should be heaped upon the team responsible for BambinO.

Paterson and director Phelim McDermott have fashioned a beautifully crafted little piece about a female bird (Uccellina) who finds an abandoned egg and adopts the baby bird (Pulcino; which, appropriately enough, is Italian for chick) which emerges from within it.

Sung in Italian and English, the show nods charmingly to operatic traditions, not least in the lovely costumes by designers Giuseppe Belli and Emma Belli, which combine the avian theme with luxurious 18th-century garb (the birds’ leather flying helmets and goggles are a wonderfully humorous touch).

The cleverness of this means little to babies, of course. For them the piece is a little paradise in which gorgeously tailored, splendidly performed operatic song (replete with echoes of birdsong and the tweets of infant birds) is combined with sumptuous, carefully considered music for cello and percussion.

If the song and music are pitched perfectly for little ears, the performance space itself is a veritable sensory playground. The babies are free to crawl around the ground level stage (which is strewn with cushions in cloud designs) and to interact with Hazel McBain (who will be replaced by Charlotte Hoather between September 10 and 22) and Samuel Pantcheff, who are tremendously gentle and communicative in the roles of Uccellina and Pulcino.

This mini-opera is, as Bertolt Brecht said in a different context, a “simple thing, so hard to achieve.” Paterson, McDermott and their company deserve every bouquet they receive for what is a perfect piece for the very youngest audience.

Also moving on from a residency on the Edinburgh Fringe to a tour of Scotland is South Bend, the latest drama from accomplished actor and playwright Martin McCormick. Directed by Ben Harrison for Edinburgh-based Grid Iron theatre company, the piece is, purportedly, an autobiographical play about a decidedly bizarre trip to the United States which McCormick made back in 2006.

Attempting to rekindle a love affair with a young woman from California, McCormick ends up in Indiana, where he finds the subject of his affections much changed. He also finds his progress blocked quite emphatically by his would-be girlfriend’s formidable, and decidedly hostile, stepmother.

McCormick (who is typically charming and watchable) tells this tale with the assistance of his impressive, Franco-American co-star Jess Chanliau (who plays a host of characters with tremendous energy and humour). David Pollock creates the soundtrack live on designer Claire Halleran’s set, a deliberate clutter of Americana mixed with a young, working-class Scotsman’s notion of domesticity. Lewis den Hertog provides fine video work which helps give the production a sense of momentum.

Enjoyable though it is, however, one can’t help but be disappointed by the modesty of the piece. Whilst there must, of course, be a place in Scottish theatre for such stories, there has, in the 21st-century, been a definite trend in plays that are based upon autobiography or are firmly rooted in personal experience. There is a risk of such work being preferred to more theatrically innovative and imaginative plays.

There is an irony in McCormick’s piece falling into the “modest millennial play” category. Hitherto, not least in his recent, and brilliant, absurdist comedy Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths, he has appeared to buck this particular trend.

For tour dates for BambinO, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

For tour dates for South Bend, visit: gridiron.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 2, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The End of Eddy, What Girls are Made Of & The Prisoner, Edinburgh Festival 2018

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE REVIEWS

 

THE END OF EDDY

The Studio

Ends today

 

WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF

Traverse Theatre

Ends today

 

THE PRISONER

Royal Lyceum

Ends today

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

The End of Eddy #1. Alex Austin and Kwaku Mills in The End of Eddy. Photo credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Alex Austin and Kwaku Mills in The End of Eddy. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

The End Of Eddy is the latest theatre work by the successful collaborative pairing of writer Pamela Carter and auteur director Stewart Laing. A co-production by London children’s company the Unicorn Theatre and Laing’s own, Glasgow-based Untitled Projects, it is adapted from the autobiographical first novel by acclaimed, young French author Edouard Louis.

Premiering at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), it traces the impoverished and troubled childhood and youth of Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s original name). Eddy is white, working-class and gay. He was brought up in the unprepossessing Picardy village of Hallencourt, from which he escaped, by way of education, to Amiens and, then, Paris.

The tale is told by two young actors, Alex Austin (who is white and bears a very distinct resemblance to Louis) and Kwaku Mills (who is black). They perform the roles of Eddy, his family and tormentors on a stage that is bare save for a bus shelter, a bin and four ingeniously integrated video screens, which are mounted and moveable on metal posts.

Like Louis’s decision to write the story as a novel, the representation of the character of Eddy by two actors plays neatly with ideas of the construction of truth. However, the depiction of Eddy’s early life, surrounded by violence, racism and toxic notions of masculinity (complete with their attendant misogyny and homophobia), carries a terrible veracity.

Acted with a winning combination of empathy, dexterity and vitality, the piece is humorous and chilling by turns. It is also a little too absorbed in its own metatheatricality at times (as in the direct reading from the novel towards the end).

Nonetheless, this is a powerful, absorbing and inventive piece which should be seen, in particular, by anyone who is, or ever was, young and gay.

There’s more autobiography in What Girls Are Made Of by leading Scottish theatremaker Cora Bissett. Directed by the Traverse’s outgoing artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, it is, effectively, two (very strong) plays, rather than one.

The first weaves Bissett’s Fife childhood into the story of her briefly successful, but ill-fated, rock band Darlingheart and her subsequent entanglement in the tawdry web of the music industry. The other, following, it has to be said, a somewhat shuddering gear change, is a courageously candid and deeply moving account of Bissett’s harrowing experience of miscarriages and, ultimately, a successful pregnancy.

Performed on Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s fine, rock gig set, Bissett’s engagingly narrated and dramatised autobiography is intercut with nicely performed songs (ranging from PJ Harvey to Darlingheart). The dramatisations are helped along beautifully by the excellent, often hilarious actor-musicians Grant O’Rourke and Simon Donaldson (who play an array of characters, from Bissett’s parents to unscrupulous band manager Dirk Devine). Musician Susan Bear (on drums) chips in with a little acting, too.

What it lacks in its somewhat awkward structure, Bissett’s piece makes up for in its emotive humanity. Warm, funny, achingly sad and wonderfully musical, it is little surprise that it is bringing audiences to their feet.

In another theatrical vein entirely is The Prisoner, which is written and directed by the great elder statesman of world theatre Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, and presented on the EIF programme by Paris-based company Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. Created “through a series of workshops in various countries” it tells the story of a young man who, being guilty of patricide, is sentenced to sit in a desert facing a prison.

The crime is riven with moral complexities. The young man murdered his father (who was having sexual relations with his own daughter, the young man’s sister), not because he was outraged by the incest, but out of jealousy.

In turn, the daughter denies that her father raped her, claiming instead that the sexual relations were a consensual response to the death of her mother.

The violent, physical punishment meted out the young man and the unusual sentence he receives subsequent to it, speak to Brook and Estienne’s interest in traditional, non-Western narratives and concepts of justice. This fact is emphasised by the framing of the story by an elderly, white, English narrator in a play which is performed by actors from Sri Lanka (the prisoner), India (his sister), Mali (his uncle) and Mexico (a villager perturbed by the presence of the prisoner, who is, significantly, an unwanted immigrant).

A spartan piece (both dramatically and visually), the play feels like (what it surely is) a careful distillation of various narratives down to an almost meditative, slow burning 67 minutes of theatre. It is beautifully acted, intelligently challenging and thought provoking; offering more, perhaps, after one has left the theatre than during the performance itself.

Politics and morality are also to the fore in It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (Underbelly Cowgate, ends today). Played by a fine cast of three young women, it is a powerful and inventive staging of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Underground Railroad Game (Traverse, ends today) is neither as deep, nor as original, nor as radical as it promised to be in its consideration of the racial history of the United States.

The brilliant actor, director and producer Guy Masterson celebrates his 25th year on the Fringe this year. Only he could get away with A Christmas Carol (Assembly George Square, ends tomorrow) in August. It is, typically of Masterson, a gorgeously performed piece of solo theatre.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 26, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Pussy Riot: Riot Days, First Snow & Unsung, Edinburgh Festival 2018

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE REVIEWS

 

PUSSY RIOT: RIOT DAYS

Summerhall

Ends today

 

FIRST SNOW

Canada Hub @ King’s Hall

Until August 26

 

UNSUNG

Summerhall

Until August 26

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pussy Riot 2 - Photo credit Jack Kirwin
Pussy Riot: Riot Days. Photo: Jack Kirwin.

Pussy Riot. The name of the Russian radical feminist punk band is synonymous with counter-cultural opposition to the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Their extraordinary guerrilla action (condemning the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin) inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow led to prison sentences for three band members. A pitch invasion (disguised as police officers) at the World Cup Final last month, which led to more jail terms, was a reminder that the group remains in the forefront of activism against the Russian state.

The band’s show, Pussy Riot: Riot Days, which ends a 10-day residency at Summerhall tonight, is a remarkable piece of event theatre. Part performance art, part punk gig, part documentary theatre, it is a high-octane, no compromise account of the band’s astonishing, frenetic history.

The band performs in front of a large screen on which we see videos, photographs and cartoons relating to Pussy Riot actions, the Putin regime and state repression (both of the band and opposition movements in general). Meanwhile, the group speaks, shouts, chants and sings (in Russian with English surtitles) a text comprised of a biography of the company and forceful political commentary; this text draws upon the book Riot Days by band member Maria Alyokhina.

All of this is accompanied by a loud and fabulously relentless soundtrack of electro-punk music infused powerfully with the sound of a discordant alto saxophone. The total effect is, simultaneously, intense, invigorating, chilling and encouraging.

Alyokhina’s account of life inside Putin’s penal colony (his very own, 21st-century Gulag) is appalling and enraging. However, the extraordinary courage of these punk activists shines like a beacon, as does their raw and brilliant show.

Only a little less raw, and certainly less brilliant, is First Snow. A co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland and Montreal-based companies Productions Hotel-Motel and Theatre PAP, the play draws upon the considerable political parallels between Scotland and Quebec.

However, co-authored by Davey Anderson, Philippe Ducros and Linda McLean, and directed by Patrice Dubois, it is not a work made light by many hands. It is, rather, a disappointingly overwrought spoiled broth of collaborative theatre.

Performed on a minimalistically stylised set, the drama uses an emotionally charged gathering of an extended family at a Quebecois country house as a none-too-subtle metaphor for the current political conditions of Quebec and Scotland. Performed in English and occasional French (the latter of which is, with postmodern self-consciousness, translated intermittently in surtitles) the piece cuts back-and-forth between a rarely interesting family drama and drearily polemical political commentary.

The heavy-handedness of the political metaphor is attended by a cut-up, postmodern form (characters, whose identities are blurred with those of the actors themselves, break from the action to elucidate, converse with the audience and question each other). It is a tiresome theatrical style that we had every right to believe had long since exhausted itself.

The cast is comprised, for the most part, of fine actors. It is ironic, however, that, while this major theatre collaboration was failing to set the heather alight on the Edinburgh Fringe, the youth theatre companies Junction 25 (Scotland) and Theater and der Parkaue (Germany) were offering (in their show 1,210km) an altogether more successful work of cross-cultural drama as part of Glasgow’s European Championships Festival.

If one is seeking an antidote to the misfiring First Snow, get along to Summerhall where the superb writer and actor Valentijn Dhaenens, of Antwerp-based company SKaGeN, is performing the superb political monodrama Unsung. Making innovative use of a mobile phone, recorded audio and a video screen, Dhaenens (who is known to Edinburgh Fringe audiences for the fine works BigMOUTH and SmallWaR) creates a compelling, humorous and, ultimately, discomfiting portrait of a career politician.

Sharp-suited, image–conscious, cynical and ruthless Dhaenens’s politician is reminiscent, at the outset, of Tony Blair in the early days of New Labour or Emmanuel Macron during his meteoric rise. A private phone call in which he professes friendship towards “Fatso”, his rival for the party leadership, before threatening to destroy his political career, has fascinating echoes of the famous Islington meeting between Blair and Gordon Brown.

However, the deeper Dhaenens takes us into the politician’s fractured and precarious private life, the more we see a man who is soul-breakingly lonely. Brilliantly performed and beautifully presented, it is a work of tremendous political and human insight, and of remarkable empathy.

There is another superb solo performance in Simon Callow’s rendering of Oscar Wilde’s powerful prison letter De Profundis (Assembly Rooms, until August 26). Callow has the performative measure of the bitterness, rage, humiliation, love and enduring, self-regarding wit of Wilde’s great text. It makes for a deeply moving 90 minutes of theatre.

Square Go, by Scottish writers Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, (Summerhall, until August 26) is a modest, dark comedy about playground violence in Scottish schools. Predictable in its structural shifts, to-and-fro, between nostalgic humour and very deliberate pathos, it is not what one would call a nuanced work. It does, however, succeed in raising a few smiles of recognition, and in capturing something of the essence of a distressing reality of Scottish school life.

Penelope Skinner’s Meek (Traverse, until August 26) is a brave attempt at creating a tragedy of Atwoodian neo-futurism (with a curious and unexplained Icelandic dimension). A tale of a brutal, fascistic, misogynist Christian theocracy, the play lacks the necessary depth of both character and narrative.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 19, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Waiting for Godot, Ulster American & Hamlet (An Experience), Edinburgh Festival 2018

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE

 

WAITING FOR GODOT

Royal Lyceum Theatre

Ends today

 

ULSTER AMERICAN

Traverse Theatre

Until August 26

 

HAMLET (AN EXPERIENCE)

Sweet Novotel

Until August 26

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Druid Godot #1 © Matthew Thompson
Marty Rea (Vladimir) and Aaron Monaghan (Estragon) in Waiting For Godot. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Samuel Beckett would, one suspects, have allowed himself a wry smile to see his play Waiting For Godot taking a prominent place in the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) some 63 years after its English-language premiere. The piece (which was broadly, but not universally, panned by the London critics in 1955) has become one of the most widely performed and warmly loved dramas in world theatre.

As this excellent production by Ireland’s Druid Theatre attests, Beckett’s classic has, over the years, lost none of its powerful, existentialist resonance or its bleakly comic humanism. We remain compelled and, somehow, comforted by this brief window into the interminable wait of the philosophical down-and-outs Vladimir and Estragon.

Director Garry Hynes brings us the play in all its paradoxical brilliance, as deep as a treatise by Kierkegaard and as light as an evening at the music hall. Designer Francis O’Connor has the visual measure of Beckett’s intent; his set is, at once, a wasteland of dried, cracked earth and a defiantly theatrical space, illuminated by a phosphorescent frame.

Beckett may have written the play 12 years into his Parisian exile, but he remained a profoundly Irish writer. To hear his words in the mouths of this superb Irish cast is to be reminded that the play is as Hibernian as it is universal.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the poignantly humane scene in which the loquacious vagrants contemplate, then decide against, a suicide pact (on the grounds that it might fail, leaving the other bereft and alone). Marty Rea (Vladimir) and Aaron Monaghan (Estragon) achieve a beautifully balanced, intelligently comic double act in which character contrasts are woven into an emotive co-dependency.

Rory Nolan is, by turns, titanically pompous and appallingly helpless as the tyrannical Pozzo. Garrett Lombard delivers the enslaved Lucky’s great, torrential monologue with tremendous rhythm, meaning and pathos.

For the Godot aficionado, Hynes offers the play as if it were a newly restored painting, with reinvigorated colours and textures. To the newcomer, she brings a vibrant, clever and enthralling rendering of a totemic classic.

Belfast playwright David Ireland (whose theatre career began as an actor on Scottish stages) has created a comedy altogether more ferocious than Beckett’s. In Ulster American, proudly Irish-American Hollywood star actor Jay Conway (a wonderfully monstrous performance by Darrell D’Silva) arrives in London to begin rehearsals for the premiere of a play that he mistakenly, and idiotically, takes to be a work of angry Irish Republicanism.

The ensuing drama is a fabulously brutal satire of the cinema and theatre industries, and, most pointedly, of their apparent championing of resurgent identity politics. Imagine a collaboration between a Northern Irish Dario Fo and Quentin Tarantino.

It would be criminal to divulge the contents of Conway’s initial conversation with painfully liberal English theatre director Leigh Carver (Robert Jack on delightfully excruciating form).  Suffice it to say it is as hilarious as it is discomfiting.

The arrival of playwright Ruth Davenport (a memorably high-octane Lucianne McEvoy) overturns the political presumptions of both Conway and Carver, unleashing a farce which as rapid in its descent as it vicious in its humour. Director Gareth Nicholls’s Traverse Theatre Company production is perfectly attuned to the play’s outrageous parody and its breakneck momentum. Likewise designer Becky Minto’s fine London apartment set, which bends to the piece’s considerable physical demands.

From new drama to a new take on, arguably, Shakespeare’s greatest play. The creative duo of actor Emily Carding and director Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir impressed mightily with their fine adaptation of Richard III (an excellent one-woman rendering of the Bard’s bastard king). They have now turned their attention to an even greater challenge with Hamlet (An Experience).

In Richard III, Carding addresses members of the audience as if they are characters in the play. It is a minimal form of audience participation which enables Carding to play to two great strengths; namely, her tremendous proficiency with Shakespeare’s language and her compelling skill in intimate performance.

With this Hamlet, Carding and Sigfusdottir seem to have decided that the chief quality of the Richard show is its involvement of the audience. That aspect is extended here.

At the outset Carding assigns characters from the play to her necessarily small audience (I, for example, was the ill-fated spymaster Polonious). This is, no doubt, great fun for those who fancy a bit of off-the-cuff acting as part of their Fringe experience.

However, what the piece gains in participatory amusement it loses in the intensity of Carding’s performance. Her Hamlet shares a wit and dexterity with her Richard, but one can’t help but wish to experience it without self-imposed interruptions.

Elsewhere, the National Theatre of Scotland’s expanded, five-actor production of David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s play with songs Midsummer (The Hub, until August 26) captures the charm of the off-piste Edinburgh romcom. However, the shift to a larger play detracts from what is a lovely, two-handed studio drama.

Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s outdoor spectacular Silence (Pleasance at EICC, until August 26), delivers some memorable images in its humane contemplation of the global migration crisis. However, there is something a little too direct and repetitive in its visual metaphors.

Finally, the EIF/Royal Lyceum’s workshop presentation of sections of Sir David Lindsay’s 16th-century Scottish classic Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis (run ended) provided fascinating insights into an enduringly significant drama. Let’s hope that it grows into a full, big stage production.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 12, 2018

© Mark Brown