Feature: Interview with Sinead Kirwan, producer of the documentary film Dying to Divorce

Misogyny of the state

The powerful, award-winning documentary Dying to Divorce tackles femicide and violence against women in Turkey. Mark Brown spoke with the film’s producer, Sinead Kirwan

Lawyer Ipek Bozkurt in Dying to Divorce

Much has been said in recent years about the rise of right-wing, populist governments in a series of countries across the world. These range from the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia, to those of Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the United States, Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland, and, of course, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

   One might argue that too little has been said about the implications of these administrations for the rights of women. In the case of Turkey, a powerful, new documentary, titled Dying to Divorce, exposes the link between a deeply reactionary socio-political agenda and an increase in femicide and violence against women.

   Created by a team led by director Chloe Fairweather and Edinburgh-based producer Sinead Kirwan, the film was released in March of this year. It has already won the coveted Jury Prize at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival and the Amnesty International Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.

   The documentary, which was filmed in Turkey between 2015 and 2020, considers the cases of a number of survivors of extreme misogynistic violence and the efforts of campaigning lawyer Ipek Bozkurt to obtain justice for women within the Turkish legal system. It is, at its outset, a harrowing watch.

   Early in the film we meet the phenomenally brave Arzu Boztas. Married, against her will, at the age of 14 to a man 10 years her senior, she asked for a divorce from her abusive husband after he suggested he take a second wife.

   Rather than face the “shame” of being divorced, her husband shot her in all four limbs with a shotgun. She lost both her legs and the use of both arms.

   Kübra Eken was a successful television journalist with Bloomberg in London. She moved to Istanbul to live with her husband, who also worked for Bloomberg.

   Two days after giving birth to their child, during an argument, Kübra’s husband hit her four times on the back of the head, leaving her paralysed. His lawyers attempted to connect Kübra’s paralysis to her difficult birth, which required a caesarean section.

   Despite medical reports proving that her injuries were caused by trauma sustained from blows to the head, Kübra’s husband received a sentence of only 15 months imprisonment. This was reduced for “good behaviour”. At the time of the completion of filming of the documentary, he had served no time in prison.

   Dying to Divorce puts the issue of femicide and violence against women in Turkey in the broader context of political developments in the country. When I meet producer Kirwan in Edinburgh, she tells me that the film she and Fairweather ended up with is very different from the one they envisaged back in 2015.

   “When we started making the film we thought they were going to be able to change the law to make it much harder for men to get away with attacking their partners”, Kirwan explains. “We really thought that was going to be our film.”

   Instead, they found that long-standing misogynistic ideas in Turkish society were becoming hardened within the political and legal systems of the country. We see President Erdoğan decrying the notion of equality of the sexes, insisting instead that God has given women the role of motherhood.

   In the courts, sentences for male violence against women are routinely decreased. In society, femicide and domestic violence are on the rise.

President Erdoğan denounces feminism and insists that God has given women the role of motherhood

   Speaking from prison, Arzu’s husband cites his consistent support for Erdoğan as evidence of his good character. He demands “justice”, by which he means his release from jail.

   “Arzu’s husband is enraged”, the producer explains, “because he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He thinks it’s outrageous that he’s in prison for shooting his wife.

   “He doesn’t deny shooting his wife, but he thinks it’s outrageous that he’s been sentenced to 25 years in prison.”

   For Kirwan, attempts to put this terrible state of affairs in Turkey down simply to the influence of Islam are something of a red herring. Erdoğan’s conservative and populist Justice and Development Party (known in Turkey by its initials, AKP) does have strong associations with orthodox Islamic forces within the country.

   However, Kirwan stresses that the culture of repressive attitudes towards women within Turkey is, first-and-foremost, “a cultural thing, not a religious thing.” Indeed, she continues, “it’s a culture that exists all over the world.

   “Recently there was a massive scandal because Turkey has withdrawn from the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention for the Prevention of Violence Against Women. It’s very difficult for the British government to criticise Turkey on that, because it has never ratified the Convention itself.”

   Kirwan suggests that even in the case of Arzu, her husband’s attempt to justify his horrific violence on religious grounds is a “mask”. His real motivation, she argues, is “tradition and patriarchy.” 

   The case of Kübra makes it even clearer, the producer says, that ideas of misogyny and male supremacy, rather than religion, drive the culture of violence towards women in Turkey. “Her husband is a modern, essentially secular, wealthy Istanbulite.”

   There is an undeniable logic in the producer’s insistence that defence of women’s rights in Turkey should not be seen as an opportunity to single out the Islamic faith for attack. After all, just as Erdoğan opportunistically claims the mantle of Islam, so Putin boasts of his Orthodox Christian credentials, Modi of his Hinduism, Morawiecki of his Roman Catholicism and the generals in Myanmar of their Buddhism.

   Indeed, despite his obvious deviations from Christian morality, Donald Trump courts evangelical Christians in the United States. His anti-abortion rhetoric, coupled with his appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court, continues to embolden legislatures in conservative Republican states.

   In Texas, for example, the state legislature recently passed a law forbidding termination of pregnancy beyond the sixth week (a point at which many women don’t even know they are pregnant).  

   In the Turkish context, the failed coup attempt of 2016 plays a major role in the on-going attacks on women’s rights. “It became clear quite quickly that the coup was going to be used as a pretext to arrest anyone who disagreed with the government”, says Kirwan.

   “If protests are banned, how do you protest for women’s rights? If referendums are being rigged, how can you pass laws that the government doesn’t agree with?”

   In the period following the coup attempt, lawyer Bozkurt became increasingly aware of lawyers, including friends of hers, being arrested by the authorities. These people tended to work in areas such as human rights and domestic violence.

   “If progressive lawyers are arrested, who’s going to do the pro bono domestic violence cases?”, asks Kirwan. “The space for opposition has really been squeezed. It’s an erosion of democratic rights.”

   We see an example of that erosion in the film. The 2019 International Women’s Day march in Istanbul was banned by the authorities and tear-gassed by the police.

   “There’s always been a Women’s Day march in Istanbul”, says the producer. “It’s only recently that it’s started to be attacked and tear-gassed by the police.”

   There was a similar kind of shock, she continues, when, citing Covid restrictions, the Metropolitan Police used force to disperse a vigil on Clapham Common on March 13. The vigil, mainly of women, was in commemoration of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old marketing executive who had been murdered by a serving police officer.

   “What the example of Turkey shows is that you can’t take anything for granted”, Kirwan comments. “If you create an environment of complicity towards violence against women, if you create an atmosphere where people are afraid to go against judges and the perceived ideology [of the state]… you are creating the conditions in which violence against women will increase.”

   All of which underlines the importance of Fairweather and Kirwan’s film. The documentary has had public screenings in Ankara and Istanbul, much to the encouragement of many Turkish women.

   The producer remembers women commenting on the importance of bringing people together to see the film and discuss the subjects it raises. “They talk about how domestic violence is an isolating experience.

   “Coming together to see that other women are going through the same thing, and overcoming the same thing, hasn’t really happened before in Turkey. It’s really empowering for the women involved.”

   That empowering of women, and that challenge to the outrageous sense of impunity that accompanies male violence against women, is needed far beyond Turkey’s borders. Dying to Divorce has been screened on TV and at festivals in numerous countries, including Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Greece. It has yet to make its UK debut.

   A powerful, horrifying and inspiring piece of documentary filmmaking, it deserves to be shown on cinema and TV screens everywhere. Kirwan and colleagues are gearing up for a run of screenings throughout the UK to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.

   Let’s hope this remarkable film receives its Scottish première then, if not before.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow

No room for error in Shakespeare’s fast-paced comedy

The Comedy of Errors

Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Jessica Hardwick (centre) as Adriana in The Comedy of Errors. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Following a 10-day delay, caused by Covid within the cast, the Citizens Theatre Company’s much-anticipated rendering of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors finally took to the stage on Wednesday. The show played in the large, gazebo-style auditorium that Scottish Opera has erected in the car park of its Glasgow studios.

   Despite having time for only one preview performance before the rescheduled press night, director Dominic Hill’s staging of the Bard’s comedy is a very palpable hit. Played in designer Jessica Worrall’s delightfully flamboyant modern dress, with a brilliant cast of just seven, the piece is sure-footed and very funny.

   Set in the classical Greek city of Ephesus, the play centres upon the extravagant misunderstandings that ensue from mistaken identities. The chaos is prompted by the arrival in Ephesus of the wealthy Antipholus of Syracuse and his enslaved servant, Dromio, both in search of their Ephesian twin brothers (from whom they were separated in childhood and who, unbeknownst to them, live under the same names).

   As so often in Shakespeare’s comedies, there are dark forces at work beneath the humour. The merchant Egeon (father of the Antipholus twins) came to Ephesus in search of his long lost son. As a Syracusan, he is forbidden from entering the rival city, and now faces execution.

   Meanwhile, the confusion created by the mistaking of the brothers Antipholus and Dromio for each other leads Adriana (wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) into dangerous conflict with her husband. Rebelling against the seeming threat to her honour, the good lady is played with compelling, fierce gusto by the excellent Jessica Hardwick.

   It is to Hill’s great credit that the production manages to reflect the light and shade of the play, even as it rattles through its one hour and 45 minutes (with no interval) at a pace that would impress the great slapstick filmmakers Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. Ewan Miller and Michael Guest pull off the playing of the brothers Antipholus and Dromio, respectively, with tremendous energy and neat hat tricks.

   John Macaulay is superb in no fewer than three roles, investing the wretched Egeon with tremendous pathos and Angelo, the confused goldsmith, with hilarious incredulity. Composer Nikola Kodjabashia weaves his score, performed live by actor musicians, through the play with his typically reflective intelligence.

   This frustratingly truncated run of The Comedy of Errors may have ended, but it is a production that demands a rapid return.

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Doppler, Newhailes House, Musselburgh

Into the Woods

After the disappointment of last year’s cancellation, Grid Iron’s outdoor show Doppler is finally coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, writes Mark Brown

Keith Fleming as Doppler. Photo: Janeanne Gilchrist

Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe’s Doppler is the tale of an almost archetypal “man who has everything” who turns his back on a life of material opulence and, in an act of misanthropic disgust, takes to living in a tent in the forest. It is, with undeniable prescience, a story for our times of ecological destruction, viral plague and space-blasting billionaires.

   Indeed, the novel’s relevance seems to increase with each passing month. Which is just as well for Grid Iron theatre company, who have been planning a site-specific dramatisation of the novel for some three years.

   Ben Harrison, artistic director of the Leith-based company, first read Loe’s novel in 2018. A copy had been gifted to him by a theatre friend in Serbia, where a stage adaptation of the book had been a hit in the capital, Belgrade.

   By early last year Harrison was writing his own dramatisation of the story for a Grid Iron production, which was due to be played in a forest during the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. Then, of course, on March 23 of last year, the UK went into its first Covid lockdown.

   Ever-hopeful, Grid Iron persevered with a virus-safe series of rehearsals. Ultimately, however, ever-changing Covid protocols conspired with logistical concerns to scupper the August 2020 shows.

   Aware, perhaps, that many theatre lovers were becoming fatigued with the stream of well-intentioned, but, almost by definition, second class online screenings of drama productions, Harrison’s company took a slightly different approach to the crisis. Rather than merely filming the show and putting it on the internet, they made an excellent documentary film, titled Doppler: The Story So Far, which was streamed via the Grid Iron website between late-March and early-May of this year. The film was, as I wrote on its release, “a eulogy to live theatre and a prayer for its rapid return.”

   This summer appears to be the beginning of that return. The Edinburgh International Festival has programmed many live, in-person productions, and the Fringe’s live offering seems to grow by the day.

   This includes Doppler, which is, finally, being presented as part of next month’s Fringe programme, in the grounds of Newhailes House on the outskirts of Musselburgh. The play is being staged with the support of the new Fringe Artist and Venue Recovery Fund.

   As was the case last year, the superb Keith Fleming plays the title role. The cast is completed by Sean Hay, Chloe-Ann Tylor (who replaces the unavailable Itxaso Moreno) and foley player Nik Paget-Tomlinson (who takes up the mantle of the production’s composer David Pollock).

   The lead–in to the production has been so long, jokes Harrison, when I check-in with him during rehearsals, that “it’s felt a bit like working with a German company.” He’s referring to the famously well-resourced theatre productions of über-directors such as Peter Stein and Thomas Ostermeier.

   Needless to say, however, Harrison would have preferred that the lengthy preparation period was the consequence of luxurious, German funding, rather than Covid-enforced cancellations.

   The year-long delay has, if anything, made the play even more prescient, says the director. “It certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of its relevance, in terms of thinking about the world in a different way”, he comments.

   “The central character questions capitalism and the very foundations on which our economy rests… It feels very much of the time. It poses very useful questions like, ‘when we come back from the pandemic, do we come back as we were, or do we come back with a different way of doing things?’”

Doppler plays at Newhailes House, Musselburgh, August 8-23: gridiron.org.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

News feature: New BBC programme logo has a familiar source

New BBC programme logo has a familiar source

Broadcaster “in the process of amending” problematic symbol

BY MARK BROWN

In recent weeks, many Scottish viewers of the BBC News channel will have had a curious sense of déjà vu while watching the Outside Source programme. A flagship programme since 2013, the BBC describes Outside Source as “the programme that gathers the latest information as it arrives from news wires, video feeds and social media on the biggest stories of the day.”

   Lately, however, it has also been attracting unwanted attention for its new logo. At the opening and closing of the programme, an animated letter O has spun around, shifting into two semi-circles that sit at angles to each other. The resulting image is of a large letter S sitting inside the broken circle.

   A clever combination of the show’s initials, O and S, it may have be, but there is nothing new about the logo. As Scottish aficionados of the works of Verdi and Puccini could have warned the Beeb, the “new” symbol was, to all intents and purposes, identical to the long-established logo of Scottish Opera.

   Staff at Scotland’s national opera company were among the viewers who were taken aback by the uncanny similarity between the two logos. Concerned to see its well known symbol being appropriated by presenter Ros Atkins’s programme (albeit, presumably, inadvertently), Scottish Opera contacted the BBC.

   The embarrassed broadcaster was unable to contest the almost identical likeness of the two logos. Following a short period of communication, the Corporation agreed to phase out its new symbol in short order.

   In a statement to the Sunday National, Scottish Opera was keen to play down the logo dispute. Caroline Dooley, Scottish Opera’s director of marketing and communications, said: “Scottish Opera and the BBC have been in communication about the matter and it has amicably been resolved. The BBC are in the process of amending their Outside Source logo.”

   For its part, the BBC declined to give an official statement, but confirmed that the issue had been resolved “amicably” and that “the BBC will be changing the Outside Source logo in the near future.”

   The BBC would not comment on whether graphic designers had received licence fee payers’ money for the creation of the soon-to-be-withdrawn Outside Source logo. Nor would the Corporation explain whether, or not, the design was merely the consequence of a freak coincidence. 

This article was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Watt’s beautiful and subtly humane response to Ramsay

Alison Watt: A Portrait Without Likeness

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Review by Mark Brown

Centifolia (detail), by Alison Watt (2019)

Alison Watt is, deservedly, one of Scotland’s most celebrated living painters. Her pictures of drapery, with their emphasis on the visual and emotional possibilities of folds, are a particularly distinctive strand in her oeuvre.

   In her new exhibition, in which she responds to the work of the 18th-century Scottish painter Allan Ramsay, we find points both of continuity with and departure from her previous work. She takes her primary inspiration from Ramsay’s formal, yet intense, portraits of his wives Anne Bayne and Margaret Lindsay of Evelick. Watt also considers a series of Ramsay’s drawings.

   The portraits (which were completed in 1739 and 1758-60, respectively) have, as Watt has observed of the picture of Bayne, a fascinating intimacy. It’s in the eyes, which sparkle with recognition and intelligence, and the directness of the gaze. These are portraits, not of idealised, feminine beauty, but of the subject looking at the painter as the painter looks at her.

   Both paintings reflect the couture and the artistic fashion of the day. Bayne, who is all but tied up in white lace and pink ribbons (the latter of which is the subject of Watt’s painting Anne), stands in a formal pose, looking at us (or, perhaps more accurately, at Ramsay) with a calm confidence. Lindsay appears to have been caught in the everyday pastime of flower arranging, and gazes at us solemnly, a pink rose drooping from her hand.

   Despite their ostensible bourgeois gentility, it is difficult to look at these pictures without reflecting on the precariousness of life for infants, children and childbearing women, in 18th-century Britain. Not only did Bayne die in childbirth in 1743, but all three of her children with Ramsay died in infancy or childhood.

   Following the tragedy of Bayne’s death, Ramsay married Lindsay. The couple had 10 children, only three of whom lived beyond childhood.

   This terrible state of affairs – which continues to afflict a great many women, children and, of course, grieving loved ones in the world today – is referenced, subtly in Watt’s paintings, all of which alight upon objects from Ramsay’s works. In Evelick and Rosa (both of which depict bunches of cut roses), loose petals have fallen onto Watt’s naked, pale grey surface, reminders that flowers are in a state of decay from the moment they are cut; a metaphor, perhaps, for the precariousness of life and the inevitability of death.

   If there is melancholy here, there is beauty, too. Watt executes the paintings of these ornate, pink and white “old roses” with gorgeous delicacy and technical brilliance.

   The aforementioned lace in Ramsay’s portrait of his first wife lends itself to Watt’s fascination with folds. All of the new paintings are interested in the shadows cast by their subjects.

   However, the shade thrown by the folds within a lace handkerchief, such as in the painting titled Bayne, for example, takes on another dimension. The deep fold down the centre of the fabric, and its attendant shadow, look like nothing so much as a mountain range depicted by a photographic cartographer.

   In addition to such subjects there are notebooks with blank pages, feather quills, even vegetables. The stuff, in other words, of intellectual and bodily life.

   All of which is set out in stark simplicity on backgrounds of varying states of white, a palette that has long been a favourite area of exploration for Watt.

   As a response by one painter to the work of another, A Portrait Without Likeness is a wonderfully insightful show and one which, despite the titular absence of the human form, is allusively humane.

The exhibition runs until January 9, 2022: nationalgalleries.org

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on July 18, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Twelfth Night, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Shakespeare festival celebrates 20 years with an impressive Twelfth Night

As Bard in the Botanics marks its 20th anniversary, Mark Brown considers both the festival’s achievements and its latest production

Alan Steele as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Glasgow’s annual Bard in the Botanics (BiB) mini-festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is, as the saying goes, “a good deed in a naughty world”.

   Like almost everything else in the performing arts, last year’s BiB was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. Hugely welcome though the 2021 programme is, it is still adversely affected by the public health crisis.

   First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s recent announcement of a relaxation of the Covid protocols for theatre venues has come too late to save the festival’s much-loved indoor productions. From tomorrow, the physical distancing requirement for theatre audiences will be reduced from two metres to one.

   However, that is little use to BiB where its shows inside the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse are concerned. The two-metre requirement, which was in place when BiB artistic director Gordon Barr decided on this year’s programme, made those productions impossible this year.

   Consequently, the company has had to proceed with just two outdoor shows this summer. The first of those is a staging of, to my mind, Shakespeare’s finest comedy, Twelfth Night, which opened last weekend. The other, which plays next month, is a rendering of one of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Winter’s Tale.

   The choice of the latter – which defies easy categorisation by including elements of tragedy, romantic comedy and pastoral – is typical of a festival that takes its commitment to the Bard’s oeuvre very seriously. BiB has staged more than 100 productions in its 20-year history, including renderings of some of Shakespeare’s most difficult dramas.

   There have been, for instance, at least two productions of that bloodiest of tragedies, Titus Andronicus, complete with its horrendous, off-the-scale misogynistic violence, and general mutilation and murder. In 2002, the festival’s first year, they even attempted a Titus in the style of Japanese Kabuki theatre. It was a production that, if not a complete success, was certainly brave and memorable.

   In the two decades that have followed, BiB’s imaginative and liberated approach to classical drama has led to many fine productions. In 2011, for example, we admired Stephen Clyde’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for which he received the Best Male Performance prize at the Critics’ Awards for the Theatre in Scotland).

   The superb Nicole Cooper, who has become a mainstay of the company since she joined it in 2008, also bagged a Critics’ Awards gong (Best Female Performance) for her cross-cast playing of the titular lead in Coriolanus in 2016. Since then, in a welcome defiance of the male domination of Shakespeare’s major characters, she has given acclaimed performances as Timon of Athens and Hamlet.

   It is nothing to a company with such a pedigree to stage such a complex play as The Winter’s Tale. In the drama, which is set in classical antiquity (as we know by the characters’ reverence for the oracle at Delphi), we witness the terrible consequences of misguided rage.     

   Wrongly suspecting his dear friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, of impregnating his wife, King Leontes of Sicily embarks on a campaign of violent, and erroneous, jealousy that leads to the deaths of his nearest and dearest. As Mamillius, son of the vengeful King comments, “a sad tale’s best for winter”. Never one to stand by tradition, Barr is presenting it in summer.

   That is for next month, however. Now, and until July 31, the director is staging the great comedy Twelfth Night. Barr’s production opens with the image of a ghost light, the sole source of illumination on the stage of a theatre when it is closed.

   He is in good company. James Brining’s excellent, recent staging of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at Leeds Playhouse begins with exactly the same hopeful metaphor for the live arts as they emerge from lockdown.

   Barr relocates Twelfth Night from the house of the wealthy Countess Olivia in the ancient Balkans (the now forgotten territory of Illyria) to the backstage area of a theatre. We are, I suppose, watching either the extra-curricular shenanigans of a theatre company or a dream-like rendering of the play.

   Either way, it matters little. For the most part, the setting notwithstanding, the production (which is performed in early-20th century dress) plays the drama with a pretty straight bat.

   Straight, that is, aside from the facts that major male characters are played by women, and the whole shooting match is presented by a cast of just six actors. However, such modifications are par for the course for Bard in the Botanics.

   The play begins with the shipwrecking on the Illyrian coast of the young woman Viola (BiB stalwart Stephanie McGregor), who quickly disguises herself as the male page Cesario. However, the beating heart of the drama – namely, the conflict between Olivia’s wayward kinsman Sir Toby Belch and his friends, on the one hand, and the Countess’s moralistic steward Malvolio, on the other – is already underway.

   Alan Steele gives a fine performance as the surly house manager, full both of himself and a sense of righteous indignation. The killjoy’s outrage finds its measure in the booze-fuelled debauchery of Adam Donaldson’s hilarious Sir Toby and his idiot pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek (played brilliantly by Nicole Cooper, who dexterously shifts roles between the moronic knight and Countess Olivia herself).

   Voice projection is always a challenge with outdoor theatre, and it is slightly uneven here. This was particularly noticeable on opening night during the “letter scene”, in which Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria (of Olivia’s staff) conspire to convince Malvolio that the Countess is in love with him.

   This scene is best played, for comic effect, with the three conspirators “hidden” unconvincingly at the back of the stage, behind the deluded Malvolio. Barr’s decision to place them in the midst of the physically distanced audience backfires somewhat.

   However, this slight weakness is overcome by both the uproarious comedy of Malvolio’s subsequent appearance (in his famous yellow stockings) and the tragedy of the steward’s victimisation. Once again, Barr presents a well-paced and thoroughly enjoyable Shakespeare comedy.

Twelfth Night runs until July 31. The Winter’s Tale runs August 4-28: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on July 18, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: The Wind in the Willows, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

A turbo-charged children’s classic in Highland Perthshire

The Wind in the Willows

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Review by Mark Brown

The cast of The Wind in the Willows. Photo: Douglas McBride

It’s hard to imagine a nicer piece of outdoor summer theatre for children than Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new production of Kenneth Grahame‘s much-loved tale The Wind in the Willows. Performed on and around PFT’s new, wooden bandstand, the show, which is co-directed by Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti, has the inestimably wonderful advantage of being presented on the south bank of the River Tummel.

   Boasting a fresh, witty and lively new adaptation by writer Mark Powell, the show is blessed with a superb cast that includes Jane McCarry (of Still Game fame) and Colin McCredie (who is best known for his roles in Taggart and River City). With the audience physically distanced across the PFT lawn, the wise, if somewhat irascible, Badger (McCarry), the energetically narcissistic Toad of Toad Hall (McCredie) and their friends embark on a face-paced and (thanks to Powell and Occhipinti’s lively songs) tremendously musical adventure.

   What looks like a wooden climbing frame for children stands in neatly for the beloved boat of Ali Watt’s delightfully pompous Rat. When Mole (played by the abundantly talented Alicia McKenzie) emerges on the riverbank, blinking in the sunlight, Rat agrees (in a smart Covid reference) that it has been a very long winter.

   Mole is quickly accepted as one of the “River Bankers”, as Rat and chums call themselves (as opposed to the bleak, angry and, almost inevitably, Cockney “Wild Wooders”; i.e. the weasels and stoats that live in the forest). This means that she will soon make the acquaintance of Toad (one of whose many middle names is, deliciously, “de Pfeffel”; in common, of course, with the tousle-haired comedian and politician Boris Johnson).

   Not for Toad the joys of quietly sailing down the river. After spotting a couple of frightfully posh day trippers from Morningside, who are touring Highland Perthshire in their “motycar”, McCredie’s fabulously irritating toad is set upon a future in motoring.    

   However, he is no safer a driver than English footballer (and sometime Range Rover speeder and drunken car park dodgems player) Jack Grealish. Unlike the floppy-haired winger (who got off with a nine-month driving ban), poor old Toad gets chucked in the slammer on account of his palpable lack of remorse.

   Whilst in prison (in an example of the production’s regular doubling, and even tripling, up of characters) he meets McCarry’s Glaswegian washerwoman, who winds up the children in the audience by casting aspersions on the cleanliness of their underpants. McCarry’s interactions with the audience are exemplary of a boldness in the show that saves it from being too saccharine.  

   The scene in which Mole gets herself lost in the Dark Wild Wood, for instance, is a tad scary. Indeed, the Wild Wooders’ song, which is accompanied by dark rock music, carries a threat of real violence (even if, in a twist so “woke” that it would set Andrew Neil’s remaining hair on end, the weasels and stoats turn out to have a justified grievance).

   Costume designer Natalie Fern has done a great job of alluding to the animals the actors play, rather than masking them up as the fauna of the British countryside. For example, as McCredie’s Toad tears around, his amphibiousness and his poshness are combined in the kind of splendid, green country attire in which one might go grouse shooting.

   Enthralling though all of this is, the show has a spectacular and beautiful surprise up its sleeve. It would be unfair to give too much away. Suffice to say it has four wheels and is the reason Toad exclaims “Poop! Poop!”

The Wind in the Willows is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until September 12: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on July 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Falstaff, Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow (Sunday National)

A glorious and spectacular Verdi

Falstaff

Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Louise Winter, Roland Wood and Sionea Gwen Davies. Photo: James Glossop

Scottish Opera has been a veritable powerhouse of artistic creativity throughout the pandemic. On screen and outdoor stage, no company has done more to keep the artistic flame burning during the last, spirit-sapping 16 months.

   Impressive though this programme has been, however, none of it could quite prepare us for the company’s latest production, a new staging of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. Directed and designed by Sir David McVicar, it is presented in a huge, gazebo-style outdoor auditorium in the car park of Scottish Opera’s Glasgow production studios.

   The show is played on a large, purpose-built wooden stage upon which sits a lovely and brilliantly functional wooden structure in which multiple staircases lead to and from a gantry and a balcony. A co-production with Santa Fe Opera in the United States, it needs the space that this bespoke stage provides.

   The on-going plague may have necessitated an outdoor production (although it does transfer to the, no doubt carefully physically distanced, Festival Theatre in Edinburgh next month), but this has not shrunk the director’s ambition.

   McVicar has relocated the opera, in which the reprobate knight Sir John Falstaff attempts to defraud two married ladies of Windsor by way of seduction, from the early-15th century (when Falstaff appears in Shakespeare’s plays) to 1620. He has done so, he has explained, in order to cast Falstaff as a man out of his time.

   This Sir Jack is an Elizabethan who has outlived his creator, the Bard of Stratford, by four years. A considerable 17 years into the rule of James I and VI, he is still unable to adjust to the social mores of Jacobean England.

   All of which requires, and is given, the full operatic treatment. The public health emergency might require that the amplified orchestra plays from inside the studio building, but what we see on stage is genuinely spectacular.

   Arrigo Boito’s libretto (which is sung here in English) draws upon all three of the Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears: namely Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and, more substantially, The Merry Wives of Windsor. From the dingy denizens of the Garter Inn (the down-at-heel hostelry that Falstaff calls home) to a yellow-attired housemaid, who is clearly inspired by Vermeer, McVicar’s visualisation of the tale is gloriously vivid.

   The superb cast, led, in the title role, by the fabulous baritone Roland Wood, gives us a high-octane rendering of the opera, with all the colour and rumbustious humour Verdi intended. New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes, as the outraged husband Ford and his disguised alter-ego Mr Brook, captures, in song and gesture, the power and energetic humour of his character’s misguided suspicion.

   The wonderful soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn sings the wronged, but revenged, Alice Ford with great emotional depth and supple versatility. Wood himself is absolutely masterful in both the resonating power and the glorious absurdity with which he imbues his character. This Falstaff, even in the midst of his humiliation, seems to be recalling the virility of his youth.

   McVicar may be working, Shakespeare’s Globe-style, on an empty stage, but he fills it, moment-by-moment, with fabulous colour and imaginative panache. The final scene, in which we witness a midnight masquerade in Windsor Park, offers a delightful carousel of costumed characters, including a deliciously playful rendering of a bird-headed figure from Hieronymus Bosch’s great triptych The Temptation of St Anthony.

   This is opera as the perfect antidote to the pandemic. It will, surely, be the toast of the Edinburgh International Festival next month.

Falstaff is at Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow until July 17, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 8-14: scottishopera.org.uk and eif.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on July 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Jessica Hardwick on returning to the stage in The Comedy of Errors

Returning in Error

The Citizens Theatre Company returns to the stage with The Comedy of Errors. Actor Jessica Hardwick is looking forward to hearing the laughter of live audiences, writes Mark Brown

Jessica Hardwick in rehearsals foe The Comedy of Errors. Photo: Alex Brady

Glasgow’s great Citizens Theatre Company hasn’t been short of its own off-stage drama in recent years. Forced to move out of its famous home in the Gorbals, to allow contractors in to carry out a massive, multi-million pound redevelopment of the theatre building, the company took up temporary residence in the Tramway arts venue.

   Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, meaning, not only that the theatres closed, but also that the work on the company’s playhouse was disrupted. Goodness knows when audiences will once again see the company strut its stuff on the hallowed boards of its home theatre.

   None of which means that artistic director Dominic Hill’s company has been idle during the public health crisis. Like so many other Scottish theatre organisations, the Citz, as the company is affectionately known, has offered audiences online work in lieu of live performance; the recently streamed film version of The Macbeths, Hill’s abridged version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, was a particular highlight.

   Now, however, as the vaccination programme gathers apace, the opportunity to play live to (carefully physically distanced) audiences becomes an increasingly realistic prospect. In the case of the Citz, that means being part of Scottish Opera’s Live at No. 40 season at its Glasgow production studios.

   Beginning in preview tonight, Hill directs The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s uproarious play of misunderstandings and mistaken identities. As ever, he has assembled an impressive cast, including such excellent actors as Karen Fishwick, Lorraine M. Mcintosh and the ever superb Jessica Hardwick.

Jessica Hardwick with Brian Ferguson in Cyrano de Bergerac

   Followers of the Citizens will know Hardwick for her numerous roles for the company over the years, ranging from a heartbreaking Sonya in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to a very modern, wonderfully intrepid Rapunzel. Now she’s back with the Citz, playing the role of Adriana, the bewildered wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, who, unbeknownst to her, has a twin brother.

   The actor has, she tells me, been fortunate to have had work throughout the pandemic, ranging from audio dramas to voiceovers. However, her relief to be back on stage is palpable.

   “It’s quite extraordinary that we are back and theatres are making work”, she says. “I think it’s going to be quite moving for everybody – the audiences, the performers and everybody who works in the theatre – for us to be doing live theatre again.”

   Making theatre in the Covid era is a constant reminder that we’re not yet back to normal. Certain pandemic protocols have to be observed, including less physical contact between actors than audiences would usually expect.

   However, Hardwick is quick to reassure us, “we’re not just sort of standing around saying the words. We’re very much doing a play.”

   Audiences can expect, “live music, all of the actors being on stage all the time, and all the sort of stuff you would usually see at the Citz.”

   Fortunately for the company, Hardwick explains, the key pairings in the comedy – between the two sets of twins, the Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse, and the Antipholuses of Ephesus and Syracuse – are not affected by physical distancing requirements. The actors playing the roles, recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) graduates Michael Guest and Ewan Miller, live in the same abode, and are therefore part of a Covid “bubble”.

   This is a real boon for the production, the actor says. “With The Comedy of Errors there’s so much physical comedy, especially in the relationship between the twins.”

   Hardwick, is full of praise for Guest and Miller. “They’re so great”, she says of the young actors. “They’ve just thrown themselves into it.”

   That’s no small endorsement. Hardwick is, by popular acclaim, one of the finest actors on the Scottish stage. A graduate of the RCS herself, she has wowed critics and audiences alike with her playing of a startlingly diverse array of characters.

   She excelled as Mathilde Mauté, wife of the poet Paul Verlaine, in Stewart Laing’s re-staging of Pamela Carter’s drama Slope, in a production created to be played simultaneously on stage and online. She also gave an unforgettable performance as Roxanne in Edwin Morgan’s wonderful Scots version of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac.

   Regularly acclaimed by reviewers, she received the Best Female Performance gong in the 2017-18 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her lead role in Perth Theatre’s production of David Harrower’s great play Knives in Hens.

   Hardwick is enjoying playing Adriana. It is, the actor says, a “meaty” role, and one that poses difficult questions regarding the deep misogyny of Shakespeare’s day. 

   “She thinks her husband’s having an affair, but she, as a woman, can’t do anything about it. The guys can go out and live their lives, whereas she’s tied to the home.”

   As one might expect of a Dominic Hill production, such issues are not being ignored. “The women in The Comedy of Errors can be quite difficult, because they’re of a different time. But we’re pulling them into the modern world as best we can.

   “The way Dominic’s been helping me find my way into the character is to play it for real. She really loves this guy who she thinks is having an affair, and it’s driven her a bit mad.”

   Adriana expresses her jealousy with a melodramatic energy that is very much at odds with Hardwick’s own personality. “As a person, I’m a bit more quiet and reserved”, says the actor.

   “Adriana’s definitely not that. It’s quite lovely to be a bit ‘out there’, especially after a year of lockdown. It’s been really fun.”

   Hardwick is looking forward to playing on the newly-built wooden stage on which Scottish Opera is currently performing Verdi’s Falstaff. Not to be upstaged by David McVicar’s excellent, Jacobean designs for the opera, the Citz show, designed by Jessica Worrall, promises, Hardwick tells me, to be inspired by the Moulin Rouge.

   Modern sexual politics, the flamboyance of French cabaret – it’s good to have the Citizens Theatre Company back on stage

The Comedy of Errors plays at Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow, various dates until July 24:  citz.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Falstaff, Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

Falstaff

Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Fergus Wood, Sally Swanson and Roland Wood in Scottish Opera’s Falstaff. Photo: James Glossop

No-one would suggest that David McVicar has the ideal conditions for his pandemic-era return to live opera. His new rendering of Verdi’s Falstaff, which he has both directed and designed, premieres, not in a theatre, but in a huge gazebo in the car park of Scottish Opera’s production studios in Glasgow.

   The orchestra plays from inside the studio building, with the huge roller doors open, exposing only conductor Stuart Stratford to the physically distanced audience. Such conditions, needless to say, require that the music be amplified.  

   The production is similar, in many ways, to Roxana Haines’s wonderfully rough-and-ready staging of La bohème for Scottish Opera last autumn. The crucial difference, however, is that, whereas Haines’s Puccini embraced its status as an opera of relative poverty, McVicar’s Falstaff (a co-production with Santa Fe Opera in the United States) is a well-resourced work of opulent beauty.

   The opera (based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and here sung in English translation) is played on a large, fabulously crafted wooden stage, which is dominated by a superb, two-level structure, complete with gantry and balcony. This splendid stage-upon-a-stage, with its numerous stairways for exit and entrance, is both visually impressive and, in the absence of the wings of a conventional theatre stage, cleverly utilitarian.

   From the moment Roland Wood’s tremendously corpulent Sir John Falstaff is rolled onto the stage, lying on the large bed he rents at the Garter Inn, one senses that we are in for something special. As he wards off Aled Hall’s delightfully pompous Dr Caius (who suspects, with good reason, that Falstaff and his friends have robbed him), Wood inhabits entirely the role of the titular miscreant knight.

   The English baritone expresses perfectly Falstaff’s ludicrous vanity, cruelty and, crucially, also his pathos. The drama and humour of Wood’s playing, as his character embarks on his shameful quest to defraud two well-heeled wives of Windsor, is matched entirely by the richness and power of his singing.

   McVicar has moved the tale forward more than 200 years to Jacobean England, reflecting, the director has explained, his interest in the possibilities of Falstaff as an Elizabethan unable to adjust to the changing times. In doing so, he has crafted an impressively tight work of operatic storytelling.

   Such invention is par for the course for a director who is acclaimed internationally for productions that are characterised by both their creative imagination and their fidelity to the operatic text. For instance, his 2008 rendering of Strauss’s Salome, for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, manages to shock some modern opera goers in its honest evocation of the Biblical story.

   The cast of his Falstaff is universally marvellous, from Alastair Miles and Jamie MacDougall as the disreputable Pistol and the very Scottish Bardolph, to Louise Winter’s busy go-between Mistress Quickly. Phillip Rhodes impresses as the energetically suspicious husband Ford and his deceptive alter-ego, Mr Brook.

   Meanwhile, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose Mimi illuminated Haines’s La bohème, brings a similarly beautiful depth of expression and emotional intelligence to the role of the Windsor wife Alice Ford.

   McVicar has expressed his desire, as designer, to make this a “gorgeous” Falstaff. He has incontestably done so. From a Vermeer-esque housemaid to Falstaff’s preposterously ostentatious finery, the design is as precise as it is sumptuous. In the midnight masquerade of the final scene, McVicar takes the figurative handbrake off, delighting his audience with an extraordinary panoply of characters ranging from a fabulous, larger-than-life Queen Elizabeth I, to Cervantes’s Don Quixote and, even, one of the fantastical avian-human creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

   This is, then, a joyous, hilarious and luxurious Falstaff, and one well worthy of its transfer, next month, to the Edinburgh International Festival.

Until July 17, then at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 8-14. Tickets: scottishopera.org.uk and eif.co.uk

At Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow until July 17, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 8-14. Tickets: scottishopera.org.uk and eif.co.uk

A version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on July 5, 2021

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/falstaff-scottish-opera-review-david-mcvicar-brings-opulent/

© Mark Brown