Mark Thomson, out-going artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, cannot be accused of making life easy for himself. As he prepares to hand over the reins of the grand Edinburgh repertory company to his successor, renowned playwright and director David Greig, he bids his directorial adieu with an ambitious new adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.
There is, in Chris Hannan’s version of the foundation stone of Western literature, a challenge that is symbolic of Thomson’s 13-year tenure. The director has often appeared like a prize fighter seeking out ever-stronger opponents.
There is much to admire in his farewell production. Like Hannan’s beautifully crisp script, Thomson’s staging is eager to grasp the seminal in Homer’s poem.
As the Greek forces lay siege to Troy, Thomson reflects, with no little wit, the modern world in an ancient conflict. Top god Zeus and his wife Hera appear as a decidedly modern warring couple who take different sides in the war.
Richard Conlon’s wonderfully louche Zeus is like an unaccountable dictator given to alcohol, sexual affairs and, on occasion, a chillingly casual rape. Hera is played with burning rage and insouciant swagger by the excellent Emmanuella Cole. She seems like a cross between Imelda Marcos and Sophia Loren when, satisfied with her meddling in human affairs, she saunters into heaven in a bikini and dragging on a cigarette (although just why she must expose her bosom throughout the second half is never quite clear).
Cole’s performance is equalled, in a decidedly uneven cast, only by Ben Turner’s charismatic and fearsome Achilles. The actor has the measure, not only of Hannan’s poetics, but also of his character’s almost insane lust for vengeance following the death in battle of his beloved friend Patroclus.
However, Turner’s performance is a rare example of the production succeeding in its epic ambitions. The tone of the piece is frustratingly inconsistent.
Moments of Greek song fail to carry any spiritual weight, seeming, instead, like mere theatrical punctuation. Karen Tennent’s maximalist set (two sets of blood-spattered, ancient ruins held up by modern steel) lacks flexibility, its stasis reflected in the piece’s disappointing moments of rigid exposition.
Thomson could have taken his leave with a crowd-pleaser by one of the Alans (Ayckbourn or Bennett). It is to his credit that he departs, instead, with a brave, if not entirely successful, Iliad.
Runs until May 14. Details: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 27, 2016
After 13 years as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, Mark Thomson bids farewell to the playhouse with a production of the Greek epic The Iliad. By Mark Brown.
If Mark Thomson, outgoing director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, shares in the theatre profession’s much-vaunted tendency to superstition, he has a funny of way of showing it. He has decided to take his leave of the illustrious company in this, its 50th year, caring not a jot that he will be departing after 13 years at the helm.
In fact, when I meet him in the upstairs bar of the grand playhouse, in the midst of rehearsals for his final directorial offering (the world premiere of Chris Hannan’s new version of the Ancient Greek epic The Iliad), he is in neither a superstitious nor a reflective mood. Rather, he is bristling with creative energy.
Now, he tells me, is as good a time to go as any. “You could go on forever, couldn’t you?”, he asks rhetorically. “I’m happy because I’m leaving feeling incredibly positive about the company and the work.
“I’m not leaving having wheezed myself through two years in which I didn’t really have the appetite. I’m leaving without any bitterness. I feel like I’ve come to a natural end.”
To say that his last two seasons have not wheezed to a stop is a massive understatement. In fact, by general critical acclaim, his final couple of seasons have seen Thomson at his directorial best.
The Lyceum received no fewer than six of the 10 gongs at last year’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Thomson himself picked up the Best Director award for his brilliant production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
If the 2014-15 season brought the Lyceum bouquets aplenty, the current programme has also had the critics reaching for their superlatives. Thomson’s superb staging, in the autumn of last year, of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, which boasted a stellar cast including Brian Cox and Bill Paterson, has come in for particular, and richly deserved, praise.
Despite such successes, the director won’t be drawn on which of his Lyceum productions give him the greatest sense of satisfaction. “I can’t say that”, he insists.
“For every one I don’t mention, I can hear boos coming from the wings. I really can’t pick out particular highlights, that’s for other people to say.”
Indeed, Thomson can look back with pride on his entire career thus far. A son of the decidedly proletarian village of Harthill, North Lanarkshire, he came to the Lyceum following five successful years as director of the Brunton Theatre Company in Musselburgh.
His career has also included play writing. Highlights include a strong adaptation of James Hogg’s classic novel Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, the fine, socially engaged comedy A Madman Sings To The Moon and Pleasure And Pain, an excellent piece based on the writings of the great French writer Maupassant.
Thomson has always had an eclectic artistic taste, and he has carried that forward during his time at the Lyceum. “Being artistic director of the Lyceum has been such a joy because I’ve been able to put on such a diverse array of work”, he says.
“Crazy productions of Faust and The Caucasian Chalk Circle; a wonderful set of Arthur Miller’s, directed by John Dove; a beautiful Laurel And Hardy; plays by Moliere and Goldoni; new work by people like Daniel Jackson and Jo Clifford. I feel quite good about the balance and the risk in the programming.”
The productions may have been varied, but, successful or not, they have all, he says, been his children. “Even the children that have behaved badly, or become serial killers, or have stolen from banks, or have let everybody down in a really bad way, they’ve all been loved into being.
“That’s all I can do. I introduce a piece of work to the stage with integrity, and I hope that it will flourish.
“If it doesn’t, that’s art. If certain things aren’t failing every now and then, you have to wonder to what extent there is adventure.”
This belief in risk taking and the right of the artist to fail lies, perhaps, at the centre of Thomson’s success at a theatre that is often perceived as being somewhat conservative. The Lyceum, an exquisite, Victorian building in the very heart of Edinburgh, a stone’s throw from the city’s financial quarter, tends to be compared unfavourably with Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.
The Citz, they say, is the Lyceum’s unruly cousin. Living, defiantly, in the ever-changing working-class community of the Gorbals, the Glasgow playhouse is a more dangerous, sexier proposition than the Lyceum, which sits, serenely, like a grand old lady, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.
It’s a perception that Thomson has always felt keenly. “The Citizens is like going down a Paris side street”, he observes. “There’s a beautiful, ornate purple light with, ‘boys and girls available’, and somebody’s standing under it with their dress hitched up above their knee saying, ‘come in, I’ll show you a good time.'”
This observation dovetails with the great Citz director Giles Havergal’s comparison of himself with the madame of a brothel. It’s a picture that contrasts with the popular perception of the Edinburgh theatre.
“The Lyceum, because of where it is, feels a bit like a grand dame”, Thomson admits. “She’s saying, ‘if you’d like to come in and sit down to some tea, I’ve got the scones coming shortly.’
“It’s much easier to like the Paris side street. It looks like fun. However, that perception is only to do with external factors, it has nothing to do with the work. The work is just as subversive on the Lyceum stage as on the Citz stage.”
Which brings us neatly to the Lyceum’s much-fabled audience. Generally perceived to be comparatively well off and, on average, somewhat older than the population at large, they are charged with having conservative tastes.
Thomson, who has watched the theatre’s clientele embrace such high modernists as Pirandello, Brecht and Beckett, is having none of it. “They may well be 60 or 70 years old”, he says, “but they were doing stuff in the Sixties that you and I never got close to.
“They were around when rock ‘n’ roll, free love and drugs were being enjoyed and exploited. They’ve been exposed to much more dangerous and fluid times than we have.
“They may well live in Morningside now, but maybe they were on the fields of Woodstock taking things they should never have been taking.”
The director’s description of the radical streak in both the Lyceum company and its audience will make sense to many people who know the theatre. In particular, one suspects, it will be recognised by Thomson’s successor, internationally acclaimed playwright David Greig.
Any regret Thomson feels at departing the Lyceum must be tempered, I suggest, with satisfaction that Greig sees in the theatre a legacy that he can build upon. “Absolutely”, the director agrees.
“I thought, ‘he doesn’t need this, so he must want it’. He’s taken bloody Charlie And The Chocolate Factory to New York, he’s launched The Lorax at the Old Vic [in London]. He’s an established artist.”
Greig may be about to write the next chapter in the Lyceum story, but Thomson is not quite finished yet. There’s still the little matter of his production of Hannan’s Iliad to attend to.
“The Iliad is the first piece of Western literature”, he comments. “What you’re seeing is a culture trying to figure out things that have never been figured out before.
“For example, what do we feel about war? What do we feel about love? What does betrayal mean? What does torturing a dead man mean? What does the body politic think of a truce?”
Thomson is certain that Hannan is the right modern Scottish writer to take this great work on. “Chris might be embarrassed that I’m saying this, but he kind of writes like Shakespeare.
“He uses apposition and alliteration. In amongst a very speakable dialogue, he’s using words in a way that the Jacobeans did. His language is very visceral, very felt, very sensual.”
All the things, in other words, that an adaptation of Homeric poetry for the 21st-century stage should be. All of the things, indeed, that one would expect of the final production of a director whose tenure at the Lyceum has been characterised, like the man himself, by a generosity of spirit and an ambitious artistic sensibility.
The Iliad is at the Lyceum, April 20 to May 14. Details: lyceum.org.uk
This interview feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 17, 2016
This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’s modern adaptation of the Ancient Greek classic The Oresteia, is very much a drama for our times, as director Dominic Hill tells Mark Brown
On June 1, 2001 Crown Prince Dipendra, heir to the throne of Nepal, went on a killing spree in the royal palace in Kathmandu. After massacring nine people, including his parents King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, the prince killed himself.
The slaughter, which reportedly followed an argument between Dipendra and his mother over his choice of bride, was a powerfully stark reminder of the continued relevance of the dramas of the Ancient Greeks. Here, at the beginning of the 21st-century, was an event that could have been taken straight from the pages of Aeschylus’s famous trilogy The Oresteia.
Aeschylus’s plays, which won the most prestigious drama prize in Athens when they premiered in 458BC, follow the turmoil in the royal house of Agamemnon following his victorious return from battle. The warrior king sacrificed his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods 10 years before, and returns to a family filled with grief and rage.
The cataclysmic events that follow echo, not only in the Kathmandu palace massacre of 15 years ago, but also in the daily lives of many “ordinary” citizens in the modern world. Such is the thinking, at least, behind This Restless House, a new take on Aeschylus’s trilogy by one of Scotland’s foremost dramatists Zinnie Harris.
The new plays are a co-production by the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and the National Theatre of Scotland, and are directed by the Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill. The director has received many awards and plaudits for his productions of classic plays by the likes of William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Howard Barker.
What, I ask him, makes a play a classic? “It’s something that transcends the moment that it’s written in”, he says.
“It could have been written five years ago, or it could have been written two-and-a-half thousand years ago. It tells stories that have significance and resonance for the largest part of the human race.
“If work doesn’t continue to have that pertinence, why would we be putting it on?”
Which leads us neatly to This Restless House. How does Harris’s new trilogy, which is set resolutely in the 21st-century, connect Aeschylus’s Ancient mythology with our own times?
“Revenge, desire and the things that drive human behaviour are at the core of these plays, just as much as they’re at the core of the original trilogy”, Hill explains. “There’s a wonderful sense of the epicness of the story, but, at the same time, the characters speak in a contemporary way that isn’t overly vernacular.
“Nor would I say it was poetic. There’s a sort of neutrality in the use of language that allows it to be modern, but also to have that larger resonance to it.”
Harris’s writing is, arguably, defined by its capacity to steer a careful linguistic course. It avoids both a hyperbolical mimicry of the language of the Ancients and a descent into the mundane dialogue of soap opera-style “naturalism”.
Harris’s ability and willingness to find her own language for seminal dramas by the likes of Aeschylus impresses Hill. It allows her, he says, to think bigger than many of her contemporaries.
“One of the things I love about these plays, and about Zinnie as a writer, is her ambition. She’s not afraid to tackle the gods, the ghosts, the sense of the ‘other’, sexual desire. The themes are huge.
“I find it refreshing that you can have a ghost on stage [in a 21st-century drama]”, he continues. “In her plays you can have the kind of visceral action where people’s blood and guts are literally spilled and where things matter.
“The way people work through their desires and their passions is visceral, and often ends in bloodshed.”
So successful is Harris in finding her own voice in these adaptations that Hill finds he is “not in the slightest” looking over his shoulder at Aeschylus. “They are three new plays, really”, he says of a trilogy that moves further and further from the Ancient original as it progresses.
In fact, were Harris’s work not entitled This Restless House, it could have been called The Electreia. For it is Electra, not her brother Orestes, who comes to the fore in the midst of the devastation of her family’s internecine conflict.
If Hill feels that Harris’s scripts are written on a scale that fits his tastes as a classical director, he is equally happy with the cast he has assembled. He has worked with the likes of Adam Best (Crime And Punishment), Cliff Burnett (A Christmas Carol) and Keith Fleming (Peer Gynt) before, but many of the female actors are newcomers to his stage.
Fine Basque actor Itxaso Moreno (a longstanding performer in Scottish theatre) makes her Citizens debut, and the excellent Anita Vettesse works with Hill for the first time. Most excitingly, perhaps, Pauline Knowles (who gave an outstanding performance in Barker’s Lot And His God at the Citz last year) plays Clytemnestra opposite George Anton’s Agamemnon.
The director is clearly delighted to have secured Knowles’s services. “It was seeing her in the Barker that I realised she is awesomely good”, he says.
Indeed, Hill is palpably pleased with the entire ensemble (most of whom are well known to Scottish theatre audiences). “It feels like a really strong, native cast and absolutely the right cast for the show.”
This Restless House is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 15 to May 14. Details: citz.co.uk
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 10, 2016
There are, no doubt, modern and psychological readings to be made of Antonín Dvořák’s 1901 opera Rusalka. However, director/designer Antony McDonald’s 2008 staging for Grange Park Opera, revived here by Scottish Opera under the baton of its new music director Stuart Stratford, is not one of them.
This revival marks the premiere of Rusalka for Scottish Opera. It is, in many ways, a traditional production.
McDonald leaves the metaphorical possibilities to the audience as he takes us into a mythical world that combines Czech folklore with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of The Little Mermaid. Rusalka, a mermaid in a lake in the midst of an enchanted forest, falls in love with the Prince.
As her father, the merman Vodník, bewails the loss of his daughter to capricious humanity, Rusalka asks the witch Ježibaba to transform her into a woman. The sorceress agrees, on two dreadful conditions: in taking human form, Rusalka will become mute; and, should the Prince should stray from her, his infidelity will plunge Rusalka into the condition of a tormented spirit, neither dead nor alive.
If McDonald has a Freudian or feminist take on this tale of enforced female silence he is not sharing it with us. The visual world of his production, complete with dark lake, bleak, leafless trees and menacing witch’s cottage is drawn from the realm of fairy tales.
To say the piece is traditional is not to say that it is staid, however. This is a staging that bristles with, often macabre, humour.
Leah-Marian Jones’s Ježibaba, for example, is comically vain, sarcastic and brutal when she is hacking off poor Rusalka’s tail fins. Natalya Romaniw’s foreign princess, who is vengefully jealous of Rusalka’s impending marriage to the Prince, is a wonderfully larger-than-life femme fatale.
There are tremendous performances across the piece, not least from Willard White (a powerfully anguished Vodník) and Peter Wedd (a hapless and, ultimately, tragic, Prince).
However, the greatest challenge falls upon Anne Sophie Duprels in the title role. The French soprano plays an elusive character who is, by turns, a mythical creature, a mute human and a desolate spirit.
She plays all three with a compelling subtlety and deftness that is equal to the beauty of both her voice and Dvořák’s delightful, Slavonic music.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 7 and 9; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14 and 16. Details: scottishopera.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 6, 2016
An adult watching Little Red And The Wolf, Dundee Rep’s new show for children aged five and over, will find the experience akin to viewing a modern kids’ animation film. Like the Toy Story or Kung Fu Panda movies it is carefully balanced, not only to entertain children, but also to amuse grown-ups.
Writer/director Scott Gilmour’s script abounds with jokes for the long in tooth. For instance, there’s a pretty good gag about the Three Little Pigs, property development and Richard Branson.
However, the show is, first and foremost, a fable for young children; a fact that is underlined by the story being set in the village of Fayble. In that village, where there stands a statue to The Boy Who Cried Wolf, children are taught that “wolves and humans do not mix”.
Meanwhile, in the forest, Wolfmother, haunted by generations of killings of wolves by people, is teaching her cubs the exact same thing. Cue the taboo-busting friendship of Little Red Riding Hood and her wee wolf pal Lyca, and their battle against fear, prejudice and (the common enemy of humans and wolves alike) The Big Bad Wolf.
A play with songs, the show is, despite some forays into metatheatrical humour, an almost defiantly traditional production. Richard Evans’s set combines a stylish, sparse forest (complete with bird and animal noises) with garish pantomime backcloths.
Most members of the strong ensemble play multiple characters (Billy Mack’s quick changes between the mayor and “lupine historian” Mr Dandy are hilarious), but not everyone is equipped for the demands of musical theatre. Tyler Collins (who plays the jester/narrator Lute, among others) boasts a fine singing voice, but Marli Siu (Little Red), although she acts the lead role perfectly well, is exposed when she is required to sing.
A little uneven and lacking somewhat in momentum, Little Red And The Wolf is a charming piece of storytelling nevertheless.
There’s storytelling of a very different kind in Tim Barrow’s new lunchtime play Neither God Nor Angel. It’s two years since the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh staged Barrow’s ambitious, but badly structured, Union; an imagining of key events surrounding the Treaty of Union of 1707. Now the writer is back on similar territory; this time we’re in the Holyrood chamber of King James VI on the eve of his journey south to claim the English crown in 1603.
The King (Jimmy Chisholm on excellent form) is having second thoughts about the whole Union of the Crowns malarkey. In fact, he’s on the brink of “gi’en it the swerve”.
Before long he finds himself face-to-face with William, a servant boy (Gavin Wright) who isn’t afraid to tell his monarch a few home truths. As the Rennish wine flows, James veers between an imperious sense of entitlement and vulnerable self-doubt.
The King is still pining for his long-deceased favourite, the French duke Esme Stewart. In his inebriation, he becomes increasingly generous, unguarded and, to William’s considerable consternation, lecherous.
The play bristles with interesting historical observations and suppositions. Yet, somehow, it contrives to feel like an unfinished sketch.
This is ironic as, whatever its limitations, lunchtime theatre does tend to bring a distinct discipline to playwriting. However, just as Union was more than a little ungainly, so Neither God Nor Angel seems to be in need of some dramaturgical intervention.
That said, the production is a splendid way to spend a lunch hour. This is due overwhelmingly to Chisholm’s characterisation of James.
Resplendent in red hair and beard, his King is, by turns, an over-bearing autocrat, a poet of some skill and, delightfully, a humorously animated drinker.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 3, 2016
Humanity in 2016, it is hardly controversial to suggest, is in a wretched state. However, if David Leddy’s new play International Waters is to be believed, things could get a whole lot worse.
The drama is a vision of apocalypse viewed from the perspective of four rich refugees who have boarded the last boat out of chaos-ravaged London. Sarah (the “trophy wife” of a rich businessman), Ben (a world famous crooner), Sophia (a former head of British intelligence) and Arian (a highly successful photojournalist and writer) have paid big bucks for their passage in a well-appointed suite on board a container tanker.
As the ship heads out into the Atlantic, the world is in the grip of catastrophe. A co-ordinated mega-crash in the financial markets and massive cyber attacks on the civil infrastructure are wreaking havoc across much of the planet.
Uber-capitalist Teddy Volkart (who, it seems, is a cross between Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump) is suspected of causing the cataclysm in order to wipe out his competitors. Whoever is behind the social collapse, Sarah and her companions are locked in a small room on a tanker which, worryingly, has veered way off its agreed course.
The ensuing drama is a curious beast. Imagine William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies rewritten as a postmodern drawing room comedy by a latter day Noel Coward.
The play, it seems, is intended to be part thriller, part comic satire. The problem is that Leddy, who directs his piece for his company Fire Exit, takes the best part of the show’s 75 minutes to achieve the right tone.
For the most part the characters seem like 21st-century cliches whose occasionally witty dialogue becomes mired in self-conscious flippancy. At one point, Leddy’s excremental bent has the universally talented ensemble (Claire Dargo, Robin Laing, Selina Boyack and Lesley Hart) running around Becky Minto’s appropriately claustrophobic set as if they were in a Carry On film.
Inevitably, the play has a twist. It would be wrong to give it away here, of course; although I’m not entirely sure that Leddy doesn’t flag it up somewhat himself.
From the Book of Revelation, to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, human culture has always been obsessed with its own destruction. International Waters, which is frivolous even when it is being serious, is unlikely to be remembered as a classic of apocalyptic art.
Tour details: davidleddy.com
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 27, 2016
For the last two decades Glasgow-based public art specialists NVA have been making spectacular interventions in the built and natural environment throughout the UK and internationally. Their work ranges from Storr, which brought extraordinary new life to the crags and crevices of The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye, to Speed of Light, an acclaimed celebration of cycling and the urban landscape that has wowed audiences in Salford and Yokohama, among other cities.
In this, the year of Scotland’s Festival of Architecture, NVA offer a remarkable reflection on one of the world’s most recent, and most fascinating, ruins. The St Peter’s Seminary building, set in the midst of the Kilmahew Estate in Argyll and Bute, was opened in 1966 but only served its function as a training centre for Roman Catholic priests for 13 years.
These days the magnum opus of architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein sits, hidden from the nearby Clyde Estuary by the forest of Kilmahew, like a ghost of concrete Modernism. Its external, columned staircases could have been borrowed from a misguided inner-city housing estate. Its grey arches evoke both 20th-century Brutalism and the beautiful, Islamic geometry of the Mezquita in Córdoba, which dates back more than a thousand years.
Creative director Angus Farquhar’s night-time production is like an avant-garde version of a French son et lumière show. Following a short walk through a sonically enchanted forest, we are ushered into the Seminary.
Light bounces off the building’s grafittied walls. Fragments of architectural plans shimmer above the fallen stone crucifix.
And there, in the central hall, reflected in the water of a floor which has become a shallow pool, swings a great, industrial thurible. It emanates smoke as if it were a religious relic, yet it has the appearance of something that could have been made in one of the now closed shipyards on the other bank of the estuary.
The censer is pushed by two masked figures who, like sinister, post-industrial masters of ceremony, are wearing overalls and hard hats. Rory Boyle’s music and Alistair MacDonald’s soundscapes combine to create a sense of the sacred and the premonitory.
Hinterland is like a visit to a temple of post-apocalyptic religion. Remarkably, however, it is also a memorable celebration of the enduring beauty of a derelict architectural masterpiece.
Runs until March 27. Details: nva.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 20, 2016