A little bit of history was made with Friday night’s opening, in the village of Strontian, in the stunning West Highland peninsula of Ardnamurchan, of this new stage adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s famous novel Whisky Galore. A co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie and a Pint (PP&P) and new Gaelic company Robhanis Theatar (whose first production this is), the show is, that rarest of creatures, a professional theatre presentation played in Gaelic with English surtitles.
Set, like Mackenzie’s novel and Alexander Mackendrick’s much-loved 1949 film, in the fictional Outer Hebridean pub the S.S. Cabinet Minister, Iain Finlay Macleod’s short stage version (running to 70 minutes in Strontain, 20 minutes longer than advertised) is set in the present day. There, the locals welcome Irish traveller Maire (who is in search of her Hebridean roots) by re-enacting the events of Mackenzie’s tale (which was itself inspired by a real event in 1941, when a ship, the S.S. Politician, carrying a cargo of whisky, foundered off Eriskay).
The play-within-a-play retells the hilarious comic story of a Western Isle, beleaguered by the wartime whisky drought, seizing gratefully on the miraculous arrival of hundreds of cases of the Water of the Life. However, in addition to adding the trappings of the 21st-century, from smartphones to a nostalgia for the Bee Gees’ hit Staying Alive, it adds new subplots, such as the unlikely romance between Micheal (young owner of the Cabinet Minister) and Sarah (the pub’s black-lipstick-wearing Goth barmaid).
The relocation of the tale requires dexterity on the part of the variedly skilled, five-strong cast, not least the fine Iain Macrae (who plays local man Duncan and many more besides). However, one can’t help but feel that the chronological shift is attempting to make a virtue of the small cast required by many of the venues to which the show will tour. Director Guy Hollands’s production, which enjoys fine recorded music by Alasdair Macrae, loses pace, and comic impact, as it changes gear between the 1940s and the present day.
Welcome, and often charming, though this path-breaking production is in many ways, one can’t help but yearn to see the story returned to its wartime origins and told, in Gaelic, with live music, by a full cast. That really would be glorious.
Touring until May 15.For further information, visit:nationaltheatrescotland.com
Britain’s mainstream political discourse on migration, complete with those Labour Party “controls on immigration” coffee mugs, seems to owe more to the fevered exclamations of Nigel Farage than to a reasoned and compassionate consideration of the movement of people around our troubled planet. It is timely, therefore, that stage-designer-turned-theatre-maker Kai Fischer, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Tron Theatre should offer us Last Dream (On Earth).
Played by a cast of five fine performers, who are seated before microphones, the work brings together evocations of the desperate journeys of sub-Saharan African migrants seeking refuge in Europe with the historic voyage into space of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. For the audience, who hear the dialogue and music on headsets, the parallels between these two events may not seem immediately apparent, but as the script (conceived by Fischer, and developed by him and the cast) unfolds, the humanistic logic becomes clear.
Like Gagarin, the migrants are going into the unknown as they attempt the perilous journey from Morocco to Spain, across the busy shipping lane that is the Strait of Gibraltar, in a rubber dingy. Like Gagarin, they know that their voyage is very likely to lead to their deaths.
As the parallel narratives interweave with an appropriately African-cum-global musical score, the emotional intensity of the piece increases. That the political implications also expand without a trace of polemic is testament to Fischer’s deftness of touch.
Given that Fischer is, first-and-foremost, a designer, the show is curiously, and bravely, light on visuals (there are a few understated projections). Very much like a radio play for the stage, it gets to the anguished heart of the story of migration from Africa to Europe in a way that puts most of our politics and journalism to shame.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 12, 2015
Where better to open a tour of Sue Glover’s 1988 play The Straw Chair – an imaginative story of exile on the Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda in the 18th-century – than at the biggest cultural venue in the Western Isles, the splendid An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway? Co-produced by Borderline Theatre Company and Hirtle Productions (in association with the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr), the drama explores a turbulent time in Scottish history through the experiences of four very different characters.
The play is built upon the true story of Rachel Chiesley (otherwise known as Lady Grange), an unfortunate aristocrat (played by Selina Boyack) who is kidnapped and banished to St Kilda by her unscrupulous husband in order to prevent her exposing his Jacobite sympathies. We meet her and her illiterate, yet bilingual (Gaelic and English speaking) Hebridean servant Oona (Ceit Kearney) as Aneas and Isabel (a Presbyterian missionary and his teenage wife, played by Martin McBride and Pamela Reid) arrive on the island from Edinburgh.
Initially horrified by the “primitiveness” of St Kilda, young Isabel comes to be fascinated by the culture of the islanders (for whom pagan beliefs sit easily alongside Christianity) and ever-more sympathetic to the story told by the outraged, and often drunken and outrageous, Rachel. The ensuing drama, in which Aneas is pulled between acquiescence to power and an instinct for justice, and the iniquity of Rachel’s plight becomes ever clearer, is truly captivating.
To a large degree, this is down to Glover’s excellent capacity for dramatising her historical research. The play evokes 18th-century St Kilda and the dangerous, politically divided Scotland beyond with an impressive vividness.
Liz Carruthers’s fine production is neatly designed, evocatively lit and makes lovely use of recorded Hebridean music and song. It also enjoys a strong cast, although Reid is too quiet in her speech at times.
The rich role of Rachel, an indignant, righteously furious, but also erratic and unpredictable character, requires a special actor. Carruthers has one in the excellent Boyack.
Her Rachel runs barefoot around the island in a tattered ball gown, clutching the modest seat of the play’s title (the only chair on the island). It is an intelligent, robust, humorous and poignant performance.
Much is said of Bondagers, Glover’s celebrated play about female farm labourers in the Lowlands of Scotland in the late 19th-century, which was revived successfully by Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre last year. It may be heretical to say so, but, on this showing, I would suggest that The Straw Chair is the better play.
Neglected hitherto, this beautifully crafted four-hander deserves to be considered a modern classic of Scottish theatre.
If Glover’s play is notable for its superb structure and balance, the same cannot be said of And The Beat Goes On. Stef Smith’s new play for touring company Random Accomplice explores the efforts of a Scottish couple in the United States to come to terms with the disappearance of their child by way of their obsession with Sony and Cher.
Part theatre of impersonation, part bleak comedy of a tragic past, the drama might have been a cross between Peter Arnott and Cora Bissett’s Janis Joplin: Full Tilt and Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. Sadly, however, Smith’s short play lacks the great energy of the former and the tremendous dramatic depth and wit of the latter.
It’s 1989, and expats Lily and Peter (played by Julie Brown and Johnny McKnight) are isolated and persecuted in a small American town, where they are suspected of being responsible for the disappearance of their seven-year-old daughter eight years ago. Broken psychologically and emotionally, they dress up as Sony and Cher and compulsively rehearse the routines and songs from the famous couple’s TV show in their garage, while creepily over-friendly neighbour Joan (Julie Wilson Nimmo) takes a suspiciously keen interest in their lives.
This may seem like a sketch for an interesting play, but, unfortunately, that is all that Smith has written, a sketch. The acting is fine, as is director Kenny Miller’s design (which includes, of course, fabulous costumes), but the writing disappoints in its resort to short cuts, clichés (such as Peter’s “double life”) and thickly spread pathos.
Although it comes in, by necessity, at under an hour, lunchtime drama Fat Alice by Alison Carr, the latest piece from the hyper-productive stable of A Play, A Pie And A Pint, is more substantial. Moira (Meg Fraser) and Peter (Richard Conlon) are having an affair. Peter, despite his promises over 10 years, has still not found the guts to leave his wife.
As the couple make awkward small talk, there is, palpably, an elephant in the room. There is also, in broad-but-funny metaphor, an elephantine neighbour in the flat above.
To say that the unseen, but often heard, Alice is fat is a bit like describing Jeremy Clarkson as merely a bit offensive. Alice fills the flat, her obesity standing in for the emotional pain of Moira, whose life and self-image have been shaped by her decade-long wait for the cretinous Peter.
A non-too-subtle, but ultimately quite affecting feminist comedy, Carr’s play is directed with gusto by Joe Douglas. The production’s greatest strength, however, is the performance of Meg Fraser, whose is superb in her combination of sarcastic humour and genuine anguish.
For tour dates for The Straw Chair, visit: borderlinetheatre.co.uk. For And The Beat Goes On, visit, randomaccomplice.com
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 5, 2015
The 2014-15 season has been the best at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum for many years. Its admirable strike rate continues with this resounding production of Ibsen’s great tragedy Hedda Gabler.
Directed by Amanda Gaughan (making a superb debut at the Lyceum), boasting a fine cast across the board, and using Richard Eyre’s glass sharp version of the text, this staging proves the paradox that a classic play often speaks most powerfully to our times by being kept in its own (even if the doors of Jean Chan’s set swing open at inopportune moments).
From the very outset of this production, set in a grand house in a late-19th century Scandinavian suburb, one senses the shuddering, restless dissatisfaction of Nicola Daley’s blue-blooded Hedda. Barely containing the derision she feels for her husband, the dreary academic Tesman, this wonderfully nuanced Hedda is not reducible to either recalcitrant aristocrat or enraged feminist.
Rather, Daley creates a captivating, beautiful, dangerous and anguished heroine whose destructive (and self-immolating) power lies in the torment of her entrapment by both her class and her sex. Her emotional and erotic instincts (particularly in relation to the brilliant but degenerate writer Lövborg) denied she, in contrast to the great schemers of tragic theatre (from Medea to Lady Macbeth), wreaks havoc on devastating impulse.
Daley has the rare ability to both fill an auditorium with premonitory tension and, as if suddenly drawing the air from the theatre, change the atmosphere in an instant.
In more than a quarter-of-a-century of theatregoing, it has been my good fortune to see such distinguished actresses as Maureen Beattie (Medea), Diana Rigg (Mother Courage), Fiona Shaw (Arkadina) and Harriet Walter (Lady Macbeth) at the top of their respective games. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that Daley’s electrifying Hedda belongs in such illustrious company.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 29, 2015
Is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler a female Samson, a feminist heroine who pulls down the gilded prison of late 19th-century bourgeois marriage? Or is she a decadent nihilist, a dark force of nature who would have been more at home in the cabaret clubs of 1920s Berlin than the genteel suburbs of a Scandinavian university town? So the debate has tended to run ever since the play premiered (to negative reviews) in Munich in 1891.
However, as director Amanda Gaughan’s fine production (her debut outing at the Lyceum) suggests, the aristocratic young woman who is, arguably, Ibsen’s greatest character is not reducible to a mere archetype. Rather, as we find in Nicola Daley’s extraordinary performance, Hedda is one of the most enigmatic, tragic figures in world theatre, as powerful a character as Medea or Antigone, yet, compellingly, less certain in her motivations.
Arch, needle sharp, unashamedly snobbish, Daley’s Hedda smiles with barely disguised contempt for her husband, the dull, hapless academic Tesman, and his “Aunt Juju”, who is the very personification of stultifying, bourgeois life. This is Hedda as a captivating, morally ambiguous rebel without a cause (unless one considers the contorted romanticism of her relationship with the dissolute genius Lövborg to be a cause).
In a performance of great control and nuance, Daley captures the perplexing essence of a character who beguiles everyone around her with her beauty, intelligence and intensity, yet, on account of her sex, lacks the freedom to live as she would choose.
If Daley’s unforgettable performance is, as the play demands, at the anguished heart of the production, there is fine acting across the piece, not least from Benny Young, whose Judge Brack is, in Richard Eyre’s faithful, yet intelligently modern 2005 version, a shamelessly lecherous blackmailer. Jack Tarlton’s initially too brooding Lövborg ultimately comes good on the character’s fatal weakness.
Such a strong presentation deserves better than designer Jean Chan’s uninspired, quasi-realist set, which is dominated by doors with glassless windows which, to the actors’ obvious frustration, fall open when they should not. EJ Boyle’s poignant choreography towers above most of what passes for movement on the stage these days.
An impressive, if not flawless, Hedda Gabler, then, and one which deserves to be remembered for a brilliant and affecting performance in the title role.
Until April 11. For more information, visit:lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 25, 2015
Kai Fischer’s new theatre work draws parallels between the journeys of migrants in the 21st-century and Gagarin’s pioneering space voyage. By Mark Brown
Migration, most commentators agree, is a major issue shaping politics, if not at a Scottish level, then certainly in terms of the forthcoming elections to the UK parliament. The growth of a far right, populist party, in the increasingly unpleasant shape of Ukip, is driven to a considerable extent by the demonisation of “economic migrants”.
What if the distinction between economic migrants (bad) and refugees (good, or at least tolerable) is a false one? What if, in a world in which millions of people are in transit in their attempts to shelter themselves and their families from conflict or poverty, most migrants should be considered brave pioneers, risking their lives in journeys into the unknown?
These are the questions posed by Last Dream (On Earth), the latest work to be presented by the National Theatre of Scotland. Created by stage designer-turned-theatre maker Kai Fischer, the piece draws a fascinating parallel between a modern day journey of migrants leaving North Africa for Europe and the famous mission which made Yuri Gagarin the first human being to travel into outer-space in 1961.
“Personally, I don’t make the distinction between a refugee and a migrant”, explains Fischer, who, in researching for his piece, travelled to the Italian island of Lampedusa and Malta, both destinations for many migrants trying to reach the European mainland.
“It seems almost impossible to define where an economic need stops, and where it becomes a need to survive”, he continues. “In terms of a lot of the people I spoke to, their journeys started out with one purpose, which then turned into another.
“People who came from, say, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Cameroon, initially made it to Libya to work. Then the situation in Libya turned extreme, and they became refugees halfway through their journeys.”
Whether migrants’, often perilous, sometimes, as we see with heartbreaking regularity in the Mediterranean, fatal journeys are motivated by fear of persecution or hunger, or a combination of the two, they have, Fischer suggests something fundamental in common with Gagarin’s great voyage.
“Both journeys are driven by circumstance”, he says. “In the case of migrants, often people travel because other people want them to.
“Sometimes families even decide who will go, choosing the person they think has the best chance of success.
“I think it was the same for Gagarin. It was a mission for a nation. The space race was going on, and he represented the hope of building a society that people could believe in.”
The production, in which audience members will wear headsets, as Gagarin did in his spacecraft, combines audio work, live music and stage performance. Just how it interweaves the experiences of the most famous cosmonaut and the many migrants currently traversing our blighted planet is, says Fischer, ultimately down to the theatregoer.
In engaging with the piece, it is, appropriately enough, the individual audience member who completes the journey.
“I’m a dick”, says the Groom in David Ireland’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s great tragedy Blood Wedding. “You’re not a dick”, replies the Bride.
“If you are a dick”, she continues, “you’re the dick that I’ve chosen. That makes me a dick, too. So, we’ll be two dicks together.”
It is, frankly, embarrassing that such an awful piece of dialogue should find its way into any new play presented in a professional theatre in Scotland. That it should be written into a new version of Lorca’s classic tale of transgressive passion and vengeful tradition is nothing short of a travesty.
Unfortunately, the dreadful banality of the script does not come entirely as a shock. This soap opera-ish approach to play writing has been the bane of new theatre work in the UK for some considerable time.
Given the impoverishment of the language – which Ireland tries, with only limited success, to shift to a more poetic register towards the end of the play – this co-production by Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and acclaimed inclusive company Graeae is fighting an uphill battle from the start.
Director Jenny Sealey, who directs a generally strong and diverse cast of Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors, succeeds in her mission to improve the theatre-going experience of Deaf and blind audience members by integrating British Sign Language and audio description (as well as surtitles) into the performance.
The sad truth, however, is that, following Rona Munro’s appalling adaptation of The House Of Bernarda Alba (National Theatre of Scotland, 2009) and Jeremy Raison’s awful staging of Blood Wedding (Citizens Theatre, 2006), Scottish theatre has once again proved a very poor friend to Lorca.