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

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

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

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

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

BY MARK BROWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brzezinski at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Edinburgh Festival 2021, August 15 (Sunday National)

A gloriously absurd exploration of mental health treatment

Medicine,

Traverse Theatre


Doppler,

Newhailes House and Gardens


Still,

Traverse Theatre


Falstaff,

Festival Theatre


Reviews by Mark Brown

Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine. Photo: Jess Shurte

Seasoned patrons of the Edinburgh festivals have fond memories of The Walworth Farce, the hit play of the 2007 Fringe by the acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh. From the pen of the author of the tragicomic Disco Pigs and the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s searing film Hunger, the play, which was staged at the Traverse Theatre, was an astonishingly hilarious and deeply moving reflection on the Irish experience of emigration.

   Walsh’s latest drama, Medicine (Traverse, until August 29), which is presented by Dublin-based theatre company Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, is in a similar vein. It shares with The Walworth Farce a brilliant, bleak humour and a discernible nod towards the absurdism of the legendary dramatist Eugène Ionesco.

    Playing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival programme, Medicine, in many ways, does for the subject of mental health what the earlier piece did for Irish migration. The play stars the exceptional Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (of the Star Wars series and The Revenant fame) in the role of John Kane, a man who has been diagnosed with psychosis and, seemingly, incarcerated by the state.

   From very early in the play we find ourselves in a world that is tipping vertiginously from something recognisably real into a darkly comic, absurdist fantasia. We see John wandering, in pyjamas and slippers, around the hospital gymnasium. The place is a mess, full of the debris of the previous night’s staff party.

   Given that John is about to embark on his personal testimony, this speaks to a certain neglect of his mental well-being. This is as nothing, however, compared with the “treatment” to follow.

   John’s testimony is being heard, not by mental health professionals, but by a pair of musical theatre performers, both of whom are called Mary. Played with sparkling intelligence and excoriating energy by Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett, the Marys arrive in the guise of two old men (Duffin) and a lobster (Barrett).

   John hears, and we hear, a disembodied, male voice enquiring about his well-being and eliciting his acceptance of his incarceration. Meanwhile (scripts of John’s, seemingly oft-repeated, testimony in their hands), the Marys take on a variety of grimly hilarious roles, including those of John’s terrifyingly neglectful parents.

   The testimony itself includes an infant memory of being scalded and left to tumble to the floor from a “bath” in the kitchen sink. It also entails anguished recollections of a romantic attachment that was prevented, and, with it, John’s last chance at avoiding medical detention.

   The increasingly manic and violent antics of the mutually antagonistic Marys imply that, if there is madness here, it resides not in John, but in his past life and in the world around him. That impression is strengthened immeasurably in the powerful, poetic monologues Walsh has written for John. In these moments, the utterly mesmerising Gleeson gives spine-tingling expression to the depths of the unfortunate man’s pain, disappointment and despair.

   Excellently designed, with exceptional use of sound, voices and music (live and recorded), this production gives exquisite expression to another outstanding script by Enda Walsh.

Keith Fleming as Doppler. Photo: Duncan McGlynn

   The madness of the world is also the subject of Fringe production Doppler (Newhailes House and Gardens, near Musselburgh, until August 23). An outdoor piece by Grid Iron theatre company, Scotland’s leading site-specific theatre company, the play takes us into the forest in pursuit of writer-director Ben Harrison’s adaptation of Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s acclaimed novel.

   There, seated on logs (complete with cushions, I should add), Fringe-goers meet the titular protagonist (the ever-excellent Keith Fleming), a middle-class professional who has abandoned Oslo in favour of a life in the woods. Following a bang to the head in a cycling accident, Doppler sees with absolute clarity that his response to the greed and destructive consumption of late-capitalism must be to quit his job, abandon his family and live in a tent under a tree. 

   What unfolds is both wonderfully cartoonish and darkly comic. Having exhausted the food provided by foraging, Doppler turns from gatherer to hunter, killing a majestic elk (represented by a superb puppet by Fergus Dunnet). However, the animal has offspring which, riddled with guilt, Doppler adopts and names Bongo.

   As Doppler navigates his new life, complete with bartering (including a “milk deal” with a suburban grocery employee), the tremendous Chloe-Ann Tylor and Sean Hay play an array of boldly-drawn characters, ranging from Doppler’s exasperated (yet remarkably patient) wife to forest homeowner (and disconcertingly proud, Norwegian son of a Wehrmacht soldier) Düsseldorf.

   The beauty of Harrison’s clever production is that it creates a brilliant balance between the character of Doppler (as the fixed, if somewhat unhinged, centre of the story) and the other characters (such as Bozza, the consummately named posh, reactionary eccentric). While Fleming gives a performance that is a perfectly calibrated combination of plausible rationale and wide-eyed lunacy, Tylor and Hay are at liberty to play the orbiting characters as gloriously colourful caricatures.

   This larger-than-life dimension to the piece is enhanced by the live sound effects and music, composed by David A. Pollock and performed by Nik Paget-Tomlinson. It is strengthened, too, by the smart, deceptively simple set and costume designs by Becky Minto.

   For sure, 90 minutes sitting on a log (albeit padded) takes its toll on one’s rear. Also, the working conditions for the actors mean that costumes and props are muddied, when, naturalistically speaking, they shouldn’t be. These are mere trifles, however, when such an original, funny and thought-provoking piece of theatre is on offer.

   If the new plays by Walsh and Harrison hit the mark, Still (Traverse, until August 22), the latest Fringe piece by Scotland-based playwright Frances Poet, sadly, does not. The drama offers a collection of converging stories: a woman confined to her home by chronic pain; a hungover man who finds himself, his mind a blank, on Portobello beach; a young woman watching her father die with late-stage dementia; and a young woman and her partner hurtling towards a difficult pregnancy.

   Any one of these narratives could form the basis for a play. In attempting to fit all four together, Poet has ended up with a drama this is, paradoxically, overwrought and underwritten.

   Running at a little over an hour-and-a-half, this awkwardly constructed piece, which is directed by Gareth Nicholls, gives none of its characters enough space to breathe. Indeed, it is reminiscent of many plays we have seen at the Traverse over the last 20 years, in seeming like a soap opera with a twist.

   Such theatre works attempt to elevate thinly drawn issues of everyday life by enhancing them with action or language that wouldn’t be acceptable to the producers of run-of-the-mill, naturalistic TV dramas. They, nevertheless, remain moored to the predictable, unimaginative platitudes of realism.

   Which is a great pity, as Nicholls has assembled a universally fantastic cast. Few Scottish theatre productions can boast a line-up that includes the likes of superb actor and singer Naomi Stirrat (Gilly, daughter of the man with advanced dementia), Mercy Ojelade (pregnant veterinary surgeon, Ciara) and Martin Donaghy (Ciara’s partner, Dougie). 

   Yet Poet’s variably written script gives the actors too little to do. The brilliant Gerry Mulgrew’s Mick (the confused hedonist) speaks largely in regurgitated jokes. The wonderful Molly Innes (fibromyalgia sufferer, Gaynor) is stuck with a narrow, disagreeable temperament that would be understandable in a person with her condition, but which makes for poor theatre.

   Efforts are made to distinguish the play from an episode of River City. The compartmentalised set has a minimalist, semi-realist aspect. Outstanding theatre composer and musician Oğuz Kaplangi provides bespoke sound and music, which, too often, feels like it’s straining to give the play a rock ‘n’ roll dimension that it simply doesn’t have.

   In fairness, Poet resolves the stories of two characters with real poignancy, but, by then, it is too late. Her play simply does not amount to the sum of its overloaded parts.

   There’s nothing overloaded about David McVicar’s staging of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff (Festival Theatre, run ended). Directed and designed by McVicar for Scottish Opera and Santa Fe Opera, this hilarious, thoughtful and stylish production premiered in a purpose-built, outdoor theatre at Scottish Opera’s Glasgow studios before transferring to Edinburgh as part of the International Festival programme.

   It was worth a second look to see (and hear) how the piece adapted to being played in a classical theatre. The cleverly constructed, two-level, wooden structure (complete with gantry and balcony) that was made for the Glasgow shows sits on the Festival Theatre stage more comfortably than one might have expected.

   The theatre’s acoustics make it easier to understand what is being sung (in a libretto that has been translated into English); although surtitles (which were necessarily absent in Glasgow) also assist on that score. The cast, led by the glorious Roland Wood in the title role, is as wonderful as ever, as are McVicar’s spectacular costumes.

   We can only hope that, following its shows in New Mexico next year, this magnificent Verdi has a future life on Scottish stages.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday National on August 15, 2021

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Edinburgh Festival 2021, August 8 (Sunday National)

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL REVIEWS

Transporting children to the moon and back


First Piano on the Moon,

Pleasance at EICC


Swallow the Sea Caravan Theatre,

Summerhall


Reviews by Mark Brown

Will Pickvance in First Piano on the Moon. Photo: Peter Dibdin

It’s the Edinburgh Fringe, dear reader, but not as we know it. The return of live, in-person productions to the biggest arts programme in the world comes with many, Covid-enforced compromises.

   There’s the mask-wearing, hand-sanitising and physical distancing, of course. More than that, however, there is the temporary loss of some long-established venues.

   Take Will Pickvance’s delightful children’s show First Piano on the Moon (Pleasance at EICC, until August 15) for instance. As part of the Pleasance programme it would usually play in one of the theatre spaces around the famous Pleasance Courtyard or in the student union at Edinburgh University.

   This year, however, with so few in-person shows to offer, Pleasance has simply rented a few spaces in the well-appointed, but decidedly anodyne Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Consequently, Pickvance’s lovely piece (which is recommended for children aged five and over) is being presented down in the bowels of the EICC, in the cavernous Cromdale Theatre.

   The venue may be to theatrical atmosphere what Priti Patel is to asylum rights, but Pickvance, somehow, manages to pull it off. His show, which had an unusually successful online outing in the spring, is a fabulously inventive piece of musical theatre that engages children on an array of levels.

   Playing on a bare stage, with only a piano and projector screen for company, Pickvance tells us the tale of his schoolboy self and a great, Austrian adventure. Young William was, entirely believably, a daydreamer.

   A constant worry to his parents, he trudged forlornly home one fateful day, a letter to his folks ticking in his satchel like a time bomb. As we all know, official letters from school can only mean a “special kind of trouble”.

   This letter was different, however. Will’s teachers may have despaired of his inattention and his flights of fancy, but they knew that he was the best musician in the entire school.

   So, when the school was invited to send a pupil to perform at a special concert in Salzburg to celebrate Mozart’s birthday, it was a no brainer. Hence, young William Pickvance found himself taken off to Austria, which is, he discovered, “further than Tesco”, but closer than the moon.

   We learn all this by way of a combination of Pickvance’s wonderfully engaging storytelling, lovely piano playing and some delightful little video animations. As he unfolds his tale, the performer exudes, by turns, enthusiasm, excitement and trepidation in a way that transports children and adults alike.

   There’s the wild-eyed wonder at being taken into the Mozart Geburtshaus (the museum to the composer, where young Will is to play in the concert). Then there’s the panic, upon meeting two of the other young musicians, in realising that, unlike his new, somewhat precocious friends, he has no great, classical piano piece to play to the audience tomorrow morning.

   All of which, given young Will’s imaginative bent, leads to a long, late-night conversation with the ghost of Mozart himself. The spirit of Wolfgang Amadeus is, as you might expect, sympathetic and encouraging. The great composer is particularly excited to learn that his music has remained so popular over the centuries that it has even been played on the moon.

   This storytelling is interspersed with high-energy piano playing, ranging from crowd-pleasing tricks (including playing upside-down) to a virtuosic medley (which goes from blues and jazz to tango and rock ‘n’ roll). It’s all very humorous, educational and highly entertaining stuff, as the little girl who shouted “Bravo! Bravo!” after every piano piece on Friday afternoon can attest.

   Like all of the best children’s theatre-makers, Pickvance doesn’t patronise his young audience. He connects his childhood memories with their life experiences as a benign adult talking to a child, without recourse to any of the toe-curling mimicking of children that we still see in our culture.

   Indeed, Pickvance is quite willing to stretch the vocabulary of his youngest audience members. His school report card, for example, is “incriminating evidence”.

   This year’s Fringe is sadly, if inevitably, dominated by online shows. However, this brilliant piece, which has returned to its in-person roots, following a pandemic-related sojourn into digital presentation, is a beacon for the return to live children’s theatre.

Swallow the Sea’s caravan theatre

Meanwhile, over on the south-east of the city centre, the intriguingly titled Swallow the Sea Caravan Theatre (Summerhall, until August 28) was promising to be “absurd… moving, magical [and] funny”. As if that wasn’t inducement enough, the show, offered by the Swallow the Sea performance company, involves puppet and object theatre which is presented from inside a very charming caravan theatre.

   This kind of production is revered in many countries around the world, not least the Czech Republic and Quebec, where I have had the good fortune to be invited to puppet festivals and showcases in recent years. Its relative absence in Scotland (great theatre-makers and puppet makers such as Shona Reppe and Gavin Glover notwithstanding) is a cause for some regret.

   Without question, the show (staged by the young trio of Jemima Thewes, Emma Brierley and Jessica Raine as part of the Made in Scotland showcase) has the vision and the chutzpah needed to pioneer such work in Scotland. For a start, the piece has a running time of a mere 20 minutes, which, in itself, takes a bit of bottle.

   In that third-of-an-hour we are offered a defiantly analogue piece, in which seemingly planetary spheres fly around the caravan theatre on wires. After a short time, three friendly, but otherworldly, human characters intercede in this apparent movement of stars.

   Between scenes a black curtain rotates across the front of the miniature theatre, showing images of mushrooms and other fungi. In addition, the performers emerge, performing a kind of under-developed, old-fashioned mime that would, one suspects, illicit protests from the ghost of Marcel Marceau.

   One approaches a short theatre piece such as this in the hope that it will be a victory of quality over quantity. Swallow the Sea’s ambition is admirable, but, sadly, this frustratingly undercooked piece leaves one’s artistic appetite far from satiated. 

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday National on August 8, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Medicine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

Medicine

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Review by Mark Brown

Domhnall Gleeson is soul-shuddering in Medicine. Photo: Jess Shurte

Following the grim hiatus of 2020, the Edinburgh International Festival is making a careful and tentative return to stages across the city. In terms of the considerably truncated theatre offering, this means that the flagship play, Medicine, by the acclaimed Irish dramatist Enda Walsh, is being presented (as per Scottish Government protocols) to much reduced, physically distanced, mask-wearing audiences at the Traverse Theatre.

   Walsh (the writer of such plays as Disco Pigs and Lazarus, which he co-authored with David Bowie), was the toast of the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe with his blistering, dark comedy The Walworth Farce. His new piece, about the medical confinement of a man who has been diagnosed with psychosis, deserves to be equally revered.

   Directed by Walsh himself for Dublin-based theatre company Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, Medicine takes place in the gymnasium of a psychiatric hospital. There, in-patient John Kane (played by the outstanding Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself surrounded (on designer Jamie Vartan’s excellent set) by the detritus of the previous night’s staff party.

   It is an inauspicious start to what is, presumably, supposed to be an important part of his treatment. John (who, it seems, has been “sectioned” and, therefore, incarcerated by the state) is preparing to give his “testimony” to two professionals who have been brought in especially for the purpose of meeting him.

   However, in the first of many brilliantly absurd twists, these two are not consultant psychiatrists but a couple of peripatetically employed musical theatre performers, both of whom are called Mary. Mary 1 (the wonderfully explosive Aoife Duffin) arrives from her previous gig in the guise of, not one, but two old men. Mary 2 (Clare Barrett on barnstorming form) is en route to a children’s party, and shows up in a splendid lobster costume.

   This conceit is unlikely to be an ironic comment on “drama therapy”. More plausibly, it simply serves Walsh’s imaginative leap into a quasi-surreal situation that reflects the not-so-benign neglect of John’s physical and pharmaceutical confinement. (John, meanwhile, is so institutionalised that he agrees with the external, male voice of authority – which we all hear – that it is correct that he be incarcerated).

   Walsh’s past work, The Walworth Farce in particular, has drawn comparisons with the plays of Eugène Ionesco, the father of absurdist drama – Medicine can only serve to reconfirm that perception. As with Ionesco’s plays, such as The Chairs, Walsh’s latest piece is constructed of bleakly funny repetition. Much of the comedy of Walsh’s drama comes in the increasingly violent conflict between the Marys (who, in fact, have the script of John’s testimony in their hands), and in composer Teho Teardo’s fabulously diverse use of music.    

   However, also as with Ionesco, there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of the humorous game that is being enacted.

   The play’s strong, emotional undertow turns to powerful, resonating poetics in a series of Beckett-esque monologues in which John recalls episodes from his past life and lost love. In these moments, Gleeson (of Ex Machina and the recent Star Wars films fame) gives a performance that is nothing short of soul-shuddering.

   We have watched John blithely accept the medication that deadens his senses. In the monologues, however, he breaks the hold of the chemical cosh, dredging up years of pain and regret from the depths of his being.

   Yes, it’s still very early in the proceedings, but Medicine may well turn out to be the finest theatre production in Edinburgh this summer.

Until Aug 29. Tickets: 0131 473 2000: eif.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 8, 2021

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/edinburgh-festival-2021-medicine-review-domhnall-gleeson-soul/

© Mark Brown

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

A Winter’s Tale for a rainy summer’s evening

The Winter’s Tale

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Review by Mark Brown

Nicole Cooper with Alan Steele in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Shakespeare’s five act drama The Winter’s Tale is known as one of his “problem plays”. The “problem”, for those who have historically pigeonholed the work of the Man from Stratford, is that the piece defies easy classification.

   In Shakespearean terms, it is neither a straightforward tragedy nor a conventional comedy. Throw in the pastoral fourth act and the drama’s hinging on an oracle from the Ancient Greek god Apollo, and the problem is greater still.

   Indeed, Shakespeare’s story of Leontes, the violently (and erroneously) jealous King of Sicily, has a cast of more than 20 characters. It is a brave choice for a modestly resourced company such as Bard in the Botanics, producer of Glasgow’s annual mini-festival of Shakespeare’s work.

   Set aside the “problem” of how to categorise The Winter’s Tale, director Gordon Barr and his cast of warrior actors, face a series of difficulties. As the play moves from Sicily to the Bohemian countryside and onto the city of Bohemia, we see actors take on two, or even three, roles.

   Then there is the “problem” of Covid-19 and the understandable desire to shorten the play sufficiently as to eliminate the need for an interval (Barr has truncated the piece to an hour and 40 minutes). The outcome, as so often with on-a-shoestring, Shakespeare in the park productions, is an impressively sturdy, enjoyable, if somewhat uneven production.

   Adam Donaldson is affecting (if a little too much in haste) as his Leontes rants himself into the outrageous belief that his pregnant queen, Hermione, is carrying the child of his dear friend and guest Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The award-winning Nicole Cooper plays the blameless queen (whose life is threatened by Leonte’s allegation) with an excellent combination of terror, incredulity and righteous indignation.

   The excellent Alan Steele is the very picture of moral integrity as the courtier Antigonus, who both pleads for Hermione and saves Polixenes from Leonte’s wrath. Indeed, the actor ignites the awkward fourth act in the role of the Older Polixenes, as he explodes in snobbish rage at the proposed marriage of his son, Florizel, to a mere shepherdess.

   Director Barr has shortened the play impressively; even if it rushes towards its implausible, metaphysical conclusion with understandable, but obvious, haste. The modern dress of the production is mainly nondescript, but the premonitory soundtrack is effective.

   Elsewhere, Barr’s economical rendering of the drama loses its footing at times. The fine Stephanie McGregor draws the short straw in being cast as the child prince of Sicily, Mamillius. The consequences are occasionally, and inevitably, uncomfortable.

   More problematically, Bard in the Botanics’ stalwart associate director Jennifer Dick over-emotes in the role of the Sicilian noblewoman Paulina. Unable to keep hold of her character’s lacerating contempt for Leontes, she watches it soar into the air like an escaped balloon.

   Such blemishes mean little, however, to an audience which, on Friday night, had to contend with frequent showers and midges. Barr’s audiences, like his company, will go the extra mile for some summer Shakespeare.

Runs until August 28: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on August 8, 2021

© Mark Brown

Review: Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Capturing the elemental power of the Atlantic’s continental edge

Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Review by Mark Brown

North!  The North Most Point of the Isle of Newfoundland

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is defining the word “portraiture” with a pleasing liberality these days. Its recently opened exhibition of new paintings by Alison Watt, titled A Portrait Without Likeness, depicts a series of objects, without any direct reference to the human or animal form.

   Its latest show, The World’s Edge, by photographer and Professor in Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art, Thomas Joshua Cooper, portrays a series of locations at the extremities of the Atlantic Ocean. Shot entirely in black and white, Cooper’s pictures allow no people (and, for that matter, no fauna) to distract us from the timeless remoteness of these places from blithely prosaic human existence.

   As Liege is evacuated, Vancouver records its highest temperatures on record, and the subway system in Zhengzhou, China is flooded, we must, surely, now be convinced that climate chaos is not a future threat, but a present reality. Cooper’s remarkable photographs offer a chastening counter narrative to the hubris of supposed human mastery over nature.

   Since he began his extraordinary journey in 1987, the photographer’s travels around the edge of the Atlantic have taken him to the furthest points (known by geographers as the cardinal points) of the ocean in Antarctica, South America, North America, Africa and Europe. It is a sobering truth that each of the cardinal points Cooper has photographed is forecast to be under water by 2055, as a consequence of the climate crisis. 

   The decision to work in black and white is as crucial to Cooper’s work as it is to the monochrome images of the great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. However, where Salgado (that awe-inspiring chronicler of modern humanity, the animal kingdom and sublime landscapes) places an emphasis on panoramic spectacle, the Cooper photographs here tend to bring us into closer proximity with the timeless, elemental power of the Atlantic’s continental edge.

   One might refer to a strand in Cooper’s work as micro-geography. Take, for example, the image titled ‘The Door’.

   Photographed at North Africa’s closest point to Europe, at the busy maritime thoroughfare that is the Strait of Gibraltar, the image contains no sign of human life, or, even, human activity. Instead, it depicts an edge of the Atlantic as seemingly remote as any in the polar regions.

   The aptly-titled picture ‘Wild and Bewildered’ depicts the eye of a swirling pool of water in the ocean, as seen from a point in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil. As with many photographs in this exhibition, the picture’s particularity of the focus (with no horizon in sight) combines with both the shutter speed and the monochrome to create an image that is semi-abstract, almost ethereal.

   The effect is reminiscent, not such much of the work of other photographers, as of the quasi-impressionistic representation of the forces of nature, especially the sea, in the paintings of Turner. Indeed, although there is an impressive diversity to this collection, there is a sense in which it is characterised, first-and-foremost, by what one might call a Turneresque elementalism.  

   Nowhere is that rendered more powerfully than in a small series of Cooper’s pictures from the Arctic and Antarctica. One image, ‘Whiteout’, is consumed entirely in the whiteness of the scene.

   The piece is whiter, in fact, than the Russian constructivist Malevich’s famous painting ‘White on White’. As such, it is a gloriously bold picture, being simultaneously an accurate depiction of nature and a work of abstract photography.

   All-in-all, this is a remarkable journey around both the outer edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the brilliant aesthetic imagination of a truly significant artist.

The exhibition runs until January 23, 2022: nationalgalleries.org

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on August 1, 2021

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Edinburgh Festivals 2021

From a giant lobster to a niqabi ninja

As the Edinburgh festivals make their welcome return, Sunday National theatre critic Mark Brown casts his eye over the live, in-person work on offer

Domhnall Gleeson and Aoife Duffin in rehearsals for Medicine. Photo: Sarah Weal

It is hard to imagine a more hopeful sign of Scotland’s progress in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic than the return of the Edinburgh festivals in just a few days’ from now. The coronavirus-enforced closure of last year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and Festival Fringe marked the first cancellation of the programmes in their illustrious, 73-year history.

   That felt like a hammer blow to a Scotland that was already reeling from the terrible loss of life, damage to health and dreadful social consequences of Covid. Indeed, this time last year, there was understandable despondency about the future for the performing arts.

   Indoor theatre venues, with their audiences seated in close proximity to each other, would be among the first public buildings to close and, we feared, the last to re-open. So it has proved.

   However, thanks, primarily, to the remarkable vaccine rollout, the return of live, in-person (and, in some cases, even indoor) theatre has come quicker than many of us had feared. The Scottish Government’s current rule, that audience members in indoor venues must wear face coverings and be seated one metre apart, makes theatre a difficult proposition, in commercial terms.

   That said, in public health terms, it’s preferable to the reckless free-for-all being promoted in England by the Johnson administration.

   So, the Edinburgh festivals make their Covid-era return, carefully, tentatively and with a mix of live, in-person productions and online offerings. The goal for 2022, surely, is an EIF and Fringe that are constituted overwhelmingly, if not almost entirely, by in-person work.

   What follows, therefore, is a guide to some of the potential highlights in live, in-person performance in the 2021 festival programmes.

   The headline theatre production in Edinburgh this month is, arguably, Enda Walsh’s Medicine (Traverse Theatre, Aug 4-29). Presented as part of the EIF, it is the latest drama from the pen of the writer of the bleakly hilarious Edinburgh Fringe hit The Walworth Farce.

   Boasting a strong cast led by the famous Irish film actor Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, The Revenant, the Harry Potter series), the play tackles the subject of mental health from a darkly comic perspective. Walsh has earned comparisons between his theatre work and the plays of the great absurdist Eugène Ionesco. Medicine seems set to enhance that reputation.

   The play begins with our protagonist, John Kane, sitting on a hospital trolley. Soon he finds himself encountering a diverse series of characters, including a jazz percussionist, two women called Mary and, inevitably, a giant lobster.

   There will, one suspects, be humour of a very different kind in Sex Education Xplorers (S.E.X.) (Summerhall, Aug 6-29), by theatre inventor extraordinaire Mamoru Iriguchi. Part of the excellent Made in Scotland showcase, and aimed at audience members aged 12 and over, the show promises to be “an eye-opening experience for teenagers, and everyone who missed the sex education they deserved at school.”

   Iriguchi’s previous show Eaten was a piece of theatre for children in which a large lion and a super-sized jobby (Dr Poo of the Pooniversity) provided a fabulous lesson about the food chain and biodiversity. On the strength of that clever and utterly bonkers production alone, I’d say Iriguchi is exactly the right person to bring creativity and humour to bear on the often bad-tempered and reductive culture war over sex, gender and sexuality.

   Also in the Made in Scotland programme, Swallow the Sea Caravan Theatre (Summerhall, Aug 6-28) promises the kind of immersive, audio-visual experience that we see all too rarely in Scottish theatre. Performed without words, Swallow the Sea deals instead in puppetry, object theatre and evocative imagery and soundscapes.

   The company presents two works, including the world premiere of Threads, a piece which seeks to evoke the interconnectedness of human life. It could prove to be a timely work of reflective theatre in this era of climate chaos and viral pandemic.

   The same could be said of Grid Iron theatre company’s show, Doppler (Newhailes House and Gardens, Aug 6-23). Although, being based upon Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s novel of the same name, this outdoor production is very different in form from Swallow the Seas’s work, it is addressing a very similar subject.

   The titular protagonist, an archetypal middle-class, professional Norwegian (played by the superb Keith Fleming), takes a tumble from his bicycle and bumps his head. The accident, he believes, gives him clarity about the disastrous direction of greed-fuelled, 21st-century capitalism.

   Consequently, Doppler takes himself off into the forest, to live a sustainable life in the forest. We, the audience, are invited to watch the results.

Patricia Panther in Lament for Sheku Bayoh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

   Later in the month, the EIF stages the in-person premiere of Lament for Sheku Bayoh (Lyceum Theatre, Aug 25-28). First presented online by the Lyceum last November, the play is Black Scottish writer Hannah Lavery’s reflection on the death of Scots-African manSheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in Fife in 2015.

   Bayoh hailed from Sierra Leone, from where he fled civil war as a child. He made his life here in Scotland; photographs show him proudly wearing a kilt.

   He died in Kirkcaldy following his restraint by as many as nine police officers. There were 23 separate wounds on his body.

   The dead man’s family continues to fight for justice. A public inquiry into the circumstances of his death, chaired by Lord Bracadale, is currently underway.

   In the stage show, actors speak Lavery’s lament, which is accompanied by photographs illustrating Bayoh’s life.

   There is further theatrical treatment of a real life tragedy in Piccolo Theatre’s Screen 9 (Pleasance at EICC, Aug 10-29). The play is a work of documentary theatre about the infamous 2012 shooting incident in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado at a late night, state premiere screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve people were murdered and 70 injured in the attack.

   Piccolo began as a student company at Durham University in 2017. Screen 9 was written by the company’s co-artistic director Kate Barton. She and the company’s co-founder George Rexstrew promise a “cutting-edge, thought-provoking” production.

   There are a few in-person productions sprinkled through the Traverse Theatre’s Fringe programme. Still (Traverse, today until Aug 22) by Frances Poet is a new, hard-edged comedy in which five Edinburghers “stagger towards each other, hoping to be transformed.”

   The writer of Fringe hit play Adam, Poet’s latest drama promises to bring humanistic humour to the physical and emotional challenges of life, ranging from chronic pain to pregnancy and alcohol-induced memory loss. The production in prospect sounds something like a soap opera on steroids.

   Directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Gareth Nicholls (who directed the brilliant Ulster American in 2018), the production boasts a top class cast, including Molly Innes and Gerry Mulgrew. The cast also includes excellent actor-musician Oğuz Kaplangi, who has also composed the musical score.   

   There is outdoor fare in the Traverse Fringe programme, too. Julia Taudevin’s MOVE (Traverse at Silverknowes Beach, Aug 3-7) considers the many implications and meanings of migration through the stories of five female characters.

   Combining storytelling, an evocative soundscape and Gaelic song, the piece plays alongside the sights and sounds of the Firth of Forth. The show is the first production by Disaster Plan, the new theatre company created by Taudevin and Kieran Hurley. It is a co-production with Slung Low theatre company and the Traverse.

   Also al fresco is the promenade theatre production Niqabi Ninja (Aug 12-28). The piece is writer Sara Shaarawi’s response to the mob sexual assaults against women that took place in Tahrir Square, Cairo between 2012 and 2014.

   The show, which takes the audience member around the streets of central Edinburgh, is described as “a graphic-novel style revenge story”. Departing from outside the Usher Hall music venue on Lothian Road, it combines an audio soundtrack (to be listened to on headphones) with street art. 

   Some way west of the Lothian Road, at the Tynecastle Park home of Heart of Midlothian FC, This Is My Story Productions present Sweet F.A (Aug 5-29). The play brings to life the 1916 struggle of a football team of women factory workers for their right to play the sport they love.

   The production is created by the same people who brought us the acclaimed World War I drama A War Of Two Halves, also at Tynecastle, in 2019. A moving and educational piece of theatre seems to be on the cards.

   Fringe venue group theSpace is notable for the number of in-person productions it’s staging this year. Theatre company A Drunken Sailor, producer of solo show Femme Ta Bouche (theSpaceTriplex, Aug 6-21), boldly compares the piece to the work of the great filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

   The play takes us inside the difficult life of performer Femme, who, instead of being on stage on Broadway, is living with cancer and resting in her grandmother’s trailer in Arkansas. However, the time she has had for reflection gives her the idea for a fabulous, bigotry-busting performance at the gay conversion camp she attended in her teens.

   Also part of theSpace programme is the intriguing Shakespeare’s Fool (theSpace @ Symposium Hall, Aug 16-28). The play is a re-imagining of episodes in the life of William ‘Cavaliero’ Kempe, the so-called “dancing clown” of Elizabethan England.

   Kempe is believed by some to have originated some of Shakespeare’s most famous comic characters, including Bottom (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Dogberry (from Much Ado About Nothing) and Falstaff (from the Henriad plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor). However, when we meet the jester, he has had a disastrous falling out with the Bard of Stratford and is about to give his final performance.

   The Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC) is also offering a fair few in-person shows. Miss Lindsay’s Secret (SSC, Aug 6-30) promises to be an intimate and atmospheric piece about Scotland’s colonial, diasporic history.

   Combining storytelling with live, original music, it tells “the tale of a Scottish seamstress [which] binds the gentle hills of Glenesk to Canada’s heady Klondike gold rush.” Created with the support of Glenesk Museum, the show integrates significant artefacts into its storytelling.

   At the same venue, for children aged eight and over, superb Scottish storyteller and theatre-maker Andy Cannon revives his celebrated show Is This a Dagger? (SSC, Aug 6-29). Dynamic, funny and brilliantly performed, this tremendous show retells the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with an insightful emphasis on the historical facts. Look out for some clever and hilarious play with brightly coloured eyeglasses.

   Also for children (aged five and over) is Granny Smith (French Institute in Scotland, Aug 6-30). A solo work of comic and mask theatre, it is performed in both English and French by Tracey Boot (artistic director of French company Theatre Transformations).

   Setting her piece in Granny Smith’s kitchen, Boot offers children, and their accompanying adults, a production that is great fun, while also providing an education. “A show full of humour and gentle instruction on language and cooking” is in prospect.

   Pip Utton (the man who brought us the scintillating Adolf) has been one of the finest performers of the Fringe monodrama for more than two decades. This year he is reviving Bacon (Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 6-13), his bio-play about the tempestuous artistic and less-than-private lives of the great painter Francis Bacon.

   On the opera front, David McVicar’s stunning Falstaff for Scotttish Opera (Festival Theatre, Aug 8-14), transfers from Glasgow to Edinburgh (where it plays as part of the EIF programme). Already sold out, returns will be as valuable as a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. However, given the audience and critical acclaim for the production, one would hope that Scottish Opera will revive it before too long.     

   Needless to say, there are far fewer live, in-person shows in Edinburgh this month than in a “normal”, pre-pandemic year. Add to that reduced audience sizes, due to physical distancing, and many shows will already be close to selling out, if they haven’t already done so.

   Tickets for some shows will be like proverbial hens’ teeth. Early booking is advised.

For EIF shows, visit: eif.co.uk. For the Fringe: edfringe.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 1, 2021

© Mark Brown

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