Review: Lanark, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

LANARK

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

Alasdair Gray’s magnum opus Lanark is the novel so unstageable it has now been adapted for the theatre twice. Published in 1981, it was first staged (in a version by Alistair Cording) in 1995. Now, the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow presents a new adaptation by David Greig as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Greig’s “life in three acts” (which compresses the four books of the novel into four hours of theatre) was originally intended to celebrate Gray’s 80th birthday. Dreadfully, however, the writer and painter recently suffered a serious fall, and is currently critically ill in hospital.

Lanark is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest achievements in Scottish literature. Greig’s rendering of it is respectful, ambitious, uneven and, ultimately, successful.

Directed by Graham Eatough, the play interweaves Gray’s liberally fictionalised autobiography with bleakly dystopian, often surreal science fiction and sharp political, social and cultural observation. As it does so, there are shades of James Joyce and Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

The title character (played masterfully by the outstanding Scottish actor Sandy Grierson) takes us through time and space, from a frightening, futuristic vision of Glasgow (renamed “Unthank”), to anguished remembrances of an early 20th-century youth on Clydeside, and back to a hellish world where people suffer from a disease that turns them into dragons. Like the novel itself, Eatough’s production, which is splendidly designed, for the most part,  by Laura Hopkins, and blessed with amazing video work by Simon Wainwright, is undeniably modernist and quintessentially Scottish.

The second act (which, mirroring the careful disorder of Gray’s novel, is actually Act One), is not without difficulties. As Oracle (represented by a Greek-style chorus dressed like the young Lanark) takes our hero back to his early life, the play suffers from its visible descent from the imaginative heights of the neon-lit dystopia of the opening section. There is, at times, too much exposition from a talented cast who sprawl around Hopkins’s utilitarian scaffold set.

If it sags a little in the middle, however, this Lanark more than justifies itself by the time it reaches its poignant conclusion in which our hero, who has not, he says, had enough love, demands a new ending of the author.

At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until August 31, then transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 3-19. For more information, visit: citz.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 24, 2015

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/edinburgh-lanark-royal-lyceum-theatre-review/

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival reviews: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, 887, Butterfly, The Christians, The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven

FESTIVAL & FRINGE THEATRE

A

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

TRAVERSE

Until August 30

A

887

EICC

Ends today

A

Butterfly
GREENSIDE @ INFIRMARY STREET

Until August 29

A

The Christians

TRAVERSE

Until August 30

A

The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven

SUMMERHALL

Until August 30

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Aoife Duffin in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

The UK is, once again, in the grip of a media frenzy over paedophilia. One fears, however, that, as with previous moral panics, the current obsession with the crimes of (often dead) celebrities and politicians will contribute little in terms of understanding and purposeful policy change.

It will, one suspects, be left to artists to tell the deepest, most unpalatable truths about the sexual abuse of children. That is certainly the evidence of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, the Corn Exchange of Dublin’s powerful staging of Eimear McBride’s debut novel.

Adapted and directed by the Irish company’s artistic director Annie Ryan, this affecting and memorable monodrama is more illuminating than a hundred voyeuristic tabloid reports of the outrages perpetrated by the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. Told from the perspective of a girl, played by the exceptional Aoife Duffin, who was raped by her uncle when she was aged 13, it deserves to be hailed as one of the finest theatre productions of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Playing on the most minimalist of sets, Duffin appears, entirely appropriately, as an actor entirely exposed. Her account of her character’s early life under the dubious care of her pious and fearful mother, who struggled in single parenthood, is, typically of this production, vividly and bleakly poetic.

Raw and direct, both text and performance plunge us into the agonising, life-destroying confusion of the rape. The girl’s foul-mouthed rebellion (which serves, in her uncle’s contorted morality, as justification) stands in stark contrast to her broken, uncomprehending innocence.

The girl’s subsequent, careless disregard for her sexuality, which advances as rapidly as her young brother’s brain tumour, is painfully believable. So, too, is her wretched, on-going relationship with her abuser.

By the time Duffin reaches the play’s devastating conclusion, she seems morally and physically exhausted. Thanks to her brilliantly-sustained 85-minute performance, her audience is in a pretty similar condition.

The memories and emotions are less heightened and more contemplative in 887, the latest offering from Quebecois theatre master Robert Lepage. Beginning from his experience preparing for the 40th-anniversary of The Night of Poetry in Montreal in 2010, the show is a witty, thought-provoking and touching consideration of memory.

Lepage was invited to recite Michele Lalonde’s poem ‘Speak White’, a seminal work in Quebec’s modern political and cultural life, during the anniversary event. As an actor, he was asked to do so from memory, rather than with book in hand.

His unexpected difficulty in memorising the poem set him off on a journey in which memories personal and political are inextricably intertwined. The 887 of the show’s title is, we are told, a reference to Lepage’s address as a child.

However, if 887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City evokes reminiscences of a working-class upbringing, a lonely, housewife mother and a mostly-absent taxi driver father, it also has a political meaning. The streets in Lepage’s district carried the names of military leaders, British and French, from the 18th-century battles for Canada. His family lived on the road named after James Murray, the Scotsman who was the first British governor of the province of Quebec.

The ensuing exploration of how memory constructs us, as individuals, communities and nations, is comprised of informal lectures, benign poems and, of course, Lepage’s trademark, a beautiful use of stage technologies. A model of the theatre maker’s childhood apartment block (complete with delightful projections of the interesting array of neighbours) opens out to become the interior of his current abode.

In the latter, we witness his side of phone and face-to-face conversations with an old student friend, now fallen on hard times, who, Lepage hopes, has the necessary mnemonic skills to help him memorise Lalonde’s poem. These dialogues for one are humorously self-deprecating, with Lepage portraying himself as an insensitive, over-anxious egotist.

Interestingly, given the piece’s concern with memory, they also evoke remembrances of the artist’s Elsinore, his great, one-man Hamlet, which played at Glasgow’s Tramway venue in 1996. There, as here, he offered solo representations of exchanges between two people; albeit that, in Elsinore, they included sword fights.

Concluding with Lepage’s compelling rendition of ‘Speak White’, delivered as it was in Montreal in 2010, 887 is, typically of this outstanding theatre artist, a gorgeous coming together of form and content. Concerned, as it is in large part, with the evolution of culture and (often radical) politics in a small, stateless nation, it seems particularly pertinent to Scotland in 2015.

Memory is also an important feature in Butterfly, Scots-Singaporean theatre artist Ramesh Meyyappan’s beautiful, wordless take on the multi-authored story of Madame Butterfly. Revived with a new cast, and performed as part of the Made in Scotland programme on this year’s Fringe, the piece casts Butterfly (Nicola Daley) as a kite-maker, abandoned by her lover and living in an imagined world of tenderness and love which she creates from her fondest memories.

Exquisitely and delicately constructed, Meyyappan’s piece interweaves charming design and subtle object theatre with elegant music (by the wonderful David Paul Jones) and tremendous puppets (by the ever-impressive Gavin Glover). The duets between Daley and Meyyappan (who plays Butterfly’s lover, the meaningfully named Nabokov, a collector of butterflies) are fragile, sensual, yet somehow tangible.

The seeming palpability of the woman’s consoling visions renders her suffering at the hands of the brutal “customer” (Chris Alexander) all the more distressing. Rarely in Scottish theatre do we see sexual violence represented in such a non-naturalistic, evocative and, consequently, horrifying way.

In Nicola Daley (nominated in the 2015 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her Hedda Gabler at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre) Meyyappan has found an excellent Butterfly. Almost like a quiet sister to the fiery, frustrated Hedda, she conjures a lovely world of kites, butterflies and gentle passion with tremendous physical and emotional dexterity.

Meyyappan’s superb, simple, deeply emotive aesthetic is a very welcome addition to Scottish theatre. Let’s hope there is much more to come from him.

One can’t help but wish for a little more from young American writer Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians, which is currently receiving its UK Premiere, courtesy of London’s Gate Theatre, at the Traverse. It is, it must be said, a promising, and often rewarding, piece about an evangelical American church at a moment of internal crisis.

Indeed, in these days when many people seem to worship ultra-atheist Richard Dawkins almost as a secular saint, it is refreshing to see religion treated seriously on our stage. In Hnath’s drama William Gaminara’s pastor has come to a point of theological revelation.

There is, says the charismatic clergyman, a “crack” in the church which must be repaired. Contrary to past teaching, proper study of the Bible in its original Greek reveals that there is no such place as Hell and no such process as the separating out of human wheat from human chaff. Heaven’s door is open to everyone.

Needless to say, this new liberalism causes a split in the congregation. The bitter theological dispute is further complicated by the fact that the pastor only preached his radical sermon at the moment the mortgage on the huge church building had finally been paid off. Many members of his flock suspect him, not only of bad religion, but also of bad faith.

The play is an interesting exploration of the theology of evangelical Protestantism. After all, having been expelled, largely to North America, by the absolutist monarchies of Europe, such evangelism is now, in its various guises, the fastest growing branch of Christianity on the planet.

More than that, Hnath’s drama deals clearly and directly with broader, secular difficulties in day-to-day human relations (the pain and disappointment of Lucy Ellinson’s financially-struggling, working-class congregant will resonate with people of all religions and none). However, the play’s clarity is a vice as well as a virtue.

The Christians promises at the outset to be a theatre work of real intellectual and emotional substance. Sadly, however, both the play and director Christopher Haydon’s well-acted production suffer from an excess of explication and a lack of depth.

There’s more religion and explication in Jo Clifford’s monologue The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven. Clifford, one of Scotland’s leading dramatists, who is transgender herself, has been writing and performing on this theme for many years, and this humanistic sermon has much to commend it.

Castigated and protested against by some Christians in the past, the writer and performer once again casts herself as a transgender Christ, offering 21st-century parables to her audience. For instance, she reimagines the Good Samaritan as a half-cut drag queen, who, stumbling along Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, his stockings ripped, one of his high heels broken, takes pity on the beaten drunk who has been neglected by the policeman and the bishop.

Clifford’s plea for universal love and understanding will, no doubt, appear somewhat naive and sentimental to some. However, even a non-believer like me can see that it is rooted meaningfully in the teaching of the New Testament.

Some conservative Christians may wail at the very idea of a trans Jesus, but this theatrical sermon is redolent with Christ’s embrace of the socially marginalised and his admonishment of those who thought themselves fit to judge others. Such a Jesus, Clifford suggests, might well choose to make his second coming as a woman.

Directed by Susan Worsfold, Clifford concludes her piece (which has a one-off performance at Edinburgh’s St Mark’s Unitarian Church tonight) with communion. As much religious service as theatre, this Gospel will not go down as the author’s most complex or finest piece of writing, but it is, in both text and performance, admirably honest and affectingly compassionate.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 23, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Review by Mark Brown
George Anton in Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
George Anton in Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

New Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) director Fergus Linehan made something of a statement when he invited Stewart Laing’s acclaimed company Untitled Projects to revive its 2013 show Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner as part of his inaugural programme. Linehan’s decision has been widely viewed in Scottish arts circles as a timely rebuke to arts funding quango Creative Scotland, which infamously refused the group’s application for stable funding in December of last year; leading to the company being put in mothballs.

Whatever the Festival director’s motives, the staging of the piece at the Queen’s Hall is a smart move. The play, written by Laing’s long-time collaborator Pamela Carter, is a superb piece of meta-theatre which has now, in a very real sense, come home.

If the work’s narrator, actor (and self-confessed professional liar) George Anton, is to be believed, we are witnessing a highly personal illustrated lecture about the forgotten, late Scottish theatre director Paul Bright. Anton was, he says, the director’s muse, playing the twin leads (religious fanatic Robert Wringhim and his shape-shifting doppelgänger Gil-Martin) in Bright’s life’s work, the sprawling, flawed, but magnificent attempt to dramatise the great Scottish novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

Backed by video interviews with such luminaries as über-directors Katie Mitchell and Giles Havergal, Anton’s account takes us, among other places, to episode four (of the planned six). A nine-hour epic, staged here in the Queen’s Hall as part of the EIF in 1989, it was annihilated by the critics. In the context of Laing and Carter’s elaborate bluff, this is a tremendous, site-specific joke. Indeed, the humour is enhanced by Anton’s description of the “death slot” (newly abolished by Linehan), in which the EIF insisted that a solitary Scottish drama production (always a world premiere) compete with the best in world theatre.

Not everything about this revival is a success, however. The introductory exhibition, with its convincing details of Bright’s productions, worked extremely well when the show opened at Glasgow’s Tramway two years ago. By contrast, it sits awkwardly on either side of the stage of the Queen’s Hall, its influence diminished considerably.

 Until August 22. For more information, visit:  eif.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 20, 2015

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/edinburgh-paul-brights-confessions-of-a-justified-sinner-review/

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival reviews: The Encounter, Antigone, An Audience With Jimmy Savile, Swallow, The Deliverance

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE

A

The Encounter

EICC

Until August 23

A

Antigone

King’s Theatre

Until August 22

A

An Audience With Jimmy Savile

Assembly George Square

Until August 22

A

Swallow

Traverse Theatre

Until August 30

A

The Deliverance

Assembly Roxy

Until August 31

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A
McBurney - The Encounter
Simon McBurney in The Encounter

The one-actor play has long been a staple of the Edinburgh festivals. Sceptics suggest, not unreasonably, that the proliferation of monodramas is a simple matter of economics: they are (for the most part) cheap to stage.

However, every now and then, we are offered a piece (Tom Courtenay in Moscow Stations in 1994, Michael Gambon in Eh Joe in 2013) that raises a solo performance into the pantheon of great Edinburgh festival experiences. One such is The Encounter, an unforgettably brilliant work of total theatre by Simon McBurney and his famous company Complicite that has its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).

In an extraordinary, two-hour performance, McBurney, and, it must be said, his small army of creative and technical staff, draw us into a compelling reimagining of the real-life experience of American photographer Loren McIntrye. Inspired by Romanian writer Petru Popescu’s account of McIntyre’s story, the piece follows the photographer’s 1971 journey into the heart of Amazonia following his capture by members of the remote and endangered Mayoruna people.

McBurney’s exceptional abilities, in voice, physical performance and deceptively simple stage effects, are interwoven with deeply impressive technical and design elements to create a work that is simultaneously unique, spectacular and genuinely affecting. As we, the audience, wear headsets, the live and recorded voices of the actor combine with soundscapes, music and various aural interjections.

The primary effect is one of temporal disorientation. Before McBurney immerses himself in the character of McIntyre, he introduces us to various ideas about the meaning of time and its place in human history.

By the time he lands us in the region of Brazilian and Peruvian Amazonia inhabited by the Mayoruna, we are already unsure of what is past and present in the aural world we are inhabiting. For sure, there are no visual clues on a stage which looks like a slightly messy theatre rehearsal space, with loads of bottles of water lying around.

The back wall, an optically illusory affair that looks like it could have been designed by Escher, only makes matters more perplexing.

More than any theatre production I have ever witnessed, The Encounter creates an interaction of technical features, design, narrative and performance which is both constantly changing and mutually reinforcing. To take one of many examples, McIntyre’s engagement in a ritualistic, high stakes game, a play with time, with the Mayoruna chief, reflects and is reflected in the technical effects achieved by the superb sound work coming through our headsets.

The show is like a flawless, high-tech radio play performed by a truly great, highly inventive actor-director. One leaves the theatre awe-struck, moved and humbled, not by the fabulous technical accomplishments of the work, but, much more profoundly, by how McBurney and Complicite have used them to consume us within a story of an ancient people for whom the arrival of “modern” humanity spells destruction.

If McBurney repays the faith of new EIF director Fergus Linehan abundantly, Ivo van Hove’s Antigone, which famously stars Juliette Binoche (for my money, the finest film actor of her generation) , disappoints immensely. The Flemish director’s production comes to Edinburgh following a long run at the Barbican in London and, even, a screening on BBC television.

One supposes that Linehan calculated that, despite this considerable British exposure, the prospect of seeing Binoche performing live would be enough to entice the EIF’s audience to purchase tickets. My sympathy goes to those who have done so.

Van Hove has created a modern dress production that collides elements of the physical structure of the ancient Greek stage with the paraphernalia of the 21st-century office. His stage feels more like a dentist’s waiting room than the scene of great, tragic events.

This staging, complete with distractingly irrelevant, often blurred projected images,

presumably makes some kind of conceptual sense to the director. In practice, however, Anne Carson’s adaptation of the script assaults the play’s poetry with silly informalities; King Creon talks of something being “top notch”, Antigone declares her exit with the words “I’m off”.

Minute-by-minute, Sophocles’s opus is denuded of its gravitas. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the actors (all of whom are wearing microphones) seem as uncertain in their movements (where to stand, how to sit on Jan Versweyveld’s daft set?) as in their speech.

Antigone, who defies the implacable Creon by burying her supposedly traitorous brother Polynices, should be the very picture of political rebellion and personal sacrifice. So anaemic is Van Hove’s production, however, that Binoche’s heroine appears to lack motivation.

Ultimately, almost as if to fill the dramatic void around her, she descends almost into histrionics, over-emoting in a way that suits neither Antigone nor Binoche herself.

There’s tragedy of a very different kind in Jonathan Maitland’s much-vaunted An Audience With Jimmy Savile. The piece, which stars impressionist Alistair McGowan as the disgraced late DJ and TV presenter, has been wrongly proclaimed by elements in the London press as the first play about Savile’s crimes; that dubious honour actually belongs (albeit less directly) to the 2013 Traverse piece Quiz Show by Scottish dramatist Rob Drummond.

I didn’t think much of Drummond’s drama (which divided critical opinion, but picked up the Best New Play gong at the 2013 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland), and I think even less of Maitland’s effort. A predictable, poorly written, appallingly structured series of barely connected scenes, it tells us nothing about Savile’s depravity and deviousness that we didn’t already know or couldn’t easily discover in a half-hour search of the internet.

We witness heartless and/or amateurish police officers failing victims and a sexist TV host sweeping evidence of Savile’s paedophilia under the carpet. All of this is done with such a lack of subtlety and theatrical skill that one cannot help but feel that the writing is almost an afterthought.

The play seems to be little more than a vehicle for McGowan’s unquestionably accurate and accomplished impersonation. As he swings between Savile’s affable, if egotistical, public persona and a believably vicious, threatening off-screen character, one can’t help but wonder what this cobbled together drama is actually for.

If Maitland’s work barely merits serious attention as a piece of new stage writing, Swallow, by recently announced Traverse Theatre associate artist Stef Smith, demands our consideration. Smith is, after all, the author of Roadkill, the award-winning and harrowing drama about the trafficking of African girls into prostitution in the UK.

Sad to say, however, Swallow, which is directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, is the kind of under-developed, unambitious social drama that too often characterises new stage writing in Scotland and, I daresay, the UK as a whole. Too modest in both its dramatic scope and its poetic register, it interweaves the stories of three women at moments of life crisis.

Rebecca (Anita Vettesse), who has been plunged into an unwanted separation, is on a self-destructive bender. Sam (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is taking the first, tentative, difficult steps into transitioning to life as a man. Anna (Emily Wachter) is agoraphobic and so catastrophically anorexic that she is on the brink of starvation.

Fortunately for the structure of Smith’s play, Rebecca and Anna live in the same tenement, whilst Sam makes his first moves as a heterosexual male at Rebecca’s table in a coffee shop. This contrivance might be less irritating if the drama actually succeeded in generating a sense of moral weight.

Instead, the piece (which is blessed with undeservedly good performances) alternates drearily between quite insipid first person narration and dialogues that are surprisingly lacking in urgency or consequence. A comic Scottish drunk wastes Vettesse’s talents, while a closing avian metaphor seems like a desperate attempt to spice up a somewhat flaccid script.

Neither O’Loughlin’s direction nor Fred Meller’s antiseptic, minimalist set seem to know quite what to do with a work that in no way deserves to be the flagship production of the Traverse’s 2015 Fringe programme.

In fact, the Jennifer Tremblay trilogy, which has been built up by leading Scottish actor Maureen Beattie and Stellar Quines theatre company in recent years, would have been a far worthier candidate for the Traverse’s lead role. Beattie completes the Quebecoise author’s trilogy (all of which she is performing this summer) with The Deliverance, the agonising story of a dying mother who cries out for the presence of her estranged son.

As with many dramatic monologues, and like the play’s predecessors The List and The Carousel, this piece does sound and feel more like a work of prose fiction than of drama. However, the combination of Beattie’s emotional and intellectual range with the narrative depth and fine characterisations of Tremblay’s writing and the result is an experience which is more dramatic than many a well-populated three act play.

I would happily listen to Beattie reading a car manual, such is the captivating power of her acting. Here, speaking from the perspective of the devoted daughter of the dying woman, she relates various family stories.

Beattie paints the most vivid remembrances of her character’s love, as a child, for the miscreant father who broke her mother’s heart. Likewise, husband number two, a misogynistic despot who turned her half-brother against their mother, is conjured memorably in word and action.

As the end gets ever closer, with no sign of the prodigal son, John Byrne’s lovely chapel set (lit expertly by Jeanine Byrne) and Philip Pinsky’s unobtrusive, atmospheric music complete director Muriel Romanes’s beautifully crafted, sure-footed and intensely moving production. It is, by any measure, a tremendous conclusion to an excellent theatrical trilogy, and one which further enhances the remarkable relationship between the theatres of Scotland and Quebec.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 16, 2015

© Mark Brown

Feature: Palestinian Circus School & Palestine Day, Edinburgh Fringe

Carnival of the oppressed

From the Palestinian Circus School to a special day of Palestinian arts at Forest Fringe, the artistic voice of Palestine will be heard at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, writes Mark Brown

“History has no time for contemplation”, writes the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “don’t write it as poetry!” This exhortation is an important reminder that the Palestinian people, although they have suffered greatly in their recent history, cannot be defined by it.

The Palestinians tend to be represented in the mainstream Western media either as helpless victims of the Israeli military or, in that meaninglessly tendentious term, “terrorists”. All too rarely are we reminded that they are a nation, and one which, despite its dispossession and repression, has played a full role in the evolution of the great Arabic traditions in poetry, music and dance.

More than that, Palestinian artists are engaged in modern developments in art forms which are not indigenous to Palestine. One such is circus.

In a 2015 Edinburgh Fringe in which circus is going to be prominent, the Palestinian Circus School is sending a show entitled B-orders by two of its young graduates, Ashtar Muallem and Fadi Zmorrod. I meet the pair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre.

They have just appeared in the final performance of a touring show entitled Reinterpreting Palestinian Dance, in which they and other Palestinian artists have performed alongside members of the famous Belgian dance company Les Ballets C De La B. It is a brilliant, humorous, sexy, high-energy piece which zig-zags across the planet, from traditional Palestinian dance forms to hip hop and contemporary dance.

B-orders by the Palestinian Circus School. Photo: Véronique Vercheval
B-orders by the Palestinian Circus School. Photo: Véronique Vercheval

The show blows a massive hole in Western, “Orientalist” preconceptions of Palestinian art. No-one could present this as “exotic” and mystically foreign to our cultural experience.

B-orders, which was developed by Muallem and Zmorrod, is a very different creature from the Belgian/Palestinian co-production. However, as the circus artists tell me, it shares with it a desire to break down cultural barriers and engage people across continents.

As the show’s title implies, it is concerned with notions of borders, those between countries, but also those between cultures and people. Within such demarcations there are also “orders”, means of control and repression.

The significance of such concepts to young Palestinians are obvious. However, just how they can be expressed through the techniques of contemporary circus is intriguing.

Muallem and Zmorrod have known each other since they were very small children in Ramallah in the West Bank. Zmorrod’s parents were involved with the theatre company which was directed by Muallem’s mother and father.

Reunited at the Circus School, also based in Ramallah, they graduated from the school and began working together in Europe. However, it was only when they returned to the West Bank that B-orders really began to take shape.

“In Palestine, something clicked”, Zmorrod explains. “It would have been different if we had been making the piece in Europe”, Muallem agrees.

“We wanted to talk about our experiences as two Palestinians who left Palestine to study abroad. In part, it is about what we carried inside of us when we went abroad.”

Although their work is a contemporary form of circus, it is not, insists Muallem, simply a Palestinian version of what Europeans call New Circus. “It is contemporary circus, but it is very much marked with our life and our story”, she says.

“From the very beginning [of the Palestinian Circus School], in every step we wanted to make, we were facing problems from the political situation.

“Circus first came to Palestine to bring smiles to the faces of the people”, she explains. “For instance, the kids who sell chewing gum on the street.

“It came to give them a new way of making a living and to make them happy. Instead of selling chewing gum, they could juggle at the checkpoint.”

Although B-orders is shaped very much by the artists’ experiences in Palestine, Zmorrod emphasises that the emotions and thought processes explored in the piece are universal. “The themes of our show could apply anywhere in the world.

“They could be because of hunger, conflict or war anywhere. They could be because of abuse within the family.”

It is inevitable, Muallem adds, that Palestinian artists developed their own “Palestinian circus style”, one which is socially engaged. “We don’t do a thing just because it looks nice or it is poetic. Not every Palestinian has a stage, and we take advantage of a stage to say something.”

The Circus School graduates won’t be the only Palestinians performing in Edinburgh this month. Concerned about the lack of a platform on the Fringe for Palestinian artists – due to issues of finance, visas and politics – leading Scottish playwright David Greig came up with the idea of Welcome To The Fringe: Palestine Day.

The event was kick-started by Greig through a crowdfunding initiative, and subsequently supported by numerous backers, including the British Council and the UK and Palestine-based A M Qattan Foundation. The result is an extraordinary day (on August 23) of Palestinian arts, from storytelling to comedy, music to theatre, contemporary dance to poetry, as part of the Forest Fringe programme.

We hear a lot about how the hand of history sits heavily on the Palestinian people. In Edinburgh next month we will, as Darwish demands in his poem, see and hear their artistic expression.

B-orders is at the Underbelly Circus Hub on The Meadows, August 7-29.

Welcome to the Fringe: Palestine Day is at the Forest Fringe at Out of the Blue Drill Hall on August 23. For more information, visit: http://www.forestfringe.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 2, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Merchant of Venice, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow & The Importance of Being Earnest, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE

A

The Merchant Of Venice

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until August 1

A

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 16

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A

It is impossible, it need hardly be said, to stage Shakespeare’s troubling-but-brilliant play The Merchant Of Venice in the 21st century without considering the odious history of modern, racial anti-Semitism. The vicious Judeophobia of the Bard’s day considered the Jews to be religious misbelievers and “God killers”, whereas the later, pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism of the likes of the German Nazis and, indeed, as we were reminded recently, Britain’s own King Edward VIII, saw them as a dangerous and inferior “race”.

This shift, from religious persecution to genocidal racial hatred, hangs, menacingly, above any new production of the play. It came into focus sharply and unexpectedly during Tuesday night’s performance in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.

A shiver ran down my spine during the famous court scene, in which the Jewish moneylender Shylock (played with an excellent, measured dignity by Kirk Bage) is denied his pound of the flesh of the Jew-baiting merchant Antonio (performed with an unusual, bisexual informality by the ever-impressive Alan Steele). I was shocked to hear a significant proportion of the audience laughing along with the Judeophobic triumphalism of Ben Clifford’s exuberant, young Gratiano (a friend of the recently imperilled merchant).

My fellow theatregoers were not, I suspect, expressing some kind of deep-seated anti-Semitism, so much as forgetting themselves in an instinctive association with a character’s mirth. It was a chilling moment, nonetheless.

Director Gordon Barr’s thoughtful production seems almost to have anticipated this. At the play’s close, as the braying Christians congratulate her on her role in her father’s downfall, Stephanie McGregor’s contemplative Jessica (daughter of Shylock) sings a somber, Hebrew song, reconnecting her powerfully with her religious and cultural heritage, and, indeed, with her persecuted father.

It is a moment of simple brilliance which, more than Gillian Argo’s functional-but-unlovely set (all concrete and scaffolding) or the costumes and music (both from the early-20th century), makes this a memorably modern production of Shakespeare’s most politically challenging play.

The political challenge of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the British establishment. Is there a more loathsome comic monster in world theatre than the unlikely matchmaker Lady Bracknell, an excessively snobbish old Tory who opposes education for the lower orders as it “would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square”?

Margaret Preece as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo: Douglas McBride
Margaret Preece as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo: Douglas McBride

His invention of Bracknell says as much about the real Wilde as does his enduring Irish republicanism and his authorship of the Corbynite pamphlet The Soul Of Man Under Socialism. Just as the Irish dandy was an unlikely revolutionary in a velvet smoking jacket, so The Importance Of Being Earnest is a satirical iron fist clad in a reassuring satin glove.

Indeed, reassurance is the order of the day in Richard Baron’s fine production for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Everything, from the impeccable cast to designer Ken Harrison’s opulent period costumes and set (a perfect combination of neo-classicism, orientalism and William Morris-style decor), dovetails with the drama’s comic commentary on hypocrisy.

The play is, to a great extent, about the chasm between the upper classes’ keeping up of appearances and their real motivations and behaviours. It requires, therefore, an ostentatious, young actor in the role of its chief protagonist, the pampered playboy Algernon Moncrieff.

Although he overdoes the hair tossing and housecoat swishing early on, the aptly-named Gavin Swift does a superb job of embodying the louche aristocrat who deceives his way into the affections of the not-so-innocent 18-year-old Cecily Cardew. The effervescent, young rascal would be nothing, however, without a hideous Lady B, and Margaret Preece is abundantly, and delightfully, dreadful.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 26, 2015

© Mark Brown

Preview: Festival of Ian Smith, CCA, Glasgow

Death is not the end at Festival of Ian Smith

A year on from the untimely death of leading performance artist Ian Smith, his artistic collaborators are honouring his life and work with a celebratory festival, writes Mark Brown 

Performance artist, humorist, theatre-maker, film-maker, visual artist, singer-songwriter, musician, ringmaster, compere and self-defined “art gangster”. To list the roles taken up by Ian Smith, who died, aged 55, on August 1 of last year, is like reading out a roll call of the inhabitants of an artistic village, rather than the talents of just one man.

Chief among his achievements was acclaimed Glasgow-based performance company Mischief La-Bas (MLB), which he co-founded in 1992 and directed until his death. A year on from his untimely passing, his collaborators in MLB, including his wife Angie Dight (who is now director of the company), are celebrating the vitality and diversity of his tremendous output with a three-day event entitled Festival Of Ian Smith.Ian Smith with pipe

The festival, which will be held in the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow, will include an exhibition reflecting the cross-fertilisation of art forms in Smith’s work. There will also be special screenings of his films and screen installations alighting upon his work in comedy, art, music and group performance.

“You’ve got to have an anniversary, so why not make it a celebration of a life?”, says Dight. “Ian always said he was a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

“You could have an exhibition, but that would only cover a tiny bit of his output. You need to bring in as many forms as possible to reflect the diversity of his work and the fact that no form took precedence over another.”

As anyone who is familiar with Smith’s ouevre will tell you, the festival is bound to have a very strong comic strand. In his art, as in his life (the two were never very far apart), Smith had a wonderfully unique sense of humour.

His work was, as Dight explains, “always about seeing the surreal and the absurd in things, and being able to play with them. It’s also about treating things with a little bit of irreverence and disrespect. There’s a lot of humour in that.”

Perhaps the greatest influence on Smith’s work, and on MLB, was leftfield European performance. Both Smith and Dight were members of the famous French new circus troupe Archaos; he as  ringleader, she as performer.

“A lot of European street theatre was very influential on us”, Dight recalls. “That’s when we first started to see work that was not only absurdist, but also not based in language or narrative. Before Ian and I went to Archaos, we were seeing some of that stuff.

“Obviously, at Archaos, we saw more of that kind of work and met other people who were doing work like that. We found it a bit edgy, a bit bonkers, some of it, and really refreshing.”

No festival of Smith would be complete without live performance. As Dight says, “it can’t all just be stuff from the past, there has to be work that’s about moving forward.”

Consequently, at the heart of the CCA jamboree will be a cabaret, on August 1, which will take death as its theme. There will be performances by an array of artists, including the likes of Neil Butler (long-time friend and collaborator of Smith), Donna Rutherford and Pauline Goldsmith.

If the idea of a celebratory “death cabaret” seems strange, that is only because, in Dight’s opinion, in Western societies we have an unhealthy attitude towards death. “In Western cultures”, she says, “people are uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s really not good, for young people in particular.”

The death cabaret, like the extraordinary funeral and party for Smith almost a year ago, aims to challenge the fearful, death denying attitudes that predominate in our society. “There is no black and white in death”, Dight continues.

“A person doesn’t just disappear once they’ve died. Apart from their physical presence, so much about them still lives on.

“We really want to say to people in general, and younger people in particular, ‘you can celebrate people when they’ve died, it’s not the end of things.'”

Smith took his own life following a battle with deep depression in the last few years of his life. For Dight, it is important that the festival challenge our society’s taboos and misconceptions, not only about death, but also about mental health.

To that end, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival will be raising money and awareness with a stall in the CCA throughout the celebration of Smith’s life and work.

However, as Dight is keen to point out, it would be wrong to view her late husband’s artistic output through the prism of his illness. “His work wasn’t defined by his illness, because, as he got more ill, he wasn’t doing so much work,” she explains.

The immense humour of Smith’s work is balanced with a darker, brooding strand which is evident, not only towards the end of his life, but also in much of his early output. Cannibalism, for example, was an early area of interest.

Festival Of Ian Smith is, says Dight, “about honouring Ian and showing a bit of his legacy. There’s a sense of wanting his work to be seen more widely.

“I love the fact that we’ve turned it into a festival. I think that’s funny, and I think he would have enjoyed that.”

Festival Of Ian Smith is at the CCA, Glasgow, July 31 to August 2. For more details, visit: http://www.cca-glasgow.com

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 19, 2015

© Mark Brown