Review: Hedda Gabler, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

HEDDA GABLER

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

Is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler a female Samson, a feminist heroine who pulls down the gilded prison of late 19th-century bourgeois marriage? Or is she a decadent nihilist, a dark force of nature who would have been more at home in the cabaret clubs of 1920s Berlin than the genteel suburbs of a Scandinavian university town? So the debate has tended to run ever since the play premiered (to negative reviews) in Munich in 1891.

Nicola Daley as Hedda Gabler
Nicola Daley as Hedda Gabler

However, as director Amanda Gaughan’s fine production (her debut outing at the Lyceum) suggests, the aristocratic young woman who is, arguably, Ibsen’s greatest character is not reducible to a mere archetype. Rather, as we find in Nicola Daley’s extraordinary performance, Hedda is one of the most enigmatic, tragic figures in world theatre, as powerful a character as Medea or Antigone, yet, compellingly, less certain in her motivations.

Arch, needle sharp, unashamedly snobbish, Daley’s Hedda smiles with barely disguised contempt for her husband, the dull, hapless academic Tesman, and his “Aunt Juju”, who is the very personification of stultifying, bourgeois life. This is Hedda as a captivating, morally ambiguous rebel without a cause (unless one considers the contorted romanticism of her relationship with the dissolute genius Lövborg to be a cause).

In a performance of great control and nuance, Daley captures the perplexing essence of a character who beguiles everyone around her with her beauty, intelligence and intensity, yet, on account of her sex, lacks the freedom to live as she would choose.

If Daley’s unforgettable performance is, as the play demands, at the anguished heart of the production, there is fine acting across the piece, not least from Benny Young, whose Judge Brack is, in Richard Eyre’s faithful, yet intelligently modern 2005 version, a shamelessly lecherous blackmailer. Jack Tarlton’s initially too brooding Lövborg ultimately comes good on the character’s fatal weakness.

Such a strong presentation deserves better than designer Jean Chan’s uninspired, quasi-realist set, which is dominated by doors with glassless windows which, to the actors’ obvious frustration, fall open when they should not. EJ Boyle’s poignant choreography towers above most of what passes for movement on the stage these days.

An impressive, if not flawless, Hedda Gabler, then, and one which deserves to be remembered for a brilliant and affecting performance in the title role.

Until April 11. For more information, visit: lyceum.org.uk

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 25, 2015

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/11490543/Hedda-Gabler-Royal-Lyceum-Theatre-review-impressive.html

© Mark Brown

Preview: Last Dream (On Earth), Kai Fischer / National Theatre of Scotland

Final frontiers

Kai Fischer’s new theatre work draws parallels between the journeys of migrants in the 21st-century and Gagarin’s pioneering space voyage. By Mark Brown

Migration, most commentators agree, is a major issue shaping politics, if not at a Scottish level, then certainly in terms of the forthcoming elections to the UK parliament. The growth of a far right, populist party, in the increasingly unpleasant shape of Ukip, is driven to a considerable extent by the demonisation of “economic migrants”.

Last Dream

What if the distinction between economic migrants (bad) and refugees (good, or at least tolerable) is a false one? What if, in a world in which millions of people are in transit in their attempts to shelter themselves and their families from conflict or poverty, most migrants should be considered brave pioneers, risking their lives in journeys into the unknown?

These are the questions posed by Last Dream (On Earth), the latest work to be presented by the National Theatre of Scotland. Created by stage designer-turned-theatre maker Kai Fischer, the piece draws a fascinating parallel between a modern day journey of migrants leaving North Africa for Europe and the famous mission which made Yuri Gagarin the first human being to travel into outer-space in 1961.

“Personally, I don’t make the distinction between a refugee and a migrant”, explains Fischer, who, in researching for his piece, travelled to the Italian island of Lampedusa and Malta, both destinations for many migrants trying to reach the European mainland.

“It seems almost impossible to define where an economic need stops, and where it becomes a need to survive”, he continues. “In terms of a lot of the people I spoke to, their journeys started out with one purpose, which then turned into another.

“People who came from, say, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Cameroon, initially made it to Libya to work. Then the situation in Libya turned extreme, and they became refugees halfway through their journeys.”

Whether migrants’, often perilous, sometimes, as we see with heartbreaking regularity in the Mediterranean, fatal journeys are motivated by fear of persecution or hunger, or a combination of the two, they have, Fischer suggests something fundamental in common with Gagarin’s great voyage.

“Both journeys are driven by circumstance”, he says. “In the case of migrants, often people travel because other people want them to.

“Sometimes families even decide who will go, choosing the person they think has the best chance of success.

“I think it was the same for Gagarin. It was a mission for a nation. The space race was going on, and he represented the hope of building a society that people could believe in.”

The production, in which audience members will wear headsets, as Gagarin did in his spacecraft, combines audio work, live music and stage performance. Just how it interweaves the experiences of the most famous cosmonaut and the many migrants currently traversing our blighted planet is, says Fischer, ultimately down to the theatregoer.

In engaging with the piece, it is, appropriately enough, the individual audience member who completes the journey.

Last Dream (On Earth) opens at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 1-4, and then tours until April 18. For tour details, visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 22, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Blood Wedding, Dundee Rep (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEW

Blood Wedding

DUNDEE REP

Until March 14;

then touring until April 25

Reviewed by Mark Brown

“I’m a dick”, says the Groom in David Ireland’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s great tragedy Blood Wedding. “You’re not a dick”, replies the Bride.

“If you are a dick”, she continues, “you’re the dick that I’ve chosen. That makes me a dick, too. So, we’ll be two dicks together.”

It is, frankly, embarrassing that such an awful piece of dialogue should find its way into any new play presented in a professional theatre in Scotland. That it should be written into a new version of Lorca’s classic tale of transgressive passion and vengeful tradition is nothing short of a travesty.

Unfortunately, the dreadful banality of the script does not come entirely as a shock. This soap opera-ish approach to play writing has been the bane of new theatre work in the UK for some considerable time.

Given the impoverishment of the language – which Ireland tries, with only limited success, to shift to a more poetic register towards the end of the play – this co-production by Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and acclaimed inclusive company Graeae is fighting an uphill battle from the start.

Director Jenny Sealey, who directs a generally strong and diverse cast of Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors, succeeds in her mission to improve the theatre-going experience of Deaf and blind audience members by integrating British Sign Language and audio description (as well as surtitles) into the performance.

The sad truth, however, is that, following Rona Munro’s appalling adaptation of The House Of Bernarda Alba (National Theatre of Scotland, 2009) and Jeremy Raison’s awful staging of Blood Wedding (Citizens Theatre, 2006), Scottish theatre has once again proved a very poor friend to Lorca.

For tour dates, visit: http://www.graeae.org                

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 15, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Blood Wedding, Dundee Rep (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

BLOOD WEDDING

DUNDEE REP

Does the power of the plays of the great Andalusian dramatist Federico García Lorca reside, first and foremost, simply in the stories themselves, or does it, rather, emanate from the writer’s distinctive poetics? I ask because the British theatre seems to be increasingly convinced that the Spanish writer’s dramas are only “relevant” if their early-20th-century flamenco poetics are discarded in favour of something more prosaic.

In 2009, for example, the National Theatre of Scotland staged Rona Munro’s version of Lorca’s opus The House of Bernarda Alba, which set the play among 21st-century Glaswegian gangsters. The results were toe-curlingly awful.

Now this co-production between Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and Graeae theatre company is doing something remarkably similar with another of Lorca’s famous dramas, Blood Wedding. Rewritten by David Ireland, and directed by Graeae’s artistic director Jenny Sealey MBE, this new version relocates the great play of reckless passion and terrible revenge to an unnamed British city in the present day.Blood Wedding Dundee Rep

In fairness, there is a certain rationale to Ireland’s adaptation. This Blood Wedding, like all of Graeae’s work, is an inclusive piece. The new script has been written to reflect a cast which includes Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors.

With the important role of the Mother of the Bridegroom written for Deaf actor EJ Raymond, Ireland and Sealey decided that the script should reference the physicalities, and indeed the ethnicities, of the actors. All of which makes more sense to the UK in 2015 than to southern Spain in 1928.

However, even if one defends Sealey’s insistence that her “glorious, motley mix of people on stage” has the right to perform this play (and, for the record, I do), it is hard to accept Ireland’s new script. As the drama builds up to the fateful moment when Leonardo (renamed Lee, here) and the Bride elope together, one is dismayed by the soap opera naturalism of the dialogue.

Gone are the premonitory poetics of Lorca’s drama. In using the narrative as a mere scaffold on which to hang his own words, Ireland has stripped the play of its great passion, yearning and anguish.

There is a belated attempt, following the elopement, to shift from conversational naturalism into a higher linguistic register, but even that falls considerably short of the poetry of the original play.

Until March 14, then touring until April 25. For more information, visit: graeae.org

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 12, 2015

© Mark Brown

Feature: Junction 25 tenth anniversary

Youth theatre reaches an important Junction

Ahead of a new show at Tramway, Mark Brown celebrates the 10th anniversary of youth company Junction 25

On March 20 and 21, audiences at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow will be invited to experience a fascinating work which considers the extent to which our lives are observed by others in an increasingly surveilled society. Entitled 5.9 million (the number of CCTV cameras believed to be operating right now across the UK), the work will take audience members in promenade from one purpose-built room to another, where they will encounter a variety of live performances and installations on this pressing theme.

For those familiar with Tramway’s performance programme – which has long been a showcase for much of the best contemporary performance, theatre and dance from around the world – the nature of the piece will come as little surprise. However, what distinguishes 5.9 Million from most, but by no means all, of the work staged at Tramway is that, although aimed at a general, primarily adult audience, it is largely created, and entirely performed, by teenagers.

Anoesis
Junction 25 perform Anoesis (2012-2013)

That’s because it is the latest piece by the venue’s house youth performance company Junction 25, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. 5.9 Million, possibly its most ambitious show to date, is an appropriate way to mark an extraordinary milestone.

Established in 2005 by Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe (aka Glas(s) Performance), who were recent graduates of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Junction has grown into arguably the most critically acclaimed youth theatre company in the UK. It couldn’t have happened without the vision of Tramway’s then senior producer Steve Slater, who invited Gore and Thorpe to pursue their youth company idea at the venue and lobbied his bosses at Glasgow City Council Culture and Sport (now Glasgow Life) to fund the project.

Slater wanted to give the two young directors complete freedom to explore their ideas without any pressure to produce work of any particular kind. “It wouldn’t happen these days”, he says, regarding the funding Junction received from the Council.

Nowadays, he says, the people controlling the arts money would baulk at such an open-ended, artist-led project.  “I think we need to trust our artists to be creative and they will create”, he continues. “The problem always comes when we are faced with accountants who want to see what the money is spent on.”

There will be those who find Slater’s belief in the freedom of the artist too idealistic. However, the proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, is in the eating, and the case of Junction 25 suggests that the arts would benefit greatly from a lighter touch on the part of those, from local councils to funding quango Creative Scotland, who hold the public purse strings.

With work such as Elegant Variation (2006), From Where I’m Standing (2008) and Anoesis (2012, transferring to the excellent Summerhall venue during the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe), Junction has been deservedly praised for creating imaginatively devised performances of a highly professional quality. Indeed, Anoesis has now spawned a production by a youth performance company in Brazil.

As a theatre critic, I have long admired the company’s output. Over the last three years, during which both of my children, Cara (aged 16) and Ethan (14), have been Junction members, that admiration has grown and deepened.

Gore and Thorpe have created a youth performance company which, through strong artistic principles and an internal culture of openness, altruism and camaraderie, has succeeded in staging consistently high quality work in which the young performers feel a real sense of pride and ownership.

Indeed, to call members of Junction simply “performers” is to understate their roles. The young people who perform a Junction show are also creators, artists in their own right, whose ideas, with the workshop and directorial expertise of Gore and Thorpe, are shaped into the superb work we see on stage.

5.9 Million, like every other Junction show, is rooted in the concerns and interests of the young people themselves. “We wanted to find a way of enabling young people to ask the questions they wanted to ask within a professional aesthetic”, Gore tells me, as she thinks back on the origins of the company.

The crucial point, she continues, was that the young people themselves should be at the heart of the artistic process, rather than simply being handed a play text and assigned a role by an adult. “Jess and I both had experience of youth theatres where we never got the main part, ever. In Junction, it’s not about who gets the ‘main’ role.”

Ask any Junction member, and you will find that the young people themselves believe that Gore and Thorpe have succeeded completely in their original mission. “Junction is pretty much unique, because its work is not based on characters and scripts”, says my daughter Cara. “I think it’s a bit more mature as well. It’s not all written for us, we do most of the creating ourselves.”

Ethan agrees that the directors create the perfect conditions for young people to make theatre of their own. “No-one feels uncomfortable or self-conscious. Everyone feels able to contribute.”

In the case of 5.9 Million, those contributions promise to be intriguingly diverse, providing real insights into how Glaswegian young people (who belong to, surely, the most surveilled generation in human history) feel about the Big Brother society in which they live.

5.9 Million is at Tramway, Glasgow, March 20 and 21. For more information, visit: http://www.tramway.org

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 8, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; The Fair Intellectual Club, Tron, Glasgow; The Effect, Tron, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

Until March 14

 

The Fair Intellectual Club

SEEN AT TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

Touring until March 8

 

The Effect

SEEN AT TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

Touring until March 14

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

As a vicious civil war between two equally obnoxious forces rages around her, a young, working-class woman adopts an abandoned baby and spends the duration of the conflict keeping herself and the child alive. The Georgian folk tale at the heart of Bertolt Brecht’s great play The Caucasian Chalk Circle resonates powerfully with the current humanitarian crises of civilian populations in modern day Syria and eastern Ukraine.

This thought is ever-present during Mark Thomson’s superb, modern dress production for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Partly, this is down to Alistair Beaton ‘s updated, yet faithful, humorous and sharp translation of Brecht’s allegorical play.

Beaton’s script would come to little, however, unless Thomson and his excellent cast had not understood utterly how to render Brecht’s politicised “epic theatre” as vital drama, rather than as an exercise in moral improvement. As the servant girl Grusha Vashnadze, with the gravely endangered little prince Michael in tow, wends her way between the warring factions, we are treated – in musical interruption, sung narration, satirical wit and smart allegory – to a masterclass in Brechtian technique.

Amy Manson as Grusha, for example, gives a fabulously unostentatious performance which goes straight to the brave, humanistic heart of her character. Brecht is thought to have moulded a 14th-century Chinese story into Grusha’s tale, yet Manson plays her as a universal representative of the decent civilian in wartime (Brecht, one suspects, would have approved).

Elsewhere in the cast, multi-talented Sarah Swire leads the play’s crucially important strand of music, song and narrative with an extraordinary confidence. Christopher Fairbank is flamboyantly satirical as people’s judge Azdak (among others), while Jon Trenchard’s pernicious Governor’s wife exemplifies the political comedy of the production’s use of cross dressing.

Musical director Claire MacKenzie has, with startling success, crashed various popular musics (including, curiously, country and western) into Paul Dessau’s original Weimar score. Less successful is Karen Tennent’s stage design, which, while holding to Brecht’s eschewal of naturalism, clutters the stage with superfluous bric-a-brac.

As Liam Gerrard’s “cheap monk”, who speaks in a distracting, southern United States drawl, swigs booze from a bottle, one can’t help but think that director Thomson has missed a trick. Surely, here in Scotland, a boozy monk should be on the Buckfast.

Some disappointing design and an ill-considered choice of alcoholic beverage aside, however, this production is a beautifully paced and brilliantly engaging credit to both Brecht and the Lyceum.

The Fair Intellectual Club, by comedian-turned-playwright Lucy Porter, is, sad to say, less engaging. Directed by Marilyn Imrie for Stellar Quines theatre company, this three-hander, which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, alights promisingly upon the true story of the young women who, in defiance of the misogynistic proscriptions of the day, established a thinkers’ discussion group for the female sex in Edinburgh in 1717.

Boasting a fine cast of Jessica Hardwick, Caroline Deyga and Samara MacLaren, the piece turns a comic eye to the serious pressures faced by the club. The need for secrecy elicits an inevitable humorous reference to the famous single rule of David Fincher’s Fight Club, while the economic and social imperatives forcing one of the young women into marriage to a decrepit older gentlemen is a constant source of bleak comedy.

That Porter’s play is sprinkled with well-observed gags is no surprise. The problem comes in the stilted structure of the piece.

There are, in the play’s chosen period and subject matter, echoes of Iain Heggie’s superb monodrama The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer, in which the titular protagonist balks at a fortune teller’s prophecy that women will one day study at Glasgow University. The humour of Porter’s piece isn’t quite as sharp as Heggie’s, but, more importantly, it has little of the Glasgow writer’s sense of variation and rhythm.

The result is a short play which, despite its brevity, lacks momentum and renders a fascinating subject less interesting than it should be.

If Stellar Quines piece could benefit from the intervention of a skilled dramaturge, so, too, could The Effect, the latest work from Borders-based theatre company Firebrand. An unlikely romantic comedy-cum-social drama of boy-meets-girl during the trial of a psychiatric drug, Lucy Prebble’s play would, I’m certain, be enhanced by some judicious cutting and structural reorganisation.

Director Richard Baron has a strong cast at his disposal, with recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton playing young trial participants Connie and Tristan, and Pauline Knowles and Jonathan Coote as psychotherapists Lorna and Toby. However, both Baron and his actors have their work cut out trying to overcome the writer’s overloading of her script.

Connie (a medical student) and Tristan (a regular trial participant of a seemingly itinerant disposition) are an unlikely couple. Toby thinks, in Lorna’s words, that their romantic attachment might indicate that his drug is “Viagra for the heart”.

On top of this central relationship Prebble places Lorna’s troubled psychiatric history, the related personal history which Lorna and Toby share, and a moment of implausibly unprofessional conduct on Lorna’s part.

The piece is overlong (at two hours, 20 minutes, including interval), overwrought and garishly designed by Ken Harrison (who, with his flashing lights and video projections, takes the clinical modernity of the subject too literally). One senses that, beneath the play’s poorly arranged layers, there is an interesting drama about the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry.

For tour dates for The Fair Intellectual Club, visit: http://www.stellarquines.com.

For tour dates for The Effect, visit: http://www.firebrandtheatre.co.uk.

A slightly truncated version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 1, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Romeo and Juliet (by Northern Ballet), Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

DANCE

ROMEO AND JULIET

FESTIVAL THEATRE, EDINBURGH

When it comes to theatrical design, we are familiar with both the abundant opulence of certain period art movements, such as rococo, and the pared-back elegance of the various manifestations of 20th-century minimalism. However, in Northern Ballet’s new staging of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, we might just be witnessing a new movement, one which we might call abundant minimalism.

From the moment the curtain rises on the superb Giuliano Contadini’s Romeo, lying on the ground, statuesque, as company credits are projected, movie-style onto a curved surface of an unambiguously abstract set, one knows this will not be an R&J of Renaissance splendour. Indeed, intriguingly, the French company has fashioned a design concept which would have been familiar to the ballet’s composer, Sergei Prokofiev, who lived through the revolutionary explosion of Russian Constructivism.

Like Constructivism, the beautifully sparse design is always functional. For example, the adjustable, angled ramp at the heart of the set does more than merely create a series of enigmatic shapes. It serves well, for instance, as a dramatic platform for the enraged Romeo’s vengeful killing of Tybalt (a splendidly arrogant Javier Torres).

The beauty of Maillot’s choreography is that it injects into this creative minimalism a dance of delightful plethora. Here the Dance of the Knights, for example, is not a proudly stepped procession of male power, but a carefully constructed, excitingly energetic collision of Capulet and Montague, men and women.

Likewise, the dance of the lovers’ balcony scene. Martha Leebolt (a genuinely moving Juliet) and Contadini’s splendidly passionate pas de deux is all the more effective for being danced on a set which eschews naturalistic replication for Modernist simplicity.

Curiously, given his undeniable sense of style, Maillot has a penchant for the comedy of people, inadvertently or deliberately, touching women’s breasts. On the first occasion, perhaps even the second, it is humorous. One is surprised, however, to see it become almost a motif, as if we are about to descend into Carry On Ballet.

This peculiar quirk notwithstanding, this is a gorgeously original Romeo and Juliet, presented with a panache of which Northern Ballet should be proud.

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh until tomorrow (Saturday, February 28). Tickets: 0131 529 6000, edtheatres.com. Transfers to Grand Theatre, Leeds, March 4-12. Tickets: 0844 848 2700, leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Mark Brown

A slightly edited version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 27, 2015

© Mark Brown