Magnificent beasts in a world of myth and metaphor
Beasts, by Helen Flockhart and Beth Carter, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh
Review by Mark Brown
Imagine a series of paintings that combines the exquisite aesthetic of the famous American painter and ornithologist John James Audubon with a bold and, in our plague-ridden time, curiously apposite fascination with classical mythology and Old Testament imagery. Such is Beasts, the latest exhibition of pictures by Helen Flockhart, with splendidly complementary sculptures by Beth Carter.
Flockhart is one of Scotland’s finest and most original painters, a fact that is attested to by this reassuringly confident series of pictures at the lovely Arusha Gallery. The painter’s renowned hyper-naturalism (exemplified by her trademark huge, lush, pre-historic plants) becomes a platform for mythical narratives that are, by turns or simultaneously, ambiguous, disquieting, violent, humorous and beautiful.
A red-haired female figure, a long-established signature of the artist’s (and one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Flockhart herself), appears in most of the paintings. In Come Into the Garden, for instance, she features as Eve, sitting, with seeming equanimity, in a moonlit glade while a black panther attacks an agonised zebra.
On the left of the painting, Adam stands, partially hidden in a forest of vegetation. On the right, the Biblical serpent slithers out purposefully from its hiding place.
As elsewhere in this exhibition, the narrative uncertainty is part of the painting’s pleasure. There is in the picture a tremendous paradox in the coming together of the elegance of the painter’s brushwork with the distressing violence of her other Eden.
The painting might be partnered with Eve, in which the naked Everywoman lies, calmly and inexpressively, on the back of an equally unperturbed zebra. Behind them are dark, premonitory skies. On the path in front of them, again, the scriptural snake.
If this show draws meaningfully and beguilingly on the creation story common to the three Abrahamic faiths, it owes an even greater debt to the myths of the Ancient Greeks. In Leda and the Swan, for example, Flockhart’s female icon is not (as in a common interpretation of the myth) being raped by Zeus in avian form. Rather, as the bird appears to scream (whether in threat or anguish), the woman grasps the oncoming creature with a serene solemnity.
This picture, like many others in the exhibition, is characterised by a verdant pastoralism. Elsewhere, however, the painter takes her classicism indoors.
In Pallas Athena, in a neutral interior of greys and browns, the goddess of war stands, rapier in hand, wearing a dress emblazoned with many heads of Medusa, her expression, typically of Flockhart’s female figure, quite inscrutable. Meanwhile, a centaur looks, seemingly forlornly, at a pile of autumn leaves that have been swept into a corner.
Among these pastoral greens and beige interiors, there are a few paintings that address their classical inspirations in splendid, deep vermillion. In Labyrinth (which one can see in the window of the gallery) we find the Minotaur entirely encircled by a scarlet wall.
The poor creature lies on the ground tracing in the dust a labyrinth from which escape might be possible. Whether Flockhart intended this as a metaphor for a humanity that finds itself in the grip of disease and ecological destruction, one can only guess.
The partnering of these paintings with a series of sculptures (five in bronze, one in plaster) by Beth Carter is mutually beneficial. The bronze works are superb, in both technical and imaginative terms. In Crouching Minotaur, for instance, the wretched monster of Attic myth reads from a gilded book, almost like a partner (both knowingly humorous and unexpectedly profound) to Rodin’s The Thinker.
This reviewwas originally published in the Sunday National on November 29, 2020
A heartfelt lament that cries out for a real theatre audience
Lament for Sheku Bayoh
Review by Mark Brown
On May 3, 2015, Sheku Bayoh, a 31-year-old father of two from Sierra Leone, died in Kirkcaldy having been restrained by up to nine police officers. There were 23 separate wounds on his body.
The account of Mr Bayoh’s death given by the police is disputed by the dead man’s family. In May of this year the Scottish government finally announced the remit of the public inquiry into his death. The inquiry will conclude by 2023 at the earliest, some eight years after Bayoh’s death.
As a subject of art, the life and death of Sheku Bayoh is about as traumatic as it gets. It speaks to a racism in contemporary Scotland, and it resonates with a Scottish history of slavery and colonialism that is too often denied or forgotten.
This subject is a tall task for any writer. There could be few better to take it on, however, than black Scottish author Hannah Lavery.
Her excellent monologue The Drift, which she performed last year for the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), is a powerful, personal reflection on Scottish identity. It is also a reflection on the shame at the heart of our nation’s racial history.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh, a new play for the NTS and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, is Lavery’s brave and ambitious attempt to address the facts and implications of this harrowing case. It combines an array of documentary material with a broader, artistic reflection both on Bayoh and the Scotland he made his home at the age of 17.
Streamed live from the stage of the Lyceum on Friday and last night, it was performed by a fine, all-female cast of actors Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart, and musician Beldina Odenyo. The play segues between documentary theatre, poetic contemplation and occasional polemic, all supported by Odenyo’s emotive music, including arrangements of the songs of Robert Burns.
The sadness and tenderness of the piece is irresistible, not least in its reflections on the man Bayoh was: a father, a trainee gas engineer, a Scot, proudly wearing a kilt as he is photographed smiling with friends. Equally compelling are the play’s expression of the five years of disbelief and rage that have followed Bayoh’s death, and of the central place that it has taken in the Black Lives Matter movement here in Scotland.
Which is not to say that this work, in its Covid-enforced, streamed incarnation is without its flaws. The ultimate success, or otherwise, of political drama (indeed, of any drama) depends, not simply on the power of its subject, but on the effectiveness of its theatrical aesthetic.
Despite the best efforts of Lavery (who also directs) and video designer Ellie Thompson, the piece does not look like a work tailored to the possibilities of the internet. Rather (like so much of the online theatre that has, by necessity, been created during the pandemic), it appears to be merely a production created for the stage, which has had some video cameras put in front of it.
Such work is, almost inevitably, a shadow product. It is a pale reflection of the play it wants to be, performed not to cameras and distant, online viewers, but to a live and present theatre audience.
That said, the piece is somewhat awkward in its structure and uncomfortable in its shifts between dramatic genres. I imagine that, even if the ravages of the coronavirus had not forced it online, Lament for Sheku Bayoh would still have struck the theatregoer as a passionate, emotive but, ultimately, uneven work of live drama.
This reviewwas originally published in the Sunday National on November 22, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken, and continues to take, a devastating toll on our society. In the grand scheme of things, when or, even, whether there was an announcement of the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland was a relatively minor matter.
Nevertheless, with dozens of shows in the 2019-20 season to consider, the critics had to decide what to do about their annual awards. In the end, a majority decided to proceed with online judging, followed by an announcement of the results in the media.
I understand and respect those colleagues’ desire to press on with the judging, in deliberate spite of the virus. Likewise I sympathise with the wish that last Thursday’s awards announcements be something of a pick-me-up for, at least, some of Scotland’s beleaguered theatre-makers.
Laudable though their motivations were, however, I disagreed with them. Having been a founder member of the CATS judging panel back in 2002-03, and having taken part in the judging every year since, I took the painful decision to withdraw from this year’s deliberations.
To my mind, there was no real purpose in replacing our annual, jury room-style debate (a kind of Twelve Angry Men for theatre critics) with a long and arduous Zoom meeting. Did the theatre community really need the CATS awards announcement in the midst of the pandemic?
Many theatre artists, and, let’s be honest, theatre critics, are facing huge uncertainty about their future livelihoods. Wouldn’t it be better, I suggested, to wait until the pandemic was over and the theatres were reopening? Then we could hold our traditional judging meeting, with something closer to our full complement of 13 colleagues, and unencumbered by the constraints of online discussion.
Even more importantly, by holding on until the playhouses reopened, our awards ceremony could also become a celebration of the re-emergence of live drama from under the cloud of the virus.
As it happens, I concur with many of the decisions made by the eight CATS judges this year. I enjoyed The Signalman and Atlantis Banal enormously; although I think Vanishing Point’s astonishing The Metamorphosis was deserving of awards, rather than mere nominations.
The artists who have been nominated and awarded are, naturally, delighted. I can’t help but feel, however, that we would have spread the joy much wider if we had announced their success at a special awards ceremony in the post-Covid future that is, we hope and pray, just around the corner.
A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the Sunday National on November 15, 2020
And the winner is… Awards announced for Scotland’s Covid-hit theatre sector
By Mark Brown
The winners of the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) have been announced. Prevented, by the Covid-19 pandemic, from celebrating the nominated shows with their traditional awards ceremony, the judges released the list of victors to the media on Thursday.
The awards, judged this year by eight of Scotland’s drama critics, considered all professional theatre shows produced in Scotland between the summer of 2019 and the closure of theatres by the pandemic in March of this year. The biggest winner, picking up the prizes for Best New Play, Best Male Performance and Best Production, was the one-man show The Signalman, produced by the lunchtime theatre A Play, a Pie and a Pint at Glasgow venue Òran Mór.
Written by playwright Peter Arnott and played by Tom McGovern, the drama considers the 1879 Tay Bridge Disaster through the tortured memories of railway signalman Thomas Barclay. Arnott said he was “delighted” by the awards and “especially pleased” for actor Tom McGovern, who originated the piece with him.
Gratified though he is by his show’s haul of awards, Arnott, who has been a stalwart of the Scottish theatre scene for many years, offered a warning to the country’s theatre community. The interruption of theatre by Covid-19, has, he suggests, exposed underlying weaknesses in the ways in which live drama is funded and organised.
“I think we’re in much deeper trouble than we know and that Covid is just the start of it”, he said. “I have the uneasy feeling that people are acting as if someone is just going to throw a switch to put all the lights back on, and as if we can just pick up where we left off. I don’t know anything for certain, but I do know that it’s not going to be like that.”
Back in June, Arnott wrote an online manifesto for the recovery of Scottish theatre, entitled ‘Stages of Recovery: A Suggested Programme for Scottish Theatre 2020-2021’. His latest proposals for reinvigorating the theatre sector include direct public ownership of the country’s theatres and a ministry of the arts.
Elsewhere in the 2020 CATS awards, there were two awards for Atlantis Banal: Beneath the Surface, a madcap piece about contemporary visual art. Created by acclaimed children’s theatre-maker Shona Reppe and produced by celebrated children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels, the show was awarded Best Production for Children and Young People and Best Design (which it won jointly with the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s staging of Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel Solaris).
There were also two awards for Thank You Very Much, a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Manchester International Festival. The play, in which leading disabled performers explore society’s vexed notions of normality “through the lens of the competitive world of tribute artists”, was awarded Best Ensemble and Best Music and Sound.
There were prizes for Pitlochry Festival Theatre director Elizabeth Newman (Best Director for her staging of Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer) and Anna Russell-Martin (Best Female Performance for the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Panopticon).
Joyce McMillan, co-convenor of the awards, said: “There will be no online awards ceremony, because we love the live experience, and will celebrate this work at a live ceremony and party just as soon as that is possible.
“In the meantime, though, we hope the celebration of these wonderful shows from 2019–20 will remind us of the sheer richness of Scotland’s theatre scene [and] of what we stand to lose if we don’t support our theatre-makers through this crisis.”
The Covid pandemic may have put the kibosh on most Christmas pantomimes, but in Perth the show must go on, writes Mark Brown
Ask a Scottish person to name the things they love most about Christmas, and the chances are that “pantomime” will be high on the list. Every year, the high jinks of Yuletide theatre attract hundreds of thousands of people into Scotland’s playhouses. Sad to say, for most of the country’s theatres, the panto will be another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Not so at Perth Theatre, however. The Fair City has a particular passion for pantomime, and the team behind its Christmas show – led by writer, director and panto dame extraordinaire Barrie Hunter – has devised a cunning plan for a special, Covid-busting production for the festive season.
If you can’t seat an audience, thought Hunter and colleagues, why not promenade them through the various spaces of the splendid Perth Theatre? So was born Oh Yes We Are!, an ingenious, Covid-safe pantomime in which a properly masked and hand-sanitised audience of 60 people or so will be broken into three groups of around 20 (who themselves will physically distance, in their family bubbles or on their own).
These carefully arranged theatregoers will then be taken on a journey through four spaces in the theatre. These will include the beautiful main auditorium and the excellent Joan Knight Studio; which was built as part of the superb £16.6 million refurbishment of the playhouse, which was completed in 2017.
In these rooms, director Hunter tells me, on a Zoom call from Tayside, patrons will encounter a series of five archetypal pantomime characters, performed by four actors. The dame (who will be played, once again, by Hunter himself) has hidden herself in her attic, away from the “Doomy Gloom” that is pervading the world outside.
The baddie has been imprisoned in a dungeon, and (as the creator of the Doomy Gloom) is apoplectic that she is not at liberty to bask in the schadenfreude of humanity’s travails.
Hunter, ever wary of spoilers, won’t give much more away, except to say that the show will be illuminated by a heroine and her twin brother, who will make appearances in each of the rooms. “I think I’ve worked out the timings for that”, says the director, adding: “that particular actor will be quite fit by the end of the run.”
One doesn’t have to be a Professor of Nuance at the University of Subtlety to realise that the show is alluding somewhat to our current struggles with the coronavirus. For Hunter it was a question of striking a balance.
The panto doesn’t broach the pandemic directly, hence the metaphorical malevolent force that is the “Doomy Gloom”. The “very simple premise”, the director explains, is that “we’re trying to see beyond the doom and the gloom, and find the light and the laughter again.”
“I didn’t want it to become Covid: The Panto”, he insists. “Apart from anything else, you have to think about the fact that there’s a great likelihood that there will be audience members who will be seeing this, through their screens or in person, who will have lost loved ones to the pandemic or may have been very ill themselves.
“You can’t make light of that. What you can do is respond to what we’ve all been affected by and try to find some positivity out of it.”
If anyone can find the bright side in our current crisis, it’s Hunter. Scotland has been blessed with many wonderful pantomime dames, from Stanley Baxter and Rikki Fulton in the hallowed past, to current greats like Johnny McKnight and Alan Steele. There’s no question that Hunter is up there with the very best.
Optimists though they are, the director and Perth Theatre management are very much aware that Covid restrictions could change over the next month, possibly overturning their plans to host live, in-person audiences. That’s why, from the outset, plans for the in-person show have gone in tandem with arrangements to broadcast performances live on the internet to schools and into people’s homes.
Currently, Perth is in Tier 2 of the Scottish Government’s coronavirus measures. There is talk, Hunter explains, of Perth Theatre being among a group of selected venues that will serve as trial centres for forms of physically distanced live performance. However, whatever happens regarding the in-person performances, the Perth show will go on, online.
Whether we take Hunter’s panto journey in-person or via the internet, we will be welcomed and guided by a beneficent chaperone. Like so many theatre-makers these days, the Perth team are becoming experts in online filming technologies.
The director is full of admiration for Tim Reid, the show’s “audio-visual guy and ‘Zoom guru’.” With Reid at the helm, the team are currently exploring ways of minimising movement on cameras as they travel through the theatre. “We don’t want to make people car sick in their own front rooms”, Hunter jokes.
As the longstanding dame at Perth, and, in recent years, the panto’s writer and director, Hunter is delighted that the redevelopment of the theatre has made a promenade show possible. “The new building is so tall and so airy”, he comments.
“There’s so much more room than there was in the previous building. We couldn’t have even remotely considered this show in the old building.”
The beauty of rooms like the Joan Knight Studio and the theatre’s education space is, Hunter explains, that they allow for audiences to be taken in through one door and out through another. It’s hard to imagine a theatre building that is more suited to Covid protocols.
“The whole point of the show is about celebrating coming back into a building that you’ve not been allowed to get into, and celebrating all that the building stands for”, the director says. “The tour of the theatre becomes a celebration of the building.”
Interestingly, Hunter had his professional introduction to site-specific, promenade theatre in a very different building from Perth Theatre. In 1994, as a third-year acting student, he played in Bill Bryden’s First World War epic The Big Picnic, which was performed in the cavernous Harland and Wolff Engine Shed in Govan.
“It was the first acting job I ever had”, he remembers. “It was an extraordinary, immersive experience for all of the actors, as well as for the audience.
“On one side we had three tiers of people promenading left and right, and, on the other side, we had a seating bank with 270 people in it, which moved up and down with the action. It was kind of mind-blowing.”
Although a very different proposition from Hunter’s latest pantomime, The Big Picnic taught him a valuable lesson about the possibilities of promenade theatre. “I saw how successfully it worked, and how special it is for an audience to be right in amongst it”, he says.
Most of the audience for Oh Yes We Are! will find themselves, Covid measures notwithstanding, closer to the action than they would be sitting in their seats in the auditorium. “They’ll see the fear in our eyes”, jokes Hunter. “They might even smell our costumes.”
Oh Yes We Are! plays Perth Theatre, December 10-24. For tickets and further information, visit: horsecross.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on November 8, 2020
N.B. On November 13, 2020, Perth Theatre announced that the planned in-person performances of Oh Yes We Are! were being cancelled, due to Covid-19 restrictions. The online performances will go ahead as planned.
Iconic Classics, Northern Ballet, Leeds Playhouse, review: ballet returns to the North with a real spring in its step
Northern Ballet’s live comeback – after a 221-day absence – made for a spirited, impressive, heartening evening
By Mark Brown
The front wall of Leeds Playhouse is emblazoned with a new, red neon sign that reads: “I get knocked down, but I get up again”. This quote from Chumbawamba’s song Tubthumping could (perhaps should) appear outside every arts venue in our Covid-ravaged country.
Northern Ballet, which began an 11-day residency at the Playhouse on Wednesday night, is certainly living up to that 1997 hit’s spirit of defiance and optimism. Between now and Saturday, the north of England’s classical dance company will present a mixed programme celebrating the choreographic work of its artistic director, David Nixon OBE, and another showcasing set pieces from the contemporary dance rep. Then, from October 28 to 31, they will stage Nixon’s acclaimed interpretation of Dangerous Liaisons.
But they opened their Playhouse season with a selection of pieces from the established ballet repertoire. Ranging from the almost ironically sweet romanticism of August Bournonville’s The Flower Festival to a brief blast of testosterone from Giselle, the Iconic Classics programme was performed with little more than the essential “bare boards and a passion”.
The show began, not with a balletic extract, but with a heartfelt speech by Nixon (who would be our self-declared “MC” for the evening). It had been, he reminded his carefully physically distanced, mask-wearing audience, 221 days since his company had opened its new ballet Geisha; the only performance of the piece the pandemic has, so far, allowed.
What a difference between that opulent production, and this modest (though confident) return to the theatre. Dancers appeared on a naked stage, the superb orchestra arranged behind them.
The bareness of the space contrasted starkly with the performers’ splendid costumes; which included, in the case of a pas de deux from Don Quixote, ballerina Ayami Miyata wearing the same tutu worn by Northern Ballet’s rehearsal director (and Nixon’s wife) Yoko Ichino when she danced the piece with Rudolf Nureyev at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York many moons ago.
The dancing in Don Q, as throughout the programme, measured up impressively to the exacting demands of classical ballet. Nixon had told his dancers, some of whom were standing in for quarantined or injured colleagues at just a few days’ notice, that this show was about “dancing again”, rather than being “the best”.
However, from the dynamism, dexterity and grace of Miyata and Matthew Koon in Don Q to the style and zest of Kyungka Kwak and Lorenzo Trossello in Sleeping Beauty, the show was a testament to the physical and technical excellence of Northern Ballet’s dancers.
Scottish Opera could have been forgiven for choosing a jaunty and uplifting work for its first show of the Covid era. Instead, it has, bravely and boldly, opted for Puccini’s painfully relevant 1896 opera La bohème.
The piece, in which the lives of young, impoverished Parisian artists are scarred by tuberculosis, is performed, in director Roxana Haines’s innovative production, in modern dress and in the open air (under a canopy in Scottish Opera’s car park, no less). In the interests of the comfort of the carefully physically distanced, mask-wearing audience, John Dove’s version of Puccini’s score runs to a little over an hour and a half, without an interval.
The libretto, which is in English, is an impressively crisp, occasionally audacious translation by Amanda Holden. It is performed by a fabulous group of warrior singers who face the elements with the courage of a band of medieval troubadours.
The orchestra (the playing of which is amplified by speakers in the outdoor auditorium) are, of course, protected from the elements. They play, out of our view, from inside the Scottish Opera studios, under the baton of Stuart Stratford.
The set is comprised, inauspiciously, of two haulage wagons and a platform covered in what Donald Trump might, with unusual accuracy, call “fake grass”. However, this rough-and-readiness befits the artisanal defiance of the production. Indeed, in the immensely capable hands of designer Anna Orton, the opera’s impecunious Bohemians look like the denizens of Bruce Robinson’s iconic film Withnail and I, if it had been made for our virus-ravaged times.
On the opening evening (every performance begins at 5pm), the Scottish weather, inevitably, transformed the makeshift theatre into something of a wind tunnel at times. All the better, it seemed, for Samuel Sakker’s struggling writer Rodolfo and Elizabeth Llewellyn’s consumptive costume maker Mimì to pursue their tortured love affair, under the shadow of the latter’s advancing illness.
One suspects that the audience would, if operatic etiquette allowed, have been on its feet as Sakker and Llewellyn delivered the two great arias and the magnificent duet with which Puccini ends Act 1. The Australian tenor delivers Rodolfo’s song with a shuddering pathos, while Llewellyn, who made her name playing Mimì for English National Opera 10 years ago, sings with an equally powerful passion.
This opera has always had moments of light relief, but Haines raises these to another level. Rhian Lois, playing the singer Musetta, and Francis Church, as the wealthy Alcindoro, perform their roles with, respectively, an attitude and an absurdity that give the piece an unusually comic dimension.
The cast is excellent to an individual, with Roland Wood outstanding as the painter Marcello. The truncated score itself is delivered with a swirling, undiminished beauty, despite the strange circumstances.
Little wonder, therefore, that by the end of this audacious La bohème, the weather-beaten audience was cheering this production to its temporary rafters.
Until September 13. Further details: scottishopera.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 6, 2020
Never mind the dystopian-feeling venue, says Mark Brown – an evening with Bill Bailey remains a joyfully silly treat
So, it’s come to this. Thanks to Covid-19, attending a comedy show now involves a logistical operation akin to that of the Berlin Airlift.
In order to see Bill Bailey perform at the Virgin Money Unity Arena in Newcastle’s Gosforth Park (billed as “The UK’s first dedicated socially distanced music venue”), you must arrive by car or taxi (strictly no pedestrians), and do so within a given 20-minute arrival slot. Once at what is also the home of Newcastle Racecourse, you must don a face covering while walking around, as well as observing the show entirely from within the confines of the sort of numbered pen in which you might expect to find livestock on auction day.
By the time you unfold your (no doubt carefully disinfected) plastic seat and contemplate the possibility that this might be the dystopian future of entertainment, you’re certainly in need of light relief. Thankfully, you’re in the right place, as Bailey remains one of the funniest, most brilliantly original comedians in the UK.
We know him for his fabulously creative combination of music and offbeat observational humour (who can forget his imagining of Kraftwerk playing the Hokey Cokey?), but Bailey isn’t averse to a bit of political comedy, and has both Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab in his sights. He doesn’t despair of British politics entirely, however. “At least”, he says, “we’re not America”.
The socially distanced field in which Bailey is performing (to call it an “arena” is stretching the term somewhat) has been designated as a music venue, and the stage for his show looks very much like a large rock band’s. A talented and versatile musician, he has with him an array of instruments, ranging from an electric guitar to the delightful percussion instrument known as a handpan.
This is the Bath-born comedian’s first show in six months, and the material is classic Bailey. The musical and poetic humour (a doctor’s bad news songs, an anti-racist limerick) are as inventive and eclectic as ever. His more discursive jokes (including a tale about an incident involving a Dubai Airport customs officer, by way of numerous, hilarious, rambling asides) are executed with the seemingly spontaneous delivery of a West Country Billy Connolly.
There are high-brow gags, such as the origins of a vulgar hand gesture in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds, and the Twitter account of Samuel Peeps. There are also panto-style gags, such as Bailey leading the audience in a speeded up rendition of California Dreaming by The Mamas and the Papas.
Indeed, in a similar vein to Eddie Izzard (who famously performed in France entirely in French), Bailey offers an impressive, amusingly truncated rendering of his set in German. This is, perhaps, topped only by his side-splitting skit about conducting his home life entirely via heavy metal.
The pandemic may have turned the world upside down, but Bill Bailey is as reassuringly clever, creative and joyfully silly as ever.
From Edinburgh to Almada – a tale of two festival cities
Edinburgh’s festivals may have succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but elsewhere in Europe celebrations of the arts are coming back to life. Portugal’s Festival de Almada was the first to signal the recovery.
BY MARK BROWN
Edinburgh this August is a city in double mourning. Reeling, like the rest of the UK, from the dreadful ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland’s capital is now reckoning with the cold reality that the health emergency has closed down its world famous arts festivals for the first time in their 73-year history.
By contrast, Austria’s Salzburg Festival has gone ahead, not as usual (physical distancing and other public health precautions are being observed), but the musical and theatrical show has gone on. Nor were the Austrians the first. That honour goes to Festival de Almada, Portugal’s premier theatre festival, which opened its doors, carefully and tentatively, between July 3 and 26.
An analysis of the relative Covid-19 statistics suggests that the Portuguese and the Austrians are beginning to reap the rewards of government responses to the pandemic that were earlier and more thorough than the “four nations action plan” that put the UK into a form of lockdown on March 23. The UK’s death toll, at around 66,000, the highest per capita in Europe, stands at an appalling one per thousand people; by contrast Portugal’s death toll is 0.34 per thousand, while Austria’s is 0.13.*
In this context, it was somewhat surreal to set off for Festival de Almada, an event that I have attended often as theatre critic of this newspaper and its predecessor the Sunday Herald. I knew that Portugal had gone into a far stricter lockdown (a “state of emergency”, no less), considerably earlier in the curve than the UK.
I also knew that the targeted, local lockdown measures in certain areas of Greater Lisbon that had been announced in late June were evidence, not of the virus getting out of control, but of the relative success of Portugal’s test, track and isolate measures. Nevertheless, as I undertook the permitted “necessary travel” to Lisbon and, across the River Tagus to Almada, I knew that, due to measures introduced by the governments at Westminster and Holyrood, I would have to quarantine for 14 days upon my return to the UK.
Writing this piece from quarantine in Scotland is a decidedly odd experience. Throughout my visit to Portugal I felt much safer than I did walking on a busy Argyle Street in Glasgow shortly after the Scottish government reopened the retail sector in early July.
Accustomed to far stricter Covid measures than the people of Scotland, most Portuguese observe mask wearing and physical distancing assiduously. By late April, the Portuguese government felt confident enough to announce that theatres could reopen, as long as public health precautions were observed.
For Festival de Almada, the annual programme of Portuguese and international theatre staged by Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite/TMJB (the beautiful local theatre of the city of Almada), this meant that their 37th edition could go ahead as planned. The festival is programmed by Rodrigo Francisco, director of TMJB, who took the reins following the death in 2012 of the event’s founder (and Francisco’s mentor), the great theatre director Joaquim Benite.
Going ahead “as planned” was only possible, Francisco tells me when we meet at TMJB, because the festival had not only a plan A, but also “plans B, C and D”. “We never stopped preparing the festival”, the director explains.
For Francisco, it was his duty to continue planning to hold the festival, in one form or another, in case the government announced the reopening of Portugal’s theatres. “We didn’t say ‘we’re not going to do it’ because this theatre is not ours, it belongs to the citizens”, he says.
“We organise the festival, but we do it with public funding. We didn’t have the right to say, ‘okay, we go home.’ That’s not what we do.
“Our public duty is to make theatre happen for people. I couldn’t understand some theatres that closed down in March and said they would be back in September.”
The consequence of the director’s preparedness was that Festival de Almada was able to present a reduced, but nevertheless impressive, programme of theatre. The large scale international shows, which, this year, were due to include works from countries such as Germany, France and Ireland, had to be cancelled, due to the uncertainty over air travel.
However, the festival managed to maintain an international dimension with productions from Italy, Spain and Catalonia. The companies bringing these shows agreed that, if flights were an issue, they would travel to Portugal by road.
The new Portuguese work, with the exception of Francisco’s own production of Martyr by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, had to be cancelled. However, the gaps in the programme were filled by existing, Portuguese single-actor productions, which are far easier to stage under coronavirus conditions.
The staging of the festival, while Portugal’s National Theatres in Lisbon and Porto remained closed until the autumn, met with considerable approval from the political class. The opening nights were attended by such luminaries as the president of the republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, prime minister Antonio Costa and state secretary for culture Nuno Artur Silva.
“We are the first summer theatre festival in Europe that actually took place”, says Francisco. “For those in political power it was important to show people that it was possible to keep on with our lives, whilst keeping to the coronavirus rules, of course.”
Interestingly, the director is not aware of anyone within the Portuguese political class or the mainstream media who criticised his decision to go ahead with this year’s festival. There may have been criticism on social media, he says, but he doesn’t look at it.
At the festival itself one is constantly aware of the (too) much vaunted “new normal”. In the venues, audience members are required to mask-up before entering.
Encouraged by staff to enter two metres apart, and to use the hand sanitiser available at every theatre entrance, festival goers are seated according to strict social distancing. At the end of the show, ushers empty the auditorium row-by-row.
Most of the programme is comprised of smaller scale shows, but Francisco has programmed as many as five productions at any given time, in order to spread audiences around. The director is the first to acknowledge that this way of doing things, with box office takings for each show slashed by more than half, is not commercially sustainable in the longer term.
However, he stands by his decision to press ahead with this year’s programme. The question of public health was one for the authorities, and Francisco followed their instructions to the letter.
The decision to stage the festival came about, the director explains, following a full-scale phone survey of the event’s 600 loyal subscribers. In April theatre staff called everyone on the subscription list, asking them, firstly, how they were coping with the pandemic, and, secondly, if they would be interested in coming to the festival if the conditions allowed it to go ahead.
More than half said they would attend, many others said they would buy a subscription for someone else. “When you have more than 300 people saying they want to come – at a time when people could not go out of their homes, except to go to the supermarket – it gives you a sense of the importance of this festival, of theatre, and of art in general to people’s lives”, comments Francisco.
The audience, Covid-aware and encouragingly diverse in its age demographic, was treated to a number of theatrical gems. Superb Italian actor Mario Pirovano presented his late friend and mentor Dario Fo’s solo piece Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, while Catalan performer Agnes Mateus played Rebound Rebound and Your Face Explodes, a high-octane, excoriating, darkly comic work about domestic violence against women.
In the Portuguese programme, Andre Murracas presented his noirish one-man play The Servant, based upon the famous film of Robin Maugham’s novel, starring Dirk Bogarde. The A Turma company, from Porto, staged Tiago Correia’s new play Turismo, a contemporary contemplation of the impact on Portugal of a tourism that is, ironically, largely absent in these times.
For his part, Francisco felt fortunate that, in having opted, pre-pandemic, to produce a play with entirely young and middle-aged characters, he could continue rehearsals of Martyr through the spring. In the preparatory Zoom meetings with the cast, people were dubious about the possibility of conducting real rehearsals in the studio.
However, “when we got in the rehearsal room, the problem was solved in five minutes”, the director says. “I kept the mask on, and they took theirs off.”
Such abandon might seem blasé, even reckless to some in the Covid-ravaged UK. However, perhaps it is the fruit of Portugal’s earlier and more thorough response to the pandemic.
Few, if any countries – not Portugal, not Austria, and certainly not the nations of the UK – are out of the Covid woods yet. But Festival de Almada points towards a more hopeful future for our culture.
*Source: Financial Times analysis of excess deaths data
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 9, 2020
As our theatres go into temporary closure, in line with government guidance, it seems appropriate to share with you, dear reader, two excellent new productions which will, one hopes, be gracing our stages again before too long. The first, The Metamorphosis, co-produced by Scottish touring company Vanishing Point, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre and Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione of Modena, Italy, is a work of absolute brilliance.
Based, ingeniously, but tremendously faithfully, upon Franz Kafka’s outstanding novella, the piece is as perfect a fit between a theatre director’s aesthetic and a writer’s narrative as I have witnessed in quite some time. Matthew Lenton, artistic director of Vanishing Point, has a very distinctive, poetic visual style. Sometimes that style, beautiful though it is, threatens to subsume the narrative content of his work, leaving him open to the suggestion that his output favours form over substance.
There can be no such complaints here. Lenton’s aesthetic seems almost tailor made for Kafka’s nightmarish story in which Gregor Samsa – a young worker trapped in dreary employment by his need to clear his father’s debt and sustain his family – famously awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect.
It is a tale full of metaphorical possibilities, from the Marxist analysis of alienated labour to psychoanalytical considerations of the impact of animal instincts upon Gregor’s still human mind. Lenton and associate director Joanna Bowman relate powerfully to these, and more, in a piece which, like Kafka’s story itself, straddles the material realities of our world and the surreal possibilities of a dream.
Updating Gregor’s job from travelling salesman to delivery cyclist is a masterstroke, as is splitting the playing of the protagonist between Sam Stopford (Gregor’s human mind) and Nico Guerzoni (whose insect Gregor speaks an Italian that meets the ears of Gregor’s family as animal gibberish). As in the novella, one is moved deeply by the efforts of Gregor’s loving sister Grete (Alana Jackson) to maintain a human contact with the person inside the huge, horrifying insect body.
All of this is imparted in a highly-stylised, resolutely theatrical aesthetics which is, thanks to designer Kenneth MacLeod, simultaneously bleak and beautiful. The screen separating Gregor’s room (front stage) from the family living room is blacked out or made transparent, according to the production’s requirements, by superb lighting designer Simon Wilkinson.
At times we listen in on the universally excellent cast as the family try to continue their lives in spite of Gregor’s condition. In other moments they are a silent presence, a tableau emphasising the insurmountable separation between them and Gregor.
Needless to say, this extraordinary stage work (which boasts resonating, atmospheric sound and music by Mark Melville) has poignant, almost premonitory significance to the strange and difficult times in which we find ourselves. I sincerely hope that, in just a few months from now, we will be applauding its humane insights, as we return to the nation’s playhouses.
From a first class new play to an impressively ambitious and brave new ballet. Kenneth Tindall’s Geisha, created for Leeds-based company Northern Ballet, is a thing of painful beauty.
Set in 19th-century Japan, the piece is resplendent in Christopher Oram’s sumptuous set and costume designs; which are, of course, inspired by the gorgeously distinctive, opulent-yet-minimalist visual aesthetics which are synonymous with The Land of the Rising Sun. The ballet tells the story of Okichi (danced with tremendous grace, poise and feeling by Minju Kang), who was sold to a geisha mother by her impoverished family as a very young child.
Alongside her friend Aiko (the splendid Sarah Chun), the young woman is trained to be a geisha (an esteemed entertainer, for the pleasure of wealthy men; as distinct from the oiran, the prized courtesans of 19th-century Japan). This subject matter places a responsibility on Tindall to address the appalling, structural misogyny of this social system. He does not shirk this responsibility.
In one scene, as Okichi is being attired for her new life as geisha to the local mayor, she is trapped, held tight in long, white silks. In another, after the mayor has gifted her to Townsend Harris (the first American Consul-General to Japan), we witness an agonising, powerful choreography representing Okichi’s neglect and physical abuse.
Despite the harrowing nature of the subject, the piece does have moments of levity. The star-spangled arrival of the US Navy, for instance, is bound to raise a wry smile.
Act 2 combines the aesthetics of temporal Japan with those of the spirit world. Spoiler alert: the distraught Okichi drowns herself (in a memorably distressing scene) at the end of the first act. The ballet does its supernatural scenes well, no doubt; although the ghostly aesthetics are too similar to Tim Burton’s visual palette for my taste.
Tindall’s marvellous, European-style choreography is flecked with Japanese references, while Alexandra Harwood’s superb musical score makes room for lovely moments of Japanese percussion and flute.
This stunning ballet is scheduled to play in Edinburgh in early May. If not then, let’s hope to see it in Scotland soon after.
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on March 22, 2020