The name of Giacomo Casanova has, since his death in 1798, been a byword for sexual debauchery. Yet the author of History of My Life, who was born in the Republic of Venice and died in Bohemia some 73 years later, lived a life that was almost as eventful as the tumultuous 18th-century itself.
He was (somewhat implausibly) a trainee priest; although, almost inevitably, he found himself debarred from the priesthood for having sex with nuns. Consorting with liberal clergy and aristocrats, his interest in Enlightenment thinking combined with his sexual libertinism to make him a target of the Inquisition.
There is something almost hubristic in the attempt by Kenneth Tindall and Northern Ballet to condense Casanova’s legendary life into less than two hours of dance. However, as the ecstatic first night audience for this world première attests, Tindall’s ambition is richly rewarded.
Unlike other works by Northern Ballet (such as their excellent adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984), Casanova’s adventures (which are drawn from Ian Kelly’s acclaimed biography) do not give themselves easily to a clearly defined narrative. What we get instead are selected episodes, ranging from a Venetian masquerade to Casanova’s imprisonment by the Inquisition and his cruel humiliation at the hands of his Enlightenment idol Voltaire.
Tindall’s choreography is impressively attuned to the ecstasies and agonies of the protagonist’s remarkable life. His sexuality (which was ambidextrous and, at times, orgiastic) is expressed with both a tremendously bold muscularity and an unerring sense of style.
Casanova is danced, appropriately enough, by his compatriot (and longstanding Northern Ballet performer) Giuliano Contadini. It is a towering performance which is as affecting in its bitter yielding to repression as in its moments of euphoric sensuality.
Contadini’s dancing expresses brilliantly the scale and excitement of Casanova’s life. So, too, do Christopher Oram’s set and costume designs. Often dominated by grand, neo-classical pillars which, courtesy of Alastair West’s exceptional lighting designs, shine in an extraordinary orange-gold, Oram’s sets are both improbably versatile and suitably epic.
Kerry Muzzey’s score also has a touch of the epic about it. Positively cinematic, its unapologetic drama and pathos remind us that the great narrative scores of Hollywood are rooted in European orchestral traditions.
Entirely worthy of its first night standing ovation, Casanova is an impressive and exhilarating evening’s ballet.
Touring until May 13. northernballet.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 12, 2017
Much has been said and written about the crucial role played by the Scottish storytelling tradition. During the centuries when theatre was either prohibited by the Calvinist Reformation or recovering, slowly, from that stern proscription, the telling of tales sustained our culture’s connection to language in performance.
It is to that rich history that one’s mind turns on encountering The Red Chair, writer and performer Sarah Cameron’s remarkable dramatic monologue. First performed in 2015, and revived now for an extensive Scottish tour, this self-described “faerytale” is written and performed in a deep, lush Scots-English.
Simultaneously contemporary and timeless, it tells the tale of a wealthy young man (Godwin Moir Williamson Caractacus) who, following his marriage, becomes so obese that he cannot rise from his chair. Growing into the seat, he literally becomes part of the furniture.
As he does so, the life of his long-suffering wife Andrula is subsumed by his morbid appetite. Extremely slender, on account of her growing revulsion at food, she is a slave to her husband’s gargantuan demands.
The story is told by an eloquent third person narrator and in the desolate-yet-poetic prose of Godwin’s neglected daughter Queanie (aka “The Inveesible Child”). In time, mother and daughter become bound together in their powerful resentment of the corpulent authoritarian.
What transpires next is best discovered either in attending one of Cameron’s performances or in reading the published text (an adaptation of Cameron’s original story co-authored by Suzy Willson and Cameron herself). Suffice it to say that it is the kind of Scots-Gothic tale that might have emerged from a collaboration between Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe.
Performed over a brilliantly sustained 90 minutes (which includes brief interludes for samples from Godwin’s larder), the piece is a masterclass in monodrama. Cameron has not only a startlingly evocative facility with language, but also a tremendous capacity in physical and facial expression.
Whether she is describing Godwin’s burgeoning rotundity or evoking Queanie’s stark hopelessness, the performer uses language, space and body with an expertise that is utterly compelling.
The use of sound, music and lighting is (for the most part) beautifully attuned to both text and performance. The “inveesibility” of Queanie, for example, is illustrated in Cameron being only partially illuminated on a pitch black stage; at one point, we see only her mouth, as if the actor were performing Beckett’s famous monologue Not I.
The only slight lapse in judgement comes late on in the performance, when the story turns to the international news coverage of the strange case of the disappearance of the very fat man. A short moment, in which we hear the recorded chatter of 24 hour news media, creates a distracting breach in the show’s otherwise perfectly-sustained atmosphere.
Such a complaint seems almost cavilling, however, given the general excellence of this superb, highly distinctive dramatic monologue. Produced by the London-based Clod Ensemble, this Scottish tour is a very welcome celebration of the Scots tongue, storytelling and theatrical performance itself.
There is a very different contemplation of the abuse of women within marriage in If I Had A Girl…, a verbatim drama from the Glasgow-based organisation Amina – MWRC (Muslim Women’s Resource Centre). Performed by a five-strong cast of four women and one man, the piece bravely and boldly addresses the issue of the violence against women within Scotland’s Muslim communities.
Written by Mariem Omari, and based upon the often harrowing firsthand accounts of Scottish Muslim women, the piece achieves a crucial balance between giving voice to the women’s experiences whilst making no concessions to Islamophobic stereotypes. Much of the violence, denigration and controlling behaviour recounted here will be familiar to many non-Muslim women who have found themselves in abusive relationships.
However, there are also elements in the experiences of the women interviewed by the Amina organisation that are particular to the Muslim community. A case in point is that of a young Scots Muslim woman who remembers her family’s attempts to marry her off, at the age of nine, to a 31-year-old second cousin in Pakistan.
There are re-enactments of sickening acts of violence and scenes playing out issues of wider social pressure, such as parents pressurising women to remain in broken marriages for fear of divorce bringing “shame” on the family. There are also examples of tremendous bravery on the part of the women themselves, and some encouraging instances of solidarity with them.
There can be no doubt that public discussion of vitally important issues such as these is very much needed in our society. There is also no question over the tremendous commitment and courage of Amina, the cast of this production and the women whose testimonies are woven into the play.
With the best will in the world, however, what one cannot say is that this is well-made theatre. The text itself has little by way of dramatic rhythm, whilst the dramaturgy (swaying from side-to-side to represent a Hebridean ferry journey, for example) lacks imagination.
Verbatim dramas often feel like television or film documentaries trapped within plays. So it is here.
The stories Amina wants to tell are extremely important, but one can’t help but wonder whether theatre is truly the best medium in which to deliver them.
The plays of the late, great Arthur Miller seem to have found a new currency in the days of President Trump. Few, if any, of his great, socialistic tragedies seem more pertinent today than his 1949 drama Death Of A Salesman, the story of Willy Loman, the titular merchant who embraced the American Dream with a fervour that US capitalism never reciprocated.
Director Joe Douglas’s production for the Dundee Rep Ensemble goes directly for the agonising gulf between myth and sobering reality. We experience the increasingly delusional salesman’s memories through a dream-like, Technicolor haze.
Ground down by his failures and by his sons’ lack of success, Loman retreats into an idyllic family past and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (played with tremendous cinematic shine by Barrie Hunter). Ewan Donald and Laurie Scott (Loman’s sons Biff and Happy), reflect brilliantly both the gilded illusions and the crumbling actualities of the merchant’s life. Irene MacDougall is almost too painful to watch as the salesman’s despairing wife, Linda.
Designer Neil Warmington’s set (a neo-Brechtian construction of domestic naturalism on metatheatrical metal platforms) plays to the dreamlike state beautifully. However, frustratingly, its muddy gravel and steaming trashcans are gratuitous.
Composer Nikola Kodjabashia’s score (premonitory sounds and music played live on stage, mainly on a naked piano) is typically effective.
The success or failure of any production of Death Of A Salesman rests, first-and-foremost, on the casting of Loman himself. Douglas is blessed, in Ensemble member Billy Mack, with an unforgettable merchant.
In his character’s moments of energetic desperation, the actor generates enough pathos to fill five auditoriums. In his heartbreaking mental and emotional decline, Mack seems to diminish physically, almost to the point of vanishing before our eyes. It is a truly exceptional lead performance in a very strong production.
An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017
Golaud, the eldest son of a wealthy family discovers a young woman (Melisande) alone and disoriented in the heart of the forest. He marries her and sails with her to his family’s castle, where his half-brother (Pelleas) and Melisande promptly (and secretly) fall in love with each other.
Both Golaud and Pelleas live in fear of the judgment of their grandfather, the powerful, increasingly blind patriarch Arkel, whose word is the law. In stark contrast to the shenanigans of this dysfunctional aristocratic family, poverty-stricken citizens die of starvation outside the castle gates.
This may sound like the overdue sequel to Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme Manifesto film Festen, but it is, in fact, the outline of Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera Pelleas Et Melisande. The work is based upon an 1892 play by the acclaimed Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, which is famed for its symbolism and mysticism.
Although the drama looks back into a mystical past (Melisande herself is a Pre-Raphaelite vision of fragile femininity), David McVicar, who directs this production for Scottish Opera, opts for a more modern setting. Designer Rae Smith’s atmospheric sets may be dominated by the French windows of the bleak, degenerating castle, but the costumes have a late 19th/early 20th-century simplicity about them.
Intriguingly, McVicar’s mind also seems to have turned towards Scandinavia. Not to Vinterberg, necessarily, but to his compatriot, the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose 1901 painting Woman In An Interior, graces the cover of the programme for this production.
Like Hammershoi’s figure, who stands with her back to us, silent and solemn in the joyless comfort of a bourgeois residence, Melisande experiences her “rescue” as an imprisonment. Indeed, her hair flowing from the window of the castle tower that is her home, her predicament is likened (less-than-subtly) to that of the mythical captive Rapunzel (whose tale was popularised by the Brothers Grimm less than a century before Maeterlinck wrote his play).
This modern relocation of the story, with the aristocrats living, not only in bleakness, but also in a state of decline, is rewarding in dramatic terms, and courageous in its consciously limited visual palette. Lighting designer Paule Constable deserves particular plaudits for his efforts to transform Smith’s less-than-versatile sets into a series of locations, including a well in the gardens of the castle and a cave by the sea.
However, in dragging the tale forward in time, McVicar has landed himself with some continuity issues. He faces them with an admirably brazen audacity. Golaud, for instance, is not furnished with a pistol, but stomps around the stage brandishing a sword like some kind of deranged Medievalist.
Even if one is happy to suspend one’s disbelief where 20th-century sword wielding is concerned, there are moments in which one’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Pelleas and Melisande’s late-night sojourn into the cave without so much as a lamp to hand generates atmosphere at the expense of their intelligence.
A somewhat dim-witted romantic hero he may be, but Pelleas is performed with tremendous emotion by Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko. English soprano Carolyn Sampson impresses equally in a knowingly ironic playing of the distinctly pre-feminist role of Melisande (which was created in Paris in 1902 by the Aberdonian opera star Mary Garden).
Indeed, Debussy’s beautiful, assiduously illustrative score (which matches the action emotion for emotion) is enhanced by fine performances across the piece. In particular, Roland Wood’s Golaud is a compelling raging bull of a man.
Alastair Miles is superb as the wise, anguished king Arkel, while young Cedric Amamoo is astonishing, both in vocal and physical expression, as Golaud’s schoolboy son Yniold.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time,
Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,
Touring the UK until September 16
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Simon Stephens’s play The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, based upon the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, has, in a little over four years, become a huge international success. As evinced by the sell-out crowd for Wednesday’s performance in Edinburgh (part of a UK tour that takes in Aberdeen and Glasgow later in the year), the show has the virtue of attracting large numbers of young people to the theatre.
It isn’t difficult to see the attraction of the National Theatre (of Great Britain)’s production for adolescents and late-teenagers, in particular. The chief protagonist, Christopher Boone, is a brilliant mathematician in his mid-teens who suffers from a behavioural disorder. He has been plunged into profound confusion and anxiety by the seeming death of his mother and the brutal killing of his neighbour’s dog.
Much has been made of Christopher (who has a pronounced capacity with numbers, a distrust of fiction and a dislike of being touched) seeming to suffer from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This despite Haddon’s insistence that he is no expert on ASD and that he wrote the character more broadly as a metaphor for the many young people who feel themselves to be square pegs who do not fit into the round holes society seems to have allocated to them.
All of which makes the casting of the lead role absolutely crucial. Director (and creator of the original 2012 production) Marianne Elliot has been fortunate to secure the services of excellent young Scottish actor Scott Reid (who shares the part with his English counterpart Sam Newton on this extensive tour).
Reid, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is best known for his hilarious playing of Methadone Mick, the latest addition to the cast of TV comedy Still Game. However, as anyone who has followed his stage career will testify, he is a tremendously accomplished actor with an impressive emotional and psychological range.
Reid brings that range to bear in every aspect of this portrayal. Whether it is the Wiltshire teenager’s obsessive, sometimes comic detective work over the murder of the dog or his terrible disorientation when he arrives in London, the actor’s clever, nuanced playing embodies Christopher in all his fear, anguish, bewilderment, innocence and intelligence.
Elliot’s production itself is slick and handsome, thanks in no small part to the projection of smart graphics onto a set that is inspired by the central character’s penchant for mathematics. The supporting cast, which includes the superb Lucianne McEvoy (an actor well known to Scottish theatre audiences) as Christopher’s adored school mentor Siobhan, also impresses.
Fine though it is in many regards, however, one can’t help but feel that there is a certain amount of hyperbole in the rave reviews for this production; led, needless to say, by the critics in London and New York. There is an element of bells and whistles about this staging which grates against both the power of Haddon’s narrative and the subtleties of Stephens’s script.
Not for the first time do I find the choreography of Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett (who directs the movement with colleague Scott Graham) to be overly literal; at times it descends into an inadvertent parody of the mime of Marcel Marceau. The electronic stage effects take on an increasingly prominent role, becoming more self-consciously “spectacular” in the second half than the story requires.
Ultimately, it is Haddon and Stephens’s controlled-yet-emotive portrait of Christopher, and the rendering of him by a fine actor such as Reid, rather than its flamboyant stage effects, that account for the success of this play.
It’s almost 40 years since John Byrne’s famous Slab Boys Trilogy took to the stage. Set in Paisley in the late 1950s, and following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of those who work at the carpet factory of A & F Stobo and Co., these humane comedies have long since established themselves as Scottish cultural icons.
The plays may seem robust, as if they had been chiselled out of granite, but they are, in fact, beautifully constructed works of art which should be treated with care. The Citizens’ disappointingly uneven 2015 production of the eponymous first part of the trilogy (directed by David Hayman) stands as testament to what can happen if Byrne’s dramas are not presented with due diligence.
The Gorbals theatre makes considerable amends for that let down with this fine, new staging of Cuttin’ A Rug, the second in Byrne’s trilogy. Director Caroline Paterson’s production takes us to Stobo’s annual staff dance with great style.
Much of that style comes by way of Kenny Miller’s fabulous costume and set designs, in which dashes of ’50s colour punctuate the cool monochrome of, by turns, the cludgies and the terrace of Paisley Town Hall. It’s an image of the former textile town grand enough to lift the spirits of even a disheartened St Mirren supporter (such as myself).
In Act One, which switches back-and-forth between the “ladies” and the “gents”, the sexes prepare for the wooing, and the sexual, class and generational battles, to come. In the second half, as alcohol begins to lubricate proceedings, comic conflicts and human vulnerabilities come to the surface with a lyrical comedy and a poetic pathos that lift the play above mere nostalgia.
As the dodgy equipment of local band The Largie Boys short circuits the Town Hall electrics, the comedy is exemplified by the mismatch of middle-class uni boy Alan Downie (an appropriately awkward Shaun Miller) and no-nonsense glamour girl Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon on deliciously sharp form). The laughter is laced, however, with Byrne’s acute, humanistic social observation, not least in Ryan Fletcher’s superb, newly unemployed slab boy Phil McCann who belies his supposed “hooligan” status with a beautiful speech about the power of art.
Indeed, across the piece, Paterson’s casting is as carefully considered as a teddy boy’s hairdo. Laurie Ventry is as a upright as a starched shirt in the role of design room gaffer Willie Curry, while Anne Lacey gives a touchingly layered performance as the disappointed-in-life Miss Walkinshaw.
There are fine shifts, too, from Scott Fletcher (making a welcome return as luckless slab boy Hector McKenzie) and Barbara Rafferty (factory tea lady Sadie, recently patronised by toffs and in a justifiable rage).
If there is a stand-out performance, it is surely Louise McCarthy’s Bernadette Rooney (best pal to, and chief competitor with, Lucille). A temp at the factory, her hair made-up like a Mary Berry creation, she is every inch the gallus, head-turning west of Scotland lass whose tongue is as sharp as her fashion sense.
As if that weren’t enough, this excellently balanced production boasts a soundtrack that includes the likes of Bill Haley and Little Richard. This, one suspects, is the kind of show the late John McGrath was thinking of when he talked about theatre being “a good night out”.
There’s music aplenty, too, in the Royal Lyceum’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Created and, along with his band, played by the ever-excellent actor-musician Alasdair Macrae, the compositions play a variable role in director Max Webster’s bold, modern dress production.
John Michie’s carefully calibrated Leontes (King of Sicily) puts the kibosh on the family Christmas by turning with wildly mistaken jealousy upon his blameless queen, Hermione, and his equally innocent friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. As he does so, the director introduces what he, presumably, considers to be a clever device.
On the left of the stage, separated from the main performance space by a panel of glass, is the booth of a recording studio. There Macrae and the band perform a score that mixes live and recorded music that often overwhelms the action of the play, to say nothing of the distraction of performers coming in and out of the booth throughout acts 1 and 2.
Webster’s penchant for characters brandishing mobile phones is equally annoying. Presumably the Sicilians receive no news from the royal counsellor Antigonus (sent by Leontes to abandon the “bastard” baby Perdita) because he couldn’t get a signal in Bohemia.
All of which is a great pity as the performances are good and Macrae’s music comes into its own in the excellent second half. The misplaced recording artists become an entirely appropriate ceilidh band at the splendidly Scottified sheep shearing carnival in Bohemia; at which Jimmy Chisholm is hilarious as a manky, modern version of the petty criminal Autolycus, complete with shopping trolley and filthy tracksuit.
Maureen Beattie (the earnest and indignant noblewoman Paulina) and John Stahl (switching brilliantly between Antigonus and the very funny Old Shepherd) shine in a very strong cast. Meanwhile, excellent designer Fly Davis’s rendering of the play’s final, credulity-straining miracle is a thing of beauty,
Ultimately this production of The Winter’s Tale stands up well beside the world famous Cheek By Jowl company’s staging of the same drama, which played at the Citizens in Glasgow just three weeks ago. It’s just a pity that the opening acts are blighted by such a forced directorial concept.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 19, 2017
Last time Still Game Live came to The Hydro, back in September 2014, the city of Glasgow had just woken to discover that, although it had voted Yes to Scottish independence, the country had voted No. This time it arrives as the newly installed President of the United States is turning the White House into a very dark farce. If they ever announce Still Game Live 3, my advice is head for the nuclear shelter!
Fair play to Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill (aka Jack and Victor), though. They have an uncanny knack for timing their live shows to coincide with historic moments when many of us are in serious need of being cheered up.
And cheered up we certainly are by a production that is bigger, bolder and even better than their 2014 hit show. A play of two very distinct halves, it sees the Craiglang posse leaving Scotland (courtesy of a bleakly hilarious act of vengeance against Tam for years of outrageous tight-fistedness) and setting off on a Mediterranean pensioners’ cruise.
The evening begins with a dubious, and very funny, safety video presented by the latest addition to the Still Game cast, Methadone Mick. Young actor Scott Reid is currently playing the lead in the tour of West End hit show The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, so his dodgy recommendations about what to do in the event of fire are a smart way to include him in the proceedings.
As with the previous Hydro show, the 2017 production thrives on its liveness. Jack and Victor’s big arrival, walking through the audience, high-fiving like Bruce Springsteen and Bernie Sanders at a Dump Trump rally, sets the tone.
They’re soon followed by Navid on a flying carpet, Isa with a pyrotechnic mop, Boabby in rock star mode and Winston flying about like a one-legged, septuagenarian Peter Pan.
The script is like a Still Game TV screenplay on steroids. The sexual comedy, often built around Isa’s innocence (and, indeed, her lack of it) is laugh-out-loud funny and goes some way further than the sitcom can venture on telly.
The Craiglang sets are, as in 2014, reassuringly familiar (if slightly difficult for the stagehands to manoeuvre at times). If the designs in part 1 are straight out of the TV show, the second half, set on the deck of the liner, looks like a Noel Coward play adapted as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Which is appropriate, as the expansion of the show includes a troupe of dancers, who are written neatly into the storyline (Jack and Victor are on the boat as professional dancers to entertain the widowed ladies). However, the high-kickers are also a humorous parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway.
The enlarged cast allows director Michael Hines to bring in a panoply of Scotland’s top comic and acting talent. It’s great to see the show’s favourites, Gavin Mitchell (Boabby), Jane McCarry (Isa) and the rest, joined by the likes of Bruce Morton (outstandingly funny as Malky, a gas fitter trying to pass himself off as a GP), Lorraine McIntosh (as sultry, 50-something cruise singer Yvonne) and Mark McDonnell (a delightfully inebriated and lascivious ship’s captain).
Still Game Live 2 really is a brilliant follow-up to the 2014 success. Now as then, the tremendously funny Sanjeev Kholi (Navid) ends the show in a costume so fabulous it should be in Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum alongside Billy Connolly’s Big Banana Feet.
It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast with Kiernan and Hemphill’s huge stage comedy than Made In India, Satinder Chohan’s powerful new drama for London-based touring company Tamasha and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Set in a surrogacy clinic in Gujarat, the play sees widowed, English PR consultant Eva arrive on the eve of a government ban on foreign women coming to India for surrogacy services.
Commercial surrogacy, in which one woman is paid to carry and deliver the child of another, remains a vexed moral issue. Add to that the dynamics of westerners using poor Indian women as surrogates, and the moral complexities become virtually impossible to negotiate.
Chohan’s brave three-hander, in which Eva seeks the services of Dr Gupta (who owns the clinic) and Aditi (a young surrogate from a Gujarati village), is wise to offer more questions than it answers. Eva’s talk of women’s freedom of choice and of the economic benefits of surrogacy to women like Aditi may be self-serving and conscience-salving, but they also contain certain undeniable truths.
Similarly, Dr Gupta, who enjoys the label of “feminist entrepreneur”, is balanced between a mercenary ruthlessness and her righteous resentment of patronising, western, neo-colonial attitudes. Only Aditi, who is also widowed, and trapped between her poverty and the opprobrium of her family, is truly innocent in a drama that puts global and national inequalities to the fore.
If that makes the play seem a little schematic, that’s because it is. From the naturalistic script to the simple set design (some movable partitions, occasional video projections and pointless neon strips), director Katie Posner’s production is short on theatrical imagination.
The subject is so emotive, however, and the performances by Ulrika Krishnamurti (Aditi), Syreeta Kumar (Dr Gupta) and Gina Isaac (Eva) so credible that one is thoroughly engaged. Indeed, towards the end, there is a heart-breaking image of the bereft Aditi that gets to the agonised heart of this most painful of subjects.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 12, 2017