As a work of music theatre, We Are In Time (a co-production by the ever-inventive string orchestra the Scottish Ensemble and the acclaimed, experimental theatre company Untitled Projects) is so audacious, in conceptual terms, that it feels almost indecent to receive it with anything other than unalloyed praise. Taking as its subject a heart transplant operation, it is an accomplished, but somewhat uneasy, combination of string concert, chamber opera and elementary medical lecture.
New music by acclaimed Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson is partnered to text by leading dramatist Pamela Carter. The piece is directed by the excellent director-designer Stewart Laing, whose stage is a typically stylish, pared-back approximation of an operating theatre. On-stage the 12-strong Scottish Ensemble is joined by narrator Alison O’Donnell (who, tablet computer in hand, keeps us up to speed with the history and process of the heart transplant), and singers Jodie Landau (Jay, the donor) and Ruby Philogene (Stella, the recipient).
The subject matter – death and the fear of death, the giving of life – is inherently dramatic and as old as human culture itself. Such existential material is the very stuff of artistic expression precisely because it resides in the realm of what Albert Einstein called “mystery”.
There is, therefore, a tension in this production’s attempt to combine that mystery with clinically unambiguous medical language. One suspects the artists are aware of this tension, and have sought to make of it something creatively jagged (like a painting by Georges Braque or a string quartet by Béla Bartók).
The attempt is admirable and, often, affecting, but, ultimately, it fails. Sigurdsson’s score, which is played gorgeously by the Ensemble, is by turns beautifully harmonic and dramatically discordant. However, moments of bald, medical precision, such as the Ensemble singing the words “organ donation and transplantation hub operations”, are (the alliteration notwithstanding), not so much dissonant, as distractingly clunky. Violinist Jonathan Morton’s brief, but grating, speaking of the words of the head surgeon is similarly avoidable.
Which is a pity, because Landau performs the role of Jay with a touching sense, both of his character’s regrets and of his calm familiarity with death. He sings the part with a gentle, almost understated informality.
By contrast, the superb opera singer Philogene sings Stella in an altogether higher register, which raises the emotional stature of the piece. She plays the modern day Lazarus with a tremendous combination of gravity, wry humour, boundless relief and profound gratitude; one only wishes that her operatic singing (in which, inevitably, some words are lost) was accompanied by supertitles.
With so much creative and performative talent at its disposal, We Are In Time promised to be a truly great work of music theatre. Sadly, however, it fails to resolve the contradictions inherent in its conception, leaving one feeling frustratingly unfulfilled.
If Sigurdsson and Carter are dealing in matters of life and death, Dundee Rep’s latest play, Smile: The Jim McLean Story, turns its attention to something that, as the philosopher Bill Shankly explained, is “much, much more important than that”; namely, football. That being so, I feel it is my professional duty as a theatre critic to avoid any clichés associated with the beautiful game.
I will not, therefore, suggest that Philip Differ’s biographical drama plays to the tangerine half of the city of Dundee, or that it tackles the life of Dundee United’s greatest ever manager. It’s more than my byline’s worth to throw-in the observation that the fine and versatile actor Barrie Hunter proves himself to be an agile utility man or opine that debutant main stage director Sally Reid has turned out to be a star signing who has achieved her goal with an assured production.
Joking aside, Differ’s play is very much for the fans. The piece is presented on a set which represents the interior of a dilapidated tenement (a nod to McLean’s trade as a joiner) and is dominated by Oscar Marzaroli’s marvellous photo of Celtic supporters (a sleight-of-hand designer Kenny Miller gets away with on account of the picture being in black and white).
The drama deals in McLean’s personal history, his family life, his famously dour persona, and, of course, his towering achievements as manager of United. Hunter (ably assisted by Chris Alexander in an array of supporting roles) is excellent in his portrayal of the man’s often comical, sometimes sinister rage, his regrets and his underlying decency.
The piece is deliciously funny at times, but can also be a tad saccharine; not least when Differ imagines McLean saying: “I was born in Lanarkshire, but I was made in Dundee.” It also makes too little of the fact that the future footballer and manager was raised in the strict Protestant sect The Plymouth Brethren.
Finally, only an outrageously fanatical, St Mirren-supporting critic would point out that the Buddies beat McLean’s 1987 UEFA Cup finalists in the Scottish Cup Final of that year. So I won’t.
For tour dates for We Are In Time, visit: scottishensemble.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on March 1, 2020
John Adams’s Nixon in China is one of the most remarkable operas from the second half of the 20th century. A work, not only of political history but, in its extraordinary third (and final) act, also of existential philosophy, it is opera on an impressively grand scale.
The first opera to be written by the American composer, the piece is based upon US president Richard Nixon’s famous, week-long visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 (the first ever by a US head of state). The visit, in which Nixon met with Mao Tse-tung (Chairman of the Communist Party of China) and held substantive talks with China’s premier Chou En-lai, altered the course of Sino-American relations, and also of the Cold War.
In this co-production for Scottish Opera, the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, director John Fulljames puts the focus on the visit as history. The events of 1972 are placed within the frame of an archive, where staff explore film footage, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine articles about Nixon’s trip.
It is a brilliant conceptual innovation, in both dramatic and technical terms. Thanks to Fulljames’s excellent design team (designer Dick Bird, lighting designer Ellen Ruge and projection designer Will Duke) the action unfolds ingeniously from a world of pre-digital technology (such as the arrival of Air Force One in Beijing projected onto a series of stand-alone screens which rotate on a cleverly, and regularly, employed stage revolve).
The versatile stage design opens out to envision a China that the American people hadn’t seen since before the Maoist revolution of 1949. As it does so, the renowned repetition and variation of Adams’s music combines with an operatic heft that defies the definition of the composer as a “minimalist”. The result is a score that has both inherent momentum and an impressive sense of drama.
The opera itself is as much a work of universal theatre as it is a historical piece. Alice Goodman’s libretto sparks with wry humour, not least in its depiction of Nixon’s hawkish national security adviser Henry Kissinger (played with energetic, dark humour by the superb baritone David Stout) as a sadistic pervert.
There are outstanding performances by all of the leads. The glorious South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee is as powerful in her (often humorous) portrayal of Madame Mao as she is in her singing of the role.
Julia Sporsén’s Pat Nixon, Mark Le Brocq’s Mao and Nicholas Lester’s Chou En-lai are equally accomplished in their vivid characterisations. The exceptional African-American baritone Eric Greene’s Nixon is a sharp, by turns, earnest and knowingly ironic, portrait of a politician who was, in 1972, both seeking re-election and, very consciously, trying to write his own page in history.
Fulljames’s production (from the fantastic cast to the Scottish Opera orchestra under the baton of Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro) executes beautifully the opera’s shift in tone in the existential third act. Here memory, unfulfilled political and personal ambitions and the weight of mortality tower above Nixon’s “week that changed history”.
As Lester’s resigned, somewhat melancholic Chou exits the stage one can almost see the hand of history writing the damning epitaphs that both Nixon and Mao were powerless to prevent.
From modern mythology to the Ancient Greek variety, as Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) tackles Sophocles with the new solo show Antigone, Interrupted. The first choreography for SDT by Catalan dance maker Joan Clevillé (who was appointed artistic director of the company last year), the piece is performed by the superb French dancer Solène Weinachter.
The director has expressed his fascination with the modern resonances of the character of Antigone, the aristocratic Theban who rebelled against King Creon’s decree that the body of her brother Polynices (who had taken up arms against Thebes) be left unburied. However, rather than focus the piece precisely upon Antigone herself, Clevillé has cast Weinachter in an almost impossibly challenging array of roles.
The dancer appears as a conversationally informal version of herself, and also as a narrator and all of the key players in Sophocles’s drama (from Creon to the Chorus itself). Consequently, she finds herself engaged in a great many performative tasks that prevent her from getting to the tragic core of Antigone herself.
The pity of this is that Weinachter is a captivating performer, not least in the too few moments when she physicalises Antigone’s anguish and her terrible, sacrificial compulsion. If only Clevillé had taken the economical route of offering the audience some relatively brief, necessary narration interspersed with Weinachter’s performance of Antigone alone.
The overloading of Weinachter’s performance is all the more frustrating because the piece enjoys fine, minimal design, and a smart, atmospheric (if occasionally overcooked) soundscape.
The obvious comparison is with Ewan Downie’s recent, one-man Achilles for Glasgow-based Company of Wolves, which cut Homeric, poetic prose narration with a concentration upon the central character. It is a comparison that does not serve SDT’s uneven production well.
For tour dates for Antigone, Interrupted, visit: scottishdancetheatre.com
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 23, 2020
John Adams’s opera Nixon in China speaks both to its times and ours, John Fulljames, director of the new production by Scottish Opera, tells Mark Brown
In 1972 US president Richard Nixon made a week-long, official visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC); the first such visit by a US head of state. The stakes were extremely high.
If successful, the visit could create, for the first time, a US/China trade agreement. An improvement in US/Chinese diplomatic and trading relations could also lead to tensions in the relationship between the PRC and the Soviet Union (an important policy objective for Washington in the midst of the Cold War).
Add to that the possibility of China intervening diplomatically in Vietnam, thereby assisting the US to withdraw its troops from the war torn country (another crucial objective for Nixon). It isn’t difficult to see why the visit took on such a historic significance, both within the US and internationally.
Nixon arrived in Beijing with his wife, Pat, who, with a large American press corps in tow, would undertake a mini tour of China. When he touched down in China, he still was not certain that he would be granted an all-important meeting with Mao Tse-tung.
So iconic did Nixon’s visit become that the American composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman wrote an opera about it in the 1980s. First staged, in Houston, Texas, in 1987, Nixon in China won immediate acclaim for the ambition of Adams’s score and for its inclusion of a ballet section choreographed by the rising star of American dance Mark Morris.
Now, some 48 years on from the events, Scottish Opera (in co-production with the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid) is staging Adams’s famous piece. The production will be staged by English opera director John Fulljames, who is artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera.
When I meet Fulljames at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, in the midst of rehearsals, his enthusiasm for Adams’s opera is palpable. I ask him if, just days after the US presidential State of the Union address, in which Donald Trump made great play of his abrasive approach to economic relations with China, he feels contemporary global politics looking over his shoulder.
Opera has always had a sharp political relevance, the director says. “It’s easy for us to think of opera as something historic and remote. That’s because the canon is so weighted to the 19th century.”
However, he continues, in the 19th century opera was very often, “both an emotional and a political art form. There are lots of examples of operas by Verdi, for example Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball], which were hot potatoes, in political terms, at the time.”
Verdi’s 1859 opera was originally based upon the real life events surrounding the assassination of the Swedish king Gustav III in 1792. Under pressure from the censors, who did not take well to the story of the relatively recent killing of a European head of state, Verdi was forced to relocate the tale to colonial Boston.
All-in-all, as Fulljames points out, Verdi’s opera was very much at the sharp end of the contemporary politics of mid-19th-century Europe. Indeed, it was more contentious than anything Adams’s Nixon in China might have to say about the American presidency or, even, the Vietnam War.
Staging Nixon in China in Scotland in 2020 is, the director suggests, a very different proposition from presenting it in the US in 1987. Scottish audiences today, he believes, have a distance from the events that allow them to see the opera in the same kind of historical context as they would consider a work by Verdi or Mozart.
“What’s interesting about this piece is that, having once been contemporary, like the 19th-century operas were, it is now distanced from us”, says Fulljames. “Indeed, we’re dealing [in Nixon in China] with the events of another century, which took place almost 50 years ago.
“What must, for an audience in Houston, Texas in 1987, have felt like a docudrama – seeing events that they had watched on television in their living rooms being played out on an opera stage – is something completely different in Scotland in 2020; it’s a different part of the world, in a different time.”
This difference in place and time opens the opera out for the Scottish Opera audience, says the director. It does this, he contends, in two ways.
“Firstly, it allows us to connect to the essence of what’s going on, to the myth at the heart of the story [of Nixon’s visit to China]. It’s the value of perspective.
“You see truth differently because you’re further away from the picture. Arguably, that’s what opera does brilliantly anyway.
“Un Ballo in Maschera is brilliant, not because of the immediate, contemporary resonances in the 19th century, but because, at its heart, there’s a myth about political leadership which resonates across time. Opera is brilliant at telling emotional stories in a universal way. It liberates things from their context and finds the bigger picture.”
Which leads Fulljames to the other reason why Scottish audiences in 2020 should find Nixon in China such a rewarding opera. Liberated from the political specifics of Nixon’s visit, we will find, he says, that Adams’s 1987 piece is as much about great emotional and existential questions as was Verdi’s opera in 1859.
“Nixon in China is about who gets to construct narratives, and who gets to control history”, he comments. “The thing that, in the end, makes both Mao and Nixon tragic figures in this opera is that they both are aware that they have no control over their legacy.
“At the beginning of the opera, we might think that they are the two most powerful people in the world, but, ultimately, they’re utterly powerless in the face of death. Other people, such as the media and historians, are going to control their narratives in a way that leaves them naked.”
Although, for Fulljames, the power of the opera lies, first-and-foremost, in its universalism and its capacity to speak beyond its specific history, he does accept that audiences are bound to see contemporary political parallels. “I completely agree that there are lots of resonances between the story then and our world now”, he says.
“Nixon’s visit was politics staged for the media. The entire trip was about the construction of television images and photographs for voters back home.
“The audience wasn’t a Chinese audience, it was the American voter. It’s not that it was ‘fake news’, but it was constructed news.”
If the events depicted in Adams’s opera chime with our 21st-century media culture, the director also thinks the character of Pat Nixon finds very definite resonances in our contemporary modern world. In contrast with Nixon’s day, when the “First Lady” was expected to be relatively silent, it is not unusual for the wives of US presidents to become political figures in their own right.
“In Pat Nixon we see a consummate politician, who is by far the most eloquent character on stage. We can’t help but see in her Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.”
If the character of Pat Nixon becomes a representative figure (more akin to the last two Democratic Party “first ladies”, perhaps, than to Melania Trump), the opera throws up other questions of representation. In Fulljames production, the characters are, for the most part, played by performers who are not ethnically representative of them.
For example, Nixon is played by African-American baritone Eric Greene. Meanwhile, the role of Mao Tse-tung is performed by white, English tenor Mark Le Brocq.
Such casting in the theatre can lead to trouble. In 2017, a London production of English dramatist Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love (a typically abstract, metaphorical drama which is nominally set in ancient China), which was performed by white actors, found itself accused of “yellowface” casting.
That little episode says as much, perhaps, about the enduring demand, in England, for theatrical “naturalism” as it does about notions of political correctness. Fulljames believes that opera has a duty to be more ethnically representative of its audience (in Nixon in China, Greene and Le Brocq will be joined on-stage by South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee, who plays Madame Mao).
This does not necessarily mean, he continues, that it has to be naturalistic in its representation of characters’ ethnicity. Given the breadth of the subjects Nixon in China evokes for modern audiences (including, of course, the foreign policy of America’s first black president, Barack Obama), it is, he says, “really rich to have an American president played by a black singer.
“That means that both the ethnicity of the performer is present in the performance and also the ethnicity of the character. That richness is something that the opera stage offers, because it’s not a realistic art form.”
Much is said about Adams’s being a “minimalist” composer, as if that, somehow, makes his music more challenging than that of, say, Mozart or Verdi. Fulljames considers such opinions to be entirely erroneous.
“There is certainly a post-Second World War school of German modernist music which rips music apart”, he acknowledges, “but Adams doesn’t emerge from that tradition.
“He’s in the same tradition as [fellow American minimalists] Steve Reich and Philip Glass. That is music which is fundamentally easy to listen to…. If you put on a Philip Glass opera in London or New York, it sells out.”
Indeed, says the director, “Adams is far more playful than Reich or Glass. It feels like he was messing around with real world sounds. When Air Force One lands in Beijing at the beginning of the opera, you feel like you hear the engines.
“He’s also messing around with operatic history”, he adds. “That’s what’s extraordinary about this piece.
“It’s a grand opera that apes opera’s traditions of great arias. You feel the Queen of the Night [from Mozart’s Magic Flute] in Madam Mao.
“You feel a great political Verdi baritone, like Boccanegra, in Nixon. You get fantastic operatic choruses. You get a ballet, like those you see in grand French opera.”
Adams’s playfulness extends throughout the opera. Indeed, I suggest, audiences might be surprised, given the subject matter, to find that Nixon in China has a strong comic dimension.
Fulljames agrees. “I was fortunate enough to have a beer with John Adams when I was first working on this”, he remembers. “I was expecting him to say ‘get the politics right’, but he didn’t.
“What he said was, ‘the most important thing to get right is the humour.’ It’s a delicate humour that comes from detailed observation and from us recognising ourselves and our frailties. It mustn’t be overplayed. It must feel true.”
Nixon in China plays the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 18-22, and the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 27-29: scottishopera.org.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on February 16, 2020
Scotland’s small, but accomplished, children’s theatre sector has a fine track record of creating imaginative productions that thrill and fascinate their young audiences. Few companies have contributed more in this regard than Red Bridge Arts (producer of such brilliant shows as Stick By Me, Space Ape, Night Light and Black Beauty).
The North Queensferry-based company would appear to have another hit on its hands with Rosalind Sydney’s new adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much loved story of The Secret Garden. The play is, in some ways, a decidedly modern take on Hodgson Burnett’s tale of an orphan girl from colonial India who is sent to England to live in the grand house of her rich, reclusive uncle.
For a start, the little girl, Mary (who is played splendidly by Itxaso Moreno), has been orphaned, not by a cholera epidemic, but by a war. When she arrives in the palatial abode of Mr Craven, she is not only far from home, but also unable to speak English (she comforts herself by singing a folk song in the Basque language, which is Moreno’s mother tongue).
Lonely and afraid, Moreno’s Mary faces the redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Gavin Jon Wright) and the well-intentioned housemaid Martha (Sarah Miele) with a wonderfully comic truculence. The actor imbues her character with such boldness, in both personality and physicality, that she creates an almost instant rapport with the young audience. That identification is palpably constant throughout Mary’s journey from bereaved sullenness to the joys of friendship and discovery in the late Mrs Craven’s beautiful garden.
Played by a cast of just three, necessity (as so often in Scottish theatre) proves to be the mother of invention as actors gender shift between roles. Wright doubles up as Martha’s intrepid, younger brother Dickon, and Miele plays Mr Craven’s sickly, and comically paranoid, son Colin.
The Secret Garden is a story well-suited to our anxious times, directed, as it is, towards human solidarity in the face of fear and loss. This strong staging of it enjoys tight co-direction by Sydney and Ian Cameron, smart, semi-minimalist design by Karen Tennant, excellent, atmospheric sound and music by Danny Krass, and delightfully exuberant movement direction by Robbie Synge.
For those of us (in Scotland, a clear majority) who are still reeling from the victory of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in December’s general election, Mark Thomas’s latest show, 50 Things About Us, promised to be something of an antidote. The Prime Minister – who equates Muslim women wearing the niqab with “letterboxes” and calls gay men “tank-topped bum boys” – is, the self-proclaimed “ex-anarchist” comedian and activist proclaims, like an “alcoholic Hugh Grant in a fat suit”.
The “us” in the title of the show (which plays Dundee and Stirling next month) are the peoples of the UK. The “50 things” are those aspects of the state and the folk who live in it which Thomas loves and hates.
One of the things he hates, as he made clear first off in Glasgow, is English nationalism. If or when the people of Scotland vote for independence, it will, Thomas thinks, be like we’re finally leaving an abusive relationship.
Other targets include Tory barrow boy MP Mark Francois (an “EDL Care Bear”) and land use in the UK (six per cent is given over to grouse moors, he says, which is more than for domestic dwellings). The things he loves include the Daily Mail-confounding fact that the London Bridge attacker was stopped by someone armed with a narwhal tusk and a prisoner on day release.
Typically of Thomas’s stage shows, there is an impressive amount of research and a prodigious memory behind what almost seems like a stream of consciousness. Typically, there’s also time for some asides.
He loves the Glasgow Film Theatre, but hated the movie he watched there (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks, is “so saccharine it’s got diabetes”). He’s also not a fan of theatregoers lighting up the auditorium with their mobile phones during the performance (“Tory behaviour”), and, un-Britishly, challenged a patron who was doing so.
We have become accustomed to Thomas’s stage works (such as Showtime from the Frontline and 100 Acts of Minor Dissent) having conceptual, theatrical and technical elements that distinguish them from stand-up comedy. In truth, 50 Things About Us, in which the comic speaks with only the occasional aid of a tablet computer, is much closer to a comedy club routine (and it’s none the worse for that).
As ever, Thomas’s intelligence, mischief and anger are a winning combination. If only he could be granted his wish to become director of the British Museum, whereby he’d return its imperial plunder and open not one, but two rooms dedicated to the late Ian Dury.
For tour details for The Secret Garden, visit: redbridgearts.co.uk
For tour details for Mark Thomas, visit: markthomasinfo.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 16, 2020
Antigone, Interrupted is the first choreography to be created for Scottish Dance Theatre by the company’s new artistic director, Catalan dance maker Joan Clevillé. Looking, with distress, at what was happening to the bodies of those who were registering their political protest – not only in his native Catalonia, but in other parts of the world, such as Hong Kong and Chile – Clevillé alighted upon the character of Antigone, the self-sacrificial heroine who defies an unjust ruler in Sophocles’s Greek tragedy.
The outcome of his contemplation is this solo work for the extraordinary French dancer Solène Weinachter. The performer begins the hour-long show seated, beside a member of the audience. Her initial character, who is informal and conversational, is, seemingly, herself. She speaks of seeing a school production of Antigone as a child, and of her family.
Indeed, when she breaks into the performance space, Weinachter speaks a lot. It fashionable in contemporary dance theatre to have performers talk, and Clevillé gives his dancer numerous oratorical tasks, as narrator and all of the key figures in Sophocles’s drama (from King Creon to the Chorus and, of course, Antigone herself).
Often, in such works, a problem arises from dancers’ simple lack of a facility for language. There is no such difficulty here. In her strongly French-accented speech, Weinachter is, by turns, powerfully expressive, charming and humorous.
The issue lies not in the dancer’s linguistic expression, but in the uncomfortable, overloaded construction of Clevillé’s work. Some simple, clear narration of the essentials of the story would have sufficed. But as Weinachter shifts from the bereft prince Haemon to a modern-day observer of “black bodies” and “queer bodies” broken in protest, one yearns for a more precise concentration upon the central character of Antigone.
This is all the more frustrating because, in the too few moments when she expresses the heroine’s anguish in movement rather than words, the dancer is absolutely compelling. Contorted, bent out of human shape by Creon’s refusal – on pain of death – of burial rights for Antigone’s brother Polynices, her dancing is simultaneously painful and beautiful.
Despite the overcooked narrative structure, Clevillé has kept things admirably simple in other aspects of the production. Weinachter’s costume – modern and monochrome – is perfectly suited to a piece that seeks to transport an Attic tragedy into the present day.
The use of light and shadow (by lighting designer Emma Jones) is stark and dramatic. The soundscape (by Luke Sutherland) is ingenious and atmospheric, not least in its use of the recorded human voice, even if the amplified sound effects applied to the Chorus are somewhat incongruous.
This occasionally transfixing production (which is touring Scotland, London and Leeds) feels like a missed opportunity. Less really would have been more.
Touring until May 30: scottishdancetheatre.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 15, 2020
The annual, week-long Manipulate festival (which ended in Edinburgh yesterday) has become an indispensable part of the country’s theatre ecology. Indeed, beyond the Edinburgh festivals in August, it is Scotland’s most important showcase of international visual theatre, puppetry and animation.
The beautiful, wordless piece After Chekhov is a fine example of why the programme (which is produced by Puppet Animation Scotland) is a proverbial good deed in a naughty world. This 65-minute work is a gorgeously impressionistic, almost ethereal meditation on the titular siblings of Anton Chekhov’s famous play Three Sisters.
A delightful, intriguing and compelling work of theatrical art, the piece all but dispenses with narrative. Dramas such as this befuddle the traditional British conception of theatre as something which is defined by language, story, plot and unambiguous meaning.
Franco-Russian company Samoloet stand in a different tradition, one in which theatre can be as abstract and evocative as a string quartet by Anton Webern or a painting by Kazimir Malevich. So it is that we encounter the sisters, each a mirror of the other, shifting between seasons, moving through childhood into youth, in a simple, enchanting approximation of the petit-bourgeois, rural Russia in which they were raised.
Carefully considered, minimal set design combines with subtle lighting, shade and shadow to evoke a shared life of spiritual and emotional discovery. Through physical performance, puppetry and object theatre, the three performers draw us ever closer into the almost hermetically sealed world of their characters.
The use of music and sound is equally, and wonderfully, atmospheric. At the outset of the play we hear a military band departing, leaving behind them a world of classical piano music and Russian folk tunes. The indeterminate noise of a single, unknown person, busy doing who-knows-what, gives way to the howling of dogs and the cooing of doves.
When the sisters are not represented by the performers, they are manifested by little puppets or dolls. As autumn turns to winter, tiny Christmas trees and associated paraphernalia of the Yuletide season emerge, in miniature, from inside leather suitcases.
When the sisters peer inquisitively from their house into the pastoral wonderland in which they live, they do so through elegantly wrought metal windows that will, in a later scene, fold, endearingly, into little beds. There are many such moments of ingenuity.
A photo album is opened and memories tumble out of it. Soon, photos are being arranged on the floor, fitting cleverly into the rectangular shadows that are cast through the spaces in the album (which itself will soon become a bleak, grand dacha with many windows).
After Chekhov is an exquisite, emotive, sometimes surprisingly humorous, and timeless work of theatre. As our culture is increasingly saturated by the digitised and virtualised, there is something reassuringly human about a work of live drama that is so defiantly, and paradoxically, spiritual and material.
There is a strong spiritual, and, indeed, abstract dimension in Island Home, a 40-minute series of narrative vignettes by the Slovakian theatremaker Katarini Cakova, who is known as Katanari. Figures appear on walls, illuminated from little torches; a townscape pops up from the pages of a book; the woman who is the subject a simple, symbolic story is represented by a puppet comprised only of a head and arms.
A succession of tiny, diverse objects, puppets of various kinds and sizes, masks and handmade props appear as Katanari speaks her series of very short stories about spiritual and physical journeys. These range from the tale of a young woman who doesn’t want to travel (her journey being within herself) to a simple evocation of the lives of the many thousands (refugees from war, persecution, climate chaos and poverty) who take to the oceans in search of sanctuary.
Deliberately slow burning and episodic, the piece moves from moments of darkness to little, table top scenes, often illuminated by a small, adjustable reading light. The texts themselves, which are like prose poems, are similarly intermittent.
In truth, in the English language, at least, Katanari’s speech is somewhat stilted and lacking in expressiveness. One can’t help but wish that her inventive, artisanal theatre making was joined to a linguistic proficiency that was, if not necessarily akin to that of an actor, then, at least, more lyrical.
The Manipulate festival may be over, but one of its headline shows, Fault Lines by English company Two Destination Language, continues touring until next Saturday (including performances in Selkirk and St Andrews). Set on a fashion catwalk, featuring five female characters, the show allows you to choose your own soundtrack (courtesy of a smartphone app and a pair of headphones). A fashion show unlike any other, it promises to combine reality TV show America’s Next Top Model with the work of the great cultural theorist Susan Sontag.
Fault Lines tours until February 15. For details, visit: twodestinationlanguage.com
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 9, 2020
More than 300 years of the Union have taken their toll on Scotland’s cultural self-confidence. As a consideration of our theatre culture shows, things have improved markedly in recent decades. However, there’s still a way to go, writes the Sunday National’s drama critic Mark Brown
In the early years of this century I attended the Sydney Festival of the arts in Australia. As part of the programme, the Festival was screening the recently made series of films of all 19 plays by the great Irish author Samuel Beckett.
To launch the series in Sydney there was a public discussion with Michael Colgan, then artistic director of The Gate theatre in Dublin, and a co-producer of the project. It was hosted by one of Australia’s leading theatre critics. I cannot recall the man’s name, but I do remember distinctly my visceral shudder of embarrassment when, in his introductory remarks, he turned to Colgan and said: “please excuse my halting, Antipodean tongue.”
It was, for me, a shockingly blatant expression of the Australian cultural cringe. Faced with a leading cultural figure from one of the “old countries” of the Anglophone world (albeit one that had been forced to speak English on pain of death), this Australian intellectual was all but tugging his forelock, and literally apologising for a self-perceived, inherent, national weakness in the speaking of the language. To my astonishment, no-one in the predominantly Australian audience seemed perturbed by this ignominious expression of self-asserted inferiority.
The man’s cringe-inducing apology for himself, and, indeed, his country folk, discomfited and revolted me in equal measure. As a Scot, I was all-too-aware that my national heritage was steeped in embarrassment and a lack of confidence. Like many, working-class Scottish people of my generation, I remember being told by relatives and teachers that good Scots words were, in fact, “slang” and that I should speak “proper English”.
So, it was horrible, therefore, to hear, in the mouth of a fellow theatre critic, a cowering self-consciousness that spoke to centuries of being denigrated as the descendants of criminals. Here, in the 21st century, was the kind of deferential, colonial mindset that had allowed so many young, Australian men to be used as cannon fodder at Gallipoli. A mindset, indeed, that keeps Australia attached to the British Crown and maintains the British flag on Australia’s national standard to this day.
My sense of discomfort and offence was heightened, I realise now, by events in Scotland in the previous decade. The overwhelming votes, in 1997, both for Scotland’s first democratic parliament and for tax varying powers for that parliament, and the establishment of the legislature two years later, were, in large part, the expression of a growing self-confidence in the country.
That burgeoning self-belief was, in many ways, as much a cultural phenomenon as a political one. Artists had often been at least as prominent as politicians in the numerous campaigns during the 20th century for various forms of Scottish self-rule, up to and including independence.
If we take just one art form, theatre (the one I know best), as an example, it’s clear that cultural self-assertion gained increasing traction as the century went on. In the 1920s and 1930s the socialist coalminer, poet and playwright Joe Corrie was writing plays, such as In Time O’ Strife, in his own working-class, Scottish dialect.
He was followed, in the 1940s and 1950s, by Ena Lamont Stewart, whose famous play Men Should Weep raged against the plight of the people living in the slums of the Gorbals in Glasgow. Importantly, like Corrie, Lamont Stewart was writing in a Scots-English tongue that reflected the real language used by people in the streets of Scotland.
Difficult though it might be to believe, such plays were actually pretty path-breaking in their approach to language. Thanks to Scotland’s very thorough, Calvinist Reformation – which, as our former Makar (national poet) and leading dramatist Liz Lochhead so accurately puts it, “stamped out all drama and dramatic writing for centuries” – there is very little by way of indigenous Scottish plays between Sir David Lyndsay’s 1540 classic Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis and the works of the early-20th century (unless you want to include John Home’s 1756 drama Douglas, which is better remembered for an over-enthusiastic Edinburgh patron’s cry of “Whaur’s yer Wully Shakespeare nou?” than for any of its artistic merits).
However, whilst the likes of the Scottish National Players, Glasgow Unity Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre were staging new, Scottish plays in Scots dialects and accents, the Scottish cultural cringe continued. For many, north as well as south of the Border, Scotland remained – as the names of a famous 19th-century rail company and a recently renamed Edinburgh hotel had it – “North Britain”.
So, whilst it was permissible to perform plays written by Scots and set in Scotland in Scottish voices, classical dramas continued to be played in “proper English”. That is to say that Scotland’s actors were taking to the stage speaking in Received Pronunciation (RP), or “BBC English”, the default, posh, southern English dialect, versions of which the London Establishment had, for centuries, insisted were the highest manifestations of the English language.
In fairness, we cannot, as the Irish unquestionably can regarding their mother tongue, simply blame the big, bad English for the considerable loss of the Scots language (how many Scottish children today know the meaning of the word “stramash”, much less, Heaven forfend, “houghmagandie”?). It must also be said, where the vicious persecution of the Gaelic is concerned, many a Scot played a shameful role in that xenophobic endeavour.
Many of us who strive for Scottish independence (as I, dear reader, certainly do) are well aware that we owe our place in the tattered, disreputable state that calls itself the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland not so much to “the English” as to what our national Bard Robert Burns called, with unerring precision, “a parcel of rogues in a nation”. Having bankrupted the country in their mind-bogglingly venal and stupid colonial adventure in Darien, Panama in the 1690s, the “great and good” of Scotland left themselves no choice but to throw themselves on the dubious mercy of the English ruling class in London.
The results, of course, were the Acts of Union of 1707 passed in London and Edinburgh, the latter parliament dissolving itself. Culturally, it led the aforementioned spineless “rogues” of Scotland’s ruling class to fall over themselves in the unedifying spectacle of throwing off their own language in a ludicrous and desperate rush to speak what they imagined to be “proper English”; a process satirised deliciously in Robert McLellan’s hilarious 1948 play The Flouers o Edinburgh.
Scotland’s disastrous excuse for “rulers” effectively invented the Scottish cultural cringe in 1707. It’s a measure of just how tenaciously that cringe endured that acting students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) were fighting for the right to speak on-stage in their own voice, rather than affect an RP accent, as late as the 1970s.
Of course, the likes of Corrie, Lamont Stewart and McLellan were followed, in the 1970s and 1980s, by a string of fine dramatists who wrote for Scottish audiences in Scottish voices. To talk of John Byrne (The Slab Boys), Chris Hannan (Shining Souls), Iain Heggie (The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer), Liz Lochhead (Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off) and Linda McLean (Riddance) is to mention but a few.
These writers were followed by a generation of outstanding playwrights – David Greig (Europe), Zinnie Harris (Further Than the Furthest Thing), David Harrower (Knives in Hens), Anthony Neilson (The Wonderful World of Dissocia) – who tended to write in something closer to standard English. This was evidence, not of a return to the cultural cringe, but of the next stage in Scottish theatre’s journey of self-discovery.
The generation of playwrights who emerged in the 1990s, more, arguably, than any other previous generation of Scottish dramatists, were strident Europeans and internationalists who were writing almost as much for audiences abroad as they were for theatre lovers here at home. The success of that effort is attested by the regular productions of their plays in dozens of languages, from Turkish to Slovene (on a recent visit to Portugal, I came across a new, Portuguese-language production of Scottish dramatist Gregory Burke’s 2001 comedy Gagarin Way at the Municipal Theatre in the little city of Barreiro).
Which is not to say that we’re out of the woods yet. Even now, as Scottish culture proudly asserts its place on the global stage, examples of the cultural cringe pop up, often in unexpected places.
On December 8 of last year I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural Cameron Lecture, in honour of the late, celebrated drama lecturer Dr Alasdair Cameron, at the University of Glasgow. The lecture was initiated by award-winning stage director John Tiffany (a former student of Cameron’s). It was delivered, memorably, by the inimitable star of stage and screen Alan Cumming.
The evening was, as one might expect, about as far from the cultural cringe as one could imagine. Cumming spoke fascinatingly about how his Scottish brogue, whilst never an impediment to his successful work in the United States, had been problematic during his time on the London stage.
The actor, singer and activist showed us a particularly egregious, Scotophobic cartoon which appeared in one London newspaper alongside a review of one of his classical performances. Lest we comfort ourselves with the idea that such prejudice has since disappeared, Cumming reminded us of the anti-Scottish bigotry (“whining Scottish accents”, if you please) splurted over the pages of the Sunday Times by right-wing, Tory sketch writer, turned supposed “theatre critic”, and archetypal wee nyaff, Quentin Letts in his review of last year’s Peer Gynt at the National Theatre in London.
However, in the programme for the event, I noticed that, whilst the numerous London and New York awards picked up by both Cumming and Tiffany over the years were detailed and celebrated, not a word was written about the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) which both had received. This struck me immediately as the sub-conscious working of our old friend the Scottish cultural cringe.
Even here, at a celebration of an academic who championed Scottish theatre, at which the speaker was an acclaimed actor whose cultural and political pride in his Scottishness are well known, there was an expression of the old cultural inferiority complex. The measure of the success of a Scottish artist (Cumming) or an artist who made his name in Scotland (Tiffany) was their ability to make it in London or New York. The Scottish recognition didn’t even merit a mention.
We will know that we are, finally, close to consigning the cultural cringe to the dustbin of history when the acclaim of our compatriots here in Scotland is considered at least as valuable as that of critics in the metropolises of England and the United States.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on February 2, 2020