Special report: Scotland’s theatre artists stand up for Ukraine

Scotland’s theatre artists stand up for Ukraine

Glasgow’s Tron Theatre hosts a performed reading of a modern Ukrainian classic to raise money for the DEC Ukraine Appeal.

Special report by Mark Brown

Natal’ya Vorozhbit

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine goes into its second, brutal month, people in all walks of public life are asking themselves what they can do to assist the Ukrainian people. That is certainly true of the Scottish theatre community, which is hosting a major fundraising event at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow on Tuesday, March 29.

   Under the direction of the Tron’s artistic director Andy Arnold, a cast of 25 actors will present a rehearsed reading of The Grain Store, a modern classic by Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit. All proceeds will go the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Appeal.

   Vorozhbit’s play was selected following discussions Arnold had with a number of theatre colleagues, including the playwright Nicola McCartney, who is a personal friend of the Ukrainian writer. The Grain Store is a powerful piece about an early-20th century cataclysm in Ukraine.

   The drama is set in a Ukrainian village during the Holodomor, the famine manufactured by the Soviet authorities in the early-1930s. A consequence of Stalin’s chaotic policy of forced land collectivisation, the famine took the lives of almost four million Ukrainians.

   In its depiction of loss and suffering, and its sheer scale, Vorozhbit’s play seemed to Arnold to be “right for the occasion”. Early in the piece we encounter the “agitators”, a street theatre company whose job it is to promote the Soviet system. As such, they encourage the rural population to demand that supposedly wealthy peasants, known as Kulaks, hand over their food to the people.

   This state-sponsored “agitation” sets neighbours against each other, and, finally, leads to catastrophe. “There’s one moment in the play, when people are dying of starvation”, Arnold comments.

   “Then it’s announced that an American journalist is going to come and visit the village. So [the Soviet authorities] get the people who are still healthy enough to stand, put them into smart clothes, and put loads of food on the table.

   “They have the people practising dancing to create this image of a wonderful, healthy village. They try to keep the people away from the food until the journalist arrives, so that they can film it.”

   Arnold was astonished to hear recently of an event during the current Russian invasion that carries echoes of the pathos and the bleak humour of this scene from Vorozhbit’s play. “I heard last week that, in one of the besieged cities in Ukraine, where people were starving, the Russians brought a truck of food, and they had a film crew with them.

   “Even though the people were starving, they all refused flatly to have any of it.” In the end, the director says, the Russian forces had to resort to having members of their own ranks pretend to be grateful Ukrainians eating the food gifted to them by their invaders.

   Vorozhbit herself will be painfully aware of the terrible similarities between aspects of the Holodomor and the current catastrophe in her homeland. Her friend McCartney reports that the dramatist is now a refugee in the Austrian capital Vienna, where she has fled with her 11-year-old daughter and her mother.

   The Ukrainian writer has sent a letter to her Scottish theatre friends, which she has asked to be read out at the Tron during the fundraising event. In the letter, Arnold says, the playwright explains that, “she’s left her husband, a writer, in Kyiv, ready to fight, with a gun in his hand.”

   The charity event is intended, Arnold says, to reflect “some sort of connection between us, as theatre people in Scotland, with the theatre community in Ukraine.” Come March 29, the director and the large cast will spend all day rehearsing the play and. “You can do quite a lot in a day”, says Arnold, who intends to be on-stage throughout the performance, facilitating the movement of the actors.

   Arnold was mentored earlier in his career by the late, great Polish stage director Tadeusz Kantor. “He used to be on-stage, often moving his people about”, Arnold remembers. “I’m going to be on-stage reading key stage directions and moving the actors about, if they’re not quite sure where they’re going.”

   Although the cast will be seated at times, this will not be one of those rehearsed readings in which the actors sit on chairs for the entire duration and simply read from their scripts. Arnold wants the players to move around the stage, from-time-to-time, to give a sense of the movement of people depicted by Vorozhbit’s play.

   One of the reasons The Grain Store was selected for the March 29 event was that it enables a large number of actors to get involved. Arnold is not finding it difficult to assemble a cast of 25 players.

   “There were a few people I contacted who said they weren’t available”, the director notes. “But when they found out what it was, they said ‘right, I’m going to make myself available.’”

   On the night, the play will be read by a diverse company ranging from trained actors among the Tron Theatre’s staff to long-established stars of the Scottish stage, such as Alison Peebles and Gerry Mulgrew.

   The Tron will be paying all of the actors for a day’s rehearsal, plus an evening performance. However, Arnold adds, “they’ve got the option of donating it on to the charity, which I know a lot of them will do.”

   In another expression of solidarity from within the theatre community, the set and costume designer Tom Piper has made a special donation. Piper designed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Grain Store back in 2009.

   The original drawings for that show are being framed and will be available for purchase at the Tron, with all money raised going to the DEC Ukraine Appeal.

   “We’ll just work away”, says Arnold, “and try to find any other ways we can to raise money for the appeal.”

The rehearsed reading of The Grain Store will take place on Tuesday, March 29 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. For tickets, visit: tron.co.uk

This article was originally published in the Sunday National on March 27, 2022

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview of The Metamorphosis, by Vanishing Point theatre company and Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione

The Transformation of a Kafka masterpiece  

Closed down by the pandemic after just five performances, Vanishing Point theatre company’s version of Franz Kafka’s famous novella The Metamorphosis wowed the critics. Now it makes its eagerly awaited return, writes Mark Brown

Nico Guerzoni as Gregor in The Metamorphosis. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Two years ago – when the Covid-19 pandemic had already wreaked havoc in China and Italy and the countries of the UK were on the brink of their first lockdown – Scottish theatre company Vanishing Point premiered its remarkable staging of Franz Kafka’s great novella The Metamorphosis. A co-production with Italian company Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione, the piece – in which Gregor Samsa famously awakes to find himself “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” – would prove to be unintentionally prescient for a society in which people would soon be confined to their homes and cut off from loved ones.

   The production had only five performances at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre before the great shutdown. Director Matt Lenton remembers the “atmospherically weird limbo” of the days before lockdown, “which felt like a Kafka story.”

   Twenty-four months later, the “new normal” finds us gripped by anxiety over the war in Ukraine. It is, Lenton says with dark humour, a good time to bring the piece back for a four-city tour of Scotland (beginning in Glasgow, before taking in Dundee, Inverness and Edinburgh). The director is “delighted”, he says, to be reviving The Metamorphosis now, “when we have a whole new global crisis.”

   Audiences may well find that the production “sheds a different kind of light” on the Ukraine conflict, he suggests. “That, ultimately, is the brilliance of Kafka. He’s able to put the human being at the centre of the socio-political mess.”

   It’s hard to disagree with Lenton’s assessment of Kafka as a writer of fictions that are powerfully universal and profoundly humane. For example, both The Metamorphosis and, his magnum opus, The Trial are widely considered to speak insightfully to the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, despite both being published years before Hitler came to power.

   Creating a stage production of The Metamorphosis presents the theatre-maker with a problem. “Kafka said he never wanted the creature [that Gregor has become] to be illustrated”, Lenton explains. “He wanted his readers to imagine the creature.

   “If you visualise the insect too specifically, it makes it easier for the reader, or the audience member, to say, ‘oh, that’s not me!’” Such a disassociation from Gregor and his plight would run contrary, both to Kafka’s original intentions and the purposes of Lenton’s production.

   Readers of the novella are with Gregor throughout, and they create their own visualisation of him. They also associate deeply with the protagonist’s awful predicament.

   Gregor’s human mind is trapped in the most un-human-like body. It’s a situation that overflows with metaphorical possibilities.

   Lenton’s solution to this “challenge” is to have Gregor performed in human form, leaving us, the audience, to imagine his physical transformation. The character is played by Italian actor Nico Guerzoni, who attempts to communicate, not in the crackling insect noises of the novella, but in un-translated Italian.

   The production goes to some lengths, in other words, to render the character of Gregor as human as possible. In fact, it’s worth noting that Guerzoni is a trans actor, who identified as female when Lenton first knew him. There are interesting parallels, the director believes, between the persecution that the transformed Gregor faces and trans people’s experience of oppression.

   In Kafka’s book, Gregor’s sudden, unexplained and catastrophic metamorphosis is bound up with his employment as a salesman for a highly bureaucratic company. Lenton’s version updates that aspect of the story, casting the unfortunate protagonist as a modern day delivery cyclist.

   In the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, the director observes, many eastern and central European writers – such as Dostoevsky, Gogol and Kafka – were “fixated on the bureaucracy of work environments.” The nature of work in European societies has changed markedly since then, he notes.

   Now, he continues, the so-called “gig economy”, in which employment is much less certain and precarious, has come to the fore. Lenton is pretty sceptical of “these contemporary companies that call employees ‘partners’, but there’s no partnership at all.”

   Indeed, some employers in the gig economy, such as Uber, have stood up in court and denied that they even are employers. They have contended, instead, that they merely provide apps, and that the private hire drivers and delivery workers who use the apps are “independent contractors”.

   For Lenton, such arrangements make the huge gig economy companies “faceless” in relation to their employees. “That’s the facelessness that you see in Kafka’s The Trial and The Metamorphosis.

   “You see representatives of the bank in The Trial. In The Metamorphosis, the boss turns up at Gregor’s door within minutes of him being late for work.

   “But the organisation behind those individuals is faceless. It’s just this big machine.”

   If the casting of Gregor as a contemporary delivery cyclist is a thematic choice, it is also, as Lenton explains, a visual one. “When I was thinking about this show, and asking myself ‘what would Gregor be?’ I was seeing all these people riding around with these great, big beetle-like bags on their backs.”

   Gregor’s entrapment may be strongly connected with his sense of duty (he labours at a job he hates in order to save his family from poverty), but it has many more metaphorical implications. For instance, Gregor’s physical transformation enables his family to increasingly dehumanise him.

   The incremental erosion of the family’s sympathy for Gregor is reminiscent, for Lenton, of the stages in the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. “I wanted a similar process with Gregor.

   “At the beginning, he’s wearing stripey pyjamas, but the audience shouldn’t see them as anything other than stripey pyjamas. It’s only the context of the end of the show that makes them look like a different kind of pyjama.”

   From the world of work in the 21st century to the shadow of the Holocaust, Kafka’s novella continues to be frighteningly rich in meaning. Lenton’s bleakly humorous, visually impressive production is worthy of the great work of literature upon which it is based.

The Metamorphosis tours March 16 to April 16. An abridged, two-actor version (titled The Metamorphosis: Unplugged) will tour April 25 to May 20. For further information, visit: vanishing-point.org

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on March 13, 2022

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview of Stand By, by Adam McNamara

Stand by for a truly honest police drama

Former police officer Adam McNamara is reviving his “warts and all” stage play about Scottish policing, writes Mark Brown

Stand By by Adam McNamara. Photo: Eoin Carey

Recent months and years have not been kind to the reputation of the police. The rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, the sharing of photographs of the bodies of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry by officers of the Met, and revelations of appalling misogyny, racism and bullying at Charing Cross police station in London have all contributed to a collapse in confidence in the police.

   Here in Scotland, the inquiry into the death in 2015 of Sheku Bayoh – a 31-year-old father of two from Sierra Leone – whilst in the custody of police officers in Kirkcaldy is on-going.

   However, despite the mounting evidence of a deeply worrying culture of discrimination and violence within the UK’s police forces, the representation of the police in television drama remains overwhelmingly positive. According to Adam McNamara, a former police officer of seven years standing, most TV cop shows haven’t moved much beyond the Dixon of Dock Green stereotype of the kindly Bobby on the beat.

   Indeed, it was McNamara’s first-hand experience of working on a BBC police drama that led him to quit the project and turn, instead, to writing the stage play Stand By. Set among riot police who are awaiting orders in the back of a van, the play (which premiered in 2017) reflects the writer’s experience within the police service.

   After two years working on the BBC drama The Job, McNamara was, he says, “so jaded” that he had to pack it in. “The police advisers that they have [on TV police dramas] feel that they have to continually show the police in a really positive light”, the playwright continues.

   For example, the perceived need to sanitise the police, combined with matters of taste and decency, led to a farcical situation over the use of language. “The c-word gets used quite a lot within the police”, comments McNamara.

   “The BBC said, ‘oh, we can only use that once.’ I was like, ‘once an episode?’ And they said, ‘no, no! Once a series!’”

   Unable to thole the BBC restrictions, the former cop turned to the comparatively uncensored space that is theatre. On stage, McNamara says, “we don’t have that issue [of restrictive producers].

   “My play is taken from my own experiences [as a serving police officer]. Conversations that I’ve had, or heard, incidents that I’ve attended, the opinions of cops that are never really shown on television.”

   Stand By premiered at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews in 2017, before going on to have a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe of that year. Pleased though he was to receive positive reviews in Edinburgh, McNamara was particularly delighted to get positive feedback from police officers.

   “I really wanted cops to say to me that they enjoyed it”, he explains. “And that’s what I got from them, which was brilliant.”

   Which is not to say that the play paints a positive picture of the police or policing in the 21st century. McNamara remembers online criticism, during the 2017 run of the play, which accused his drama of being recruitment propaganda for the police.

   He considers that to be a ludicrous suggestion. “If people see this play and it makes them want to join the police, they shouldn’t be allowed to join”, he says.

   “This is a warts and all story. This is about the people who, yes, put themselves in harm’s way, and I know there have been a lot of good cops.

   “But I also know there are a lot of quiet cops. There are a lot of cops who don’t want to rock the boat.

   “They don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. They don’t want to complain about colleagues, because there’s a culture in the police that’s very like criminals, where you don’t grass people up. That is inherent in the police.”

   The writer “doesn’t care”, he says, if some cops or commentators challenge the veracity of his picture of the internal culture of the police. “I’ve seen it and I’ve heard it, and I didn’t say anything. I was part of the problem.”

   Writing the play was, McNamara says, a process of personal “catharsis” for him. “I feel that the police should be held to the highest standards at all times. People should do that when they’re in uniform as well.”

   It is incumbent on serving officers, he believes, to “call out” bad and discriminatory practice by fellow police officers. “We used to have question and answer sessions after shows”, he remembers, “and some police bosses would stay behind and try to defend the status quo.

   “They’d say things like, ‘there’s a lot of poetic license in this play, right?’ And I’d say, ‘no, there isn’t.’”

   McNamara’s time in the police was spent in Dundee and Angus. Dealing with an overwhelmingly white population, he recalls stopping a person of colour only once in his seven years of service. Many Scottish officers have a similar experience of predominantly white populations, and can be “apathetic” about police racism as a consequence, the writer believes.

   All of which leads to the inevitable question, what led McNamara himself to leave the police force? “Because I’ve always wanted to be an actor”, he says, simply.

   A friend coaxed him into auditioning for drama schools as a mature student. He soon found himself on the acting course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). “On my last night shift in the police I was assaulted four times and dealt with a suicide”, he says, “and on the Monday I had a movement class.”

   From there McNamara – who, as well as being the author of Stand By, plays one of the officers in the drama – was soon being advised by award-winning stage and screen writer Gregory Burke (of Black Watch fame) to turn one of his screenplay scenes into a stage play. The result is Stand By.

Stand By tours Scotland between March 11 and April 9. For further details, visit: scottishtheatreproducers.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on March 6, 2022

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Edinburgh Festivals 2021

From a giant lobster to a niqabi ninja

As the Edinburgh festivals make their welcome return, Sunday National theatre critic Mark Brown casts his eye over the live, in-person work on offer

Domhnall Gleeson and Aoife Duffin in rehearsals for Medicine. Photo: Sarah Weal

It is hard to imagine a more hopeful sign of Scotland’s progress in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic than the return of the Edinburgh festivals in just a few days’ from now. The coronavirus-enforced closure of last year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and Festival Fringe marked the first cancellation of the programmes in their illustrious, 73-year history.

   That felt like a hammer blow to a Scotland that was already reeling from the terrible loss of life, damage to health and dreadful social consequences of Covid. Indeed, this time last year, there was understandable despondency about the future for the performing arts.

   Indoor theatre venues, with their audiences seated in close proximity to each other, would be among the first public buildings to close and, we feared, the last to re-open. So it has proved.

   However, thanks, primarily, to the remarkable vaccine rollout, the return of live, in-person (and, in some cases, even indoor) theatre has come quicker than many of us had feared. The Scottish Government’s current rule, that audience members in indoor venues must wear face coverings and be seated one metre apart, makes theatre a difficult proposition, in commercial terms.

   That said, in public health terms, it’s preferable to the reckless free-for-all being promoted in England by the Johnson administration.

   So, the Edinburgh festivals make their Covid-era return, carefully, tentatively and with a mix of live, in-person productions and online offerings. The goal for 2022, surely, is an EIF and Fringe that are constituted overwhelmingly, if not almost entirely, by in-person work.

   What follows, therefore, is a guide to some of the potential highlights in live, in-person performance in the 2021 festival programmes.

   The headline theatre production in Edinburgh this month is, arguably, Enda Walsh’s Medicine (Traverse Theatre, Aug 4-29). Presented as part of the EIF, it is the latest drama from the pen of the writer of the bleakly hilarious Edinburgh Fringe hit The Walworth Farce.

   Boasting a strong cast led by the famous Irish film actor Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, The Revenant, the Harry Potter series), the play tackles the subject of mental health from a darkly comic perspective. Walsh has earned comparisons between his theatre work and the plays of the great absurdist Eugène Ionesco. Medicine seems set to enhance that reputation.

   The play begins with our protagonist, John Kane, sitting on a hospital trolley. Soon he finds himself encountering a diverse series of characters, including a jazz percussionist, two women called Mary and, inevitably, a giant lobster.

   There will, one suspects, be humour of a very different kind in Sex Education Xplorers (S.E.X.) (Summerhall, Aug 6-29), by theatre inventor extraordinaire Mamoru Iriguchi. Part of the excellent Made in Scotland showcase, and aimed at audience members aged 12 and over, the show promises to be “an eye-opening experience for teenagers, and everyone who missed the sex education they deserved at school.”

   Iriguchi’s previous show Eaten was a piece of theatre for children in which a large lion and a super-sized jobby (Dr Poo of the Pooniversity) provided a fabulous lesson about the food chain and biodiversity. On the strength of that clever and utterly bonkers production alone, I’d say Iriguchi is exactly the right person to bring creativity and humour to bear on the often bad-tempered and reductive culture war over sex, gender and sexuality.

   Also in the Made in Scotland programme, Swallow the Sea Caravan Theatre (Summerhall, Aug 6-28) promises the kind of immersive, audio-visual experience that we see all too rarely in Scottish theatre. Performed without words, Swallow the Sea deals instead in puppetry, object theatre and evocative imagery and soundscapes.

   The company presents two works, including the world premiere of Threads, a piece which seeks to evoke the interconnectedness of human life. It could prove to be a timely work of reflective theatre in this era of climate chaos and viral pandemic.

   The same could be said of Grid Iron theatre company’s show, Doppler (Newhailes House and Gardens, Aug 6-23). Although, being based upon Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s novel of the same name, this outdoor production is very different in form from Swallow the Seas’s work, it is addressing a very similar subject.

   The titular protagonist, an archetypal middle-class, professional Norwegian (played by the superb Keith Fleming), takes a tumble from his bicycle and bumps his head. The accident, he believes, gives him clarity about the disastrous direction of greed-fuelled, 21st-century capitalism.

   Consequently, Doppler takes himself off into the forest, to live a sustainable life in the forest. We, the audience, are invited to watch the results.

Patricia Panther in Lament for Sheku Bayoh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

   Later in the month, the EIF stages the in-person premiere of Lament for Sheku Bayoh (Lyceum Theatre, Aug 25-28). First presented online by the Lyceum last November, the play is Black Scottish writer Hannah Lavery’s reflection on the death of Scots-African manSheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in Fife in 2015.

   Bayoh hailed from Sierra Leone, from where he fled civil war as a child. He made his life here in Scotland; photographs show him proudly wearing a kilt.

   He died in Kirkcaldy following his restraint by as many as nine police officers. There were 23 separate wounds on his body.

   The dead man’s family continues to fight for justice. A public inquiry into the circumstances of his death, chaired by Lord Bracadale, is currently underway.

   In the stage show, actors speak Lavery’s lament, which is accompanied by photographs illustrating Bayoh’s life.

   There is further theatrical treatment of a real life tragedy in Piccolo Theatre’s Screen 9 (Pleasance at EICC, Aug 10-29). The play is a work of documentary theatre about the infamous 2012 shooting incident in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado at a late night, state premiere screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve people were murdered and 70 injured in the attack.

   Piccolo began as a student company at Durham University in 2017. Screen 9 was written by the company’s co-artistic director Kate Barton. She and the company’s co-founder George Rexstrew promise a “cutting-edge, thought-provoking” production.

   There are a few in-person productions sprinkled through the Traverse Theatre’s Fringe programme. Still (Traverse, today until Aug 22) by Frances Poet is a new, hard-edged comedy in which five Edinburghers “stagger towards each other, hoping to be transformed.”

   The writer of Fringe hit play Adam, Poet’s latest drama promises to bring humanistic humour to the physical and emotional challenges of life, ranging from chronic pain to pregnancy and alcohol-induced memory loss. The production in prospect sounds something like a soap opera on steroids.

   Directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Gareth Nicholls (who directed the brilliant Ulster American in 2018), the production boasts a top class cast, including Molly Innes and Gerry Mulgrew. The cast also includes excellent actor-musician Oğuz Kaplangi, who has also composed the musical score.   

   There is outdoor fare in the Traverse Fringe programme, too. Julia Taudevin’s MOVE (Traverse at Silverknowes Beach, Aug 3-7) considers the many implications and meanings of migration through the stories of five female characters.

   Combining storytelling, an evocative soundscape and Gaelic song, the piece plays alongside the sights and sounds of the Firth of Forth. The show is the first production by Disaster Plan, the new theatre company created by Taudevin and Kieran Hurley. It is a co-production with Slung Low theatre company and the Traverse.

   Also al fresco is the promenade theatre production Niqabi Ninja (Aug 12-28). The piece is writer Sara Shaarawi’s response to the mob sexual assaults against women that took place in Tahrir Square, Cairo between 2012 and 2014.

   The show, which takes the audience member around the streets of central Edinburgh, is described as “a graphic-novel style revenge story”. Departing from outside the Usher Hall music venue on Lothian Road, it combines an audio soundtrack (to be listened to on headphones) with street art. 

   Some way west of the Lothian Road, at the Tynecastle Park home of Heart of Midlothian FC, This Is My Story Productions present Sweet F.A (Aug 5-29). The play brings to life the 1916 struggle of a football team of women factory workers for their right to play the sport they love.

   The production is created by the same people who brought us the acclaimed World War I drama A War Of Two Halves, also at Tynecastle, in 2019. A moving and educational piece of theatre seems to be on the cards.

   Fringe venue group theSpace is notable for the number of in-person productions it’s staging this year. Theatre company A Drunken Sailor, producer of solo show Femme Ta Bouche (theSpaceTriplex, Aug 6-21), boldly compares the piece to the work of the great filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

   The play takes us inside the difficult life of performer Femme, who, instead of being on stage on Broadway, is living with cancer and resting in her grandmother’s trailer in Arkansas. However, the time she has had for reflection gives her the idea for a fabulous, bigotry-busting performance at the gay conversion camp she attended in her teens.

   Also part of theSpace programme is the intriguing Shakespeare’s Fool (theSpace @ Symposium Hall, Aug 16-28). The play is a re-imagining of episodes in the life of William ‘Cavaliero’ Kempe, the so-called “dancing clown” of Elizabethan England.

   Kempe is believed by some to have originated some of Shakespeare’s most famous comic characters, including Bottom (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Dogberry (from Much Ado About Nothing) and Falstaff (from the Henriad plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor). However, when we meet the jester, he has had a disastrous falling out with the Bard of Stratford and is about to give his final performance.

   The Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC) is also offering a fair few in-person shows. Miss Lindsay’s Secret (SSC, Aug 6-30) promises to be an intimate and atmospheric piece about Scotland’s colonial, diasporic history.

   Combining storytelling with live, original music, it tells “the tale of a Scottish seamstress [which] binds the gentle hills of Glenesk to Canada’s heady Klondike gold rush.” Created with the support of Glenesk Museum, the show integrates significant artefacts into its storytelling.

   At the same venue, for children aged eight and over, superb Scottish storyteller and theatre-maker Andy Cannon revives his celebrated show Is This a Dagger? (SSC, Aug 6-29). Dynamic, funny and brilliantly performed, this tremendous show retells the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with an insightful emphasis on the historical facts. Look out for some clever and hilarious play with brightly coloured eyeglasses.

   Also for children (aged five and over) is Granny Smith (French Institute in Scotland, Aug 6-30). A solo work of comic and mask theatre, it is performed in both English and French by Tracey Boot (artistic director of French company Theatre Transformations).

   Setting her piece in Granny Smith’s kitchen, Boot offers children, and their accompanying adults, a production that is great fun, while also providing an education. “A show full of humour and gentle instruction on language and cooking” is in prospect.

   Pip Utton (the man who brought us the scintillating Adolf) has been one of the finest performers of the Fringe monodrama for more than two decades. This year he is reviving Bacon (Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 6-13), his bio-play about the tempestuous artistic and less-than-private lives of the great painter Francis Bacon.

   On the opera front, David McVicar’s stunning Falstaff for Scotttish Opera (Festival Theatre, Aug 8-14), transfers from Glasgow to Edinburgh (where it plays as part of the EIF programme). Already sold out, returns will be as valuable as a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. However, given the audience and critical acclaim for the production, one would hope that Scottish Opera will revive it before too long.     

   Needless to say, there are far fewer live, in-person shows in Edinburgh this month than in a “normal”, pre-pandemic year. Add to that reduced audience sizes, due to physical distancing, and many shows will already be close to selling out, if they haven’t already done so.

   Tickets for some shows will be like proverbial hens’ teeth. Early booking is advised.

For EIF shows, visit: eif.co.uk. For the Fringe: edfringe.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on August 1, 2021

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Doppler, Newhailes House, Musselburgh

Into the Woods

After the disappointment of last year’s cancellation, Grid Iron’s outdoor show Doppler is finally coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, writes Mark Brown

Keith Fleming as Doppler. Photo: Janeanne Gilchrist

Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe’s Doppler is the tale of an almost archetypal “man who has everything” who turns his back on a life of material opulence and, in an act of misanthropic disgust, takes to living in a tent in the forest. It is, with undeniable prescience, a story for our times of ecological destruction, viral plague and space-blasting billionaires.

   Indeed, the novel’s relevance seems to increase with each passing month. Which is just as well for Grid Iron theatre company, who have been planning a site-specific dramatisation of the novel for some three years.

   Ben Harrison, artistic director of the Leith-based company, first read Loe’s novel in 2018. A copy had been gifted to him by a theatre friend in Serbia, where a stage adaptation of the book had been a hit in the capital, Belgrade.

   By early last year Harrison was writing his own dramatisation of the story for a Grid Iron production, which was due to be played in a forest during the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. Then, of course, on March 23 of last year, the UK went into its first Covid lockdown.

   Ever-hopeful, Grid Iron persevered with a virus-safe series of rehearsals. Ultimately, however, ever-changing Covid protocols conspired with logistical concerns to scupper the August 2020 shows.

   Aware, perhaps, that many theatre lovers were becoming fatigued with the stream of well-intentioned, but, almost by definition, second class online screenings of drama productions, Harrison’s company took a slightly different approach to the crisis. Rather than merely filming the show and putting it on the internet, they made an excellent documentary film, titled Doppler: The Story So Far, which was streamed via the Grid Iron website between late-March and early-May of this year. The film was, as I wrote on its release, “a eulogy to live theatre and a prayer for its rapid return.”

   This summer appears to be the beginning of that return. The Edinburgh International Festival has programmed many live, in-person productions, and the Fringe’s live offering seems to grow by the day.

   This includes Doppler, which is, finally, being presented as part of next month’s Fringe programme, in the grounds of Newhailes House on the outskirts of Musselburgh. The play is being staged with the support of the new Fringe Artist and Venue Recovery Fund.

   As was the case last year, the superb Keith Fleming plays the title role. The cast is completed by Sean Hay, Chloe-Ann Tylor (who replaces the unavailable Itxaso Moreno) and foley player Nik Paget-Tomlinson (who takes up the mantle of the production’s composer David Pollock).

   The lead–in to the production has been so long, jokes Harrison, when I check-in with him during rehearsals, that “it’s felt a bit like working with a German company.” He’s referring to the famously well-resourced theatre productions of über-directors such as Peter Stein and Thomas Ostermeier.

   Needless to say, however, Harrison would have preferred that the lengthy preparation period was the consequence of luxurious, German funding, rather than Covid-enforced cancellations.

   The year-long delay has, if anything, made the play even more prescient, says the director. “It certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of its relevance, in terms of thinking about the world in a different way”, he comments.

   “The central character questions capitalism and the very foundations on which our economy rests… It feels very much of the time. It poses very useful questions like, ‘when we come back from the pandemic, do we come back as we were, or do we come back with a different way of doing things?’”

Doppler plays at Newhailes House, Musselburgh, August 8-23: gridiron.org.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Jessica Hardwick on returning to the stage in The Comedy of Errors

Returning in Error

The Citizens Theatre Company returns to the stage with The Comedy of Errors. Actor Jessica Hardwick is looking forward to hearing the laughter of live audiences, writes Mark Brown

Jessica Hardwick in rehearsals foe The Comedy of Errors. Photo: Alex Brady

Glasgow’s great Citizens Theatre Company hasn’t been short of its own off-stage drama in recent years. Forced to move out of its famous home in the Gorbals, to allow contractors in to carry out a massive, multi-million pound redevelopment of the theatre building, the company took up temporary residence in the Tramway arts venue.

   Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, meaning, not only that the theatres closed, but also that the work on the company’s playhouse was disrupted. Goodness knows when audiences will once again see the company strut its stuff on the hallowed boards of its home theatre.

   None of which means that artistic director Dominic Hill’s company has been idle during the public health crisis. Like so many other Scottish theatre organisations, the Citz, as the company is affectionately known, has offered audiences online work in lieu of live performance; the recently streamed film version of The Macbeths, Hill’s abridged version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, was a particular highlight.

   Now, however, as the vaccination programme gathers apace, the opportunity to play live to (carefully physically distanced) audiences becomes an increasingly realistic prospect. In the case of the Citz, that means being part of Scottish Opera’s Live at No. 40 season at its Glasgow production studios.

   Beginning in preview tonight, Hill directs The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s uproarious play of misunderstandings and mistaken identities. As ever, he has assembled an impressive cast, including such excellent actors as Karen Fishwick, Lorraine M. Mcintosh and the ever superb Jessica Hardwick.

Jessica Hardwick with Brian Ferguson in Cyrano de Bergerac

   Followers of the Citizens will know Hardwick for her numerous roles for the company over the years, ranging from a heartbreaking Sonya in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to a very modern, wonderfully intrepid Rapunzel. Now she’s back with the Citz, playing the role of Adriana, the bewildered wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, who, unbeknownst to her, has a twin brother.

   The actor has, she tells me, been fortunate to have had work throughout the pandemic, ranging from audio dramas to voiceovers. However, her relief to be back on stage is palpable.

   “It’s quite extraordinary that we are back and theatres are making work”, she says. “I think it’s going to be quite moving for everybody – the audiences, the performers and everybody who works in the theatre – for us to be doing live theatre again.”

   Making theatre in the Covid era is a constant reminder that we’re not yet back to normal. Certain pandemic protocols have to be observed, including less physical contact between actors than audiences would usually expect.

   However, Hardwick is quick to reassure us, “we’re not just sort of standing around saying the words. We’re very much doing a play.”

   Audiences can expect, “live music, all of the actors being on stage all the time, and all the sort of stuff you would usually see at the Citz.”

   Fortunately for the company, Hardwick explains, the key pairings in the comedy – between the two sets of twins, the Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse, and the Antipholuses of Ephesus and Syracuse – are not affected by physical distancing requirements. The actors playing the roles, recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) graduates Michael Guest and Ewan Miller, live in the same abode, and are therefore part of a Covid “bubble”.

   This is a real boon for the production, the actor says. “With The Comedy of Errors there’s so much physical comedy, especially in the relationship between the twins.”

   Hardwick, is full of praise for Guest and Miller. “They’re so great”, she says of the young actors. “They’ve just thrown themselves into it.”

   That’s no small endorsement. Hardwick is, by popular acclaim, one of the finest actors on the Scottish stage. A graduate of the RCS herself, she has wowed critics and audiences alike with her playing of a startlingly diverse array of characters.

   She excelled as Mathilde Mauté, wife of the poet Paul Verlaine, in Stewart Laing’s re-staging of Pamela Carter’s drama Slope, in a production created to be played simultaneously on stage and online. She also gave an unforgettable performance as Roxanne in Edwin Morgan’s wonderful Scots version of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac.

   Regularly acclaimed by reviewers, she received the Best Female Performance gong in the 2017-18 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her lead role in Perth Theatre’s production of David Harrower’s great play Knives in Hens.

   Hardwick is enjoying playing Adriana. It is, the actor says, a “meaty” role, and one that poses difficult questions regarding the deep misogyny of Shakespeare’s day. 

   “She thinks her husband’s having an affair, but she, as a woman, can’t do anything about it. The guys can go out and live their lives, whereas she’s tied to the home.”

   As one might expect of a Dominic Hill production, such issues are not being ignored. “The women in The Comedy of Errors can be quite difficult, because they’re of a different time. But we’re pulling them into the modern world as best we can.

   “The way Dominic’s been helping me find my way into the character is to play it for real. She really loves this guy who she thinks is having an affair, and it’s driven her a bit mad.”

   Adriana expresses her jealousy with a melodramatic energy that is very much at odds with Hardwick’s own personality. “As a person, I’m a bit more quiet and reserved”, says the actor.

   “Adriana’s definitely not that. It’s quite lovely to be a bit ‘out there’, especially after a year of lockdown. It’s been really fun.”

   Hardwick is looking forward to playing on the newly-built wooden stage on which Scottish Opera is currently performing Verdi’s Falstaff. Not to be upstaged by David McVicar’s excellent, Jacobean designs for the opera, the Citz show, designed by Jessica Worrall, promises, Hardwick tells me, to be inspired by the Moulin Rouge.

   Modern sexual politics, the flamboyance of French cabaret – it’s good to have the Citizens Theatre Company back on stage

The Comedy of Errors plays at Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow, various dates until July 24:  citz.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 11, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: Jane McCarry interview, re. The Wind in the Willows, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

McCarry is still game for children’s theatre in Pitlochry

She may be best known for playing Isa Drennan in hit TV sitcom Still Game, but Jane McCarry is eager to get back to live theatre, writes Mark Brown

Jane McCarry

For most people in Scotland actor Jane McCarry will be synonymous with the much loved character of Isa Drennan, the nosey neighbour with the detective skills of a secret agent, in hit TV sitcom Still Game. Many children and young people will know her as Granny Murray in the popular CBeebies show Me Too!

   However, despite her TV fame, the multiple Scottish BAFTA winner has never lost her passion for live theatre. The actor, who hails from Glasgow, but trained at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has continued to work in the theatre throughout her illustrious 30-year career.

   McCarry has performed in a diverse series of stage shows over the years, ranging from pantomime in many of the country’s top theatres to the Still Game Live shows in the huge Hydro auditorium at the SEC in Glasgow. Memorably, back in 2012, she was part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed production of Michel Tremblay’s famous play The Guid Sisters.

   Varied though her theatre work has been, however, there’s been little in the actor’s career to compare with her latest project. With Covid restrictions still making indoor work in Scottish theatres a very difficult proposition, McCarry is joining the cast of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s outdoor production of Kenneth Grahame’s evergreen children’s tale The Wind in the Willows.

   The famous book has been adapted by playwright Mark Powell and will be co-directed by PFT’s ever-inventive artistic director Elizabeth Newman and her associate director Ben Occhipinti. The show will be performed on and around the Perthshire theatre’s riverside bandstand, one of two new outdoor performance spaces the venue has created in response to the public health crisis.

   McCarry, who plays the role of the always wise, but often grumpy, Badger (among other characters) can’t contain her enthusiasm for the production. She’s currently rehearsing the family show in the splendour of PFT’s grounds, in the lovely foothills of the Highlands.

   “There’s no better place to do a play about animals that live on a riverbank”, the actor tells me, “than literally on a riverbank!” Rehearsing the show in the theatre’s grounds is full of unexpected pleasures, she says.   

   “The light streaming through the trees is beautiful. There isn’t a lighting designer in the world who could achieve that. It’s fabulous.”

   The other day, she continues, she thought the show’s sound designer was playing some brilliant watery sound effects. However, it only took her a moment to realise that it was actually the sound of the River Tummel burbling behind her. 

   McCarry’s been around long enough to know that journalists are accustomed to hearing actors saying great things about their forthcoming project, regardless of what they really think of it. In this case, she assures me, with an honesty even a fine actor such as herself would struggle to fake, she couldn’t be more genuine.

   “Sometimes [as an actor], when you’re doing a job, you’re positive because you know you have to be”, she admits. “But, really, this job has been a joy.

   “Everyone in the company is great and it’s outside in these lovely surroundings. The show’s going to be great for kids, it’s really interactive. It’s going to be great fun.”

   McCarry is playing three lead characters (namely, Badger, Horse and Washerwoman),

 “which means”, she comments, “that you can have lots of fun”. Sure, she says, “Badger is a wee bit serious, and a wee bit grumpy, and Horse is a bit grumpy, too, but you can have lots of fun with that.”

   Washerwoman, by contrast, is “outrageous”, she comments, with a laugh. “She’ll be interacting with the audience and winding up the kids.”

   As if this trio of characters isn’t enough, McCarry will be popping up in smaller roles, too. “I’m also a hedgehog at one point”, she notes. “It’s fast and furious and busy.”

   It is well over a century since Grahame’s book was first published, in 1908. Many of today’s parents, grandparents and guardians will first have encountered the story in the TV film, made in 1983, which starred David Jason as the voice of Toad of Toad Hall.

   PFT has brought it up to date a little, not least in casting some of the lead characters, such as Badger and Mole, as female.

   Another area in which the play is topical is in the gentle way in which it relates to our coming, tentatively out of Covid lockdown. “It’s current in the sense that the core of the story is that Mole comes out of her hole and into this big, open world”, the actor explains.

   “It’s saying that it’s not good to be solitary, and that you should come outside and see the sky. There are references to it having been a particularly long winter, and the animals having been in hibernation.

   “So, although it doesn’t mention Covid directly, it is very relevant to everything that we’ve all just been through.”

   McCarry is full of praise of Powell’s adaptation. Grahame’s book may date back to 1908, but the play, she says, is perfect for modern audiences.

   “It’s really fresh”, she enthuses. “Honestly, it makes me laugh every time we do it.”

   Unsurprisingly, given the actor’s well-established facility for comedy, she loves the humour of the play. “Toad’s really naughty”, she comments.

   Unlike in pantomime, she continues, “the hero’s not a goody-goody. In our show, the hero is the naughtiest boy of all. I think that’s a great hero to get behind.”

   The actor thinks a trip to Pitlochry to see The Wind of the Willows is the perfect day out for people with young children. “People should come from Glasgow, Dundee, Perth, Fife, Edinburgh, anywhere roundabout”, she says.

   “You can have a picnic on the lawn, bring your chairs, see the show, go for a walk, explore the beautiful, wee town, get yourself chips and ice cream, and you’re home by 8 o’clock, if you want.”

The Wind in the Willows is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, July 2 to September 12. For further information, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on June 27, 2021

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: new Mull Theatre artistic director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord

New Mull Theatre director seeks to light a “beacon” in the Hebrides

Fresh from directing in London, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord is ready to swap the commute on the tube for the glories of the Inner Isles, writes Mark Brown

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord. Photo: Alex Beckett

The acclaimed Mull Theatre company has a new artistic director to guide it into a post-Covid future. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, who was hitherto producer and director with London-based touring theatre company Arch 468, took up her post, as chief executive of Mull Theatre and sister arts organisation An Tobar this week. She will move permanently onto the Hebridean island next month.

   The position of CEO of An Tobar and Mull Theatre, to give the company (formerly known as Comar) its full name, is a considerable one. The director is undaunted by the various responsibilities of her new post.

   She was CEO, producer and artistic director at Arch 468. Moreover, lest people think that she is a metropolitan seeking sanctuary in a Scottish island idyll, Atkinson-Lord is quick to underline her familiarity with communities such as Mull.

   She grew up, she explains, “half” in “a very remote” village on the Greek island of Crete and “half” in the city of Wolverhampton, in the English West Midlands. With reference to her Cretan experience, she says: “I know how it works to be part of a small community that can be quite insular, and which has a huge tourist influx every year.”

   Her new post is, she says, “perfect” for her. “It’s right at the scale that I want to be working.

   “I’m both a producer and director, so I want a CEO/artistic director job, because I like doing both things.” Also, she adds, Mull is “one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and the team are lovely.”

   Being familiar, from her unusual upbringing, with both the country and the city, the director has become tired of “having to fight on the tube” to get her place of work. “I think I’m probably done with London in a lot of ways”, she says.

   Before accepting the job, Atkinson-Lord and her husband spent some time on Mull. The board of directors of the company invited them up “so we knew what we were getting into.” Hardly surprisingly, the visit sealed the deal.

   Thanks to her own rural background on Crete, the director isn’t afraid of the prospect of living in a remote place. “I’m not frightened that, if someone has a heart attack, it requires a helicopter [to get them to hospital]. That doesn’t scare me off.

   “I’m used to things not being on my doorstep. I’m used to being a bit more self-sufficient.”

   Self-sufficiency will, one suspects, prove to be an invaluable quality in developing the programme of an island theatre company. “I really care about making theatre for a community that I know”, the director continues.

   In her previous position, she explains, a lot of time was spent talking about the various “segments” of the audience identified by the English Arts Council, and how Arch 468 could best serve them. “That’s all well and good”, she says, “but, in this job, I can make sure that I’m serving Bob, because I know him, and I know what he cares about.”

   The community is small enough, she continues, that, although she can’t know everybody, she can be well enough connected with local people that there is a “reciprocal dialogue” between her and the community she serves.

   Atkinson-Lord succeeds interim director of Mull Theatre Beth Morton, who has steered the company through the pandemic in 2020 and into 2021. Morton’s work as producer on Mull included the recent online animation series Braw Tales.

   The new director is aware that, prior to Morton’s interim appointment, Comar, as it was known, went through a period of some conflict and controversy. In 2015, as part of the merger of Mull Theatre and An Tobar, longstanding and respected directors, Alasdair McCrone of Mull Theatre and music director Gordon Maclean, were told that their services were no longer required.

   A veritable uprising against the board’s decision, both among the good people of Mull and in the wider Scottish arts community, forced a famous reverse. Needless to say, Atkinson-Lord is aware that such events, however satisfactorily they are resolved, can leave bad blood.

   It is her hope and belief that, having had no horse running in the controversial races of recent years, she can sail Mull Theatre and An Tobar into calmer waters. She is, says, aware that the company has had “a bit of a tricksy, crunchy past”.

   However, she feels that she is in a good position to look to the future and take the organisation forward. “I’m a new person”, she says. “Hopefully I can make new relationships that aren’t too coloured by [past events].”

   The director is also well appraised about a more positive aspect of Mull Theatre’s history: namely, its place in the Highland and Island touring tradition. She knows that, in the 1970s, John McGrath and his 7:84 Scotland theatre company famously pioneered touring to village halls and school halls across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  

   She’s also aware that one of the companies to follow most actively in McGrath’s footsteps has been Mull Theatre. Highland and Island touring is, she asserts, “right up there” at the top of her agenda.

   Atkinson-Lord “likes a metaphor”, she says. When it comes to Mull Theatre’s strong connection with its community and its commitment to touring beyond the island, she is, she explains, “thinking of it as like a beacon.

   “It’s a small light that can be seen from a long way away. It guides people home, but it also shows them the way out into the world.”

   The director likes work that can be pretty light on its feet, and she loves the typically small to medium scale of Mull Theatre’s productions. A show that can travel “in a van, with two suitcases and dog”, is ideal, she says.  

   She sums up her vision of theatre very succinctly: “We’re going to get together, we’re going to tell this story, then we’re going to go to the pub and talk about it.

   “And we’re going to do that repeatedly, with everybody around our country. That’s really exciting.”

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on June 6, 2021

© Mark Brown

Feature: Are the physical distancing protocols holding back the return of Scottish theatre?

Two metre or not two metre? That is the question

Are the current, stringent Covid protocols for Scottish theatres needlessly preventing the reopening of our playhouses? Mark Brown asked two of the nation’s leading theatre directors

Few industries have suffered as catastrophically from the Covid-19 pandemic as the theatre industry. As indoor venues that host large numbers of people, Scotland’s playhouses are classed alongside the likes of nightclubs by our political leaders and their scientific advisors.

   Consequently, Scottish theatres face some of the most stringent Covid protocols in the world. In particular, current instructions are that audience members should be a very considerable two metres apart (double the distance, for example, required of playhouses in England).

   This state of affairs has led to some dismay, not to say consternation, among sections of the theatre community. They watch many of the hospitality and leisure industries returning to something like normality, and wonder if the powers that be are needlessly holding back the recovery of live drama.

   Andy Arnold, the longstanding theatre director who is currently at the helm of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, is a vocal critic of the Scottish Government’s insistence on the two-metre rule for theatre audiences. Two metres, he insists, reduces a theatre’s capacity so radically as to make shows commercially unviable.

   “There’s a big difference between one metre and 67 centimetres”, he says. “If it’s 67 centimetres, you’ve still got empty seats to either side of you, but you can use the rows in front and behind.

   “It depends on the theatre, obviously, but for the Tron, a one-metre rule would still mean that we’d lose the rows in front and behind.”

   As a theatre critic, I have had the privilege, during the pandemic, of being invited to theatres elsewhere in the UK and in Europe when they have been allowed to stage productions. My experience certainly seems to bear out Arnold’s argument regarding the varying impacts of different physical distancing rules.

   Earlier this month I was at Leeds Playhouse for their series of monologues titled Decades. As Arnold suggests, England’s one-metre rule puts considerable space between audience members. I saw no-one in the rows in front of or behind me, and the overall size of the audience in the Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre was depressingly small.

   The venue is following Covid protocols to the letter. Sitting in a ventilated, mainly empty auditorium, hands sanitised, mask on, I have to say I felt very safe indeed.

   In Portugal, in July of last year, I attended Festival de Almada, the first summer theatre festival to proceed in Europe since the start of the pandemic. There, thanks to the authorities’ successful suppression of the virus, hand-sanitised, masked audiences sat, in most venues, with just one empty chair separating them.

   Given the success of the vaccination programme in Scotland, my experiences in Leeds and Almada do lead me to ask if the Scottish Government is being somewhat over-zealous where theatres are concerned.

Andy Arnold. Photo: Stuart Wallace

   For Arnold, the current situation is “galling”. Even England’s one-metre rule is commercially ruinous, he says. “English [theatre] promoters are saying it’s a disaster.

   “The most frustrating thing is we’re not even given a date”, the director continues. “If, for example, they said, ‘it will be one metre from October 1, and normal seating by January 1, it would be a long way off, but at least we could start preparing accordingly.”

   As things stand, Arnold has felt compelled to cancel both the Tron’s autumn programme and its much-loved pastiche winter pantomime. “At the moment”, he says, “we can’t prepare anything.

   “That’s why we cancelled the panto , that’s why we have nothing in place for the autumn, because we can’t commit to anything.”

   Not only is the two-metre rule commercially unviable, says Arnold, but it also “restricts things quite a bit” where actors are concerned. It’s not easy for Romeo to slay Tybalt if he is 200 centimetres away from him. Add to that, as the director points out, “if there’s any singing involved, it’s three metres” between performers.

   Much of Arnold’s frustration comes from his sense that the politicians don’t understand the implications of their own decisions where theatres are concerned. He notes that Nicola Sturgeon has said that, at Tier 2, theatres can open to up to 100 people, up to 200 at Tier 1, and up to 400 at Tier 0. “That is completely ludicrous”, he says, “because you’re still saying two metres, in which case the theatres will still all be shut.

   “The thing that really gets me”, he continues, “is that, even at Tier 0, when we can have eight people, with no social distancing, in a household, and one metre between people in a bar, it’s still two metres in a massive, ventilated theatre space. It’s ludicrous.”

   Given the seemingly stringent safety protocols in place under England’s one-metre rule, how does Arnold think the Scottish Government has ended up with its current commitment to two metres?  “I’m convinced that [National Clinical Director to the Scottish Government] Jason Leitch’s only experience of theatre is going to some sweaty little basement venue at the Edinburgh Fringe”, he says.

   “When he’s been challenged [on the two-metre rule], he always says that the worst places are enclosed environments, as if theatres are like nightclubs, as if they’re dark, sweaty places. Nothing could be further from the truth.

   “You’ve got people sitting, facing one way. They’re not moving, they’re not speaking to each other. They’re in a properly ventilated, massive, great space.”

   Indeed, as if to underline the particular stringency of the protocols faced by Scottish theatres, Arnold notes “the irony” that the Tron’s show Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) is scheduled to open in the West End of London in October.

   “Which is a great thing for the Tron”, he comments. “But, up here, we’ll still be shut.”

   Arnold’s voice has been the loudest in calling out the Scottish Government’s policy on theatres. What led him to the barricades?

   “What got me going, in terms of wanting do something about this, were all the demonstrations and occupations in French theatres”, he explains. “Sixty theatres throughout France were occupied and there were massive complaints that culture was being held back and so on.

   “That was in the middle of a lockdown. I thought, ‘we’ve now got half the population vaccinated!’”

   Given the theatre activism elsewhere, and the massive impact of the two-metre rule on Scotland’s playhouses, why does Arnold think there haven’t been more voices raised from within the Scottish theatre community?

   It is, the director says, “endemic” within arts organisations that “they don’t want to complain because they’re worried it might jeopardise their funding… There’s always this worry about complaining, but we’ve got to complain, the future of Scottish theatre is on the line here.

   “Furlough ends in September, there’s no extra money been allocated for theatre this year, as far as we know. Freelance artists are all starving and getting no work at all, people like actors, musicians, directors, the whole lot of them.

   “The theatres themselves are really going to struggle, especially if they have to remain closed in pantomime season, which a major income generator for a lot of them. Some theatres might be put in a position where they can’t open again, I think that’s quite possible.

   “And that will mean redundancies. This at a time when we’re talking about getting back to normality. It’s ridiculous.”

   Strident and forthright in his opinions he may be, but no-one should consider Arnold generally hostile to the SNP administration. “In fairness”, he says, “politics aside, I was more positive about [former Culture Secretary] Fiona Hyslop, who actually went to the theatre, than I was about the Labour culture ministers [in the first two Holyrood administrations], who were complete philistines.”

   Indeed, he was encouraged by a tweet by Hyslop (the, as it transpired, outgoing Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Fair Work and Culture) during the recent election campaign for the Scottish Parliament. She had suggested that the impact of the two-metre rule on Scotland’s theatres would be re-visited after the election.

   Hyslop’s successor, in terms of responsibility for culture at cabinet level, is Angus Robertson. On Thursday morning, the new Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture convened an online meeting with around 25 leading figures from Scotland’s cultural organisations, including Arnold.

   The arts leaders made it clear, says Arnold, that Scotland’s cultural organisations need “a roadmap for the end of social distancing… [and that Scotland’s] major venues will have no touring productions to offer at this rate as most companies are now deciding to just tour to England and forget about Scotland.”

   The meeting was constructive, says the Tron director. “The Minister was listening”, he comments, “hopefully something will come of it.”

Elizabeth Newman

   Whatever the outcome of last Thursday’s meeting, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Arnold speaks for everyone in Scottish theatre. Although she shares the Tron director’s desire to see audiences back in Scotland’s playhouses, Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT), is more sympathetic to the Scottish Government’s cautious approach.

   The two-metre rule is, Newman says, “where we are right now… It feels like we just have to go with the medical advice, and follow that instruction, until we’re told that things are safer.

   “We’re still in a state of change”, she comments. “What we’re doing in Pitlochry is sticking to guidelines, which we do think are important for health reasons.

   “We obviously don’t want anyone to come to the theatre and get ill. That’s the reason we’ve opted to go outdoors, because we feel that’s the safest thing to do.”

   The “going outdoors” Newman talks of is a reference to her theatre’s season of plays in outdoor auditoria and, in some cases, in promenade. Opening with the stage premiere of David Greig’s new play Adventures With the Painted People on June 10, the season of theatrical, musical and storytelling performances will run until September.

   PFT has built a new 80-seater amphitheatre in the Explorers’ Garden, which sits adjacent to the theatre building. There will also be performances in a newly constructed riverside bandstand.

   Newman accepts that PFT is unusually fortunate among Scottish theatres in being able to construct outdoor performance spaces in its considerable, beautifully located grounds on the banks of the River Tummel. However, she points out, quite reasonably, that this shift to an al fresco programme was no easy matter.

     “We have outdoor spaces, but we have had to refashion them for audiences”, she comments. “We’ve had to create the infrastructure. It’s not as if we were kitted out for outdoor theatre.

   “We’re trying to install things that we can keep using after the pandemic… We see this as adding to our programme going forward.”

   Where Covid protocols are concerned, Newman cautions against haste. “I’m trusting that, in the next announcement, [the Government] will give us more information and more insight, because they’ll know more themselves.

   “That’s something we’re really aware of, that they’re constantly getting more information about how the virus works, and how it works with people being together. One thing we’ve really felt is that we have to be patient with government guidelines and restrictions…

   “When you look at what’s happening in India and in other countries, we are so fortunate to be where we are right now in Scotland.” 

   It would be easy to categorise the diverging views of Arnold and Newman as representing positions that are, according to one’s taste, too cavalier, in Arnold’s case, or too compliant, on Newman’s part. However, that would be to fail to reckon with the on-going uncertainties and vagaries of the pandemic, and the varying, genuinely held opinions on how best to proceed as the public health crisis recedes. 

   The difference of emphasis of the two directors highlights the fact there we have yet to reach a social consensus on the safest and most sensible away to exit the pandemic.

For details of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s outdoor summer season, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on May 30, 2021

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Kirsty Stuart on John Byrne’s Tennis Elbow

Kirsty Stuart on John Byrne’s Tennis Elbow, a sequel 44 years in the making

Actor Kirsty Stuart is thrilled to be playing the lead role in Tennis Elbow, the new play by Scotland’s “coolest man”, John Byrne, writes Mark Brown

During the Renaissance, the Italians spoke of the “Uomo Universale”, the “Universal Man” who could “do all things if he will.” If the Scottish arts can lay claim to having such a Renaissance man it is, surely, John Byrne.

   The Paisley-born man o’ pairts is equally acclaimed as a painter, playwright and screenwriter; not to mention his accomplishments as an illustrator, a theatre set designer and, perennially, Scotland’s best dressed man. Now in his early-80s, Byrne seems to have excelled in every area of artistic endeavour that he has turned his hand to.

   This spring, courtesy of the Covid pandemic, he may be on the brink of becoming master of yet another art form, namely, the audio play. Some 44 years after he made his theatrical debut with Writer’s Cramp (a hit at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe starring the stellar trio of Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett), Byrne has written a sequel, which goes under the title of Tennis Elbow.

   With playhouses still closed, and the likelihood that they will be among the very last public institutions to reopen, the new drama (Byrne’s first original play for 13 years) will make its debut, not on stage, but in a very 21st-century incarnation of the radio play. That is to say that Tennis Elbow will be broadcast (between April 30 and May 8) on Sound Stage, the “audio-digital platform” created in response to the pandemic by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and Naked Productions.

   The new play is not focused primarily on the central protagonist of the earlier drama, the somewhat autobiographical Francis Seneca McDade, “an aspiring writer and would be artist from Paisley.” Rather, it takes as its central figure Pam, McDade’s estranged wife, who is also a writer and a painter.

   The world premiere boasts a truly brilliant cast. The superb Kirsty Stuart leads the line as Pam. She is joined by some of the most illustrious names in the Scottish acting profession, including: Maureen Beattie, Brian Ferguson, Jessica Hardwick and Sally Reid.

   The play, which is told in flashbacks, unfolds the story of Pam’s often difficult progress through life, including time in both boarding school and prison.

   For Stuart, being asked to take on the role was nothing short of a joy. “It was a thrill to know that he’s still writing and it’s still brilliant”, she says.

   “In that classic John way, the play has these great, big, long sentences, and these long, convoluted thoughts. They’re wonderful because they take you away from the modern world that we live in where everything is quick information. He writes big, almost classical speeches.”

   In fact, Stuart, whose screen credits include Outlander and Closing the Ring, remembers having a moment of real anxiety when she was almost overwhelmed by the excellence of Byrne’s writing. “I suddenly had a massive panic”, she recalls.

   “I thought, ‘I can’t suddenly just start recording this, I need four weeks’ rehearsal… I don’t want to mess this up, this is John Byrne. I’ve got to do it justice.’”

   It wasn’t long, however, before she got down to brass tacks. This is theatre (albeit audio-digital theatre) after all, and, as Shakespeare tells us, “the play’s the thing”.

   As she got deeper into Byrne’s drama, Stuart found it “touching” to reflect on the fact that her character was first created more than 40 years ago. However, she explains, it’s important that she, as an actor, doesn’t allow that history to weigh too heavily upon her.

   “When it comes to the playing of it”, she comments, “you just have to play the character.” Everything around the history of Writer’s Cramp and Byrne’s career between 1977 and today “isn’t really playable”.  

   “It’s nice”, Stuart continues, “to have warm thoughts” about Byrne’s artistic life and how the character of Pam fits into all of that. “Ultimately, however, you just have to play her and what’s on the page.”

   The actor’s respect for Byrne the writer extends to Byrne the man. “John’s just possibly the coolest man that you’re ever going to meet”, she says.

   “He met my boys a couple years ago [when they were aged six and four], a pair of wild little boys, and they were mesmerised by him… He’s got that kind of aura about him.”

   Given that respect, it goes without saying that Stuart, her fellow cast members and director Elizabeth Newman have done everything they can to make their production of Tennis Elbow a first class piece of audio drama. “Elizabeth is very keen that the work that’s being produced is solid art”, says Stuart.

   “It’s not just a case of saying ‘oh, we’re shut down at the moment, let’s just chuck stuff online frivolously.’ Elizabeth felt very strongly that, whilst the parameters have changed massively for theatre, we can still do something that’s worthy of everyone’s time.”

   Which is not to say that, having recorded Tennis Elbow as an audio play, Stuart wouldn’t jump at the chance to perform it live on stage in the future. “Oh my God, yes! Absolutely!

   “Radio, TV and film are all valid mediums, all fantastically thrilling in their own ways”, the actor comments. “Yet, nothing compares to sitting in a theatre, whether it’s with 12 other people or 200. It’s happening right now, it’s happening in front of me, and there is a collective experience happening.

   “I wouldn’t pay 25 quid to sit in the stalls at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow to hear people speak the way that they would in the queue at Tesco”, Stuart continues. “John’s way of writing is heightened, stylised and poetic. It’s typically John.”

   Byrne’s writing style is, as Stuart observes, instantly recognisable. We can identify it almost immediately, just as we can pinpoint the distinctive style of a sculptor like Henry Moore or a painter like, well, John Byrne.

Tennis Elbow is streamed on the Sound Stage platform, April 30 to May 8: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on April 25, 2021

© Mark Brown