Feature interview: Lu Kemp, artistic director, Perth Theatre

Letting the light in

Perth Theatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp talks to Mark Brown about her plan to illuminate the revamped playhouse with a bold new programme

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Jessica Hardwick and Michael Moreland rehearsing Knives in Hens. Photo: Pam Dochard

If you approach Perth Theatre from Mill Street these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the famous playhouse has not so much been redeveloped as demolished and rebuilt from scratch. What was previously the unremarkable back of the playhouse is now the highly-modern facade of the newly renovated theatre, complete with sliding doors and a huge screen advertising coming attractions.

Inside, the playhouse, which reopened in November following a four-year, £16.6 million overhaul, is transformed utterly. Natural light floods into the building from various angles and splendid cafes spread across two floors.

The main auditorium retains its Victorian splendour, complete with proscenium arch stage, but has been lovingly restored, right down to the comfortable new seating. However, the grand old lady now has bright, young offspring. The expansion of the building in many directions has enabled the addition of a well-proportioned and versatile studio theatre space on the second floor.

The artistic director who has inherited the splendidly restyled theatre is Lu Kemp. Appointed director in 2016, in the midst of the redevelopment work, she is a woman with a strong grounding in Scottish culture.

Lu Kemp. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Hailing from Watford, she was a trainee director at TAG Theatre in Glasgow between 2000 and 2002, and a BBC Scotland radio director from 2002 to 2007. There followed training at the movement laboratory of the famous Jacques Lecoq school in Paris and the Saratoga International Theater Institute in New York.

Kemp’s breakthrough production on the Scottish stage was Abigail Docherty’s beautiful children’s show One Thousand Paper Cranes in 2009, which entranced young audiences at the Imaginate International Children’s Festival in Edinburgh, among other places. She also made a lasting impression with her visually stunning presentation of Sue Glover’s Bondagers at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2014.

Now installed in the redeveloped Perth Theatre, which she reopened with her bold and raucous pantomime Aladdin, Kemp is about to embark upon her first full season of work. Including famous singer-songwriter Karine Polwart’s celebrated theatre piece Wind Resistance, as well as work by new associate artists, including acclaimed theatremaker Kieran Hurley and dance theatre company Curious Seed, it is an impressively ambitious programme.

The most significant markers to be laid down, however, are in Kemp’s choices of the headline plays, which she will direct herself. Scottish playwright David Harrower’s modern classic Knives In Hens (February 1-17) and Shakespeare’s tale of vaulting ambition Richard III (March 17-31) are suitably exciting dramas for the director’s inaugural season in the Fair City’s renewed playhouse.

“I wanted to do the great Scottish work”, Kemp tells me when we meet at her theatre.

Harrower’s play, she continues, has resonated with her ever since she saw it at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh (where she ushered while a student at Edinburgh University) in 1997.

“It got me somewhere [inside]”, she remembers. “It got me on a guttural level and I had a fascination with it that is not necessarily logical.”

Anyone who knows Harrower’s extraordinary play (for my money, one of the finest ever written by a Scottish dramatist) will know exactly what the director means. The piece, which is set in an unspecified, pre-industrial society in which an unnamed Young Woman comes to an intellectual, emotional and sexual awakening with a literate miller, is a thing of sparsely poetic, mysterious beauty. Like all of the most truly profound stage dramas, it leaves one feeling more than one understands.

The paradox of Knives In Hens is that, whilst it is recognised as a modern classic of Scottish theatre by critics and scholars, it is still not a play with which the majority of Perth Theatre patrons will be familiar. Kemp is seeking, she says, to find “doorways”, points of identification which will draw local people into her theatre.

“Although Knives In Hens is set in a mythic world, it’s a rural world”, the director comments. “I’m really interested in Perth Theatre being local and celebrating the fact that we are a rural community.”

Whether it be Harrower’s play, Polwart’s delightful piece (which, in many ways, is a paean to the Scottish countryside) or Hurley’s planned first work for her (a ceilidh-theatre show based upon his interviews with farmers and other local people), Kemp cannot stand accused of neglecting Perth Theatre’s place within a broader, rural community.

Encouragingly, however, she is not seeking an easy or populist route to audience development. The director likes the model of the V&A museum in London, which she describes as “a really great cafe with brilliant art around it.”

She wants something similar for Perth Theatre. “If we can make this space as welcoming and inclusive as possible, I think people will go with us.”

Kemp is confident that the revamped building itself will help her in her quest to bring in a wide and socially diverse audience, often to see theatre works with which they are not familiar.

She hopes that patrons will share her love of the new building’s openness to the light outside. “It pours into the space”, she says, “and it also brings the air in.

“We live in a strip here, from Perth up to Dundee, that is all about light. The light changes all the time here, and it blows me away.

“It just seems appropriate that, in a place that is about changing skies and light, the building should be so responsive to the light outside.”

For details of the Perth Theatre programme, visit: horsecross.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 21, 2018

© Mark Brown


Preview: Clown Cabaret @ Manipulate Festival, Edinburgh, and Manipulate highlights

Send in the clowns

The 2018 programme of Edinburgh’s annual Manipulate festival boasts a special edition of the Clown Cabaret. Mark Brown spoke with one of the Cabaret’s creators, actor-director Tim Licata

Arabian Nights - Tim
Tim Licata (foreground) in The Arabian Nights. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If you have been an observer of Scottish theatre over the last 20 years, the chances are you will have encountered Tim Licata. Hailing from Chicago, the actor, teacher and director has appeared in numerous performances by erstwhile theatre company Benchtours, as well as in the work of his own physical theatre group Plutot La Vie, which he established with fellow artist Ian Cameron in 2002.

Most recently you might have seen him manipulating a flatulent mongrel puppet and playing the ill-fated merchant Abu Hassan in the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s acclaimed Christmas production of The Arabian Nights.

The actor settled in Scotland (Edinburgh, to be precise) in 1995, with his Austrian wife Magdalena Schamberger, who is acclaimed for her work in hospital clowning (particularly as former artistic director of Edinburgh-based company Hearts & Minds). He and Schamberger met in Paris in the 1990s, while studying with the great French performance teacher Philippe Gaulier (who was himself a pupil of the theatre master Jacques Lecoq). It was there that Licata also met future collaborators in Benchtours, Catherine Gillard, Peter Clerke and John Cobb.

I meet Licata in a cafe on Broughton Street in central Edinburgh, to talk, not about his exceptional career as a performer, but about his central role as a director and curator of the Clown Cabaret. The Cabaret, which started in Edinburgh in 2013, is about to make its debut in the brilliant programme of the Manipulate festival of visual theatre.

I suggest to Licata that Manipulate plays a crucial role in Scottish theatre in providing a platform at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre for art forms that tend to be somewhat under-represented on the national stage. “I think that’s true” he says. “Manipulate absolutely does that.

“It’s been interesting to watch it over its 10 years. It started out with even more of a puppetry and puppet manipulation focus. It’s developed and grown into wider areas of visual and physical theatre. I think that’s great.”

Manipulate is, the actor-director continues, “a real flagship [for visual theatre in Scotland]… a platform, both in terms of bringing international artists here and featuring a lot of Scottish artists.”

Over the last 50 years Scottish theatre has developed an interesting tension and connection between its literary/textual roots and its embracing of the more visual aesthetics of leading European theatre artists such as Lecoq and the Polish master Jerzy Grotowski. However, this European strand has suffered in recent times with the controversial closure of The Arches venue in Glasgow in 2015 and the reduced profile of Tramway (the programme of which has, sadly, been neglected by its owner Glasgow City Council).

Ruxy Cantir. Photography - Rich Dyson (2)
Ruxy Cantir in Clown Cabaret. Photo: Rich Dyson

However, as Licata points out, while some doors have closed (partially, if not entirely), others have opened. Scottish theatre companies such as Vox Motus, Company of Wolves (who present their new show Achilles at this year’s Manipulate) and Licata’s own Plutot La Vie are producing work which is very clearly inspired by the techniques of European theatre.

Clown Cabaret itself is enjoying larger audiences and increasing prominence. Now based at the Roxy Art House venue in Edinburgh, it presented a special edition as part of last year’s Surge festival of street arts, physical theatre and circus in Glasgow.

The brainchild of Licata and co-conspirators Saras Feijoo and Melanie Jordan, the Cabaret runs regular scratch nights in which selected clown artists present their new and developing work. In the special editions, such as that during Surge last year and Manipulate next month (Traverse, February 3), some of the more successful pieces from the scratch nights are selected to be showcased. The Manipulate showcase will star artists such as Ruxy Cantir, Andrew Simpson and Bec Phipps.

Clowning in the theatre is, Licata explains, a very different proposition from clowning in the street. “You can do really subtle things in the theatre, but it needs the focus that artists get with theatre lighting and sound.”

Although, while growing up in Illinois, Licata loved circus clowns, he understands why so many people in the US and the UK are afraid of clowns due to the impression they received when they were young. “People know clowns from the circus”, he comments, “with all that white face make-up and big, painted-on smile. Up-close that can be really off-putting and scary.”

It was Lecoq, he says, who “rediscovered the clown. “He called it ‘the personal clown’.”

Lecoq’s deeply considered approach to the clown is very profound, Licata observes. “It can be incredibly freeing for a performer to be able to comfortably accept and, then, share what they might think are their limitations.

“Suddenly, when they are able to share their inadequacies, when they engender pleasure in an audience, those supposed weaknesses become dramatic strengths.”

Licata hopes that the evolution of Clown Cabaret, including its forthcoming showcase at Manipulate, will help develop the understanding of clown theatre in Scotland. “One of the things we’re particularly pleased about is that Clown Cabaret has given people a better understanding of personal clown. Hopefully, by taking it into Manipulate, we’re getting that out to a broader audience.”

The Manipulate festival runs at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27 to February 3: manipulatefestival.org



By Mark Brown


Fighting Modernists

Saturday, January 27

This fascinating programme of short animated films made under censorship in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia between 1961 and 1978 is programmed and introduced by award-winning Estonian animator Ulo Pikkov. Followed by a Q&A, it promises to offer real insights into how artists have used (and continue to use) subtle and metaphorical techniques to make unwanted political comment.



Wednesday, January 31

Superb Scots-Singaporean theatremaker and performer Ramesh Meyyappan (creator of the lovely piece Butterfly) performs his solo show about Joe Kilter, an obsessive man who is struggling to maintain his sense of himself. Everyday objects seem to conspire against Joe in this humorous, humane, beautifully executed piece of visual and physical theatre. The work is performed without spoken dialogue and is suitable for D/deaf audiences.


The Frog at the Bottom of the Well Believes That the Sky is Round

Friday, February 2

Acclaimed French company Velo Theatre offer us an intriguing guided tour in this work of total theatre. Combining performance, object theatre, installations, film, music and soundscapes, the show contemplates the great emotional and psychological resonance of our memories of our first home. In this case, it is the very unusual house of the great collector Monsieur Brin d’Avoine.


Sleeping Beauty

Saturday, February 3

Another Gallic work, but with a distinctly Scouse twist, as Liverpool-born artist Colette Garrigan, longstanding founder and director of French group Compagnie Akselere, retells the famous fairytale. Set in the Kingdom of Liverpool, which has been ravaged by hunger and joblessness, the piece is performed by Garrigan, with help from a variety of puppets, everyday objects and clever lighting. Expect an inventive performance which plays very much with the darker elements in the fairytale tradition.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 14, 2018

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview, Scottish theatre in 2018

Of dream singers and big-nosed poets

Sunday Herald drama critic Mark Brown takes a look at the theatre offerings in the year ahead

Eddie & The Slumber Sisters
Eddie And The Slumber Sisters. Photo: Christopher Bowen

We may still be watching the glowing embers of 2017 dying out before the New Year bursts into life, but we already have a pretty good picture of how Scottish theatre is going to shape up in 2018. The coming year is, typically for live drama in Scotland, one of considerable change.

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) brings us the first programme by its new artistic director, Jackie Wylie. Meanwhile the Citizens Theatre Company in Glasgow relocates to Tramway in the spring, as the great Gorbals playhouse undergoes a two-year, £19.4 million redevelopment.

January tends to be somewhat quiet in Caledonia’s theatreland. As the final “it’s behind yous” ring out from the last of the country’s pantomimes, Scotland’s exhausted playhouses take a well-earned breather.

That said, even January offers theatre lovers something to look forward to. As ever, the first footer of the theatre year is Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, which opens its 2018 account with The Lover (January 20 – February 3).

Created by choreographer Fleur Darkin and theatremaker Jemima Levick, it is a stage adaptation, in dance and theatre, of Marguerite Duras’s famous novel about illicit love in the French colony of Indochina. Typically of Lyceum artistic director David Greig, it is an exciting and intriguing piece of programming.

Over on the west coast, the Citizens theatre begins its theatre year with a production of Rona Munro’s Bold Girls (January 24 – February 10). First staged in 1991, it is a celebration of the women of Belfast at a time when the Good Friday Agreement was still seven long years away.

Glasgow-based physical theatre specialists Company of Wolves present their one-man contemplation of the Ancient Greek myth of Achilles at both the Citizens Theatre (January 23-27) and the Traverse, Edinburgh (January 30). The Edinburgh performance is part of the fascinating and diverse programme of the Manipulate festival of visual theatre and animation (January 27 – February 3: manipulatefestival.org).

Lu Kemp, artistic director of Perth Theatre (which recently reopened after its massive, four-year redevelopment), sets her stall out promisingly with productions of Scots dramatist David Harrower’s 1995 play Knives In Hens (February 1-17) and Shakespeare’s Richard III (March 17-31). The Harrower revival is particularly exciting.

Knives in Hens is a beautiful, sparsely poetic drama which centres on the intellectual and sexual awakening of a young peasant woman through her relationship with an educated miller in a pre-industrial society. It is, for my money, one of the two or three best dramas ever written by a Scottish playwright.

Also in February, Borders-based company Firebrand tours excellent Irish writer Frank McGuinness’s one-woman play The Match Box (February 1-24). Meanwhile, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre teams up with Fire Exit to present David Leddy’s latest play The Last Bordello (Tron and Traverse, Edinburgh, February 10-24). The companies are setting the bar high, suggesting that the drama will be, “the bastard child of Margaret Atwood and David Lynch.”

In March, appropriately enough, Dundee Rep offers the stage musical version of Frank Wedekind’s classic Spring Awakening (March 22-24). The Rep’s artistic director Andrew Panton will direct a large cast, including student actors from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,  in the multiple award-winning work by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.

Wylie’s inaugural NTS programme continues the national company’s fruitful tradition of co-productions. Eddie And The Slumber Sisters (touring April to June) for example, is made in collaboration with leading Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels. The bringing together of Eddie (a bereaved little girl) with the imaginary Slumber Sisters (a musical trio who help her cope with her grief), it promises to be a touching and inventive drama for kids.

Other new plays include Frances Poet’s Gut (Traverse and Tron, April 20 – May 19), Martin McCormick’s Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths (Tron and Traverse, May 3-19) and The Reason I Jump, a major, outdoor, site-specific piece based upon the book by leading Japanese author Naoki Higoshida (the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow, Glasgow in June).

  Wylie’s passion for new and devised theatre continues with considerable NTS involvement in the Take Me Somewhere festival in Glasgow during the spring. The NTS will be on the Edinburgh Fringe in August, too. The programme will include new works Nous/Us, written by Davey Anderson, Linda McLean and Philippe Ducros and My Left Right Foot, created by Robert Softley Gale

However, in the midst of this frenetic activity, the highlight of the NTS programme is, arguably, Cyrano de Bergerac (touring September 1 – November 10). Edwin Morgan’s Scottified version of Rostand’s classic of French literature is directed for the Citizens company, the Royal Lyceum and the NTS by the Citz’s acclaimed director Dominic Hill.

All of this is before one even mentions the summer season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the new director at which will take charge of a 2018 programme that includes the blockbuster musical Chicago (various dates, May 25 – October 13). Indeed, we can still look forward to the announcements of the programmes of the extraordinary Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (May 23 – June 3) and the Edinburgh Festivals in August.

There are those who will remind us that the chill winds of an economically illiterate and morally unjustifiable austerity continue to blow, from Westminster, via Holyrood, and into Scotland’s arts organisations. True though this is, our theatre artists continue to give us reasons to be very cheerful indeed.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 31, 2017

© Mark Brown

Feature: The Dolls, SEC pantomime 2017

Hello Dollies

Their comic double act The Dolls has been a hit on stages throughout Scotland and beyond. Now Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy take their gallus Glasgow cleaners onto the big panto stage. By Mark Brown.

The Dolls #1
The Dolls – Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens. Photo: Kirsty Anderson / Herald & Times

When I arrive at Glasgow’s famous “Armadillo” auditorium to interview The Dolls (aka Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy), the comedy duo are already in costume and larking about with the photographer. For two people at their work, they’re having way too much fun.

This will come as no surprise to their legions of fans. Since The Dolls, Agnes and Sadie (west of Scotland cleaners with a solid and uproarious friendship), began their meteoric rise in the spring of 2015, they’ve been having a laugh in full houses all over Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK.

Now the pair are bringing their riotous brand of comedy to the Armadillo’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, in which they star alongside Greg McHugh’s much-loved creation Gary: Tank Commander. The 3,000-seater auditorium at the rebranded SEC (Scottish Events Campus) is the biggest panto venue in Scotland; previous Christmas shows have starred such big names as John Barrowman, David Hasselfhoff and The Krankies.

For Telfer Stevens (who plays Caitlin McLean in the TV soap River City) and McCarthy (currently appearing as DC Andrea McGill in the police spoof Scot Squad) the mega-panto is a wonderful and unexpected opportunity. “We never thought it would get this big this quickly”, says McCarthy of The Dolls’ success.

“I never thought beyond the end of the week”, adds Telfer Stevens. At that, the friends crease up with laughter, which, it must be said, is an infectiously regular occurrence throughout our interview.

The Dolls are a fascinating phenomenon. Very much referencing a golden past of Scottish music hall, they are, surely, the most successful Scottish, female double act since Fran and Anna. Indeed, one might think of them as a female equivalent of Francie and Josie, the glaikit Glaswegian characters played by the late, great Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton.

What, I wonder, accounts for the irresistible rise of The Dolls? “I think we’re at a point now where people are looking for nostalgic things”, McCarthy suggests.

“Things are really tough for people just now. People are saying, ‘do you remember when it used to be good?’, because just now things are pretty crap. I think what Gayle and I do is nostalgic, but with a modern twist.”

“There’s also an element of us being a female comedy duo coming out and saying, ‘here we are world! We don’t really know what we are, but we’re here to have a good time'”, adds Telfer Stevens.

Agnes (Telfer Stevens) and Sadie (McCarthy) are, she continues, influenced by “our heritage and our upbringings, the working-class families we were brought up in.” Telfer Stevens (36) hails from the village of Renton, in the Vale of Leven, while McCarthy (33) was raised in Maryhill in north-west Glasgow.

The success of their act is, Telfer Stevens believes, down to she and McCarthy inadvertently tapping into the zeitgeist. “There is”, she says, “nothing else like that just now.”

Dolls audiences split, they reckon, about 80/20 women to men, and they are most definitely up for a good night out. “When women are out together, we’re worse than men”, says Telfer Stevens.

“The behaviour’s off the scale”, she adds, with a laugh. “We encourage it, I think”, McCarthy chips in. Cue the kind of laughter you’d expect from Glasgow schoolgirls when the teacher’s out of the class, or from women factory workers when the foreman’s slipped out for a cigarette.

If The Dolls’ fan base is overwhelmingly female and working class, it is also cross-generational. “Our audience goes from 16-year-olds to women in their eighties. It spans that far”, comments Telfer Stevens.

“It’s like a kitchen party”, adds McCarthy. “Women from our kind of working-class families, you’d go to a kitchen party with your grannies, your aunties, your mum.”

The Dolls #2
Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy. Photo: Kirsty Anderson / Herald & Times

The Dolls began as an old-style, music hall routine, combining stand-up comedy with humorous songs. They started their career, in May 2015, in the less-than-auspicious surroundings of the Easterhouse masonic hall.

The act may have been rooted in a proud tradition, but the venue’s management reflected a less wholesome kind of heritage, which hangs on tenaciously in many Scottish communities. “They wouldn’t allow my second name on the poster”, remembers McCarthy.

The man arranging the booking at the hall told them he would, “need to put a piece of black tape” over McCarthy’s Irish, Catholic surname. And so, in a moment of sinister comedy, The Dolls began their professional life as “Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise.”

From that, decidedly odd, opening gig, the duo went on to play numerous clubs, including a memorable appearance at the Grampian Club in Corby in Northamptonshire. The former steel town is famous for its massive Scottish diaspora (around half of the town’s population are either Scots or of Scottish descent).

“It’s full of Scots”, says Telfer Stevens. “They’re all cutting about in their Rangers and Celtic tops as if they’re in Glasgow.”

It was in Corby, McCarthy remembers, that the duo realised they’d made it. “The queue was round the block, we sold it out. There were folk round the corner going, ‘we’ll sell you a Dolls ticket for 50 quid.’ The tickets were £10!”

Which is not to say that the pair want their fans being ripped off by ticket touts. In fact, they enjoy a close relationship with their audience. Sometimes it’s a bit too close.

“After we played the Fairfield Centre in Govan”, Telfer Stevens recalls, “(what a mental night that was!), this woman contacted us, and she said, ‘listen hen, I had diarrhoea on Sunday, can I get a ticket for another one of your shows?'”

The performers laugh uncontrollably at this (as, I confess, dear reader, do I), until McCarthy adds, “I take comfort in that. That’s our audience. They’re like family members.”

From sectarian blanking out on their posters in Easterhouse, to inflated black market ticket pricing in Corby, and too much information about the bowels of a fan in Govan, the rise of The Dolls has been unconventional, to say the least. 2017 has been their breakthrough year, with sell-out performances of the show The Dolls Abroad (co-written by the Telfer Stevens, McCarthy and fellow comic actor Fraser Boyle) and, now, a major Christmas show staged by the UK’s biggest pantomime producer, Scarborough-based Qdos Entertainment.

“It’s been fantastic”, comments Telfer Stevens. “It’s been a riot”, adds McCarthy. “It has been a riot”, her partner agrees. “And a lot of pressure, I think, when you put a show like that out.

“It’s been mental. We never ever envisaged it becoming this big. We’ve just found ourselves here. That’s the point.”

As the cliche has it, it takes a lot of hard work to make an act like The Dolls seem so effortless, and no-one can doubt the serious graft the pair have put in to land where they have, on the Armadillo stage with Gary: Tank Commander.

Telfer Stevens has worked with Greg McHugh, recording an episode of the army comedy. “He’s a nice guy”, she says. “He’s very talented.”

“I remember watching him on youtube, before he ever went to TV”, McCarthy adds. “It was just him on a chair being interviewed by somebody, and I remember going, ‘this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years.’ I think we’re going to have a good time.”

Telfer Stevens agrees. The combination of Gary Tank’s camp-as-Christmas humour and The Dolls’ outrageous working-class comedy is, she says, a “no brainer”

The pair profess themselves somewhat “lucky” to have enjoyed such a stratospheric rise with their double act. However, they know their success is based on something much more fundamental.

“I’ve never worked with anyone that I’ve had this kind of chemistry with”, says Telfer Stevens. “It’s a special bond, and that’s not just about friendship, that’s about what we do together on stage. It’s about someone having the same values and the same ethic.

“It’s about saying, ‘We’re not going down here without a fight. I’m going to die here on this stage, I can’t give any more.’

“But there’s that person across from me going, ‘we can do this’, it’s in the eyes. I’ll never give up for her, and she’ll never give up for me. That’s it in a nutshell.”

“We love to kick our height and do the splits. That’s it!”, adds McCarthy. “An opportunity has presented itself, we’re going to go for it and have a laugh.”

Jack And The Beanstalk is at the SEC Armadillo from December 16 to January 7:  www.sec.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 3, 2017

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival Feature: Zinnie Harris interview, plus Festival highlights

The absurd and the sublime

Playwright Zinnie Harris has three productions in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. She spoke to Mark Brown about a trio of very diverse works

Zinnie Harris

When I meet acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre she is “very pleased, excited and nervous”. As well she might be. The author of such outstanding plays as Further Than The Furthest Thing and Midwinter, Harris is having no fewer than three productions of her work staged as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).

First up is Rhinoceros (Royal Lyceum, until August 12), Harris’s adaptation of the great Franco-Romanian writer Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic in which political and social conformism transforms the people of a tranquil little French town into rhinos. A co-production between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum company and DOT Theatre of Istanbul, it is directed by Murat Daltaban, founder of the Turkish company.

That is followed by Meet Me At Dawn (Traverse, until August 27), a new play by Harris which traces the physical and emotional journeys of two shipwrecked women who are washed up in a strange land. A drama about loss and grief, it is “lightly inspired” by the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Finally, in the last week of the Festival, there is a revival of This Restless House (Royal Lyceum, August 22-27), Harris’s award-winning version (first staged at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year) of Aeschylus’s great, classical play cycle The Oresteia.

Such a celebration of a playwright’s work at a prestigious international festival is an honour usually reserved for dead writers, such as Shakespeare or Beckett. However, the mini-festival of Harris plays is more than justified.

A multiple award-winning theatremaker, she received the Best Director award (for her staging of Caryl Churchill’s drama A Number) at the 2017 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) and Best New Play (for This Restless House) at the 2016 CATS. She also teaches in theatre studies at the University of St Andrews, at which she recently became a professor.

This platform for Harris’s theatre is typical of the bold programming of EIF director Fergus Linehan who has, since taking over at the 2015 Festival, brought a fresh perspective to the drama offering. In particular, he has abolished the old restriction that Scottish theatre’s input to the Festival be only one production, and a world premiere at that.

Harris is grateful for Linehan’s faith in her work, and pleased by his approach to Scottish theatre. “It used to be that the Scottish production was a sitting duck”, she says, remembering how Scottish premieres used to be up against celebrated, well-established shows from around the world.

There is pressure, she acknowledges, in having three productions staged in the same Festival. That is alleviated somewhat, however, by the inclusion of This Restless House.

“I’m enormously proud of it”, she says. “It’s tried and tested. We just have to get it back on its feet the way it was last year.”

An adaptation of a modernist classic (Rhinoceros), a new version of a classical, Greek tragedy (This Restless House) and a new play that nods towards a Greek myth (Meet Me At Dawn). I suggest to Harris that the three works exemplify her theatrical output, which has one foot in modernism and the other in classicism.

“I think you’re right”, she says. She has always been attracted, she continues, to, “the big movements of myth”, and plays in which, “you don’t just hurt someone, you gouge their eyes out.

“I’m so drawn to that big canvas, both in terms of its theatricality and as a way of interpreting the world now.”

In the case of Rhinoceros that means an ostensibly comic event (people turning into rhinos) which has a powerful political resonance, not least in director Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where President Erdogan is in the midst of shutting down voices of dissent.

“What it’s about is the rise of populism”, Harris suggests, “suddenly you look around your neighbours and you don’t recognise them.

“It’s absurd, it’s funny. At moments we’re laughing at how ridiculous the rhinoceroses are. At other times we’re horrified… What Morat has brought is a profound sense of sadness.”

When it came to writing Meet Me At Dawn, Harris originally envisaged the lead characters being a man and woman (like Orpheus and Eurydice). “Every play is a notebook to your life”, she comments. “Maybe it was because of stuff that was going on with me, that the play had started to be about differences between men and women”, the playwright adds, referring to the sudden breakdown of her marriage (to composer John Harris) last year.

However, as the writing progressed, Harris realised that she didn’t want the play to be tied up in gender politics. The drama she has written is, she believes, “a gentle play” which is “purely about grief and love”.

In This Restless House Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to find his wife, Clytemnestra, enraged. His daughter, Electra, (rather than his son Orestes) is the spear tip of the anger against him for his sacrificing of another of his daughters, Iphigenia, to the gods.

For Harris, the Oresteia trilogy was ripe for a modern reinterpretation. “What if Clytemnestra is not already evil? What if she’s a mum who’s had to live through her daughter being sacrificed by her husband, and she knew she lived in a time when she wouldn’t get justice for that?”

Questions which This Restless House answers with stunning, dramatic power. Theatre lovers who missed the play cycle in Glasgow last year are in for a treat.


Festival highlights

Mies Julie #1
Mies Julie

Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, until August 27

The welcome return of Yael Farber’s excoriating version of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, presented on the Fringe by the Baxter Theatre Centre of South Africa. Bringing the Swedish bard’s tale of mangled gender and class relations into the context of race in modern South Africa, it is one of the truly great theatre productions of recent times.

Krapp’s Last Tape, Church Hill Theatre, until August 27

Beckett’s brilliant, bleakly comic monodrama is performed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) programme by the superb Irish actor Barry McGovern and directed by Michael Colgan, artistic director of Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre.

How To Act, Summerhall, until August 27

Written and directed by Graham Eatough (one of the founders of the celebrated Scottish company Suspect Culture), How To Act plunges a fictional, male theatre director and an aspiring, young actress into the cauldron of a contested masterclass. Presented on the Fringe by the National Theatre of Scotland, this new play promises shades of David Mamet’s acclaimed drama Oleanna.

Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27

Internationally renowned, Sheffield-based avant-garde performance company Forced Entertainment take to the EIF stage with a production which collides popular culture with deeper, underlying social, political and personal concerns. Described by the company as “part mind-reading feat, part cabaret act, part chaotic game show”, it seems set to be an hilarious, thought provoking and emotive evening’s theatre.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, The Hub, until August 27

The European premiere of this “subversive cabaret” take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, by Australia’s “post-post-modern diva” Meow Meow and Malthouse Theatre of Melbourne. A hit at last year’s EIF for her take on the Weimar songbook (performed with Barry Humphries), Meow Meow’s show is a shoo-in for cult Festival status.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 6, 2017

© Mark Brown



Review: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2017

No strings in Quebec

From existential human drama to the wonders of the childhood imagination, Mark Brown acclaims the FIAMS puppet theatre festival in Saguenay

Scottish theatre audiences know the theatre of Quebec. We have for many years delighted in the work of Quebecois theatre luminaries such as Robert Lepage, Michel Tremblay, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and Catherine-Anne Toupin.

However, we are barely acquainted with Quebec’s strong tradition in puppet and object theatre. Indeed, it is only thanks to the annual Manipulate festival in Edinburgh, and to children’s theatremakers such as Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, that Scotland can hold its head up in the international puppet theatre community.

The place to see Quebec’s puppet theatre (and puppet work from France, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere) is Saguenay. A tranquil, well-heeled city with a population of around 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee), Saguenay is the home of FIAMS (the biennial Festival International des Arts de la Marionette), which ends its 14th edition today.

Some five hours north of Montreal by road, through the extraordinary Canadian wilderness (I had the good fortune, I kid you not, to see two black bears together as we sped along the highway), Saguenay is not the kind of city one might typically associate with an international theatre festival. Yet here it was that I encountered the world premiere of the exceptional show Memories Of An Hourglass.

A co-production between La Torture Noire (from Quebec) and Luna Morena (from Mexico), this piece is, like more than half of the FIAMS programme, aimed at adults and teenagers (rather than younger children). A poetic meditation on time, and, I think, on the special precariousness of the current human condition, it is full of powerful visual metaphors.

Memories Of An Hourglass

A woman is tied to threads that suspend a series of clocks in the air. In her hand is a spinning wheel around which the threads of time are woven, and in which an unfortunate man finds himself caught up. It is, surely, an image inspired by the early scene in Akira Kurosawa’s great 1957 Macbeth movie Throne Of Blood, in which a mysterious old man (standing in for the witches) spins time while offering fateful prophecies.

In another scene, there is a grotesquely comic play on the kind of public dissections of the human body that were common in Europe in the 19th-century. From this emerges, as if created by a latter day Dr Frankenstein, a half-man, half-puppet.

Struggling on crutches at first, he finds his feet, and even engages romantically with a female dancer, before he, quite literally, loses his head and falls apart. However, when his limbless torso is opened, another puppet, in the shape of a boy, emerges.

Such images are repeated again and again in a work which collides the analogue (an old gramophone player) with the digital (the show’s computer technology is wheeled across the stage, becoming a player in itself). Are we, the piece seems to ask, subsuming the corporeal and the tangible (indeed, our essential humanity) in the burgeoning virtuality of our increasingly digital existence? As the play (which would, surely, be a fine addition to the Manipulate programme) ends with the sound of a ticking metronome, it feels like the sort of work Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would make for the 21st-century.

If the Quebecois/Mexican co-production was the highlight of the opening days of the festival, it was not the only show to impress. Landru, by French theatremakers Yoan Pencole and Cie Zusvex, combines various forms, including shadow puppetry and lifesize, representational puppetry, to consider the continued fascination with the serial killer Henri Desire Landru, aka “Bluebeard”.

Landru’s disembodied head finds itself transformed from a sculpture into the live subject of a court trial. There, the judge speaks from within a picture frame and the prosecution lawyer has no head. Bleakly humorous and startlingly inventive, the piece is testament to the possibilities puppetry offers to the visual imagination.

Likewise Nomadic Soul, another piece making its world premiere in Saguenay. Created entirely in monochrome, it is performed solely by its creator, Quebecoise artist Magali Chouinard.

The work is mindful of the nature-oriented belief systems of the First Nations peoples who populated this land long before European colonialists labelled it “Canada” or “Quebec”. The images of the raven and the wolf appear as aspects of Chouinard’s own human character. So, too, do female figures in old age, middle age and childhood.

Indeed, assisted by puppets, sculpture, projected film and animated illustration, the performer puts herself within the extraordinary masks and costumes of all three female figures and the wolf itself. It is a highly original, aesthetically exquisite and movingly humane piece of theatre.

A Heart In Winter. Photo: Michel Pinault

Children are by no means neglected at FIAMS. Much of the programme is dedicated to young theatregoers, including The Heart In Winter, by Quebecois company Theatre de l’Oiel. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Snow Queen, this charming play transforms the ill-fated boy Kai and his friend Gerda into modern day Quebecois kids, represented by delightful little puppets.

Also for young children, French company Le Clan des Songes offer Bella, a lovely exploration of the childhood imagination. Superb use of light to illuminate the puppets, but not the puppeteers, clashes a little with some kitsch elements in the representation of clouds and rain.

From a little French girl getting lost in a daydream to a deep rumination on 21st-century humanity at the existential crossroads, the FIAMS festival is testament to the immense potential of puppet theatre. May Scotland’s puppet theatremakers take heart.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 30, 2017

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview, The Lying Kind, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

A Comedy Of Errors

Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is staging Anthony Neilson’s dark comedy The Lying Kind this summer. Mark Brown talked to lead actors Michael Dylan and Martin McCormick

Lying Kind boys
Martin McCormick and Michael Dylan. Photo: Mark F Gibson

Did you ever hear the joke about the Irishman and the Scotsman who visited the warring old couple on Christmas Eve to give them some very bad news? If you did, you already know about the Tron Theatre, Glasgow’s forthcoming production of Anthony Neilson’s dark comedy The Lying Kind.

First played at the Royal Court Theatre as the London playhouse’s alternative Christmas show in 2002, the drama tells the story of two hapless cops, Gobbel and Blunt, who have drawn the short straw. It’s getting late on Christmas Eve, and they’ve been assigned to visit the intriguingly named senior citizens Balthasar and Garson (a couple for whom the love has observably long gone) with a terrible report about their daughter.

The problem is, try as they might, the bumbling Bobbies can’t quite impart the information. Their inept attempts at softening the blow only lead them into a series of ever more egregious cock-ups.

Add to this the antics of self-appointed community activist Gronya, a woman with a News Of The World-style obsession with rooting out paedophiles, and you have a very bleak farce indeed. Which, it should be said, is no less than one would expect of Neilson, the acclaimed Scottish playwright whose oeuvre includes such brilliant-but-unsettling dramas as Penetrator, The Censor and Stitching.

The Tron already has Christmas covered; every winter the theatre draws huge audiences for its pastiche pantos, written by the irrepressible Johnny McKnight. This year will be no different, with theatregoers already eagerly anticipating Alice In Weegieland.

Consequently, while many other Scottish theatres go quiet in anticipation of the Edinburgh festivals in August, the Tron, contrarily, is staging Neilson’s Christmas comedy in midsummer.

The cast will be lead by the aforementioned Celtic duo of Irish actor Michael Dylan (who plays Gobbel) and his Scottish counterpart Martin McCormick (Blunt). Dylan will be remembered fondly by Tron audiences for his fine playing of the priest Father Welsh in last year’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West.

McCormick, for his part, has become one of Scotland’s most celebrated stage actors, not least for his role in Dragon, the much-loved Scots-Chinese co-production for young people. He is also an award-winning writer, having received the Best New Play prize at the 2015 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Squash, his excellent contribution to the lunchtime theatre at Glasgow’s Oran Mor.

When I meet the two actors during rehearsals at the Tron they are relishing their double act in director Andy Arnold’s production of The Lying Kind. “They are total archetypes”, McCormick explains. “They’re like Father Ted and Father Dougal.”

“They try their best at their job, but they mess up a lot”, Dylan adds. “The thing I like about it is, if Blunt messes up, Gobbel comes in and saves the day, even if he doesn’t mean to, and vice versa. They’re lovable idiots.”

Blunt is, says McCormick, the “straight man” to Dylan’s more overtly comic character. However, like Father Ted, the play relies on the characters’ absolute obliviousness to their own absurdity.

“To achieve the maximum effect, it’s all got to be done with 100% sincerity”, the Scottish actor continues. “It’s got to be rooted in truth. Otherwise it just becomes panto.”

The play stands in a long and illustrious tradition of comic dramas in which uncomprehending characters disappear down a hole of their own digging. Shakespeare named the entire genre when he titled one of his plays The Comedy Of Errors.

“It could happen to anyone”, Dylan says of Gobbel and Blunt’s series of mishaps. “It starts with a little misunderstanding, then, suddenly, these two are in deep trouble. They don’t want to upset anyone, offend anyone or lose their jobs, but it just spirals down into chaos.”

“You catch yourself laughing and you think, ‘Oh God, I shouldn’t be laughing at that!”, McCormick adds.

“That’s the comedy that I like the most”, says Dylan. “When you’re thinking, ‘This is horrific, but it’s hilarious’, and you can relate to it.

“I know people who are like the people in this play. Old couples who hate each other. Or people like Gronya, who are on a mission to save the community, when they should be looking after themselves.”

Dylan and McCormick have worked together before, when Arnold had to re-cast his production of The Lonesome West for dates in Russia last year. However, they first met in their student days, when Dylan was training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and McCormick was at the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow.

They bumped into each other during a student drama programme at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. “They put all the students up in a youth hostel”, McCormick remembers.

“It was like Lord Of The Flies! It was a bunch of drama students all getting pissed and up to no good.”

Some might say these are the perfect origins for actors who are performing together in an Anthony Neilson comedy. The pair are certainly enjoying building the cataclysmically comic relationship between Gobbel and Blunt.

A fact that, they explain, has a great deal to do with director Arnold’s approach to making theatre. “Coming into work at the Tron is just lovely”, says Dylan. “Andy creates a space where you can just play. It’s like coming in and having a laugh.”

The Lying Kind plays the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-22. For details and tickets, visit: tron.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 25, 2017

© Mark Brown