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

Feature: Interview with actor Nicole Cooper re. Bard in the Botanics 2017

The Queen of Bard Behaviour

As Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics festival prepares to open its new season, Mark Brown talks to its award-winning actor Nicole Cooper.

Nicole Cooper as Timon
Nicole Cooper as Timon Athens. Photo: Tom Duncan

Last Sunday the prize-giving ceremony of the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) was held in Edinburgh’s splendid Festival Theatre. Of the many recipients of awards few were more palpably delighted than Nicole Cooper, winner of the prize for Best Female Performance.

The actor was recognised for her clever and enthralling performance as a feminised Coriolanus in last year’s Bard in the Botanics festival in Glasgow. Being nominated for the gong was of almost life-changing significance, Cooper tells me when I meet her at the botanic gardens, where she is currently in rehearsal for the forthcoming Bard season.

Born and raised in Zambia, the daughter of a Zambian mother and a Greek father, Cooper has lived in the UK ever since she was sent to boarding school in Oxford at the age of 11. Now 38, and married (to a Glaswegian) with three young daughters, she lives here in Scotland on the Greek nationality she inherited from her dad.

Although she trained in Glasgow (at the RSAMD, now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and has pursued her acting career here, she has been feeling uncertain about her place in Scotland of late. “Over the last 12 months, pretty much since the Brexit result, I’ve genuinely wondered whether I have a place here, in Scotland, in the UK, as an artist, as a performer”, she explains.

“I’ve thought about it a lot. I went home to Zambia back in January, and when I got back I had a lot of conversations with my husband about moving back to Zambia with him and the girls.

“I know it sounds silly, and I know Scotland is very different from the rest of the UK, but I did genuinely feel, after Brexit, that my Europeanness wasn’t wanted or wasn’t valid. I then questioned: ‘do I have a place in Scottish theatre? Does anyone even notice my work? Does it ever have any sort of impact on anyone?”

Which is where her CATS award comes in. Just being nominated, she says, felt like winning.

“It couldn’t have happened at a better time”, she continues. “It was exactly the nod that I needed as an actor. It made me think, ‘no, you’re okay, you’re not going under the radar.'”

As any regular patron of Bard in the Botanics will tell you, Cooper’s insecurity regarding the importance of her acting was misplaced. A stalwart of the Glasgow Shakespeare festival (which stages productions both outdoors in the gardens and in the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse) since 2008, the actor exudes skill, emotional power and psychological depth.

Playing at the Bard festival is not for the faint-hearted. The outdoor performances place particular demands on the voice and the body, while the Kibble performances bring actors into very close proximity with the audience.

Cooper has proved to be outstanding in both contexts, not least when coming face-to-face with theatregoers in the glasshouse. Her Coriolanus, which was performed in the Kibble, avoided notions of masculinity and androgyny, and created instead an absolutely convincing, uncompromising female warrior.

This year she opens the festival in another feminised rendering of one of Shakespeare’s great male roles, Timon Of Athens. I suggest to her that Timon, the beneficent Athenian gentleman whose largesse leaves him impoverished and friendless, is an Everyman character. The character is, surely, a symbol of the human condition, rather than anything specifically masculine.

“I’m so glad you said that”, she replies. “When I first read the script I said to [Bard co-director Jennifer Dick], ‘this is like the [15th-century] play Everyman’, in the sense that a lot of the characters in Timon are symbolic of a part of society.”

Coriolanus’s hubristic contempt for the masses gave last year’s production a very contemporary resonance. Cooper believes that the Bard festival’s staging of Timon (which director Dick has relocated to the year 1929, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Crash) will also feel very timely.

Pointedly, Dick places the drama’s contemplation of human avarice, selfishness and disloyalty in the midst of the most catastrophic crisis yet to afflict capitalism. “You see very clearly who Timon is pre-Crash”, says the actor.

“You see her generosity, her philanthropy and her being a benefactor of the arts. You see where it comes from, this really lovely, genuine place. It’s incredibly human and really quite touching.

“You have moments at the beginning of the play where you think, ‘she genuinely believes that these people care about her and love her as much as she cares about and loves them. Then the Crash happens, and that makes people go to desperate places.”

It’s a fair distance from Shakespeare’s Roman general, Coriolanus, to Timon, the Athenian philanthropist whose faith in humanity is shattered. However, such a year-to-year shift is meat and drink to Cooper, who also plays the novice nun Isabella in Measure For Measure in the forthcoming season.

Indeed, Bard in the Botanics is growing increasingly confident in its cross-gender casting. In addition to a female Timon, the 2017 programme also includes Queen Lear, with the fine actor Janette Foggo in the lead role.

As Cooper says, far from being a “quirky Shakespeare festival in the park”, Bard in the Botanics “stands up against any theatre that’s on in Glasgow.”

The Bard in the Botanics festival runs from June 21 to July 29. For details and tickets, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 18, 2017

© Mark Brown

Preview: Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, Edinburgh Zoo

Animal magic

Morna Pearson’s latest play offers a trip to the zoo with a difference. By Mark Brown

Morna Pearson
Morna Pearson. Photo: Traverse Theatre

They have moved us deeply with a drama performed in a children’s play park (Decky Does A Bronco), weaved a romantic thread through the rooms of a semi-dilapidated Edinburgh townhouse (Those Eyes, That Mouth) and taken us on a political and psychological journey beyond the security cordon of Edinburgh Airport (Roam). Now, in co-production with Lung Ha’s Theatre Company and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, site-specific theatre company Grid Iron are offering us an exciting chance to experience a theatre work performed in promenade around Edinburgh Zoo.

Written by Elgin-born playwright Morna Pearson and entitled Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, the drama is part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival programme. The play is set, Pearson tells me when I meet her in Edinburgh, “in a very heightened, fictional version of Edinburgh Zoo.”

This reimagined zoo is run by a manager, Henry Stirlingshire, whose professional ethics are slightly dubious. None-too-fond of his sister, Dr Vivien Stirlingshire, a “cryptozoologist” who scours the planet seeking undiscovered animals, Henry arranges a grand unveiling of Dr Vivien’s latest find.

Henry and Vivien have “never got on”, says Pearson. “So, it’s kind of a tale of sibling rivalry.”

In fact, Henry doesn’t believe that Vivien has discovered a new animal at all. Indeed, the playwright explains, “he thinks his sister just swans around the world making stuff up. He thinks he’s setting her up for an embarrassing fall.”

Has Dr Stirlingshire discovered some amazing creature, an equivalent of the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps? Or, will her “discovery” turn out to be a humiliating dud?

“There is a secret”, says Pearson. “We want it to be exciting.”

A play presented within the Zoo in the evening, after it has closed to the public, is bound to generate a frisson of excitement. Involving a carefully planned evening stroll through Scotland’s premier zoological institution, the piece has presented the team with logistical challenges which have amazed the playwright.

Pearson is impressed by the logistical work involved in turning her play into a promenade performance around one of Scotland’s favourite visitor attractions. “I thought the Zoo after hours would give us more freedom.

“But that turns out not to be the case, because some animals have to go to bed”, she says with a laugh.

She is glad that Grid Iron are so accustomed to the challenges of site-specific and promenade performance. “Thank goodness”, she says, “because some of the problems that came up blew my mind.”

Pearson is, like most playwrights, a writer for the stage. Creating a promenade piece to be performed in a major zoological gardens was a very new and interesting experience for her.

“Sometimes you just want to get on with the story, but you can’t”, she admits, “because the route won’t let you. Maybe, at a certain point, you’ll have to go round the long way, and you have to think about what to put along the route to entertain people while they make the journey.”

She has, she says leant heavily on the expertise of Grid Iron and Lung Ha’s in fitting her writing to the very specific circumstances in which the play is being presented.

Creating a play for performance in the Zoo has required a different style of writing, she says. Her characters, who will be speaking to a crowd of people, often outdoors, have to be “more shouty” than usual, as they make proclamations, a little like a town crier of olden times.

Many of those difficulties in creating the show relate to matters of accessibility, both of the play itself and the route it follows through the Zoo. Whilst Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery is not being described as a children’s show, it will, says Pearson, “work better if there are children in the audience”.

The piece is being presented as a “relaxed performance”, she continues. “It doesn’t matter if the children make a noise or chat.”

It is particularly important for the show’s co-producers that it be accessible to children and adults with learning disabilities. Lung Ha’s is, after all, Scotland’s acclaimed theatre company for people with disabilities.

People with learning disabilities, their loved ones and carers are assured that both show and route will be accessible to disabled audiences.

It is a curious coincidence that Pearson’s show should come just weeks after a major controversy involving the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Dalton, Cumbria. That zoo, in which more than 500 animals died in less than four years and a 24-year-old zoo keeper was killed by a tiger, has faced calls for closure.

I wonder if Pearson shares any of the wider ethical concerns that many people have about zoos in the 21st century. “There’s a case for zoos that prioritise conservation and welcome questioning, both of which Edinburgh Zoo do”, she says. “They seem to be a zoo that keeps up with the times.”

Whatever one’s opinions on that vexed issue, it’s clear that Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery is a tantalising prospect. Offering a cast of more than 20 actors and a journey into the mystery of Pearson’s play, it will appeal, its author hopes, to “people who go to the zoo, but don’t go to the theatre, and people who go to the theatre, but don’t go to the zoo.”

Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery is at Edinburgh Zoo, April 1-9: gridiron.org.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 26, 2017

© Mark Brown

Preview: Manipulate festival – interview feature, plus highlights

Ahead of the pack

Scottish theatre group Company of Wolves present their show The End Of Things at this year’s Manipulate festival. Mark Brown spoke with artistic director Ewan Downie

end-of-things-2
The End of Things. Photo: Brian Hartley.

The Manipulate festival of visual theatre is currently celebrating its 10th birthday. Held annually at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, it has become an important part of the Scottish performing arts calendar.

A genuinely international event, it showcases physical theatre, and puppetry from Scotland and across the world.

Glasgow-based group Company of Wolves is typical of the festival’s internationalism. Established by Ewan Downie and his joint artistic director Anna Porubcansky in 2012, the Wolves are inspired by the “laboratory theatres” of the great Polish theatre maker Jerzy Grotowski and his successors.

Indeed, Downie was, for six years, a member of acclaimed Polish company Song of the Goat. That group is known to many Scottish theatre lovers on account of its numerous appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I meet Downie at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow to talk about his company’s latest show, The End Of Things (which goes on an extensive tour after it plays at Manipulate). The piece emerged, he tells me, from a niggling sense of something that needed to be done.

   “For me the creative process always starts with an irritant”, he explains. “It’s what [English dramatist] Howard Barker calls ‘the sand in the oyster’s gut’. It always feels like an itch.

“In this case it was to do with endings. We knew we wanted to do something about that subject, but we didn’t know what it was exactly.

“As I started to think a bit more about the piece I realised that endings, for me, are a human concept. It’s something to do with our experience of change.

“We think things end, but they only end from our perspective. There are the same number of atoms in a dead body as in a live body.

“Then we started to think about the stories that we tell each other about endings and beginnings. You remember your first date, your wedding, the birth of your child.

“You remember these important stories. The starting point of the show was that.”

This sounds like the basis for a production that is more about generating profound personal emotions than articulating a thought. Which, if you’ve ever seen a performance by Song of the Goat, you will know is no bad thing.

In the Polish theatre of the body and the voice we are often offered a deeply affecting experience in which we feel more than we understand.

For Downie, this profundity comes from the methods of theatre making pioneered by Grotowski. “When we work with a group of performers, it changes with each show”, he says.

“I often feel that, through the training, we’re putting the performers in contact with a stream of their own imaginations… Then we introduce whatever is the material of the performance… So, the results are not that predictable.”

It is essential, says Downie, that work such as his, which has its roots in the European avant-garde, has the support of a festival like Manipulate. He is full of praise for the festival’s artistic director Simon Hart and its projects manager Jen White.

” Once they see your work and are interested in it, they’re just 100 percent behind you”, he comments. Indeed, Downie was particularly impressed to discover that Manipulate is  bringing a group of high level producers from around the world to see this year’s programme.

All of which suggests that, after a decade of programming, Manipulate is having no little success in bringing international work to Scotland and Scottish work to the world.

The End of Things plays the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the Manipulate festival on January 31. It then tours until March 18. For tour details, visit: companyofwolves.org.uk

 

MANIPULATE FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

poli-degaine
Poli Degaine. Photo: Compagnie La Pendue

Poli Degaine

January 28, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

January 30, Traverse, Edinburgh

French puppet theatre masters Compagnie La Pendue offer us their distinct take on  Pulcinella (better known as Punch to you and me), the international mischief maker of puppetry who began his life in 18th-century Naples. This show has played to acclaim in more than 30 countries. Join La Pendue as they revel in a character who “laughs at everything. Even death.”

 

Fisk

January 28, Traverse, Edinburgh

February 3, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

Scottish visual theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell’s new show explores themes of “depression, dependence and desolation” in this poetic and metaphorical piece. The story of a man in desperate straits on the ocean, and his unlikely relationship with a fish, it is a co-production with Danish new writing centre Teater Katapult.

 

Cities 

January 27, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

February 1, Traverse, Edinburgh

One actor using only a table, a camera and some objects conjures up imaginary cities in this show by Theatre De La Pire Espece from Quebec. If you saw this company’s unhinged Ubu On The Table at Summerhall during last year’s Fringe you will know what to expect from this crazy and creative form of object theatre.

 

The Manipulate festival plays at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27 to February 5. Some shows tour elsewhere in Scotland. For full details of the programme, visit: manipulatefestival.org

Compiled by Mark Brown

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 15, 2017

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Declan Donnellan on The Winter’s Tale

A Tortured Heart In Winter

Acclaimed theatre director Declan Donnellan talks to Mark Brown about his new production, The Winter’s Tale, and about his debt to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

A WINTER’S TALE
The company of The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Johan Persson

When I speak with Declan Donnellan, internationally acclaimed theatre director and co-founder of the famous company Cheek By Jowl, he is in Chicago. Audiences and critics in the Windy City are responding well, he tells me, to his latest production, a staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

In fact, the show (which is performed in English and makes its UK premiere at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre later this month) has been receiving enthusiastic plaudits throughout an international tour that has taken in venues in France, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg. When it visited Madrid, in February of last year, the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a glowing review for the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

“It is some time since I have seen a play that has kept me almost in a trance for the nearly three hours that it lasted”, wrote the Peruvian author. Not even Cheek By Jowl’s Russian-language staging of the Bard’s play Measure For Measure, he continued, “gave me that sensation of beauty and originality, of craftsmanship and absolute perfection.”

For Scottish audiences, this comment should be a source of excitement. Donnellan’s Measure For Measure was the deserved toast of the Edinburgh International Festival’s 2016 theatre programme. If, as Vargas Llosa believes, his Winter’s Tale exceeds it, we are in for a real treat.

The Winter’s Tale is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. It is so called on account of its uneasy combination of regal tragedy and pastoral comedy; the former caused by King Leontes’s false accusation of an affair between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his blue-blooded friend, Polixenes.

How, I wonder, does Donnellan approach the problem? “It’s really a play about abandonment”, he says. “Leontes is mad, but what is the source of his madness?

“He convinces himself that Hermione is having sex with Polixenes, and takes cruel revenge, trying to kill Polixenes, having the baby, his own child, abandoned. I think the fact that he chooses abandonment is significant.

“Leontes, we can infer, suffers from a terror of abandonment so overwhelming that he cannot see it. Like the monster standing behind you, so tall that you can’t see him.”

This psychoanalytic approach is interesting. This is Leontes, not as a tragic, Ancient monarch, but as a modern man, with an unconscious, Freudian fear.

For Donnellan, the road into the mind of a man of power, such as Leontes, is through our common humanity. The King can be compared, he says, with the guy in the pub who kicks off when it’s closing time.

A barman in his younger years, Donnellan says he has observed the kind of man who, “anaesthetised” against his feelings of loneliness and abandonment, isn’t even aware of why he suddenly flies into a rage. “Instead [of articulating his feelings] he’ll pick a fight”, comments the director.

“He may turn round to the next guy and yell, ‘what are you looking at?!’ Imagine that sort of apparently random rage coming from… someone with power. Imagine it in a king.”

Vargas Llosa was impressed by the modernity of Donnellan’s production. It is, he wrote, “absolutely a reflection of our time, our conflicts, a work which denounces the absurdity and the wickedness [of]… our politicians.”

Donnellan agrees that his approach to the play, and to theatre more generally, has political implications. Which is not to say that he has ever subscribed to the polemical style of those who look at a stage and see a soapbox.

In the 1980s, he remembers, there was a lot “Political theatre” (with an emphatically capital P) going on in the UK in response to Thatcherism. “Everyone sitting in the theatre was a convert”,  he remembers. “It felt slightly creepy.”

Instead of such redundant certainties, Donnellan’s theatre has always been one of possibilities and implications, be they political, moral, psychological or erotic. It’s a style of theatre that will be familiar to theatregoers of a certain vintage who remember the golden age at the Citizens Theatre (1969-2003) under the great directorial triumvirate of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.

Indeed, it’s a style that has, in many regards, been revived at the Citz in recent years by the Glasgow theatre’s current artistic director Dominic Hill.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Cheek By Jowl’s latest production should make its British premiere at the Gorbals playhouse. Not least because of the importance of the Citizens to both Donnellan and, joint artistic director and co-founder of Cheek By Jowl, Nick Ormerod.

“The Citizens under Giles, Philip and Robert had a great influence on Nick and I”, says Donnellan. “With its bravura, its internationalism, its sense of the epic gesture, its loathing of twee-ness,  I think the Citz was actually the most Scottish theatre.

“That was because it brought Scotland into the world and the world into Scotland. Glasgow wasn’t interested in building some kind of inward looking national identity, it was looking outwards, it wanted to be the best theatre in the world.”

If Cheek By Jowl, which was established in 1981, owes a debt to the extraordinary aesthetic innovations of the Citz in the 1970s, there’s also much to be said, Donnellan notes, for “the apparently little things.

“Giles inspired us humanly, he was always there, keeping a warm presence, in the foyer, human, approachable. He has been a great inspiration to us. ”

The Winter’s Tale is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-28. citz.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 8, 2017

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Scottish Performing Arts Highlights in 2017

Performing Arts Highlights in 2017

by Mark Brown

 

picnic-photo-by-pia-johnson
Picnic At Hanging Rock. Photo: Pia Johnson

 

THEATRE

January can be a little quiet in Scotland’s theatres. As the extraordinary number of pantomimes and Christmas family shows close, it often feels that the theatrical year is slow to get started.

2017 is a bit different, however. January offers real gems, with two major theatre productions by acclaimed visiting companies.

First up, as ever, is Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. The capital city’s repertory theatre hosts Picnic At Hanging Rock (January 13-28), by Australian groups Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan Theatre Company. The play is based upon Joan Lindsay’s novel, famously popularised by Peter Weir’s 1975 film, about a group of schoolgirls who go missing during a picnic in the Australian state of Victoria in 1900.

Not to be outdone, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre also welcomes one of the world’s great touring companies. London-based Cheek By Jowl’s production of Shakespeare’s “problem play” The Winter’s Tale, staged by acclaimed director Declan Donnellan, makes its UK premiere at the Citz (January 24-28).

The drama is, by turns, tragic and comic. It will be fascinating to see what Donnellan makes of it.

It is worth noting that, having waited some time for a production of The Winter’s Tale on the Scottish stage, two are coming along in quick succession. The Royal Lyceum will present its own take on the play next month (February 10 to March 4).

   In February, the Citizens Theatre stages Cuttin’ A Rug, the second part of John Byrne’s much loved Slab Boys Trilogy. Caroline Paterson directs the classic comic play which takes us to Paisley Town Hall, circa 1957, for the annual staff dance of carpet manufacturers A. F. Stobo & Co.

   Later in February, Dundee Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Joe Douglas tackles one of the most iconic plays in the American canon. Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Death Of A Salesman (February 22 to March 11), which charts the decline and demise of travelling salesman Willy Loman, is widely considered to be the single greatest drama about the hollowness of the American Dream. Douglas has assembled an interesting creative team for this production, including excellent composer Nikola Kodjabashia.

In March, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre offers an intriguing production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage (March 9-25). Reza is best known for her opinion-splitting hit play Art; an hilarious satire of abstract art and its collectors or a grating work of philistinism, according to one’s taste. Like Art, God Of Carnage, a tale of middle-class parents trying to arbitrate in a fight between their two sons (which is better known to cinemagoers as Roman Polanski’s 2011 American movie Carnage), is likely to divide audiences and critics.

I sometimes feel that I am alone in my continuing scepticism about the theatre of Noël Coward (who I can’t help but compare unfavourably with the great Oscar Wilde). It will be fascinating, therefore, to see what Scotland’s leading theatre director, the Citizens’ Dominic Hill, does with Hay Fever (Lyceum, March 10 to April 1; Citizens, April 5-22), Coward’s sideways glance at self-styled English Bohemia.

In June, the Lyceum stages Peter Handke’s avant-garde, wordless play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other (June 1-30 June). A bold and brave piece of programming by the Lyceum’s artistic director David Greig, the piece, which will be directed by the superb Wils Wilson, is “narrated by music and animated by unspoken interaction”. Open minds and receptive senses are required.

   The programmes of the Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe won’t be launched until March and June, respectively. However, the second half of the year is already shaping up quite nicely.

A pair of new sibling plays from the National Theatre of Scotland look particularly interesting. Staged as part of the Traverse Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, Eve (by Cora Bissett) and Adam (by Jo Clifford and Chris Goode) are two very different dramas that explore the realities of being transsexual in the modern world. Following their Edinburgh Fringe run, both plays will transfer to the Citizens, Glasgow in August and September (dates to be confirmed).

 

OPERA

The opera season gets off to a fascinating start, with Scottish Opera’s presentation of The Trial (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 24, 26 and 28; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, February 3 and 4). Based upon Franz Kafka’s extraordinary novel about Josef K, a man caught up in a terrifying system of senseless, unaccountable bureaucracy, the opera boasts music by the great minimalist composer Philip Glass and a libretto by acclaimed playwright Christopher Hampton.

 

DANCE

Leading contemporary dance company Scottish Dance Theatre tours a double bill of Dreamers, by Anton Lachky, and TutuMucky, a new work by Botis Seva, an emerging talent in British dance. SDT promises, “an evening of high energy, humorous, and engaging work.” The double bill opens at Dundee Rep Theatre on February 11 before going on extensive international and national tour (for details, visit: scottishdancetheatre.com).

For its part, Scottish Ballet’s 2017 programme includes an enticing Autumn season. Homage is paid to Sir Kenneth MacMillan, on the 25th anniversary of his death, with a presentation of his Le Baiser de la Fée, which is danced to music by Stravinsky. There is more of the great Russian composer in the companion piece, Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. The double bill tours Scotland in October and November (for details, visit: scottishballet.co.uk).

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 1, 2017

© Mark Brown

Preview features: Alice In Wonderland, Lyceum, Edinburgh & Christmas theatre and dance highlights 2016

Alice In Wonderland: “it’s like an internet session”

As he adapts Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum this Christmas, playwright Anthony Neilson finds Carroll’s stories reminiscent of surfing the internet. By Mark Brown

alice-in-wonderland-2
Photo: Drew Farrell

When David Greig, the famous playwright who is now artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, was looking for a dramatist to adapt and direct Lewis Carroll’s much loved Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, he turned to Anthony Neilson. As the author of psychologically engaging and unquestionably adult dramas such as Penetrator, The Censor and Stitching, Neilson might be considered an unlikely candidate to bring Alice to the stage.

That, however, would be to reckon without the playwright’s most successful drama, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia. The play, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2004, might be characterised as Alice In Wonderland for adults.

Dissocia is, first-and-foremost, a terrifying and hilarious fantasia. Its surreal world of bizarre characters and random events turns out to be the workings of the mind of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder.

Few people who have seen the play would deny its similarity to the highly imaginative alternative world of Carroll’s book. When I meet Neilson at the Lyceum during rehearsals of Alice, he is only too happy to acknowledge his debt to Carroll.

He read Alice In Wonderland as a child, he remembers. “It got into my head in a pretty fundamental way.

“I don’t remember reading it over and over again. But, for some reason, I felt connected to it.”

As a writer, Neilson is, he says, more interested in the “inner space” of human psychology than in events in the world outside. That, he explains, gives him an affinity with Carroll.

Alice In Wonderland is, says the playwright, “really just the transcript of something that was made up as he went along… It was that way of telling a story where your subconscious speaks quite freely… That’s what I try to do when I’m writing plays.”

In fact, observes the writer, Carroll’s approach to storytelling is, in some ways, more of our time than his own. “Quite unusually, Alice isn’t trying to get home, she has no plan, she’s just following her curiosity.

“It’s very much like an internet session. It’s a kind of narrative surfing, in a sense.”

Carroll understood, says Neilson, that “works that endure have two or three images in them that are indelible.” In that sense, he continues, Alice In Wonderland is comparable with the films of Stanley Kubrick.

Adapting Alice, he explains, begins with images. From the White Rabbit, to the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the little doors, through which the miniaturised Alice passes, the book throws up a series of visual icons, each of which demands its place in the show.

Fabulous though Carroll’s imagery is, I wonder if Neilson finds the visual world of the book a hindrance as well as a help in the creation of a stage play. “Yeah, it’s always a pain in the ass when you’ve got a character who goes from nine inches to nine feet tall.

“You have to try to work out a way of doing it that isn’t the same as the way people have done it thousands of times before. And you want to do it without utilising technology, which, in a way, is anti-magical.”

Neilson is promising a production that relies more on the charm of the story than on theatre technology. This Alice will combine the charm of Francis O’Connor’s set and costume designs and Nick Powell’s music with Neilson’s extraordinary theatrical imagination.

As to the question of how to make the show a success for all generations, not just the children in the audience, Neilson insists it’s simpler than it seems. “The key to a good children’s show is to tap the child in an adult. I don’t think it’s about entertaining children and adults on different levels.”

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until December 31. For further information, visit: lyceum.org.uk

_________________________________________________________________

Mark Brown’s Christmas theatre highlights

 

barriehunterbettyblumenthal
Barrie Hunter in Beauty and the Beast, Perth Concert Hall, 2015

 

Dick McWhittington

Perth Concert Hall

Dec 10-26

There are glitzy, glamorous pantomimes in Scotland’s largest cities, but only Perth’s tartanised Dick McWhittington boasts Scotland’s leading panto dame Barrie Hunter. The fine actor returns to Perth’s Christmas stage as the no doubt dubiously feminine shopkeeper Senga McScruff.

 

Hansel & Gretel

Citizens Theatre

Dec 6 to Jan 7

The Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill offers his own particular take on the Grimm Brothers’ great story of the siblings lost in the forest. A stylish, funny, sometimes dark family show is in prospect.

 

Black Beauty

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Dec 2-24

The Trav brings the much-loved horsey book to the stage. Aimed at children aged six and over (and their families), it is created by three of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre makers, performers Andy Manley and Andy Cannon, and designer by Shona Reppe.

 

How To Be A Christmas Tree

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Nov 29 to Dec 24

An interactive show for babies and pre-school children, all about how to grow from a wee sapling into a great, big Christmas tree. Staged by Cumbernauld Theatre Company and Fish And Game theatre group, I’m sure everything will turn out pine.

 

Hansel & Gretel

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Dec 8-31

Another rendering of the Brothers Grimm tale. Scottish Ballet’s delicious version takes up Christmas residence in Edinburgh before going on tour. Christopher Hampson’s show, which premiered in 2013, strikes a fabulous balance between tradition and modernity.

Touring Jan 5 to Feb 10: scottishballet.co.uk

 

These features were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 27, 2016

© Mark Brown