Feature: National Theatre of Scotland programme for 2020

National Theatre of Scotland isn’t playing it safe with 2020 programme

By Mark Brown

NTS - Caroline Newall
Caroline Newall, acting artistic director of the NTS

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) is, famously, a “theatre without walls”: in other words, a company which, although it operates out of administrative headquarters in Glasgow, has no theatre building of its own. As its 2020 programme attests, it is also keen to be a theatre without barriers.

This year’s programme ranges from revivals of famous, modern Scottish plays (such as John McGrath’s iconic 1973 piece The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil), to adventurous new takes on classic dramas (like Kieran Hurley’s The Enemy, based upon Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People) and bespoke new works for communities that are rarely touched by the world of theatre (exemplified by Ferry Tales, which will play on ferry routes to the Western Isles). Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that two new works by artists of African heritage explore Scotland’s role in the African slave trade.

Enough of Him (a co-production between the NTS and Pitlochry Festival Theatre) is a new play by Edinburgh-based dramatist May Sumbwanyambe which is based upon the true story of Joseph Knight. An African man brought to 18th-century Scotland as a slave by plantation owner John Wedderburn, Knight challenged his enslavement through the Scottish legal system.

Ghosts by Nigerian-born, Scotland-based actor-theatremaker Adura Onashile broaches the African slave trade from a very different artistic perspective. Not a play in the conventional sense, it will use multimedia technology to take its audience on an extraordinary, virtual reality guided tour. Using an app on their phones, audience members will encounter ghosts from Glasgow’s history of tobacco plantations and slavery.

When I meet Caroline Newall, the NTS’s acting artistic director (who is currently providing maternity leave cover for artistic director Jackie Wylie), at the company’s Glasgow offices, she explains how this morally and politically weighty issue from our national past has come to play such a key role in the company’s programme for the coming year.

Sumbwanyambe and Onashile were among those artists that the NTS approached seeking proposals for the 2020 programme. Newall, whose day job is normally as the NTS’s director of artistic development, was “surprised that both of them, completely independently of each other, came back with ideas that were so directly about slavery.”

There have been plays about Scotland and slavery in recent times. Iain Heggie’s darkly comic 2008 piece The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer satirises an 18th-century lawyer whose respectable, Christian morality shelters a genocidal racial politics.

Alan Bissett’s play It Wisnae Me crashes the history of colonial slavery into the comforting notion of Scotland as a progressive nation in which we’re all “Jock Tamson’s bairns”. Also last year, the NTS staged Hannah Lavery’s self-performed monologue The Drift, a beautiful, contemplative piece in which the mixed-race writer-performer delved into the contradictions and conflicting emotions of her Scottish and African heritage.

However, the new works by Sumbwanyambe and Onashile, coming as they do in the same NTS season, take the theatre about Scotland and slavery to another level. Newall credits Glasgow-based organisation the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) with doing more than most to help advance the use of art and culture to educate people about this anguished topic.

For instance, she points out that CRER provided the research funding for historian and author Stephen Mullen’s powerful walking tours of Glasgow’s Merchant City area. The tours (which might be considered a forerunner of Onashile’s multimedia piece, which will take to the streets of Glasgow in November) underlined the shameful truth about the Victorian splendour of a building such as Glasgow City Chambers, which was paid for by the unconscionable suffering of African slaves.

Newall is particularly pleased that Enough of Him will feature in CRER’s Black History Month (BHM) programme in October of this year. Being part of BHM might, she says, allow Sumbwanyambe’s play to “find a new audience who, perhaps, wouldn’t naturally come to see a National Theatre of Scotland production.”

Adura Onashile
Adura Onashile will play Medea. She is also the creator of Ghosts.

Before her ghosts appear in Glasgow, Onashile will take to the Edinburgh International Festival stage in August playing the eponymous lead in the NTS’s revival of Liz Lochhead’s acclaimed Scots-English adaptation of the Ancient Greek tragedy Medea. Lochhead’s memorably vibrant and brilliantly inventive version of Euripides’s opus was first staged, by Graham McLaren for the now defunct Scottish classical company Theatre Babel, in the year 2000.

Onashile, who will be directed in the new production by none other than Sir Michael Boyd, will be stepping into a role which the great Maureen Beattie made her own 20 years ago. “I think it’s been hard for anyone else to produce it, because it was such a seminal production”, Newall acknowledges.

“However, the fact that it’s now 20 years old means that there’s an entire generation who haven’t seen it. So, it’s about time that it goes back on, and having Sir Michael Boyd directing it will be fantastic.”

Newall, who saw McLaren’s production back at the start of the millennium, believes Onashile “will be such a different, and such a fierce, Medea.” Theatre lovers who are familiar with the acting of both Beattie (who is one of the outstanding Scottish actors of modern times) and Onashile (who gave an excellent, crystal sharp performance in Stridberg’s Creditors at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2018) will, I suspect, agree with Newall’s assessment.

Beattie played Medea with an eastern European accent, thus emphasising her position as a despised outsider (the character hails from the Caucasus, specifically Colchis in modern day Georgia, and was, therefore, considered a barbarian by the Ancient Greeks). As a black actor of African descent, Onashile will, one suspects, look elsewhere for her character’s heritage. It promises to be a powerful staging of a world class adaptation.

As if to prove that contemporary Scottish theatre still has things to say to the classical repertoire, the outstanding director and designer Stewart Laing will be re-imagining Shakespeare’s great play Hamlet for a new production to be premiered at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in September. A co-production between the NTS, the Tron and Laing’s own company Untitled Projects, the very fact that the show has been commissioned is a positive sign of the health of the Scottish theatre sector.

In another time, or another country, such a work would have been impossible. Left to the tender mercies of Creative Scotland (CS), our national funding body for the arts, Laing (who enjoys international acclaim as a deviser, director and designer of stage productions) may well have gone abroad. In 2014, CS, in its dubious wisdom, decided not to award Untitled Projects regular funding, forcing the company into mothballs.

In many countries such a devastating decision would have led to an artist such as Laing quitting the national scene. It is to the credit of the Scottish theatre sector that influential figures within it realised that ways had to be found to counteract CS’s short-sightedness and give Laing reasons to continue working here.

Within months of the CS funding decision, Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) director Fergus Linehan announced that Laing’s superb piece Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (liberally inspired by James Hogg’s great novel) would be presented in the Festival’s theatre programme in 2015. Subsequent to that, Laing returned to the EIF in 2018 with The End of Eddy (in which he directed a stage adaptation, by regular collaborator Pamela Carter, of the autobiographical novel by French author Edouard Louis).

There has also been a production for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Strindberg’s Creditors in 2018) and, in 2019, Them!, a fascinating exploration of issues of identity (another collaboration with the impressive Carter, and Laing’s first work for the NTS since Jackie Wylie appointed him to his new role as associate director of our national drama company). All-in-all, since CS’s light-minded and bureaucratic decision not to give Laing’s company the funding it required, it is, surely, true to say that the director has felt the love of a Scottish theatre sector that has recognised his talents and rallied round to keep him in the country.

For her part, Newall is pleased that the NTS has been able to bring Laing into its creative team and to co-produce with Untitled Projects on the forthcoming Hamlet. “The NTS should be supporting our leading artists to be able to sustain careers here and to support companies to be able to continue to exist”, she says.

“Stewart has something completely unique to offer to Scotland. The work that he makes really does inform the next generation of artists.”

As one would expect of an organisation led by people such as Newall and Wylie, for whom new work is the lifeblood of a theatre culture, there are numerous opportunities in the NTS’s 2020 programme for artists in the generation that has followed Laing. For instance, Nic Green (creator of the acclaimed, feminist performance work Trilogy in 2009) will present Absolutely, Awesome, Affirmative (which the NTS describes as “an intriguing meditation on truth that is part TED talk, part shopping channel special, and part showbiz hypnotism) during the Take Me Somewhere performance festival in Glasgow in May.

In August, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Rob Drummond (whose work includes the self-performed Mr Write in 2010) presents Who Killed Katie?, a one-man show which explores society’s endless fascination with true crime stories. Add to that the Coming Back Out Ball, a fabulous, celebratory evening for LGBTI+ elders and their friends, which will be held in Glasgow in June, with host Karen Dunbar and performances from Horse Mcdonald, Jo Clifford and Dean Atta, and there is no questioning the diversity and inclusivity of the NTS programme for the year ahead.

Which is not to say that the NTS has no detractors. There are those who compare the national company’s audience per pound spent to that of major, building-based Scottish theatres, such as the Lyceum in Edinburgh or the Citizens in Glasgow, and suggest that the NTS is not giving value for money. Newall responds to this criticism, quite reasonably, by pointing out that creating work for new audiences, and taking theatre to communities that would otherwise be starved of live drama, costs money.

“We want large numbers of people to see our work, of course”, she comments. “That said, we’re also committed to putting new voices and more diverse artists on stage…

“In years where we have smaller audience numbers, that’s a conscious choice… We’re trying to get to people who don’t normally have access to theatre. You can’t fit as many people in a village hall as you can in a big city theatre.”

For full details of the NTS 2020 programme, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on January 19, 2020

© Mark Brown

Feature: Yasmina Reza & God of Carnage



Goddess of Theatrical Satire?


As God of Carnage by French dramatist Yasmina Reza heads to Glasgow on its UK tour, Mark Brown considers the work of the critically acclaimed satirist

Yasmina Reza
Yasmina Reza

Yasmina Reza is one of the most critically and commercially successful dramatists of the modern age. Art, her 1994 satire on abstract painting and the (inevitably) middle-class people who like it, won her three of the world’s most coveted theatre prizes; namely, a Moliere award in Paris, an Olivier in London, and a Tony in New York (the first time a non-English language drama had won Best Play at the American awards).

The play, which is rarely, if ever, off the London stage (it is currently being presented at the Old Vic, starring Tim Key, Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell) is considered by many to be a hilarious takedown of petty bourgeois artistic pretensions. It features three, well-heeled, metropolitan friends (Serge, Marc and Yvan) who are forced to debate the quality, nature and value of painting when Serge purchases a white canvas for an astronomical sum of money.

In one of his final reviews before retiring as theatre critic of The Guardian, my colleague Michael Billington (in a notice for the current Old Vic production) wrote that he “leans” toward the view that Reza’s drama is “a modern classic”. Its clutch of awards and stack of adulatory reviews indicates that he is far from alone in that opinion.

Art led some critics to the conclusion that France, a nation for which satire and class warfare are second nature, had found a successor to Moliere and Marivaux. Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage (which comes to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal for a short residency on January 27) enhanced significantly the playwright’s reputation for skewering the seemingly civilised middle class.

As Glasgow audiences for the Theatre Royal, Bath’s touring production (which stars Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame) will discover, the drama brings together two sets of middle-class parents to discuss a contretemps between their sons, which has led to one child suffering a moderately worrying injury. As in other plays of petty bourgeois manners, such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, alcohol plays a significant role in the action. Masks of civility begin to slip and, as the title of Reza’s piece suggests, carnage ensues.

God of Carnage - Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern in God of Carnage

Some Scottish theatre lovers might remember the drama from the Tron Theatre, Glasgow’s (for my money, misfiring) production back in 2017. More people, one suspects, will know it from Roman Polanski’s film version, simply entitled Carnage, in 2011, which starred Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.

The inspiration for the play came, Reza told The Guardian in 2012, from “a little incident” involving a friend of  her 13-year-old son. “His friend was in a fight with another friend; they exchanged blows and my son’s friend had his tooth broken.

“A few days later, I met with the mother of this boy in the street. I asked her how her son was, if he was better… and she said, ‘Can you imagine? The parents [of the other boy in the fight] didn’t even call me!'”

From there, Reza imagined a meeting between the parents of the two boys in which the intended, genteel resolution of the grievance is knocked massively off course by booze-fuelled parental loyalties and burgeoning personal resentments. There is in this, as in the friendship-straining arguments in Art, a strong echo of the morality – a calling out of the hypocrisy of “respectable” society – of France’s master satirist Moliere.

Reza, who is the daughter of Jewish refugees (her father, a Persian-Jewish engineer, born in Russia, was held in the Drancy internment camp during the Second World War), is non-committal on the question of whether or not she is a theatrical “moralist”. What is certain is that she raised more than a few eyebrows with her bald statement that she “had no scruples” about working with Polanski, despite his being a fugitive from justice in the United States, where he has, since 1978, been wanted on charges related to the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl.

Her association with Polanski aside, is Reza the towering dramatist that many critics suggest she is? I’m afraid to say that, awards and critical acclaim notwithstanding, I think not.

Unlike Billington, I lean, and quite heavily, towards the contrary view that Art, for example, is, in the words of the respected, former Guardian critic “a modish crowdpleaser”. It’s often noted that Reza’s plays tend to be relatively short (God of Carnage comes in at 90 minutes, for instance), set in just one room and populated by no more than four characters.

This might be considered a clever, theatrical economy. The contrary view, however, is that it is typical of a populist, commercial imperative at work in Reza’s dramas, the satire of which is too neat, too predictable and, consequently, lacking the savage irony of real masters such as Albee, Pinter and, indeed, Moliere.

God of Carnage plays the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 27 to February 1: atgtickets.com

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on January 19, 2020

© Mark Brown

Feature: Scottish theatre 2020 preview



Plays for Turbulent Times

From climate chaos, to far-right governments, to popular uprisings, the world is in ferment. Scottish theatre faces up to political reality in the year ahead, writes Mark Brown

Mrs Puntila - Denise Mina & Elaine C Smith
Denise Mina (left) adapts Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti, starring Elaine C Smith (right). Photo: Eoin Carey  

Theatre, it is often asserted, is the most political of all of the art forms. Political artists in other fields, from grime star Stormzy, to comedian Bridget Christie and visual artist Banksy, might contest that, and with good reason.

However, the fact remains, there is something in the liveness of theatre, and in its concentration (more often than not) on the power of language, that gives it an undeniable immediacy and political potency.

Peruse the early programme announcements for Scottish theatre in 2020 and one senses the political imperative very strongly. This should hardly come as a surprise.

We live in turbulent and contradictory times. From the global, youth-led climate change movement, to mass uprisings in Chile, Lebanon, Sudan, Hong Kong and Catalonia, to mass strikes in France and hundreds of thousands taking to Scotland’s streets in the cause of independence, it often looks like the world is in revolt.

However, on the flip side, the far-right is on the rise in many places, taking power in a series of countries, including the US (Trump), Brazil (Blosonaro), India (Modi), Turkey (Erdogan), Russia (Putin) and Hungary (Orban); which is to say nothing of the rise of Salvini’s League in Italy and Abascal’s Vox within the Spanish state.

Here in Britain, newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on record denigrating Muslim women who wear the burqa as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. He has also referred to people of African descent as “piccaninnies” who wear “watermelon smiles” (not to mention his charming description of gay men as “bum boys”). Little wonder that on December 13, the day on which Johnson’s victory was confirmed, more than 2,000, mainly young people marched down Buchanan Street in Glasgow under the banner of the campaign group Stand Up to Racism.

It’s little surprise, either, that much of Scottish theatre’s programming in 2020 has a whiff of the highly-politicised 1970s about it. Back then the avowedly socialist companies 7:84 and Wildcat toured their radical brand of popular theatre around Scotland, while Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre staged many productions by the famous Marxist writer Bertolt Brecht.

There’s a direct echo of those times in the co-production by the Citizens, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and DOT Theatre of Istanbul of one of Brecht’s most famous plays. Elaine C Smith will take on the feminised lead role in Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti (Lyceum, Edinburgh, February 28 to March 21; Tramway, Glasgow, March 25 to April 11).

The play, in which wealthy landowner Puntila is trapped between her class interest (in marrying her daughter Eva off to an attaché) and her humanity (Eva is in love with Puntila’s servant, Matti), is one of Brecht’s most comic satires. Indeed, the great playwright proposed that the drama (in which Puntila is mean-spirited and autocratic when sober, and affable and affectionate when drunk) be played in the style of Italian commedia dell’Arte.

This new production uses a new adaptation by acclaimed writer Denise Mina and is staged by the superb Turkish director Murat Daltaban (who brought Scottish audiences the award-winning rendering of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 2018). As a work of political comedy, the show takes Smith back to her theatrical roots; in 1985, for instance, she performed, alongside Andy Gray and Alan Cumming, in Borderline Theatre Company’s production of Italian satirist Dario Fo’s play Trumpets and Raspberries.

There’s a very deliberate evocation of the 1970s in the National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) revival of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (touring April through to June), which is co-produced with Dundee Rep and Live Theatre. Director Joe Douglas reprises his 2015 Dundee Rep staging of the play which set the benchmark for Scottish political theatre in 1973.

Telling the story of the Highlands of Scotland, from the Clearances, through the iniquities of land ownership, to the discovery of oil, the piece combines ceilidh culture, music hall comedy and agitational propaganda. Although it is, in many ways, a play of its time, Douglas’s production proves that there’s political life left in this old dog of Scottish theatre.

There’s a revival of a far more recent drama with the return of Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece (Traverse, Edinburgh, February 7-15). Exploring the complexities of class and gender within theatre itself (a middle-class, female writer attempts to tell the story of a young, working-class man from an Edinburgh housing scheme) it articulates some very 21st-century political concerns.

There are important, and for many, no doubt, uncomfortable truths in two very distinct new works from the NTS. May Sumbwanyambe’s play Enough of Him (a co-production with Pitlochry Festival Theatre, touring October and November) is based upon the true story of Joseph Knight, an African man brought to Scotland by his Scottish slave owner, who later challenged his status as a slave in court.

In Adura Onashile’s Ghosts (Merchant City, Glasgow, November) multimedia techniques will be used to give audience members a historical tour of Glasgow in which they meet the ghosts of the city’s shameful role in the British Empire’s trade in African slaves.

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on January 12, 2020

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: The Steamie, SSE Hydro, Glasgow

The talk of The Steamie

As Tony Roper’s much-loved play set in a Glasgow washhouse prepares to play the huge SSE Hydro arena, Mark Brown talks to key players in what promises to be an historic production.

The Steamie - Robin Mitchell
The cast of The Steamie. Photo: Robin Mitchell

“I think it’s the first play to be performed at the Hydro”, says Tony Roper about the forthcoming production of his hit 1987 drama The Steamie, which will be staged in Scotland’s biggest indoor arena. The 78-year-old writer and actor is not, he hastens to add, casting any aspersions on the three live versions of the TV comedy Still Game which have played the mammoth auditorium (in fact, he saw the first two of Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan’s live trilogy and liked them very much).

The Still Game live shows were, he says, extended versions of a popular television sitcom. Bringing The Steamie, his comic play about working-class, Glaswegian women of three generations in the 1950s, to the 13,000-seater arena is, he believes, a very different proposition.

Roper remembers going to see one of the Still Game live productions with his producer Neil Laidlaw. They talked about the possibility of staging The Steamie at the venue, but concluded that the piece was too small and too intimate for the Hydro.

However, after about a year or so, they had a change of heart. “We thought, ‘this play has served us both so well, it deserves to get an upgrade, and to be dragged into the 21st century.’”

The Steamie, surely, defines Roper even more than his role as Jamesie Cotter opposite Gregor Fisher in legendary TV sitcom Rab C Nesbitt. The Hydro project was driven, Roper insists, by the desire to see his best known, and most loved work on this biggest of stages.

“We haven’t done it for the money, Neil and I”, he says, emphatically. In fact, he continues, he doubts that the box office receipts will do much more than recoup the £1 million cost of the production.

Talking with Roper, it’s impossible to doubt his sincerity. In his late-seventies and having, just six years ago, fought off prostate cancer, the writer could be excused for deciding to take life easy.

Staging The Steamie at the Hydro has clearly sparked his imagination. “To fill the Hydro, to not just be in the Hydro, but to take over the Hydro, with just four women, standing in a [washhouse] stall, no movement, no plot, nothing like that, it’s a big ask.

“What attracted me to doing it at the Hydro was doing it differently than I’d done it before.” For instance, he says, “[middle-aged character] Dolly sings about going to the dancing when she was younger, and we have dancers to recreate that.

“That opens out her song. Before it was just a woman singing in a spotlight. Now, it opens it out and she relives her dream.”

Roper won’t say a word beyond this teaser about Dolly’s song becoming a big stage musical number (he doesn’t want to be responsible for “spoilers”, he says). However, it seems pretty clear that Hydro audiences can expect to see this celebrated, wee play about Doreen, Dolly, Magrit and Mrs Culfeathers chatting while they work on New Year’s Eve given a considerable, arena theatre makeover.

In moments such as Dolly’s song, we will, says the playwright, see 21st-century theatre technology in action. “I’ll no know how they’ve done it”, Roper adds, “but I’ll know if it’s what I want.”

The woman playing the nostalgic Dolly in the new production is Gayle Telfer Stevens, who appears in The Steamie alongside her close friend and artistic collaborator Louise McCarthy (who takes on the role of Magrit). Telfer Stevens is well known to audiences of TV soap River City for her longstanding role as Caitlin McLean, while McCarthy’s TV credits include DC Andrea McGill in the award-winning sitcom Scot Squad. Together, they are known as raucous stage double act The Dolls.

Telfer Stevens considers the Hydro shows to be a Heaven-sent opportunity. “I was seven when I first watched The Steamie”, she remembers. “It’s the reason I wanted to become an actor.

“Louise and I met through a love of the play as well. When we first worked together, doing a wee cabaret, we spoke about The Steamie and how we’d love to be in it.”

For her part, McCarthy remembers that she “got a knockback” when she auditioned for the role of young dreamer Doreen in a production of Roper’s play some years ago. She’s delighted to have been cast as Magrit in the new production, not least because her character and Telfer Stevens’ character (two middle-aged women who take adjacent stalls in the washhouse) are, effectively, a double act.

I wonder if the two actors consider Dolly and Magrit to be, in some sense, 20th-century forerunners of Agnes and Sadie, aka The Dolls. “I suppose you could ask are The Dolls like Jack and Victor [from Still Game]? Or are they like Francie and Josie [the famous character double act performed by Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton]?

“Any pairing of comic characters who are pals is going to have similarities with The Dolls.”

The obvious difference between Dolly and Magrit, and Agnes and Sadie, on the one hand, and Jack and Victor, and Francie and Josie, on the other, is that the former quartet is female. It is, Roper believes, that foregrounding of working-class women characters that, more than any other factor, explains the enduring success of The Steamie.

Tony Roper - Paul Chappells
Tony Roper channelling his inner Christine Keeler. Photo: Paul Chappells

“I think the secret is that it was the first successful play in Scotland that was written about women”, the playwright says. “Women embraced it because the characters represented them.

“It was all very truthful. They were all based on women I knew as I grew up. So, the realism of what they were watching struck home with audiences.

“The characters are very easy to identify with. They make ye laugh, they make ye cry. They like singing.”

Telfer Stevens and McCarthy couldn’t agree more. “The Steamie is still the biggest cultural reference point for working-class women with accents like mine and Gayle’s”, says McCarthy.

Roper was, she adds, “ahead of his time” in writing a play in the 1980s in which the lives of working-class women were to the fore. “Are we any further ahead?”, she asks, rhetorically. “The reason we’re still doing The Steamie is because there hasn’t been that next thing [in terms of representation of working-class women].”

“Absolutely!”, Telfer Stevens agrees. “It was genius at the time. It was more than 30 years ago.”

“Thirty years ago”, adds McCarthy, “he’s writing a play about women, that’s got only one male character [wideo steamie engineer Andy], who’s got about 15 lines.”

Not that Roper’s claiming any credit for himself as a champion of women in the theatre. “I’m not putting myself forward as a feminist by any means”, he insists.

“If people say I wanted to push the woman’s cause, that’s rubbish, and ye can take that fae me. I just wrote a play that I hoped would be successful.

“There was no political motivation in it for me at all. Wildcat theatre company did it, and, of course, they had a history of left-wing politics, and they brought in the songs by Dave Anderson. They added an overtly political side to it.”

Ironically, if it had been up to many of Scotland’s theatre directors in the 1980s, The Steamie might never have seen the light of day. Roper, who trained as an actor in his late-twenties, following work as a shipyard worker, a coal miner and a hod carrier on building sites, had his fair share of rejections for the script.

“It got turned down by just about everybody. I think that was because, in those days, people [in the theatre business] didn’t think women should be so predominant in a play.

“All the directors I offered it to said the same thing: ‘It’s a good attempt. You can tell it was written by an actor.’ That f***in’ annoyed me, I can tell ye that.

“I thought, ‘why can’t an actor write a play? Shakespeare was an actor.’” That said, he adds , “I’m not comparing myself to that man.”

The doubting directors were not the only people to get it wrong where the play was concerned. He may have written The Steamie in just 10 days, but it is still a carefully calibrated drama, rather than a mere collection of gags.

“A long time ago a university professor said [the jokes in the play] were old-time music hall pieces”, Roper remembers. “This man obviously hadn’t a f***in’ clue what he was talking about!”

“There are set pieces in the play, like the Galloway’s mince story and the imaginary phone call”, he acknowledges. However, he insists, they’re far from being mere Vaudeville sketches.

“In order for them to work”, he continues, “you have to have the whole play.” Having the “whole play” means identifying with the characters.

That’s no difficult task, according to Telfer Stevens. “It’s good, honest writing of real characters”, she says. “You identify with every single one of those characters, and you can pinpoint a person that you know.”

There’s no doubt, given the success of the numerous stagings of the play over the years (not to mention the 1988 STV film, starring such luminaries of the Scottish acting profession as Eileen McCallum, Dorothy Paul and Peter Mullan), that generations of people, and women in particular, find themselves able to relate to Roper’s characters. In that sense, it’s like a female version of its predecessor, John Byrne’s Slab Boys Trilogy.

Roper thinks that younger women, in their teens and twenties, see themselves in the character of Doreen. “They’re just starting off in life”, he says, “and they’re all ready to go. The new romance of being married, all that kind of stuff.

“Then you go to Magrit, where it all maybe falls apart. Dolly’s world-weary. She’s been through it all, and she realises there’s no point in greetin’aboot it.

“Whatever’s happened tae ye’s happened tae ye, and ye just have to get on with it.

“Then you get the older women who have to face up to being of an age that isn’t amenable to modern technology. Even in the 1950s, it wasn’t amenable.”

Roper’s clearly over the moon about the casting of this latest production of The Steamie. Mary McCusker (Mrs Culfeathers) and Fiona Wood (Doreen) have, the writer says, impressed in previous productions of the play.

He’s delighted to be bringing in Telfer Stevens and McCarthy, who, he says admiringly, “know exactly what they’re doing”. Harry Ward (who completes the cast as Andy) is, he says, quite correctly, an excellent and “underrated” actor.

With the big arena extravaganza version of The Steamie opening on December 27, Christmas is coming a couple of days late for Roper this year. He is, he says, “not excited” but, rather, “desperate to get started, and see where it goes.”

The Steamie plays the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, December 27-31: http://www.thessehydro.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on December 15, 2019

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Pinocchio by Citizens Theatre Company, at Tramway, Glasgow


Leading Christmas audiences by the nose


The Citizens Theatre Company, temporarily relocated to Glasgow’s Tramway venue, continues its tradition of stylish Christmas storytelling with Carlo Collodi’s much loved tale of Pinocchio. By Mark Brown

Pinocchio# - Irene Allan, Andy Clark 2. Credit Sally Jubb (1)
Irene Allan, Pinocchio and Andy Clark. Photo: Sally Jubb

Anyone who knows the history of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre knows that the company is as well known for its classy family theatre at Christmas time as it is for its productions of classics by the likes of Shakespeare, Brecht and Pinter. As it did last year, the company is spending this Christmas at Glasgow’s Tramway venue, which is the Citz’s temporary home while its grand playhouse in the Gorbals undergoes a massive redevelopment.

It is at Tramway that I meet outstanding actors Irene Allan and Andy Clark, two of the stars of this year’s Citizens Christmas show Pinocchio. Talking to me in the midst of the rehearsal process, they are both very enthusiastic about this new version of Carlo Collodi’s famous story of the intrepid, less-than-truthful little puppet who very much wants to be a boy.

The script for the show has been created by the writing and adapting duo of Robert Alan Evans and Lu Kemp. Directed by the Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill and designed by Rachael Canning (who also designed last year’s beautiful Citizens Yuletide show A Christmas Carol), it promises to be another memorable production.

As so often with Hill’s work, Pinocchio will be played as a dynamic, ensemble piece, with actors flitting between various characters. Allan will play Florenzini (a baddie inspired by the character of Lorenzini in Steve Barron’s 1996 film) and, this being Tuscany, a pasta maker.

For his part (or, more accurately, parts), Clark will perform the role of the treacherous Fox, and also turn his hand to such characters as a disreputable judge and a teacher. He will also, he says, be “running around hitting cymbals”; a reference to the live music that is typical of Hill’s successful collaborations with Macedonian stage composer Nikola Kodjabashia.

Although he loves performing on the Citizens stage, Clark thinks Tramway’s T1 space is an excellent, if very different, replacement. “Your preconception about the Tramway is that it’s a big, cavernous space”, he comments.

However, he says, performing in last year’s Christmas show, he found the auditorium more intimate than he expected. “I thought A Christmas Carol worked really well, which was down, in large part, to the design.

“This year it’s designed as if it’s an old Victorian theatre, with the bare, brick walls. I like it as a space. I really enjoyed being here last year.”

Allan has never performed in T1 before (although, as a student, she did play in Tramway’s T4 studio space in Communicado Theatre Company’s brilliant mid-1990s staging of Athol Fugard’s A Place With the Pigs). She’s looking forward to it, not least because, like Clark, she is hugely impressed by Canning’s designs.

“The set is phenomenal. Rachael’s designs are extraordinary”, she says.

“The costumes are like pieces of sculpture. They could have an exhibition all to themselves, they’re beautiful.”

If her set and costume designs have impressed the actors, Canning’s work on the titular puppet is excellent. I was allowed a sneak peak at the Citz’s Pinocchio and I can confirm that it is a thing of beauty.

Small, friendly and looking very much as if it has just been hewn by dear old Gepetto that very morning, the puppet is a very different creature indeed from the Technicolor Disney image. So good is the puppet’s design, and so responsive is it to manipulation, that Allan says she’s already starting to think of it as human.

Which is crucial, because audience members, and children in particular, are going to have to develop a bond with the puppet. Allan is emphatic about the importance of drawing young audience members into the story.

“This is the time when you grab the next generation of theatregoers”, she says. “You can really introduce a new world to those little, new minds.

“I love the magic of this kind of storytelling, I really do. I think it’s beautiful.

“There’s proper magic in these shows that you can’t really get away with at other times of the year. They are lavish, and they should be.”

Clark agrees that Hill is particularly skilled at creating beautiful and atmospheric Christmas productions. “Dominic’s putting as much work into this as he put into a flagship show like Cyrano [Hill’s acclaimed staging of Edwin Morgan’s Scots version of Edmond Rostand’s magnum opus Cyrano de Bergerac].

“I was watching him yesterday, when they were rehearsing the bit when the kids are all misbehaving. It was like he was living out all the things he wanted to do himself when he was a child. He was totally immersed in it.”

The actors are confident that Hill’s production has captured the diverse elements in Collodi’s story. “I think there’s a brilliant balance of fun and darkness”, says Clark.

“Dominic wants it to be really scary and really silly. I think we’ve achieved that.”

Pinocchio is at Tramway, Glasgow, December 7 to January 4: citz.co.uk

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on November 24, 2019

© Mark Brown

Feature: Czech puppet theatre showcase

Czeching out the wonders of puppet theatre

Puppet theatre is neither old-fashioned nor just for children, as Mark Brown discovered at a recent showcase in the Czech Republic

Zuna #1.jpg
Natalia Vanova in Zuna. Photo: A. Vosickova

Everyone loves puppets. Whether it is childhood memories of that politically incorrect British seaside institution Punch and Judy, or reminiscences of Jim Henson’s far more ideologically sound Sesame Street, puppets evoke a strong emotional response.

The spectacular, much-loved puppets in the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) excellent stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse, have set a new benchmark for British puppetry.

Puppets, like the animated cinematic and televisual characters that came after them, can do and say things that are more outlandish than any mere human can achieve. Perhaps this is why, even in the nations of the UK (where the traditions of puppet theatre are not especially strong), there remains a strong attachment to these most beguiling of stage creations.

For all of this affection for puppets, however, the fact remains that puppet theatre is largely marginal in the theatre cultures of Scotland and the other nations of the UK. The fact that the keepers of the flame of Scotland’s puppet theatre heritage (the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre) run a limited programme from an unprepossessing building tucked away in a corner of the West End of Glasgow (a much-needed redevelopment is planned) tells its own story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, from the globally famous shadow puppetry of China and India to the revered puppet traditions of central and eastern Europe, puppetry is a far more serious, and celebrated, affair. Nowhere is that more true than in the Czech Republic, where puppet theatre remains very much a part of the national culture.

Little wonder, then, that the recent HI PerformanCZ showcase of Czech theatre should have been comprised primarily of puppetry. Hosted by the Czech national conservatoire (the country’s Arts and Theatre Institute) and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the programme offered international guests, ranging from theatre directors to humble critics, the opportunity to sample the delights of contemporary Czech puppetry.

The showcase coincided with Prague’s somewhat cumbersomely named One Flew Over the Puppeteer’s Nest Festival (one can only assume the title sounds more charming in Czech). However, it also comprised visits to puppet museums and puppet and children’s theatres in the cities of Pilsen and Hradec Kralove, and the beautiful little town of Chrudim, in eastern Bohemia.

The puppet museum in Pilsen (which one could combine with a visit to Europe’s second biggest synagogue, truly an architectural wonder) is an educational delight which displays a wonderful variety of historical Czech puppets. The Chrudim museum has an even more impressive collection, telling, as it does, the stories, not only of the golden years of Czech puppetry in the 19th century (when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but also of other great puppet theatre traditions around the world.

Back in Prague, the beautiful, little show Zuna was a highlight of the puppet festival. The piece combines lovely, traditional puppets with live music and a story that is both folkloric and modern (the heroine, a young girl called Zuna, undoes a Faustian pact in order to be reunited with her beloved mother).

By turns humorous and touching, the play tells the story of a woman who, despairing of her childlessness, conceives a child with the assistance of a seemingly benevolent, old witch. In a lovely example of modern folklore resetting the gender assumptions of such stories, it features a comically gossipy and foolish gaggle of townsmen, whose inquisitiveness as to the woman’s sudden pregnancy leads them into wonderfully gruesome, supernatural trouble.

To Scottish eyes, the show is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, its primary artist, talented author and performer Natalia Vanova, is a young theatremaker who has, in recent times, chosen to learn the techniques of puppetry.

Secondly, the work is produced by Continuo Theatre, an acclaimed Czech company known, first-and-foremost, for its street shows, of which puppet theatre is merely a strand. That Vanova and Continuo should alight together upon this new-yet-traditional puppet play is an indication of just how prevalent the art form is within Czech theatrical culture.

The festival gave a tremendous sense of the diversity of Czech puppetry. The Smallest of the Sami (by the Czechoslovakian Sticks company) tells a story of survival in the arctic north by means of the tiniest of tabletop figures. Both humorous and surprisingly engaging, it is part of an intriguing, increasingly prominent miniaturist strand in global puppetry.

The Bartered Bride (by Puppet Theatre Ostrava) recreates Smetana’s famous comic opera as a work of musical puppet theatre for families. Played metatheatrically in a theatre-within-a-theatre (at Prague’s wonderful children’s playhouse, Divadlo Minor), it is a gloriously colourful coming together of puppets and performers.

One might add to these a delightful telling of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince (by Lampion Theatre) and DRAK Theatre’s Oddball (a clever and carefully considered interplanetary piece about autism).

Should, in the years to come, young Scottish theatremakers wish to take a turn towards puppetry, the Czech Republic would be a good place to start.

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on November 17, 2019

© Mark Brown

Feature: New play Fibres looks at the impact of asbestos-related illness

New play Fibres looks at the impact of asbestos-related illness

Far from being a thing of the past, asbestos-related illness is on the rise in Scotland. A new play, Fibres by Frances Poet, considers the impact of asbestos on one working-class family. By Mark Brown

Fibres Rehearsal Image. Credit Alex Brady. Suzanne Magowan and Jonathan Watson
Jonathan Watson and Suzanne Magowan rehearsing Fibres. Photo: Alex Brady

Jack, a former Clydeside shipyard worker, suffers from asbestosis, a debilitating lung condition that he contracted while working. His wife, Beanie, is nursing him through his illness, only to find that she, too, has an asbestos-related disease. It is assumed that Beanie contracted the condition through secondary inhalation of asbestos fibres when she was cleaning Jack’s work overalls.

This is the premise of Fibres, the latest play by Glasgow-based dramatist Frances Poet. Staged by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines, its cast includes Jonathan Watson (of Only an Excuse and Two Doors Down fame) as Jack and Maureen Carr (Still Game and River City) as Beanie.

As a family drama, the piece may seem comparatively small, but it takes us to the heart of a massive issue. Contrary to much received wisdom, asbestos-related disease is not a thing of the past, nor is it in decline.

We, in Scotland, may have stopped putting asbestos (an effective fire retardant, the fibres of which cause a number of health conditions, including cancers) into buildings, but we are far from in the clear where asbestos-related illness is concerned. Partly, this is because, as Phyllis Craig, manager and senior welfare rights officer of the campaigning charity Action on Asbestos (still widely known by its former name Clydeside Action on Asbestos/CAA) explains, “there’s a latency period of between 20 and 50 years from when you were exposed to asbestos and when you show symptoms of illness.”

In terms of shipyard workers, who have been particularly badly hit by asbestos conditions, that means that someone who was exposed to asbestos in the 1970s or 80s might only be reporting with symptoms now.

However, there are other reasons why instances of asbestos-related illness are on the increase in Scotland (there were 800 new cases last year, and already Scotland has 150 more cases this year than in October 2018). As Craig explains, as a cheap, fire-resistant material, asbestos was used in the construction of many, if not most, public buildings, including schools and hospitals, in the decades after the Second World War.

Some 75 percent of schools built in Scotland since 1945 contain asbestos. CAA is campaigning alongside the trade unions for the safe removal of the substance from all public buildings.

The need for such a campaign was underlined in August of this year when construction workers engaged in the demolition of the Kincorth Academy school building in Aberdeen were exposed to asbestos. This despite an outcry when, in July of last year, it took Aberdeen City Council five days to finally impose emergency measures after asbestos was disturbed at the Bridge of Don Academy building. In the 2018 case, teachers, janitors, cleaners and other workers were potentially exposed to the carcinogen.

When I meet Jemima Levick, artistic director of Stellar Quines, who is directing Fibres, during rehearsals in the Gorbals, on the Southside of Glasgow, she is very much aware of the scale of the asbestos problem in Scotland. “There was never a doubt in my mind that this was a story that had to be told”, she says of Poet’s play.

The initial idea for the drama, the director explains, came from a conversation Poet had with a woman at her daughter’s music class. It transpired that the woman had lost both of her parents to asbestos-related illness within a period of six months.

This led to Poet researching and writing a play that considers the huge implications of asbestos for public health, society and politics through the prism of one family’s crisis. “When I first read this play, as I find with many of Frances’s plays, I was reminded that she writes really brilliant characters that are born of the heart”, says Levick.

“Then you get into the stuff about asbestos poisoning people and the west of Scotland being particularly badly affected by that. Then it starts to balloon outwards.”

As a theatre maker, Levick is very much aware that plays driven by social concerns can end up putting their important message ahead of questions of artistic style. “We had quite a hilarious conversation, in the first week of rehearsals”, the director remembers, “when Frances confessed that this is her ‘health and safety play’. I was like, ‘please, God, don’t call it that, to anyone, ever!’

“Of course, it is a play about asbestos, that is the driver of the piece. However, actually, it’s a play in which people talk about their hopes and dreams, the people they love, and what it means to lose somebody you really love.

“It’s about what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to sustain that relationship, what happens when the other person goes, and what happens when new relationships are being formed.

“It’s a really beautiful play, actually, about the way people feel. Sitting underneath that is the context of a city that has been poisoned, basically, and continues to be so.”

Phyllis Craig & Nicola Sturgeon
Phyllis Craig of CAA with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

For their part, CAA are hugely supportive of the play. “They’re fabulous for taking up this particular subject”, says Craig of the Fibres team.

“It can be a bit frightening for people, because quite a number of families are affected. It’s fabulous that the play is showing that it is a continuing problem.

“This is what we need. We need people to say, ‘listen, this is not a thing of the past, it’s not dying out, and it’s not in decline. It’s actually on the increase.’”

However, whilst CAA welcomes Poet’s drama enthusiastically, Craig is at pains to point out that people should not generalise from the case of Beanie in the play. It is a widely-held myth, she says, that women only contracted asbestos conditions through secondary inhalation, particularly through washing the overalls of their husband or other male loved one.

Indeed, such a perception has been used to the benefit of employers seeking to avoid paying compensation to women suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. “We are always trying to let people know that it is detrimental in the pursuit of civil damages if it’s recorded that the person has this condition by washing overalls, when, indeed, they actually worked themselves”, Craig comments.

Often, she continues, women described as suffering from secondary asbestos conditions may well have contracted their illness, not in the home, from men’s overalls, but in their own place of work.

Craig gives the example of a 52-year-old woman who came to CAA having been diagnosed with mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer which is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos). “Her husband worked in the shipyards, and he had pleural plaques. It was recorded that it was because of her husband’s overalls that she contracted mesothelioma. I asked her we she had worked, and she said ‘Cape Asbestos factory’.”

Such cases underline the importance, where women have been diagnosed with asbestos conditions, of asking, first-and-foremost, where these women worked. Although some women, like the character of Beanie in the play, did contract asbestos diseases through exposure to the overalls of male loved ones, many others are likely to have suffered primary exposure in the workplace.

As part of their preparation for staging the play, Levick and the Fibres team met with Phyllis Craig. They outlined the story to her, complete with Beanie having contracted an asbestos condition through secondary inhalation.

“She asked where the character of Beanie had worked”, Levick remembers. “We said ‘in a laundrette’, and Phyllis said, ‘well, there you go! Laundrettes were covered in the stuff.”

“We were like, ‘shit, maybe it wasn’t secondhand inhalation! For the purposes of the story it remains the case that Beanie contracted an asbestos condition through secondary inhalation.

“However, she could have very feasibly contracted it at her place of work, because big industrial laundrettes, in particular, were absolutely covered in the stuff, because of the heat and the risk of fire.”

The underlying politics of the asbestos issue are of immense and continuing significance. In the United States, for example, Donald Trump (a longtime advocate for asbestos, which has been used in many of his buildings) has used his presidential powers to loosen regulations on the use of the substance.

Consequently, and incredibly, the door may be opened to asbestos being employed once again in the American construction industry. Meanwhile in Russia (which is seeking to capture much of the global asbestos market following the prohibition of asbestos mining in Brazil), packs of asbestos are being stamped with Trump’s image alongside the legend, “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.”

Craig, who received an MBE from the Queen in 2012, “for services to sufferers of asbestos related diseases”, is driven by the need for justice for people who are ill due to the negligence of employers. “All they did was go to work and they were exposed negligently”, she says.

“There have been so many injustices and so many obstacles put in the way of people with an asbestos condition, that we have to bring it to parliament so that legislation can be changed and people can receive the recompense that they deserve.”

CAA’s campaigning in the Scottish Parliament has paid dividends. Craig gives the example of people suffering with pleural plaques (a disease that affects the pleura, which is the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs and envelops the inside of the chest).

After what, CAA’s manager says was a “long, drawn-out process” (thanks to the legal obstacles put forward by companies facing compensation claims), the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of people with pleural plaques having the right to pursue compensation. There is no such right in England.

In addition to such campaign work, CAA offers an array of services throughout Scotland, including: funding dedicated medical posts within the NHS; advice on legal matters, such as people’s right to pursue civil action with respect to their case; and a comprehensive welfare rights service, providing both emotional support and advice on benefits and compensation to which people are entitled.

The welfare rights service is crucial. As Craig points out, “you’ve got to remember, a lot of people [with asbestos-related diseases] can no longer work. [Many of them] have never claimed benefits or anything like that.

“We are specialists in social security law”, she continues. “We try to make sure that people get their basic legal entitlement.”

Craig hopes that the tour of Fibres will help raise awareness of asbestos-related illness. She also urges anyone affected by the kind of conditions depicted in the play to contact CAA for help and support.

Fibres is on tour from October 17 to November 2. For tour details, visit: citz.co.uk

For further information on Action on Asbestos visit the website: clydesideactiononasbestos.org.uk, or call the freephone help line: 0800 089 1717

This article was originally published in the Sunday National on October 13, 2019

© Mark Brown