Edinburgh Festival Feature: Zinnie Harris interview, plus Festival highlights

The absurd and the sublime

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

Zinnie Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Festival highlights

Mies Julie #1
Mies Julie

Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, until August 27

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

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

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

How To Act, Summerhall, until August 27

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

Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27

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

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

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

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

© Mark Brown




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

No strings in Quebec

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories Of An Hourglass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Heart In Winter. Photo: Michel Pinault

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

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

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

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

© Mark Brown

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

A Comedy Of Errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mark Brown

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

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



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.”



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.



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.

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