Reviews: What Shadows, Lyceum, Edinburgh & The Steamie, touring




Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until September 23



Seen at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy

Touring until November 11


Reviewed by Mark Brown

What Shadows
Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell in What Shadows. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Chris Hannan is one of the most important dramatists that Scotland has ever produced. The author of such plays as Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and Shining Souls, he helped pave the way for the writers, such as David GreigZinnie HarrisDavid Harrower and Anthony Neilson, who brought international recognition to Scottish playwriting in the 1990s.

Like some of the authors who followed him, Hannan’s work has often emerged in the English theatrical context as well as the Scottish. It is appropriate, therefore, that his latest play, What Shadows, should grapple with the modern history of national and ethnic identity in Britain.

Directed by Roxana Silbert for the Birmingham Rep, the drama (which premiered in Birmingham in October of last year) focuses upon the right-wing, British nationalist politician Enoch Powell. Shifting back-and-forth between the 1960s and the 1990s, the piece hinges on the infamous “rivers of blood” speech Powell made in Birmingham in 1968, in which he warned of a bloody civil war in the UK if non-white immigration were not stopped and, by implication, reversed.

The play is built of two converging narratives. One involves the tortured friendship between the Powells (Enoch and his wife Pamela) and the Joneses (Powell’s journalist friend Clem and his wife Marjorie). The other follows the fictive field research of Rose Cruickshank (a black Oxford academic who was brought up in Powell’s constituency in Wolverhampton) and Sofia Nicol (a white former academic forced out of Oxford following accusations of racism, levelled by Cruickshank, among others).

For the most part Hannan’s play navigates its sensitive and weighty subject with a compelling, forensic theatricality. The intellectual and moral jousting between Enoch Powell and Clem Jones is reminiscent of the arguments between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Weiner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s drama Copenhagen.

Cruickshank and Nicol’s project (to interview Powell after tracing some of the people who Cruickshank lived beside in the late-Sixties) seems unlikely, and the black professor’s sudden and complete denunciation of her childhood self stretches one’s credulity too far. However, this plot line does allow Hannan to build a credible, human, sometimes humorous picture of the growth of modern multiculturalism in the West Midlands of England.

Silbert’s production is played on a simple set, with a few trees evoking a park or a forest, and carefully employed, unobtrusive projections evoking other locations as and when required. It boasts a universally fine cast, including Amelia Donkor (excellent as both Rose Cruikshank and, back in the Sixties, her mother Joyce) and Nicholas Le Prevost (captivating as Clem Jones, caught between his Quaker morality and his personal loyalty to Powell).

The sun around which the entire play revolves is, of course, the character of Powell himself. He is played with brilliant understanding and nuance by the great Ian McDiarmid.

Here is the Powell who, as a Conservative government minister in the 1950s, encouraged immigration from Britain’s former colonies and voted, in 1967, for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality; in one poignantly comic scene, a young, gay Asian man approaches Powell to thank him for his role in the gay rights vote in parliament.

However, this is also Powell the unduly certain, patrician politician who, insisting upon the separation of his British nationalism from racial supremacism, made the most dangerous speech on immigration to afflict British politics in the second half of the 20th century. To represent these personal and political contradictions, both when Powell was at the height of his powers and in his twilight years, is an extremely demanding task. McDiarmid achieves it with a shuddering sense of truth.

The Steamie
Carmen Pieraccini (Magrit) and Fiona Wood (Doreen) in The Steamie. Photo: Douglas Richardson

There has only ever been a grain a truth in Tony Roper’s popular comedy The Steamie.

Currently on its 30th anniversary tour, this shamelessly nostalgic play invites us to once again don the rose-tinted specs and have a gander at a Glaswegian communal washhouse circa 1949.

It’s New Year’s Eve and old Mrs Culfeathers is still “takin’ in a washin’, at her age!” Protestant Dolly asks probing questions of Catholic Magrit, as if the latter is a religious scholar, rather than a working-class woman with an alcoholic husband.

Young Doreen, her head in a whirl of American movie stars and post-war optimism, dreams of a palatial home, with front and back doors, in Drumchapel. Meanwhile, washhouse manager Andy is well lubricated, having taken more than a tipple from the Hogmanay bottles the women have secreted among the dirty washing.

This production, which is directed by Roper himself, delivers The Steamie, the whole Steamie and nothing but The Steamie. Kenny Miller’s beautifully detailed set is the quintessence of nostalgia, while the cast (which includes Carmen Pieraccini and Steven McNicoll on fine form) is unquestionably up to the mark.

The play’s the thing, however, and Roper’s (with songs by David Anderson) is so sentimentally saccharine that it seems to have been chiselled from a pillar of sugar. More a collection of music hall skits than a well-made-play, it had the Kirkcaldy audience laughing in advance of (its greatest comedic hit) the “Galloway’s mince” story.

Such is the affection the play has accumulated over the last three decades that to say one doesn’t like it is equivalent to breaking wind in church. I beg your pardon, therefore, because sitting in an adoring audience for The Steamie makes me feel like I’ve turned up at a Star Trek convention in a Chewbacca costume.

For tour dates for The Steamie, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 17, 2017

© Mark Brown


Reviews: August: Osage County, Dundee Rep; A Streetcar Named Desire, tour; & The Sky is Safe, tour




Dundee Rep

Until September 16



Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until October 7



Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Touring until September 23


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Osage County
Ewan Donald and Beth Marshall in August: Osage County. Photo: Tommy Ga Ken-Wan

Andrew Panton, newly appointed artistic director at Dundee Rep, has chosen a big, challenging drama with which to make his debut. American writer Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, which had its world premiere at the famous Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago a decade ago, has been richly awarded (with a Pulitzer and a Tony, among many others). In 2013 filmmaker John Wells collaborated with Letts on a successful screen version, starring President Trump’s bête noire Meryl Streep.

Panton’s production marks the Scottish premiere of the play. It is, glad to report, a scintillating triumph.

Alcoholic poet Beverly Weston takes on a live-in housekeeper (a young, native American woman) to care for his prescription drug-addicted wife Violet. He then promptly disappears. The ensuing drama is like 1970s American TV series The Waltons being gatecrashed by Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

A superb, 13-strong ensemble gives powerful expression to both Letts’s bleak comedy and the resounding humanism that underlies it. Ann Louise Ross, in particular, is memorably anguished, desperate and vindictive in the crucial role of Violet.

Designer Alex Lowde’s set, which is comprised of an entire, transparent, two-storey house, complete with loft room, on a massive stage revolve, is an extraordinary achievement. It allows the audience to see into every room, following the various characters as they confront each other and their demons, or seek refuge from the darkly humorous chaos engulfing the household.

The production (which boasts typically assured accent work by voice coach Ros Steen) delves deep into the guts of the play. As it does so, it achieves both a recognisable family drama (not least in the relations between the Weston’s three grown-up daughters) and a resonating, metaphorical portrait of the “hubris” of the United States as a national and imperial project.

Streetcar, Rapture
Kazeem Tosin Amore (Mitch) and Gina Isaac (Blanche) in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Photo: Richard Campbell

If the Rep’s latest offering excels in staging a modern American classic, Rapture Theatre’s touring production of Tennessee Williams’s celebrated drama A Streetcar Named Desire, sadly, does not. Agonisingly miscast and misconceived it is a very poor follow-up to the company’s deservedly celebrated rendering of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Director Michael Emans tends to play the modern canon with a pretty straight bat. Here, however, he has fashioned an uncomfortable combination of faithful naturalism and radical revision.

Although he keeps the play very firmly in late-1940s New Orleans, the director opts for black actors to represent characters who are living in what is very much a white neighbourhood. This includes Joseph Black as the famous Polish-American protagonist Stanley Kowalski.

The problem here is not the inclusion of black actors (the almost complete invisibility of African-Americans from Williams’s Deep South is ripe for adaptation), but, rather, Emans’s lack of directorial confidence. If, as a German stage director might do, he had broken the play’s naturalism entirely, altering its time and place, he could have created an interesting new take on the play. As it is, Black and Kazeem Tosin Amore (as Stanley’s friend Mitch) struggle against the assiduous realism of the production, white men, played by black men, listening to the casual racism spoken, without irony, at the poker table.

If Emans lacks the courage of his conceptual convictions, he also lacks the actors who might salvage his limping production. Gina Isaac gets close to the tragic essence of the fallen southern belle Blanche DuBois, but she is fighting a losing battle.

For the most part the cast appears insecure and rudderless. Lines are garbled and accents slip. Julia Taudevin (who plays Blanche’s sister Stella) gives a performance that is painfully uncertain and, often, barely audible.

To add insult to injury, designer Richard Evans’s cutaway set is ugly (like an apartment block which has been partly eaten by some huge monster), while the use of music is cumbersome and invasive. One could be forgiven for thinking this production was the work, not of a professional touring company, but of an amateur dramatics society.

The Sky is Safe
Matthew Zajac and Dana Hajaj in The Sky is Safe. Photo: Dogstar

It would be damning with faint praise to say that The Sky Is Safe, the latest piece by Dingwall-based company Dogstar, is better than Rapture’s offering. Based upon the testimonies of women who have fled the devastation of the war in Syria, and supporting the NGO Small Projects Istanbul (which works with refugees in Turkey’s largest city), its heart is very firmly in the right place.

Whether it impresses as a work of theatre is another matter entirely. Written and, along with fine Palestinian-Lebanese actor Dana Hajaj, performed by Dogstar’s artistic director Matthew Zajac it is an awkward mix of verbatim testimony with a fictional narrative about Gordon, a Scottish military aircraft engineer, who seeks the services of Amal, an intelligent and educated refugee from Syria who has turned to prostitution in Istanbul.

This latter drama is too short and obviously point-making to be truly engaging. Likewise the dramatisations built around the women’s testimonies. A representation of the xenophobia many Syrian refugees face in Turkey is brief and histrionic.

Although directed by Ben Harrison (of Grid Iron theatre company fame), the piece has little of the theatrical flare that characterised his splendid production of The Tailor Of Inverness, Zajac’s excellent account of the life of his Polish father. Despite good intentions and committed performances from Hajaj and Zajac, this play never quite succeeds in marrying drama with documentary.

For tour dates for A Streetcar Named Desire, visit:

For tour dates for The Sky Is Safe, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 10, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Europe, Pitlochry Festival Theatre; Adam & Eve, both Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh




Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 13



Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

transferring to Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling,

September 5-6, and Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,

September 13-16



Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,

September 14-16


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Europe PFT
Joanna Lucas as Katia and Cameron Johnson as Morocco in Europe

Some of the recent programming in Scottish theatre has been distinctly counter-intuitive. Last month, Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan (who has furnished us with outré works by the likes of Forced Entertainment and Martin Creed) raised eyebrows by presenting the world premiere of the predictably dull two-parter The Divide, by the high priest of English naturalism Alan Ayckbourn.

Now, equally surprisingly, Pitlochry Festival Theatre (which has long provided a Scottish home to the dramas of Ayckbourn and his theatrical forebears) is staging Scots playwright David Greig’s early work Europe. True, PFT staged Greig’s play Pyrenees a couple of years back, but some of the characters in Europe use an “industrial” language that is never heard in the drawing room comedies and musicals for which the Perthshire playhouse is best known.

Set in a symbolically defunct railway station in post-Soviet Mitteleuropa, Greig’s 1994 piece is disconcertingly prophetic. Refugees (presumably from the wars in former Yugoslavia) become the lightning conductor for the resentments of disgruntled, newly unemployed young men who are ripe for fascism.

As recently jobless Berlin and Horse embrace the mindless certainties of violent xenophobia, Adele (Berlin’s bitterly estranged wife) seeks salvation in the perceived cosmopolitanism of young refugee Katia.

Europe is a thoughtful play of ideas by a young playwright. It is serious, humane and challengingly slow burning. Unfortunately, director John Durnin never quite finds the spark needed to bring it to life.

Partly, this is down to the considerable variableness of the cast. There are strong performances from Joanna Lucas as the trauma-hardened Katia and the ever excellent Alan Steele, who plays bereft station master Fret with depth and soul.

However, other performances disappoint. Cameron Johnson, in particular, is simply miscast as the town’s favourite son, Morocco, a man who has enriched himself in the “import-export” possibilities provided by the new borders of Europe. The actor lacks the character’s cut throat Thatcherism and his sinister sexual opportunism.

Designer Becky Minto’s hyperrealistic rail station set is convincing and deceptively utilitarian. However, it is not built to withstand the impact of Johnson falling against it, which he did during Wednesday’s matinee.

Raymond Short, credited in the programme as “fight director”, has created a woeful rendering of what should be a sickening racist attack. It is simply one of the silliest pieces of stage violence I have ever seen.

Adam Traverse
Neshla Caplan and Adam Kashmiry in Adam. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

From a play about a continent in change to a pair of dramas, premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe by the National Theatre of Scotland, about much more personal forms of transition. Adam by Frances Poet tells the true story of Adam Kashmiry, a young transsexual man from Egypt who has made his home here in Scotland.

The drama traces two arduous journeys, one from female to male, the other across continents and through the unremittingly severe British immigration system. Director Cora Bissett’s production is made even more compelling by the fact that the title character is played, in large part, by Kashmiry himself (with assistance from the excellent Neshla Caplan). Indeed, so intriguing is the play that rock star Nick Cave turned up in the audience towards the end of the Edinburgh run.

Although it is ostensibly a piece of autobiographical storytelling, Poet’s sharp, clean script is peopled with characters who require performance by Kashmiry (who is making his professional debut as an actor) and Caplan. The tale is, by turns, distressing, enraging and deeply moving; not least in Kashmiry’s interaction with his mother (played by Myriam Achkari), as if in an online video link to Egypt.

The integration of video with live theatre is an area in which Bissett is unusually skilled. Working with projection designer Jack Henry James, she offers truly remarkable video of the international transgender and non-binary singers of the Adam World Choir.

Eve Traverse
Jo Clifford in Eve. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

Eve, Adam’s companion piece, is a more modest work of autobiographical narration. Scotland-based dramatist Jo Clifford has worked in theatre as both a male author, John Clifford, and, latterly, as a trans woman. Here, in a text she has written with playwright Chris Goode, Clifford delves into her past, from being sent away to boarding school as a young boy, through a loving marriage to Susie, who loved John and struggled with his undeniable sense of himself as a woman.

The piece is admirable in its emotional frankness. Clifford talks affectingly about the few school friends who helped her, the boy who knew he was a girl, avoid suicide, and about the kindness, in more recent times, of the waiter who, shortly after she transitioned to womanhood, called her “madam”.

Accompanied by occasional, emotive music and illustrative photographs from Clifford’s past, Eve is simple, emotionally engaging storytelling. As in the past, Clifford’s performance involves a gentle, lulling tone that is reminiscent of a liberal Anglican vicar. I can’t help but wish she would vary it somewhat.

Along with the execrable Wild Bore (a self-satisfied and shallow attack on critics with feminist and trans concerns clumsily tagged on), Adam and Eve completed a trio of plays at the Traverse during last month’s Fringe which included trans performers. We will know we’ve really made progress when trans artists can come to the Festival simply as artists, without the need to foreground the struggle against trans oppression.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 3, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Real Magic, All Genius All Idiot, Nassim, Edinburgh International Festival & Fringe




Real Magic

The Studio

Ends today


All Genius All Idiot

Assembly Roxy

Ends Today



Traverse Theatre

Ends today


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Forced Ents - Real Magic
Real Magic. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Although very much part of the cultural mainstream internationally, Sheffield-based performance company Forced Entertainment (which was established in 1984) continues to be described as “leftfield”, “experimental” and (whisper it) “avant-garde” in the UK. Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan’s decision to present their show Real Magic (a deeply ironic and comic take on popular televisual culture) marks a new moment, both for the English group and the EIF.

The piece takes us into a ludicrous game show in which the asking and answering of one absurd question is repeated (with variation) for one-and-a-half hours. Which word, a contestant is asked, is the other contestant thinking of? The “mystery” word is only ever selected from a group of three words, the answers are always from another set of three.

The performers (Claire Marshall, Richard Lowdon and Jerry Killick) rotate in the roles of host and contestants, and appear, for the most part, in chicken costumes or their underwear. They are accompanied by canned applause and laughter and blasts of faux dramatic game show music.

No two presentations of the preposterous TV moment are the same. The host ranges from unctuous, fake bonhomie to contemptuous aggression, the contestants from excessive nervousness to bloody-minded obstructiveness.

There is a growing tension between the endless, performative variations and the agonisingly restricted lexicon of the piece. The show is (intentionally) frustrating and hilarious by turns; it is also reminiscent of the strand in modern classical music (for example, the work of Steve Reich) which is built of repetition and variation.

If one applies the term “avant-garde” with historical accuracy (rather than as a culturally conservative term of abuse), it is entirely appropriate to Real Magic. A sideways satire of popular culture, it is as close as you will get to the strident modernism of Cabaret Voltaire (cathedral of Dadaism) in Zurich in 1916.

All Genius
Ben Moon Smith in All Genius All Idiot. Photo: Svalbard

Over on the Fringe, circus theatre show All Genius All Idiot, by Sweden-based group Svalbard, could almost be a raucous, borderline insane companion piece to Forced Ents’ production. Imagine an itinerant, homoerotic, acrobatic circus troupe performing under a bridge among discarded shopping trolleys. Then imagine that they present their brilliant routines to live rock and beat-driven dance music and that the whole thing has been designed by Andy Warhol.

The show is presented on an atmospheric theatrical landscape, a place for misfits, vagabonds and queers. The perfect place, in fact, for English performer and musician Ben Moon Smith (aka Doghead), the beating, Warholesque heart of the piece, who totters around the stage playing electric guitar, and wearing high heels, fake fur and antlers.

Within this audacious, countercultural arena, Smith and his compadres (Tom Brand from Germany, Santiago Ruiz from Spain and John Simon Wiborn from Sweden) deliver a high octane masterclass in acrobatics. From breathtaking descents on the circus pole, to seemingly impossible rope work, astonishing tumbling and an outrageous human pyramid, these guys do great circus in glittering underpants.

One word of advice, however. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket for their final Fringe show, don’t sit in the front row, especially if you’re drinking a pint of beer.

Staying with circus theatre for a moment. There’s still time to catch No Show (ending at Summerhall today) in which a young, all-female troupe combine superb circus skills with a sobering commentary on the on-going, restrictive sexism they face in the world of popular entertainment. The piece screams out for a bigger performance space, but is well worth a look, nevertheless.

Anyone who has ever seen the famous play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which was performed all over the world by many different actors, will be intrigued by the latest work by its author, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Simply entitled Nassim, the piece (which is presented at the Traverse by the Bush Theatre of London) inverts the formula of White Rabbit, which gave a voice to the author at a time when he was not permitted to travel.

Now based in Berlin, Soleimanpour wants to connect international audiences with his homeland by having an actor (a different performer each day) present a play which functions as an introduction to the Farsi language. Like White Rabbit, the piece is new to the actor and read from the page.

Involving delightfully simple and effective use of video and communication technology, Soleimanpour creates a charming connection between himself and the actor (I saw it performed beautifully by Anglo-Nigerian theatre-maker Inua Ellams). Although it seems like an affectionate language lesson, the show catches one by stealth. Ultimately (and in ways it would be criminal to reveal) it is a strikingly gentle, humane and emotive consideration of the experience of an artist living and working in the diaspora.

Soleimanpour’s piece is proof that, given an imaginative approach to theatrical form, apparently small shows can be great in psychological, emotional and political reach. This is a lesson that might be applied to two new plays presented as part of the Made in Scotland showcase on the Fringe; Gary McNair’s Letters To Morrissey (a likeable and approachable piece which ends at the Traverse today) and The Last Queen Of Scotland (Jaimini Jethwa’s work about the experience of Ugandan Asian refugees in Scotland which closed yesterday).

Extremely modest in form (both are, essentially, prose fictions), they represent a trend in new playwriting in Scotland which, I confess, I find alarming in its lack of theatrical ambition.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 27, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Nederlands Dans Theater, Edinburgh International Festival 2017





Reviewed by Mark Brown

NDT 2017
Roger Van der Poel and Marne van Opstal in The missing door by Gabriela Carrizo. Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis

Every now and again one encounters a dance show of such visual originality, such technical brilliance and such emotional potency than one feels that one has almost witnessed the reinvention of the art form. So it is with this extraordinary trio of works by Nederlands Dans Theater.

In Shoot the Moon, human figures face themselves, each other and the world from within three, revolving rooms. An elegant couple dances a modern pas de deux full of uncertainty, tension and mutual, erotic understanding. A man, stripped to the waist, struggles in solitude, watched through the window by a woman.

The rooms seem like time-worn, melancholy evocations of those painted by Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi. Performed to moving music by Philip Glass, and choreographed by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, the piece combines an enthralling intimacy with a resonating sense of the precariousness of our times.

The second piece (the finest of the three) is entitled The missing door, but might carry the moniker Hotel Kafka. Played to a premonitory soundscape, it combines the atmosphere of the Bohemian author’s bleakly comic prose with the surreal imagery of René Magritte. It is, consequently, humorous and disquieting by turns.

Here, untimely death is as pointless as in Kafka, and as cartoonish as in a Coen Brothers’ movie. With its apparently liquifying walls and human bodies moving spasmodically in response to stuck, electronic sound, choreographer Gabriela Carrizo’s piece is so innovative and affecting that it would have been worthy of the great Pina Bausch herself.

The final work of the trilogy, Stop-Motion, is another piece by León and Lightfoot, and features an exceptional, slow motion, black and white video featuring the choreographers’ strikingly beautiful daughter, Saura. As the young woman revolves gradually on the huge screen, she appears like a figure from a Gerhard Richter painting, animated by video artist Bill Viola. Performed to the plaintive music of Max Richter, its richly employed video work includes a man falling, slowly through water, much like Viola’s famous Christ.

The choreography itself is achingly beautiful, reflecting the sadness, anguish and human resilience in both the music and the video images.

As in its companion pieces, the movement is executed with perfect precision and expression by a breathtakingly accomplished group of dancers. Once again, NDT reasserts its position as one of world dance’s truly great companies.

Until August 23. Tickets:

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 22, 2017

© Mark Brown



Reviews: The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk, The Whip Hand & How To Act, Edinburgh Festival Fringe



The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk

Traverse Theatre

Until August 27


The Whip Hand

Traverse Theatre

Until August 27


How To Act


Until August 27


Reviewed by Mark Brown


Physical theatre tends to be one of the strong suits of the Edinburgh Fringe. Sad to say, however, that two of the big names in the art form flatter to deceive this year.

The great Russian company Derevo celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Fringe debut with the one-man show Last Clown on Earth (Pleasance Courtyard until August 28). Sadly, however, for all performer Anton Adasinky’s technical skill, the over-employed video projections expose the piece as a multi-performer work trapped inside a monodrama.

Meanwhile, Translunar Paradise (Pleasance Courtyard until August 28) by acclaimed English group Theatre Ad Infinitum, also falls short. Although physically accomplished and musically inventive, this sometimes touching reflection on bereavement and loneliness in old age suffers from repetition and a surfeit of sentimentality.

Flying Lovers
Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson in The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk.               Photo: Steve Tanner

There are no such problems in The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk by the excellent, Cornwall-based company Kneehigh, in association with Bristol Old Vic. Having impressed mightily with the total theatre of their Tristan & Yseult at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre back in May, Kneehigh are wowing audiences with this revival of a drama (initially entitled Birthday) about the love affair between the great, Jewish painter Marc Chagall and his wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld.

Although very much a textual work, built around a clean, crisp biographical play by Daniel Jamieson, the piece comes to life through Kneehigh’s trademark combination of physical theatre and live music. Performed on a charmingly simple set, which evokes the semi-ruralism of the couple’s hometown of Vitebsk (a city of the Russian Empire which sits in present day Belarus), it portrays a place with a thriving, if always precarious, Jewish community; prior to the Second World War (in which the city was razed to the ground), the city had some 60 synagogues.

We see the Chagalls as they navigate their relationship through tempestuous times. Following a long separation (while Marc makes his name in Paris), they marry in Vitebsk, face the outbreak of the First World War, move to St Petersburg, have a daughter (Ida), and witness two revolutions in a year (in February and October 1917).

The love affair endures the almost inevitable tension between Chagall’s dedication to his art and his commitment to his wife. It also survives the rancid anti-Semitism of the old Russia, which persists even as the new, Bolshevik state (initially) embraces both Chagall and his paintings.

It is a fascinating story, told beautifully in lovely movement and simple, evocative song and live music (played by Ian Ross and James Gow). Director Emma Rice’s enchanting production has the intelligence to avoid direct recourse to the imagery of Chagall’s paintings.

The piece is captivating, in both visual and emotional terms, thanks to superb choreography, which is executed with delightful physical dexterity by Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson. It is such elements that elevate Kneehigh’s work high above the average, and enable this production to soar like the flying lovers of the title.

The Whip Hand
The Whip Hand

Also at the Traverse is Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell’s latest drama The Whip Hand. Directed for Birmingham Rep and the Traverse by Tessa Walker, the piece is an uneasy marriage of comedy and political theatre.

Boasting a strong cast (which includes Jonathan Watson and rising star Joanne Thomson), the play centres on a sometimes very funny comic situation; self-effacing, part-time supermarket worker Dougie (Watson) is celebrating his birthday at the des res of his ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and her very middle-class, very liberal lover Lorenzo (Richard Conlon). The academic achievements of Arlene and Dougie’s daughter Molly (Thomson) are also being toasted.

Resentments, jealousies and recriminations (those staples of dark, domestic comedies) abound. However, courtesy of Dougie and nephew Aaron (Michael Abubakar), whose mysteriously absent father is of African descent, we are soon, and dubiously, plunged into the genocidal history of the African slave trade and the undeniable, shameful role of Scots within it.

Dougie’s speech, delivered with appropriate (and, it transpires, sinister) diffidence and earnestness by Watson, has a power that resides in its subject, rather than its dramatic context. Indeed, as the play goes on, one feels that, although well-intentioned, Maxwell has over-estimated his ability to shoehorn such a huge and important issue into what is, effectively, a sitcom.

The play is built, not of characters, but of caricatures. Which is fine for delivering a Glaswegian comedy of social class, but ill-suited to the essential truths of Scottish culpability in one of the most immense crimes in human history.

There is a more subtle, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to broach the anguished and imbalanced relations between Europe and Africa  in Graham Eatough’s How To Act. Directed by its author for the National Theatre of Scotland, the piece portrays a masterclass in which an imagined English theatre master, Anthony Nicholl (Robert Goodale), finds himself facing uncomfortable questions from his student, Promise (Jade Ogugua), a young Londoner of Nigerian descent.

“Monsters”, as American dramatist Adriano Shaplin once wrote, “make for poor theatre.” Nicholl’s naive, exoticist talk about the female dancers he encountered in the Niger Delta mark him out early and easily as a hopelessly misguided white liberal. This fact is reinforced by Promise’s discourse about the environmental and social disasters visited upon southern Nigeria by the multinational oil companies.

Despite its intriguing, theatrical situation, the play descends too soon and too firmly into polemic. Indeed, as the personal and political start to combine, Eatough reveals the secret of his play long before he intends to.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 20, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh



Mies Julie

Assembly Rooms

Until August 27


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Mies Julie
Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje in Mies Julie. Photo: Evi Fylaktou

Since it premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, South African dramatist Yael Farber’s adaptation of Strinderg’s classic Miss Julie has gained international plaudits. They are, as this welcome return to Edinburgh attests, richly deserved.

The piece is written and directed by Farber, and staged by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town. Colliding the impossibly distorted class and gender relations of the Swedish bard’s late-19th century drama with the uneasy racial politics of post-apartheid South Africa, it is, surely, one of the most powerful theatre productions of the past decade.

Set on an oppressively hot, Afrikaner-owned farm, it explores the mangled relationship between Julie (the landowner’s daughter) and John (the black farm worker who has known her since she was born). From the moment the brilliant Hilda Cronje’s Julie first comes on stage, sweating from the heat of the Western Cape, the piece is consumed by the tragic, timeless dance between sex and death.

Played on a bleak, minimalist set, the production is enveloped by a rumbling, premonitory soundscape and the atmospheric sound of a live saxophone. As the lethal attraction between Julie and John plays out, desire and affection conflict brutally with fear and racial resentment.

Farber has an extraordinary, unerring ability to make Strindberg’s metaphors serve the context of the new South Africa in its painful birth pangs. The piece ingeniously evokes the conflict between the ancestral agony of dispossessed black South Africans and the supposed property rights of the Afrikaner landowners; not least through the anguished attachment to the land of John’s mother, Christine (the excellent Zoleka Helesi), and the plaintive, haunting song of Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa.

Built around the superb pairing of Cronje and Bongile Mantsai (a resoundingly conflicted John), this is Fringe theatre at its very best.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 13, 2017

© Mark Brown