Opening in Glasgow just as Theresa May was triggering Article 50, the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) response to Brexit made a timely debut on the Scottish stage. Entitled My Country; a work in progress, the piece is a verbatim drama created by the UK’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the NT’s director Rufus Norris.
The work is dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered by neo-Nazi terrorist Thomas Mair during the EU referendum. That dedication is, sad to say, the only really good thing about what is a truly terrible evening’s theatre.
A 21st-century Britannia (who knows she looks stupid in her plumed helmet, shield and trident) convenes a meeting of the nations and regions of the UK. Britannia speaks for the leading (England-based) politicians of the Brexit debate (most notably impersonating Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage), while the others speak the words of random citizens.
Duffy and Norris pepper the vox pops with jokes and a few songs related to the countries and regions concerned. The fact remains, however, it is entirely unimaginative and anti-theatrical to simply assemble a bunch of quotes and stick them under such as headings as “immigration” and “identity”.
Like a work of undergraduate sociology, the piece reveals such gems as: many residents of Derry don’t feel British and carry an Irish passport; a lot of Scottish people want independence; and some people in the UK talk like a Daily Express editorial when you ask them for their views on immigration.
One citizen’s observation that Theresa May “will make a good Maggie Thatcher” offers a rare moment of satirical pleasure. Otherwise, this 80-minute show is shallow, redundant and intellectually insulting. Forget about Brexit – I wanted to run for the exit.
For a complete list of tour dates, visit: nationaltheatre.org.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 2, 2017
Morna Pearson’s latest play offers a trip to the zoo with a difference. By Mark Brown
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
First, a confession. Throughout almost a quarter of a century of reviewing theatre, I have never fallen in love with the theatre of Noel Coward.
This, in the UK at least, is the theatrical equivalent of belching in church. Coward, the prevailing view suggests, is the greatest wit and stylist of 20th-century British drama.
However, while I have never doubted his capacity with the droll bon mot, plays such as Private Lives and Present Laughter have left me unconvinced. Coward’s comedies of manners, I have always felt, are somewhat toothless compared with those of Oscar Wilde. Coward, I thought, shares some of the Irish genius’s comic talent, but lacks Wilde’s devastating satirical bite.
I wouldn’t say that this new production of Hay Fever (co-produced by the Lyceum, Edinburgh and the Citizens, Glasgow, and directed by the Citz’s artistic director Dominic Hill) has brought about a Damascene conversion in me, but it has certainly raised Coward in my estimation. Set in the well-heeled, entirely dysfunctional household of the self-styled “bohemian” (and preposterously misnamed) Bliss family, it is a rollicking comedy with a sinister undertow.
We have the dubious pleasure of meeting not-quite-retired actress Judith Bliss, her semi-estranged husband David (who is a commercially successful novelist), and their precocious, grown-up children Sorel and Simon. Each of them has, unbeknownst to the others, invited prospective lovers down to their country house for the weekend.
The couplings – involving an infatuated boxer (Sandy Tyrell), a young woman of low self-confidence (Jackie Coryton), a “diplomatist” (Richard Greatham) and a middle-aged socialite (Myra Arundel) – are all cross-generational. Not that they last long, as everyone, not least the seemingly fickle Blisses, appears to fancy someone else.
As the Blisses play their guests like the piano in the corner of the sitting room, it suddenly becomes clear that they are acting out a scene from the very worst of Judith’s stage vehicles. It is a spectacularly disconcerting moment, taking us out of the reliable realms of situation comedy and into something altogether more menacing; as if we have suddenly shifted into the consciously uncertain territory of a Sam Shepard play.
Hill’s production is perfectly attuned to this shift, and, indeed, to the sudden, absurdist acceleration in the drama. Designer Tom Piper’s set, with its absent walls and hyper-real, painted backdrop, is the very essence of metatheatricality.
The acting is universally excellent. Susan Wooldridge is deliciously self-dramatising as Judith, while Benny Young (who, it seems, we must now call Baxter-Young on the grounds of a somewhat belated ruling from actors’ union Equity) is an outrageously arrogant David.
This is Coward funnier, yet less frivolous, and darker than we usually see him. A treat for fans, no doubt, and an unexpected pleasure for sceptics such as myself.
If I have long been dubious about Coward, I have been even less convinced of the talents of Yasmina Reza. The French dramatist is the queen of the perfectly-formed, highly-stylised, but ultimately disingenuous and hollow drawing room comedy.
She is, perhaps, best known for her smash hit comic drama Art, a sneering, populist attack on abstract art and anyone who likes it. Like that piece, her 2006 play God Of Carnage takes aim at a ludicrous caricature of the liberal middle class.
Famously adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski (in his 2011 film, entitled simply Carnage) the drama follows the attempted diplomacy of two couples, the Vallons and the Reilles, following a violent incident involving their sons. As alcohol becomes an ever-more influential player in proceedings, the characters’ masks of liberalism and civility begin to slip.
Imagine Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party dragged into the twenty-first century and combined with the unsubtle humour of a Carry On film and the misanthropic inclinations of William Golding’s novel Lord Of The Flies, and you have something approximating Reza’s play.
The conceit of the piece (that inside every western liberal there is a raging brutalist straining to get out) enables Reza to indulge doubly in her penchant for cartoonism. One set of stereotypes (such as ultra-humanist Veronique Vallon, who is writing a book about atrocities in Sudan, and Alain Reille, a cynical lawyer engaged in damage limitation for a pharmaceutical firm) is replaced by another as the characters’ underlying racism, misogyny and homophobia come tumbling from their booze-loosened lips.
Director Gareth Nicholls’s production plays the piece with a pretty straight bat; even if designer Karen Tennent’s decision to surround the set (the Vallons’ perfect, white living room) with a children’s ball pool has all the subtlety of a proverbial brick. Most of the cast cope well with the two-dimensionality of their characters and the demands of slapstick timing.
Richard Conlon’s Alain is at his detestable best when insisting that his son, Ferdinand (who hit the Vallons’ boy, Bruno, in the face with a stick) is a “savage”. Anita Vettesse (Veronique) and Lorraine McIntosh (Annette Reill) lose control splendidly; although Colin McCredie (Michel Vallon) overplays his grinning caricature throughout.
It is ironic that this production opens at the same time as James Macdonald’s staging of Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Albee’s dark, metaphorical comedy of social, marital and gender warfare is, surely, the play God Of Carnage wants to be when it grows up.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 19, 2017
The name of Giacomo Casanova has, since his death in 1798, been a byword for sexual debauchery. Yet the author of History of My Life, who was born in the Republic of Venice and died in Bohemia some 73 years later, lived a life that was almost as eventful as the tumultuous 18th-century itself.
He was (somewhat implausibly) a trainee priest; although, almost inevitably, he found himself debarred from the priesthood for having sex with nuns. Consorting with liberal clergy and aristocrats, his interest in Enlightenment thinking combined with his sexual libertinism to make him a target of the Inquisition.
There is something almost hubristic in the attempt by Kenneth Tindall and Northern Ballet to condense Casanova’s legendary life into less than two hours of dance. However, as the ecstatic first night audience for this world première attests, Tindall’s ambition is richly rewarded.
Unlike other works by Northern Ballet (such as their excellent adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984), Casanova’s adventures (which are drawn from Ian Kelly’s acclaimed biography) do not give themselves easily to a clearly defined narrative. What we get instead are selected episodes, ranging from a Venetian masquerade to Casanova’s imprisonment by the Inquisition and his cruel humiliation at the hands of his Enlightenment idol Voltaire.
Tindall’s choreography is impressively attuned to the ecstasies and agonies of the protagonist’s remarkable life. His sexuality (which was ambidextrous and, at times, orgiastic) is expressed with both a tremendously bold muscularity and an unerring sense of style.
Casanova is danced, appropriately enough, by his compatriot (and longstanding Northern Ballet performer) Giuliano Contadini. It is a towering performance which is as affecting in its bitter yielding to repression as in its moments of euphoric sensuality.
Contadini’s dancing expresses brilliantly the scale and excitement of Casanova’s life. So, too, do Christopher Oram’s set and costume designs. Often dominated by grand, neo-classical pillars which, courtesy of Alastair West’s exceptional lighting designs, shine in an extraordinary orange-gold, Oram’s sets are both improbably versatile and suitably epic.
Kerry Muzzey’s score also has a touch of the epic about it. Positively cinematic, its unapologetic drama and pathos remind us that the great narrative scores of Hollywood are rooted in European orchestral traditions.
Entirely worthy of its first night standing ovation, Casanova is an impressive and exhilarating evening’s ballet.
Touring until May 13. northernballet.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 12, 2017
Much has been said and written about the crucial role played by the Scottish storytelling tradition. During the centuries when theatre was either prohibited by the Calvinist Reformation or recovering, slowly, from that stern proscription, the telling of tales sustained our culture’s connection to language in performance.
It is to that rich history that one’s mind turns on encountering The Red Chair, writer and performer Sarah Cameron’s remarkable dramatic monologue. First performed in 2015, and revived now for an extensive Scottish tour, this self-described “faerytale” is written and performed in a deep, lush Scots-English.
Simultaneously contemporary and timeless, it tells the tale of a wealthy young man (Godwin Moir Williamson Caractacus) who, following his marriage, becomes so obese that he cannot rise from his chair. Growing into the seat, he literally becomes part of the furniture.
As he does so, the life of his long-suffering wife Andrula is subsumed by his morbid appetite. Extremely slender, on account of her growing revulsion at food, she is a slave to her husband’s gargantuan demands.
The story is told by an eloquent third person narrator and in the desolate-yet-poetic prose of Godwin’s neglected daughter Queanie (aka “The Inveesible Child”). In time, mother and daughter become bound together in their powerful resentment of the corpulent authoritarian.
What transpires next is best discovered either in attending one of Cameron’s performances or in reading the published text (an adaptation of Cameron’s original story co-authored by Suzy Willson and Cameron herself). Suffice it to say that it is the kind of Scots-Gothic tale that might have emerged from a collaboration between Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe.
Performed over a brilliantly sustained 90 minutes (which includes brief interludes for samples from Godwin’s larder), the piece is a masterclass in monodrama. Cameron has not only a startlingly evocative facility with language, but also a tremendous capacity in physical and facial expression.
Whether she is describing Godwin’s burgeoning rotundity or evoking Queanie’s stark hopelessness, the performer uses language, space and body with an expertise that is utterly compelling.
The use of sound, music and lighting is (for the most part) beautifully attuned to both text and performance. The “inveesibility” of Queanie, for example, is illustrated in Cameron being only partially illuminated on a pitch black stage; at one point, we see only her mouth, as if the actor were performing Beckett’s famous monologue Not I.
The only slight lapse in judgement comes late on in the performance, when the story turns to the international news coverage of the strange case of the disappearance of the very fat man. A short moment, in which we hear the recorded chatter of 24 hour news media, creates a distracting breach in the show’s otherwise perfectly-sustained atmosphere.
Such a complaint seems almost cavilling, however, given the general excellence of this superb, highly distinctive dramatic monologue. Produced by the London-based Clod Ensemble, this Scottish tour is a very welcome celebration of the Scots tongue, storytelling and theatrical performance itself.
There is a very different contemplation of the abuse of women within marriage in If I Had A Girl…, a verbatim drama from the Glasgow-based organisation Amina – MWRC (Muslim Women’s Resource Centre). Performed by a five-strong cast of four women and one man, the piece bravely and boldly addresses the issue of the violence against women within Scotland’s Muslim communities.
Written by Mariem Omari, and based upon the often harrowing firsthand accounts of Scottish Muslim women, the piece achieves a crucial balance between giving voice to the women’s experiences whilst making no concessions to Islamophobic stereotypes. Much of the violence, denigration and controlling behaviour recounted here will be familiar to many non-Muslim women who have found themselves in abusive relationships.
However, there are also elements in the experiences of the women interviewed by the Amina organisation that are particular to the Muslim community. A case in point is that of a young Scots Muslim woman who remembers her family’s attempts to marry her off, at the age of nine, to a 31-year-old second cousin in Pakistan.
There are re-enactments of sickening acts of violence and scenes playing out issues of wider social pressure, such as parents pressurising women to remain in broken marriages for fear of divorce bringing “shame” on the family. There are also examples of tremendous bravery on the part of the women themselves, and some encouraging instances of solidarity with them.
There can be no doubt that public discussion of vitally important issues such as these is very much needed in our society. There is also no question over the tremendous commitment and courage of Amina, the cast of this production and the women whose testimonies are woven into the play.
With the best will in the world, however, what one cannot say is that this is well-made theatre. The text itself has little by way of dramatic rhythm, whilst the dramaturgy (swaying from side-to-side to represent a Hebridean ferry journey, for example) lacks imagination.
Verbatim dramas often feel like television or film documentaries trapped within plays. So it is here.
The stories Amina wants to tell are extremely important, but one can’t help but wonder whether theatre is truly the best medium in which to deliver them.
The plays of the late, great Arthur Miller seem to have found a new currency in the days of President Trump. Few, if any, of his great, socialistic tragedies seem more pertinent today than his 1949 drama Death Of A Salesman, the story of Willy Loman, the titular merchant who embraced the American Dream with a fervour that US capitalism never reciprocated.
Director Joe Douglas’s production for the Dundee Rep Ensemble goes directly for the agonising gulf between myth and sobering reality. We experience the increasingly delusional salesman’s memories through a dream-like, Technicolor haze.
Ground down by his failures and by his sons’ lack of success, Loman retreats into an idyllic family past and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (played with tremendous cinematic shine by Barrie Hunter). Ewan Donald and Laurie Scott (Loman’s sons Biff and Happy), reflect brilliantly both the gilded illusions and the crumbling actualities of the merchant’s life. Irene MacDougall is almost too painful to watch as the salesman’s despairing wife, Linda.
Designer Neil Warmington’s set (a neo-Brechtian construction of domestic naturalism on metatheatrical metal platforms) plays to the dreamlike state beautifully. However, frustratingly, its muddy gravel and steaming trashcans are gratuitous.
Composer Nikola Kodjabashia’s score (premonitory sounds and music played live on stage, mainly on a naked piano) is typically effective.
The success or failure of any production of Death Of A Salesman rests, first-and-foremost, on the casting of Loman himself. Douglas is blessed, in Ensemble member Billy Mack, with an unforgettable merchant.
In his character’s moments of energetic desperation, the actor generates enough pathos to fill five auditoriums. In his heartbreaking mental and emotional decline, Mack seems to diminish physically, almost to the point of vanishing before our eyes. It is a truly exceptional lead performance in a very strong production.
An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017
Golaud, the eldest son of a wealthy family discovers a young woman (Melisande) alone and disoriented in the heart of the forest. He marries her and sails with her to his family’s castle, where his half-brother (Pelleas) and Melisande promptly (and secretly) fall in love with each other.
Both Golaud and Pelleas live in fear of the judgment of their grandfather, the powerful, increasingly blind patriarch Arkel, whose word is the law. In stark contrast to the shenanigans of this dysfunctional aristocratic family, poverty-stricken citizens die of starvation outside the castle gates.
This may sound like the overdue sequel to Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme Manifesto film Festen, but it is, in fact, the outline of Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera Pelleas Et Melisande. The work is based upon an 1892 play by the acclaimed Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, which is famed for its symbolism and mysticism.
Although the drama looks back into a mystical past (Melisande herself is a Pre-Raphaelite vision of fragile femininity), David McVicar, who directs this production for Scottish Opera, opts for a more modern setting. Designer Rae Smith’s atmospheric sets may be dominated by the French windows of the bleak, degenerating castle, but the costumes have a late 19th/early 20th-century simplicity about them.
Intriguingly, McVicar’s mind also seems to have turned towards Scandinavia. Not to Vinterberg, necessarily, but to his compatriot, the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, whose 1901 painting Woman In An Interior, graces the cover of the programme for this production.
Like Hammershoi’s figure, who stands with her back to us, silent and solemn in the joyless comfort of a bourgeois residence, Melisande experiences her “rescue” as an imprisonment. Indeed, her hair flowing from the window of the castle tower that is her home, her predicament is likened (less-than-subtly) to that of the mythical captive Rapunzel (whose tale was popularised by the Brothers Grimm less than a century before Maeterlinck wrote his play).
This modern relocation of the story, with the aristocrats living, not only in bleakness, but also in a state of decline, is rewarding in dramatic terms, and courageous in its consciously limited visual palette. Lighting designer Paule Constable deserves particular plaudits for his efforts to transform Smith’s less-than-versatile sets into a series of locations, including a well in the gardens of the castle and a cave by the sea.
However, in dragging the tale forward in time, McVicar has landed himself with some continuity issues. He faces them with an admirably brazen audacity. Golaud, for instance, is not furnished with a pistol, but stomps around the stage brandishing a sword like some kind of deranged Medievalist.
Even if one is happy to suspend one’s disbelief where 20th-century sword wielding is concerned, there are moments in which one’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. Pelleas and Melisande’s late-night sojourn into the cave without so much as a lamp to hand generates atmosphere at the expense of their intelligence.
A somewhat dim-witted romantic hero he may be, but Pelleas is performed with tremendous emotion by Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko. English soprano Carolyn Sampson impresses equally in a knowingly ironic playing of the distinctly pre-feminist role of Melisande (which was created in Paris in 1902 by the Aberdonian opera star Mary Garden).
Indeed, Debussy’s beautiful, assiduously illustrative score (which matches the action emotion for emotion) is enhanced by fine performances across the piece. In particular, Roland Wood’s Golaud is a compelling raging bull of a man.
Alastair Miles is superb as the wise, anguished king Arkel, while young Cedric Amamoo is astonishing, both in vocal and physical expression, as Golaud’s schoolboy son Yniold.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017