Thursday, 25 August 2016

Richard III

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Four stars


The 1940s style microphone that hangs down from the rafters throughout German director Thomas Ostermeier's Berlin Schaubuhne production of what is arguably Shakespeare's most malevolent play is a telling nod to some of the showbiz-styled reference points that follow. The royal court bursts onstage in a riot of glitter punchlined by Thomas Witte's relentless noise rock drumming. This is an impressive curtain-raiser already before Lars Eidinger's Richard takes the microphone and centre-stage for his opening monologue that makes “Now is the winter of our discontent” sound like a stand-up live art routine.

Wearing a harness and rugby style skull-cap and contorting himself as he goes, Eidinger's Richard is by turns straight man, clown and old pro who flits between court jester and MC, but who really wants to be top of the bill. In this way he's a mash-up of Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman and wannabe comic turn Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's film, King of Comedy. He's a boundary-pushing hustler who loses his edge and ends up a bitter old ham after being crowned to a Laurie Anderson loop.

Performed in German with English surtitles – plus a few comic English asides from Eidinger – the pace gradually slows over its interval-free two hours and forty minutes to become increasingly mesmeric. Ostermeier's cast of ten are heroic throughout, but this is Eidinger's show. When he utters the words “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for my horse,” Richard's sense of clinging on to something lost beyond his own isolation is akin to Citizen Kane, and this his Rosebud moment in a piece that reinvents the play while staying radically faithful throughout.

The Herald, August 26th 2016

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 Theatre Reviews 7 - The View From Castle Rock - Artspace@St Mark's, Four stars / The Hours Before We Wake - Underbelly - Three stars / The Way the City Ate the Stars - Underbelly, Three stars

Canadian writer Alice Munro is something of a heroine in literary circles. This is something that the sell-out staging of two of her short stories in The View From Castle Rock confirms, as it brings to life Munro's real life nineteenth century ancestors, the Laidlaw family, who leave the Scottish borders behind for a new life in Canada. Rather than focus on what happens when they get there, Munro's text, adapted faithfully by Linda McLean and split between five actors in Marilyn Imrie's production for the Stellar Quines company as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival, charts the voyage itself.

As the actors enter along the pews of St Marks' magnificent interior clutching copies of Munro's book, we ushered into a messy world of lives in motion, as several generations of Laidlaws attempt to make themselves heard,criss-crossing dialogue and description between them. In this way the story is given weight, depth and a poignancy elevated both by Pippa Murphy's score and sound design, which seems to echo down the centuries, and a closing coup de theatre which can't fail to tug at the heart-strings.

There's a quiet beauty at the heart of a story that becomes a piece of hand-me-down history that gets to the roots, not just of Munro's background, but to a global DNA that makes clear more than ever, just as Young Fathers did at their Edinburgh International Festival gig, that we are all migrants now.

Run ended.

There aren't enough science-fiction plays around, and late theatrical maverick, Ken Campbell, who produced a legendary twelve-hour staging of Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus with his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in 1977 would surely approve of The Hours Before We Wake. Produced by the young Bristol-based Tremelo Theatre, the play is a bare bones black comedy set in a world where people have the power to control their dreams and make them freely available for all to see. For one man, this mean becoming a hero and getting the girl he loves to notice him.

In a world where everyone can be a star after dark, it also makes for a flesh and blood nightmare of high voltage conspiracies and noirish plot-turns that both intrigue and entertain. While themes of technology careering out of control have been a staple of sci-fi for decades, for the generation the play's young cast belong to they are more pertinent than ever, especially in a present increasingly dominated by social media and virtual reality. There's subsequently a freshness to a show created and devised by the company under Jack Drewry's direction, both in the story and in a playing style that fizzes with wit in a wilfully lo-fi construction.

Runs until August 29

When Australian performer Wil Greenway begins his latest piece of storytelling theatre, The Way the City Ate the Stars, with a scene-setting prelude about how a Christmas kiss is usurped by Santa Claus, it ushers in an even more twinkling tale about how a wrongly sent text message changes the lives of its recipients forever. Out of this, Greenway gradually unravels a tale of criss-crossing lives linked by a woman named Margaret, who reaches out to people who need her more than she'll ever know.

Greenway is an engagingly wide-eyed presence in a beautifully understated show made even more so by having each section of the story punctuated by live songs in an initially charming yarn that gradually evolves into a matter of everyday life and death.

Runs until August 29

The Herald, August 25th 2016
 
 
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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Sadie Hasler and Asfaneh Gray - Fran & Leni and Octopus

When former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine defaced the signage at the British Library's current Punk London: 1976-78 exhibition a few weeks ago while there to take part in an event with writer Jon Savage, it was a very necessary gesture. Albertine's inking in of the names of her own band as well as X Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees in an otherwise all male list was followed by the question 'What about the women?' alongside her signature

At an exhibition where visitors have even been admonished for taking photographs, it was about as punk as it gets. This was something recognised too by Faber and Faber, publishers of Albertine's memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, when they tweeted to the British Library that Albertine was 'still more punk than you.'

Writer and performer Sadie Hasler committed a slightly less public but equally significant act of rebellion the week when she laddered her tights just before she was about to leave the house. Hasler was on her way to prepare for her new play, Fran & Leni, which she is appearing in with her fellow conspirator in the Old Trunk theatre company, Sarah Mayhew, when the spirit of punk overtook her.

“I was going to change,” she says, “but then I just thought, fuck it. If I'm writing a play about punk then I'm not going to change just because someone might be offended by it. Why should I?”

Fran & Leni focuses on two women who meet in 1976 in a North London comprehensive school, and who form a punk band called The Rips. Dove-tailing between the pair's teenage years and everything that follows, the play looks at the ups and downs of a friendship which crashes and burns much as punk did, but which comes out the other side bruised but defiantly unbowed.

“I wanted to tell a story that wasn't just about punk,” says Hasler, “but about these two women, and what happens to them over the years. I always want to wrote strong female characters, and I wanted to shake off any ideas of what traditional female behaviour should be in terms of being demure. That was the case even up to the sixties, but when punk happened that all changed.”

Hasler saw some of this first hand.

“My mum was in a band with Hazel O'Connor, doing glam rock covers,” she says. “That was before she became famous, but then my mum got pregnant with me, and within a year Hazel got really big with Breaking Glass.”

In the play, Fran and Leni's differences are what makes their friendship click.

“Fran is a classically trained musician, but Leni sees the bad behaviour of punk as a vehicle to get away. It's not a history play. I wanted to look at the sort of freedoms women were allowed at that time. It's about escape.”

Fran & Leni plays back to back at Assembly with Octopus, a new play by Asfaneh Gray which sets itself in a frighteningly recognisable near future where state-defined Britishness prompts three very different women to define their own identity by forming a punk band.

“I'm a big fan of punk,” says Gray, who developed Octopus' co-production between Paper Tiger and Fine Mess Theatre at Soho Theatre and the Arcola. “It feels like a curiously British form of protest. We've never really had a revolution, but it feels like there was this moment when people thought, fuck it, and ripped everything up.

“People have this idea that punk is a white, male aggressive thing, but the play came out of a frustration about how identity is defined, and about what kind of stories we should be telling. I'm half Iranian and half Jewish, I look middle eastern and I've been to Iran, but that experience isn't a story I feel I could tell. People's backgrounds are a lot more complicated than they might first appear.”

In Octopus, Sarah, Sara and Scheherazade have very different musical tastes, but somehow manage to find a bond that unites them all. The title of Gray's satire on identity comes from a story told by one of the girls about an octopus who visits a hairdressers, only to be tugged eight different ways in terms of styling.

“It's looking at how things can be multi-faceted,” says Gray, “and it has this do it yourself spirit that's channelled throughout it.”

Fran & Leni and Octopus arrive at a time when autobiographical tomes by Albertine, Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon and ex Fall member Brix Smith have put their various female fronted punk story to the fore in a similar fashion. Recent fundraising events for She-Punks: Women in Punk, a documentary film in progress initiated by Helen Reddington and Gina Birch alongside Albertine, writer Vivien Goldman and others is reclaiming a hidden history which Reddington, as Chefs vocalist Helen McCookerybook, and Birch as bass player and vocalist with The Raincoats, were a key part of.

This was outlined in Reddington's book, The Lost Women of Rock Music, published in 2011, while the recent compilation album of lesser known female post-punk artists, Sharon Signs to Cherry Red, exposed an even greater wealth of talent which a new generation is drawing inspiration from. When The Raincoats recently played the Stewart Lee curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival, Birch could be spotted quietly enjoying younger but equally punky female bands, including Shopping and Trash Kit.

“It's wonderful to read about how these women made things happen for themselves,” says Hasler. “They really had to inveigle their way into things, and they're such an inspiration.”

For Gray, "Looking at what's going on in the Labour Party since the Leave vote, people are putting bricks through windows, and it's the same sort of anger as punk. People are seeing through the bullshit, and seeing that we need to tear things down and start again. Out of all that antagonism that's a constructive thing. It's like in Octopus, the moment these three young women come together, even though they're singing different songs, they still have the space to be who they want to be, and despite all their differences they can create something beautiful.”

For Hasler and Mayhew, this sort of attitude applies to the entire aesthetic behind both Fran & Leni and Old Trunk.

“If we want to be playing these strong women who aren't reliant on men,” Hasler says, “then we have to do it ourselves.”

Fran & Leni, Assembly George Square, Aug 4-28, 3.05-4.10pm; Octopus, Assembly George Square, Aug 4-28, 1.45-2.45pm.
www.assemblyfestival.com

The Herald, August 24th 2016

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Paul Vickers - Jennifer's Robot Arm and Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel

Paul Vickers never planned to make his Edinburgh Festival Fringe act his main thing. As the former frontman of John Peel championed band Dawn of the Replicants turned collaborator with Edinburgh underground supergroup Paul Vickers and The Leg, his foray into off-kilter comic cabaret with his debut show, Twonkey's Cottage, in 2010 was meant to be a diversion from producing a Beefheartian stew of punk-folk clatter to accompany an increasingly fantastical series of narrative vignettes.

As it is, seven years on, the man now known as Mr Twonkey is in the thick of Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel, the latest instalment of an ongoing and at times mind-boggling saga involving songs, puppets and an absurd set of interactive routines that may or may not involve a nest of knickers. As if that wasn't enough for this junkyard Edward Lear who last year was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, this year Vickers has branched out into doing straight theatre. Almost straight, anyway, as the title of Jennifer's Robot Arm indicates.

“It's about this little girl who thinks she's Pinocchio's sister and is made of wood,” says Vickers. “Her imaginary friend tells her to cut off her arm so she can see the rings in the wood, and her dad has to make her a robot arm.”

What Vickers describes as “a simple kitchen-sink drama” was born after he was approached by director and performer Simon Jay, a fan of Mr Twonkey's shows who encouraged him to write a play.

“He kept saying we should work together,” says Vickers, “and we had a rehearsed reading of an early draft of the play at the White Bear in London, and then we got a cast together and did it at the Bread and Roses pub theatre. That was really nerve-wracking to watch, because everyone in it put something into it that I never expected, Miranda Shrapnell who plays Jennifer especially.

“When I wrote the play I expected it to be a bit camp, but Miranda properly acts the part so you feel something for Jennifer. All the other characters are just grotesques, and I realised from watching it that it has a lot of depth. That's what stops me from being a straight down the line comic writer. I can't help but put layers of sadness in it.”

Both Vickers and Jay appear alongside Shrapnell in Jennifer's Robot Arm, with Vickers playing a crazed inventor in the play, which recently made it to the top twenty out of more than 900 entries in Soho Theatre's Verity Bargate award. This is testament to Vickers' sense of the fantastical which looks to Mervyn Peake, Roald Dahl and, in some of his shorter works, Ivor Cutler, for inspiration, but which is delivered with a ramshackle sense of absurdity.

Vickers was born in Middlesbrough, and studied performing arts in Carlisle. While he acted at college, “I soon realised I was a natural frontman for a band,” and early combos such as Irish Juice and Pennies from heaven mined a surreal blend of songs and performance art. “We were terrible,” says Vickers.

These efforts nevertheless morphed into the first incarnation of Dawn of the Replicants, by the mid 1990s, Vickers was living in Galashiels, where he wrote and drew cartoons for music zine, Sun Zoom Spark. With D.O.T.R championed by John Peel, the band were signed to a major label. Even here Vickers' penchant for off-beat storytelling came through, albeit much to their label's confused chagrin.

I used to send the A&R people all these stories,” Vickers remembers, “and they'd say they didn't want any of that rubbish, and tried to make us a dirty rock and roll band.”

After being dropped, Vickers decamped to Edinburgh College of Art “to reboot myself.” With the final D.O.T.R. Records released on local independent label SL, label boss Ed Pybus suggested a collaboration between Vickers and The Leg, a manic and equally maverick trio featuring former Khaya frontman Dan Mutch, classically trained cellist Pete Harvey and drummer Alun Thomas

“I showed the stories to The Leg,” says Vickers, “and they liked them and encouraged them.”

A first album, Tropical Favourites, spawned a set of jug-band punk narratives such as The Ballad of Bess Houdini and Chime Chime Cherry. The follow-up, Itchy Grumble, was a spiky conceptual fantasia involving the adventures of an immortal dwarf who ends up being fired from a cannon in order to revolve a lighthouse. While the band's live shows of this post-punk songspiel were ferociously intense affairs, Vickers developed his salty yarn into a play that required an epic staging which he saw as being potentially played out on the set of Robert Altman's film of Popeye.

“It was quite an ambitious thing to do,” Vickers says. “Like everything I do, it's got escapology, engineering and witchcraft in it, but the album didn't get much radio play. It's like we were doing our Trout Mask Replica,” he says, referring to Captain Beefheart's arguably most intense album.

With no takers forthcoming for a stage show, Vickers published Itchy Grumble as a novel along with some of his miniatures, and, inbetween recording a third Paul Vickers and The Leg album, The Greengrocer, channelled his performing energies into the Twonkey series. Twonkey's Cottage begat Twonkey's Castle, Blue Cadabra, Kingdom, Private Restaurant and Stinking Bishop before alighting this year at the Mumbo Jumbo Hotel.

“It was supposed to be a side-project,” Vickers says of a franchise which he has toured to Brighton and Prague festivals as well as sharing bills with the likes of Josie Long. “It was a scrapbook of ideas. I was originally obsessed with telling the story of Twonkey, who was half dragon, half witch, and the first three shows had all this Lord of the Rings stuff in it, but then I realised it didn't matter, because no-one really knew what I was on about. Once I abandoned all that, it really freed me up, and I became Mr Twonkey. It's a state of mind. When the ideas come, it's like a tornado, and I go to Twonkeyverse.”

Jennifer's Robot Arm may also be part of Twonkeyverse, but, while Itchy Grumble lays dormant, this new play marks yet another diversion in Vickers' anti career.

“I think what I've done my whole life is fall between stools,” he says. “That's where I belong. It took me a long while to embrace my own failures. I used to think if I put a brave face on things then people wouldn't notice, but I realise now that it's best to let it all hang out.”

As for Itchy Grumble, “I'm sure that it will happen,” he says. “There's unfinished business that needs tending to. I was trying to do this massive show too soon, but it will always be there. I have this image of how my life will end, where I'm hanging off a lighting rig trying to explain things and the hydraulics don't work. But Itchy Grumble will rise again.”

Twonkey's Drive-in presents Jennifer's Robot Arm, Sweet Grassmarket, August 4-28, 5.15-6.30pm; Twonkey's Mumbo Jumbo Hotel, Sweet Grassmarket, August 4-28, 9-10pm.

The Herald, August 23rd 2016

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Thomas Ostermeier - Richard III

The last time Thomas Ostermeier brought a production on at Edinburgh International Festival, the German director was considered to be a young wunderkind. As he blazed a trail through his country's theatrical establishment before alighting at the Berlin Schaubuhne, his iconoclasm seemed aligned in some way to the so-called in-yer-face wave of British writers who had taken much of their influence from the similarly iconic post 1968 generation of German playwrights.

Ostermeier first came here in 1999 with a production of Marius von Mayenburg's play, Fireface, then again in 2002 with David Harrower's English language translation of Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's play, The Girl on the Sofa. Fourteen years on, and still in charge of the Schaubuhne, Ostermeier's provocative aesthetic remains intact in a production of Shakespeare's Richard III which thrusts one of |the bard's most complex characters centre stage on an interpretation of an Elizabethan globe style theatre that leaves performers nowhere to hide as they attempt to connect with the audience.

Forming part of a programme at this year's EIF that commemorates the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Ostermeier's production adapted and translated into German by Ostermeier's long-term collaborator von Mayenburg, has already captivated audiences at international festivals in Romania and France since it premiered in Berlin in 2015. Having only previously brought contemporary chamber pieces to Edinburgh, for Ostermeier to be bringing a large scale classical piece after so long away is a proposition he clearly relishes.

“For me it's always very exciting to bring Shakespeare onto the island,” he chuckles as he prepares to watch his show in Romania. “Of course, there's a difference to bringing Shakespeare to London than bringing it to Edinburgh and to Scotland, so I'm excited and happy, but I'm not afraid. Of course, it's a challenge. It's in German, first of all, and it will have subtitles. Sometimes I tell myself that's better, to have the beautiful language of Shakespeare, without any bad acting.

“I myself enjoy watching Shakespeare shows and watching subtitles at the same time. I admire and praise the language of Shakespeare, and I'm pretty excited about what he audience will make of the production, but I'm quite confident about it as well.”

There's a playfulness to Ostermeier when he talks in this way. It both upends the seriousness of his work even as it accentuates its boundary-pushing extremes. Make no mistake, however. Every action, while designed to get a reaction, is carefully thought out, from the casting of Lars Eidinger in the title role, to having a live drummer play onstage, to the physical architecture of the piece.

“Having Lars play Richard was one of the most important reasons for doing the play,” Ostermeier says. “He'd played Hamlet for me six years before, and I thought he was definitely at the right place in his career to do this. My main interest was the fact that Richard is regarded as a character of evil, and how him doing evil appears onstage as he manages to climb up the ladder of power.

“Secondly, how much is Richard like a member of the audience around him? Could he be as evil without a completely corrupted world around him? A lot of that is to do with language. That is the most important topic of conversation in the rehearsal room. How does he communicate with the audience? He's not a character on a screen, so how does he do that? Thirdly, how does he exploit this and profit from being in the same space as the audience?”

The answer for Ostermeier comes in the shape of the space the play is performed in.

“The way actors performed in Elizabethan globe theatres had a lot to do with the architectural space they were in,” Ostermeier says. “There was an audience all around them, and they had to entertain them, and there were moments that they were like stand-up comedians. That comes from the architectural lines and the lines of energy in a space like that, and which makes it so very different to the relationship where you have the audience in front of you. This is much more like saying, I'm one of you, and when one of us becomes evil, that makes things more tense.

With a live drummer onstage throughout, Ostermeier's take on the play sounds like an Elizabethan cabaret, with Richard topping the bill as the deadliest of old troupers, hamming it up with the audience as he goes.

Like the writers whose work he cut his teeth on, Ostermeier has grown up steeped in popular culture in a way that makes him unafraid to marry classical drama to contemporary concerns. This has been the case ever since he worked as assistant to playwright Manfred Karge, author of Man To Man, in the early 1990s. As artistic director of the Barracke company at the Deutsches Theatre in the mid 1990s, Ostermeier focused on work by contemporary British playwrights, including Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill.

Ostermeier began to apply his aesthetic on classic plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare, and for at least the last decade now, Ostermeier says, he has directed a Shakespeare play every other year.

“The most important thing for me coming to Shakespeare,” he says, “and this might sound banal, but he is the best writer ever to have written drama. Also what is important for me, and people often forget it, is that he is part of high art, but he is also fascinated with popular culture and comedy in his writing. That's what makes him so fascinating for me, because in the time we're living in now, we have the internet, TV and YouTube, but, at the same time, we also have Bach and art exhibitions.

“All of these things are happening at the same time, so we live in a world very close to the world of Shakespeare. We have the same political situation as the Renaissance, when there was terrorism, atrocities and gunpowder plots. It was a world of prosperity, but it was also a very violent time, and yet it was also a time of science and art and renaissance, so there are very clear parallels.”

Richard III, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 24-28, 7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 23rd 2016

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Ross Dunsmore - Milk

There is a pre-fab house close to where to Ross Dunsmore lives that is boarded up from the inside.

“It looks like no-one's living there,” says the Glasgow-born actor and writer, “but there's this beautiful ornamental garden outside. You take an imaginative leap, and you wonder what it was that made people hide from the world in this way. Is the world moving so fast and so noisily that this is what some people feel that they have to do? That made me start to think about what people need to feel fulfilled.”

The result of such close to home influences is Milk, Dunsmore's debut full length play that looks at three seemingly different couples from across the generations who are all trying to survive in an increasingly scary world.

“There's a craving there,” says Dunsmore. “These people are always seeking nourishment. There's a desire to feed others and to be fed. These people all live in the same community, where they brush up against each other on a journey to this kind of fulfilment, bumping into each other as they go.”

Little slices of life like this are what feeds his work.

“The thing I find as a writer,” he says, “is that you don't sit down and think that you want to write a play about nourishment or sustenance, but there are some things – a picture, a word – that sticks in your mind and intrigues you, and it won't go away because you can't leave it alone.”

Dunsmore discovered theatre at a young age when his parents would drag him along to the amateur dramatics group they were involved in.

“It was noisy and funny and busy,” Dunsmore remembers. “I loved it.”

Aged seventeen, and wondering what to do with his life, he considered a career in civil engineering.

“I wanted to build dams in Latin America,” he says.

By that time he was reading plays in the library, and watched a video of Bill Bryden's promenade production of The Mysteries at the National Theatre.

“I wanted to be there,” Dunsmore says. “It seemed like the most vibrant, alive place to be. Whether I was in the audience or onstage, socially or artistically, I didn't care, I just wanted to be there.”

Dunsmore studied drama at Kirkcaldy College of Technology.

“I fell in love with the idea of theatre,” he says, “with the fun and excitement and the newness of it all.”

He also decided to take theatre and acting seriously enough to apply for RADA. It was during that time, with classmates who included Adrian Lester and Rufus Norris, that Dunsmore began to understand theatre as an artform.

“I saw how it could reflect society,” he says, “and my senses were honed. I came out of RADA fully engaged with how important theatre and acting can be, and I've retained that.”

Over more than twenty years working as an actor, Dunsmore has worked extensively on new plays. His very first job after leaving RADA was in 1989 at Leicester Haymarket Theatre on a production of Jackets, a play by Edward Bond set in a riot torn city in the near future. This was an increasingly rare sighting of a new work in a major British theatre by the mould-breaking writer of Saved, and the experience of working on a play shot through with Bond's humanist rage seems to have left its mark on Dunsmore.

“Jackets was a great play,” he says, “but I'm baffled that it's never been done again. There's an economy and an elegance to Edward Bond's writing. He was around quite a lot during rehearsals, and he brought this intellect to things that I learnt a lot from.”

Since Jackets, Dunsmore has worked with companies including the National Theatre of Scotland, the Young Vic and Chichester Festival Theatre. Appearances on home turf have included the Tron Theatre's production of David Greig's play, The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.

“I've done a lot of workshops and readings of plays that maybe didn't see the light of day,” Dunsmore says, “helping the writer find out what works and what doesn't.”

This led to his own move into writing.

“I started writing little short stories for fun,” he says, “and the more of them I did the more I realised how filmic they were.”

Dunsmore took an MA in screenwriting at Royal Holloway University of London. This led to a year studying playwriting with John Burgess, former head of new writing at the National Theatre.

“As soon as I started studying film my writing became more theatrical,” he says.

Dunsmore entered a competition for writers to pen ten-minute long plays. He wrote a piece called Twenty-One Breaths, about a couple coming home from hospital after having a baby. There are connections here with Milk, which features a heavily pregnant female half of the play's central couple.

“I've got three kids,” says Dunsmore, “so I know that world. It's a very potent idea to explore theatrically, even just visually onstage, but I'm comfortable if this idea is something that keeps pulling me back if I don't quite get it right and want to explore it.”

Other short plays by Dunsmore include Cold Call, about two people working in a call centre whose relationship is falling apart, The Move, which follows two different families moving into the same house a century apart, and one called The Postman. The latter was developed with Playwrights Studio Scotland, where he was mentored by writer Lynda Radley. In 2015 was one of four winners of the Scotland Short Play Award with a piece called Romance.

Although his writing career is on a roll just now, Dunsmore will continue to act.

“Being an actor helps me write,” he says, “and being a writer helps me act. They're one and the same thing in many ways.”

With Milk, however, you get the impression that the play is a labour of love that comes from a very personal place.

“When I read Milk now,” says Dunsmore, “the thing that strikes me more and more is how great the need is in all of us to be loved and wanted. The key to that is how you reach out to people and nourish them. We find ourselves where we are politically in the world right now, and to take that risk and reach out to someone who you might not otherwise reach out to, that balance isn't easy to reach, but it's so important we try and reach it, both for us as individuals and for society as a whole.”

Milk, Traverse Theatre, August 5-28, various times.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, August 22nd 2016

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Sunday, 21 August 2016

James Thierree - The Toad Knew

Family matters to James Thierree, the Swiss-born theatrical alchemist who brings his dark tale, The Toad Knew, to Edinburgh International Festival next week. Such concerns are there in this tale of a brother and sister who remain children forever, but it's there as well in his real life lineage growing up in his parents circus where as a child he performed alongside his own sister. Given too that Thierree's grand-father was comic genius Charlie Chaplin, and his great-grandfather playwright Eugene O'Neill, it might be fair to say that Thierree is following in some pretty large artistic footsteps.

As The Toad Knew should make clear, however, he has trodden his own singular path in a piece made for his Compagnie du Hanneton ensemble that follows the adventures of five characters in a mix of dance, circus and physical theatre which also looks to the likes of Salvador Dali and Tim Burton for its fantastical execution.

“I wanted to explore something intimate,” Thierree says of the roots of The Toad Knew. “I'd just done a big choreographic show, and I started with this idea of a brother and sister being kidnapped and taken to this weird place. Of course, I re-read all the typical tales of children being kidnapped in Grimms' tales and so on, and thought about them having to experience this tremendous anguish in that situation.

In The Toad Knew, the children grow up, and are shaped by the world they were taken to, and become old children trying to find the code or key to escape, with the voice of the jailer ever-present. For me it's important to get the audience to leave their rational brains behind, accept the rules of the world onstage and let themselves go on this visceral and intuitive journey.”

Thierree made his stage debut aged four in 1978, playing a walking suitcase opposite his elder sister Aurelia in Le Cirque Imaginaire, the experimental circus run by his parents, Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierree. Thierree toured with the company and its successor, Le Cirque Invisible, until he was twenty. Given that he was born into the circus rather than having to run away and join it, such a peripatetic existence has inevitably trickled down into his own work beyond it.

This began first on screen with Thierree playing one of three Ariels in Peter Greenaway's 1991 film inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero's Books. Greenaway's maverick casting on the film included having John Gielgud as Prospero, Michael Clark as Caliban and Mark Rylance as Ferdinand.

Thierree's film career has continued alongside his theatre work, and he was nominated for a most promising actor award for his turn in Eurotrash presenter Antoine de Caunes' 2006 film, Twice Upon A Time. Most recently he appeared in Chocolat, a film about Chocolate the clown, the first black circus artist to grace the ring in nineteenth century France.

Onstage, Thierree's career beyond Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible began in a Paris production of Fassbinder's play, Pre-Paradise, Sorry Now. It was when he founded Compagnie du Hanneton in 1998 to produce his first show, The Junebug Symphony, however, that Thierree really started to make waves with his stage work.

With Le Figaro describing The Junebug Symphony as one of the top ten shows of the decade, Thierree followed it up with the equally acclaimed Bright Abyss, and has since created three more works, Au Revoir Parapluie in 2007, a solo piece, Raoul, in 2009, and Tabac Rouge in 2013. While the worlds he created in all of his spectacles are born of an imagination forged outwith mainstream theatre, all he will say about the influence that growing up in the circus has had on his work is a quietly charming “Most probably, but the advantage here is that I don't think about it, and I don't think I would create a show about that experience.

“As a child you accept whatever situation you're in. The reality we were in was very special. We were touring with the circus, and performing was part of our daily activity. It was just part of our game, whereas strangest for us was school. I thought school and regular life was exotic. School was a jungle, a scary and mysterious place, whereas the circus, the touring and all of that was my everyday experience.

“With this show,” Thierree says of The Toad Knew, “there's maybe a feeling of coming back to familiar ground, of getting back to working with a troupe and searching for a world of ideas. I'm very pragmatic. Of course, I come from the circus, but it wasn't really a circus as we think of a circus. It was more about experimentation, whether that was through acrobatics or whether it was absurdism. My parents were exploring and playing with ideas around the circus as they directed it, but I was always on a theatrical stage. The trick here is to take all these physical ideas and to blend them in a way that doesn't look like it's just presenting a series of moments. That's why the set's important. You can blend it into a world of ideas.”

Where previously Thierree's physical ideas have manifested themselves in the form of talking teapots and umbrella jellyfish. In The Toad Knew, Thierree promises a vintage feel.

“I like old things,” he says, “old props and so forth. I don't know why, but my sets are always full of things worn down by time. I never build a modern contemporary set. I know a spend a huge amount of time on preparing the set. For me it is the lead character that undergoes a metamorphosis. I work with the crew on it for months. That's the first game I play, then once the character is there we bring in the human factor, and we just have to make this place our home.”

Again and again, Thierree's speech fuses the domestic with images from his imagination in a way that suggests his art and life are inseparable. His talk of games and play as well not only takes theatre back to its purest essence, but suggests that, for all his pragmatism and technical expertise, as a child of the theatre, he too has never fully grown up, retaining a sense of wonder that fires his work.

At the time of talking, Thierree, Compagnie du Hanneton and The Toad Knew are on tour at the Naples Festival. As with the circus, life on the road with a show can be a gruelling experience.

“The baby is screaming a little bit for rest,” Thierree jokes, personifying the show as one might imagine he does with its component parts on a nightly basis, “but we're recuperating, so we'll be fresh and joyful in Edinburgh.”

For all the technical and physical intricacy involved in The Toad Knew, Thierree's flights of fancy remain at a heart which he's perfectly willing to allow to go off on flights of fancy of their own making.

“There is a story,” he says, “and we try to tell the story more or less, but then the story goes away and becomes something else. My point is not to say once upon a time there was a toad who was a man. Who cares? We try and pull the same strings of childhood learning. I like the idea that the children learn something from a creature, and then they move on, and we never know what happens after that.

“In most stories there is supposed to be a happy ever after, but I don't think that's the case here. I think the brother and sister in The Toad Knew are more traumatised than anything. They're freaked out ever after, and remain freaks forever. That for me is the conclusion of it all. We are freaks. Let's enjoy it.”

The Toad Knew, King's Theatre, August 24-28, 8pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 20th 2016

ends