Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Real Magic

The Studio
Four stars

“Sometimes the answer to your problem is right in front of you,” says one of the three performers in Forced Entertainment's black humoured study of being trapped in a hell of one's own making. By this time, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowden and Claire Marshall have spent the best part of an hour jumping in and out of dancing chicken costumes as each takes it in turn to try and guess the word one or the other is thinking. With canned laughter and taped applause under-scoring their efforts, at first it looks like classic prime time showbiz fodder for the masses, who might go willing to hail any act that's thrown in front of them, no matter how rubbish they might be.

As they attempt to bludgeon their shtick into submission ad nauseum, the trio's efforts become louder, more frantic and increasingly desperate, even as the solution to all their problems is staring them in the face. Like Samuel Beckett's assorted double acts, they only have their routines to pass the time, but find themselves stuck in a locked groove, unable to take the necessary leap forward to transcend their lot. It seems no coincidence either that one of the many questions repeated by each performer in turn is “What is the word?”, a question mark away from the title of Beckett's final poem, written for director and fellow traveller Joseph Chaikin after he was struck with aphasia.

Tim Etchells' production, devised with the company, pushes the potential for tedium to the limit, but somehow transcends it to become painfully profound. As millions line up to humiliate themselves in public elsewhere, this is entertainment. This is fun.

 
The Herald, August 24th 2017

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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Jenny Hval

Summerhall, August 20th

“So that was our warm up,” says Norwegian polymath Jenny Hval following the electronically pulsed opening number for her show as part of Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here programme. Throughout the song, Dutch dancer/choreographer and cover co-star of Hval's 2016 female vampire concept album, Blood Bitch, Orfee Schuijt, has been putting herself through an aerobics workout. Hval gamely joins in with this when not breathing her spectral and funereally paced vocals into the microphone. To one side at the back of the stage is a big leather sofa, on which she and Schuijt intermittently sit or sprawl when Hval is not at a flower-strewn keyboard. On the other side, and at a more functional level, a black cloth covered table is loaded with assorted electronic kit from where most of the music emanates from as operated by Harvard Volden.

“We tried to make the stage very cosy,” says Hval, “like an old theatre or play, because we lost all our costumes and an instrument ” She suggests they may be “in suitcase heaven.”

Hval's lack of pink wigs and other glam-tastic accoutrements may leave her exposed in regulation all black outfit and what under the lights looks like silver blue bobbed hair. Such relatively under-dressed demeanour does little, however, to dampen her penchant for spectacle. If anything, it lends what resembles a series of live art routines that accompany each song a friendly intimacy. This opens out what on record can sound introspective to the point of shyness.

Out of this comes a beguiling and contrarily joyous mix of electronic minimalism culled largely from Blood Bitch, the seriousness of which is off-set by some school disco style shape-throwing. As samples of religious benedictions play, Schuijt takes down a sparkly tartan jacket hanging at the back of the stage and puts it on Hval, who has risen from the sofa and sits at the keyboard. Schuijt puts on a white jumpsuit of her own before standing behind Hval and showering her with flower petals.

“That was my Elton John outfit,” deadpans Hval before removing the jacket and going into Drive, a lengthy spoken-word monologue delivered over looped electronic percussion that forms the show's captivating centre-piece. As Schuijt films Hval on her mobile phone, the dark minimalism of the singer's invocations recall New York proto trip-hop poet Leslie Winer.
“I want us all to cry together,” says Hval, after she and Schuijt have acted out real tears. Schuijt waves flowers in the air in one hand, her mobile phone in the other, shaking both with playful relish.

“I'm so tired,” Hval whispers, flopping back onto the sofa, still singing while Schuijt writes on her hand and face with red lipstick from behind. As the electronic pulse increases its momentum, Schuijt and Hval jog on the spot, then dance with an un-self-concious abandon that looks part student indie night, part nineties rave. Schuijt holds on to Hval from behind as she sings, tugging at her jumper, so the performance becomes as much about exercise as exorcism. By turns hypnotic, sultry and wilfully absurd, what sounds introspective on record is opened out by such life-meets-art horseplay.

Hval passes a loose-knit bouquet to Schuijt, who throws petals to the audience during Conceptual Romance. With Hval putting the tartan jacket back on and Schuijt donning a black leather one, both sit at the keyboard, seemingly waiting to depart as Volden plays a squelchy disco bass for the final song.

“Enjoy yourselves and take care of each other,” says Hval, playtime seemingly over, and they're gone.

Product, August 2017

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Tim Etchells - Real Magic, Forced Entertainment and Edinburgh International Festival

When Tim Etchells and the Forced Entertainment company began to make their most recent show, Real Magic, they didn't know what they would end up with. This is par for the course for the Sheffield-based company, and has been since they first got together in the mid 1980s to produce a very English form of avant-garde performance that bridged live art and theatre. As Real Magic took on a life of its own during a painful devising process, it looked to the cheesy schmaltz of TV game shows, complete with looped applause, canned laughter and a botched mind reading game that looks like it might never end.

“It's about people who are trapped in something,” says Etchells, as he reflects on the show prior to its EIF dates, “and whether they can change that structure that they're trapped in. It's also one of those shows from us where we take something very frothy and light and sort of trash in a way. We work it and work it, and make cracks in it, and try and turn it into something else, taking material that on the face of it is a little bit disposable, and then try and see if you can make a really great piece of poetry or art out of it just by insisting.”

Insisting has been pretty much Etchells and Forced Entertainment's raison d'etre since the company began after being inspired by the likes of Impact Theatre, Pina Bausch and the Wooster Group. Since then, the same core artistic team of six has remained defiantly in place, touring the world with shows such as Club of No Regrets, Speak Bitterness, Bloody Mess and Spectacular. As the titles suggest, the company's work comes from a very personal root. As with a previous show that looked in part at TV game shows, Quizoola!, Real Magic has a wider significance.

“What's interesting about it,” says Etchells, “is that it never mentions Brexit, Trump or anything about the contemporary moment, but I think everybody who sees it understands it's a portrait of and a probing into this particular moment of stuckness that we're all in for one reason or another. There's really big questions that we have about how, despite all of our desires to change things, to live differently and to have different possibilities, the structures that we inhabit are so good at keeping us in place. So although the work doesn't make anything explicit about that, it's really quickly understood as a metaphor for these bigger situations that we're trapped in.”

The success of Real Magic has seen it named one of the ten best stage productions to be seen in Berlin. For a company as left-field as Forced Entertainment, such acclaim beyond the avant-garde bubble has taken Etchells and co somewhat by surprise.

“I think it's probably one of the bravest things we've ever done,” says Etchells. “It takes impulses and ideas that have been there before, but it pushes them much further. We were really quite concerned about it in what was a very difficult process. Even a couple of weeks before the premiere, I was unsure if we could really make it work as a thing, because it's so insistent on this micro-drama of this game show, and it doesn't let up with that. We've just been really pleased by the reactions to it, and in the way audiences understand what it's about, even though it's very in-explicit.”

While a Forced Entertainment begins with a blank slate, after thirty-two years working so intimately together, a considerable amount of baggage is unavoidable.

“We're haunted by everything we've done,” says Etchells. “We have thirty-two years worth of experience, ideas, action and arguments. We're always re-negotiating that, and the work that we do very fundamentally comes from and is about people and bodies in space. It's not about a lot of stuff on paper. It's about being. When we start work on a show, the moment of sitting down in the studio with the group and whatever guests we might have, it is very frightening, because the table's empty, the paper's empty, the room's empty, and there's nothing. That doesn't get less terrifying. Or less exciting.

Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27, 7pm, August 26, 1pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 22nd 2017

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Theatre Reviews 7 - Party Game - Wee Red Bar - Four stars / What Would Kanye Do? - The Space - Three stars / How to Act - Summerhall - Four stars

The gang are all here in Party Game, the latest communal experience from Canada's Bluemouth Company and Necessary Angel. As the audience enter Edinburgh College of Art's student union and musical institution transformed here into a lo-fi function room, the chairs are out, Bruce Springsteen's playing on the stereo and our hosts are rounding us up to surprise a very special guest.

Instead, as the four performers and in-house backwoods band welcome us over the threshold, co-opting us to shift furniture, pour wine and hang bunting, we get to eavesdrop in on a series of intimate exchanges that hint that all may not be as fun as it initially looks. Anecdotes turn into bittersweet deliberations of regret, and all that's left are the most private of memories.

Bluemouth last appeared in Edinburgh in 2011 when they brought the self-explanatory Dance Marathon to town. This new work is a more personal and infinitely sadder affair that taps into a sense of shared loss and collective grief that's as full of everyday heartache as a Raymond Carver short story.

In execution, beyond the stories, jokes and card games the audience are invited to take part in, the performers themselves go gently into a series of linked vignettes that gradually reveal the effect of what they're attempting to both honour and move on from. Jennifer Tarver's production navigates her company through a touching display with an elegantly aching yearning in search of closure.
Run ended.

The tiny, terrier-like young woman pimp-rolling on the stage glares at the audience as they enter for What Would Kanye Do?, scowlingly just stopping short of having a square go. Meet Marcy, tough cookie, would-be rapper and, according to her own legend, a close personal friend of Kanye West. She also happens to be a white girl from New Zealand desperate to be something she's not and in thrall of heroes who really should know better.

Clare Marcie's monologue may last just over half an hour or so, but it manage to pack in an album's worth of commentary on identity, white guilt and the failures of our would be gurus as young wannabes like Marcy attempt to become themselves. Marcie the actress is an unfettered fireball as her near name-sake in Sarah Short's production. As she faces up to life beyond her disappointment, Marcy raps and dances her way to some kind of personal liberation.
Until August 26.

As the audience gather for How To Act, famed theatre director Anthony Nicholl is limbering up for the sort of open masterclass or actors familiar to drama students and viewers of 1970s Open University clips on YouTube. Stepping into the breach is Promise, a keen bean actress of Nigerian descent, who is encouraged by Nicholl to tap into the 'truth' of her art in a workshop situation drawn from his own experiences in Africa. As it turns out in Graham Eatough's new play for the National Theatre of Scotland, Promise's actual truth is intertwined with Nicholl's in a way he never expected to catch up with him.

There are shades of David Mamet's Oleanna in Eatough's own production as Promise turns the tables on her apparent guru in a deliberately spartan looking affair. As Robert Goodale's Nicholl and Jade Ogugua's Promise lurch into circles of cultural colonialism and subsequent fetishisation, the double-edged sword of the title suggests something far worse in a tale of everyday exploitation that becomes a microcosm for a more insidious forms of appropriation that leave their mark.
Until August 27.


The Herald, August 22nd 2017

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Monday, 21 August 2017

Had We Never

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, August 17th 2017

Given events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last week, the symbolic significance of statues couldn't be clearer. Virginia, after all, was one of the key points of the global perambulations of the nineteenth century slave trade. It was also the state where confederate general Robert E Lee commanded his army. More than a century on, the proposed removal of Lee's statue in Charlottesville became the alt.right/fascist mob's main battleground.

In the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, meanwhile, John Flaxman's 1828 white marble statue of Robert Burns stands centre stage tall and proud at the centre of the Grand Hall, not giving an inkling of the national bard's own flirtation with the slave trade. Burns made plans several times to embark on a ship to the West Indies to become a slave driver. In the end he never set sail, but the intention was there.

As part of Edinburgh Art Festival, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is currently housing two complementary installations by leading Scottish artists that challenge Burns' assorted perceived images by transcending them. In the Gallery's Grand Hall, Douglas Gordon has created Black Burns, in which Flaxman's original has been cast in black marble, then smashed into pieces, which lay sprawled at the feet of Flaxman's imperious white forebear.

In the gallery next door, The Slave's Lament is a video installation by Graham Fagen, in which reggae singer Ghetto Priest sings a new setting of Burns' lyric that empathises with those trafficked and put into slavery. Composed by Sally Beamish, the recording is produced by Adrian Sherwood, whose On-U-Sound record label has been a melting pot of dub reggae for almost forty years.

Fagen's installation was originally curated by Hospitalfield, Arbroath and seen when Fagen represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2015. This follows Fagen's previous melding of Burns with reggae, first with Clean Hands Warm Heart at Tramway, Glasgow in 2005, then with I Murder Hate at the Tolbooth and Changing Room, Stirling, in 2009. While the former video installation featured Ghetto Priest singing a mash up of The Slave's Lament and Auld Lang Syne, the latter saw Ghetto Priest and Sherwood perform with Tackhead's Skip MacDonald, folk guitarist Ian King and percussionist Pete Lockett to coincide with a new recording of the Burns lyric that gave the show its name.

The fact that both artists discovered reggae by way of punk, and bunked off life drawing class while at Glasgow School of Art to see a secret gig by The Clash seems relevant somehow. This is both to Fagen and Gordon's artworks, and to the fifty minute compendium of poetry and music that formed Had We Never itself. There are umbilical links too in the evocative performances by Ghetto Priest and Scots Makar Jackie Kay.

Billed in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, who presented the event in collaboration with SNPG, as Robert Burns: Chains and Slavery, Had We Never takes its title from lines in Burns' Ae Fond Kiss, sung live here by bass singer Brian Bannatyne-Scott. This followed a rendition of The Slave's Lament by countertenor David James which opened the late night programme with the shattered fragments of Gordon's Black Burns cordoned off, as if a fatal accident had taken place. The audience seated around it bear witness alongside Flaxman's statue, which remains upright and untouched.

With Kay reading poems inbetween the songs with a stark emotional clarity, a loose narrative emerges that shifts the meanings of things by way of other influences. So when Ghetto Priest steps up to sing Beamish's setting of The Slave's Lament, played here by violinist Jonathan Morton, cellist Alison Lawrence and double bassist Diane Clark, all of the Scottish Ensemble, it opens out Burns' original words through more than two centuries of trickle-down oppression. James' rendition of Estonian composer Arvo Part's setting of My Heart's in the Highlands may sound more formal, but a similar sense of multi-cultural roots criss-crossing each other pervades throughout. Inbetween, Shostakovich's takes on O wert thou in the cauld blast and McPherson's Farewell do something similar.

While by no means deliberate, all this reflects the uncomfortable truths tackled in stunning fashion by Edinburgh band Young Fathers in a video filmed last month at SNPG, when they attacked the whitewashing of history head on through a devastating new spoken word piece. While the video wasn't part of Had We Never's programme, the racist bile it attracted from online trolls in response seemed to confirm Young Fathers' point.

A closing A Man's A Man doesn't let Burns off the hook. Rather, it seems to acknowledge his flaws. For all his seeming assurance on the outside, inside – just like Black Burns - he's in pieces.

Product, August 2017


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Very Cellular Songs - The Music of The Incredible String Band

Edinburgh Playhouse, August 17th 2017

“Welcome to 1967,” says Robyn Hitchcock at the opening of Edinburgh International Festival's all-star celebration of the group whose seminal albums, The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter epitomised getting-your-head-together-in-the-country hippiedom. The Incredible String Band's central duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson also pursued the strangest strains of Caledonian psych-folk whimsy en route. Hitchcock is acting as a kind of MC as controlled chaos reigns amongst a cross-generational cast list that includes Barbara Dickson getting back to her folk roots, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, Karine Polwart and Alasdair Roberts, among the vocalists. The far more together musical back-line features guitarist Neil McColl, world music maverick Justin Adams, penny whistle player Fraser Fifield and legendary bass player Danny Thompson amongst its line-up.

The gaggle of singers and players have just gathered onstage for an opening and slightly shambolic When the Music Starts to Play, with assorted ad hoc duos and trios gathered around microphones in a way that suggests they may have only met up earlier that day. Heron, the only original Incredible String Band member onstage, stands back from the throng, close to his daughter and spiritual ally in song Georgia Seddon, who plays keyboards. When Heron sings, it's a bit more wayward than it once was when he, Williamson and Clive Palmer were picked up in Edinburgh folk pub The Crown more than half a century ago by producer Joe Boyd, but nobody seems to mind in what looks like an extended pub session writ large.

It was Boyd who pulled together the supergroup for tonight in honour of the half century since the release of The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, and which follows on from a similar event on London's South Bank in 2009. He tells the story of his first trip to Edinburgh at the opening of the second half of this two-hour plus extravaganza, as he recounted impromptu shindigs with his host, Scottish folk legends Dolina Maclennan and George Brown, and being tutored in the nuances of malt whisky by Hamish Henderson in Sandy Bells, all before he stumbled across the nascent, pre Heron ISB at the Crown.

By this time the audience have had a pictorial as well as musical insight into this world by way of a slide show that runs above the band as they play. So when Hitchcock leads on Way Back in the 1960s, the evocative black and white images are possessed with an extra special resonance. Especially as those of an angelic looking Heron, Williamson and co looking suitably poetic alongside an ever expanding coterie of fellow travellers may well include some of the audience.

What follows is a bit of a charming guddle, as singers race on and off in turn, introducing the next act as they go. Hitchcock and Gartside become a comic double act for No Sleep Blues, nouveau folkster Sam Lee sings The Circle is Unbroken unaccompanied, and Heron himself weaves in and out of proceedings, dropping the odd vocal as he goes. In truth, heard live like this, the ISB back catalogue doesn't sound nearly as weird as it does on record, but it's a suitably communal experience that captures some of the era's idyllic concerns.

Once Boyd has said his piece, the second half is less hectic and more controlled. Withered Hand takes on The Hedgehog's Song, while Roberts leads a gorgeous Maya with Polwart and Dickson on backing vocals. Dickson's solo rendition of Empty Pocket Blues is as exquisite as Polwart's swoonsome version of October Song. Gartside precedes his honeyed contribution with a deadpan true life tale of how, after first seeing ISB live in 1971, his musical epiphany was cut short when, racing from the venue, he was knocked down by a bus.

Finally, the grand finale gathers everyone onstage for a massed rendition of A Very Cellular Song, which gave the nights its title. A surprise comes in the appearance of Rose Simpson, the former ISB member whose image of beatific long-haired wan-ness has graced the slide-show, but who now sports shades that causes her to resemble Yoko Ono. Simpson stands back as the song goes on, her stillness at odds with an increasingly delighted looking Heron, who finally steps forward to sing the song's final verses. At the centre of the musical universe onstage, his voice sounds stronger, powered both by the occasion and the legacy of his work that surrounds him still.

Product, August 2017

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Friday, 18 August 2017

Gary McNair - Letters to Morrissey

Gary McNair is standing on the edge of the River Clyde gazing up at the Glasgow sunset. As inner city idylls go, it may not be in the same league as a monochrome Manchester canal, but McNair is basking in the poetry of the moment anyway. In terms of scene-setting preparation for Letters to Morrissey, McNair's latest piece of solo stand-up theatre that charts his personal liberation through sending real life epistles to the now largely deposed pope of mope, it's perfect either way.

Following on from his previous semi-autobiographical solo shows, Donald Robertson is Not A Stand Up Comedian and A Gambler's guide to Dying, as the title suggests, Letters to Morrissey is a look back in languor at one of McNair's musical heroes. The singular former Smiths singer turned hit and miss solo artist isn't some everyday musical hero, however. Notwithstanding some of his more distasteful political pronouncements of late that were the latest in a long history of controversy, Morrissey inspires a fervent devotion bordering on a hysteria which even an overly florid autobiography and an unintentionally hilarious novel cannot tame. As with so many other mixed up kids like McNair, Morrissey provided a lifeline.

“The fact that I used to write to Morrissey is embarrassing,” says McNair, “but this show isn't a diary or a documentary. The show came from this long standing relationship I had watching Morrissey, and it's more about hero worship, fandom and faith, but using Morrissey as this kind of backdrop.”

The show was born after McNair and his regular director Gareth Nicholls went to see Tom Jones, who, on the face of it, at least, is a very different kind of pop icon.

“I'd referenced Tom Jones in Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-up Comedian,” says McNair, “and we always said we'd go to see him, and watching him, the fans went crazy in a way that crossed over with my experience of Morrissey.”

This dates back to 1997, when McNair was eleven.

“I was kind of this kid who was obsessed by things,” he says, “and when I saw Morrissey on the telly when I was wee, I couldn't articulate it what it was about this guy that was so fascinating. Then, when I got to my teenage years, my brother who was closest in age to me was into him, but he was quite shy about it.

“I think the thing that really grabbed me about Morrissey was that he was funny without being reductive. There was a seriousness to his humour that I loved. When I was at school I was really into all the comedy icons, and then I got into The Divine Comedy and REM, and I prefer Morrissey to the Smiths. Don't get me wrong, there's a poetry to what he did with the Smiths, but something happened on the first Morrissey album, Viva Hate, where he became a story-teller. Then he did albums like Kill Uncle, which were critically panned, but they seemed to speak to me. Obviously, I came to it late as a kid, and I didn't always know what the songs meant. I just thought they were fun and cheeky.”

McNair's show isn't the first artistic outpouring concerning teenage boys' fandom for the increasingly truculent pop idol. In 2000, three years after McNair first heard Morrissey, playwright Willy Russell published his novel, The Wrong Boy. The book was written in the form of a series of bon mots to the former Smiths singer from a protagonist who gradually morphs into a kind of Holden Caulfield for the angst-ridden indie-pop generation.

Letters to Morrissey, forms part of this year's Made in Scotland showcase at the Fringe, and comes too on the back of England is Mine, Mark Gill's big screen fictionalisation of Morrissey's own tortured early years in search of self expression. The film premiered at the last night gala of the 2017 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is likely to be reassessed once over-expectant audiences stop grumbling that there is no actual Smiths songs featured in the film.

Alongside Letters to Morrissey, the Traverse Theatre Company will also be presenting two performances of Locker Room Talk, McNair's verbatim response to Donald Trump's use of misogynist language and dismissed as 'locker room banter.' Here, the words of men interviewed by McNair are performed by a cast of women.

“When we did the work-in-progress,” McNair says of the show's first outing, “what we realised was how important the post show discussion was. People needed to talk about it, and there was a lot of raw emotion flying round that really spoke to why we made the show.”

Given the reasons why McNair made Letters to Morrissey, has he maybe dusted off his letter writing skills and contacted the man himself?

“I thought about it,” he says, “but I'm quite scared for Morrissey to hear my name. That's how much in awe of him I am. When I wrote to him before, you heard about people who he'd written back to, but I think I'd missed the boat by then, but that doesn't matter, because he opened something up for me in a way that changed me forever.

Letters To Morrissey, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 3-27, various times; Locker Room Talk, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 21, 2,45 and 7.45pm.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, August 18th 2017

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