Friday, 26 August 2011

Retreat! - Back and Forth Into History With the New Kids On The Block

Anyone who hates Edinburgh in August is probably missing the point. The
last month has opened up opportunities to see ex Soft Cell vocalist
Marc Almond appearing solo in discordant song cycle Ten Plagues, the
Philip Glass Ensemble playing the live accompaniment to
Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy of films, and young American upstarts
The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) present their most
accomplished dissection of capitalism yet with Mission Drift, featuring
songs by New York downtown singer/songwriter Heather Christian.

Then there's the chance to see The TEAM's New York peers Banana Bag and
Baggage deconstruct ninth century epic Beowulf by way of a skronky,
wonky, jazz-punk band featuring Joanna Newsom's trombonist, or the
National Theatre of Scotland do something similar with border
balladeering in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. How about local
hero Paul Vickers of The Leg's unique take on DIY junkshop absurdism in
Twonkey's Castle, or a rare performance of Kurt Schwitters' extended
sound poem, Ursonate?

You could have seen a multi-media stage version of Haruki Marukamki's
novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Harvey Weinstein's former
right-hand man at Miramax. And you still can see Scottish Opera ripping
into Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and
Mark-Anthony Turnage's operatic version of Steven Berkoff's play,
Greek. Or your mind could have been expanded by authors Iain Sinclair
and Stewart Home at new venue, Summerhall, the latest reinvention of
the city in the glorious cacophonous culture clash that is Edinburgh in
August. Yet still some people prefer to moan.

Retreat! exists on the edge of the Edinburgh Festivals, but it probably
couldn't happen without them. When DIY micro-promoters Tracer Trails
and The Gentle Invasion founded their homespun adventures in sound,
they were continuing a long tradition of independent music festivals
that sowed the seeds of the next generation of major artists. In the
1990s, Planet Pop did something similar, providing early platforms for
the likes of Alasdair Roberts taking his first steps with his band,
Appendix Out. Also third on the bill were the likes of Arab Strap,
Mogwai and The Delgados, all in the now demolished and rather
wonderfully tacky Cas Rock pub.

The Flux festival arrived in town a couple of years later with a series
of already major artists, from Nick Cave in Prince St Gardens to The
Divine Comedy doing a special one-off with composer Michael Nyman.
Blame City of Edinburgh Council's absurd rental fees for the gardens
for nixing that one. The two promoters of Flux, Alex Poots and David
Sefton, are now in charge of the Manchester International Festival and
the Adelaide Festival respectively. Oh, Edinburgh, so much to answer

Tigerfest was initially a collaboration between Edinburgh promoters
Baby Tiger and the founders of the now established Fest magazine, who
together moved into venues like the now sadly gig-free Backpackers
Hostel just off the west end of Princes Street. John Peel favourites
Bearsuit are fondly remembered for their Tigerfest shows. Tigerfest
still exists in association with long-time champions of all things
Scottish, Is This Music?, although it mainly operates between Edinburgh
and Dunfermline, having shifted operations to June.

Others have come and gone, but change can be a good thing in refreshing
the cultural psycho-geography of a city, particularly in such
cash-strapped times. Tracer Trails, The Gentle Invasion and others
redrew the map of Edinburgh's music scene(s). Taking their lead from
Calvin Johnson and Anerica's anti-folk scene, the modus operandi of
their events were based on notions of community, shared resources and
mutual support. This is why Retreat! takes place, not in some
over-priced barn, but in a bar-free church hall that's cheap to rent,
and where, janitors aside, you can pretty much do things on your own
terms (this isn't a new idea either, mind. Back in the day, an up and
coming beat combo called The Beatles toured to a church hall on Lothian
Road, but I digress).

Retreat!'s DIY aesthetic has opened the door for a million other
promoters with similar ideas, some of which found natural homes at the
Roxy Art House and the Forest Cafe. Both of these were destroyed by the
spectacular financial ineptitude of Edinburgh University Settlement,
although Tracer Trails and The Gentle Invasion's ideological fellow
travellers, the Forest Fringe, continue to set up the most gloriously
random events ever as a magnificent antidote to the commercial forces
that are worth getting in a tizz about.

Perhaps some of the ire directed at the Edinburgh festivals should be
directed at the local politicians, property developers and brewers who
hike up rents, turn venues into meat markets or else flatten perfectly
wonderful grassroots arts hubs like the old Bongo Club. This was done
with a spectacular sense of hubris that aimed to create something
called a 'cultural quarter' but which is now a gap site, as is the hole
in the Cowgate where ace venue La Belle Angele once stood before it
(and the Gilded Saloon, and the Bridge Jazz Bar) burnt down in 2002.

Is Retreat! Punk Rock, then? Well, that's a phrase that's as much
overused as the word 'community', but you get the idea, and Retreat! is
making a serious political statement, even if people rather
infuriatingly to my mind insist on sitting on the floor. As well as
being as un-punk as anything, this shows a serious lack of discipline
that needs to be tackled. I recommend cattle-prods.

If you do manage to stay on your feet this weekend, you will be part of
something very special. Just remember that it's all part of a bigger
picture that can't really be ignored. Free your mind and your ass will
follow, as someone once said. Oh, and the bands at this year's Retreat!
are pretty shit hot as well.

Neil Cooper
August 2011

Commissioned by Tracer Trails and The Gentle Invasion to provide programme notes for their fourth Retreat! festival at Pilrig Church, Edinburgh, August 27-28 2011


Bryan Ferry - Art and Pop's Great Contradictions

Bryan Ferry looks very comfortable sitting on the balcony of Edinburgh
Castle. You might even suggest he looks like he owns the place. Which,
given the former Roxy Music singer and style icon's aristocratic social
connections, his place in the Sunday Times rich list and his recently
acquired CBE status, is a perfectly reasonable observation.

In a rare burst of August sun, Ferry, dressed from head to toe in
various immaculate shades of blue, looks over the balcony where what
might well be his subjects mingle below. Ferry is on a recce to the
city prior to his concert here next Thursday night, and, as befits his
art school background, is already making festival plans.

“I'd love to see the Richard Strauss,” he says, referring to the
Mariinsky Opera's German language production of Die fraue ohne
Schatten. “I'd love to see the Robert Rauchenberg exhibition as well.”

Cultural references are never far from Ferry's lips. It's like when the
dapper sixty-five year old is getting his photograph taken for The
Herald and, striking a pose, mutters how “Whenever Anton Corbjin takes
my picture he always gets me to put my leg up.”

Such casual name-dropping is only fitting for someone whose career was
founded on the twin obsessions of pop and art, from the early
psych-glam of Eno era Roxy that was all Antony Price styling, songs
such as Editions of You delivered by Ferry in a plummily otherworldly
mix of a snarl and a croon, and impossibly beautiful women on album
covers that were effectively one work of art wrapped around another.
This continued with Ferry's thirteenth and most recent solo album,
Olympia, which features a picture of Kate Moss on a cover which gives a
knowing nod to Manet's 1863 painting of the same name.

Released in October 2010, Olympia features a trademark mix of Ferry
originals, including hip to the moment collaborations with Scissor
Sisters and Groove Armada, alongside singular interpretations of
Traffic's No Face, No Name, No Number and Tim Buckley's Song To The
Siren. For connoisseurs, a collector's edition features a CD of remixes
and a book housing an essay by art writer Michael Bracewell, who penned
Remake/Remodel, an exhaustive study of the visual art influences on the
creation of Roxy Music, and which ended as the band's first,
eponymously named album was released. Olympia, then, is the ultimate
coffee-table accessory.

“I like tactile things, “ says Ferry, “and the deluxe version is very
much an artefact.”

This current tour similarly is something of a multi-media affair, with
commissioned filmed segments and images accompanying each song on
screens at the back of the stage.

“That sense of visuality is very important to me,” Ferry says, “so the
show is like a collage of all these beautiful images.”

That CBE, though, seems seriously at odds with the Ferry aesthetic.

“I was actually quite touched,” Ferry says of receiving the honour. “I
always think rock and roll should be more underground, so it's a bit
odd getting this rather grand, official recognition, but any
recognition for an artist is always welcome, let me tell you. I guess
both my parents would've been very proud of it, because they loved
tradition and history. My own children seem to think it's really cool
as well, which I was surprised but pleased about. I'm also very pleased
in terms of it being for music, because I've devoted my life to it, and
I'd like to think it adds a certain level of gravitas to a musical
career that's been hard to understand because I've done so many
different things.

“One part of me wanted to be Philip Glass, while the other part wanted
to be Frank Sinatra or Elvis. I tried to be everything, so it's been a
wide-ranging career stylistically, even though most people will know me
for Jealous Guy rather than other stuff that is maybe more undercover,
but which is more musically exciting to me. It's always great to write
a hit, but it's always great to write something you love, like Mother
of Pearl, which we hardly ever do because it's so complex.”

This goes some way to illustrating the great contradictions in Ferry's
work. As a serious auteur, he and Roxy Music pretty much invented
art-rock with a knowingly flamboyant, near alien visual and aural edge.
Yet at the same time Ferry the old-time lounge-bar entertainer was just
dyeing to get out there.

“The way I look at it, and I'm not trying to sound grand here,” he
says, “is that artists like Picasso, say, is someone who made very
serious, very dark art, but also he could do things light and free,
like his ceramics and all those odd sculptures he did, which came from
the more playful side of the man. I always thought that I should try to
expand myself and to see if I could this or that, play with a string
quartet or an orchestra. I've done all those things, and it's made me a
better person and made me feel more like I've accomplished something.
Even doing the covers albums, which were vilified by a lot of people to
begin with, has turned out to be something that's okay.”

Ferry has long been an interpretor of classic songs, from his 1973 solo
debut, These Foolish Things, released while still fronting Roxy, up to
2007's Bob Dylan compendium, Dylanesque, and beyond.

“It was because I didn't feel like I could write like a machine,” Ferry
says of the origins of These Foolish Things, “and I think a lot of
artists have overwritten, because after a while ideas become less
potent. So after the first two Roxy Music albums I'd written, I was
desperate to make a new record, almost as a cathartic thing and to try
something different, and have fun with these 1930s standards. All these
songs had been done by lots of different people, so there was a great
precedent for what I was doing, but at the time it seemed quite novel.
But that started a more mainstream career, which I didn't think was
such a bad thing, because maybe more mainstream audiences could go to
my more difficult work with Roxy. That was the plan, anyway.”

Ferry's musical roots date back to the first time he heard blues singer
Leadbelly on the radio while a ten year old growing up in working-class
Washington, Tyneside. Already obsessed with music, Ferry would devour
the music press he delivered on his paper round. It was growing up in a
house without telephone, car or fridge that fuelled Ferry's desire for
continual reinvention.

“I'm never happy being still,” he admits. “I like creating things,
which is a joy and a curse, because you always want to be adding
something to what you are. I guess it's because of an innate
dissatisfaction with who I am, and I want to make myself a bit more
than that. As soon as I read Shakespeare and Dickens I felt there was a
better world out there that was all about literature and art and music.”

Even today, Ferry is restless for fresh challenges.

I just like doing lots of different things,” he says. “I wish I could
do Richard Strauss' last songs, but they're really written for a woman
soprano. They're very soulful and melancholic, which is a mood I like.
I don't write that much happy music, which is probably because I mainly
write it at night. That's when the darker shades kick in. But there's
beauty there as well, and I like doing beautiful things.”

Bryan Ferry plays Edinburgh Castle, September 3rd

The Herald, August 26th 2011


Edinburgh 2011 Music Round-Up - Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlin / Ulrich Schnauss / The Pineapple Chunks

Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlin – Cabaret Voltaire – 4 stars
Ulrich Schnauss – Electric Circus – 4 stars
The Pineapple Chunks – Electric Circus – 4 stars

Three middle-aged men walk onstage sporting colonial pith helmets and
medals. With one seated at a keyboard and another clutching an acoustic
guitar, the third stands behind a plinth and bangs a gavel before
declaiming an introduction to The North Sea Scrolls, a pop culture
referencing alternative history of England by left-field pop
curmudgeons Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlin, with music journalist
Andrew Mueller as MC.

Seemingly gifted to the trio by bit part TV actor Tony Allen, doyen of
uncredited roles in The Sweeney and Minder, here fascist leader Oswald
Mosley served two terms as Prime Minister of an England successfully
invaded by Ireland, singer/songwriter Tim Hardin was an MP and
electronic pioneer and producer of Telstar, Joe Meek, was Minister of
Culture, putting John Lennon under house arrest for the safety of the
nation. Throw in references to Jimmy Saville as a northern Lucifer,
Hawkwind delivering the scrolls in a hot-air balloon and Gomez singer
Ian Ball sharing the same name as the would-be kidnapper of Princess
Anne in 1974, the same year the abolition of the IRA leads to All
Tomorrow's Parties style festivals where assorted atrocities are
re-enacted by Australian tribute acts, and you have a caustically
absurd music-theatre song-cycle and parallel universe state of the
nation satire.

With Mueller introducing each of the fourteen songs with a po-faced
tract, the trio, accompanied by cellist Audrey Riley, play things
utterly deadpan. Accompanied by a retro slide show, the pop culture
references are stock in trade for Haines, though former Microdisney and
Fatima Mansions singer Coughlin is equally acerbic in a wildly lateral
narrative that could have been beamed down from late alternative
theatre pioneer Ken Campbell's overcrowded noggin. If The North Sea
Scrolls in any way resemble Haines' musical with playwright Simon Bent
commissioned, then rejected by Royal National Theatre artistic
director, Nicholas Hytner, then that organisation has made a serious
boo-boo, because The North Sea Scrolls is the cleverest and most
fascinatingly theatrical show in The Edge festival to date.

There's a sense of small-scale theatre too in German electronicist
Ulrich Schnauss' lap-top set of propulsive shoe-rave that takes
advantage of the Electric Circus' set-up by accompanying his hour-long
set with a multi-screen backdrop of blink-and-you'll-miss-em urban
cityscapes. With his bank account hacked and his train delayed, the
show nearly didn't happen at all, yet despite arriving a mere fifteen
minutes before showtime, Schnauss switches into gear from the off with
a less twinkly and more percussive take on classic Kosmiche sounds that
sees him rooted behind his lap-top to produce a continuous set of
old-school dance music for people who don't dance.

With the inner city sights of Berlin, Glasgow and a myriad of other
global hot-spots whizzing by onscreen, as an aural psychogeographic
travelogue, all this looks and sounds like a twenty-first century heir
to Godfrey Reggio's recently screened Qatsi trilogy of films scored by
Philip Glass.

The launch of The Pineapple Chunks debut album, A Dog Walked In, at the
same venue also contains performative elements in a set of skewed
stop-start art-rock that sounds like the missing link between DIY
pioneers Swell Maps and Pavement. With support by the equally urgent
duo of singer Dan Mutch and drummer Alun Thomas, both of Pineapple
Chunks fellow Edinburgh travellers The Leg, the Chunks live are like a
big bag of sugar exploding in the four different corners of a
joke-shop. More of the same can be had when the Pineapple Chunks play
the fourth edition of the Herald Angel winning Retreat! Festival at
Pilrig Church hall this weekend.

The Herald, August 26th 2011

Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2011 - Theatre Uncut / Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better / Untitled Love Story

Theatre Uncut – Traverse Theatre – 4 stars
Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better – Forest Fringe – 4
Untitled Love Story – St George's West – 4 stars

If the recent spate of rioting on Britain's streets were a response in
part to the alliance government's ongoing public spending cuts in a
society that's been told for the last thirty years that greed is good,
then Theatre Uncut now looks like prophecy. First presented across the
world on March 19th this year, this series of eight plays by major
writers in response was protest theatre at its most intelligent.

Presented this week at the Traverse as a rough and ready script in hand
performed reading in a loose-knit production by Traverse artist in
residence Stewart Laing and one of the project's instigators, Hannah
Price, the plays range from absurdity to anger, taking advantage of the
short form in much the same way the likes of the post 1968 generation
of political writers used to pen agit-prop sketches to be performed on
the back of a van at demonstrations.

Laura Lomas' Open Heart Surgery is a quietly metaphorical state of the
nation piece that rips into a nation already on the slab. Things That
Make No Sense finds Dennis Kelly setting up a Kafkaesque police
interrogation which aims to meet the force's quota whatever the cost.
Anders Lustgarten's The Fat Man is the collection''s most polemical
call to arms, while Mark Ravenhill's A Bigger Banner looks back in hope
as well as anger at how the future never quite worked out as it was
supposed to.

Jack Thorne's Whiff Whaff and Lucy Kirkwood's Housekeeping are
similarly touching in their evocations of everyday dissent, while Clare
Brennan's Hi-Vis is a beautiful monologue about a mother unable to cope
with her disabled daughter. Finally, David Greig's Fragile ingeniously
conspires with the audience, who get to play the second part in a
two-hander about one young man's last stand. By having the audience
mouth an unequivocal call to arms, some kind of collective strength is
discovered that goes way beyond the nonsense of David Cameron's big

There's dissent too in Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel
Better, a men only experiential piece created and performed by Tania El
Khoury at the Forest Fringe. It would be quite wrong to give too much
away here in terms of what you're asked to do once you're taken
off-site, except that it involves power, manipulation and the
demonisation of women in a system so scared of them that abuse is the
only answer. It deals obliquely too with notions of the male gaze as
the sole audience member speaks his instructions to the performer into
a dictaphone before the object of his – what? Affections? - walks off
into the distance, never to be seen again. It's a thought-provoking
half-hour which has deep political resonances, and says much about who
may or may not hold the balance of power.

David Leddy's Untitled Love Story, on the other hand, is a deeply holy
piece of work that puts four people in Venice at different points in
history going through crucial, life-changing experiences which may or
may not define them. A catholic priest is accused of heresy after
finding more holistic means of expression. A historian can't sleep at
night. An art collector sashays through her affairs with a brittle
sense of self-importance. A writer takes flight after being ditched by
her fiancé.

Love, sex, religion and art all provide some kind of salvation in a
meditative and elliptical slow burn which at times recalls Terry
Johnson's play, Insignificance. This is clearly present in Morag Stark
art collector, who is modelled on Peggy Guggenheim and references her
amours with Samuel Beckett.

Leddy's own production for his fire exit company is a tender series of
criss-crossing monologues in which all finally come to rest in a
rain-soaked Venice where they at last find some peace as all their
apparent sins are washed away. It's a technically intricate piece of
work, but actors Morag Stark, Adura Onashile, Keith Fleming and Robin
Laing rise to the challenge of never fully interacting with a sense of
pronounce calm that only ever comes after a storm in a deliciously
languid piece of work.

Theatre Uncut, run ended. Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel
Better until August 26. Untitled Love Story until August 29.

The Herald, August 24th 2011


Cora Bissett - From Roadkill To The Glasgow Girls - What Cora Did Next

Cora Bissett is all over the place this week. As the actress and
director remounts Roadkill, the heartbreaking site-specific smash hit
of the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe that looked at the human cost of
sex trafficking in an Edinburgh town house, she is also preparing for
Glasgow Girls. With Roadkill forming part of the Made in Scotland and
British Council showcases having scooped pretty much every award going,
including a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel and the Amnesty International
Freedom of Expression Award, Glasgow Girls is the result of Bissett and
Roadkill being co-winners of last year's Edinburgh International
Festival Fringe Prize.

With the victors of this award given a small amount of money to develop
new work, The Hub has already played host to the divine avant-cabaret
of Meow Meow. Glasgow Girls too looks set to have a musical bent,
albeit in an unlikely if audaciously ambitious context, which, as with
Roadkill, draws from a real life incident for inspiration..

“About five years ago there was this incredible story that appeared
about seven teenagers at Drumchapel high School,” says Bissett. “They
were asylum seekers who'd come to Glasgow from Somalia, Kosovo and
other places. They'd arrived here when they were ten, and five years on
had become totally integrated with the local community, even though
they were still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Then
suddenly out of the blue these dawn raids began, when these immigration
officials would turn up in the middle of the night, handcuff these
girls parents, treat them like criminals and take them off to Yarlswood
Detention Centre, where they would have their phones taken off them and
weren't allowed any sort of contact with anyone. It was like Nazi
Germany, being ripped out of your community in the middle of the night
and being treated totally inhumanely.

“There was one Kosovan girl who didn't appear at school one day, and
all her friends started getting worried. There was this amazing
bi-lingual teacher who set up a phone network among the girls, who
started a campaign to get the Kosovan girl released, and suddenly the
entire community are involved, and there are two women in their
seventies setting their alarm clocks sat four in the morning on dawn
raid alert. If they saw the immigration people they would alert them by
text message, so you'd have asylum seekers running down the back stairs
and hiding in the community centre as the immigration people were going
up in the lift. It's the most amazing story of community action ever.
It's about seven teenage girls who took on the system and won.”

It would have been easy for Bissett to repeat herself and make
something stylistically similar to Roadkill. As it is, she's opted
instead to turn the Glasgow girls story into a musical.

“The story has as completely different flavour and energy and texture,”
says Bissett. “You look at it and it's joyous and celebratory. It's
about young girls finding their voice and becoming empowered by this
extraordinary process that galvanised an entire community to help their
neighbours, who put their lives on the line. To me it's a love song to
Glasgow. I'm sick of seeing these really bleak, negative films about
Glasgow, when to me there's a brilliant Glasgow I know, that’s a
vibrant, loving, pulsing place to be. I want to celebrate that, and
that's not being couthy. The new Glasgow is hugely multi-cultural
place, and that story needs to be told in song.”

Despite her own musical past in indie bands darlingheart and Swelling
Meg, as well as appearing in David Greig and Gordon MacIntyre’s hit
DIY musical rom-com, Midsummer, more or less constantly since it opened
in 2008, with Bissett only last week appearing in a radio production of
the play, musical theatre isn't her natural terrain. Bissett duly
gorged on west end froth to see what made herself so cynical about such
commercial fare, surprising herself by actually loving a lot of what
she saw.

This is all a long way from Roadkill, which in the last year has played
for a week in Paris, with a four-week season in London as a
co-production with the Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East
pending. Coincidentally, the theatre's neighbourhood recently became
the backdrop to a landmark court case in which a man was jailed for
trafficking two Nigerian girls. Given that this is the first time in
the UK that such a case has resulted in conviction, the urgency of
Roadkill is far from diminished.

“One of the things we were worried about doing it again was that maybe
after a year, and after all the attention it got, it might not be that
current anymore,” Bissett explains. “But when that court case happened,
I think it proves that the play's more relevant than ever. We learnt a
lot as well by doing it in Paris as our first international date,
because we got a French actor to play the policeman, and that changed
things a lot, because whereas in Scotland there was a certain degree of
sympathy, the French actor said you just wouldn't get that there. That
made us think, and we've decided now that wherever we tour
internationally, we'll always make the policeman from whatever country
we're in, because sex trafficking's not just a Scottish or a British
problem. It happens worldwide.”

The ongoing success of Roadkill, originally co-produced by Ankur Arts
and Bissett's own Pachamamma company, is something Bissett could never
have predicted. As with Glasgow Girls, however, working on the show is
clearly a labour of love.

“Whenever you make a piece of work you want it to impact on people,”
Bissett says, “but the way it knocked people out, I didn't anticipate
that, and I could never have anticipated the continued impact it seems
to be having. There's no end to Roadkill. I get up at seven in the
morning and send emails and do admin for four hours, then go off and
put on a daft frock.”

Bissett is referring to the relative light relief of playing the title
role in David MacLennan and Dave Anderson's unlikely but politically
charged summer pantomime, Goldilocks and the Glasgow Fair, at Oran Mor.
As if Roadkill, Glasgow Girls, Midsummer and goldilocks wasn't enough,
Bissett has also been deputising for broadcaster Janice Forsyth on her
Saturday morning radio show, and is developing an even newer project
with assorted singers and songwriters.

In a year that has seen her public profile raised considerably, one
thing that stands out with Bissett as she talks is her passion for all
her projects, and her genuine concern at the injustices that fuel
Roadkill and Glasgow Girls.

“I have to do ten jobs at once to pay the bills,” Bissett only
half-jokes, “but even if I was loaded I think I'd still be running
round like a crazy dervish, But honestly, this has just been the most
natural urge in me from the age of five. I wasn't a wee girl in front
of the telly getting all starry-eyed and wanting to be a pop star. I
was the girl in wellies in the back garden putting on shows.

“See when a show's going really really well, and all those bits you've
been putting together so lovingly, when it happens and when it's
working and when people are responding to it, there's this burny
feeling. The emotional flavour of that, it's very close to how you feel
when you're in love.”

Glasgow Girls, The Hub, August 25-26, 2.30pm, August 26, 1pm. Roadkill,
Traverse Theatre offsite, August 20-28.

The Herald, August 23rd 2011


One Thousand and One Nights - EIF 2011

Royal Lyceum Theatre
4 stars
Sex and violence charge Tim Supple's epic, just shy of six-hour
production of some of the greatest stories ever told, as he magics
sixteen of Shahrazad's life-saving yarns into a majestic feast of
erotically-charged life that is both profound and entertaining. Things
start simply enough on a carpet-covered stage, but within five minutes
there's an athletic orgy on the go that's just one of a series of
visually stunning set-pieces involving a gorgeous, primarily young cast
of nineteen powered by the hypnotic swirl of a five-piece band.

Shahrazad's deflowering by slighted, woman-hating king, Shahrayer is
brutal and loveless in Hanan-al-Shaykh's poetic, feminist-centred
script. Performed in Arabic, English and French, each story melds into
the next with a magnificently subtle sense of fluidity that punctuates
the eternal interconnectedness of things as an array of powerful women
and desperate men offload their defining moments. There's some
knockabout fun too at the end of the first part between a Muslim, a
Christian and a Jew, by which time things are beginning to look
thoroughly modern. By the second part, there's something unspoken
between Shahrazad and Shahrayer, even if men are declared a deadly

Produced by Supple's Dash Arts company and commissioned by the
Toronto-based Luminato festival, this is a vivid rendering, which, by
drawing its cast from all the Arab countries, makes a statement about
art's ability to bridge long-festering conflicts. Almost, because these
are gloriously realised tales of love, lust, temptation, faithlessness,
jealousy, emasculation and emancipation and how every misguided action
has some self-destructive consequence. Most of all, this is about men,
women, and the endless tug of love and war between them called desire.

The Herald, August 22nd 2011


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - EIF 2011

Kings Theatre
4 stars
Putting a six hundred page magical-realist Zen noir state-of-the-nation
novel onstage in a multi-media two-hour mash-up of film, puppetry,
shadowplay and live music isn't easy. Director Stephen Earnhart has
achieved this heroically, however, with his and co-writer Greg Pierce's
slow-burning version of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's 1995 epic, in
which the tone is set from the off by a series of black-clad figures
slow-walking onstage to make some tai chi style gestures before

Ostensibly telling the story of how twenty-something urbanite Toru
Okada's seemingly orderly life is usurped by a series of brief
encounters he has no control over, and which plunge him into crisis, a
woozy dreamstate slowly emerges from the goo. Up until now Toru has
been sleepwalking his days away, but with the disappearance of his cat
and his wife, he embarks on a mysterious David Lynch style adventure as
all about him offload their secret histories. Only at the bottom of a
dried-up well can Toru get in touch with his secret self.

Performed in a mix of English and Japanese, Earnhart and his
co-conspirators lead us through a beguilingly immersive experience that
says much about the bridges between the personal and the public in a
quest to reclaim one's identity, cultural or otherwise. Yet this is as
ice-cool contemporary as it gets, with James Yaegashi's increasingly
befuddled Toru forced to square up to the morass of corruption, bad TV
and other rude intrusions.

All this is pulsed by Bora Yoon's beautifully paced percussive score in
a disorientating meditation on how easy it is to lose people, the
psychic scars they leave behind, and, ultimately, about letting go
enough to move on.

The Herald, August 22nd 2011


Hotel Medea - Up All Night With The Brazilian Fringe Sensation

One of the defining hits of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe has
been Hotel Medea, the six-hour all-night version of the Greek Medea
myth that runs each weekend in August from midnight until dawn.
Produced by Anglo-Brazilian theatre company Zecora Ura in association
with London-based, Yemen-born director and performer Persis Jade
Maravala, who plays Medea as well as co-directing with Zecora Ura's
Jorge Lopes Ramos, Hotel Medea is a disorienting experiential whirlwind
that puts the audience in the thick of the action, from the rave-like
fiesta of love, death and colonialism that opens the first two hours,
to the after-hours dream-state of a dormitory bunk-bed where you're
stroked to sleep by nurse-maids as a very personal war rages close by.

As a piece of theatre Hotel Medea is all-consuming. This isn't just the
case for the audience too, but also for Maravala and Ramos, who've
spent the last six years creating what is clearly a labour of love. As
with so much great art, however, Hotel Medea was born out of adversity
when the company Maravala ran imploded, while a similarly disillusioned
Ramos looked for different ways of working after scoring a commercial
hit with Zecora Ura's Brazilian version of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Once these two very different directors eventually agreed to work
together, the decision for Hotel Medea to be the sense-assaulting
upside-down epic it has become was one of the earliest steps in the
long journey to the show's eventual staging.

“We didn't know what manner we were going to do the show in when we
decided to do it,” Maravala admits. “The manner grew with us in a way.
The only thing Jorge had decided was that he wanted to tackle the myth
of Medea, and what interested me in getting involved was that, at that
time, there was the whole war on terror that had established itself
firmly in our minds, and people from different countries were being
talked about as being dangerous. That reminded me of Medea, who was
perpetually in exile, and of how terrifying and dangerous women can be
for men. So my main interest in Medea as a woman was as a terrorist. In
terms of Greek mythology she's the most subversive of characters, and
she gets away with it.”

Work began on the show in Brazil, where it grew into a smaller piece
called Lament For Medea. It was then that the pair hit upon the idea to
keep the audience up all night,” says Maravala. “The more I looked into
Brazilian rhythms for the movement of the show, the more I discovered
they were created to make you stay up all night. They work on the brain
in a certain way to keep you going, which I thought was amazing, but I
didn't take them lightly. I absorbed myself in these ritualistic
movements to try and understand them.”

In this way, Maravala and Ramos' working methods are completely
different. Where Maravala is rooted in physical creative processes
derived from Jerzy Grotowsky, Ramos is much more lateral and open to
outside influence. The tension between the two, however, is what makes
Hotel Medea so electric.

“I was at a crossroads after The Tempest,” Ramos explains, “and knew
that we could either carry on making work in a way that fitted in with
funding and production systems, or that I could do something that was
the opposite extreme and try and make work that was almost impossible
to put on.”

Ramos founded Zecora Ura while studying European theatre at Rose
Bruford College after leaving a then politically tumultuous Brazil on
advice of his actor father after many of his peers disappeared. Since
then, Ramos has kept company offices in both east London and Rio de
Janeiro Given the sheer scale of the leap in the dark of Hotel Medea,
bodies previously supportive of the company almost universally said no
to the project. Eventually Salisbury International Festival took a risk
at much the same time as Zecora Ura's host theatre in Rio took a
similar chance.

“It was pretty fraught at the beginning,” says Maravala, “because we
were both in crisis point at the same time, and I was even questioning
what was the point of being an artist. But when I first went to Brazil
I recognised there was something there, even though my axis is
completely vertical and Jorge's is completely lateral.”

Early versions of Hotel Medea appeared at the Arcola Theatre in
London's east end and in Brazil. Despite the show's current must-see
status, however, it is far from finished.

“We still rehearse and train every day,” says Maravala, “and there are
parts of it now that are completely different to how they were when we
first arrived in Edinburgh.”

This intense desire by Maravala and Ramos to create work on their own
terms has clearly paid off in spades, and beyond Hotel Medea, they are
already plotting their next collaboration.

“Woyzeck,” says Maravala.

“On safari,” Ramos picks up.

While both parties are determined this latest project won't take six
years to bear fruit, with a premiere already pencilled in for 2014,
Maravala and Ramos' healthy creative friction looks set to continue.

As Maravala puts it, “We still have plenty to argue about.”

Hotel Medea, Summerhall, August 19-20 and August 26-28

The Herald, August 19th 2011


Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2011 - I, Malvolio / As The Flames Rose We Danced To The Sirens, The Sirens / 2401 Objects

I, Malvolio – Traverse Theatre – 4 stars
As The Flames Rose We Danced To The Sirens, The Sirens – Summerhall – 4
2401 Objects – Pleasance – 3 stars

Tim Crouch's ongoing fascination with the nature of performance
appeared to have reached its limit with his previous show, The Author.
In I, Malvolio, however, Crouch manages to go further, and, by tapping
into the out and out ridiculousness of one of Shakespeare's crucial
characters in Twelfth Night, he manages to both laugh at his subject
while gently unveiling his inner tragedy.

As he silently mouths the words of a letter from his would-be beloved,
Olivia, clad in stained and tattered long-johns, animal ears and
presumably stinking yellow socks, Crouch's Malvolio more resembles
Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream than the spick and span servant
he once was. As he launches into a monologue littered with contemporary
references, however, it's clear the pomposity of old remains intact.

With the house lights up, the audience are in turn abused or else
invited onstage to perform assorted tasks, all the while being
questioned we're finding the ongoing spectacle so amusing.

Originally written for school-age audiences alongside three other
similarly styled solo deconstructions of Shakespeare, Crouch's Malvolio
is a pompous ass who falls somewhere between the buffoonery of Boris
Johnson, the absurdism of Vic Reeves and the misguided self-importance
of the late Princess Diana's former butler Paul Burrell. Like them,
Malvolio plays his part seemingly all too well, only to fall victim of
his own misfortune by not recognising that he's actually a little bit
rubbish at what he does. In a deadpan comic turn, this is something
Crouch himself could never be accused of.

A young woman wearing a little black dress and blonde wig stands behind
a microphone stand drinking a glass of red wine. Her feet are circled
by the tracks of a model train set as little musical fanfares play
while her shadow is cast large in the noirish mood lighting. She looks
every inch the dressing up box ideas of femme fatale, a little girl
in movie star clothing. Yet, as Spanish performer Iara Solano Arana
talks in the Sleepwalk Collective's hour-long devised piece, As The
Flames Rose We Danced To The Sirens, The Sirens, the audience become
intimate strangers complicit in a very public attempt to reach out
beyond the fourth wall and find some kind of comfort from the artifice
of the exchange.

Fear, love, passion and pain are all offloaded through the bottom of a
glass as Arana explains the meaning of red and green lights, allows her
mouth to become a tunnel for an oncoming model train and gives the
audience one minute to go up and touch her before attempting to saw
herself in half just to remind herself she can still feel. Meanwhile,
on the big screen behind her, Greta Garbo is in perpetual swoon as an
electronic pulse builds to a crescendo.

Samuel Metcalfe's production is a beguiling and transfixing experience
of a woman alone. While not without an impish comedic edge, Arana is
setting herself up as the ultimate damsel in distress, and this show by
her own admission is a cry for help that yearns for some kind of
connection even as she stays firmly in the spotlight. “How does it feel
to the only ones sober at the party?” she asks us before the lights go
out on an unsettlingly languid but hauntingly touching display of
live-art tragi-comic stand-up.

Also a matter of life and death is 2401 Objects, Analogue Productions
latest marriage of elegiac narrative and a busy visual way of telling.
Here the company focus on the real life story of Henry Molaison, who in
1953 underwent experimental brain surgery in an attempt to cure his
epilepsy, but who woke instead with the previous two years blanked out.
On top of this, Henry was unable to form any new memories, leaving his
mind on a never-ending loop that could only source his formative years
fleshed out with old black and white films watched with his dad.
Molaison inadvertently became immortal in 2009 when his brain was
dissected into two thousand four hundred and one pieces live on the

With a text by Lewis Hetherington drawn from a devising process led by
co-directors Hannah Barker and Liam Jarvis with their cast of Melody
Grove, Pieter Lawman and Sebastien Lawson, 2401 Objects presents a
gentle merry-go-round that humanises neuroscience without ever making
judgements. Made in association with Dr Jacobo Annese, director of the
Brain Observatory in San Diego, whose voice is heard at the beginning
and end of the show, it's a remarkable story not always served to its
advantage by Analogue's trademark kit of gauze screens rolling in and
out of the action.

As the actors double up while sporting post-war outfits that suggest
just how much it remains forever the 1950s in Henry's head, there's
clearly some good writing at play. It's just a shame that, despite
handling the material with a strong sense of sensitivity, things never
quite hang together as much as they should. Much the same could be said
about Henry's brain.

I, Malvolio until August 28; As The Flames Rose We Danced To The Sirens, The Sirens, August
22nd-23rd; 2401 Objects until August 28th;


Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Reviews 2011 - Beolwulf / Dry Ice / Midnight Your Time / No 52

Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage - Assembly – 4 stars
Dry Ice – Underbelly – 4 stars
Midnight Your Time – Assembly – 3 stars
No. 52 – Summerhall – 3 stars

This year's Edinburgh Fringe has already seen one classic ripped into
with reckless abandon in the shape of all-night epic Hotel Medea. Now
along comes a riotous take on ninth century narrative poem Beowulf by
the New York based Banana Bag and Bodice company. What is often
delivered as a dusty museum piece is here ripped into in Rod Hipskind
and Mallory Catlett's loose-knit extravaganza by turning it into a live
art musical that cocks a snook at academe in much the same way same way
as the National Theatre of Scotland deconstruct border ballads for the
twenty-first century in their bar-room hit, The Strange Undoing of
Prudencia Hart.

In Beowulf, a trio of academics clutch copies of Seamus Heaney's
version of the story, declaiming into microphones as it comes to life
before their eyes like a messed-up post-modern vision culled from a
psyche where theory and pop culture meet, Grendel is a check-shirted,
beer-swilling momma's boy with some kind of hyperactive disorder and a
Freudian subtext that means he can't help but cause trouble. Beowulf
himself looks like a rougher Jarvis Cocker on a mediaeval re-enactment
weekend. “Screw you, Bambi!” yells Hipskind's Grendel at one point to
Jason Craig's “slightly dyslexic” Beowulf before they thumb-wrestle
their way to the finish throughout the venue's big top arena.

All this is set to a cacophonously skronky set of jazz-punk showtunes
performed by a live six-piece band led by composer Dave Malloy, and
which features two trombones at the score's heart, as well as a pair of
warrior women on backing vocals. It's a glorious din that transforms
the story of Beowulf into something that's fun and sexy, as swell as
pioneering the sort of DIY musical which, in recession-blighted times,
is the rough-hewn, hand-knitted future.

Dry Ice is also fun, even if Sabrina Mahfouz's rhyming monologue does
go some way to prove that a stripper's lot is not a happy one. Mahfouz
plays Nina, a streetsmart twenty-four old who may or may not be trapped
in a world of coke-head boyfriends, over-enthusiastic punters and a
coterie of increasingly brittle back-stage colleagues who she could
easily end up becoming exactly like.

Without ever being judgemental, Mahfouz relates all this in a barrage
of motormouthed couplets that fuel a multitude of characters, and which
recalls the poetic solos of Claire Dowie. Developed with some
unspecified input of Friends star David Schwimmer, Dry Ice is a
fearlessly exuberent little show which, if given the chance, might
prove to be the perfect cabaret-style accompaniment to photographer
Jannica Honey's studies of real life strippers currently on show at one
of the lap-dancing joints on Lothian Road.

Veteran actress Diana Quick plays a very different kind of woman to
Nina in Midnight Your Time, a solo vehicle for her penned by Adam Brace
for the HighTide company. Quick plays a retired lawyer going quietly
mad in the Islington home she shares with her husband. Now her grown-up
children have flown the nest, she has time on her hands, do-gooding
groups to join and, as becomes clear, quite a few bridges to build.

This is particularly the case with her daughter Helen, who, obliviously
ensconced in her own life in a warzone on the other side of the world,
has little time to keep to the pre-arranged online chats with her
mother via Skype. With only silence at the other end of the live feed
and Helen clearly in an almighty strop about something unspoken, Quick
finds herself interacting with nought but her own reflection and
speaking into a vacuum in an increasingly frantic and soul-searching
set of calls that make up the play.

With Quick perched in front of a laptop on a slowly revolving platform
and her web-cam image projected onto a large screen behind her, this is
an eloquent enough portrait of some of the traumas well-heeled
Islingtonites might face, but in terms of writing its all so much on
the same level that its hard to feel much in the way of empathy with
her. The story's narrative arc is almost too subtle, and , despite
Quick's assured and sympathetic delivery, one can't help but feel that
Helen might have had a point when she did a runner and stopped
returning calls.

No 52 is a devised curio put together by the fledgling Two's Company
Threes A Crowd ensemble, who, as with many of the young artists
occupying Summerhall this year, are graduates of the Kent-based Rose
Bruford drama college. Ostensibly a peek through the windows and blinds
of English suburbia where seemingly perfect nuclear families go about
their business, one can imagine it's a world not too dissimilar to that
occupied by Ms Quick in Midnight Your Time.

Here, however, what lies behind the fragile edifices of politesse take
on an altogether shriller, more hysterical edge as the O'Reilly clan's
life-long game of happy families turns increasingly ugly behind closed
doors. Using a mannered form of manic expressionism to get all this out
of their system, the three performers heighten things even further as
they stand behind window frames as if posing for snapshots by
punctuating the action with a series of harmonic chorales. At less than
an hour long it's never quite clear what's being said here, but it
remains an intriguing oddity nevertheless.

Beowulf until August 29; Dry Ice until August 28; Midnight Your Time
until August 28; No. 52 until August 16

The Herald, August 16th 2011


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Putting Haruki Murakami Onstage

When American film and theatre director Stephen Earnhart met Japanese
novelist Haruki Murakami with a view to adapting Murakami's 1995 novel,
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for a multi-media stage production, the
deal was sealed over a mutual love of David Lynch. Six years later, and
Lynch's influence on the world premiere of Earnhart's interpretation of
Murakami's six hundred page epic that opens at the Edinburgh
International Festival this weekend may not be obvious, but it remains
telling that the artist that bonded the two men is an American. Because
the book's spare, understated prose is more akin to something by
Raymond Chandler or Raymond Carver, both in the way Chandler made great
literature out of genre fiction, and in the way Carver took the meat
and two veg of everyday mundanity and imbued them with an ambiguous

Telling the increasingly fantastical story of one Toru Okada, whose
loss of his cat initiates a series of encounters with strangers that
lead him to slowly confront some very painful truths, The Wind-Up Bird
Chronicle is as far away from western notions of Japanese literature as
one can get. Hip, urban and contemporary, it is also fused with a woozy
strangeness that offsets the story's initial realism. It was this very
singular sensibility that first attracted Earnhart to what has become a
very personal quest of his own.

“What attracted me to the story,” Earnhart says, “was an opportunity to
be able to bring everything I love about cinema and everything I loved
as an actor about live performance under the one umbrella, and to be
able to take the audience on a journey to these worlds that Murakami
has so beautifully given us already. So it's a collision between a
deceivingly mundane realism and something that's incredibly surreal and
captivating, and which to me felt much more like memory and the
sub-conscious in a world where anything can happen.

“That sort of collision is something I've been interested in with my
film work, so here was a place to do that. People kept giving me these
books by Murakami, who was an author I wasn't familiar with when I took
my first ever trip to South-East Asia. So I read eight of these stories
back to back while I was travelling, and I was tired and half-asleep
sometimes when I was reading these books. Going on that journey in an
alien culture, I already felt like I was in another world, so reading
these books and dreaming about these characters affected me on a
sub-conscious level.

“I'd taken this trip to try and remember what it was I was even living
for in my creative life. I was really burnt out, and I hadn't gone to
try and accomplish anything, but this journey that was supposed to be
for two months in 2003 suddenly turned into this ten month walkabout.
That completely intertwined with reading these book, so somehow it felt
like something was pulling me towards this material, and I just got
really excited about creating something again when I was really burnt

That was when Earnhart made the initial approach to Murakami, who, once
he'd given the green light, preferred to stay in the background. For
Earnhart, whose internship at Harvey Weinstein's Miramax production
company after film school led to him becoming director of productions,
such a free rein was a blessing. Earnhart had previously worked on TV
comedy show Saturday Night Live, and went on to produce films including
Madonna: Truth or Dare and A Rage in Harlem. Earnhart later worked as
an actor as well as a sound designer, and directed the documentary
film, Mule Skinner Blues.

Such a background begs the question of why Earnhart simply didn't opt
to make a full-blown movie instead of a stage show. Especially in light
of the recent big-screen adaptation of another Murakami novel,
Norwegian Wood.

“I wanted a challenge,” Earnhart says, “and wanted to do something that
wasn't just on a flat screen.
Halfway through the process I went to Murakami and suggested we make it
as a film, and he nixed it, so that closed that door in a good way. But
it was important that the project was rooted in narrative and not be
too experimental. I see a lot of multi-media things in New York, and I
don't even know what they mean, but they're beautiful sometimes. It's
on a par with going to a modern art museum and looking at squiggly
lines. I wanted to make something that, even if you took all these
things away, you still have a great story. We live our lives telling
each other stories, and the book feels so simple. Murakami doesn't
write for the literary elite. He writes for the guy on the subway.
That's the kind of aesthetic I want to bring onto the stage.

“There's a very human story there, and I could relate to this character
in the way that I lived next door to a woman for six years before I
realised I didn't know her at all. We're just scratching the surface of
each other. I can never jump into your mind and know what you're
thinking, so that question of how well we know each other, I think
about a lot. The content was very personal for me, yet from a
professional point of view it just reawakened some desire that I had
when I first left film school to make a cinematic form of theatre.”

Given what has clearly become a labour of love for Earnhart, then, what
is it exactly that lies at the heart of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

“To me I think it's about loss,” Earnhart says. “This project has meant
different things to me at different stages, and I'm not the same person
I was six years ago. But having recently lost my mother, that element
of loss and the range of emotions you go through when you lose somebody
really important, whether it's a break-up or an actual death, to me is
really important. When the foundation of your world crumbles when you
lose a parent or a wife or whatever, for me that journey is really
relevant and really accessible to people. The catharsis of that journey
for me is what does it take, what does this man have to learn and what
does he have to go through in order to be able to move on.

I think he's clinging to the past, and he doesn't want to look at all
these terrible things that he's been avoiding for years. We all have a
capacity for violence, and we all have a capacity to go to the dark
side and go off the deep end just as Toru Okada does in the story. We
all have those sides of ourselves, so to acknowledge them rather than
hide from them is the only way we can move on, acknowledge who we are
and be fully formed people. So to watch him struggle with that like we
all struggle, and be able to confront those parts of ourselves, to
confront what it's like to lose somebody and to be okay with that, and
to be okay with another person in another relationship, all those
things are possible. Yes, people might leave me or have the capacity to
have affairs, but to be able to rise above that and still have the
courage to be in a relationship and still love somebody, that's what I
think this story is about. To have the courage to still try.”

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, August 20-24, 7.30pm, Sunday August 21,

The Herald, August 16th 2011


The Tempest - EIF 2011

King's Theatre
4 stars
For the second eastern take on Shakespeare that heads up EIF's theatre
programme, Korean director Tae-Suk Oh and his lively ensemble of
twenty-three actors and four musicians rip into the bard's final work in
a restless display of high-kicking music and dance theatre that fuses
Shakespeare's original with a story taken from the Korean Chronicles of
the Three Kingdoms. The result is an audaciously playful reading that
must mark the production out as one of the lightest, brightest and
precociously delightful Tempests ever.

It begins with a flourish, as the white-clad troupe conjure up a storm
with a gymnastic display and an elaborate network of sheets. Next we're
introduced to Taoist magician King Zilzi, this version's equivalent of
Prospero, here a black-clad ascetic figure. Caliban becomes Ssangdua, a
grotesque two-headed creature, and Ariel a Shaman priestess made of
straw. Throw in a menagerie of ducks, sheep and other farmyard animals,
and a breathtaking mix of ancient and modern styles can't help but
captivate for the show's full hundred minutes.

Don't be fooled by the surface cheek and frivolity of proceedings,
however, as the play's underlying profundity is worn as lightly as a
haiku, and is all the more effective because of it. With the action
beautifully scored by music arranger Eun-Jeung Wu on an array of
traditional Korean instruments, this is an all too rare sighting of
eastern theatre flirting with western culture rather than the other way

At the end, with all resolved and Ssangua enjoying the effects of
freedom that only being sawn in half can provide, the lights go up and
Zilzi steps out to the audience, passing on his wisdom, comic to the

The Herald, August 15th 2011


King Lear - EIF 2011

Royal Lyceum Theatre
4 stars
When Chinese maestro Wu Hsing-kuo decided to tackle Shakespeare's
greatest tragedy, it was a deeply personal decision rooted in his own
creative turmoil. This becomes clear at the end of Wu's own production
for his Contemporary Legend Theatre company, when, following the
appearance of a scarlet-lit musical ensemble, he's lifted to the
heavens in silence as a kind of Zen purging of all his demons.

Prior to that, Wu plays the king with demonic brio, extravagantly robed
and bearded as he enters in a smoke-filled triangle of light into a
wilderness marked out with stone monoliths. A whirlwind of
primary-coloured movement is punctuated by the urgent clatter of Lee
Yi-Chin's live traditional Chinese score. Near child-like in his own
fanciful musings, Wu plays peek-a-boo hide and seek with his own
identity, only to erupt in a torrent of impatient rage as he strips
bare his disguise to become a solitary warrior caught in a storm.

After such a serious opening, the second part finds Wu flipping between
characters in a series of knockabout slapstick routines that see him
dragged up as each of Lear's daughters. It's an impressive display of
virtuosity that marries traditional Peking Opera techniques with
something more consciously modern. As a torrent of ticker-tape snow
falls mid-way through the second part, Wu chases his own tail in search
of salvation, his life out of balance but attempting to restore order.

For almost two hours Wu remains in total control, both of his own
performance as well as Lear's destiny as he finds some kind of peace at
last. After all this, even the curtain call is a masterpiece of
slow-moving choreography to savour.

The Herald, August 15th 2011


Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2011 - John Peel's Shed / Request Programme / Kurt Schwitters Sound Sonata

John Peel's Shed – Underbelly – 4 stars
Request Programme - Pleasance@Inlingual School – 4 stars
Kurt Schwitters Sound Sonata – Summerhall – 3 stars

It may be accidental, but it's somehow fitting that tracks from Belle
and Sebastian's still joyous debut album, Tigermilk, are playing in the
bar prior to John Peel's Shed, John Osborne's wonderful
autobiographical ramble through his love affair with radio. Peel, after
all, was an early champion of Stuart Murdoch's Glasgow-based
pastoralists. More pertinently, as Osborne observes, all girls love
Belle and Sebastian.

This is just one of Osborne's quietly witty observations in which he
casts himself as the classic geeky outsider who finds salvation, not
just in obscure outfits such as Atom and his Package, but through
everything from Tommy Boyd's late-night phone-in show The Human Zoo to
wilfully leftfield digital station Resonance FM.

Osborne's starting point is a box of records he won in a competition,
and which he decreed to let the world hear after securing a gig on his
local community radio station. From here, you see Osborne visibly grow
in confidence as he relates how one little epiphany after another
helped him find his voice.

Entire generations who grew up listening to Peel could probably say
something similar. Osborne, however, goes beyond what could easily be a
sentimental nostalgia trip to create something as gorgeously discursive
as his inspiration. Complete with occasional disc spinning and
accompanying facts and figures, John Peel's Shed is one of the
loveliest things you're likely to witness all year.

Radio provides salvation of sorts too in Request Programme, German
playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz's early 1970s play that focuses on one
middle-aged woman's night in alone. Arriving home from work, Miss Rasch
methodically goes through the motions of cooking herself supper and
other domestic duties before switching the radio on to hear requests
played for loves lost and found.

As Miss Rasch sews a rug, cleans her clothes and self and prepares for
bed, the comfort of strangers becomes her only lifeline to the outside
world which she appears to have cut herself off from following some
everyday tragedy or other. As occasional moments of distraction haunt
her silent reverie, whatever is on Miss Rasch attempts to retain some
kind of order to a life that appears to have been in stasis for some
time. Like John Osborne in John Peel's Shed, the leap Miss Rasch takes
changes her life, but here not necessarily for the better.

As performed by Swedish actress Cecilia Nilsson in Hedvig Claesson's up
close and personal production, Miss Rasch is clearly a woman on the
verge of a very quiet meltdown. With the audience sat inches away, the
play becomes a voyeuristic case-study of the most private form of
alienation, like Big Brother without the camera-conscious histrionics.

It's a welcome revival of a major study of alienation, even if these
days Miss Rasch could check out the BBC iPlayer and Listen Again before
going on Facebook at midnight to peek into the lives of people she used
to know. As it is, we're left with a starkly realised and intense
experience that remains a telling indictment of a lost sense of
community in a society that prefers to keep the door shut on any rude

Rude intrusions abound in Kurt Schwitters' Sound Sonata, a rare live
performance by Florian Kaplick of Dadaist poet and artist Schwitters'
Ursonate, a voice-based composition that is the sort of thing John
Osborne might well hear on Resonance FM. Following a filmed
introduction by Richard Demarco bemoaning the apparent lack of
all-year-round artistic activity in Edinburgh, Kaplick begins from the
back of the room intoning into a radio microphone before taking his
place at a music stand. Sporting flat cap and glasses, Kaplick purrs,
snarls, grunts, growls and even coos at one point in an emotive series
of rhythmic little vocal stabs as he effectively revs up what was then
the new machine age that made war so much noisier.

There's an increasingly urgent logic to the performance, as it becomes
clear how much Schwitters paved the way for the sound poetry of Ian
Hamilton Finlay, Bob Cobbing and a very current voice-based avant-garde
led by duo, Usurper, that actually does exist in Edinburgh all year

John Peel's Shed until August 28; Request Programme until August 27;
Kurt Schwitters Sound Sonata – run ended.

The Herald, August 15th 2011


Saturday, 13 August 2011

One Thousand and One Nights - A Middle Eastern Epic in Edinburgh

Five minutes in Morocco, and the taxi radio is reporting a bombing in
Marrakesh. While it's safe enough driving towards the centre of Fez on
the other side of the country in April, it's just one more real life
incident that colours the creation and rehearsals for One Thousand and
One Nights, English director Tim Supple's epic multi-cultural,
multi-lingual staging of the greatest set of stories ever told. It isn
't the first chapter of an awfully big adventure that began in Egypt
before Supple's Dash Arts company and their co-producers from the
Toronto based Luminato festival were forced to decamp to Morocco after
the revolution there began, and, as it turns out, it won't be the last.

Even in Fez, where the rain is unseasonally biblical and where Supple
is putting his cast of nineteen actors and five musicians drawn from
all the Arab states in a show of artistic strength and unity in a
rundown temple where seven families still live on the edge of the
Medina, the real world can't help but inveigle into proceedings. This
is the case even as the palace-load of Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans,
Algerians Iranians and Iraqis effectively becomes a borderless state,
or at least a global village, that those in perennial conflict could
learn much from.

They could learn too from Lebanese-born writer Hanan al-Shaykh's
adaptation of stories fetishised in western versions as being strictly
for kids. Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor
may have become cosy archetypes softened by Disneyfication and
pantomime, but they find no place in al-Shaykh's version. Judging by
rehearsals convened in one of the palace's one hundred mosaic-lined
rooms rather than the soaking courtyard the company occupies on sunny
days but which is covered by plastic sheeting, this is an infinitely
more grown-up affair. The fact that a woman writer at all is writing
about sex and violence in a patriarchal Arab society is one thing, that
the men in the play come over as brutes, idiots and bullies expecting
their female subjects to do their bidding is even more telling.

This is clear early on Saturday morning when, after coffee on a terrace
that looks out over a city intermittently punctuated with the sounds
of people being called to prayer the performers greet each other with
hugs that seem to go beyond showbiz affectation beside a rug-lined
green-room. Today, this young, attractive cast, a mix of dancers,
story-tellers, poets and TV soap opera stars will continue work on the
tenth story.

Following on from the previous tale in which two sisters are beaten
like dogs, The Doorkeeper is a stark tale of temptation, faithlessness
and the painful consequences of both. As the musicians tucked at one
end of the room on percussion, violin and the stringed oud, an
ascetic-looking Supple sporting an east/west mish-mash of blue
tracksuit top flappy three-quarter length shorts and sandals guides the
action through a translator. Supple talks of naturalising the scene, of
working towards the bite of the doorkeeper's cheek being something
shocking. As the actors, led by Moroccan actress Hajar Garigaar as the
doorkeeper, respond, the musicians build to a crescendo as a by now
barefoot Supple becomes more urgent in his directions as he moves
across the distressed marble floor

Supple talks about drawing a sense of danger out of the scene as the
music, galloping along by now, adds momentum to everything the actors
do. Outside the open window the rain's back on again, the sound of its
steady stream counterpointing a fresh call to prayer.

“It's about power,” Supple explains to the cast about the life-changing
cheek-biting scene as the doorkeeper looks set to be cut in half. “You
have to believe in its rage. It's psychotic.”

Lunch is a much calmer affair, with the cast eating together in the
greenroom. If all rehearsal rooms are sacred, this one feels even more

“I'd have everyone loving here onsite as well, “ Supple explains over a
cup of strong coffee, “but we had to transfer so quickly it wasn't
possible. But I love rehearsing in a place with its own character. In a
London rehearsal room there'd be this sense of not being interrupted,
but here some people live here, and they might be wandering around or
they might have an argument, and that becomes part of it, that sense of

The last time Supple tackled something on this scale was his take on
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Made in India and Sri Lanka,
the similarly multi-racial production looked to the east for its
influences in much the same way Peter Brook's now legendary take on The
Mahabaratta did when it visited Glasgow in 1988. While the world has
clearly grown smaller since then, it's clear that without The
Mahabaratta, something it's unlikely something like One Thousand and
One Nights could happen.

“It's come about from the desire to tackle the truth of things and not
to skim on the inherited invention of things,” Supple says of his
current project. “I felt a few years ago that my knowledge of the Arab
world was very superficial and not based on any experience. My
knowledge of this wonderful thing called The Arabian Nights was based
on received information, so I'm not so much in the middle, but am some
way of trying to gain a deeper understanding of both those things.”

Performed in a mix of English, French and Arabic, One Thousand and One
Nights shouldn't, Supple says, “belong to one country or one set of
assumptions. Politically and theatrically I'm excited that I can't rely
on a familiar set of assumptions and do what I do in Britain. Those
conditions don't exist, and I put everybody in that position, whatever
country people are from. They can't rely on the things they're used to
being reflected in the same way, and that's important, because there's
a deeper agenda here that's about aiming for a theatrical expression
that goes beyond cultural narrowness and linguistics. Our language for
our show is this hopping between English, Arabic and French, but also
the body and the music.”

In terms of outside events, the cast can't help but be affected, even
as the bond into a powerful community. One of the Egyptian performers
spends most of his lunch-break online keeping tabs on what is going on
back home. The Syrian uprising that began in January is also uppermost
in peoples minds. For Ramzi Choukair, a Franco-Syrian writer and actor
based in Damascus, however, doing One Thousand and One Nights is as
important a statement as anything going on in the political world.

“He believes he is working beside the people who are for democracy and
freedom even if he is here,” Choukair says through his friend and
colleague, Ammar Haj Ahmed, a published poet as well as an actor, who
Choukair studied with and is also appearing in the show. “He says he
makes these stories from his culture feel alive again. At the same
time, Arabic dictators are trying to kill these stories. Even though he
feels the pain, he is trying to protect these stories for his country.
It's important that British artist came to our culture to tell these
stories. The people in our countries may think they will see One
Thousand and One Nights as a sexy and naked and orgy, but they will be
amazed by the killing and brutality of simple people. This will make
everything clear about Arabic culture, specially as in our culture we
say it with our lips rather than through a book.”

Several weeks later, and the opening of One Thousand and One Nights in
Toronto goes off without a hitch. The six week run in Chicago, however,
is cancelled. Delays by the United States authorities in processing
visas for actors from the politically sensitive countries of Egypt,
Syria and Iraq prevent it. In the current climate of post 9/11 paranoia
and the ever worsening, ever complex middle eastern conflict, this
isn't unusual, and there are no special fast-track concessions for
artists. This is even before the latest wave of violence in Syria
against pro-democracy protesters angered the world in the last month.

Thinking about this, there's something that Garigaa said back on that
soaking wet April weekend in Fez that's now more pertinent than ever.

“All these external events give you more energy to do what you have to
do,” she said. “Even if we don't reach a perfect level of performance,
what's important is that its gathered all the different cultures of
Arab performance together and has made this happen. That's enough to
show the world that we can work together on this piece of art.”

One Thousand and One Nights, EIF@Royal Lyceum Theatre. Part 1, Tuesday
23, Thursday 25 and Tuesday 30 August, 7pm; Sunday 21, Saturday 27,
Sunday 28, Wednesday 31 August and Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September,
2pm. Part 2, Sunday 21, Wednesday 24, Friday 26, Saturday 27, Sunday
28, Wednesday 31 August, Thursday 1, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September,
7pm. Parts 1 and 2, Sunday 21, Saturday 27, Sunday 28, Wednesday 31
August, Friday 2 and September 3 September, 2pm and 7pm.

The Herald, August 12th 2011


Request Programme - A Very German Tragedy

Friends said she was a loner, the obituaries might read when talking
about the sole woman onstage in Request Programme, German writer Franz
Xaver Kroetz's bleakly funny study of loneliness known in its original
German as Wunschkonzert. She just kept herself to herself and didn't
bother anyone. As Kroetz's 1973 play arrives in Edinburgh in a
production by ad hoc Swedish company, SIRIS Original Theatre, given how
much those words could apply to a twenty-first society in which more
people now live alone than ever before, according to a recent survey by
the Institute for Public Policy Research, Request Programme might just
look like prophecy.

Following one night in the life of a middle-aged woman who comes home
from work to a private place where she can indulge in her personal
little rituals while listening to her favourite radio show, Request
Programme too is a fascinating insight into what goes on behind closed
doors where the woman has effectively built herself a psychic fortress
from the big bad world outside. Crucially, outside of what plays on the
radio, not a word is spoken.

“It's such a special play,” Request Programme's director Hedvig
Claesson says. “and so strange. There are no words spoken, but you feel
this woman is talking all the time, talking in your head.”

Originally produced in Sweden by Riksteatern/Drama, the country's
National Touring Theatre, Sweden, Claesson's production toured around
sixty real-life apartments in the country before doing similar at the
Nordwind Festival in Berlin. In Edinburgh, Claesson hopes to recapture
that sense of up close and personal intimacy by playing it in the
ornate surroundings of the Inlingual language school in the city's west
end. For actress Cecilia Nilsson, such close proximity to the audience
leaves her necessarily exposed.

“There is no place to hide,” she says. “It's fascinating to play her,
because it's so different from playing alongside other characters.
Because I'm on my own, I have to fight giving too much of a
performance, because you're always wanting to do something, when this
play is in fact almost like a meditation.”

Nilsson first heard about Request Programme in the 1970s, and although
her sister saw a production of it in Stockholm in 1975, she didn't see
it until 1981.

“At the time it made me very angry,” she says. “Why? I'm not sure, but
it deals with matters that are very existential. This woman is a person
who's developed a few special habits. She lives very secluded and has
isolated herself from the world. She doesn't have a computer and
doesn't socialise at all. She's gone into her own little world and has
this very strong depression. She's become afraid of life, but she's
also very much like you or me. All these feelings she has go inside

Request Programme received its British premiere in Edinburgh in 1974 at
the Traverse Theatre, then
still based in its old Grassmarket home, in a production featuring
veteran Scottish actress Kay Gallie. The play tapped into a form of
super-realism that was Kroetz's raison d'etre of short scenes depicting
seemingly mundane and often economically disenfranchised lives barely
getting by.

Request Programme reappeared at the Traverse in 1986 in a new
production featuring Eileen Nicholas, who had appeared at the Traverse
the year before in another Kroetz play, Through The Leaves. In the
latter play, Nicholas played opposite Ken Stott in a production by
incoming Traverse director Jenny Killick.

Request Programme was subsequently produced in New York and other
countries, including a version of the play by Lee Breuer's Mabou Mines

Other Kroetz plays seen in Scotland include Home Worker, again at the
Traverse in 1974, a small production of Stallerhoff, and, more recently
at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, a studio production of Tom Fool
that transferred to the Bush Theatre in London with Liam Brennan and
Meg Fraser in the cast.

Kroetz's work first started appearing in the UK at a time when he and
other German writers, including Manfred Karge, whose solo piece Man To
Man was performed so powerfully by Tilda Swinton at the Traverse in
1987, were coming to the fore. Kroetz's work in particular, which so
often dealt with characters unused to having a voice, may well have
been a subconscious influence on Scottish writers such as David
Harrower, whose spare use of language in his debut play Knives in Hens
isn't so far removed from Kroetz. It's telling too that Knives in Hens
has received multiple productions in Germany.

More recent Edinburgh connections with Request Programme include a 2008
production by Katie Mitchell in Koln and Cologne which featured video
projections from world renowned audio-visual company 59 Productions.
This year in Cork and Galway, the Corcadorca company presented a
site-specific version of the play featuring Edinburgh-based Irish
actress Eileen Walsh, who first appeared with Corcadorca in the
original production of Enda Walsh's breakthrough play, Disco Pigs, that
took Edinburgh by storm in 1997.

Despite the obvious practical advantages of doing a one-person play
without words, allowing it to travel abroad easier, for such a serious
piece of contemporary playwriting to receive such attention remains
rare, especially after almost forty years when the vogue for German
writers of Kroetz's post 1968 generation appears to have past.
Especially considering the fact that sixty-five year-old
Kroetz, who originally trained as an actor and who became a celebrity
in the late 1980s after playing a corrupt gossip columnist in a glossy
TV soap opera, gave up playwriting in 2006, declaring it a spent force.

Rather than make it a 1970s period piece, Claesson's take on Request
Programme is made even more pertinent by setting the piece in the here
and now of things, intimations of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and all.

“The play talks about loneliness in a way that you can really feel,”
Claesson says. “I really love all of this woman's little rituals, the
small things that are funny, and which we all do and become obsessed
by. On one level they're funny, but they also speak so much about how
we're all alone.”

Request Programme, Pleasance@Inlingual School, 40 Shandwick Place,
August 4-27, 7.30-8.40pm weekdays, 4-5.10pm and 6-7.10pm Saturdays and

The Herald, August 11th 2011


King Lear - A One-Man Chinese Tragedy

When Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his title character was an angry
figure, so wounded by the seeming betrayal of his favourite daughter
that he isolated himself from the world he could in turn rage against.
Lear is a might role for any actor, and requires stamina as well as
versatility and the weight of wisdom and experience to carry off such a
complex personality. Most productions of Shakespeare's Lear, even in
cash-strapped times, allow full vent to the play's epic nature, in
which even Lear himself is allowed an offstage breather.

Imagine, then, how exhausting it would be for one actor and one actor
alone to play, not just Lear, but all the other characters as well,
from his three warring siblings to their respective spouses and the
court that surrounds them. Such a heroic task is tackled in this year's
Edinburgh International Festival by Wu Hsing-kuo, whose Contemporary
Legend Theatre has long sought to revitalise Chinese theatre by
applying the total theatre techniques of Peking Opera to classical
texts. If Wu's mission sounds potentially foolhardy, however, as he
explains through his translator Miss Lee, such a total absorption of
Lear is a very personal mission.

“Mr Wu likes the character and personality of Lear very much,” Miss Lee
explains, “and he feels he has much in common with him. Lear is angry
and arrogant and self-centred. He is a little crazy, and Mr Wu can
relate to all of that. He feels that people with that kind of
personality are full of confidence, and find it easy to get success.
But on the other hand, they also find it easy to fail, and they find
loneliness, because they are not always easy to get on with.”

If this goes some way to explain Wu's very singular take on Lear,
through Miss Lee he goes even further.

“During Mr Wu's working life it has kind of been like King Lear,” Miss
Lee elucidates. “Lear is such a great man, and what he meets in the
story relates to Mr Wu's own personal background. Mr Wu likes to know
what happens when great men fall down, how they get up again, and how
they find the most precious thing in their hearts.”

Wu may punctuate his comments with laughter as he relates them to Miss
Lee, but, while he doesn't go into specifics, it's clear that the
relationship between Wu's life and art are serious. This has been the
case over forty years stage experience, ever since he was discovered
aged eleven and packed off to the Fu-Hsing Chinese Opera School in
Taiwan, for eight years, where Wu's teacher thought he had what Miss
Lee describes as “a nice voice.” Having specialised inn male martial
roles, Wu went on to study theatre at the Chinese Cultural University,
and became lead dancer with the Cloud Gate Theatre troupe.

Further studies led Wu to broaden his range into playing more
middle-aged and elderly characters, something which has clearly held
him in good stead for King Lear. Wu founded Contemporary Legend Theatre
in 1986 with the aim of reinventing Chinese classical theatre by
adapting major western works with all the accoutrements of Peking opera
at their heart. Wu took on lead roles in Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and
Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, breaking the mould of Chinese
theatre as the company introduced a form of post-modernism into their

“In Taiwan the theatre is really lively,” Miss Lee explains, “There are
lots of performances that are both easy and difficult to someone in
this kind of environment. You can do anything, but if you want to do a
big show it's very difficult.”

This may go some way to explain both Wu's seemingly mercurial
temperament beyond his self-styled kinship with Lear, and his decision
to do it solo. In 1998, funding problems forced Contemporary Legend
Theatre to pull the plug on its activities for two years. Assorted
productions were proposed to the relevant bodies during that time,
though none were accepted. If Wu's take on King Lear was born out of
austerity, it doesn't take away from its very personal intent.

“There is no tradition of solo performance in traditional Chinese
opera,” Miss Lee points out, “so as an actor Mr Wu wanted to try
something different. Lear is one of the biggest parts he could play,
and he wanted to face up to that challenge.”

Two of the biggest influences on Wu have been on film. The first was
Laurence Olivier's portrayal of the King in a 1983 TV production that
was as stately and as classically impressive as it comes. The second,
and perhaps more interestingly from a western perspective, is Ran,
Akira Kurosawa's 1985 adaptation, which pitted its action among a court
presided over by Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, as played by Japanese star
Tatsuya Nakadai.

“Mr Wu says that there are a lot of great actors in the west,” Miss
Lee relates, “while in China sometimes, the Peking opera style of
acting can be done so superficially that it's not really related to
real life. Mr Wu wants to make the story itself really important, but
also to make it different from Peking opera by making it really mean
something to people. To do this, Mr Wu combines the Chinese style of
acting with western styles.”

Broken up into three parts, Wu's King Lear moves from focussing on the
King himself with a virtuoso display of movement and singing in full
Peking opera style. In sharp contrast, the second part offers up light
relief as Wu takes up the mantle of Shakespeare's cavalcade of
secondary characters, including the chance for some knockabout clowning
through the figure of the Fool. The third part of the play is perhaps
the most crucial, as Wu melds the spirit of Lear with himself.

“During the show show Mr Wu decided he would like to explore Lear
deeper,” Miss Lee explains after conversing with Wu some more. “He felt
that when Lear dies it comes from an extremely lonely scenario, so at
the end of the performance, he would like to discuss success, failure,
love, hate, craziness, and through that act it out as himself, and ask
what is the most important thing in the world when you're a man.”

And the conclusion?

“Actually the conclusion in the show is the loneliness,” Miss Lee
reiterates. “How when a brave man becomes consumed by all these
emotions. Lear says that loneliness is like seeing the moon, but there
is only one moon in the dark sky. Mr Wu relates to how Lear feels, and
he expresses this loneliness in an oriental style.”

King Lear has been in Wu and Contemporary Legend Theatre's repertoire
for more than a decade now. Even so, whatever life changes or personal
upheavals Wu has encountered during that time, he maintains a certain
equilibrium in and possibly through his performances.

“Mr Wu still retains the spirit of King Lear,” Miss Lee says. “The
anger and the loneliness are still there, and Mr Wu doesn't think
that's changed much. He wants to find out what breaks a man's heart,
and from this performance he wants to define who Wu Hsing-kuo is.”

King Lear, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 13th-16th, 8pm.

The Herald, August 11th 2011