Wednesday, 21 August 2013

On Behalf of Nature

Royal Lyceum Theatre
four stars
The natural world in all its glory is celebrated in Meredith Monk's remarkable seventy-five minute dramatic meditation performed by her and her nine-strong Vocal Ensemble for Monks return to Edinburgh International Festival. With a live marimba-led score which moves from rhythmic codas to frantic little bursts of out-of-wackness, Monk and co flap around the stage in set-pieces of unadorned Zen choreography, chirruping in call and response harmony as they go.

With the performers dressed in what looks like pioneer-type outfits, at times their gambolling looks like a hoe-down in Eden. At other, more intimate moments., their propless mimesis flutters into being with a stark beauty. There are solos, duos and ensemble-based miniatures, each one an impressionistic thumbnail sketch of birds, trees, bees and other wildlife rendered in physical terms occasionally upended by outside forces.

There are clear parallels here, both thematically and stylistically, with Philip Glass' score for Koyaanisquatsi, Godfrey Reggio's big screen meditation on the relationship between the natural world and the big bad city. In Monk's hands, however, such concerns are rendered through a combinatioin of dance, music and a kind of physical calm that soothes and heals a wounded planet even as it reasserts its place within it.

A filmed back-drop shows all of Mother Nature's wonders, from flowers and animals to the sheer joy of a couple kissing in the most natural, non-virtual act on the planet. The bells that peal at the close of play aren't a memoriam. Rather, they are sounding out the quietest call to arms for every man, woman and child to get back to nature and start living right again.

The Herald, August 20th 2013


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Hunt and Darton Cafe - Take A Bite

Popping out for a cuppa can be full of surprises during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At least it can down at Hunt and Darton Cafe, the pop-up cafe opened for thr entire month of August by live artist double act, Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton. Last year, the St Martin's College of Art graduates ran the place on St Mary's Street dressed in pineapple decorated outfits with a sense of style and wit that made it the ultimate drop-in centre.

Inside the cafe's vintage environment, our two hostesses and occasional guest waiting staff would serve basic but carefully prepared meals, snacks and drinks with a meticulous sense of customer care. Some days would be themed, with customers being asked to serve each other, or else asked if they would care to choose a record to play on an old Dansette. Each financial transaction would be carefully marked out on the wall in chalk alongside details of the outlay for supplies. At the end of the week, the total profit would also be marked up. In the evening spontaneous happenings would occur, with the entire month-long experience one non-stop performance co-ordinated by Hunt and Darton, with the customers playing key roles in the hands-on interactive experience.

This year, Hunt and Darton cafe has returned to the same empty shop, only with a new menu, new vegetable inspired outfits and an even fresher take on the participatory experience.

“It's evolved a lot since last year,” says Darton. “We've developed a lot of what we do in the cafe, and we have a lot of new things happening, like a health and safety day, and have a point of each day, such as austerity.”

“We'' be wearing brocolli this year as well,” Hunt chips in. “We've got these amazing brocolli print dresses we'll be wearing.”

Another addition to the Hunt and Darton Cafe programme is a set meal for a mere five poinds. These will be served on a silver trolley, after which “things happen,” as Hunt puts it.

The roots of Hunt and Darton Cafe came from a sense of pragmatism rather than pure desire.

“We've always had alternative careers in catering to fund our art,”Hunt explains, while Darton points out that “It developed organically. We were interested in the relationship between food and art, and also in trying to close the gap between audience and performer. When we do stage work there's always a distance, so we're developing trying to close the gap.”

“Every time we work together we understand it so much more, hunt continues, “so now it'ds becoming much more immersive, and much more about embracing the customer experience.”

All of which sounds akin to a twenty-first century equivalent of Gilbert and George's early living sculpture routines, only with bags more sass as well as artistic integrity. This is especially the case given that some of the guest artists who will perform in the cafe in the evenings include refugees from the Glasgow-based Buzzcut live art festival, as well as the likes of Arches and Forest Fringe regular, Richard DeDominici.

What if, however, a casual customer goes into the cafe and just wants a cuppa and a cake without any side order of live art and refuses to join in the fun?

“The majority of them are incredibly positive and do join in,” according to Hunt. “There are people who just want a cup of tea, and it's our job to try and negotiate that. We're not aggressive about it, but we are assertive.”

While in residence in St Mary's Street, Hunt and Darton will also be presenting a more formal show entitled Boredom. As the name suggests, the performance looks at the highs and lows of tedium in all its forms.

“It's the opposite to what we've been doing with the cafe,” says Darton. “We're performing it in a guerilla style, and it's taking us back onto a stage.”

While they won't be working as many hours as last year, Hunt and Darton will need to be 'on' for the entire day, tea-breaks permitting.

“We do fibnd ourselves doing a lot,” Darton admits, “We both really enjoy durational performances, and this year I think we're doing duration for duration's sake.”

Hunt puts it simpler.

“We're aldso workaholics,” she says.

Hunt and Darton Cafe, 17-21 St. Mary's Street (Venue 172), until August 25th, 10am-5pm; Boredom, August 3,6,8, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 10.30pm.

The Herald, August 20th 2013


Lorne Campbell - It's Not So Grim At Northern Stage

When Lorne Campbell was appointed artistic director of Northern Stage, Newcastle's most adventurous theatre producing house, he arrived at a tumultuous time. One of the theatre's main funders, Newcastle Council, had begun consultations to deal with a proposed 100 per cent cut in its arts budget. This came after two rounds of cuts by Arts Council England, Northern Stage's other chief funder, in the midst of swinging cuts from the UK government in an attempt to stave off the recession caused primarily by themselves in cahoots with the banks.

Several months on, and Newcastle Council has upped its contribution to Northern Stage by fifty per cent, and, if the theatre's Edinburgh programme of some eighteen shows that form the theatre's ambitious Northern Stage at St Stephens is anything to go by, as with many artists reimagining creative possibilities during lean times, the theatre is in the midst of an artistic revolution.

“There's an awful lot here that reminds me of Scotland after the millennium,” Campbell says of Newcastle and the north-east of England's theatre scene. “The scene was really waking up to themselves then, and artists were realising that it wasn’t about being parochial, but was about being excellent and ambitious, and that they could produce work that was world class. Newcastle and the north-east could be about to hit a critical mass like that in a very similar way. There's a whole range of really interesting artists who are either on the cusp of breaking through, or who could easily go on to the next level, and there's a huge level of ambition here.”

Campbell's appointment at Northern Stage sees the thirty-five year old Edinburgh-born director come full circle in his career. Campbell's first professional job was at Northern Stage, where he assisted on various productions. It was as associate director at the Traverse in Edinburgh where he really started to come into his own on acclaimed productions including Alan Wilkins' Carthage must Be Destroyed and Morna Pearson's astonishing debut play, Distracted. Both works won awards.

It was while at the Traverse that Campbell began to explore different ways of working via the cross-disciplinary programme, Cubed. After leaving the Traverse, Campbell directed several Scottish plays in Bath before co-founding Greyscale, a collective of actors, writers, directors and designers including fellow director Selma Dimitrijevic, actor Sandy Grierson and internationally renowned Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer's internationally renowned video design company, 59 Productions.

It was with Greyscale that Campbell and his fellow travellers developed a way of working which seemed to tap into the anarchic spirit of fringe theatre's loose-knit alternative and anarchic roots, while reinventing it for the twenty-first century on a par with a new generation of boundary-hopping theatre-makers.

Greyscale were, and remain a part of Northern Stage's forward-thinking development programme, and, while the responsibilities of running a building are different, some of Greyscale's spirit is clearly evident in Northern Stage at St Stephens. Artists involved include Daniel Bye with his latest solo piece, The Paper Birds and Third Angel, all of whom will be taking radical looks at the world in radical ways.

“There's an interesting line running through the whole programme that's about dissent,” Campbell observes, “and what it means to dissent. It's all relevant, timely stuff.

While by no means intentional, the centrepiece of Northern Stage's Edinburgh programme looks set to be The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. This will b e a late night show in which artists from Scotland, England and elsewhere will imagine the next ninety-five years following the imagined (or not) dissolution of the 1707 Act of Union via an ever growing ballad that will add a new verse each night.

“One of things it came out of,” says Campbell, “is that, coming from Scotland and working in Newcastle, I was both on the inside and the outside of this wonderful community of northern artists, who were starting to realise that they were a community. I thought it was weird that no Scottish artists existed as part of this community, even though they were asking the same sort of questions.

“Much of the reason for that was to do with this weird artificial line that was largely to do with the different funding streams that exist in England and Scotland. So we said, let's talk about independence, and let's start to imagine what a ballad for independence might be like. Each balladeer takes responsibility for the next five years, so by the end you have ninety-five years of imagined future history.”

Balladeers signed up so far include Cora Bissett and Kieran Hurley from Scotland, and, from England, Chris Thorpe, Lucy EllinsonEllinson, Daniel Bye and Alex Kelly.

“I'm really interested in what a folk tale us in that context, “ says Campbell, “and it's going to be something somewhere between a gig, a ceilidh and a political meeting. It's the most ambitious thing I've ever done,” Campbell says with relish, “but it also has the least amount of rehearsal time I've ever had, but there should hopefully be something very immediate about it because of that. It's big voices, big ideas and big politics with no sense of irony, talking about things that matter. I hope the ghosts of Joan Littlewood, John McGrath and Ken Campbell look down on it from above and approve of every moment. It's going to be a riot.”

Northern Stage at St Stephens, St Stephens Street until August 25th.

The Herald, August 20th 2013


Monday, 19 August 2013

Jim Haynes – The Original Edinburgh Man Returns

Jim Haynes has something of a dilemma on his hands. The legendary driving force behind the early days of the Traverse theatre in the 1960s, founder of the UK's first ever paperback bookshop in Edinburgh, counter-cultural polymath and host of the hottest dinner parties in town in his Paris home is bringing two show to this year's Fringe. Haynes' return to a producer's role shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who knows anything about the man who's probably the most well-connected man on the planet.

“Yeah, I remember introducing David Bowie to Lindsay Kemp,” Haynes casually mentioned one time after I'd told him I'd spent the night before watching Michael Clark's dance company do a routine set against a backdrop of the iconic video to Bowie's song, Heroes.

The trouble is, unlike every other eager beaver publicity person in town, Haynes doesn't want to oversell them, no matter how remarkable he might think both The Surrender and Broadway Enchante actually are.

“I'm wary of recommending things to people,” Haynes twinkles inbetween preparing for his annual pilgrimage to Edinburgh, “because they go expecting a ten, and if they only get an eight, then they're disappointed. If they go expecting a five and they get an eight, then they're happy. I call it Jim's law of rising and falling expectations, which is also the critic's dilemma.”

For the record, then, Haynes' two shows are very different beasts indeed. Broadway Enchante, as the name suggests, is a homage to the golden age of American musical theatre by French chanteuse Isabelle Georges and a full band.

“It's an investigation into what Broadway musicals are about,” says Haynes. “Isabelle is one of these women who fell in love with Judy Garland and musical films from an early age and started tap dancing. I'd met Isabelle in Edinburgh in a show at C venues called Judy and Me, and then I saw her do this show in Paris loved it, and knew they had to take it to Edinburgh.”

A solo female performer is at the heart of The Surrender as well, albeit in very different circumstances.

“I wonder how Edinburgh is going to cope with it,” Haynes says of the stage adaptation of his friend, dancer turned writer Toni Bentley's frank and unflinching sexual memoir of how she was liberated through anal sex.

“It's a sexual autobiography, I guess, “ says Haynes of a book which caused a sensation when it was first published in 2004. The stage version, Spanish film director and performed by actress Isabelle Stoffel, has already had a sell-out run at the National Theatre of Spain.

“It's about a woman being dominated,” Haynes says, “and is quite outrageous. It's not very PC.”

When Haynes is in town, he will also be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Traverse Theatre, which has come a long way since its bohemian beginnings in a former High Street brothel in 1963.
The theatre's current home, its third following a move from the High Street to its much-missed former home in the Grassmarket was purpose-built in 1992, and remains arguably the most important venue in the entire Fringe.

One other venue Haynes will be spending time in is Summerhall, the newest and in some people's eyes most exciting kid on the Fringe block.

“I love Summerhall,” says Haynes. “I still love the Traverse, even though it's very diffferent to when I ran it. It's been institutionalised, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it different. Summerhall hasn't been institutionalised yet, sand I don't know if it ever will.”

Haynes quotes Richard Demarco, who was also a key figure in Traverse history, sand who now houses his substantial archive in Summerhall, where a fiftieth anniversary Traverse exhibition will also take place.

“It feels like the early Traverse,” says Haynes.

One thing that wasn't possible for Haynes to bring to Edinburgh for the Traverse's fiftieth was a revisitation by an old friend who Haynes says was the original reason why the Traverse happened.

“In 1960 I saw an actress called Jane Quigley in a production of Orpheus Descending in 1960 when she was a student in Edinburgh and was still called Jane Quigley, and we became lovers. She was the reason I created the Traverse.”

Alexander went on to become a star on Broadway and in film, earning herself four Oscar nominations, for The Great white Hope, All The President's Men, Kramer Versus Kramer and Testament. In the 1990s Alexander later moved into politics, with then President Bill Clinton appointing her chair of the National Endowment of the Arts.

“What I really wanted to do,” says Haynes, “was to get Jane over to do a show at the Traverse, but they were already fully booked.”

While ill-health, including a heart-attack scare two years ago, have certainly reminded him of his mortality, Haynes remains tireless in his pursuit of the new. As someone now approaching his eightieth birthday, why, one wonders, does he keep on coming back to Edinburgh?

“I'm always gonna' give you a smartass answer to that,” he says, “and say that I never go back anywhere, I only go forward. I'm going forward to Edinburgh for the fifty-sixth time this year, and I'm very happy about that.”

The Surrender, Gilded Balloon, July 31st-August 26th, 1.30pm; Broadway Enchante, Assembly Hall, until August 26th, 7.35pm

The Herald, August 19th 2013


Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Tragedy of Coriolanus - Death Metal Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Death Metal aren't the most obvious of theatrical 
bed-fellows, especially when performed in Mandarin. Yet this is exactly 
the culture clash that ensues in Beijing People's Art Theatre's epic 
production of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, which opens as part of 
Edinburgh International Festival's drama programme next week. In a 
production which features some 100 bodies on a near-bare stage, veteran 
Chinese iconoclast Lin Zhaohua's version of Shakespeare's political 
tragedy makes the conflict between nations a noisy affair by having two 
of China's leading metal bands onstage.

Miserable Faith and Suffocated  are stalwarts and leading lights of a 
fertile Beijing metal scene, but remain little-known outside of their 
own country. Miserable Faith were formed in 1999, and by 2001 were 
regarded by many as the best nu-metal band in Beijing. Consisting of 
vocalist Gao Hu, guitarists Song Jie and Tian Ran, bass player Zhang 
Jing, harmonica player Qi Jing and drummer Chi Gongwei, aka Dawei, 
released their first record, This's A Problem, in 2001, and have 
released six albums since then.

“Our music style is mainly about hard core rap.,” female harmonica 
player Qi Jing explains. “Since 2008, our music has become gentler as 
we need some different ways of expression.”

Despite their nihilistic-sounding name, Miserable Faith draw 
inspiration from literature, and are particularly attracted to the 
roving spirit of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac.

“On the road is the core spirit of our band,” Qi Jing says of Kerouac's 
seminal and most widely read novel. “We are always encouraging young 
people to travel around the world. Miserable Faith is now one of the 
most famous underground rock bands in China. We are invited to many 
music festivals every year.”

Suffocated have been around even longer than Miserable Faith, forming 
in 1996 around an axis of vocalist Liu Zheng, lead guitarist Kou 
Zhengyu, rhythm guitarist Wu Peng and drummer Wu Gang. Both the drummer 
and bassist previously played in another metal outfit, Regicide. 
Despite their longevity, Suffocated didn't release a record until 2007.

Since then, both bands have become peers, frequently sharing live bills 
together. It was a natural fir for both bands when first selected to 
appear in The Tragedy of Coriolanus back in 2008. The Edinburgh dates 
not only marks the production's European premiere, but should give 
Miserable Faith and Suffocated some of the widest exposure they've 
received outside China to date.

“We were firstly recommended by someone who working in the theatre and 
finally selected by Mr. Lin,” says Qi Jing, Miserable Faith's female 
harmonica player. “This is our first time getting involved in theatre. 
We are in charge of most of the sound effects and music onstage. When 
we got involved in this play the first time in 2008, we felt really 
excited by it all. Everything about it was fresh to us. This time 
round, five years later, we prefer to a more personal approach to the 
play. Before our involvement, we knew very little about theatre and Mr. 
Lin. We were worried about  how the chemistry between us might work, 
but when we finally found Mr. Lin and [the lead actor in The Tragedy of 
Coriolanus] Mr. Pu Cunxin very kind and easy-going, and we felt pretty 
relaxed, because their respect for rock n’ roll makes us passionate.”

As far as Lin was concerned, co-opting the bands into his production 
was “In order to represent prominently the conflicting sides. I don’t 
really know much about the rock scene. After watching some bands play 
live, Mr Yi Liming (co-director, lighting and set designer) chose these 

Given that both Shakespeare and metal music are particularly rare 
beasts in China, The Tragedy of Coriolanus was something of a 
double-barrelled novelty for both audiences and actors alike.

“Theatre actors are really curious about working with rock bands,” 
according to Qi Jing. “Putting two rock bands together on stage makes 
their acts more powerful.”

As a director, Lin Zhaohua has always done things his own way. Lin 
graduated from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama in 1961, and joined 
the Beijing People's Art Theatre as an actor, before finding his career 
stalled by the Cultural Revolution. Lin later teamed up with dissident 
writer and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian for a trio of plays that 
began in  1982 with Absolute Signal. This marked the dawn of 
experimental theatre in China with Lin's trademark mix of 
confrontationalism and absurdism. Now in his late 70s, Lin refuses to 
be pigeon-holed by any particular style, and has never been shy of 
provoking his country's Communist authorities.

Coriolanus is based on the life of Roman leader Caius Marcius 
Coriolanus, and tells the story of the rise and fall of a brilliant 
Roman general who, having conquered the city of Corioles and hailed as 
a hero, is persuaded to run for Consul. When he is rejected by the 
people, however, Coriolanus vows to destroy Rome, and joins forces with 
his enemies to mount an attack.

The play's themes of popular discontent with government are dangerously 
contemporary, and was briefly banned in France in the 1930s because of 
what was seen as fascistic elements in the text. In
Communist China, one suspects the resonances of the play become 
explicit. Lin, however, has claimed not to be interested in politics or 
applying any particular agenda to his production. Although thought to 
have been written by Shakespeare some time around 1608, Coriolanus  
wasn't performed until after the Restoration in 1682. This was in a 
production by Nahum Tate, who rendered the play's final act as a 

Throughout the twentieth century, a stream of charismatic actors  took 
on the play's title role. Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Paul 
Scofield and Ian McKellan have all played Coriolanus, as have 
Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and Ralph Fiennes. One of the most 
celebrated performances in the play came from Laurence Olivier, who 
played Coriolanus twice, first in 1937, then again in 1959. In the 
latter production, Olivier famously performed Coriolanus' death scene 
by falling backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside 
down without the aid of wires. This remarkable image recalled the death 
of Mussolini.

More recently, in 2012, National Theatre Wales melded Shakespeare's 
play with Coriolan, Bertolt Brecht's unfinished adaptation, in which he 
aimed to make the play a tragedy of the workers rather than the 
individual. The play was only completed after Brecht's death in 1956 by 
Manfred Wekworth and Joachim Tenschert, and was eventually staged in 

As Coriolan/us, Mike Brooks and Mike Pearson's NTW production took 
place in a disused Ministry of Defence hanger, where the audience wore 
Silent Disco style headphones so the actors words could be heard as the 
action promenaded through the space.

In Lin's production, Pu Cunxin plays Coriolanus. Pu is a household name 
in China for his leading roles on film and television, sand is also 
Vice Chair of the Beijing People's Art Theatre, which is the  
equivalent of the National Theatre of Scotland or the Royal Shakespeare 
Company. As with  the bands he is working besides, however, he remains 
little known outside of his home country.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus isn't Lin's first Shakespeare production. In 
1989, Lin staged a stark production of Hamlet which pretty much ripped 
up the rule book of how to approach Shakespeare. Staged in a rehearsal 
room of the Beijing People's Art Theatre, Lin's production featured 
three performers, including Pu, dressed in their own clothes and 
performing in a room bare except for a barber's chair. By all accounts 
Lin's Hamlet more resembled something by Samuel Beckett than 

In stark contrast, the sheer scale of The Tragedy of Coriolanus means 
that only a stage as large as Edinburgh Playhouse can accommodate it. 
It was never Lin's intention, however, for his production to be on such 
a grand scale.

“I didn’t set out to make it epic,” he says, “but that’s how it turned 

For Miserable Faith and Suffocated, the experience of working on the 
production has given them an artistic credibility which has left their 
underground reputations untarnished. Not that they seem overly fussed 
about where they fit in with the rest of the Chinese music scene.

“To be honest, we don’t actually care about it,” Qi says. “We only hope 
that Chinese rock music
can  go far beyond Chinese football.”

The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 20th-21st, 

The Herald, August 17th 2013


Friday, 16 August 2013

Meredith Monk - On Behalf of Nature

Meredith Monk wasn't aware of When Bjork Met Attenburgh before we 
spoke, but suddenly I'm giving her a link to the recent Channel Four 
documentary that looks at the relationship between music and the 
natural world through the eyes of film-maker David Attenburgh and 
Icelandic singer, Bjork. The fact that I'm reading it down the line 
during a telephone call to the pioneering seventy-year old composer, 
director, vocalist and choreographer's New York speaks volumes about 
the hi-tech global village we live in. Given that Monk's return to 
Edinburgh International Festival this weekend  following her debut here 
in 2010 with the spiritually inclined Songs of Ascension is with a show 
called On Behalf of Nature, it's also somewhat ironic.

On Behalf of Nature is a poetic meditation on the environment and how 
it is gradually being eroded by man's lack of concern for it. With 
roots in Buddhist thought and the poetry of American Beat Gary Snyder, 
Monk and her Vocal Ensemble use six voices, including her own, 
woodwind, percussion, keyboard, violin and French Horn to score a work 
that gets back to nature in a quietly enquiring way.

“I was just very concerned about what is going on in our world,” Monk 
says in her dreamy and decidedly un-earnest voice. “It's pretty hard 
not to be. While I was working on Songs of Ascension, I was reading 
ecology books at the same time, and I had this image of a two-hundred 
year old woman going down into the earth.”

This image converged with Snyder's influence.

“I had never read him before,” Monk says, “but he's not only a poet, 
but an environmental activist and a Buddhist. I practice Buddhism as 
well, but a different form from him. So I went back to his early work, 
 from the hippy times, around 1970, and the things he was writing about 
then look very much like what is going on now in the world. Snyder 
talked about speaking on behalf of nature, and I took that as a title 
and decided to pick up the gauntlet.”

From these starting points, Monk developed the piece organically.

“I wanted to find some new musical worlds,” she says, “but I didn't 
want to do it as a music concert, although you could do it that way. It 
was finding out how to integrate all these different worlds, but I 
didn't want us running round pretending to be little birds flapping our 
arms about. When material came up, it was important not to reject it or 
question it, but to trust it and see where it went, and to make sure 
that the movement and gestures didn't cancel out the music.”

On Behalf of Nature's concerns tallies with a similarly inclined focus 
on the natural world from artists and musicians as diverse as Chris 
Watson and the Glasgow-based Hanna Tuulikki. While Watson releases 
albums and makes installations using recordings from around the globe 
in-between working as sound recordist for David Attenburgh, Bill 
OddieOddie and others, Tuulikki draws inspiration from birds and other 
animals to make vocal-based performance pieces.

On Behalf of Nature also chimes with a generation of musicians who are 
turning their backs on laptop-based culture to find more natural sounds 
played on real instruments or else just their voices alone.

“This acoustic culture brings back touch,” Monk says, “and we need that”

Despite its themes, one thing that On Behalf of Nature categorically 
isn't is a didactic piece of banner-waving rhetoric. That not only 
wouldn't be Monk's style. It would also be too easy.

“I wouldn't even say it's about the subject,” Monk says. “Rather, it's 
(+italics)dealing(-italics) with the subject. We're looking at a world 
that we're in danger of losing, and how do you do something like that 
without wagging your finger? For me, it's about how you look at the 
world, and, living in it, how you have to try and do something of 
benefit, and become more conscious of it. I think I always knew these 
things as an artist, but since I started practising Buddhism I've 
become more aware of its benefits.

“Bit I feel good about this piece. I think it's got a kind of magic to 
it. It's immersive, and it leaves space for the audience to absorb the 
full spectrum. It's very life-affirming.”

Beyond On Behalf of Nature, Monk will be spending time on much smaller 
projects, including a new piece for cello and a documentary film. As 
for anything on the scale of On Behalf of Nature, Monk isn't sure.

“I play the waiting game,” she laughs lightly. “That's about living in 
discomfort, hanging out in the unknown and going to the edge of the 
cliff again until something happens. Just going from project to project 
in a really organised way might be easier, because the way I wait and 
work is really uncomfortable, but I think I prefer it that way.”

On Behalf of Nature, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 16th-17th, 8pm, 
August 18th, 2.30pm.

The Herald, August 16th 2013


Histoire d'amour

Kings Theatre
Two stars
When a school-teacher spots an attractive young woman on the train, he 
decides there and then that he'll marry her. He gets there eventually 
in Chilean company Teatro Cinema's rendering of Regis Jauffret's 
unrelenting novel, but before that he stalks her, rapes her, beats her 
and violates her in every way imaginable, and that's just on the night 
he first sees her. Beyond this, the man becomes dangerously obsessed 
with the woman he learns is named Sofia, his self-loathing manifesting 
itself in flashes of rage in a blindly self-deluded one-sided courtship 
until, finally, she acquiesces.

This is an ugly little piece of male fantasy wish fulfilment which, in 
Teatro Cinema's hands, becomes a comic book strip cartoon writ large, 
complete with speech bubbles, as actors Julian Marres and Bernardita 
Montero interact with a meticulously synchronised set of animations in 
director Juan Carlos Zagal's production.

The story is told through the man's increasingly brutal interior 
monologue, while, significantly, Sofia barely says a word, made 
voiceless by the man, and indeed Jauffret's, objectification. Instead 
Montero murmurs Sofia’s protest while being flung around the stage in 
gracefully choreographed scenes of psychological and physical abuse. 
Such counterpoints of physical beauty with acts of violence is at odds 
with such an ugly story.

So absurd do the man's justifications for his actions become that at 
one point you think he's going to wake up on the train and realise it 
was all a crazy dream. While there's no doubt that men lust after women 
on public transport, to give such extreme behaviour some kind of 
existential weight does Teatro Cinema's stunningly realised aesthetic 
no favours.

The Herald, August 16th 2013


Breaker - Graeme Maley Brings Iceland to Scotland

In the run up to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, there has been much talk of Iceland as a role model to aspire to. As is usually the case, artistically and culturally, connections have been ongoing between the two countries for some time. While the recent left-field music festival, Tectonics, which presented events in both nations, is the highest profile Scots-Icelandic collaboration so far, theatre too has explored the similarities between the two cultures.

Much of this has been down to Graeme Maley, the Ayrshire-born director who has worked extensively in Iceland, and has brought a series of new translations of Icelandic plays to Scotland. The latest of these is Breaker, a new piece by Salka Gudmundsdottir, a young female Icelandic writer who looks set to make waves during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Maley's production of Breaker has already scooped the Best Theatre Award in this year's Adelaide Fringe, where it also picked up the Underbelly Edinburgh Award, which enabled the show's capital run.

“It's a story about a woman living on an unspecified island in the North Atlantic,” Maley says of Gudmundsdottir's play. “There's been a tragic event, and the woman meets a young guy from the mainland, who's gone to the island to discover his family's past. She becomes extremely defensive, with each of them defending their cultures, even though neither of them are completely right. So for me it's about these two cultures clashing, and both of them finding a way through that.”

Such a scenario sounds uncannily like something from the Scottish contemporary theatre canon over the last couple of decades, a notion which hasn't gone un-noticed by Maley.

“That's what intrigued me about it,” he says. “There's a whole back-drop to the play that's about sea myths, and there are all these connections between Scandinavian and Scottish cultures that you can see. The poetry in the two countries share similarities as well, and with that in mind, in translating it we've given it a very Scottish voice.”

This isn't the first time Maley has approached an Icelandic play in this way. Maley previously worked on a Scots-inflected translation of Jon Atli Jonasson's play, Djupid, or The Deep. Jonasson's monologue was told by a fisherman who survived a shipwreck, and was another example of how a specifically Icelandic story could be readily transplanted to Scottish shores. Both The Deep and Broken were first seen in Scotland as part of Oran Mor's A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime drama, with Breaker being seen in 2012 in a twenty-five minute version called And The Children Never Looked Back.

Maley's connection with Iceland began several years ago. After training as a director at Queen Margaret University, he became an assistant director at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, working on several shows there and at Dundee Rep, as well as directing Susannah York in Picasso's Women before wanderlust took him elsewhere. Maley became artistic director of Liverpool-based new writing company, The New Works.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Maley worked with the London-based Paines Plough company on the development of Abi Morgan's play, Great Moments of Discovery. This was in association with the Arts Educational organisation, and saw Maley work extensively with student groups, including a party from Iceland.

Several years later, Maley was invited by one of his former charges to devise a piece with a group in Reykjavik. This developed into a show called Cactus Milk Garpur, or Klink & Bank in Icelandic. Out of this, Maley ended up directing the Icelandic premiere of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, which played at Hafnarfjardarleikhusid in Reykjavik, before touring Iceland.

“Audiences loved that play,” says Maley of what translated as Svarturfugl, “even though the whole process of trying to capture the rhythms of David Harrower's writing into Icelandic was sometimes more successful than others. They don't have as many words as we do, and it’s the same translating Icelandic into English, and then Scots. It's about capturing the essence of the play.”

It was after seeing his production of Blackbird that Jonasson first approached Maley with a view to him directing Djupid. It was Jonasson too who first introduced Maley to Gudmundsdottir, who Jonasson was mentoring. Dividing his time between Scotland and Iceland, Maley directed Iain Robertson, who appears in Breaker alongside Isabelle Joss, in Ronan O'Donnell's prison-set monologue, Angels, for the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This year he also directed Rona Munro's translation of contemporary Chinese play, Secrets, presented at Oran Mor by the National Theatre of Scotland.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, Maley directed Caryl Churchill's fiercely political short play, Seven Jewish Children, for Borgarleikhus in Reykjavik, and translated a new Icelandic play, Little Jesus, into English for the same company for a production in Madrid.

For all the international interest that Maley's productions of Icelandic drama have garnered across the globe, outside of his production of Blackbird, a similar interest in Scottish drama in Iceland has yet to be fully reciprocated. Indeed, interest in home-grown playwrights there is minimal, according to Maley.

“I did a series of readings of Scottish plays there,” he says, “and frankly there wasn't a great deal of interest. That's really different everywhere else. In Adelaide the amount of interest in Breaker was incredible. Having said that, there isn't really a culture of new writing in Iceland, so there's no real community in the way that there is in Scotland, and there's no one theatre that has a policy of putting on new plays. So it's actually easier for Icelandic playwrights to get their work on in Scotland and in other places than it is in Iceland, which is bizarre. What's been fascinating for me is taking Icelandic writing, and looking at it closely, and giving it a Scots voice. ”

Breaker, Underbelly until August 25th,

The Herald, August 16th 2013


Thursday, 15 August 2013

Histoire d'amour - Teatro Cinema Return

The last time Chilean theatre director Juan Carlos Zagal's Teatro Cinema company appeared at Edinburgh International Festival in 2010, they brought with them some very dark materials indeed. That was with Sin Singre (Without Blood), adapted from a novel by Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, and an original piece, The Man Who Fed Butterflies. Now they return with the final part of their trilogy, Histoire d'amour, this time adapted from Regis Jauffret's novel about a quasi sado-masochistic relationship between an English teacher and a woman he sees on the underground.

Histoire d'amour is a tragic story of two people searching for love who get lost in a dark labyrinthine abyss,” according to Zagal. “Their souls get lost and sink because they cannot find a way out of this encounter that condemns them. This is a story that shows the emotional instability of many of us nowadays, where the masculine side is strong, and exerts a strong influence over the feminine principles of receptiveness ,mysteriousness and creativity.

“As there is no such balance between both these principles, we get out of our minds and turn into mindless people. It also reflects any kind of abuse committed against someone by means of violence and domination. It is an obsessive story which points out all we ignore about love and tolerance , and is very graphic at times. It shows how we as human beings can act with absolute indolence towards the people that surround us, which makes impossible the union,communication or whatever we understand is the meaning of living together as a couple.”

As with all Teatro Cinema productions, the really interesting thing beyond such a harrowing-sounding scenario comes in the telling. As the company name implies, Zagal, art director Laura Pizarro, designer Luis Alcaide and multi-media director Montserrat Antequerra have created a unique fusion of film and theatre techniques that synchronises live performers with projections that allows the action to flow into more panoramic scenarios than mere scene changes allow for. Given the noirish sensibilities of the company's two previous works, Histoire d'amour wasn't a natural choice for Teatro Cinema, and even at this stage Zagal expresses reservations.

“I don’t know yet if it is right for Teatro Cinema,” he says , “and remain doubtful. It was pure intuition that made us choose it in the hope that it would lead us somewhere. The novel is related from a personal point of view. It seems like a long monologue that strongly describes the psychotic state of mind of one of the people involved. We noticed its powerful drama and its cinematographic synthesis. The play is a trip to hell. It holds the people as prisoners and condemns them to a metaphoric stress , and gives them no break, condemning their soul. This made us investigate mental illness and disorders in sexual behaviour, and the strength that can make us rise or drop us into the deepest with no transition , from a state of euphoria to the deepest depression. From light to darkness, a life full of violent contrasts.”

Histoire d'amour's place in the trilogy may seem tangential, but Zagal takes a more lateral view of how they sit together.

“All three pieces take place in cities,” he says, “and they are all very solitary and labyrinthine. In all three, as well, there is a search of that energy we call love and in the in the meeting between
a man and a woman. In all three, there is the the concept of mise en scene, of the journey in time
and space of the story and the characters in an instant way, as in the movies and in literature.”

With technology so crucial to the Teatro Cinema experience, the company's approach has moved on considerably since their last Edinburgh visit.

“Very clearly there is an evolution in the mixing and melting of languages .Without the previous pieces the creative committee would not have reached the visual synthesis offered by Histoire d'amour. One solid problem in this instant time-space trip is defined by the action of the actor on stage,his symbolic universe full of constellations of ideas and emotions, and his real body ,his organic material.

“We work a lot with the synthetic and expressive movements of the actor ,and his moving in space.
We've improved more and more towards the perfect in the use of stage utensils in combination with virtual settings. We have also improved the relationship between actor and video, in order to achieve a greater fluidity.”

Beyond such melding of forms to create a new theatrical language, for Zagal and co, it is the story itself that matters.

“We wanted to begin a journey to the dark and hidden side of ourselves,” Zagal says,“
and here we are, with a boat as a nutshell in a rough sea, a little stranded, and trusting
our theatrical experience to end the journey.”
Histoire d'amour, King's Theatre, August 15th-17th, 8pm; August 17th, 2pm.

The Herald, August 15th 2013


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Poet Speaks - A Homage To Allen Ginsberg by Patti Smith and Philip Glass

Edinburgh Playhouse
five stars
Rock and roll, Beat poetry and contemporary classical music aren't 
exactly staples of Edinburgh International Festival's programme. The 
appearance of composer Philip Glass and singer, poet and shamanic force 
of nature Patti Smith to pay homage to counter-cultural guru Allen 
Ginsberg, however, is a bold and unexpected move that should point the 
way for EIF's future. The New York duo's opening performance of Smith's 
Notes To The Future before an audience of ageing hippies and young 
bohemians is all too appropriate in this respect.

The evening is divided into four loose-knit sections. In the first, 
Smith reads words penned by both Ginsberg and herself, with Glass 
discreetly underscoring on the piano. As Glass leaves the stage, Smith 
is joined by guitarist Tony Shanahan, who accompanies her on emotive 
renderings of songs from her back pages. Glass returns to play three 
solo miniatures before Smith rejoins him for some final excursions into 
disembodied poetics. All this is accompanied by back-projected images 
of Ginsberg, from young rake to Beat generation icon to wise old sage.

This only hints at the sheer power of a compendium of work that goes 
gloriously off-piste from the advertised programme, with Smith 
pre-empting each song with readings of several Robert Louis Stevenson 
poems for children culled from a book she bought the day of the gig in 
a shop opposite Stevenson's birth-place. A sense of both their own and 
Ginsberg's mortality permeates the evening, and, while mournful and 
elegiac, the rolling thunder of Ginsberg's words becomes thrillingly 
transcendent in Smith's similarly unfettered delivery. By the end, 
Smith's arms are raised in an act of homage and salvation in a 
life-affirming evening to cherish.

The Herald, August 14th 2013


Fringe Theatre - The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning – St Thomas of Aquin's School – four stars The Secret Agent – Traverse Theatre – three stars The Islanders – Underbelly – four stars

When whistle-blowing American soldier Bradley Manning was found guilty 
of espionage at the end of July, the old ideals of truth, justice and 
the American way suddenly seemed like more of a hollow mockery than 
ever before. It also made The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, Tim 
Price's dramatic rendering of Manning's story for National Theatre 
Wales, look like the most pertinent play on the planet.

When NTW first presented John E McGrath's production, it was in the 
Welsh school that Manning attended. For their Fringe run they do 
something similar, with the noises off and camouflage-clad figures 
occupying classrooms as the audience enter suggesting something a lot 
stronger than mere playground stuff. Once seated on four sides of the 
school's echoey assembly area, the audience witness Manning's course 
 from a displaced childhood between small-town Wales and America, as a 
bullied gay computer geek came to develop a disrespect for authority 
that would eventually bring about his downfall.

  Price does this by flitting between time-zones, from the little 
classroom protests that shaped Manning, to the stateside McJobs he 
seemed destined for, to his father refusing to pay him through college, 
and to Baghdad, where the grunts watched murders of civilians on their 
laptops as if they were video games. By having all six performers play 
Manning at various points, passing his glasses between them like a 
weapon, it suggests a common cause in which anyone could have done what 
he did.

All of this is energetically realised in a production which might well 
be NTW's Black Watch moment. Indeed, one can't help but note the odd 
stylistic nod to the National Theatre of Scotland's most popular show 
to date. McGrath and his team take things other ways, however, and 
when, with seemingly nothing to lose, Manning does leak the thousands 
of documents, it's with his head-phones on, as his action becomes as 
liberating and euphoric as a night surrounded by drag queens on the 
dancefloor of a gay disco. The documents themselves are thrown into the 
air like bunting at Mardi-gras.

The stark message that Manning may be about to be imprisoned for the 
rest of his life for telling the truth, is the starkest of come-downs 
in this vital piece of work, which every American politician should be 
frog-marched to see post-haste.
Until August 25th

When Joseph Conrad published his novel, The Secret Agent, in 1907,his 
tale of a reluctant agent provocateur who becomes embroiled in an 
anarchist plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory was an early example of 
the political thriller. In the post 9/11 age, it looks like even more 
of a template for the long-term effects of random acts of terrorism.

In Theatre O's hands, Conrad's story becomes something else again, as 
the company debunk any kind of straight literary adaptation in favour 
of a melting pot of post-modern vaudeville. Opening with the company 
inviting the audience to take a peek into their Cabinet of Desire, 
things eventually open out to the main story, in which Verloc becomes 
an agent for mysterious 'foreign powers.' At home with his wife and 
family, all seems normal, but when things go horribly wrong, Verloc's 
life literally blows up in his face.

Joseph Alford's production, devised with his cast of five and scripted 
by Matthew Hurt, fuses Victorian music hall, silent movie melodrama and 
magic lantern moodiness to make for something which initially appears 
charming but slights. As it slow-burns its way to an ending in which 
the waste of human life for a higher cause is brought tragically home, 
The Secret Agent becomes a darkly imagined catalogue of all the madness 
and despair it can muster.
Until August 25th

Before Eddie Argos became lead singer with smarty-pants alt-pop combo, 
Art Brut, and before Amy Mason became a writer and performer, they went 
out with each other as teenagers, living it up in a grotty bed-sit  
straight out of a kitchen-sink novel.  At some point in 1999, they ran 
away for a cheap holiday in a B&B on the Isle of Wight, before breaking 
up and going on to live very different lives.

Nearly fifteen years on, Mason and Argos have returned to the scene of 
the crime by way of this quite lovely lo-fi musical, which charts a 
rites of passage that moves between Mason's angsty adolescence and 
Argos' utter fecklessness in a dead-end town where mix-tapes, Top of 
the Pops and indie discos are the only salvation.

Moving between Mason's spoken-word monologues and Argos' equally naked 
songs that counterpoints her version of events with his own, this is as 
raw as it gets in a charmingly low-key  rites of passage that's both 
poignant and funny. Where Mason is deadpan in her delivery, 
Argos,accompanied by Jim Moray on guitar, is expansive and needy. 
Opposites attract indeed in this lovely little show that lays bare a 
set of dog-eared but still cherished postcards from a very English 
indie-pop romance.
Until August 25th

The Herald, August 14th 2013

Fringe Theatre - An Actor's Lament – Assembly – three stars Kiss Me, Honey, Honey! – Gilded Balloon – three stars Hooked – Sweet – three stars

When two or more theatrical types get together, excessive gossiping 
will ensue. As alcohol and other substances flow, this will invariably 
descend into a laughter-punctuated bitch-fest of epic proportions. So 
it goes in An Actor's Lament, the latest vehicle for tireless Fringe 
veteran, one-time enfant terrible and theatrical icon Steven Berkoff, 
who has been venting his spleen onstage outwith the mainstream for 
almost half a century.

This grotesque pastiche of theatre line might well be Berkoff's 
manifesto, as an actor turned playwright, a writer and an actress 
unleash their rhyming coupleted litanies on targets including the 
critics (natch), the theatrical establishment, bad directors, writers 
and other actors, the West End, the TV drama treadmill, and, ooh, 
anyone who isn't them, really. While one actor riffs on their personal 
pet hate, the other two drape themselves behind, miming out the 
largesse and excesses of what looks like one endless first night party.

Set on a stage bare except for an ornate chair that will eventually 
become Berkoff's Shakespearian throne, this is a bitterly observed and 
flamboyantly self-reflexive in-joke. A million conversations like this 
may be going on in rented Edinburgh flats right now. They won't, 
however, possess the classically inspired relish of the man who turned 
bile into an art-form.
Until August 20th.

Middle-aged spread moves in mysterious ways in Kiss Me, Honey, Honey!, 
Philip Meeks' new comic vehicle for the double act of Andy Gray and 
Grant Stott, both more used to sharing a stage during panto season. 
Ross and Graham find themselves neighbours in a shabby bed-sit, where 
they bond over old Shirley Bassey records and eccentric Graham's 
guinea-pigs, Bette and Tom. Both in search of true love following their 
downwardly mobile change of circumstances, speed-dating and online 
chat-rooms brings out every grotesque desperado I town, while the 
mysterious Pepper Tiptree becomes the object of both mens' affections.

Meeks' play is a game of two halves in Sam Kane's quick-fire 
production. One minute it's a sit-com style bedsit-land Odd Couple 
peppered with slapstick and occasional flashes of pathos, the next it 
lurches into a madcap absurdist detective story before Ross and Graham 
finally find their way  home. If that makes for a slightly schizoid 
seventy minutes, it's more than compensated for by both men's 
performances. Gray is an old hand at playing the hang-dog loser, and he 
does it with aplomb here. Stott, however, is a revelation capturing 
Graham's every oddball tic with guileless intent. It's with the 
smattering of wig and hat changes that sees Gray and Stott morph into 
assorted landladies, house-guests and dogging vicars where they really 
come into their own in this two for the price of one comic confection.
Until August 26th.

Art, love and children, writer Elizabeth Smart suggests at one point in 
Hooked, Carolyn Smart's series of bite-size biographies of seven 
'scandalous' women, are the only things that matter. Performed by 
Canadian actor Nicky Guadagni in Layne Colman's production, these are a 
set of variables that occupy most of Smart's subjects to a greater or 
lesser degree in a variety of forms. Perhaps not so much with moors 
murderer Myra Hindley, who tells her story with Guadagni curled up on a 
dimly-lit chair, although her obsessive love for accomplice Ian Brady 
is akin to that of Unity Mitford's bond with Adolf Hitler.

One thing that is consistent here is that, despite their own wilful and 
powerful personalities, each woman appear to have ended up being 
defined by the men or women they loved, from Zelda Fitzgerald to the  
Bloomsbury Group's Dora Carrington, Elizabeth Smart, Carson McCullers 
and Jane Bowles. By giving them voice, however briefly, Carolyn Smart's 
poetic interpretations of each don't fully give them enough breathing 
space to say anything other than the acolytes and literary fan boy and 
girls already know. This is a shame, as Guadagni makes each flesh with 
a virtuosity that can flit from a northern English murderer to an 
upper-crust right winger in an instant.
Until August 25th.

The Herald, August 13th 2013


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Nirbhaya – Assembly – five stars

There's a moment in Nirbhaya, South African writer/director Yael
Farber's theatrical study of events leading up to and following the
gang rape of a young woman on a crowded bus in New Delhi in December
2012 when you realise just how powerful a work it is that you're
watching. The ensemble cast have already set a ritualistic tone with a
mixture of reportage and first person testimony from abused women who
stopped being silent after the horrific incident.

As becomes clear from one woman's story of how her husband set her on
fire, then beat her so badly that it ruined the surgery that followed,
these litanies of violence, abuse and rape at the hands of brothers,
fathers and husbands aren't culled from journalistic interviews. These
things actually happened to the women onstage, and, as they tell their
stories, by turns shocking and heartbreaking, they bare their scars
every day.

As damning and shaming an indictment of institutionalised misogyny on a
mass scale as this is, Yarber has also created a beautiful, if at times
emotionally draining work of art which can't fail to touch the lives of
all who see it. Nirbhaya means 'fearless one,' and the victims and
survivors who tell their story are certainly that in a heartbreaking
but utterly essential piece of work. What followed the December 2012
atrocity was Indian women's Spartacus moment. While it should never
have had to created, Nirbhaya has become that moment's manifesto.
Until August 26th

The Herald, August 13th 2013


Monday, 12 August 2013

Leaving Planet Earth

4 stars
Suspension of disbelief is everything in Edinburgh-based site-specific auteurs Grid Iron's science-fiction spectacular, which moves its audience between worlds in epic fashion. Old Earth is finished, and a mass migration programme to a New Earth has been initiated. Chief architect of this is Vela, who has become a figurehead for the new society.

We're told all this during a film in a blacked-out bus as we travel out to the new planet. We've already checked in to an ambient soundtrack, and, once we've crossed the threshold as the final in-comers before the ties with old earth are cut, are given a guided tour by assorted mandarins who explain how our shiny new future will pan out. Behind all this, however, things aren't quite what they seem, as some of New Earth's inhabitants nostalgically cling to totems of their past held in the Old Earth Museum, while Vela herself appears to be falling apart.

Set mainly in the stunning confines of Edinburgh International Climbing Centre in Ratho, Catrin Evans and Lewis Hetherington's production is a dazzling whirligig of hi-tech sound and vision. Content-wise, it reads like an extended episode of any 1960s and 1970s cult sci-fi TV show you'd care to name, and is full of the sense of paranoia and prophecy of them all in a futuristic study of the sort of social control that is becoming endemic in the world right now. If one yearns for more depth, and to find out what happens beyond the triumphalistic finale, one can't help but be captured by a moment that promises you the world, but looks destined to leave you stranded instead.

The Herald, August 12th 2013


Leaving Planet Earth - Grid Iron's Worlds Collide

This time last week, Edinburgh-based site specific experts Grid Iron were strictly earth-bound. Rehearsals for their Edinburgh International Festival contribution, Leaving Planet Earth, were taking place in a former Morningside church which has been converted into a drama studio. As of this weekend past, however, the company have blasted off to Edinburgh International Climbing Centre in Ratho, which doubles up as New Earth in director Catrin Evans and writer Lewis Hetherington's new play.

The play casts the audience as the final new arrivals from Old Earth, which has been decreed no longer a viable place to live. With mass migration into space seemingly the only alternative, the umbilical cord to the old planet is about to be cut. In its place, the idyllic dawn of a brave new world. Or is it?

Such scenarios have long been the stuff of science-fiction literature and film, from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to hippy sci-fi films such as Silent Running. On stage, however, outside of Ken Campbell's epic 1970s take on Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's the Illuminatus Trilogy and Tom McGrath's little seen 1978 play, The Android Circuit, sci-fi has rarely had any major impact until now.

Unlike much science-fiction, however, there is no apocalyptic scenario In Leaving Planet Earth. Nor is the landscape a dystopian one. What there is in terms of production, at least, is a fully immersive experience for the audience, who must explore their new home even as they consider why they are there.

“Old Earth is in its final stages of life,” says Evans. “It's finished, chaos is reigning, and people are choosing to leave. What we aren't doing is transporting people to the future. It's 2013, but it's an alternative 2013. We've been working on a film which places the new arrivals in the context of where we are in this alternative 2013, and then the audience take a leap onto New Earth, which is where things happen.”

The roots of Leaving Planet Earth date back to January 2010, when Evans read an article by writer and environmental activist, George Monbiot.

“It gestured towards the notion that in a consumerist society like the one we live in, that we're always trying to buy our way out of trouble,” says Hetherington, “and that we think that we're so clever we can solve any problem by buying it, and that we must keep growing to keep on consuming. The language used was all about economic growth, and Monbiot gestured towards this notion that the Earth could become this ultimate disposable item.”

This inspired Evans to think about applying Monbiot's notions to a theatre show.

“At that point I just wanted to explore something about humanity's first migration into space,” she says. “I was always interested more in a migration rather than anything apocalyptic or the world coming to an end after a meteorite hits the Earth. It wasn't about that. It was about choices, and choosing to leave something behind, so I wanted to discover what story was going to be.”

Hetherington and Evans had already been talking about collaborating on something, while Evans had worked with Grid Iron as assistant director, both on the company's pub-set Charles Bukowski compendium, Barflies, and on the swing-park set Decky Does A Bronco. When Grid Iron first approached Evans to propose a project of her own, Evans in turn contacted Hetherington with her idea.

“The idea of it being science-fiction influence came in quite quickly and quite organically,” says Hetherington, “because we were talking about a migration into space, and then we got some actors in a room to see how the characters and story developed.

Evans points out that “We only had two characters in mind at that stage, but we didn't know what their story would be.”

“We're both very passionate about science fiction anyway,” says Hetherington, “and we very quickly got into discussions about what science-fiction, what is fantasy science-fiction and everything else that goes with it. We wanted to embrace all of that, but at the same time ground things in very human stories.”

This is what all good science-fiction has done, be it in H.G. Wells' novels, or Ray Bradbury's short stories, which sometimes aren't recognisable as science-fiction at all.

“One of the best things about science-fiction,” Evans observes, “is the clues that it gives you. You can read something and not know what it means, then a hundred pages later it all clicks into place.”

In the early stages of development, a more intimate approach was mooted, with the idea of just one performer in an attic observatory playing to an audience of ten.

“Then we saw the site at Ratho,” says Hetherington, “and it just spoke to us.”

As with all science-fiction, Leaving Planet Earth sounds a bit closer to home than it at first appears.

“One of the things we're interested in is the idea of living in an opt-in society,”says Evans. “That's why we didn't want to set the play in a dystopian society. These people who've left earth believe that what they're doing is right, and whether people agree with that or not is a different matter, but when the dilemmas on stage are real personal decisions, that's when things become interesting.”

Hetherington is more succinct.

“We're interested in putting a lens on now.”

Leaving Planet Earth begins at Edinburgh International Conference Centre and continues at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, Ratho, August 10th-24th, 8pm.

The Herald, August 12th 2013



Kings Theatre
Four stars
“My tiny body carries the weight of the world,” says Gregor Samsa in Wu 
Hsing-kuo's free adaptation of Franz Kafka's seminal novella for Wu's 
Taiwan-based Contemporary Legend Theatre. Such a notion is the rub of 
what is clearly a very personal take on Kafka's story of a young man 
who wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a 
giant bug.

Utilising a fusion of ancient Peking Opera techniques and state of art 
projections, Wu performs solo, playing both Gregor and the sister he 
dotes on, while even a black-and-white clad Kafka makes an appearance, 
willing the empty shell Gregor has become to live. Wu's version of 
Gregor crawls out of a rock-like structure looking not unlike a 1970s 
Dr Who monster, but once he launches himself into the piece, even the 
bug's tendrils seem to have been choreographed to perfection. Out of 
this Wu lays bare Gregor's life of drudgery by way of a back story for 
Gregor as an abandoned orphan, something which had a profound effect on 
his gradual sense of lovelessness.

Wu may be the only person onstage, but his riveting performance is 
enabled by the stunning array of visual effects, and especially by a 
ten-piece band, who, like Wu, take traditional Taiwanese fare and make 
it thrillingly modern. By the end, Gregor may have been abandoned, but, 
in Wu's hands, he has managed to shed his old skin enough to find 
liberation enough to soar.

The Herald, August 12th 2013


Friday, 9 August 2013

Metamorphosis - Contemporary Legend Theatre on Kafka

As role models for budding young existentialists go, there are few more recognisable than Gregor Samsa, the down-trodden salesman who morphs into a giant bug in Franz Kafka's 1915 novella. This is something Wu Hsing-kuo, the maverick driving force behind the Taiwan-based Contemporary Legend Theatre since the company's inception in 1986, recognises in his new multi-media solo stage version which he brings to Edinburgh International Festival this month.

The production follows Mr Wu's equally singular take on Shakespeare's King Lear, which Contemporary Legend Theatre brought to Edinburgh three years ago. Then too, Mr Wu applied a sense of isolation he gained while training in Peking Opera from an early age. Similarly, as with Lear, he applies a very personal take on his portrayal of Gregor.

I feel that my situation resembles Gregor,” says Mr Wu, “who shoulders the responsibility for his family. From the perspective of modern people, traditional Peking opera is not unlike that giant monstrous vermin, which never leaves its home but is forced to a life of solitude.
I have always been solitary. During the eight years in opera school, from the ages of twelve to twenty, I was always assigned the roles of historical heroes. Kafka said that 'Sometimes, I doubt that I skipped childhood and went directly into adulthood.' Having been suppressed in the process of growing up myself, that resonates. I liked running in the woods. I liked singing. I liked bugs, and I never stepped on one. I would feed a bug with flower petals, and watch it secrete silk to form a cocoon, until it turned into a butterfly. Often I am very touched, and learn that the meaning of life is to stay alive. I am very moved by the simplicity and poetic quality of Kafka’s works.”

While Mr Wu applies Peking Opera techniques to his performance, the sixty year old is also keen on a constant sense of reinvention in his work, hence throwing video into the mix.

My Shakespearean productions consist of adaptation and cultural translation. This time, I adopt metatheatre, enacting not only Metamorphosis, but also the stories of the author and the actor. Though incorporating technology, this is no less a theatre of nature. The stage is reminiscent of nature and our familiar environment, leading us to a nature of our creation or imagination, and images are employed to help the audience look into themselves. The images are not designed to create visual impact, otherwise it would be a critique of technology, and that is not my intention. Instead, I hope to present poetic beauty to the audience. Indeed, this is my most 'beautiful' creation. Beauty is my principle for the visual, music, dance, and performance. I believe Kafka would agree with me that the pursuit of beauty comprises the highest bliss in life.

“It is of utter importance and there should be no limit in border-crossing. Tradition should be cherished. It is the root, ethics, and wisdom of contemporary theatre and should be honoured as such. Mine is a performance style that is both Eastern and Western, both classical and futurist, and both distant and immediate. I call this theatre 'unlimited theatre.' Only through such revitalization can Peking opera survive and thrive in contemporary theatre.”

While remaining in charge of the production, Mr Wu worked with a stream of collaborators on his production of Metamorphosis. Numerous research materials were provided by a Kafka consultant. Mr Wu then spent six months reading and taking notes, before knitting together six scenes taken from his researches. A libretto was then rendered into classical modern verse by writer, Chang Ta-chun, while the play's music was developed over four stages before being arranged with the script. Set and costume alone took eight months to make, with the bug costume and female costume alone taking three months. As Mr Wu observes, “though this is a solo performance, it is not simple.”

Metamorphosis has previously been seen on stage in 1969 when a young Steven Berkoff played Gregor. Berkoff later directed another young firebrand, Tim Roth, in a similarly physical style. While those productions were undoubtedly physically demanding, Mr Wu's is a major feat of endurance.

It is like being flayed,” he says. “I feel that I metamorphose as well. Each scene requires solid technique in role shifting and performance. For example, the bug wears a mask and heavy armour while manoeuvring long feathers above his head. This is very challenging. The sister’s role is also very demanding. She puts on make-up while singing Kunqu opera, and she walks on stilts. I also incorporate techniques from modern dance. The performance is a hundred minutes long without an intermission and with quick costume changes. In short, it takes enormous energy and stamina.

As for Metamorphosis' enduring appeal, Mr Wu posits a defiantly political note.

It’s a 'blow and a shout,' he says, which, in proverbial Chinese, is a timely warning. “Those with authority disregard others’ right to live and demolish our nature. Kafka said: 'Only sons can make mistakes. Fathers never admit themselves guilty.' He also said, we were born to deep debt, and that the longer we live, the more we owe. Isn’t he right? Now, every government is in debt. Metamorphosis speaks for young people, for our dreams. Kafka’s writing wakes us up from deadly inertia, and I am truly moved. I hope to echo him with my own story, leading the audience into their labyrinthine mind so they can find freedom, hope, and rebirth. Kafka said 'There are only two choices in life. Be yourself or put up with reality.' Young people, stand up and keep your head upright!”

Metamorphosis, King's Theatre, August10th-11th, 8pm, August 12th, 3pm.

The Herald, August 9th 2013


Paul Rooney and Leeds United

Edinburgh College of Art
August 1st-September 1st
If ever there was a match made in northern English heaven, it's this one between Liverpool-born polymath Paul Rooney and arts collective Leeds United. While Rooney has plundered pop culture to create a series of fantastical parallel universes featuring the likes of open-top bus tours, 1960s counter-cultural icon Jeff Nuttall, and a sprite trapped in a 12” vinyl record called Lucy Over Lancashire, the pseudonymously inclined Leeds United appropriate other artists work for their own ends.

As Rooney returns to his alma mater mob-handed, he and Leeds United sniff each other out in a series of mutual homages, mythologies and make-believe histories that break cover with a project begun in 2011 that blurs the boundaries of who exactly did what. Such death-of-the-author tactics include a new video and text-based works, including a video that attempts to claim the Loch Ness monster for the Museum of Modern Art and a bleak little film about Yorkshire rhubarb sheds.

Wearing their roots on their sleeves as much as they explode them with a dark urban wit, this is the sight and sounds of the north rising again in a not so grim exchange of ideas.

The List, August 2013


Michael Nyman: Man With a Movie Camera

Summerhall, August 2nd-31st
Michael Nyman is best known for his work as a contemporary composer who has soundtracked a myriad of films, including several directed by the painterly Peter Greenaway, as well as scoring mainstream success for his work on Jane Campion's The Piano. Such visual motifs date right back to Nyman's work on early Greenaway oddities such as A Walk Through H. All this is compounded in the series of ten remakes of Ivan Vertov's pioneering 1929 film, Man With A Movie Camera, to make up the installation that forms Nyman's first ever exhibition in Scotland.

Nyman's original score for Vertov's experimental exploration of cinematic techniques by way of studies of Soviet urban life was first performed by his band in 2002, with a BFI DVD of the film also featuring Nyman's soundtrack, released shortly after. Vertov's original film will be shown alongside Nyman's remakes in such a way that will allow viewers to walk through the gallery space and watch all films or one. While Nyman mixes and matches his own footage, the aim of the collected works is to capture the essence of Vertov's spirit, but to make something that plays very much for today. 

The List, August 2013


Thursday, 8 August 2013

Hamlet - The Wooster Group, Richard Burton and the Return of Electronovision

The Wooster Group have always been interested in exploring the ghost in the machine. Ever since the New York-based avant-garde pioneers came stepping out of a 1960s counter-cultural underground high on cut-ups and multi-media, they have consistently redefined what theatre can be in the post-modern age. The Wooster Group's theatre us a theatre of research, in which documentation and research are vital tools, especially if tackling a 'classic' play.

More than a quarter of a century on from their first Edinburgh International appearance, The Wooster Group are prrsenting a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet which was first done in New York in 2007. As you might expect from the company, LeCompte's take on the play is different from any reverent, heritage industry approach to the bard which UK theatre-makers might doff their caps to.

“I hadn't thought to do the play,” LeCompte says, “but Scott Shepherd, who plays Hamlet, had been doing the play as a one-man show for years occasionally around New York. I think he wanted to do it with The Wooster Group, and he and Kate [Valk, long-standing Wooster Group member, who plays both Gertrude and Ophelia in the production] got a bunch of people together to work on as a reading. They invited me to come over, and I got hooked there on a couple of things. I got hooked on this ghost. I mean, how do you do that? I got hooked on Gertrude as well, and we started looking at a lot of films, and I got into the history of the play, and watching whatever recordings we could find.”

LeCompte also got to thinking about a performance of Hamlet she saw in the 1960s, which was a near legendary production directed by John Gielgud, which featured Richard Burton in the play's title role. With Burton at the height of his film star fame, the production was filmed from seventeen different camera angles using what was hailed as a new form known as Theatrofilm, which utilised something called Electronovision. The film was then shown over just two days in some two thousand cinemas across America, and remains little seen since then.

Despite the gloriously retro notions of Theatrofilm and Electronovision, the 1964 film can be seen as a precursor of the sorts of screenings major theatre and opera companies do with hot ticket productions, The Wooster Group are reversing the trend by having live actors onstage mimicking what's happening onscreen while allowing their own personalities to pour through. The result, as the film is at moments fast-forwarded, is an audacious remix for the twenty-first century.

“I got intrigued by recalling what I had seen,” LeCompte says, “and by remembering it and trying to recreate it in some way. Recreate isn't really the right word, but it wasn't about trying to reimagine it either, because I wanted it to be there, like a ghost. So I attached myself to the film because it was a full performance, and then asked Scott and Kate and the others, none of whom had seen it, to watch it and just do it. After that, we got deeper into this thing about how, if in the year 3000 or 2050, if someone came down from Mars and wanted to see an artifact of our civilisation, how do we figure out how it was performed? So we used that as an idea, to pretend that we didn't know how it was performed.

At the same time, Scott didn't like the way it was performed and Richard Burton's interpetration. Burton was doing it without stressing the end of the line, so Scott edited it, and it eventually beca,e what it is now.”
These are techniques LeCompte has been exploring since The Wooster Group's early days.
In their first visit to Edinburgh in 1986 with LSD Just The High Points (rather coyly billed by Edinburgh International Festival as The Road To Immortality Part Two), for instance, a company featuring Willem Defoe and a young Steve Buscemi in the cast, presented four very different sections to their play. One of these reconstructed what happened when the company left the camera running after dropping acid in the rehearsal room. Another presented a deranged courtroom drama that looked like a manic take on Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Miller had refused The Wooster Group the rights to his play, so they wrote their own. Their take on mass hysteria was a frenetic affair, punctuated occasionally by klaxon noises that moved the cast speedily on to the next scene in a way that lent it a filmic, jump-cut effect in much the same way as is the case in Hamlet.

“It's developed a lot,” LeCompte says, “and we've gradually found out a way of working and using the things that we do that works.”

Long term Wooster Group watchers can chart the company's development through a quartet if videos culled from the company's extensive archive, and screened by New Media Scotland as part of the EIF programme.

While The Wooster Group are regarded of the grand-parents of the theatrical cut-up, melding different pop cultural influences together, the last few years has seen a new breed of American theatre-makers who have picked up the Wooster Group's baton and run with it enough to help create an avant-garde new wave. Most notable of these id The T.E.A.M. (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), who use literature and film to explore more explicitly political concerns than The Wooster Group do, even as they are recognisable descendants. This is something that LeCompte gets positively clucky about.

“I see it all the time,” says LeCompte. “It never occurred to me in my wildest imagination that there would be a whole new theatre that say things differently. They've all taken different little pieces of what we worked on originally, and they're doing things that are radically different, but with the same ideas at the core. I think it's pretty great. It makes me very happy, and I never thought I really cared, but I do care when I see someone taking something that we explored and making it something that I can't recognise, something new. That's the most exciting thing. I do see people who are just straight copying without bringing anything to it, and that makes me fee really sad, but there are plenty of people who are reinventing it, and that's really nice.”

Hamlet, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 10th-13th, 7.30pm.

The Herald, August 8th 2013