Friday, 26 April 2013

The Thing About Psychopaths


Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
3 stars
At first glance, Perth-born writer Ben Tagoe's new play for Leeds-based veterans Red Ladder looks like the sort of timely dissection of financial corruption that fuelled the likes of Lucy Prebble's hit, Enron. Rod Dixon's production opens with naïve computer whiz-kid Noel being courted by wheeler-dealer Ray to make some easy cash by investing other people's money in illegal ventures without them knowing. When he's found out, Noel takes the rap while Ray slithers his way towards the next fall guy.

We next see Noel in a prison cell, forced to share with bully boy Michael and father figure Emmanuel. Noel may be incarcerated, but he finds himself caught up in the same cycle as before, co-opted into a black economy not of his making until he finally sells his soul in order to survive.

While there are shades here of David Mamet's early play, Edmond, which also ends in a prison cell, it's not difficult to see Tagoe's point, that corporate capitalism can corrupt both in glossy office spaces and behind bars. As valid and pertinent as this is, it's all slightly awkward and overloaded in the telling, with the early office scenes in particular never quite ringing true.

Things work much better in the prison scenes, and you can't help but feel genuinely scared for Shaun Cowlishaw's Noel as he's brutalised by William Fox's Michael. What isn't clear in all this, however, is who exactly the psychopath here actually is. Noel, after all is just one more victim of a system he can't help be warped by. It's those who set the agenda who are really deranged.

The Herald, April 26th 2013

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Sash - Hector MacMillan on his 1970s classic


One night Hector MacMillan was sitting backstage in the old Pool theatre in Edinburgh with the actors who'd just performed in his play, The Sash. MacMillan was told there were two men in the auditorium who wished to see him. On making his way out front, MacMillan was greeted by what he describes as “two very polite Orange men from Leith, who took issue with the content of the play.”

Given that The Sash looked at inter-familial conflicts on the day of the Orange Order's annual parade in Glasgow, this came as no surprise. The pair had to admit that, while they'd thoroughly enjoyed the play, you would never find anybody like Bill MacWilliam, the monstrous loyalist patriarch at its heart, in the Order itself.

MacMillan hadn't noticed that there were other people lingering in the Pool's tiny shop-front auditorium as well as the two Leithers. Only when a dissenting voice boomed out “like the Reverend Iain Paisley,” according to MacMillan, to interject, did he become aware of their presence.

“Excuse me, sir,” declaimed the man. “There most certainly are men like him.”

Then, turning his attention to MacMillan, “You'll never take that play to Northern Ireland,” he said, “and for that I am very sad.”

“That shut people up,” MacMillan remembers of an incident that occurred in 1973, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were aflame and sectarianism in Scotland was volatile on both sides of the religious divide.

Whether such strength of feeling will be provoked by the first revival of The Sash in twenty years in a production by Rapture Theatre remains to be seen. What is clear is that, while things have moved on in Northern Ireland, sectarianism is still a huge issue in Scotland and elsewhere.

“I was aware when I wrote it that was a risk,” MacMillan says of his best known of some thirty-odd plays, which include Scots adaptations of Moliere and works for both radio and television as well as the stage. “I warned the company in advance that it was going to be controversial, and when some leading actors started turning it down, I think they realised they had something different.”

MacMillan wrote The Sash after being approached by the BBC to pen an educational drama for young people based around prejudice. Having grown up in the Tollcross district of Glasgow, MacMillan had seen religious intolerance close-up in his neighbourhood. A stint in the army saw him stationed in Omagh during Orange parades season. Curious, he went into town to gauge the atmosphere.

“You could have cut the tension with a knife,” he says. “I'd never known anything like it.”

All of which fed into his twenty minute TV play, set in a folk club where the singing of Scots and Irish songs led to conflict. The level of interest the play garnered encouraged MacMillan to write an adult play, which, as The Sash, became the first two-act play to be produced at The Pool. The production later transferred to the Citizens Theatre, and proved so successful that it was later mounted at Glasgow Pavilion and Hampstead Theatre, while 7:84 Scotland also picked it up. A performance at the Pavilion was filmed in 1974, but never broadcast.

A sequel, The Funeral, which looked at the demise of MacWilliam, appeared in 1988 at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. A decade on from its predecessor, The Funeral looked at racial prejudice as well as religious intolerance.

“It did very well,” MacMillan says, “but because it dealt with a black character, I think there was a bit of discomfort about some of the language used. I'd been in India, so I knew the truth about what people thought and said.”

While MacMillan has been off radar for several years, he hasn't stopped writing, and at least two plays remain unproduced. He is also planning a book, what he describes as a “resume” of some of the more interesting people he's met over the years. These include a busking violinist who MacMillan encountered in Glasgow when he was employed in his first job as an office boy. One notable trait of the violinist was that he resolutely refused to play on Argyle Street because of what he saw as having acoustics that weren't up to scratch.

“People like this need to be recorded,” MacMillan states.

MacMillan's sense of history extended to a rare public appearance recently at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre at a week-long celebration of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, the organisation set up to provide a forum and collective voice for the country's playwriting community. The Traverse event looked at a different decade on each day, and, given his senior status as Honorary President of the SSP, MacMillan was tasked to introduce and give an overview of the 1970s.

“It was sad in a way,” MacMillan reflects, “because there was only one other writer there who I knew, who was Donald Campbell. My feeling is that an awful lot has been forgotten which shouldn't be. I spoke on the SSP, and why it was necessary for it to exist. I also paid tribute to some of the people who are dead now, but who did really important work.”

As well as playwrights such as Tom Gallacher, MacMillan, cites BBC producer Gordon Emslie, who championed MacMillan's own work, and whose idea it was to incorporate The McCalmans into his radio play The Rising. MacMillan also mentions former director of Dundee Rep, Stephen MacDonald, who directed the same play for the stage/

“He was crucial to what I wanted to do,” MacMillan says. “He took plays of mine that had been turned down by the Citizens and Royal Lyceum Theatres, and was a breath of fresh air for Dundee.”

With The Sash dating from that same exciting era of Scottish drama, what today's audiences will make of the play isn't clear.

“I've no worries about it as a play,” MacMillan affirms, “but what audiences with no direct experience of a very real potential for serious violence on both sides will make of it, I've no idea.
Sectarianism is still there, but it's not as threatening in Scotland as it once was. I'm pleased that the play is now a part of the history of Scottish theatre, but I'd be very happy if the subject was no longer relevant.”

The Sash, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, Wednesday-Saturday, then tours.

The Herald, April 23rd 2013

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New Plays From China


When playwright Davey Anderson travelled to Beijing with Scavengers, as short play written for students at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, he was exposed to a world of Chinese theatre that went beyond the Golden Hedgehog festival of student drama which Scavengers was appearing at. Anderson was taken to the Beijing Fringe Festival, where lots of home-grown work made largely by directors was being shown.

“I saw very little new work,” Anderson recalls, “and that made me curious about where all the new writers were. I've actually seen very little work by Chinese writers, but I knew there must be some, and that there were great stories out there about China today.”

Through the auspices of the National Theatre of China, Anderson put out an open call for writers. This was, he admits, “a mad idea, just inviting all these writers into as room with us to scribble.”

After whittling the writers down to a ten-strong group, Anderson put them with three Scottish writers, including himself alongside Rona Munro and Catherine Grosvenor, to attempt to translate the completed plays. The results of this can be seen in New Plays From China, a season of three new plays presented by the National Theatre of Scotland in partnership with Oran Mor, as well as several Chinese partners and the University of Edinburgh-based Confucius Institute For Scotland.

“Plays translated from mandarin into English are few and far between,” Anderson admits. “They can be difficult to translate, which is why we wanted to pair the Chinese writers with Scottish ones. Part of it is a cultural thing as well in terms of theatrical form. In China they tell stories that have a deep understanding of metaphor and symbolism in a way that we're not used to seeing in western writers work. There's also the context of censorship, which writers in China have to deal with every day. Whereas when you can say anything you can be ignored, if you do say something controversial in China, it will be noticed, so you have all these writers bursting with things to say, but who can't say them directly.”

New Plays From China forms the third in an annual series of seasons involving new work from lesser-known cultures. While the first introduced audiences to translations from Latin America, last year's look at work by writers from middle eastern countries was more politically pertinent. The Chinese writers turn the spotlight on their society in an equally serious manner.

The first play of the season, Secrets, written by Lin Weiran and adapted by Rona Munro, opened at Oran Mor yesterday in a production by Graeme Maley. It tells the story of a married woman's former lover who turns up on her doorstep after disappearing without warning two years earlier. This is followed next week by Thieves and Boy, Hao Jingfang's comic crime caper about a pair of vigilantes burgling a corrupt government official's home. This play is adapted and directed by Anderson himself.

The final play of the season, Fox Attack, is Xu Nuo's story about a driven young pianist who commits a shocking crime to save his own skin, an who then has to explain why he is late home to his overbearing mother. Fox Attack has been adapted by Catherine Grosvenor for a production by Amanda Gaughan.

While it was by no means deliberate that all three writers with varying degrees of playwriting experience are women, it is nevertheless a significant statement. It remains to be seen whether any of the plays will be seen in their homeland, though Anderson is confident, both about the current season, and further plays waiting in the wings, both from China and further afield.

“The writers are very clever,” he observes, “and they're not saying anything that might be silenced. There are things going on in both the background and the foreground of these plays that are absolutely about China now, stuff about inequality between the rich and the poor, about having to behave in a certain way and other things that rip society apart, but which are also about here and now beyond China. That's what excited me about these three plays. They rang a bell.”

Secrets, Oran Mor, Glasgow until April 27th, 1pm, then Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, April 30th-May 4th, 1pm. Thieves and Boys and Fox Attack follow.

The Herald, April 23rd 2013

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Monday, 22 April 2013

Deadinburgh


Summerhall, Edinburgh
3 stars
How would Scotland's capital city cope if it went into lockdown after an all consuming plague ran amock through the city? How would the survivors react if they were forced to decide on a course of action which may or may not save them? And what if the plague in question was a horde of flesh-eating zombies infected with a killer virus?

All these questions and more are asked in this promenade performance devised by the London-based LAStheatre, who have presented similar perambulations through the Old Vic Tunnels. As the 200-strong audience queue outside the film-set like maze of the former Royal Dick Vet School, they are scrutinised by men in uniform checking for signs of infection. Once inside, a general in command barks out orders while chaos reigns. We will be broken up into six groups, we're told, and led through the building where we'll be introduced to assorted real life scientists who will help us decide what action to take; quarantine the infectees, kill them or else explode the entire city into smithereens.

There's a sense of urgency at play in what is part science lesson, part theme park horror-show, even if sightings of actual zombies are kept to a teasing minimum in Barra Collins' ramblingly atmospheric production. For all the thrills and spills, however, there's actually very little dramatic substance for the thirteen actors to grab hold of. What Deadinburgh needs for it to fully engage is a stronger emotional narrative that goes beyond its generalised box of apocalyptic tricks, and its telling that, of the creatives involved, a writer is absent. Or perhaps that was them being eaten alive in the courtyard.

The Herald, April 22nd 2013

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Friday, 19 April 2013

Terre Thaemlitz - Arika – Episode 5


There's a story Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles, tells in a footnote to an address given at Tate Modern a few weeks ago, and which is now published on Thaemlitz's website. It tells how, while DJ-ing a deep house set at the closing party of the event – a queer and trans-gender cultural symposium - Thaermlitz was approached by a blonde-haired woman who requested something be played by Madonna. When Thaemlitz declined to play anything by her or any of the woman's other requests, she turned nasty, and started calling Thaemlitz a faggot before staff moved her away from the DJ booth.

Such an ugly incident speaks volumes about how deep-rooted homophobia remains in society. The fact that this was a queer and trans-gender event makes the incident even worse. This is just one of the concerns which may be raised in 'Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight', Episode 5 of Instal and Kill Yr Timid Notion festival founders Arika's latest line of inquiry, which gives as much discussion space to the philosophical and political ideas behind a particular sonic form as it does to the music itself.

Episode 4: Freedom is A Constant Struggle, which runs this weekend, looks at the relationship between poetry, jazz and revolution in the dissident black American culture that grew from the 1960s civil rights movement. Following on from this, Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, which takes place next month, looks at the gay, bi and trans-gender sub-cultures based around the House Ballroom scene of the 1980s, which sired vogueing and other flamboyant dance styles, as well as embracing drag and lip-synching alongside a deep house soundtrack into what seemed from the outside like the greatest party on the planet. Especially when it was co-opted into the mainstream by pop cultural magpie and material girl, Madonna. Thaemlitz, however, who chooses to switch between gender pronouns when writing or talking about him/herself, sees it differently, and is almost mournful about the culture he is both immersed in, while remaining outside of it.

“The way in which queer club culture and trans-gender club culture is tied to ecstacy and pleasure,” Thaemlitz says, “what that means is that people don't always see that it is tied to a lot of social strife. This idea that clubs are about community, and finding some kind of place where outsiders can all be together, that helps the clubs keep their power as a kind of fake safe space.”

The social strife Thaemlitz is talking about, of course, is the rise of the AIDS virus which decimated many from the House Ballroom scene. Maybe this recognition that the party was over before anyone was prepared to admit it is in part what's left Thaemlitz out in the cold. As a non-op trans-gender person and an ultra-articulate polemicist and critic of the scene, Thaemlitz's stance hasn't always gone down well with what one might presume to be her natural constituency.

“Most of the time I'm just ignored by them,” she says, “It's so rare to be asked to play in the queer club scene.”

For almost twenty years, Thaemlitz has combined a prolific musical output under assorted names including DJ Sprinkles, with a series of public speaking provocations that counter received orthodoxies about queer and trans-gender culture. Now also in charge of the Comatonse Recordings label, she remains wilfully singular in her world-views.

“It's more like I did something in the eighties and nineties, and then stopped,” she says, “whereas now it's more about a decline both personally and sonically in music. For me, whatever's happening now is a critique of the house music of the past, when, for me, what was going on in the eighties was the most interesting time. Remermber in the eighties when there was all this retro thing for the sixties, with all these sixties soundtracks on Vietnam War films? That's kind of what it's like for me now with eighties house music. It's like going to an oldies night. I'm kind of anti-futurist in that way. I'm not a dreamer or an anticipator. I'm still trying to catch up with the present, and that's as much as I can hope for.”

For Hidden in Plain Sight, Thaemlitz will take part in three events. The first two of these will draw from Soullessness, a project which saw her put together some thirty-two hours of music, eighty minutes of video and 150 pages of writings and images that looks at gender, spirituality and a myriad of things besides in an epic mash-up of sound and vision. In Glasgow, Thaemlitz will read extracts from texts followed by a discussion, and will perform parts one through to four of Soullessness. Then, as DJ Sprinkles, she will play at two club nights which bring together House Ballroom stalwarts, including The Legendary Pony Zion Garcon, who brings Vogue Evolution, a dance troupe focusing on social concerns, to town; as well as black transgender lipsynch artist, boychild.

While this should capture the House Ballroom scene in all its glory, Thaemlitz for one sees little to celebrate.

“It still goes back to that blonde woman,” she says, “giving out all those homophobic slurs to me and to others. It's really important to understand that this is still happening.”

Episode 4: Freedom is A Constant Struggle, April 18-21; Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, May 24-26, Tramway, Glasgow. Hidden in Plain Sight: Club, Stereo, Glasgow, May 24-25

The List, April 2013

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Split 12” v2 - Magic Eye / Le Thug / Zed Penguin / Plastic Animals (Song, By Toad)


4 stars
Eclectica abounds on on this four-band snapshot compendium of 
dispatches from some of the country's more gloriously, and at times 
wilfully off-piste musical glories, who provide two songs apiece to 
this limited edition vinyl, alongside more of the same to be downloaded 
on purchase of an equally limited pack of customised beer.

Plastic Animals kick things off with 'Sheltered,' a piece of sci-fi 
grunge that counterpoints urgent guitars and manic synth squiggles with 
laid-back stoner vocals. On side two, the band's second piece, 
'Floating,' is jauntier, leaning here to more hypnotically voguish 
dream-pop stylings

  Magic Eye sound beamed in from behind a shoe-gazer's fringe, so 
beguilingly lovely are the swooping female vocals and echo-box filtered 
guitar patterns on 'Flamin' Teenage', which leaves plenty of swoonsome 
space to breathe. 'Japan' drifts off into similarly exotic waters, 
guitars pinging out oriental melodies as a spooky mantra coos over what 
sounds like a primitive drum-machine reconstituted for another age.

Zed Penguin's 'Wandering' is a spartan, raggedy-assed lost soul's 
lament that sounds like it's been standing in a corner of CBGB'S 
feeling sorry for itself for the last thirty years, biding its 
melancholy time before delivering something magnificently skewed and 
deliciously morose. Zed Penguin's second track, 'Heathens' is a 
moodier, spookier-sounding affair, which pokes its musical finger in 
your chest with a loose-knit insistence that you can't help but be 
drawn into.

On Le Thug's 'New Balance', slo-mo washing-machine drones provide a 
densely impressionistic backdrop for a vocal that sounds akin to one of 
One Dove's quieter moments. Their second piece, 'Sense in Scotland,' 
closes the record with a thirteen minute epic that frames a nursery 
rhyme vocal with an increasingly dense chug that builds into a 
monster-sized space rock soundscape under-pinned with little kosmiche 
rhythms that pulse it towards another stratosphere. All of which makes 
for a package tour in waiting that might just get messy. 

The List, April 2013

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Et tu Brutus


Henry's Cellar Bar, Edinburgh
Wed March 20th 2013
Edinburgh scene super-groups don't come along every day, yet the 
arrival of Et tu Brutus opening a four-band House of Crust bill 
headlined by Californian punks, Fracas, is a tantalising prospect. 
Initiated by Edinburgh School For the Deaf/St Judes Infirmary/Young 
Spooks/Naked auteur Grant Campbell and The Leg's Dan Mutch as a studio 
project, the pair have drafted in a rhythm section of Leg drummer Alun 
Thomas and former Sara and the Snakes guitarist Andy Brown to put flesh 
on the skinny-assed bones of Campbell and Mutch's avant-garage hardcore 
template.

With Campbell wielding a microphone/intercom set-up that looks and 
sounds like it was looted from a 1950s black cab, the muffled fuzz 
gives the words he reads from A4 sheets of paper a rawness that's 
accentuated by the band's wilfully no-fi sound helmed by Mutch's 
guitar, which is played relentlessly, veering off into all kinds of odd 
angles before barraging its way home.

Thomas' intricate guitar patterns give things an equally adventurous 
air, while Brown's meat and two veg bass playing recalls Steve Hanley 
during classic era Fall. Until he starts playing it with a 
cheese-grater, that is, which is when things really start to shake, 
rattle and roll.

The six song set is all Et tu Brutus have for the moment, but the 
hellfire intensity that pulses them is still worth getting stabbed in 
the back for.

The List, April 2013

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Post – Cavalcade (We Can Still Picnic)


4 stars
The Sound of Young Scotland continuum runs on apace with plenty of 
bounce on this debut mini album by a quartet led by former Bricolage 
and some-time Sexual Object Graham Wann. Instrumental jangularity 
abounds, but so does a dance-floor glam joie de vivre that's as 
infectious as it is deliciously calculated. Nouveau serious fun starts 
here.

The List, April 2013

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Adopted As Holograph – Adopted As Holograph (Holograph)


3 stars
Former uncle John and Whitelock stalwart David Philp is the crooning 
mastermind behind this seven song set of post-modern Palm Court swing 
awash with fiddle, accordion and acoustic guitar, which sounds at times 
not unlike The Monochrome Set gone retro zydeco. As wryly jaunty as all 
this sounds, there's a doleful melancholy to Philp's delivery, which 
nevertheless retains a trad warmth worth waltzing to.

The List, April 2013

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A Doll's House


Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
Secrets, lies and scandal are at the heart of Zinnie Harris' Edwardian update of Henrik Ibsen's proto-feminist classic, directed here by Graham McLaren for this National Theatre of Scotland/Royal Lyceum co-production. By setting this tale of one woman's emancipation from the male world that controls her among the political classes, Harris gives an even sharper edge to the public consequences of private actions.

Amy Manson's Nora is here the trophy wife of Thomas Vaughan, a newly appointed cabinet minister who Nora nursed through a six month depression. As the pair move into the house that comes with Thomas' job, Nora is haunted by the figure of Neil Kelman, Thomas' predecessor, who left his post under a cloud, and who illegally loaned Nora money to survive during Thomas' illness. As Nora spends much of the play trying to keep the truth from Thomas, it's clear that she is no little girl, but an intelligent, passionate and sexually voracious young woman.

For all its slow-moving erotic drive, as the time of day is projected onto the wall of Robert Innes Hopkins' stately town house set, there's something mannered at the heart of McLaren's ambitious production. While this is largely to do with a playing style that threatens to teeter into melodrama, there are some fascinating moments, with Nora's relationship with Kevin McMonagle's Dr Rank moving beyond the flirtatious to something more troubling. It's Nora's final confrontation with Hywel Simons' Thomas, however, that exposes the full emotional shallowness of a misogynistic world that only sees women as sexual play-things who must remain loyal no matter what. Taken down a notch, such a brutal truth could hit home even harder.

The Herald, April 18th 2013

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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Mariana Castillo Deball - What we caught we threw away, what we didn't catch we kept


CCA, Glasgow, until May 18th 2013
3 stars
Anthropological detritus forms the bulk of this new body of work by 
Mexican artist Deball, which was co-commissioned by Cove Park and the 
Chisenhale Gallery in London, where it transfers later in the year. 
Deball's starting point is the work of explorer and archaeologist 
Alfred Maudslay, who learnt how to make paper moulds of ancient 
sculptures while on an expedition in 1881 in Guatamala;  artist Eduardo 
Paolozzi and anthropologist Alfred Gell, Debell herself excavates the 
trio's work to make a series of papier mache sculptures based on the 
templates the three set down.

Taken out of the forest and into a gallery space, there's a monumental 
state of grace imbued into each dried-up artefact that's part homage, 
part re-appropriation to give an eerie sense of isolated and 
undiscovered worlds. Set against a series of archive images of the 
original casts, traps and other artefacts that inspired this show, 
there's a sense of hand-me-down souvenirs being fed from their roots to 
the global village which Debell seems to occupy.

If there's a danger here of ethnic fetishism, it's undercut by a 
wide-open sense of tranquillity, which allows the viewer the space to 
wander without ever feeling overwhelmed by the unfamiliar. With much of 
what's on show laying crumpled in tree-like formation on the floor, 
it's also the nearest most of us will get to such exotica without it 
being behind glass cases or else transposed into mass-market tat fore 
those in search of faux-authenticity. In this way, we're all explorers 
here, and if it's a jungle out there, Debell has tamed the beasts 
unleashed for a more meditative way of being.

The List, April 2013

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PLOUGH – Rachel Mimiec


GoMA, Glasgow, until May 27th 2013
3 stars
When GoMa's soon to be outgoing associate artist Rachel Mimiec led 
workshops with children at the Red Road Family Centre Nursery, her own 
line of inquiry with blocks of colour led to a body of work that sees 
pages from issues of National Geographic daubed, splodged or scribbled 
over.
There's little to distinguish between the children's paintings and 
Mimiec's own work in terms of style and substance in this three-room 
installation. Which, for a show that looks at collective creative 
action, is how it should be.

Landscape and nature are paramount to the experience, especially with 
the inclusion of Horatio McCulloch's 1866 landscape painting, Loch 
Moree, crucially hung upside down. It's a topsy-turvy cock-a-snook to 
the subject's more formal representations that comes from a sense of 
fun more than subversion. Yet it's the intimacy of the printed matter 
that resonates most in a show that blurs the boundaries between 
community and solo practice to create something bright, brash and 
flag-wavingly, panoramically partisan in terms of embracing the shared 
experience where being both viewer and participant are as vital as each 
other.

The List, April 2013

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William E. Jones


The Modern Institute, 3 Aird's Lane, Glasgow, until June 15th 2013
4 stars
Three film-works by Los Angeles-based provocateur Jones  take notions 
of power drawn from archive documentary footage, then, by 
recontextualising each one via collaging, cut-ups and other treatments, 
liberates them from their authoritarian origins.

'Shoot Don't Shoot' (2012) draws from out-dated police training footage 
designed to educate trigger-happy boys in blue when to fire at a 
suspect. As a hip-looking black dude walks down the street, the 
stentorian voice-over sounds straight out of 1960s TV cop show, 
Dragnet. Both speak volumes about how institutions function. With two 
scenarios edited together, the non-linear result looks like cops and 
robbers as done by Godard.

There are more dual images in 'Bay of Pigs' (2012), which features 
split screen footage of US fighter planes bombing Cuba in the 1961 
failed invasion taken from the 1974 film, 'Giron.' This makes the 
planes look as though they were on some perfectly choreographed 
collision course, which, in a way, they were.

'Actual T.V. Pictures' (2013) is the most opaque of the three films, as 
it juxtaposes flickering images of US bombings of Vietnam with images 
of TV sets that beamed out the news footage. Beamed out to cover the 
gallery's three big walls and run consecutively, Jones has gone public 
with a crucial exposure of power games normally kept hidden from plain 
sight.

The List, April 2013

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Translations


Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
It's perhaps telling that Scotland's capital is hosting the only mainland UK dates for Adrian Dunbar's vivid touring revival of Brian Friel's 1980 masterpiece, staged as part of Derry/Londonderry's UK City of Culture programme. Here, after all, is a play that speaks eloquently and passionately about the very human consequences of cultural colonialism by a ruling elite. In this week of grand gestures, it couldn't be more pertinent.

Friel sets out his store in nineteenth century Donegal, where the rural community are educated at a hedge school, a form of unlegislated shared learning for all. Into this steps the British Army, who have been tasked with translating the local place names from Irish Gaelic to the King's English. What is dressed up as aspirational opportunity soon turns to siege mentality, as the locals are first patronised, then, following the disappearance of a lovesick young lieutenant, brutalised by occupying forces. Yet this is no polemic. At the play's heart is a poignant love triangle between idealistic teacher Manus, the lieutenant and Maire, who has her sights set on America.

Set on designer Stuart Marshall's bright, blue-skied set, Dunbar's largely young cast grab one of the most important plays to come out of Northern Ireland in the twentieth century and breathe their collective heart and soul into it. The scene between Jade Yourell's Maire and Paul Woodson's Lieutenant Yolland as they try to find a common language beyond their obvious attraction is by turns hilarious and beautifully sad. So-called progress may appear to win out, but in the end it's the word that survives in an essential work that speaks volumes about a small nation starting to find its voice.

The Herald, April 17th 2013

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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Platform 18 2013 - Amanda Monfrooe and Peter McMaster Fight The Sex Wars


When boys and girls come out to play, chances are at some point end up fighting. Which may have something to do with why the two winners of this year's Platform 18 theatre-making award at the Arches in Glasgow have kept to their own, gender-wise. While Peter McMaster offers up an all-male adaptation of Emily Bronte's windswept romance, Wuthering Heights, Amanda Monfrooe looks to classical Greek forms for POKE in which the last two women in the world explore notions of male violence against women, and how they reached the state they're in. While such exercises in what looks like separatist sexual politics sound like the sort of thing that came out of a 1970s, the-personal-is-political line of inquiry, the younger generation of theatre-makers who McMaster and Monfrooe are part of are tackling their subjects with a refreshingly contemporary seriousness.

“We're finding ways to understand modes of expression of men,” says McMaster. “I've fixated on the character of Heathcliff. He's an orphan, and as a reader you don't know why he's so aggressive. Then there's this weird mysterious part of the book when he disappears, and comes back with all this money. By asking questions about that, we might be able to fill the gaps, but we're also finding out what are the important questions we should be asking about ourselves as men.”

Given that, besides Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights' main character is Cathy, much of this has involved McMaster and co putting on dresses in the rehearsal room, and exploring how that makes them feel. McMaster is all too aware that having men playing women in serious drama is something that fates back to Shakespeare's day, when boy players would take on the lead female roles. This tradition was rebooted too by Edward Hall's all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller. One thinks too of comedian Eddie Izzard and artist Grayson Perry, both of whom enjoy wearing women's clothes without recourse to dragging it up.

“It's perhaps different for us than it was with Shakespeare,” McMaster observes, “because then you had a man playing a woman, and everyone knew it was a man, so it was the actor's job to convince you otherwise. What we're doing isn't drag, and we're not trying to be women, so we don't know what it is. We're inhabiting a grey area of what's already a grey area, and we're enjoying the sensation of wearing a dress just for how it makes us feel. It's fun to put a dress on, and it's fun to enjoy the melodrama of the story, and get to be emotional in a way men might not normally be, but we're not trying to address the problems of feminism here, but the problems of masculinism, which is a word you won't find in the dictionary.”

Wuthering Heights is the public side of a process in which McMaster and his company have been going on retreats and spending other time together beyond the rehearsal room in a way that sounds like a men's group. Given that McMaster himself is part of several men's groups, this is an observation he's more than happy to accept.

“It's about seeing what happens when as a group of men you go to vulnerable places,” he says, “and to find spaces for reflection on things that might be important in our lives. There are no easy answers, but I like going to raw places, and if people don't want to go there, I like to try and get them to go there with me.”

McMaster's previous work at the Arches and on the Forest Fringe includes House, in which the audience smashed up discarded furniture and made something new from it, several solo works, and
The Fire Burns and Burns, a collaboration with Nic Green. Monfrooe's back catalogue includes How Keanu Reeves Saved The World, some cabaret styler pierce at her devised performance event, Love Club, and a stint on placement with the National Theatre of Scotland to develop her practice.

With POKE, Monfrooe goes beyond the likes of McMaster's personal meditations to expose how the whole notion of something that might be called the sex wars goes way beyond metaphor. She wasn't short of material.

“It writes itself,” she says. “Every time I look at the news, there's a barrage of stories regarding the violation of women's freedom in every country, and it's getting worse. Things have gotten out of control, and there's no rhyme or reason for that. There's a sexual apocalypse, whereby anybody's game. A little girl was raped, but her best friend says, well, you shouldn't have worn that. If the female body is game, then it's the male body next. Then it's bestiality and paedophilia. There's this feeling that we're on a slippery slope. Peter feels the need to ask questions of himself as a man, whereas, as a woman, I'm angry. We need to take a frank look at sex, our bodies, and what our bodies have been reduced to.”

While this may sound extreme for some, it is in keeping with a practice and an aesthetic which Monfrooe has developed over the last half decade.

“All of my work has been about asking big questions,” she says. “but this isn't an issue-based play, and it isn't polemic, because we don't solve the problem of sexual violence, and that's because it can't be solved. There's something fundamental that says men and women can't live together in harmony, and that's to do with the little dangly bit between a man's legs.”

Monfrooe laughs when she says this, but, while there is levity in the play, she's deadly serious.

“The phallus was prized in Greek culture,” she says. “and women were slaves, although they were valued for their beauty and their intelligence. What I'm interested in is playing with form, and the Greek structure of inevitability, where everything always comes to a violent end. POKE starts like that, but then goes somewhere else. I wanted to talk about something that's really difficult, then take a sideways glance at it. Our role is to ask, not to answer, and to leave the ellipses for the audience to answer. I can't occupy an ideological position with any commitment, but someone like Peter is asking a very different set of questions to the ones I am, and that's brave.”

Wuthering Heights and POKE, The Arches, Glasgow, April 23-27; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 1-3

The Herald, April 16th 2013

ends

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Towards The End of the Century - Scottish Playwriting in the 1990s


1

There were two words I thought might come up when I started thinking 
about what was going on in Scottish playwriting and Scottish theatre 
throughout the 1990s, and which seemed deeply relevant to its 
trajectory.

I wondered whether to mention them or not, but after events of this 
week, I can't really avoid them.

Those words are Margaret. And Thatcher.

Because the 1990s were a curious decade, in that what Margaret Thatcher 
did in the 1980s seemed to fuel some kind of artistic dissent, yet by 
the 1990s, it seemed to have disappeared.

Whereas in the 1980s, it was obvious who the bad guys were, to the 
point were anger sometimes got in the way of art, in the 1990s, while 
things seemed to become cleverer and more expansive, it was also more 
complex and ambiguous, and less easy to recognise those bad guys.

So for much of the 1990s, it felt that things were in a state of flux 
en route to the end of the century.

Many plays – though by no means all -  were about trying to find 
something to believe in – personally, politically, spiritually, 
hedonistically.

By the end of the decade – and the century – things had started to 
become clearer again, and all that had gone before – the fractured 
narratives, the in-yer-face era, the search for some kind of identity –
was starting to be revealed as a bridge towards something more defined.


2

Three things happened.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

In 1990, Glasgow became European City of Culture.

At the end of 1990, Margaret Thatcher was deposed as UK Prime Minister.

Things were changing.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall opened up borders for international 
theatre companies to travel more freely.

The resources pumped into Glasgow 1990 – whatever cynics like me might 
have thought of what looked at times like a big civic publicity stunt – 
allowed young would-be theatre practitioners for the first time to see 
international companies and auteurs for the first time perhaps outside
of the Edinburgh International Festival.

This had been the case in 1988 when Neil Wallace and Bob Palmer brought 
Peter Brook's Mahabarata to the Old Transport Museum that would become 
Tramway, and it was certainly the case from 1990 onwards.

Without exposure at Tramway and elsewhere to the likes of the Wooster 
Group, Robert LePage, Brith Gof, The Wrestling School, The Maly Theatre 
of Leningrad and others, it's unlikely that home-grown companies, like 
Suspect Culture, Cryptic, Theatre Babel, Grid Iron, Lookout, Vanishing 
Point and others of that generation, would have developed in quite the 
same way.

While not all of those companies still exist, all of them have produced 
international artists and international work that not just can travel 
the world, but has travelled the world.

I remember one Edinburgh Festival Fringe picking up a flyer for a 
double bill of new plays, which I didn't see, but I put the flyer on my 
mantlepiece because I liked the collage design of it.

One of those plays named on the flyer was by someone called Nicola 
McCartney.

The other was a collaboration between someone called John Tiffany, and 
someone called Vicky Featherstone.

And that's how things start.


3

Meanwhile, at the Traverse, which was still in the Grassmarket den of 
iniquity than existed before the Thatcherite centres of excellence 
approach took hold of the arts, there was a similar exposure to
international work which ran parallel with that by Scottish writers.

I'd first visited the Traverse in 1986, during a season which featured 
Tom McGrath's Kora, Chris Hannan's The Orphan's Comedy, Jo Clifford's 
Lucy's Play, a German play directed by a young trainee director called 
Hamish Glen called Burning Love, and a magical realist fantasia  called
Kathy and the Hippopotomus by future Peruvian President, Mario Vargas 
Llosa.

By the time we got to 1990, while Jo Clifford's Ines de Castro was 
revived at the Riverside in London, Michele Celeste's prison-set drama, 
Hanging The President, caused controversy with a bowl of mashed-up 
weetabix, and future Booker Prize winner James Kelman premiered his
political history play, Hardie and Baird.

In a season called Spinning A Line, featuring young, relatively fresh 
writers, a young buck called Anthony Neilson put on a play called 
Welfare My Lovely, while John McKenzie's Bomber pre-dated the 
in-yer-face generation by half a decade.

This was also the case with Spinning A Line the following year, when 
The Cellar, by Lance Flynn, was produced.

Lance Flynn had scored a hit with The Dorm, an angry, impressionistic 
look at a young people's detention centre, which was presented by the 
Mandela Theatre Company, who eventually morphed into Boilerhouse.

Flynn wrote a couple more plays for Boilerhouse, but have all but been 
forgotten, and I'm not sure why he and John McKenzie weren't nurtured 
as other writers were.

Maybe they were too bloody-minded.

Maybe they wouldn't play the game.

Maybe they weren't interested.

Either way, given what would come later, both were ahead of their time.


4

When the Traverse moved into this building in 1992, the first play of 
note to be produced was Simon Donald's The Life of Stuff, which again, 
in its look at hedonism and excess in an empty night-club seemed ahead 
of its time dramatically, even as it chimed with what was going on in
Scottish literature via the arrival of Trainspotting.

When Harry Gibson's stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel hit the 
Traverse stage in 1994, it was clear that things had changed again.

In London, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and others were causing a similar 
kind of commotion, as they announced a generation who seemed to have 
lost their faith in anything and everything, including themselves, and 
could only party like it was – well – 1999.

Yet, in Scotland, the explorations of selfhood seemed quieter, and more 
forensic, somehow.

Maybe that was the influence of the likes of Brad Fraser or Michel 
Tremblay, who'd both had works on at the Traverse.

Or maybe it was the Cliffords, Hannans, Lochheads, McGraths and others 
that preceded them that made Scottish writers look more to poetry and 
playing with form than merely lashing out without anything to even aim 
at.


5

The first real signs of this – for me at least – came with  David 
Greig's play, Europe, in 1994, and Knives in Hens, by David Harrower, 
in 1995.

Both very different plays by very different writers, yet they were 
inevitably dubbed 'The Davids', as if they were two sides of the same 
dramatic coin.

Which, in a way, they were.

Where Europe was epic in its depiction of a group of disparate people 
at a deserted railway station, Knives in Hens was intimate and 
erotically charged.

Yet both, somehow, were about identity, and the ability to name 
oneself, just as much as the brasher plays that had taken London by 
storm were.

Eventually, all were revealed to be cut from the same cloth.

They were all Thatcher's Children, and they were going to change the 
world.


6

Of older writers, Chris Hannan's Shining Souls did something similar, 
but with considerably more laughs.

Tom McGrath and Ella Wildridge's translation of Quebecois writer Daniel 
Danis' Stones and Ashes was an astonishing emotional study of four 
people via a series of criss-crossing monologues.

By the time Stephen Greenhorn's road movie for the stage, Passing 
Places, roared onstage in 1997, any search for meaning had become a 
literal journey rather than a mere metaphorical one.

If Greenhorn's play implied light at the end of the tunnel, the 
emotionally charged summer of 1997 suggested something different.

While Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss so devastatingly tackled the 
controversial topic of sexual abuse and false memory syndrome;  Suspect 
Culture took a show called Timeless to the Edinburgh International 
Festival, which had four lifelong friends clinging onto each other for 
dear life while also tearing each other apart.

While all about them were grafting banging techno soundtracks onto 
physical largesse, Suspect Culture's Nick Powell brought in a string 
quartet onstage, while the piece used a series of small physical tics 
that spoke quieter, and with less certainty, but which said far more.

If Liz Lochhead's Perfect Days showed how to do comedy with compassion 
in 1998, by this time, the bar had been raised considerably since the 
decade began.

There wasn't just one generation of working playwrights and 
theatre-makers, it seemed.

There were several, co-existing at home and abroad.

For me, the 1990s, - which began with walls collapsing, borders opening 
up to cities of culture and the apparent end of politics, if not 
history – had been a period of watching artists and writers doing their 
growing up in public.

Now they were ready to take on the world.

I can think of no better example of this than The Speculator, David 
Greig's play about love and money, but mainly money and how it was 
invented, and which played at the Edinburgh International Festival of 
1999.

At the end of the play, Silvia, the actress lover of playwright 
Marivaux, muses
somewhat plaintively on how life can be like a mudfish waiting for rain.

'Mudfish underground.
One brief rain.
Then earth goes hard again.
What if that's all there is?'

As the century ended, and people started finding something to believe 
in again, it was clear that wasn't the case.

In Scottish theatre, and Scottish play-writing, the floodgates were 
about to open, and the possibilities were endless.
An address given as an introduction to The Four Decades: Celebrating Scottish Playwriting -  The 1990s, presented by the Scottish Society of Playwrights and Saltire Events, and curated by Nicola        McCartney at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wednesday April 10th 2013.

ends

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Amy Manson - A Doll's House


As action heroines go, Amy Manson certainly looks the part. With her leonine mane and athletic physique, the Aberdeenshire-born twenty-seven year old has spent the last few years in a stream of culty small-screen dramas, while her first film role was in indie horror flick, Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud. Since then there have been regular roles in flipped-on-its-head monster series, Being Human and science-fiction drama, Outcasts, as well as guest slots in Torchwood and Misfits. There are even rumours that Manson might soon be playing a very familiar classic comic-book super-heroine.

Not that Manson hasn't had a chance to shine in period frockage, as she proved in Pre-Raphaelite romp, Desperate Romantics. All of which should hold her in good stead this week when she opens as Nora in a new version of Ibsen's nineteenth century classic, A Doll's House, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. Manson plays Nora, the woman at the heart of the play which will be kept in period in Zinnie Harris' taker on things, though one should expect a radical interpretation from Harris and director Graham McLaren for his National Theatre of Scotland production.

As Manson breathlessly points out in her rich and sonorous north-east accent over a lunchtime break in a deserted Royal Lyceum bar, “Fundamentally we're thinking about it as a humanist piece and not a feminist piece.”

This in itself is a shift from what is often regarded as one of the earliest feminist works, as Nora, once devoted to her husband, finds the wherewithal to leave him to become an independent woman. How Harris' version pans out remains to be seen, but from what Manson says, her Nora is no dawning little girl as she is sometimes played.

“She's a strong woman,” Manson says. “She's a fighter. She's a beautiful creature. She's very clever. Maybe not worldly. Maybe she's been spoon-fed a bit too much, but from the off-set you know she's capable of little white lies, and you know that there's something bigger brewing until she confesses to her old school friend what she's actually gone through over the last eight years, having to hide her husband from his work environment after he had a nervous break-down, so she had to remove him from that society, and to do that she had to take out a loan from one of his work colleagues. She tells him its her father's inheritance, and takes him off to live in Italy for six months.

“To think about nursing a man with depression for that length of time is something I've really delved into. She's done everything for him and she's risked everything, so she's got a lot on her shoulders. She's been hiding this lie for her eight years. How many masks does Nora have when she has to do all this? I've been thinking about this a lot. She does everything for him, and they love each other. When they want to have sex, they tear each others clothes off and have sex. They're like rock stars. They're like Posh and Becks.”

A Doll's House will be the first time Manson has appeared onstage since 2008, when she played the Stepdaughter in the NTS production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author, another classic play adapted by a Scottish writer, in this case David Harrower. For that performance Manson won Best Actress award in that year's Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Coming back to the same stage, Manson admits, feels, “electric. After I auditioned and I was offered the part, and was crying, and I said to Graham, the thing I love about this is that I'm scared of it. I really am. It's such a big piece, and I just had to throw myself into it. For the first time in my life last year I kept going up for auditions and getting nothing. I felt I was going stale, and I was thinking I was going to go and retrain, and that's what doing this show with Graham's been like. It's been a whole revamp, with all the blood, sweat and tears that entails.”

Manson started acting as a child at a Saturday drama school, before decamping to drama school proper in London aged seventeen. It was the experience of both that made her take it seriously.

“There were moments at the Saturday school that stopped me in my tracks,” she says. “They were just so honest.”

The first time everything really clicked for her was during a drama school improvisation which tapped into something she doesn't name, but which you get the impression was deeply personal.

“It's something that I still search for,” she says, “when you're totally in the moment, and you're not conscious of anyone watching or even of saying the lines. It feels like an out of body experience. That's why I'd never give up acting, because I love that chase, even though it might only be for one moment in a play.”

While such hippy notions might sound ridiculous or pretentious coming from some, with Manson it rings disarmingly true, so committed does she sound to the life she's chosen. This drives manifests itself in an emotional and physical open-ness which is infectious. Onstage and screen, such a presence can't help but captivate.

There's a restlessness too that manifests itself in her life off stage. If she hadn't become an actress, Manson would have liked to become an archaeologist, she says.

“I love history, and I love being outside, and I love discovery, and finding out about peoples lives.”

Such a free-spirited sense of adventure might have something to do with how she's cast.

“Maybe it's something to do with my large personality,” she laughs. “I like danger, and love doing stunts. When I did Pumpkinhead, I loved all that, running away from monsters, even though you never saw them, and being in a jungle and going whoa, I'm so scared. I don't know, I suppose I'm just mining my other life, because in real life you don't experience those emotions, so it's nice just to delve into that, and to explore how I react to these situations, and where my head goes when I put myself in these situations. I just find that fascinating.”

Which brings us to the small matter of Amazon, the mooted TV series about a young Wonder Woman, the lasoo-wielding DC Comics goddess turned super-heroine who was played by Lynda Carter in its campy 1970s incarnation. The idea behind Amazon is on a par with Smallville, which looked at the growing pains of a teenage Clark Kent en route to becoming Superman.

While there's no guarantee she'll be cast in Amazon, this far Manson has been seen on tape twice by casting directors, and has been reported in TV fan magazines as being one of the front-runners for the lead role. Latest word on the street, however, is that shooting of the proposed pilot has been postponed until 2014.

“Everything's stopped,” she says, “but oh, God, that would be a job in a lifetime.”

With management in America, Manson is clearly a serious contender, but until any kind of decision is taken, she's spending as much time in Scotland as she can.

“I don't know if I live in London anymore,” she says. “I've been going back to my mum's in Aberdeen a lot. She's been climbing Munros, and I climbed one with her, and it was hard, but there's that feeling, my God, I climbed a mountain. I loved the challenge.”

With such wide-eyed notions of the great outdoors, it comes as no surprise that Manson is a Jack Kerouac fan.

“I love the freedom of that form of writing,” Manson says of the Beat icon's rambling free-associative prose style. “I don't like being constrained or tied down. I see myself in a cottage in the country by the fireside. I just want to play. I think that's what my focus is going to be for this year, just to have fun, and to trust myself more. I don't have to go away to New York or wherever. I just need to keep on top of my game and keep flexing those muscles, and to do it for myself.”

A Doll's House, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 16th-May 4th

The Herald, April 13th 2013

ends

Friday, 12 April 2013

Amiri Baraka - Freedom is A Constant Struggle


Poetry, jazz and radical politics aren't exactly strangers to counter-cultural activity. As the black civil rights movement grew during the 1960s, so jazz grew ever free-er and subversive as words and music cried out for liberation. One of the pioneering provocateurs of black American poetry is Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey-born poet and playwright who has been agitating, educating and organising ever since he moved into Greenwich Village, where he discovered jazz and Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Since then, the artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones has become one of the most significant writers of his generation, courting controversy with every line that questioned what he saw as an oppressive establishment. This has been the case whether in volumes of jazz criticism, revolutionary inclined poems that were a clear influence on early rap, or as a figurehead of the radical Black Arts Movement. Baraka's poem, Black Art, in which he called for 'poems that kill', became a manifesto for the movement. More recently, his status as Poet Laureate was undermined and the post abolished following publication of his post 9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which claimed there was an Israeli conspiracy involved in the bombing of the World Trade Centre.

Baraka's visit to Glasgow next weekend is a major coup for Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Episode 4 of the Arika organisation's ongoing weekend platforms based around one form of left-field sonic activity or another. Where Arika previously ran experimental music festivals, Instal and Kill Yr Timid Notion, these series of Episodes go beyond the mere gig experience to explore the ideas, thinking and social context that formed the music being presented. As Baraka's presence suggests, Freedom is A Constant Struggle looks at the Black experience via several major figures. While Baraka will be appearing alongside bass player Henry Grimes, who has played alongside iconoclasts such as Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor, as he makes clear, this is no exercise in radical chic nostalgia.

“It's changed,” Baraka says of jazz today compared to the 1960s. “It's fundamentally the same music, but it got into a much free-er role. My poetry has evolved in the same way along with my own consciousness. You have to take into account all the things that have happened since then, and apply that to what you're doing now.”

One of the things that has happened is that America now has a black President. This is a move which Baraka supports, albeit cautiously.

“It's kind of contradictory in some ways,” he says. “Even though I support Obama, because I couldn't vote for Milt Romney and all the other lunatics, he's provided a kind of cool-out mechanism for black people. Obama's in a dead-end struggle with the Republicans, who are dedicated to rejecting everything he proposes, and trying to keep it a corporate, bank-run economy. But the Republicans are in the early stages of fascism. They want to block everything Obama does, which is stopping the whole development of America.”

Baraka discovered the power of words from an early age.

“I was writing when I was a small child,” the seventy-eight year old remembers. “I had a newspaper when I was ten or eleven. There were seven of us, and we called ourselves the Secret Seven, so I made seven copies, which I wrote out by hand. Then when I got to High School I took a writing class, and at college I started doing my own stuff, which I continued doing when I was in the army, and it all got rejected from everywhere I sent it.”

After a dishonourable discharge following accusations of being a Communist, Baraka found more receptive responses to his work in the Village.

“It was more accepting,” he says, “which was to do with what was going on around the world politically. The civil rights movement has begun, and there was a lot of revolutionary activity.”

Baraka's work became notable for its directness, which may have something to do with some of the controversies which have flared up in its wake.

“If you try to tell the truth,” he says, “and be direct, and put things in a language most people understand, then people react to it more directly, both positively and negatively. That's what I learned when I came to New York, to write in my own speaking voice and conversational tone, which gives things deeper substance.”

Which brings us to the furore over Somebody Blew Up America.

“I was reading it to 4000 people,” he says, “and then a couple of people complained, and they cut the post of Poet Laureate to get rid of me, and declare their ignorance to the world.”

While Baraka won't be silenced, with such a reaction to any kind of dissent, can art ever be truly revolutionary?

“That's the point,” he says. “You have to try and make it that way. Poetry and music have to shape it. That's what the Black Arts movement tried to do with it, to try and make poetry and music relevant to social struggle. That's what the bourgeoisie does with their ideas, they pump it out at people, so you have to pump it right back at them."

Amiri Baraka appears at Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Tramway, Glasgow, April 18th-21st


Free Players – Other artists appearing at Freedom is A Constant Struggle

John Tilbury – Pianist Tilbury has consistently applied radical thinking ton his work, ever since his days working with composer and Scratch Orchestra founder Cornelius Cardew, as well in the group AMM. Tilbury appears solo and in a duo with Wadada Leo Smith

William Parker – Bassist Parker has been seen in Scotland playing alongside some of free jazz's major figures, including percussionist Hamid Drake and violin player, Billy Bangs. His book, who Owns Music?, collected his political thoughts, poems and musicological essays. Parker appears in duo with saxophonist Daniel Carter.

Sonia Sanchez – Radical poet and author of more than a dozen volumes, Sanchez was associated with the Black Arts Movement, and has won numerous major awards for her work.

Wadada Leo Smith – Trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Smith has been a key figure in the musician-led AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative musicians), and has recorded with the likes of composer Anthony Braxton and guitarist Derek Bailey's group, Company. With guitarist Henry Miles, Smith has released several tribute albums to Miles Davis' lesser-known 1970s electric period. Smith will play solo and in duo with John Tilbury, and will take part in The Experiment, a conversation with Amiri Baraka, poet Sonia Sanchez and writer Fred Moten.

The Herald, April 12th 2013

ends

Un Petit Moliere


Tom Fleming Centre, Stewart's Melville College, Edinburgh
3 stars
There's something joyful about this double bill of Moliere comic miniatures, adapted here for Lung Ha's Theatre Company in typically scurrilous fashion by Morna Pearson. This may have something to do with MJ McCarthy and Kim Moore's jaunty accordion-led soundtrack that plays as the audience enter, or it may be the bustle of the cast who welcome them into designer Karen Tennant's beautifully draped world. Either way, there's a sense of period-costumed liberation at play, both in the first piece, The Seductive Countess, and in it's follow-up, The Flying Doctor.

The Seductive Countess finds the protege of a vain and selfish lady persuading her Viscount true love to see off her suitors, while The Flying Doctor has a pair of bumbling servants role-play a couple of quacks in order to prevent an unseemly marriage. Pared down to just seventy-five minutes overall, Maria Oller's production allows Lung Ha's regular large ensemble cast to have fun with Pearson's material with some surprisingly deft interplay in both pieces. Teri Robb as Julie in the first play gives a particularly deadpan turn, while there is much fun to be had with the healing powers of urine samples in The Flying Doctor, as the below stairs double act knock it back like fine wine.

While the ornate surroundings of Stewart's Melville adds to the overall atmosphere of the show, it's a puzzle why it isn't being seen in a regular theatre. Now more than ever, companies such as Lung Ha's need to be seen in the mainstream rather than appearing to have been sidelined in this way.

The Herald, April 12th 2013

ends

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Birds of A Feather


Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
It may be fifteen years since Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson last regularly graced the small screen as Essex siblings Sharon and Tracey in the long-running sit-com about a pair of convicts wives, but, judging by this stage play that picks up their story, their common touch is still held looked on with affection. As is too Sharon and Tracey's man-eating neighbour Dorian, played with Medusa-haired abandon by Lesley Joseph.

While Sharon and Tracey are still living together in a nouveau-riche fly-by-bight existence, much has changed. Tracey's son is now sixteen, and his serial jailbird dad is seemingly reduced to ashes. When the pair are summonsed to an old people's care home by Dorian, the trio are reunited in an unlikely plot framed around the death of an elderly resident. In the mist of all this come sly contemporary nudges about police corruption, tabloid sensationalism, the riots, references to both Cameron and Blair, as well as the reality TV show they accidentally sired, all undercut with a stream of all-girls-together innuendo..

Beyond this, at its sharply observed comic best this show is saying something about the changing social mores of an aspirant working class, about dysfunctional families, and about ageing (dis)gracefully. All this is undermined by an ending that looks more Cell Block H than anything, which may be the fault of over-egging things by having four of the TV show's original writers – Gary Lawson and John Phelps, and Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran – penning the script for Simon James Green's production. In the end, this doesn't matter. The audience recognise themselves in Sharon, Tracey, Dorian and all their failings, and that's what counts.

The Herald, April 11th 2013

ends

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Birdsong


King's Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
There's little in the way of sentimentality in much of the Original 
Theatre Company's new take on Sebastian Faulks' First World War novel 
by writer Rachel Wagstaff. Given that it looks at a doomed love affair 
between English officer Stephen Raysford and Isabelle Azaire, the 
French woman trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage who captivates 
him, this is somewhat surprising. But as the frontline troops let off 
steam with an increasingly desperate-looking sing-song that opens the 
play before marching to their deaths in the Somme, any ideas of a 
conventional war-time romance are instantly blasted into the trenches 
with the emotionally complex grit of what follows.

Where Faulks' story was originally told via a linear narrative, 
Wagstaff's script, revised since Trevor Nunn's original 2010 West End 
production, weaves her characters through time-frames to create an 
ambitiously realised memory play which moves seamlessly between each 
period. Alastair Whatley's fluid production, played out on Victoria 
Spearing's versatile bomb-site of set, focuses as much on Stephen's 
political awakening as much as his emotional one, as he finds empathy 
with squaddies just as Isabelle did with the striking factory workers 
she gave food to.

As Stephen, Jonathan Smith captures just the right balance of lovesick 
obsession and upper-crust bravura. Sarah Jayne Dunn's Isabelle is a 
quietly aloof presence, and a stirring symbol of the purity and passion 
he yearns for. As Stephen clings on to the impossible memory of 
Isabelle, the fragile peace of his own battle-scarred psyche comes into 
question. Ultimately, he survives the tug of love and war, but what's 
clear is how much war messes up the lives of even those it doesn't 
kill.

The Herald, April 10th 2013

ends

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Translations - Adrian Dunbar Minds His Language


It's the opening night party following a new production of Brian Friel's 1980 play, Translations, at the Millennium Forum in Derry/Londonderry, and the room is packed. The production forms a major part of the programme for Derry's year as UK City of Culture, and it's largely young cast are all dressed up following a couple of hours in suitably dowdy nineteenth century attire in a play that looks at how the British Army were tasked to translate place names from ancient Irish Gaelic to the King's English.

In the far corner of the room, the play's eighty-four year old author is sat on a sofa next to its director, quietly holding court. Most enthusiastic of all is a small gaggle of sparkly-frocked actresses who line up to take each other's photographs on their phone cameras while sitting next to Friel, as if he were a pop star. Which, in terms of Irish theatre, he is.

During the interval, the play's director had been standing in the corridor next to the auditorium, equally unmolested. The fact that he was standing opposite a portrait of iconic Derry-born tenor, Josef Locke, was all too fitting. It was Locke, of course, who provided the narrative drive for Hear My Song, the 1991 film about a shabby nightclub owner's quest to find Locke. The nightclub owner was played by Adrian Dunbar, who also scripted the film as he embarked on a film and television career which has taken him from stints on Cracker and Ashes to Ashes to the recently released film about Belfast's punk scene, Good Vibrations. Dunbar also happens to be the director of this new production of Translations, which arrives in Edinburgh next week. The morning after what ended up being a very late Derry first night, and, breakfasting in the secluded cottage where he's staying on the outskirts of Northern Ireland's second city, Dunbar may be weary, but he remains enthusiastic about what is clearly a labour of love.

“The pressure was on,” he admits, “because Derry owns the play, and you can feel from the audience that they're very possessive of it.”

As they have every tight to be about a play which is of huge significance to Derry. When the play first appeared there, at the Derry Guild Hall a stone's throw away from the Millennium Forum, the Irish Troubles were at their bloody height, so any play that looked at cultural colonialism was a brave move. The production also announced the arrival of Field Day, a crucial collective of Irish writers and thinkers that began as a collaboration between Friel and actor Stephen Rea to put Translations onstage. As well as Rea, also appearing in that production were Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally.

By that time, Field Day had broadened its activity, with poets Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, and writer Seamus Deane involved in what had become a Northern Irish super-group, with the aim of providing a dissident artistic voice in a divided country. It was Translations that put the company on the map.

“When it was first performed at the Guild Hall all those years ago, it came during a very dark, bleak time in Northern Ireland's history. I was reminded last night that when Field Day did it, they were all living at the end of some corridor in McGee College, with a couple of gas rings that they were cooking off, and that there was only one Chinese restaurant in Derry. It was that period when there wasn't a lot going on, and into the middle of that came this incredibly uplifting masterpiece of a play that really woke everybody up, and brought some light and joy and fun as well as everything else into people's lives. So I think it's a really healing piece in that respect. It's that kind of a play, and we were just hoping to celebrate that.

“There's a line in the play that says if we stop reinventing images of ourselves, we fossilise. It's not the literal past, Brian says, that defines us, but images in words of the past. So that's why words are so important. I'm always brought back to that idea of the Bible beginning with the line, in the beginning was the word. That's very clever, because it's how we fashion the myths about ourselves, like in Greece and Rome, it's not the facts of history that shape a people. It's the myths that they build up about ourselves.”

Dunbar sees this notion as being particularly pertinent for Scottish audiences at this time.

“Like all masterpieces, the play's not defined by the moment it was written,” he says. “A huge amount has been written about the play's politics, because of how it was contextualised at the time, but it's politics are very small. It's more about language, and how people reinvent themselves, and how you have to keep doing that.

“I think the Scots will understand that, because that's what's happened to them. The Victorians decided to reinvent them as a nation, and put this layer of invention across the top of this race of people that doesn't actually belong to them at all. I think if the Scots are moving towards independence, they're going to need people to reinvent them again, and to break them out of this tartanised shortbread box image which has nothing to do with themselves, but is to do with the Victorians wanting to put everything into a box. They were very clever about putting spin on things, but the final act of the clearances was to actually reinvent what Scottish culture was about.

“At this particular stopping off point where the Scots are at, I think Translations will have a huge resonance for those people who choose to look for it. That's not about politics. It's about something else, a bigger debate that's to do with reimagining who you are again, so you can face the next bit of your future. So I'm very hopeful that the play will provoke a debate that's about Scottish culture. Westminster still seems to be trapped in this 1833 Ordinance Survey idea of what Scotland is, and Westminster's reaction to anything happening in Scotland still has this ring of Victoriana about it, and that's why they're not aware of a consciousness in Scotland that's shifting, and has been shifting for some time. And by the way,” Dunbar says, “I think English people living in Scotland are crucial to what happens next, and they might do everyone a favour and vote for Scottish independence.”

Translation, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, April 15th-20th

The Herald, April 9th 2013

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Monday, 8 April 2013

HeLa

Summerhall, Edinburgh
4 stars
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with a cancer that would kill her shortly after. As a black woman in Baltimore, her rights were limited, and she would never know that a cell sample taken without her permission would provide fuel for some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the last half century, sealing the careers and reputations of many scientists en route.

Such a scandalous violation of human rights forms the back-ground to this new solo piece written and performed by Adura Onashile in association with the Iron-Oxide company and commissioned by Edinburgh International Science Festival. As seen all too appropriately in Summerhall's marvellously evocative Dissection Room, Graham Eatough's production has Onashile jump between Henrietta's all too personal story and its greater historical consequences with a verve that has her sprawled on a stretcher one minute, then dancing for dear life itself the next. There is archive film footage too, as Onsashile dissects historical data with forensic detail.

It's a shocking slice of shamefully hidden history which does science's reputation no favours as it exposes some of it's more clinically invasive and downright abusive practices. In Eatough and Onashile's hands, it's also theatrically bold in the telling, with Onashile's heart-rending performance at its centre. As she chalks up the details of one more scientist who made it big on the back of Henrietta's stem cells, it's a damning indictment of those who effectively dehumanised Henrietta into a symbol, even as they lent her a kind of immortality. The three Science Festival performances promised much for a full run later in the year of a piece that exposes a topic that remains chillingly relevant.

The Herald, April 8th 2013

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