Thursday, 31 October 2013

Maxine Peake - The Pendle Witches and The 1612 Underture

Maxine Peake had always been aware of the Pendle witch trials when she was growing up in Bolton. The actress and star of television dramas such as Silk and Shameless never expected, however, to be spending Halloween performing a politically charged spoken-word reclamation of the seventeenth century trials of nine women and one man from the north of England who were executed for apparently murdering ten people using unspecified powers of witchcraft.

Yet that's exactly what Peake will be doing tonight at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. As part of the gallery's latest after-hours event, Halloween: By Night, Peake fronts experimental electronic pop collective, The Eccentronic Research Council to perform Pendle-based spoken-word suite, 1612 Underture.

The Pendle witches had always been part of the folklore when I was growing up,” Peake says. “No one had ever explained to me their story properly, so I just deducted there was a hill not too far away where witches on broomsticks met to cause mayhem, which I thought was just a fairytale.
It was only in my teens when my mother told me there was a woman at her place of work who was a descendant of the Pendle witch, Alice Nutter, so I bought myself a book on the subject and started to read up."

Peake's involvement in 1612 Underture came about after being contacted by Adrian Flanagan, who, alongside former member of The All Seeing I, Dean Honer, forms the backbone of ERC.

We had a brief conversation about our respective music tastes,” Peake remembers, “and then he enquired if I would appear in his video, which involved donning a rabbit suit and charging around Kersal Moor in Salford. We stayed in touch, mainly because I was hoping to steal the film footage from him while he was sleeping. Then the next thing I know I'm embroiled in some Kraut, prog, psychedelic, electronic fiasco.”

Flanagan too was fascinated by the Pendle witch trials, and, following a road trip the pair took to the villages around Pendle Hill, Flanagan wrote 1612 Underture just as the 2011 UK riots were taking place.
You read about these women,” he says, “and you see how horrifically they we're treated, and how they were basically being used as scapegoats by the government. Then you start seeing parallels with what's going on now. It wont be long before this government will be taking us all to Gallows Hill for having an opinion."
While 1612 Underture was released as an album in 2012 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the trials, it was never meant to be performed live.

“I find the work with The ERC extremely exposing,” Peake says. “In theatre you are to include the audience under the guise that you're trying to get them to believe you've forgotten they are there. Speaking directly to them is very, very surreal for me. It is far more personal and far more difficult. I think it takes a certain personality to be a great front person, and I think I'm cut from a very different cloth. I wanted to act to get far away from who I am.”

Despite Peake's reservations, her collaboration with ERC remains ongoing. A new album has been recorded, while a single, a homage to electronic music pioneer and BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire entitled Maxine's Dream, has just been released. Peake has also branched out further from acting, and, following her first radio play, broadcast last year, a new work, about Anne Scargill's occupation of Parkside Colliery in 1993, is broadcast on Radio 4 on November 4th. As with1612 Underture, Peake is putting the hidden history of women to the fore.

"Women are still victimised for being different,” she says, “for not conforming. We like to bandy the word 'mad' about when describing a woman who may be being outspoken or passionate. If a woman has a strong sense of her sexuality she's still labelled a slag or some such. I feel we still have to battle to be heard to be taken seriously. If a woman has an opinion she's described as feisty. This infuriates me. If a woman is being strong-willed, outspoken, brave , emotional and fearless then she is being a woman, nothing more, nothing less.”

Witch-hunts, in Peake's opinion, are as prevalent as they ever were.

“There are woman in this country who are being murdered in honour killings,” she observes, “female babies being murdered because they are not male. The biggest witch hunt at the moment is the Tory party's demonisation of the working class, whipping middle England up into a frenzy with the myth of hoards of scroungers bleeding the taxpayer dry, of immigrants coming over to take their jobs and homes. The bedroom tax, the gagging law, the list goes on and on."


The Eccentronic Research Council featuring Maxine Peake will perform 1612 Underture as part of Halloween: By Night, which also features a performance by Blake Morrison, at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, October 31st, 7.15-10pm. 1612 Underture and Maxine's Dream are available now. Witches and Wicked Bodies runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until November 3rd.


The Herald, October 31st 2013

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To Sir, With Love

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
At first glance, the well-choreographed burst of jumping, jiving life from the young cast of this new stage version of E.R. Braithwaite's autobiographical novel about his experiences as a black teacher in a run-down east end London school looks like a piece of all-singing, all-dancing youth theatre. For all their brash bravura, there's something initially one-dimensional about the larger than life cockney urchins that doesn't always ring true in Mark Babych's production of Ayub Khan Din's new adaptation of Braithwaite's book for this Touring Consortium and Royal and Derngate Northampton co-production. If this rubs off on the grown-ups in the play, the over-riding lightness gradually matures into something with depth as well as warmth.

Ansu Kabia plays Ricky, an ambitious and educated Guyanese ex-pat who takes up teaching as a last resort in a post Second World War London riddled with prejudice. The school he ends up in is rough, but, with Matthew Kelly's idealistic headmaster Florian in charge, it is also progressive. Ricky's teenage charges take full advantage of this, as they throw his high-brow armoury of Chopin, Keats and Kipling back in his face. As Ricky squares up to institutional racism in the staff-room as much as the class-room, both he and his students learn lessons they'll never forget.

Babych's production is full of heart, with each scene punctuated by break-time dance routines performed by the cast, Yet, for all it's broad brush-strokes, it says something meaningful about the right of education for all which Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove could learn much from. When Florian declares the system to be broken and calls for revolution, it could be today he's talking about.

The Herald, October 31st


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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Promises Promises

Menzieshill Community Centre, Dundee
Four stars
When mercurial school-teacher Maggie Brodie click-clacks her way into 
the room in her bright red shoes and attitude to match, she can't fail 
to make an impression, not least of all on anyone who dares to cross 
her. There are plenty who do in Douglas Maxwell's troubling solo play, 
first seen in 2010, and revived here by Dundee Rep for a tour of 
community venues before a stint in the Highlands care of producing 
partner, Eden Court, Inverness.

With Maggie taking up a temporary post following a chequered past, also 
new to the school is a six year old Somalian girl called Rosie, who 
refuses to speak, and who her religious leaders say is possessed by the 
devil. With demons of her own to deal with, Maggie finds an affinity 
with Rosie, challenging what she sees as superstitious mumbo-jumbo 
before she discovers just how much damage a warped belief system can 
cause.

By having Maggie recognise so much of herself in Rosie, Maxwell 
explores a grey area of multi-cultural society rarely spoken of without 
some sensationalist agenda, where patriarchal orders can and do use 
tradition as an excuse to abuse women and children, whatever the 
particular faith.

Philip Howard's production puts the play's moral centre to the fore 
with a dynamic turn by Ann Louise Ross as Maggie. By turns vivacious, 
angry and increasingly vulnerable, Ross' performance is vivid, fearless 
and unflinching in its portrayal of a woman who absorbs a little girl's 
pain in a way that sees her become a kind of avenging angel. As Rosie 
goes out into the world, Maggie's final vow of silence might save her 
yet.

The Herald, October 30th 2013

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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Johnny McKnight - Blithe Spirit

When Johnny McKnight was a teenager, he would regularly attend the local spiritualist church with his aunties. By that time McKnight had already seen David Lean's big-screen version of Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit, in which Margaret Rutherford’s eccentric medium Madame Arcati inadvertently conjures up the ghost of Rex Harrison's novelist Charles Condomine's dead first wife, Elvira.

“My first live experience was going to watch psychics with my aunties at the spiritualist church,” McKnight says. “I think that's what got me into theatre. There were times when you just thought the psychic was a fraud. But there were others who were so on the money that you wonder how it could possibly be faked. There were times it was heartbreaking. Every week there'd be the same two rows of people, who'd clearly had a bad loss. It was two rows of desperate sadness looking for peace.”

McKnight's formative experiences at the spiritualist church nevertheless filtered into his own work with Random Accomplice, the company he co-founded and still runs with Julie Brown. Assorted psychics and fortune tellers have made appearances in Little Johnny's Big Gay Wedding, Something Wicked and Marymassacre.

It's only fitting then, that for his first foray into working on classic drama rather than new work that McKnight should direct his own production of Blithe Spirit. For a director weaned on pantomime and all things camp, however, McKnight's Blithe Spirit promises to take a very different approach than the cut-glass quick-fire reverence with which Coward's work is usually treated.

“I find it slightly weird when you go to see Coward,” McKnight says, “and everyone talks in these posh English accents. You find yourself concentrating on all these posh people being witty rather than concentrating on the story.”

With this in mind, McKnight has relocated the play from its original Kent setting to the theatre's Perth doorstep.

“The first week of rehearsal was all about trying to unpick an intonation sand a rhythm that you know so well,” McKnight explains. It was written for a middle class voice, so you need to find another rhythm and freshen things up. That's helped the cast from the start, I think, because it's freed them up to not play it like the movie. There's lines it, like when Elvira says to Charles that he was beastly to her, when you look at it, there's something quite fiery going on there. That goes with the look of it too. Let's not have the ghosts floating about flatly in grey fibre. Let's put them in scarlet, because they're the most alive people in the room.”

One challenge for McKnight has been reconciling himself with the play's ending, which was changed for the film.

“I know the movie so well,” he says, “so I forget how misogynistic the end of the play is. In the film Charles gets his just desserts, and it's a total Hollywood ending, with them all ending up dead together. In the play Charles wins the day, which is all about Noel Coward being so against the institution of marriage. It's been funny reading up on it, because there was one thing I read that suggested that the ghost was an expression of homosexuality coming out of the closet, but I don't see that at all. Basically Coward just hated marriage, and it's no coincidence that the happiest people in the play are all single.”



McKnight's production of Blithe Spirit comes at an interesting time for Perth Theatre, and for Horsecross, the organisation in charge of it. As the theatre prepares to go dark for two years while it undergoes a multi-million pound refurbishment, the announcement of the departure of Horsecross' director of theatre, Rachel O'Riordan to become artistic director of the Sherman Cymru company in Cardiff has come as a surprise. Since her appointment three years ago, O'Riordan's bold programming and directorial verve has made Perth Theatre a serious player in Scotland's theatre scene, with her production of Conor McPherson's play, The Seafarer, picking up several awards. It was O'Riordan too, who drafted McKnight into the building.

“She's a dynamic force,” McKnight says of O'Riordan. “The work she's put on during her time here has been accessible, but has never played to audience expectations. Her new job in Cardiff is brilliant for Rachel, but it's a great loss to Perth, and to the whole of Scottish theatre. She's going to be a tough act to follow, and I just hope the board manage to find someone just as dynamic.”

It was O'Riordan too who persuaded McKnight that tackling a classic play rather than the new work he is best known for was a good idea.

“I'm used to having writers in the room with me, who I can ask questions about the script, but I can't do that with this,” he says. “You have to bear in mind that Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in five days, and when you look at it closely and break it down, you realise that a lot of it doesn't make sense, but that it has a kind of panto logic to it. It goes so fast when you play it that you don't notice the plot holes, and there are lots.”

McKnight's radical approach to Blithe Spirit may cause Coward purists to raise an arch eyebrow or two, but this doesn't mean that McKnight isn't taking the play seriously. Far from it, in fact.

“The play's still funny,”he says, “but hopefully it will feel not quite as flimsy as it sometimes does. Hopefully there'll be flesh and blood and bones there as well. I don't want it to be knockabout. I want there to be some kind of truth of the moment there as well. Madame Arcati is still funny, but there's something deeper going on than her just being a mad old boot.”


Blithe Spirit, Perth Theatre, October 30th-November 16th

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Johnny McKnight – A Life in Theatre

Johnny McKnight grew up in Ardrossan, and originally trained as a lawyer before attending the Contemporary Theatre Practice course at what is now the Royal Conservatoire Scotland in Glasgow. It was here McKnight met Julie Brown, with whom he formed Random Accomplice in 2002.

Since then, McKnight has worked as a writer, director and actor, both with random Accomplice and many of Scotland's major theatre companies. For Random Accomplice, McKnight has written sand directed the Little Johnny trilogy, Love Hurts, Smalltown – Ardrossan, Marymassacre, Something Wicked and others. McKnight has written and directed several pantomimes, including Jackie and the Beanstalk and Aganeeza Scrooge at venues including the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling. As an actor, McKnight has worked with the National Theatre of Scotland, The Arches, 7:84 Scotland and many others. McKnight has also written for radio, and worked with Scottish Opera on the site-specific piece, Last One Out, which was performed in Fraserburgh lighthouse. In 2014, McKnight will be working on a new work with Birds of Paradise.

The Herald, October 29th 2013

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Monday, 28 October 2013

Ashley Jensen Returns to The Tron

It's more than twenty years since Ashley Jensen was last on the stage of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Then, the Emmy nominated Annan born star of Extras and Ugly Betty was a young drama school graduate appearing in a series of new plays by the likes of Peter Arnott and and Anne Downie. Last Thursday night, however, Jensen returned to the theatre where she began her career as the figurehead of a new scheme to promote and ensure the future of Tron Participation, the theatre's multi-faceted outreach and education strand, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

In front of an invited audience, Jensen explained the importance of Tron Participation in enabling people of all ages to discover all aspects of theatre for the first time in what can often be a life-changing experience. As Tron Participation's new Archangel, Jensen also announced the Tron Angel scheme, in which supporters of the initiative can pledge donations to ensure its survival. The Tron Angels scheme aims to raise some 35k each year, and the hope is that a key twenty Tron Angels will pledge their support for the initiative over a three year period.

Jensen first heard about Tron Participation and the Tron Angels scheme via stage and television designer Mark Leese, who is also a member of the Tron's board of directors. Leese and Jensen were both working on The Escape Artist, a new TV drama in which Jensen stars opposite David Tennant, and which the first episode of which airs this week.

“As soon as Mark mentioned it I felt quite passionate about it,” says Jensen while sat in the Tron's Victorian Bar where she was once a regular. “Tron Participation is giving people an opportunity from a very early age to enter into the world of theatre, which is a world that might sometimes seem quite inaccessible or dry. Whether you want to be an actor or not, something like this is vitally important for young people in terms of their well-being, confidence and communication, all the things that make you a human being. That's what matters here. Some people may want to be actors, but not know how to get there, and for others it might be about meeting other people and gaining the confidence to express themselves.”

As an actress whose first experience of theatre came via her local amateur dramatics group followed by a stint in the National Youth Theatre when still a teenager, Jensen understands more than most the value of having access to the arts. This was brought home even more when she spent a day with Tron Participation's assorted groups earlier in the year, getting a flavour of exactly what goes on in a scheme that rarely makes the headlines.

“With school, there's very much the idea of a right and wrong answer to something,” Jensen says “whereas with theatre there isn't really a right and wrong. It's more about exploration, acting, reacting, giving, sharing and being part of a company. That's one of the things I loved when I started out. I felt very much part of a family, and in a world that seems increasingly more solitary, it's a really basic thing to be able to look someone in the eye and communicate with them. That's where Tron Participation is important.”

With some 47,000 young people and adults having taken part in Tron Participation over the last decade, Jensen's observations are clearly validated, as they were too when she took part in a guided tour of Tron Participation's assorted programmes led by some of its participants. These included modules for theatre design, as well as a Tron Ambassadors scheme, which gives access to young people all the theatre's activities.

Following this, Jensen watched Subject To Change, a new play devised by the Tron Young Company with professional director Martin O'Connor. If the next generation of acting talent were to be found anywhere in Tron Participation, it was in this complex, and funny look at inter-personal relationships that featured a set of fantastic performances.

In the bar afterwards, Jensen chatted to the cast inbetween posing for photographs with a stream of Tron participants.

“It was great to talk to them all while everyone was still buzzing,” Jensen said later. “It reminded me of when I was younger, and the high you get doing something like that.”

Jensen is fulsome in her praise for the Tron's Education Manager Lisa Keenan and Drama Officer
Deborah McArthur, who somewhat miraculously are the sole people in charge of Tron Participation.

“They are remarkable women doing a remarkable job,” Jensen says. “What I can hopefully do for the Tron Angels scheme is to blow a bit of a trumpet on their behalf, to make sure more people know it's happening, and to help raise the money to make sure such brilliant work can carry on. This is just the beginning.”

Anyone wishing to become a Tron Angel should contact Dearbhla Murphy at the Tron Theatre at dearbhla.murphy@tron.co.uk. Details of Tron Participation can be found at www.tron.co.uk.

The Herald, October 28th 2013

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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Cured

The Arches, Glasgow
Three stars
How do you get over being gay? That's not the question posed in Stef 
Smith's new play about one woman's coming to terms with her sexuality. 
It is, however, the driving force behind the people who run the sort of 
clinic the woman attends in the hope of 'curing' her homosexuality and 
getting her some apparently well-earned credit in the straight world. 
As Julie Hale's Susan flits between the clinic, her home life caring 
for her ageing mother and a burgeoning romance with a more experienced 
woman in Ros Philips' fluid production, beyond her initial state of 
denial she is forced to square up to old episodes of American sit-com 
The Golden Girls, the trials and tribulations of the dating game and 
the secrets of something the clinic calls 'heterosexual holding.' All 
this and a fortieth birthday to deal with too.

While all this is told in a broadly comic sweep that makes such cranky 
institutions as the one depicted appear ridiculous, there is an 
underlying seriousness to the play as well. Clinics and attitudes like 
this actually exist, preying on both their patients insecurities and 
fears as well as those behind them, and the more they are discredited, 
the better.

This Glasgay! commission isn't a lecture, however, and, with a 
knowingly versatile Mary Gapinski playing all roles other than Susan, 
is peppered throughout its seventy minutes with a warmth and a wit that 
serves its subject well. Hale plays Susan without archness or quirks, 
which makes her plight all the more recognisably ordinary. Ultimately, 
then, this is a play about reconciliation; between Susan and her 
mother, her lovers and, most importantly, with herself.

The Herald, October 24th 2013

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Tuesday, 22 October 2013

To Sir, With Love - E.R. Braithwaite Looks Back

E.R. Braithwaite never wanted to be a school-teacher, let alone working in a run-down institution in the East End of London with what in the post Second World War environment might be described as juvenile delinquents. As a Guyanese immigrant and an ethnic minority in London, despite Braithwaite's succession of degrees from universities in Guyana, New York and Cambridge, where he gained a doctorate in physics, it was the only work he could get.

Despite initial hostilities, Braithwaite's new job became a life-changer, marking out a new path for him as a social worker and author of note. It also gave rise to Braithwaite penning one of the most enduring literary works of its era. Now, following a swinging sixties cinema treatment as well as a more recent radio adaptation of Braithwaite's auto-biographical novel, To Sir, With Love comes to the stage in an adaptation penned by Ayub Khan Din, who made waves with the big-screen adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical play, East Is East.

Now aged 101, Braithwaite sounds impressed by recently appointed artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre Mark Babych's production for the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, when he flew in from New York for the opening night.

“I think it's excellent,” he says of the production, which features Matthew Kelly as the school's headmaster, Florian, and Royal Shakespeare Company regular Ansu Khabia as Ricky, Braithwaite's fictionalised younger self. “It was a nice experience, but I needed to be reminded of so much, which is a function of age, I suppose. Normally I don’t think about my time in the East End, and watching the play, the events it describes all seem a bit unreal to me now. In fact, I had to strain myself to imagine myself in that situation.”

Even so, Braithwaite's memories of his first day of the school are vivid.

“All I remember is that it was hell.” he says. “The students had decided to make it hell for me. I chanced upon education. It was like an accident that happened to me. Those kids in the East End made a great impression on me. They seemed so infused with life. I connected with them purely out of my own wish to survive. It struck me one day that the children didn’t have any respect for themselves, and this was why they had no respect for other people and I seized upon that idea. I challenged them to respect themselves.

“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying. I didn’t keep in touch with my former pupils. I had gone to the school to do a particular job and I felt that I’d completed my work with them. However, one of the strange things about life is how often circumstances repeat themselves. I’d be walking to work and people would come up to me and say hiya, Sir! There came a point when I was Sir to the parents as well as to their children.”

Braithwaite hadn't planned to turn his experiences in the East End into a book. Only when he left teaching did he take stock of what had occurred.

"To help me teach I kept notes of each day's activities,” Braithwaite remembers. “Once I was ready to quit teaching I had no further use for these notes, and decided I would burn them when a friend suggested I keep those notes and write a book based on them.”

While Braithwaite's book was published in 1959, for many, To Sir, With Love only fully hit home via writer/director James Clavell's 1967 big-screen version, which starred Sidney Poitier as a Braithwaite style teacher. The film was a hit, partly, one suspects, because of its casting, which included Glasgow-born pop rocket Lulu playing a rather unlikely chirpy cockney. Lulu also sang the film's Don Black and Mark London penned theme song, which, while relegated to B-side status in the UK, stayed at number one in the Billboard Hot 100 in the US for five weeks. Despite the film's iconic status, Braithwaite was less than impressed by the end result.

“I was disappointed,” he says. “I was not involved in the making of the film at all. A man [Clavell] came and talked to me about the film rights, and I could see that he was not concerned at all with my interests. He made it seem as if the book and the proposed film of it were totally separate. When Clavell wrote the screenplay, he wrote his view of the book, which was very different from mine. When I saw the film, I was not impressed. Something had been lost in the transition from book to film.”

Given that one review of the time suggested that the film's 'sententious script sounds as if it has been written by a zealous Sunday school teacher after a particularly exhilarating boycott of South African oranges,' Braithwaite wasn't the only one to think this.

With this in mind, Din and Babych's new take on To Sir, With Love is more faithful to the book's original 1940s setting, when song and dance brought some life to an otherwise austere existence. A two-part radio version by Roy Williams, starring Kwane Kwei-Armah, did likewise in 2007.

Braithwaite puts the enduring appeal of To Sir, With Love down to the simple fact that “it appeals to a lot of people. They each find what they're looking for. Each person is looking for something he or she could use in their daily life.”

More than half a century on from the publication of To Sir, With Love, Braithwaite remains sceptical about any improvements in the education system regarding opportunities for children from poor or ethnic minorities backgrounds.

“I don't see much progress,” he says. “I see change, but the fundamentals remain the same. When people read my book, when teachers read it, it may lead them to some self-examination. They compare themselves to the hypothetical eye. In my view, that's unfortunate. This book provides them with a moving target and the target is me as I faced the challenges in that school.”

To Sir With Love, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, October 29th-November 2ndwww.edtheatres.com


E.R. Braithwaite – A Life in Letters
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1912 to parents who had both attended Oxford University. He attended Queens College, Guyana and the City College of New York before joining the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. Following the Second World War, Braithwaite attended the University of Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in physics.

While writing To Sir, With Love, Braithwaite moved from teaching into social work, finding foster homes for non-white children for London County Council. His experiences here became the basis for a second novel, Paid Servant, which was published in 1962. A Kind of Homecoming was published the same year, with Solid Lubricants and Surfaces following in 1964, and Choice of Straws in 1965.

In 1973, apartheid-era South Africa lifted its ban on Braithwaite's books, and for a visit, Braithwaite was given the status of 'honorary white'. This afforded him significant privileges compared to black South Africans, and Braithwaite recorded his experiences in his 1975 book, Honorary White.

With further novels and short stories following, Braithwaite became an educational consultant for UNESCO, permanent representative to the United Nations for Guyana, and Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela. As an academic, Braithwaite taught at New York University, and in 2002 was writer-in-residence at Howard University in Washington D.C. From 2005-6, Braithwaite was a visiting professor at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, where he received an honorary degree.

Following the 2007 radio adaptation of To Sir, With Love, both Paid Servant and Choice of Straws were dramatised for BBC Radio 4.

The Herald, October 22nd 2013
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Monday, 21 October 2013

Hecuba

Dundee Rep
Four stars
In a bombed-out wasteland, the body laid out among the rubble looks set 
to live on as the clamour of warfare sounds out inbetween the voices of 
contemporary apologists for war. It's the dead that speak first, 
however, as the slain Polydorus comes crawling from the wreckage in 
Amanda Gaughan's up close and personal production of Frank McGuinness' 
pared down version of Euripides' post Trojan War anti-conflict classic. 
It's the image of the dead that stand out overall, in fact, as Irene 
Macdougall's electrifying Hecuba rises up against those who sacrificed 
her daughter Polyxena and murdered her son in a tit for tat revenge 
killing that will either provoke further reprisals or else end all wars 
forever.

While history has shown how things have actually worked out in that 
respect time and again, Gaughan goes for the jugular, with the actors 
unleashed onto Leila Kalbassi's broken breeze-block styled set like a 
battered nation in mourning and rebellion. Macdougall in particular 
gives a fearless and unflinching portrait of a woman so churned up by 
anger and loss that she has nothing left to lose. Ali Craig as the 
blinded Polymestor and Callum O'Neill as Agamemnon both provide 
charismatic counterpoint to Macdougall's vengeful queen.

One of the most striking features of the production is its musicality, 
with Emily Winter's solo Chorus joining forces with the ghosts of 
Caroline Deyga's Polyxena and Ncuti Gatwa's Polydorus to sing their 
anthem of revenge as a round set to Claire McKenzie's fractured, 
subterranean score. While early talk of Troy's twin towers being razed 
has very obvious parallels with 9/11, in the end there's a timeless 
universality about the play that cuts straight to its human heart.

The Herald, October 21st 2013

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Translunar Paradise

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
William and Rose were lovers for life. When both are in the dotage, 
Rose dies, leaving William alone with only the ticking clock, a painful 
absence and a house full of memories to help get him through his own 
final days. Death, however, is not the end in Theatre Ad Finitum's 
wordless meditation on love, loss and lives lived and shared with 
others. Using masks, choreography and a live accordion score to provide 
its heartbeat, George Mann's production takes the treasured emotional 
totems of that life – a tea cup, a letter, a pearl necklace and a 
summer dress – and transports William to his youth, when every moment 
of his romance with Rose was a great big adventure.

This is touchingly played by Mann as William alongside fellow 
performers and devisers, Deborah Pugh, who plays Rose, and Kim Heron 
who provides the score to a show first seen on the Edinburgh Festival 
Fringe in 2011, and which now forms part of this year's Luminate 
festival of creative ageing. The play's focus on memory as a means of 
survival recalls Samuel Beckett at his most obsessive in the likes of 
Krapp's Last Tape or Eh Joe, albeit with a more sentimental approach 
and less ennui.

This lends a warmth to the production over its seventy minute duration, 
even if some of the love-lorn choreography is a tad repetitive as 
William leaps into the void once more. As he finally lets go of Rose 
and steps back into the darkness, the life William has just relived 
brings him peace at last in this gentlest of meditations on how 
grieving can be transformed into something magically comforting.

The Herald, October 21st

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Couldn't Care Less

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
In a cluttered room, a young woman called Lilly takes stock of her and 
her mother Elspeth's lives in this new collaboration between the young 
Strange Theatre company and the slightly more seasoned Plutot La Vie 
troupe. Where Elspeth's life was once perfectly choreographed, first as 
a dancer, then running a dance school, as she gets older and her mental 
faculties fade, she becomes ever more dependent on Lilly to look after 
her. High-flying career girl Lilly's own life collapses into chaos as 
she is forced to care for her mother full-time before Elspeth's 
inevitable demise.

As Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of all people suggests that care 
for the elderly in the UK is a '”national shame”, Alzheimer's-based 
plays are at a premium. This latest effort, scripted by Morna Pearson 
with the company and currently touring as part of the Luminate festival 
of creative ageing possesses a certain quirky charm in its telling. 
Malcolm Shields' choreography adds much to Tim Licata's production, as 
does the pulse of Daniel Krass' jaunty score that drives the 
performances of Liz Strange as Lilly and Hilde McKenna as Elspeth.

The hour-long play works best when it gives way to Pearson's 
recognisably troubling fantastical edge in a couple of scenes that 
resemble a video nasty take on Mommy Dearest made flesh. While even 
more wildness of this ilk would be welcome from the get go,  the play 
leans more towards the more everyday struggles of carers. It is carers 
like Lilly who bear the full emotional brunt of an increasingly 
significant issue in a play that captures the extent of how lives can 
be turned upside down by it.

The Herald, October 21st 2013

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Friday, 18 October 2013

The Gates

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Three stars
If a fire alarm such as the one that briefly delayed the first night of the ConFAB company's new musical theatre collaboration with Dance HQ had affected the show's subject, one suspects all involved would have merely shrugged and got on with it. Because writer/director Rachel Jury and composer Andrew Cruikshank's homage to London's legendary lesbian nightclub, The Gateways, reveals a clandestine world where standing proud and defiant was everything. In the 1950s, before gay bars and discos broke cover, the King's Road basement club was the only fun in town, be it for sharp-suited women, Chelsea bohemians or the assorted movie stars who frequented its smoky interior.

Utilising a mammoth twenty-five strong cast that includes singer/song-writer Lorna Brooks and politician Rosie Kane, plus a four-piece band led by Cruikshank on double bass, Jury and co have attempted to capture the speak-easy hedonism of The Gates via a loose-knit narrative involving gangsters, their molls and a love that finally does dare speak its name. The central affair revolves around Jo, one of the club's regulars, and Judy, the blonde appendage of gang leader Chelsea Charlie. With dialogue kept to a minimum, their story is told primarily through a series of rousing jazz-tinged numbers, with Seweryna Aga Dudzinkska as Jo and Jennifer Dempster as Judy on particularly fine voice.

If Jo and Judy's doomed love story is as old-fashioned as in any other period musical, The Gates is also a show about a hidden community that existed underground out of necessity. Glasgow audiences can check this out for themselves when The Gates moves into the Classic Grand for its Glasgay! run next week.

The Herald, October 18th 2013


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Handel's Cross

CCA, Glasgow
Three stars
A man sits onstage at a candle-lit table adorned with wine goblets and 
other dinner party accoutrements. Dressed up in eighteenth century 
finery, the man could be some kind of role-playing maitre d if it 
weren't for the leather trousers and shades that give him more the air 
of the Marquis de Sade. As it turns out, both are true in Martin 
Lewton's new piece for Theatre North that forms part of Glasgay!'s 
twentieth anniversary programme.

Newton comes on dressed in suit and tie in what turns out to be an 
approximation of a fetish dungeon in Andrew McKinnon's production, 
though over the next fifty minutes he will deliver his unflinchingly 
intimate monologue almost naked while chained to a wooden St Andrew's 
Cross as McKinnon himself takes on the role of the de Sade like 
gate-keeper. As Lewton unveils his fantasy of the man he calls Fat 
Handel and his imagined lust for a boy castrato, McKinnon administers 
assorted physical aides to Newton to help move his story along. That 
these include nipple clamps, dog food and hot candle wax speak volumes 
about where Newton is coming from.

As the brief flourish of Giorgio Moroder and  Donna Summer's ultimate 
hedonist's anthem, I Feel Love, suggests alongside the triumphal blasts 
of the Messiah, Newton's concern here is with  the sexual charge behind 
great art which in turn can result in a form of quasi-religious 
transcendence. There's the blurred lines too between agony and ecstasy 
that fuel them all. None of which is anything new, though even laid 
bare so publicly, it makes for an oddly un-erotic theatre of voyeurism.

The Herald, October 17th 2013

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Mounira al Solh / Sarah Forrest - CCA, Glasgow

September 28th-November 9th
Thinking local and acting globally is increasingly becoming the CCA's raison d'etre. No more is this evident than in these twin solo shows by two very different artists working in film. Glasgow-based Forrest looks to Jean Paul Sartre's novel, 'Nausea' to question notions of narrative between film and text she first explored after being awarded the Margaret Tait Residency in 2012, which resulted in Forrest's film homage to Tait, that now. Al Solh, meanwhile, follows on from Dinosaurs, an investigation of independent American film-maker John Cassavetes, with an exploration of the recent Syrian immigration to Beirut following the civil war in a work that couldn't be more current.

With both artists questioning the very notion of how such big ideas can be represented on film, and with a sense of place at the heart of their work, a programme of older film-works by both artists will also be screened alongside the two new commissions. This will feature two films by Forrest, including (+italics)that now(-italics), and five by al Solh in a programme lasting just shy of three hours. While coming from different places and experiences, the common ground between both artists should become vividly apparent.

The List, October 2013


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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dublin Theatre Festival 2013 - The Edinburgh Connection

Just like the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Dublin Theatre Festival forms part of a burgeoning festival season in Dublin, and the two-way traffic between Edinburgh and Dublin seems to be increasing every year.

While The Wooster Group's Hamlet formed part of EIF's programme this year following a stint at DTF in 2012, singer and performer Camille O'Sullivan brought her Herald Angel winning solo take on Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece for a run at Dublin's O'Reilly Theatre following its Edinburgh premiere the previous year. This was a major turning point for O'Sullivan, whose career began on the Fringe, and it's significant that two shows from this year's Edinburgh Fringe appeared at DTF. Actors Touring Company's production of David Greig's play, The Events, which opened at the Traverse, appeared at the Peacock, while Australian company CIRCA's Wunderkammer, which also picked up a Herald Angel during it's Edinburgh run at the Underbelly, wowed audiences in a similar fashion at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre.

These made up part of DTF's programme of some twenty-four productions, which, as well as a family programme, also featured several Irish companies familiar to Scottish audiences. This began from touching down at Dublin Airport, where maverick producers Fuel, regularly praised in these pages, presented While You Wait, a series of nine ten-minute podcasts by Fuel regulars on the theme of waiting in a purpose built listening station for the duration of DTF.

This initiative may have been inspired by Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett's classic piece of existential vaudeville, which was presented by Cork-based Beckett specialists, Gare St Lazare Players. Gare St Lazare have been Edinburgh regulars with their solo stage versions of Beckett's prose works for several years now, and this was the company's biggest show to date.

This year's EIF programme was dominated by stage versions of Beckett's non-dramatic works in a Herald Angel winning programme presented by Dublin's Gate Theatre alongside the Pan Pan company. While the Gate was very much in evidence at DTF, it was on a much grander scale than the solo pieces seen at EIF. Their new production of Brecht and Weill's junkyard musical, The Threepenny Opera, was a raucous and sexy take on the pair's fantastical Weimar-era romp. In its bow-tied and posh frocked finery and black and white staging, it looked not unlike something that Glasgow's Citizens Theatre might have had decadent fun with during its 1970s excesses.

Wayne Jordan's production opened with the coyest of stripteases before the audience were led into the underworld by David Shannon's matinee idol-like Street Singer. Here David Ganly's potty-mouthed Mac The Knife held court in a ribald version of the play that made liberal use of a street-smart Irish demotic. With a cast of nineteen onstage, plus an eight-piece band, this is a contemporary take on the play that chimed perfectly with these recessionary times.

Over at the Culture Box, an intimate cafe environment was created for Rough Magic's radical new take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan's eighteenth century satire of theatrical types, The Critic. Relocating the action from London to Sheridan's native Dublin, the audience are given an insight into the city's theatrical history, as Karl Shiels' crazed man of letters, Puff, inveigled a coterie of wannabes and theatrical groupies into his rehearsal room. This involved the audience being led onto the streets and taken round the corner to children's theatre, The Ark, where a large ensemble of student performers ripped into Puff's self-styled masterpiece.

In Lynne Parker's production, this invokes the spirit and philosophy of Peter Brook and other theatrical gurus. In the magnificent coup de theatre that ended the show with the theatre wall opening out onto the Temple Bar streets as the names of a multitude of Irish theatre companies are projected above, it became a love letter to the country's rich theatrical tapestry that owes much to the past while looking firmly towards the future.

As with The Threepenny Opera and The Critic, Annie Ryan's new production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under The Elms for regular Edinburgh visitors The Corn Exchange transplanted the action of O'Neill's most pungent tragedy from rural America to somewhere a lot closer to home. This worked supremely well in the Smock Alley Theatre, where the full brooding intensity of the tragedy can be watched in close-up.

In Maeve's House, seen at the Peacock, veteran actor Eamon Morrissey recounted his fascination for ex-pat Irish writer Maeve Brennan, who blazed a trail writing for the New Yorker before tragedy got the better of her. Morrissey grew up in the Dublin house where Brennan had once lived, and recognised his former home while reading one of Brennan's short stories on the subway when a young actor touring New York. As Morrissey told of his sole meeting with the mercurial author, he relayed a sense of warmth and endless fascination with one of Ireland's most iconic talents with considerable charm.

One of the most anticipated events in the final week of DTF was The Hanging Gardens, the world premiere of a new play by Frank McGuinness, directed by Patrick Mason at The Abbey. McGuinness' first play for Ireland's national theatre in fourteen years was a big, grown-up family saga concerning ageing writer Sam Grant's loss of his creative faculties and the responses of those around him. As the messed-up family he sired comes together, they seek sanctuary in the place where Sam authored his own mythology. The garden may appear idyllic, but the black cloud above it spoke volumes about the emotional explosion that followed. Niall Buggy gave a heartfelt performance as Sam in a work riddled with classical allusions but which remained rooted in human experience.

By far the biggest talking point of this year's DTF was riverrun, Olwen Fouere's impressionistic look at James Joyce's epic novel, Finnegan's Wake. Presented by TheEmergencyRoom and Galway Arts Festival at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, riverrun tapped into the evocative musicality of a near wordless text, performed by Fouere in something that leant towards elements of sound installation in a piece which anyone who saw it declared must have another life. If that life is in Edinburgh, it would further the artistic links between these two great cities even more.

Neil Cooper's visit to Dublin Theatre Festival was supported by Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland.

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Dublin Theatre Festival In Brief

Dublin Theatre Festival was founded in 1957 by impresario Brendan Smith, and is now Europe's oldest specialised theatre festival. Since then, DTF has presented a mix of home-grown and international work, focusing on classics by Sean O' Casey, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, as well as a younger generation of writers including Mark O' Rowe, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.

Smith continued as DTF director until 1983, when he was succeeded by Tony O' Dalaigh. In 2000, Fergus Linehan took over for four years, followed by Don Shipley and Loughlin Deegan. Since 2011, former director of the Project Arts Centre, Willie White, has been in charge of DTF. This year's Dublin Theatre Festival formed a major part of The Gathering, a year-long celebration of Ireland's culture, which features more than 2500 events nationwide. Furthering links between Edinburgh and Dublin, former DTF boss Fergus Linehan will shortly take over from Jonathan Mills as artistic director of Edinburgh International Festival. Linehan's first programme will take place in 2015.

The Herald, October 15th 2013


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Amanda Gaughan Directs Hecuba in Dundee

When theatre director Amanda Gaughan looked at her TV screen recently, 
the news agenda was dominated by global warfare. This seemed to have 
been a permanent fixture, Gaughan observed, even before two hi-jacked 
aeroplanes flew into the World Trade Centre's twin towers in New York 
more than a decade ago, changing the world forever. All the more 
reason, then, to revive Hecuba, Euripides' classic fourth century BC 
anti-war play. Set after the Trojan War but before the Greeks have left 
Troy, Hecuba charts how the play's eponymous former queen of the now 
fallen city exacts a terrible revenge following the death of her 
daughter, Polyxena, and the murder of her son, Polydoros.

“We're living in a world today where a lot of terrible crimes against 
humanity are taking place,” Gaughan observes, “particularly in the 
Middle East. That was the case as well with the Greeks, so they used 
myths to illustrate this and to comment on what was going on in 
society.”

With this in mind, Gaughan has opted to use a version of the play 
penned by Frank McGuinness a decade ago, when the aftermath of 9/11 was 
still fresh in the collective psyche. This allows Gaughan to work with 
something that is both classical and contemporary in its construction 
and execution.

“The text is brilliant,” Gaughan affirms. “Frank's written such a 
strong and illuminating version of the play He's written it in 
semi-contemporary language, and pared things right back, so it's very 
exposing, with no fluff around the action, and in a way that makes 
things much more accessible to the ear.”

One of the more striking features of Gaughan's production should come 
in its appearance. Rather than use the full sweep of Dundee Rep's 
auditorium, Gaughan has opted to put the audience onstage, where they 
will watch the action in a purpose-built construction that contains 
both them and the performers. Such an intimate approach has been 
something of a calling card for Gaughan, ever since she directed a 
claustrophobic version of Dennis Kelly's psycho-sexual thriller, After 
The End, in the up close and personal environs of the Citizens 
Theatre's Circle Studio. Gaughan directed the equally intense Roman 
Bridge, by Martin Travers, for the National Theatre of Scotland.

“I don't want to create a distance,” Gaughan says of her decision on 
how to stage Hecuba. “The Rep's got this gorgeous auditorium, but using 
that would have meant having to change the playing style and do 
everything so much bigger. By bringing the audience onstage and 
watching the action from three sides it creates a much more intimate 
and at times voyeuristic feel,so at times the audience are complicit 
with the action. At times it's so small and tender, and at other times 
you wonder whether we should be watching this, because the characters 
are so full of grief.”

If there is a dark thread running through much of Gaughan's work, it's 
not deliberate, but is more to do with a professional curiosity about 
“situations that aren't black and white, and which ask how we got 
ourselves in a particular position.”

Gaughan has recently branched out into musicals with young company, 
Noisemaker, on a show called Forest Boy, and into opera with Johnny 
McKnight on Last One Out. Given that the former was based on a real 
story about a boy who may or may not have lived in the wild, while the 
latter was set and performed in a lighthouse in Fraserburgh, darkness 
and claustrophobia remain on her agenda.

“I like to think of myself as a nice happy person,” Gaughan laughs, 
“but I suppose I'm interested in a theatre of conflict. With Hecuba 
we've been looking at what's going on in Syria and Egypt quite a lot, 
and one of the things I'm interested in is that this cycle of violence 
will never end. It all comes down to why the Greeks made theatre, which 
was to reflect what was going on in society at the time, and to reflect 
on how a war can change people. For me, it's about going, okay, this is 
a Greek myth, we're creating a piece of theatre and aren't actually in 
a dangerous situation, but let's think about the wars that are going on 
now. I'm sitting in Dundee, and all these terrible things are going on 
in the world right now. Theatre cam make you look at that. It brings 
current situations to the fore, and makes us question our humanity, and 
what our responsibilities are.”

Hecuba, Dundee Rep, October 17th-26th
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, October 15th 2013

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Oedipussy

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
When Oedipus poked his eyes out in one of the defining moments of classical drama, it wasn't because he got a bad review. Yet laying bare excerpts from a genuine critique of their previous show, the really rather splendid Moby Dick, is exactly how the Spymonkey company precede their self-reflexive knockabout take on Greek tragedy. Looking to retro-chic kitsch for pointers towards tackling the most dysfunctional family in theatrical history, Emma Rice's production, scripted by Carl Grose with the company, puts on the shimmery gold spandex and togas for a thrusting romp of a show that falls somewhere between Horrible Histories and Carry On Up The Thebans.

Jocasta comes on like a Barbarella out-take made flesh, the Sphinx is an afro-sporting jive-talking mamma, and assorted James Bond themes creep in and out like a sniper. All of which should make for the sort of madcap caper that the late Ken Campbell would surely approve of if it only had some depth beyond the routines. The nearest Spymonkey's regular performing quartet get to in this is via assorted confessionals which pastiche both themselves and the notion of a company that have spent too many hours in a rehearsal room together, wishing they actually could poke each other's eyes out.

At it's slickly realised and energetic best, this co-production with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton resembles the sort of hammed-up lounge bar theme nights that were all the rage back in the 1990s, but which now looks wilfully naff. There are moments, such as during Jocasta's hanging scene, that threaten to up the ante, but overall this is a company unrolling an all too familiar bag of tricks.

The Herald, October 15th 2013


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Sunday, 13 October 2013

Jazzateers – Rough 46 (Creeping Bent)

4 stars

When the decidedly non-jazz based Jazzateers reformed to play a double bill with Vic Godard reviving his 1980s swing-based set at Glasgow International (yes) Jazz Festival earlier this year, it shed some light on one of the great missing links of the original Sound of Young Scotland based around Alan Horne's Postcard Records. This re-release of the band's eponymous 1983 album, which originally appeared on what was becoming an increasingly pop-based Rough Trade about to unleash the Smiths into the world, is even more overdue.

The line-up that appears here features guitarist Ian Burgoyne, bassist Keith Band and drummer Colin Auld, who founded the band in 1980 with vocalist Alison Gourley, before future Bourgie Bourgie crooner Paul Quinn took over. Main singer here, however, in the band's third incarnation, is Grahame Skinner, who would go on to front glossy white soul combo, Hipsway at a time when every designer lager TV ad under the sun was being sound-tracked by Scottish bands.

Contrary to their jangular roots, then, from the opening sounds of a match striking, this incarnation of Jazzateers are hanging tough. If Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis was as miffed as reported by the move away from indie-pop, one wonders whether his former signings were at the back of his mind when he signed The Strokes, because this is pretty much what sneering, snot-nosed opener 'Nothing At All' sounds like a template of.

The CBGBisms continue on 'Looking For A Girl,' before a few moments of pure Postcard archness creep in on 'Show Me The Door' by way of the country twang of 'Heartbeat' and the the not-quite-Chic of Once More With Feeling. Not that there's anything that sounds remotely naïve here. There's rock and roll swagger and sass aplenty on 'Texan' by way of the Bowieesque 'First Blood' and the rockabilly styled 'Baby That's A No No.' The only truly contrary moment comes on the closing
slicked-back drawl of 'Something To Prove,' because, as everything before it confirms, Jazzateers had already done that in spades.

The List, October 2013


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Roman Ondak – Some Thing

The Common Guild, Glasgow, October 12th-December 14th

If things go in cycles, Slovakian artist Roman Ondak isn't shy about encouraging and manipulating such dizzying turns of events. Where previously he has had museum-goers mark their height on the gallery walls and broken down national barriers at the Venice Biennale by having grow through the Slovak pavilion, for his first show in Scotland thinks look a lot more personal.

Ondak will present a series of still lifes he painted when a teenager, placing them beside the original object the work was taken from. While on one level this smacks of middle-aged show and tell, there are, according to Common Guild curator Kitty Anderson, more discreetly political and philosophical intentions behind the display.

“I like the idea of exposing parts of the past which are not normally seen,” she says, “but there's also this idea about loops and cycles that keep on filtering into Ondak's work, endlessly returning to the same place.”

To coincide with 'Some Thing', Ondak will present 'This Way, Please,' a performance piece first seen in 1999 and which will be seen at GOMA.

“There's something basically very human about Ondak's work,” Anderson says. “There's a curiosity there about human behaviour.”

The List, October 2013


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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dragon - Oliver Emanuel on A Beast of A Play

When playwright Oliver Emanuel was approached by artistic directors of Vox Motus theatre company Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison with a proposal for a new play, Emanuel jumped at the idea. The Glasgow-based writer of works that have included The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish and Titus and the pair behind The Infamous Brothers Davenport, The Not-So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo and Slick had wanted to work with each other for some time, and this new idea seemed a golden opportunity for them all. For Emanuel, Edmunds and Harrison's brief sounded particularly enticing.

“They said, we want to do something about a twelve-year old boy who's grieving for his mother,” Emanuel says of that initial conversation. “Oh, they said, and we want there to be a dragon. Oh, and we want it to be done without words.”

Three years on, the end result of that conversation is Dragon, a collaboration between Vox Motus, the National Theatre of Scotland and Chinese company, the Tianjin People's Art Theatre, which opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow this week before touring the country. Dragon tells the story of Tommy, whose mother died a year earlier. Tommy's dad is racked with grief, his big sister won't talk to him, and he has become the target of the school bully. When Tommy opens his curtains one day he discovers a dragon with whom he finds an angry affinity. Tommy and the dragon do everything together, but when fires start happening around Glasgow, things change in a story which has a very personal root for its author.

“I came to Scotland a year after my own mother passed away,” Emanuel explains. “I've written about grief in a lot of different ways, and been quite open about my own grieving, and this seemed to fit in with that. Having said that, I think it's only auto-biographical in the sense that everything you write is auto-biographical. I did lose my mum, and I do have a father and a sister, but I'm not the play's main character. None of what happens in the play happened to me, and a dragon didn't come to my house. But when you're grieving you don't always have the words for how you're feeling. Tommy can't speak, and he doesn't know how to express himself, and out of that I wanted to find a new form, because there aren't that many plays with no words.”

If Tommy's relationship with the dragon sounds akin to that between the little boy and his stuffed toy tiger in comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, albeit with inclinations for fire-raising, think again. Nor is the dragon an invisible friend for Tommy.

“Tommy can see the dragon, and nobody else can,” Emanuel explains, “but it's certainly not an imaginary dragon. When the Chinese company got involved, that really changed the dynamic and opened the story out, because when we think of dragons, you have something like St George, who slayed a dragon, but the Chinese believe that there's a dragon in everyone, and that's about balance and equilibrium. So there's this idea that we all have our own dragon, and we all have our own things to deal with just as Tommy does.”

Vox Motus' pedigree utilising puppets, magic and other visual effects in their work was certainly a gift for Emanuel, who describes his script for Dragon as “a cross between a short story and a film script, with myself as a kind of story wizard. Historically, you can look back at Bertolt Brecht, who said his work should always be understandable, and there's a lot of visual stuff going on with the Berliner Ensemble. I saw them in Berlin, and I don't speak German, but I could understand what was going on. Then you've got something like [feature film] The Artist, so with Dragon it's a case of me wanting to try things out. Titus was just one man on stage telling a story for forty-five minutes, but I'm not interested in repeating myself, and never want to do the same thing twice, so this is the complete opposite of that.”

While not specifically aimed at children, Dragon's exploration of childhood is something Emanuel knows well.

“I've done quite a lot of work for young people,” he says, “and although Vox Motus have done a lot of work for adults, they noticed their audiences were getting younger, so began to be interested in pursuing the younger end of that spectrum. I think Scotland has proved again and again that theatre for young people can be made with real depth, even though writing for children is much harder than for adults, because they won't put up with just any old rubbish.”

In describing who Dragon is for, Emanuel contrasts his dhow with another NTS piece, the stage adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's romantic horror novel later adapted for film, Let The Right One In.

Let The Right One In was an adult show about childhood,” Emanuel says. “Dragon is a show about childhood as well, but it's for both children of about twelve-upwards and adults, and I think people will have very different experiences of the show. I'm really interested in everyone having their own different dragon experiences, and what the dragon means to them.

“I have a personal wish to explore the idea that children experience things different to adults, and what it's like to feel a particular emotion for the first time, whether it's grief or first love. There have been recent suggestions that children don't feel grief, and that they can just get on with things, but that's not my experience at all. Of course children feel things, and that's what Dragon is about. I've always been interested in telling big emotional stories, and there's something really eloquent in doing it without words. It can speak more powerfully done that way. There's a real poetry in silence.”

Dragon, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, October 11th-19th, then tours.

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Oliver Emanuel – A Life in Words

Oliver Emanuel was born in Kent in 1980, and studied English and Theatre at the University of Leeds before going on to take an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. In 2002 he set up Silver Tongue Theatre with writer and performer Daniel Bye, and produced four plays by Emanuel; Iz, Bella and the Beautiful Knight, Shiver and Man Across The Way.

In 2006, Emanuel was appointed Writer-on-Attachment at West Yorkshire Playhouse, who produced Emanuel's play, Magpie Park, in 2007. Since moving to Glasgow in 2007, Emanuel has written for the National Theatre of Scotland, Dundee Rep, Oran Mor, Visible Fictions, the Tron Theatre and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Emanuel has written plays and short stories for BBC Radio 4, 3 and 7, while his short film, This Way Up, has been shown at film festivals around the world.

The Herald, October 8th 2013

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Monday, 7 October 2013

In Time O' Strife

Pathhead Halls, Kirkcaldy
Five stars
The bar is open, the tables are out and the band are playing like
dervishes at a living-room hoolie as the audience file into the
community hall where Joe Corrie's grim realist play about the effects
of the seven month miner's strike that followed the 1926 General Strike
had on the Fife pit-head community. A framed picture of Corrie hangs
above the serving hatch and there's a speak-easy vibe to proceedings.
When a little girl stands at the microphone after fiddler Jennifer
Reeve has introduced Corrie's play and starts singing sweetly about
hanging black-legs before the seven-strong cast of this thrilling new
take on the play dance in vigorous unison to a thunderous indie-folk
arrangement of one of Corrie's songs, you know it's as vitally
contemporary and as far removed from old-time melodrama as is possible.

Director and adaptor Graham McLaren has put music and dance at the
play's heart, with a live soundtrack, composed and performed by Michael
John McCarthy's four-piece band, and Imogen Knights' choreography
crucial elements that display how song and dance can bind people. The
story itself, about a family torn apart by the strike, is a
gut-wrenchingly emotional experience, and there are some wonderful
performances from Hannah Donaldson and Owen Whitelaw as the central
couple.

While never overplayed, watching archive film footage of the pitched
battles between police and miners during the Battle of Orgreave in the
1984 miners strike brings Corrie's message chillingly home. As does the
closing rendition of The Red Flag. Anyone who thinks the song an
anachronism should witness this version, which is by turns mournful,
defiant, furious, triumphal and the most necessary song of today.

The Herald, October 7th 2013
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Friday, 4 October 2013

Fiddler on the Roof

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
When Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's Russia-set musical first appeared in 1964, the world, and America in particular, was waking up to a tidal wave of dissent. Women were being liberated, revolution was in the air and young people were speaking their minds, especially to their parents. All of this is reflected in the narrative about small-town milkman Tevye's travails in marrying his daughters off at the turn of the century fag-end of the Czarist regime, if not always in Craig Revel Horwood's new production for the Music & Lyrics company in association with the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton.

The first half especially feels particularly cartoonish, as a largely young cast try too hard to be funny where subtlety and depth are required to make the humour really work. Things are on much surer ground with the song and dance routines, which are delivered by a cast who play instruments onstage, an inventive and effective touch which is fast becoming a Music & Lyrics signature.

At the heart of the show is Paul Michael Glaser's turn as Tevye, in a performance that's full of warmth and generosity. It's the second half when things really kick in, however, as Tevye squares up to just how much the times are changing. Beyond such serious intentions, it's love that wins out over ancient traditions and old divisions here, something best expressed by some fine singing and playing, not least from The Fiddler herself, played by Jennifer Douglas in an entertainment that looks at progress, prejudice and the enforced emigration of a Jewish community forever in exile as they set out to build a brave new world.

The Herald, October 4th 2013


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Thursday, 3 October 2013

Live_Transmission – Joy Division Reworked

Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Four stars
For those who actually saw Joy Division, the Mancunian post-punk quartet who were still on the margins at the time of lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980, which put an abrupt end to the band's brief four year existence, the industry that has grown up around them and their record label Factory has been bewildering to watch. Books, films, cover versions and increasingly ludicrous merchandise abound, while Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and his band The Light have performed both the band's albums in full. This epic electro-orchestral deconstruction of Joy Division's austere and urgent canon, however, might well have been something the band's late producer Martin Hannett dreamt up.

Electronic auteur Scanner, the thirty-strong Heritage Orchestra plus drummer Adam Betts and guitarist Matt Calvert from post-rock instrumentalists Three Trapped Tigers and Ghostpoet bassist John Calvert perform an eighty-minute suite that takes Joy Division songs as their starting point before stripping them down, bending them out of shape and rebuilding them so they're barely recognisable. What's left of Transmission sounds like Ennio Morricone gone Techno, Digital is woozy and funereal, while Isolation becomes cosmic prog as Matt Watkins' video cut-ups capture the music's full Ballardian psycho-geographic sweep.

On one level, technology has made this an easy trick. There are tons of ripped-up, slowed-down versions of classic songs floating around the internet. On another, this is both a magnificent homage to one of one of the most important bands ever and a wonderful sleight of hand that can get a couple of thousand ageing ex-punks into a sit-down contemporary classical concert to witness industrial abstractions of northern England that sound as vital as they ever did.

The Herald, October 3rd 2013


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In Time O' Strife - Graham McLaren on Joe Corrie's Lost Classic

If history had worked out differently, Joe Corrie's 1926 play, In Time O' Strife, would be a staple of the international dramatic repertoire, spoken of with the same sense of reverence as early twentieth century peers such as J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey. As it is, both Corrie and his gritty study of a Fife mining family's hardships during the General Strike that took place the year the play was written have all but been airbrushed out of that history. The last major revival of In Time O' Strife was in 1982, when John McGrath's 7:84 company rescued it from obscurity and presented it at the Citizens Theatre as part of the company's Clydebuilt season of plays. It was a season that also included included Ena Lamont Stewart's equally neglected working class epic, Men Should Weep.

This week, however, director Graham McLaren takes Joe Corrie home to Fife in a brand new take on In Time O' Strife for the National Theatre of Scotland. Rather than stick to the do play's realist roots, McLaren looks set to present a bold adaptation which will interweave fragments of Corrie's plethora of other plays, poems and songs, the latter played live by a contemporary indie-folk ensemble led by composer and former member of Zoey Van Goey, MJ McCarthy.

“The genesis of all this was when we were doing Staging The Nation,” McLaren says of the NTS' fifth anniversary series of events that looked forward to Scottish theatre's future while excavating its neglected past. “One of the first events was a rehearsed reading of In Time O' Strife, which [playwright] Peter Arnott had suggested. I didn't really know it then, but I responded to what I thought were some really powerful elements to it, and that led me to question why it hasn't been produced other than in the 7:84 production, or at least I couldn't find any evidence of any other productions, anyway.

“I spent a lot of time with the play after that, and it seemed like an early draft of a great play. That got me wondering about what would happen if In Time O' Strife was a new play coming into the NTS, what could we do with the young Joe Corrie as well as the play? That led me to get in touch with Corrie's daughter, and I got access to these fifty other plays that Corrie wrote, many of which were one-act plays performed by amateur dramatics groups, because he couldn't get them done professionally. [Playwright] Iain Heggie and I went through all of these plays and read them, and suddenly In Time O' Strife became a show that felt necessary.”

The short answer as to why Corrie couldn't get his work on is that In Time O' Strife, like Men Should Weep, were too left wing, too real or just too near the knuckle for a theatrical establishment led by playwright and founder of the Citizens Theatre Ronald Mavor, aka James Bridie, to deal with.

“Bridie actually discouraged Corrie and Stewart as writers,” says McLaren, somewhat aghast. “He said he didn't want that kind of theatre in Scotland. As a consequence of this, Corrie wasn't encouraged as a dramatist during his lifetime, but I'm convinced that if he and Ena Lamont Stewart and others had of been encouraged by a proper national theatre, then we would have had a lot more great plays by them all.”

Joe Corrie was born in 1894 in Stirlingshire, and his family moved to Cardenden in Fife when he was still a child. Corrie first went down the pit aged fourteen, and started writing after the First World War. His poems, sketches and stories appeared in assorted socialist journals of the day, while his poems were collected in three volumes, The Image O' god and Other Poems, Rebel Poems and Scottish Pride and Other Poems. These inspired T.S. Eliot to describe Corrie as the greatest Scots poet since Robert Burns.

The latter was a subject of Corrie's in his play, Robert Burns, which was last seen on the back of 7:84's take on In Time O' Strife in a 1986 production directed by David Hayman for the Scottish Theatre Company at the Citizens Theatre. With Burns presented as an anti-establishment figure, the memories of the 1984 UK Miners Strike, when Britain was in the midst of a civil war brought on by the closure of still fertile pits by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's hench-men, were still fresh. For the Fife communities ripped apart by the strike, this new production of In Time O' Strife brings things home even more.

“It's a play about 1984 as much as 1926,” McLaren points out. “Corrie wrote In Time O' Strife for no other reason than to raise money for the strikers, and what's chilling is how history repeats itself. I spent some time with the miners in Fife who'd been through the strike in 1984, and know how much their world and their community was damaged by what happened. Corrie predicted it. Everything he said in In Time O' Strife, about how the striking miners were treated, you can see and hear in documentaries about Orgreave.”

With this in mind, as with his 2011 production of Men Should Weep, again with the NTS, McLaren is taking a radical look at In Time O' Strife.

“I want to look at it the play like it's Lorca or Synge and O'Casey,” he says, “and think, what are we going to do with it. Rather than look at it as a history play, I want to capture the spirit of it, the revolutionary spirit of it. Without Joe Corrie we wouldn't have had 7-84 or Wildcat or Borderline, and I want to embrace what we've learnt about shows that are popular and political, from the Three Estaites to Black Watch, and which also entertain.

“we're in a very fortunate position in Scotland to be able to influence what our national theatre does. You can't not respond politically to that, and make sure plays like In Time O' Strife are done, and create a perfect storm that makes it possible to put them on. I'm genuinely proud to be part of that,. Just to be able to shine a spotlight on Joe Corrie. It's time.”

In Time O' Strife, Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy, until October 12th.

The Herald, October 3rd 2013

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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Paul Michael Glaser - Fiddler on the Roof

Things have come full circle for Paul Michael Glaser. As a young actor in the 1960s Glaser was appearing in a play in a New York theatre next door to where Fiddler on the Roof was playing. Glaser happened to be dating one of the Fiddler on the Roof cast, and each night once his show finished would race next door and watch the last five minutes of her show.

A few years later, Glaser's first film role came in Norman Jewison's 1971 big-screen adaptation of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's Russian-set musical, which saw Chaim Topol recreate the lead role of Tevye the milkman, which he first played in the 1967 West End production following Zero Mostel's turn on Broadway. Glaser played Perchik, the Bolshevik revolutionary who falls for one of Tevye's five daughters. Now forty-two years on, Glaser is stepping into Topol's shoes to tackle the role of Tevye in a new touring revival which arrives in Edinburgh this week.

“He's a wonderful character to play,” Glaser says, “and it's one of the better roles out there. He's an everyman, and we can all find bits of ourselves in him, dealing with changes and everything else that goes on in the world. He's a lot of things. He's a father, he's a learner, who has this tremendous curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. He's a bit of a clown, a bit of a fool. There's so many qualities of all of us in him.”

Having worked alongside Topol, Glaser is unequivocal in his praise for the man who many see as having defined the role of Tevye.

“He was a force of nature,” according to Glaser. “It was my first film, so I was totally new to the experience, and had so much to learn. Topol had been very successful doing the show onstage, and he was very striking to watch. He very much made the role his own, and I hope I bring something of myself to the role as well.”

Inbetween Glaser's associations with Fiddler on the Roof has been a chequered career on stage and screen as well as a personal life marked by tragedy. Glaser remains best known, of course for his role as Starsky in seminal 1970s TV cop show, Starsky and Hutch. The programme, about a pair of very cool detectives, transformed the careers of both Glaser and his co-star, David Soul. While his onscreen other half Soul went on to have a pop music career on the back of the success of the series, Glaser ducked the limelight, and gave up acting for a decade to direct films including The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as episodes of Miami Vice and other TV shows.

Glaser seems reluctant to talk about his time in Starsky and Hutch these days. All he will be drawn on, in fact, is that he remembers those days “with a faulty memory and impaired vision.”

Of his move back into acting, Glaser says that “After I directed five feature films, I became uncomfortable with the video system, and I decided I wanted to write, and I started a screenplay that became a book.”

That book was Chrystallia and the Source of Light, a children's novel which reflected some of Glaser's concerns beyond his career. In 1981, Glaser's wife Elizabeth contracted HIV from a blood transfusion she had while giving birth to the couple's first child, Ariel. This wasn't diagnosed until four years later, by which time both Aerial and the Glasers' second child, Jake, had also been diagnosed HIV positive. Ariel passed away in 1988, and Elizabeth in 1994, after founding the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

“The book is kind of a metaphor for my life,” Glaser says. “It's about a fourteen year old child whose mother is dying, and a little boy who needs to believe in something. Some adults like it, and adults who don't like it are those who don't like to live with the presence of fear in their lives. That's what the book is about. It's a fantastical adventure that asks what is the purpose of fear in our lives.”

Despite the seriousness of the book's themes, Glaser doesn't see it as a purging for him.

“It's a reaffirming,” he says, “and every time I talk about it it's a reaffirmation.”

Glaser was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1943, and studied English Literature before graduating with a master's degree in Theatre.

“I don't know how I became an actor,” Glaser reflects. “My mother was always encouraging me to perform, and one of my two older sisters was always into performing, so that may have been an influence.”

Glaser worked in rep in New York, gradually picking up small TV roles, “doing a soap opera in the daytime, and a Broadway show at night.”

Now aged seventy, Glaser's advice to younger actors starting out is simple.

“Don't,” he says. “Not unless you have a need to do it. If you really want to be an actor, go to a big city, whether it's London, New York or wherever, do what you have to do to survive, and see of you can get through it. If it's just about ego, then you're asking for trouble. When I was younger, I used to worry, and think, God, I hope I get that part, but I don't do that anymore. Some time ago I'd just done a job on a TV show, and I realised that I'd not only had a good time, but that I'd created that good time for myself. For me, acting, like all the creative arts, is a journey of self-discovery. What drives me is what drives you and what drives us all. We're looking for some kind of peace and fulfilment, and a sense of oneness with the world.”

Fiddler on the Roof, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, October 1st-5th. In Conversation With Paul Michael Glaser: A Life on Stage and Screen will take place at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on October 4th at 3.330pm as as fund-raiser for Scotland's HIV charity, Waverley Care.

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Fiddler on the Roof – Great Tevye's of its time

There are many musical theatre aficionados who presume Israeli acting legend Chaim Topol to have originated the iconic role of Topol the milkman in Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's Russian-set hit musical. In fact, in the original 1964 Broadway production, that honour went to American comic actor, Zero Mostel in a production that ran for more than 3000 performances.

Topol only appeared as Tevye in 1967, when Fiddler was produced on the West End, going on to immortalise the role in Norman Jewison's 1971 film of the show. Both men have returned to the show. Mostel returned as Tevye in a 1976 Broadway revival, with Topol joining the cast for a 1983 London production.

Inbetween, there were other revivals. In 1981, American star of Yiddish theatre Herschel Bernardi, took over as Tevye, while later productions included one in 2004 featuring British actor Alfred Molina and later Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles author Harvey Fierstein. Henry Goodman played Tevye in 2007 and Joe McGann in 2008;. Topol had already returned to the role in 1990 and 1994, and toured Australia for two years with the play from 2005. In 2009, Topol in Fiddler on the Roof: The Farewell Tour played for six months before the role was taken over once more by Harvey Fierstein.

The Herald, October 1st 2013

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