Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Invisible Empire

Summerhall
Three stars
An open door and an East European chorale that tugs five ways but
remains emotively harmonious is the scene-setter for the Glasgow-based
but Polish-inspired Company of Wolves ensemble's fifty minute
meditation on conformity, resistance and community. Involving music
from four countries, a frantic physicality and a fractured text drawn
from the writings of incarcerated Red Army Faction co-founder, Ulrike
Meinhof, Ewan Downie's production begins with the quintet acting in
near robotic unison before rising up one by one to rebel against, well,
anything that's going, really.

This may be just a passing phase of restless youth, however, even as
the sound of metal chairs scraped slowly across the floor becomes a
little atonal symphony. Later, the same chairs are beaten with uniform
ferocity. Only when a man possessed has his demons sucked out of him
with a prolonged kiss do things change into something both more
individual and more accepting of others.

It's a committed, meticulously choreographed and orchestrated affair
that is working towards a ritualistic aesthetic that nevertheless
remains rooted in the real world. While the voices and physical tics
remain disparate and unique, there's an instinctive recognition that
ultimately only collective, co-dependent action can change things, and
that love as much as anger is vital to achieve such a goal.

For the moment, at least, it's the vocal musical arrangements by Downie
with performer Anna Porubcansky that gives Invisible Empire its
strength. The arrangements sound by turns mournful and defiant, and
when the final collective howl comes as the world slowly dims around
the performers gathered in an ever tightening circle, it's a cry from
the dark that lingers.

The Herald, April 29th 2014
ends

Dear Scotland

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Four stars
One of the most refreshing things about the second part of the National
Theatre of Scotland's compendium of mini monologues by contemporary
writers inspired by one of the SNPG's magnificently multi-faceted
archive is, as with its predecessor, co-directors Joe Douglas and
Catrin Evans' refusal to cast to type. So while Janice Galloway's take
on Muriel Spark is performed by Anneika Rose with a vivaciousness that
suggests a nation in its prime, Johnny McKnight's version of the Queen
finds Colin McCredie playing a woman hurt both by neglect and the fact
that she's been portrayed on-screen by Helen Mirren.

Linda McLean's Clementina Stirling Graham is a shrewd operator, Liz
Lochhead's Robert Burns a partisan firebrand, while Rona Munro's
tribute to Dear Scotland contributor Jackie Kay is the warmest of
homages. Rob Drummond's Three Oncologists look at some very real
matters of life and death, Nicola McCartney's bystander from a scene
involving James 111 brings home some similarly hard truths, even as
Iain Heggie's James V1 and 1 is a gloriously bucket-mouthed chancer
showing off his motley collection of flag designs.

We're only fully brought back down to earth in what is effectively a
series of spoken-word routines by comic Chic Murray and trade unionist
Jimmy Reid. As devilishly observed by writer Stewart Hepburn and
performer Sally Reid, Murray's showbiz anecdote is a deceptively wise
parable involving Jimmy Tarbuck, Barry Manilow and the distance between
tenement walls. It is Hardeep Singh Kohli's version of Reid, however,
who possesses the common touch required to prove that, whatever happens
next, while much of the polemic will come cheap and easy, it will
always be the poetry that counts.

The Herald, April 29th 2014


ends

John Byrne - Uncle Varick

When John Byrne decided to do a version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, it
was a perfect match. While a century or so apart, both writers were
masters of dissecting human foibles in a way that lent a pathos to
their characters even as some of them looked increasingly ridiculous.
The result of Byrne's interest in Chekhov was Uncle Varick, which
relocates Chekhov's nineteenth century tale of love and life to the
rural heart of north-east Scotland in the thick of the 1960s which was
alleged in far off London to be swinging.

Uncle Varick was first seen a ten years ago at the Royal Lyceum Theatre
in Edinburgh in a towering production that featured Brian Cox in the
title role in an all too rare stage role on home turf. A decade on, and
the assistant director of that production, Michael Emans, is taking the
helm for a major touring revival of the play produced by his
increasingly ambitious Rapture Theatre.

“I was very pleased indeed,” Byrne says with an almost boyish glee
about the revival, which previewed in Lanark last night prior to its
official opening in East Kilbride tomorrow. “It hasn't been done by
anybody since the first production, and I'm sure it was because Brian
Cox was so powerful in it that it put people off.”

For all Uncle Varick's success on stage, Byrne was far from enamoured
with the radio production that followed.

“It was done on Radio 3,” Byrne recalls, “and they could have had the
same cast, as they were working on it in the theatre, but they recast
it, and I couldn't listen to it. It wasn't right. The voices were
wrong, and all sounded the same. It was absolute stupidity and
wrong-headedness. It was ludicrous.”

While Byrne remains aghast at the radio version of Uncle Varick, he is
clearly a fan of its source, even as he reinvented it.

“I don't know how Chekhov does it,” Byrne says, “how he moves you and
makes you laugh. It's a total mystery to me. I saw a production of
Uncle Vanya on television many years ago with Laurence Olivier, and it
was wonderful, just so human and lovely, but I've also seen some of the
dullest versions of Chekhov that make a total arse of it by being too
reverential.

“I had to think of these people as new characters invented by me, and
not be reverential. There's no point in genuflecting. If you're too
respectful you do the play a disservice. But when I first saw it
I had a laugh myself. You cannae be too funny with Chekhov at all. The
funnier you are, the darker you are with Chekhov. At the end, you're
left with something that's totally about human beings, and you see the
full story of life. You really do.”

For Emans, fully taking the reins of Uncle Varick after cutting his
directorial teeth on the original production is something he clearly
relishes.

“I love the play,” he says. “I'm guided by plays that fire me up, and I
love Chekhov and I love John's writing, so to bring them both together
in this way, and to make Chekhov accessible in the way John has seems
like a wonderful contradiction, so it's been great trying to match
Byrne and Chekhov. The play works on so many levels, and I can't
remember when a Chekhov play last toured.”

Under Emans' guidance, Rapture have carved something of a niche
for themselves in terms of reviving contemporary Scottish plays. In the
last two years alone, Rapture have toured new productions of Gregory
Burke's debut play, Gagarin Way, Hector MacMillan's 1970s classic, The
Sash and Mike Cullen's neglected 1990s drama, The Collection. There was
also a hugely popular tour of Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson's
earlier play, Shang-a-Lang.

Emans formed Rapture in 2000 after training as a director in London.
He'd grown up in East Kilbride, then a regular stop-off point for the
era's touring companies such as 7:84, Wildcat and Borderline who first
inspired him. Named after David Hare's play, The Secret Rapture, Emans'
company initially produced three or four shows a year, and their output
remains prolific.

“We're now only doping one or two pieces a year,” says Emans, “but
we've built up relationships with the King's Theatres in Glasgow and
Edinburgh as well as other venues, so we're doing those productions to
a greater degree, with a lot of time spent touring. I'm very keen for
people to be able to get access to good quality theatre in places where
some theatre companies might not normally go to, so people don't
necessarily have to go in to Glasgow or Edinburgh, and this tour of
Uncle Varick is perfect for that.”

While fully supportive of Emans' production of Uncle Varick, Byrne has
taken a back-seat, leaving Emans to get on with things while he
prepares for his forthcoming exhibition of new paintings at Edinburgh
Art Festival.

“I don't have a minute to spare,” says Byrne. “I'm working on number
twelve at the moment, and they need about twenty-five. I know I have to
come up with the goods, and not just any old goods. That's why I'm
happy just to let Michael get on with it, and I'll be going with an
open mind. I want to be surprised and delighted.”

Such generosity and openness of spirit is the key to Byrne's writing.
As Emans observes, “John has such a hugely colourful, artistic style of
writing that's so exciting and uniquely Byrne, the way he gives clues
in the text to how a line should be said. It's so vibrant, but above
all what stands out is just how much he gets the human condition.”

Uncle Varick, Village Theatre, East Kilbride, Wednesday; Howden Park
Centre, Livingston, Thursday; Eastwood Theatre, Giffnock, Sunday. The
tour continues throughout May and June.
www.rapturetheatre.co.uk

John Byrne in the theatre

John Byrne was born in Paisley in 1940, and trained at Glasgow School
of Art.

In the 1960s Byrne designed jackets for Penguin books, before finding
early approval as an artist for works produced under the pseudonym,
'Patrick', which he claimed to be by his father.

In the early 1970s, Byrne designed the set for The Great Northern Welly
Boot Show, which launched Billy Connolly's career, and for John
McGrath's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Byrne's first play, Writer's Cramp, appeared in 1977.

The Slab Boys, the first play of Byrne's seminal trilogy, premiered at
the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1978.

The follow-up, The Loveliest Night of the Year, a title later changed
to Cuttin' A Rug, appeared in 1979, and the third part, Still Life in
1982.

In 1986, Byrne's television drama series, Tutti Frutti, appeared. This
was later adapted for the stage in a production for the National
Theatre of Scotland.

In 1997, Byrne wrote a version of Gogol's The Government Inspector.

In 2003, Uncle Varick opened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

In 2008, Nova Scotia, a fourth part of the Slab Boys plays, premiered
at the Traverse Theatre.

In 2010, Byrne wrote a version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for the
Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where Uncle Varick had first
appeared. Byrne reset the play in 1979 Scotland, with the devolution
referendum and Margaret Thatcher's first General Election victory
looming.

In 2013, All The World's A Stage, a new mural for the ceiling of the
King's Theatre, Edinburgh, was unveiled.

The Herald, April 29th 2014
ends

David Haig - Pressure

If it wasn't for a plumber's son from Dalkeith, the result of the
Second World War may have turned out very differently indeed. British
air-force meteorologist Group Captain James Stagg may not be as widely
known as many war heroes, but without his advice to then supreme
commander of allied forces in Europe, General Dwight D Eisenhower, on
what date to strike, the D Day landings in Normandy could have been a
disaster.

The story of Stagg, Eisenhower and how Stagg's forecast helped carve
out history form the backbone of Pressure, a brand new play by actor
and writer David Haig, which receives its world premiere at the Royal
Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this week before transferring to
Chichester. With Haig also taking on the lead role of Stagg, the
little-known story has clearly become a labour of love for its author
and star.

“It's a story that is very seldom told,” says Haig, “but about a
subject that everybody knows quite a lot about. James Stagg is an
unsung hero, and he's a Scots hero. The essence of the story is that
Stagg persuaded Eisenhower to delay the attack because of the appalling
weather, because he instinctively understood British weather. The
American weather-men, led by Irving P Crick, who was the first
celebrity weather-man, thought it was going to be a glorious day, and
if Stagg hadn't got it right, that would've cost 70 to 80,000 lives.”

In Pressure, the action is compressed into one room in Portsmouth,
where Stagg, Eisenhower and Eisenhower's lover and confidante Kay
Summersby are holed up during a four-day count-down to D Day.

“Each of these three protagonists become inter-dependent in a very
interesting way,” says Haig. “They help each other through this
decision during the countdown, and I think it's safe to say that the
name of the play is the most accurate that I've ever come up with. They
had 350,000 lives at stake, and everything was in place except the
weather. If this hadn't come off, the war would have been lengthened
for at least another year.”

As an actor, Haig has been seen in Four Weddings and A Funeral, The
Thick of It, and more recently in the remake of political sit-com, Yes,
Prime Minister. Onstage, Haig has appeared frequently on the West End
and at Chichester Festival Theatre, where he worked with director of
Pressure, John Dove. Haig recently won an Olivier award for playing the
title role in Alan Bennett's play, The Madness of George III, and most
recently played King Lear at the Theatre Royal in Bath. Prior to
Pressure, Haig combined his two jobs in My Boy Jack, a play about
Rudyard Kipling's relationship with his son.

“My Boy Jack was easier to do,” says Haig, “because the character
reminded me of my father, so it was quite a personal journey. With
Pressure I was writing from quite a distance, because I had no personal
relationship with the characters involved, so it took quite a while for
John to persuade me to do it. Then I thought, this great, because so
often I'm either cast comedically, or as characters with this huge
burning energy that goes all over the place, like Lear and King George.
James Stagg has a huge energy as well in his love of weather, but he's
all restraint, so it's been good to find somewhere to channel the
energy, but it's very different.”

In previous readings of the story, Stagg has been little more than a
bit-part player. This was certainly the case in the 1962 film, The
Longest Day, which featured the likes of John Wayne, Sean Connery,
Kenneth More and Henry Fonda as part of its all-star cast. Stagg was
played by English actor Patrick Barr.

“It's astonishing that Stagg's role in all this hasn't been picked up
more than it has,” says Haig. “There's lots of research you can do
about it. It's all there. It's just that nobody has chosen to put Stagg
at the story's centre.”

It is the weather, however, that shapes things.

“The weather is the play's fourth main character,” says Haig. “If I had
to define it, I would say it's a thriller about the weather.”

Pressure, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, May 1-24.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, April 29th 2014

ends

Monday, 28 April 2014

Dear Scotland

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Four stars
Imagine a gallery after dark, when all the silent subjects immortalised
on canvas break free from the frame like some live art happening and
give vent to their spleen having watched the world  for centuries.
That's pretty much what the twenty writers who have penned a series of
miniature monologues inspired by a particular exhibit have done for
this first of the National Theatre of Scotland's two dramatic guided
tours through the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which give voice
to some iconic old masters and mistresses as well as some peripheral
figures usually left on the sidelines,

AL Kennedy's opening take on Robert Louis Stevenson suggests what might
be, before David Greig's The Cromartie Fool raspberries his own brand
of wisdom. Dancer/choreographer Michael Clark's own recorded voice
delivers Ali Smith's piece written from the point of view of Clark's
knee, which peers from a photograph through fearlessly ripped jeans.
Following the justified anger of Zinnie Harris' women, miners leader
Mick McGahey, by way of Jackie Kay's rhyming couplets, reels off a
litany of revolutionary heroes and heroines.

From Peter Arnott's vainglorious Sir Walter Scott and Iain Finlay
Macleod's James Boswell to Louise Welsh's Mary Queen of Scots and James
Robertson's Robert Bontine Cunningham Graham, a company of fine actors
under the guidance of directors Joe Douglas and Catrin Evans perform
these tiny masterpieces with a committed vigour. Nowhere is this more
evident than in Jo Clifford's devastating view from an un-named woman
in Alexander Moffat's painting, Poet's Pub. As performed by Sally Reid,
Clifford's piece dares to question the machismo that fuels much of
Scotland's literati with an elegant and essential rage.

The Herald, April 28th 2014
ends

Factor 9

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking Ben Harrison's
production of Hamish MacDonald's new play to be  some dark piece of
science-fiction future-shock. The fact that this tale of how
haemophiliacs in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s were treated with
contaminated and often fatal blood products is culled from the real
life testimonies of two of its victims on our own doorstep makes it all
the more shocking.

It is Bruce Norval and Robert Mackie's stories of being used as what
one of them angrily describes at one point as 'human lab rats' that
forms the human heart of MacDonald's tale of institutional abuse,or
Dogstar Theatre Company in association with Profilteatern, Sweden and
UMEA 2014 European Capital of Culture. It is the play's barrage of
statistics that dominate, however, whether flashed up on the LED
counter at the top of Emily Reid's set, on which assorted images are
projected, or through speeches delivered by actors Stewart Porter and
Matthew Zajac.

Out of this comes a justifiably angry expose of institutional social
engineering that needs to be heard. As a play, however, that anger all
too often over-rides its aesthetic to its detriment in a collage of
scenes that would benefit from more dramaturgical thrust. There are
nevertheless some chilling moments despite this, as the death toll is
counted out on the screen or a doctor's skeleton is deployed. With more
of these sorts of dramatic devices, this vital piece of suppressed and
frighteningly recent history might yet make a real difference in giving
voice to those who fell victim to a state-led obscenity which has yet
to have any kind of meaningful closure.

The Herald, April 28th 2014
ends

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stephen Jeffreys - The Libertine

Sex and drugs and rock and roll may have been a phrase introduced into
the world by the late Ian Dury in the post-punk 1970s, but such
hedonistic excesses have been around for centuries. Back in the 1600s,
for instance, Restoration poet and one of King Charles 11's court, John
Wilmot, aka the second Earl of Rochester, took full advantage of the
era's post puritan anything goes aesthetic to become the ultimate
libertine. Rochester's penchant for self-destructive behaviour, alas,
saw him dead at thirty-three of venereal disease.

All of this features in The Libertine, Stephen Jeffreys' flamboyant
drama made famous a decade ago in a film starring Johnny Depp, and
which receives its first UK production in two decades at the Citzens
Theatre in Glasgow next week. Given the Citz's own colourful history
with decadent period romps, this seems an all too fitting liaison.

“Rochester was a celebrity of the day,” says Jeffreys. “He was like a
rock star, and because London at the time was relatively small, you
could cause quite a splash just leaving your house and going for a cup
of coffee. But what annoyed Rochester was that he couldn't be the King.
He couldn't be number one. So he found all these ways to draw attention
to himself. Here was this man possessed with every possible talent, but
who decides to waste them as a statement on the meaninglessness of
life. Rochester lived this excessive life even as he hated it, and in a
way, romantic love, and how it can consume you so completely, was his
downfall.”

The roots of The Libertine date back to 1975, when Jeffreys' dentist
was off-loading the more adult areas of his book-shelf to patients so
as not to lead his increasingly curious thirteen year old daughter
astray. Jeffreys was gifted a copy of Rochester's tellingly named play,
SODOM.

“I don't think I'd heard of Rochester then,” says Jeffreys, “but it was
a green Olympia Press edition of what turned out to be what's probably
the filthiest play in the English language.”

Only seventeen years later while working as literary associate at the
Royal Court Theatre under then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark did
Jeffreys have a notion to dramatise Rochester's life, and only then
after another writer had proffered an interest.

What ended up as The Libertine was eventually produced in 1994 by
Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company in a double bill with an actual
seventeenth century play, George Etherege's The Man of Mode.

“At the time, the seventeenth century seemed more real to me than life
under John Major,” Jeffrey says. “I'd got very bored with all these
grim naturalistic plays, and I'd already written a play called The
Clink, which was about the death of Elisabeth 1. That opened in London
the week Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, so seemed to say
something about life in 1990s Britain.”

Jeffreys wasn't alone in his move away from naturalism. When The
Libertine was first seen at the Royal Court, Sarah Kane's debut play,
Blasted, was causing a furore in the venue's upstairs theatre. Both, in
different ways, announced how drama, like the world, was changing.

“It was Christmas, and there was snow on the ground,” Jeffreys
remembers, “and I remember looking out of a window from the theatre,
and on one side, Harold Pinter was walking towards the theatre, and on
the other side Edward Bod was doing the same. At first I thought they
were coming to see my play, then I realised they were coming to see
Sarah's. But they were both kind of scandalous plays. Both were
explosive in their own way.”

While contemporary parallels with Rochester are rife, in terms of the
the seriousness with which he took his own self-destruction, latter-day
poet wastrels such as Pete Doherty don't come close.

“It's interesting that some of the more recent casualties of a
self-destructive lifestyle are female,” Jeffreys observes. “Amy
Winehouse, she was a Rochester figure, in that she was someone who was
supremely talented. With Rochester, though, there was an entire
philosophy behind how he behaved, which is far more interesting than
someone who just takes lots of drugs for the hell of it.”

Historical figures have played a big part in Jeffreys' work, dating
right back to his early days writing a version of Carmen for the
Edinburgh-based Communicado company in 1984. Jeffreys had been working
with Pocket Theatre company at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal with
actors Rob Pickavance, Alison Peebles and Gerry Mulgrew when the idea
to found Communicado came up. It was his mother, according to Jeffreys,
who came up with the name for a company which has used history in
similar ways to himself.

“There was a point,” Jeffreys says, “when I was better known as a
writer in Scotland than England.”

Since Carmen, Jeffreys has penned a version of seventeenth century
comedy, A Jovial Crew, and, for Out of Joint, a new version of John
Gay's The Beggar's Opera, reimagined as The Convict's Opera.

More recently, Jeffreys co-wrote a stage adaptation of Iain Softley's
1994 John Lennon bio-pic, Backbeat, an earlier version of which had
originally premiered at the Citizens. Jeffreys also wrote the
screenplay of Diana, which cast Naomi Watts as the doomed people's
princess.

“In a way I'd rather not do it,” Jeffreys admits, “and just write
something purely fictional instead. What you do, I suppose, if you're
putting real events in your work, is finding out what happened, then
changing it. With John Lennon, you've got this whole life in the
spotlight with the Beatles, and with Diana, you've got a great deal of
biographical information, but you have to get beyond all that and find
out about something you don't know about. You don't want to rehearse
well-known facts.”

While Rochester isn't a household name, Jeffreys has given his subject
the kind of immortality he craved.

“It's about waste,” he says of the play, “and deliberately wasting a
talent. I never knew that when I started writing it, but it's a very
sexy play as well, very theatrical. It's like the difference between
getting a box of fireworks and looking at the label that says how much
they explode, then watching them launch themselves into the air and see
what happens. That's when things become really exciting.”

The Libertine, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-24
www.citz.co.uk

ends


Libertines Through The Ages

Lord Byron – While often regarded as the original libertine, poet
George Gordon Byron was born into the Romantic age a century or so
later. Inbetween penning lengthy narrative poems, Byron ran up huge
debts and had affairs with both sexes. There were rumours of an affair
with his half-sister, before Byron went into self-imposed exile in
Italy and Greece, where he died of fever aged thirty-six.

Marquis de Sade – Possibly the most notorious of all libertines, the
aristocratic Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade cut a swathe through
eighteenth and early nineteenth century France with a multitude of
literary works that fused philosophy and sexual fantasy. De Sade lived
his life as he wrote it, and spent some thirty-two years in prison,
gifting the world the notion of sadism. De Sade embarked on a four year
affair with a fourteen year old before dying aged seventy-four in 1814.

Peter Doherty – A man so in love with the image of a poet wastrel
ruffian that he named his band The Libertines, Doherty became tabloid
fodder, both for his misadventures with drugs and his high profile
affair with supermodel Kate Moss. Beyond all this lay a talented
songwriter who inspired devotion among a young fan-base.

Sebastian Horsley – Born in Yorkshire in 1962, and originally named
Marcus, Horsley cut a dash through Edinburgh's post-punk scene of the
1980s, was filmed being crucified in the Philippines so he could paint
on the subject, wrote about how he preferred sex with prostitutes and
held court to a Soho demi-monde. All of this was detailed in Horsley's
2007 autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld, which was turned into a
play in 2010 adapted by Tim Fountain. Horsley attended the opening
night, and was found dead of a heroin and cocaine overdose two days
later.

The Herald, April 22nd 2014


ends


 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Barry McGovern reads Samuel Beckett

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
Irish actor Barry McGovern has long proved to be the master of
interpreting the twentieth century's most iconic writer, ever since he
appeared on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1986 in I'll Go On. This
solo adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and
The Unnameable, was revived for the Edinburgh International Festival in
2013 following a rendition of Beckett's novella, Watt, the previous
year. So to hear McGovern read a seventy-five minute selection of
Beckett's prose and poetry as the culmination of Uncensored Life, a
weekend-long celebration of publisher John Calder, who first introduced
the world to Beckett, William Burroughs and many other literary giants,
is a thrill indeed.

McGovern stands with a folder full of photocopied texts, and begins
solemnly, only for Beckett's words to open out their meditations on
mortality to reveal a master comedian at work. With work dating back to
Beckett's early prose works, More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy,
McGovern flits between tiny love poems to what are effectively a series
of comic routines that make up a form of existentialist vaudeville as
they chart the everyday minutiae that give life meaning.

There are brief excerpts from Watt and the trilogy too, with the latter
becoming a rolling torrent of words delivered by McGovern with an
understated richness in tone. The evening closes, as it must, with What
Is The Word, Beckett's final, ultra-minimalist poem, written when he
was eighty-three for theatre director Joseph Chaikin after Chaikin had
suffered a stroke that left him aphasic. With Calder himself in
attendance, McGovern gives a masterly rendition of a poem that honours
several icons at once.

The Herald, April 21st, 2014
ends

The Edinburgh Passion

Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh
Three stars
It's nearly thirty years since Bill Bryden cast David Hayman as a
radical Jesus processing through the streets of Glasgow for The Holy
City, his contemporary television rendering of the Passion. Something
of that play's spirit seems to have trickled down into Rob Drummond's
own up to the minute version, which sees an authoritarian regime
campaigning for a No vote in a forthcoming referendum. Having already
reduced crime figures by bringing back the death penalty, political
figurehead Herod, his spin doctor McKayfus and police chief Pilate are
gunning for charismatic community spokesman and Yes poster boy Jesus.
Only when their nemesis is set up on trumped up terrorist charges do
Herod and his cronies appear to gain the upper hand.

Opening with two uniformed policemen flanking the Ross Bandstand,
Suzanne Lofthus' open-air production for the Cutting Edge Theatre
Company in association with the Princes Street Easter Play Trust is
played across three small stages in the Ross Bandstand enclosure before
we're led to a Last Supper in the Gethsemane pub beer garden. Here
Jesus signs autographs and poses for selfies before being sentenced to
death, not by crucifixion, but by lethal injection.

With a large community cast led by professional actor Duncan Rennie as
Jesus, such modern stylings work fine, though any parallels with
real-life referendums don't really stand up once the action moves into
more metaphysical, resurrection-based waters. While it's hard not to
sound preachy in a story designed to do exactly that, Drummond, Lofthus
and the cast have nevertheless pulled together a spectacle which asks
some still pertinent questions about faith, humanity and the need for a
dissenting voice to rise up.

The Herald, April 21st 2014
ends 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Tectonics - Seismic Shifts

 As it's name suggests, the Tectonics festival that runs over a long May weekend in Glasgow taps into the seismic shifts that have occurred across the entire spectrum of experimental music over the last decade. Instigated by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's former Chief Conductor and current Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov, who is currently the Chief Conductor and Musical Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, alongside AC Projects' Alasdair Campbell, the man behind the Le Weekend and Counterflows festivals, this second edition of Tectonics pulls together some of the world's leading experimental composers alongside a younger generation of musical free-thinkers   from a world where rock, art and classical music collide.

“There are so many strands of music now, and I think it's great to have people from different backgrounds working like this,” Volkov says from Reykjavik, where the Icelandic arm of Tectonics has just opened. “We've been doing this sort of thing in Glasgow on and off for ten years now, and it's great to be able to call up a composer who's maybe not used to working with an orchestra, and then to present the work in an interesting way. Audiences don't want just one thing, and with tectonics can have a whole range of ideas coming at them.”

So while iconoclasts such as composer Christian Wolff will perform some of their most thrilling works, a series of BBC commissions will feature new pieces from the likes of plunderphonist John Oswald and American composer David Behrman. Former Sonic Youth guitarist and long-time musical explorer Thurston Moore, who recently performed in London with Yoko Ono, will appear at Tectonics twice. The first will find Moore play a late show with Dylan Nyoukis, one half of Noise duo Blood Stereo and founder of the Chocolate Monk imprint as well as the Brighton-based Colours Out of Space festival. Moore's second appearance will see him hook up with Japanese maestro, Takehisa Kosugi, one of the key figures of the Fluxus movement, whose treated violin-based works saw him collaborate with the late choreographer, Merce Cunningham.

While a two-way traffic between Iceland and Scotland is spear-headed by a performance from the Reykjavik-based composers collective, S.L.A.TU.R., there is much input input too from internationally renowned Scottish artists. The opening concert of Tectonics will feature maverick pianist and composer and his National Jazz Trio of Scotland collaborator, viola player Aby Vulliamy, working with the BBC SSO to present a new arrangement of his AC Projects commission, 'Summer Dreams'. With appearances by female collective Muscles of Joy, absurdist duo Usurper, veteran 'ambi-dustrial' outfit Cindytalk and a new musical installation by Sarah Kenchington inbetween, the festival's finale will feature the world premiere of 'Past Fragments of Distant Confrontation', the first ever orchestral work by composer, singer and performer, Richard Youngs.

“I've known Richard's music for a long time now,”says Volkov, “and I wanted to give him a chance to do something new. Scotland is really special just now, and it's easier to put this kind of thing on in Glasgow than it is in London. Suddenly there are less and less barriers, and this is happening all over.”

Tectonics takes place in the City Halls, Old Fruitmarket and St Andrew's In The Square, Glasgow, May 9th-11th.
www.tectonicsfestival.com

The List, April 2014
 ends

Jordan Wolfson

McLellan Galleries, Glasgow until April 21st
Three stars
It's the soft-core gloss that sucks you in first in 'Raspberry Poser',
the fourteen-minute billboard-size video projection that forms the
heart of Jordan Wolfson's life and death fusion of high-end corporate
ad-land stylings and provocative animations. A CGI-generated HIV virus
bounces around the neighbourhood like an ever-pulsating nail-bomb,
multiplying in a regimented choreographic display that ricochets around
the chi-chi bathrooms and bedrooms of the privileged to a soundtrack of
Beyonce's 'Beautiful Nightmare'. As a flipside to this,  a condom full
of chocolate hearts seems to be serving up something sweeter, but
possibly more sickly.

A cartoon bad boy looking somewhere between Hanna-Barbera doing Dr
Seuss and Sergio Aragones reinventing Dennis The Menace for the
counter-cultural age asks the viewer if they think he's wealthy or gay,
then proceeds to throttle himself or else cut out his innards ad
nauseum. Wolfson himself is cast as a leather-jacketed punk fucking the
grass in a Paris park

There's a self-laceratingly playful and almost joyous nihilism pulsing
through all this that basks in its backdrop of urban regeneration even
as it fires off poison darts. Wolfson's own Orson Welles-like cameo
recalls vintage footage of doomed Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, crashing and
burning in public in a way that Wolfson is far too savvy to fall for.

The other pieces on show are smaller and more self-contained, but no
less full of attitude and spunk. The best work is the smallest, as, at
the end of the McLellan Galleries downstairs corridor, a 16mm black and
white silent film shows a dicky-bowed man saying  something or other in
sign language. Only when you realise the speech is the impassioned call
to arms from Charlie Chaplin's 1940 satire on Hitler's rise to power,
The Great Dictator, do Wolfson's provocations fully speak volumes.


The List, April 2014


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Gabriel Kuri – All Probability Resolves Into Form

The Common Guild, Glasgow until June 7th
Three stars
in case of emergency, natural disaster, nuclear fall-out or biblical
engulfment, Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri is probably a very good man to
have on your side. By stocking up on blankets, fire extinguishers,
boxes of matches, bottles of water and assorted toiletries, then
assembling them in assorted sculptural show-and-tells on
silver-blanketed pallets in the town-house corridors of The Common
Guild, Kuri takes a practical and possibly life-saving survival kit,
then reassembles it in a way that suggests it's an in-storage archive
with everything in its place and a place for everything, even as it
awaits a situation in which it can be used.

Downstairs, alongside the two pallet-based pieces, a row of metal
compartments containing folded up and piled up blankets resembles both
a charity shop and a call centre store-room, the array of unopened
goods on the stairs themselves seem to awaiting the cleaner to arrive.
Upstairs, a network of primary coloured round tables with rolled-up
sleeping bags inbetween gives the air of an adventure playground
sleepover in progress.

With a title that gives a nod to philosopher David Hume's 1738 'A
Treatise of Human Nature', which suggested that 'All knowledge resolves
itself into probability', Kuri's collection of six new constructions
puts nuts and bolts on hard theory by giving it a quietly political
twist. This is made clear in subtle ways by the seeming class divide
hinted at across the two floors. The show's function as a form of
activism will only be made explicit at the end of the show, however,
when the found materials on display find their true calling by being
donated  to the GLAD Action Network and the Unity Centre, Glasgow, two
all too real support centres for asylum seekers and migrants in
Scotland, making Kuri's ordered arrangement a life-saver on every
level.

The List, April 2014

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Friday, 18 April 2014

Brassed Off - Paul Allen and John McArdle on the Miners Strike

When Paul Allen's stage version of Brassed Off appeared in 1998, two years after Mark Herman's film about a small Yorkshire community's efforts to win a brass band competition was first released, the Miners Strike that formed the story's backdrop was still a fresh wound on Britain's landscape. Thirty years after a civil war which became a defining moment of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's calculated assault on trade unions, the play's current revival for a tour which arrives in Edinburgh next week is an all too fitting reminder of one of the late twentieth century's most inglorious eras.

The fact that Brassed Off makes its point about how an entire community can be decimated by enforced pit closures through both a romantic comedy and the unifying power of music is testament to the play's staying power. Yorkshire-born Allen, whose work in popular theatre has seen him forge close links with Alan Ayckbourn and the Scarborough-based Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, welcomes a second life for his play.

“You've now got a generation of both performers and audiences who have never seen a pit-head,” Allen says of some of the thinking behind a tour co-produced by the Touring Consortium, York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon. “I was walking along a beach in Wales with a friend, and they picked up a piece of coal, which is such a rare thing to see now, but which used to be something that was essential to our lives.

“If you go to Grimethorpe, which is where the film was made, all you see are roundabouts named after the pits that were closed down. Everything has been bulldozed flat, so there's no real evidence of the mines. Yet both the mines and the strike are such an important part of our history, so it's good to keep them alive somehow, and to keep the anger about what happened alive as well.”

In the film, the role of Danny, the band leader whose closing speech in the film is a damning indictment of the government forces behind the pit closures (and which was later sampled on Chumbawamba's 1997 hit single, Tubthumping), was played by the late Pete Postlethwaite. For this new production, the baton is picked up by John McArdle. As a fan of the film,which also starred Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald, he too recognises its populist power.

“Sue Johnston was in it,” McArdle says of his former fellow Brookside star, with whom he toured in Jim Cartwright's play, Two. “She played one of the wives, and I loved Pete Postlethwaite's performance, but playing it myself is like playing any of the great parts, in that you have to try and forget all the great actors who've done it, and bring something of yourself to it.

“With Danny, though, there's only so many ways you can do it, because he's a very driven character. All he wants is to get his band to the Royal Albert hall, but he knows he's dying, and he knows his community is being ripped apart, and that politicises him, whereas in the past he's been apolitical.”

McArdle's own politicisation came during his first exposure to theatre during his early twenties while training to be a plasterer in Northampton, where “I helped build Milton Keynes,” he jokes.

“7:84 brought a play to the college called The Fish in the Sea,” McArdle says of an early play by the late John McGrath, which was first seen in 1972 at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, the grassroots venue where Postlethwaite cut his early acting teeth, “and I also saw a company called Belt and Braces, so I was exposed to agit-prop theatre from very early on. Where agit-prop hit you over the head with its politics, something like Brassed Off takes a much subtler approach with it. Brassed Off tells the story of a family, and it's entertainment for the masses, but it becomes political, and, rather than preach to the converted, it gets its message across to people who might not normally be interested.”

When Brassed Off was first performed in Sheffield, where the first four performers featured a poignant appearance by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, it broke box office records, and quickly transferred to the National Theatre. Since then, and to Allen's astonishment, the play has become something of a staple for amateur dramatics groups.

“This has often been in places that have barely heard of Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher,” says a still bewildered Allen.

“The last time Allen visited Grimethorpe, as well as roundabouts, he noticed that a memorial to miners who had been killed down the pit had been erected near to the war memorial that had long been in place.

“There were a lot more names on the miners memorial than there were on the war memorial,” he says. “There's an anger and a rage in places like Grimethorpe that exists to this day about what was done to them. To have whole communities destroyed like that was absolutely gob-smacking.

“Thirty years on, I think back to 1975, which was thirty years after the Second World War, when war films were still very popular, although in terms of them being made they dropped off shortly after. What happened after the strike, was that, while agit-prop plays were being made at the time, there was a silence. Since then, partly down to writers like Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, which also came out of the strike, and partly down to a system whereby cabinet papers are released under the thirty year rule, so we can see exactly how determined Thatcher's government was to break the unions, that silence has been broken.

“There is a long history that's come out of the Miner's Strike, and some of that history is awful. In parts of Wales where the mines shut, there are now two generations who'll never work again, and nobody is helping these people. Whether things like that causes the plays I don't know, but it somehow seeps into the collective consciousness, and it's our job as writers to articulate that.”
Brassed Off, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 3



Mining For Gold – The Miners Strike on stage and screen

The Strike – In 1988, alternative comedy troupe The Comic Strip made their most famous film as part of Channel Four's The Comic Strip Presents... series. The film focused on a former miner and would-be screenwriter, whose personal account of the strike is picked up by Hollywood producers, who proceed to cast Al Pacino, played by Peter Richardson, as miners leader Arthur Scargill and Meryl Steep, as played by Jennifer Saunders, as his wife in a big budget action movie. This telling satire on how history can be warped on film also starred Robbie Coltrane and Alexei Sayle, and won numerous awards.

Billy Elliot – Like Brassed Off, the Lee Hall-scripted film about an eleven year old boy who wants to become a ballet dancer was set against a backdrop of the Miners Strike in Tyneside, with several scenes filmed at the Ellington and Lynemouth collieries in Northumberland. Released in 2000, Hall's tale of the transcending power of art made a star of Jamie Bell, and has gone on to become a hit stage musical.
 
The Battle of Orgreave – In 2001, artist Jeremy Deller staged a re-enactment of one of the Miners Strike's defining moments, when running battles in June 1984 between Yorkshire police and striking miners looked like civil war. Deller gathered together more than 1000 volunteers for the public event, which utilised historical re-enactment societies as well as former miners and policeman in a spectacle that was captured by film-maker Mike Figgis.
 
The Herald, April 18th 2014

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

It may be a tad early in the year for Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com to come blinking into the light, but that hasn't stopped the all-male Propeller company from hitting the road with the frothiest of double bills, with Ed Hall's productions of the Dream and The Comedy of Errors playing the King's on alternate nights. Neither does it stop the array of long-john clad fairies, who drape themselves about a netting-lined stage before a stripey-tighted Robin Goodfellow, as Puck is credited here, bursts out of a box feet first as if from an upside-down toybox come to life.

As the cast of fourteen flit between the play's three worlds, what follows resembles a 1980s alternative comedy troupe doing an elaborately choreographed role-play. At first, Joseph Chance's Robin seems to call the shots, click-clacking chaos into the four young lovers all-night exploits with a wooden rattle. Soon it's Darrell Brockis' Oberon who's casting a spell, in a Dream which requires little of the usual doubling up of parts.

The Mechanicals are a Dad's Army am-dram group, whose cross-gender casting of Flute as doomed lover Thisbe is a knowing wink to Propeller's own men-only aesthetic. Alasdair Craig's gangling Flute goes from stupid boy to Barbie doll as Thisbe, eventually throwing an almighty strop at Bottom's Pyramus with a Dr Who scarf that becomes a deadly weapon. Accompanied only by a bell, a xylophone and some solitary harmonica drawls, this a knockabout Dream that prompts several ovations for its comic set-pieces, even as it revels in its own magic before the spell is ended and Puck must climb back into his box once more.
 
The Herald, April 18th 2014
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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Cars and Boys

Dundee Rep
Three stars

Life in a hospital ward can play tricks on you. Especially when you've had a stroke like ageing matriarch Catherine, the tough cookie at the heart of Stuart Paterson's new play, directed by Philip Howard in a temporary studio space that seats the audience on the theatre's main stage either side of the action. Used to calling the shots running her own haulage firm, Catherine is now in a bed-ridden haze of medicated confusion, in which a steady stream of old loves seep from her dream-state with lifelike clarity even as she can barely recall her grandson's name. Doctors and nurses treat her with a professional briskness as her husband Duncan and daughter Margaret attempt to salvage a few precious moments.

At the centre of this life in decline is a towering performance from Ann Louise Ross, who invests Catherine with a hard-headed steeliness that slips at crucial moments to reveal an emotional vulnerability, before she pulls herself together to deal with some everyday family strife. Only Catherine's commentary on contemporary political ills feel shoe-horned in.

With the white lines of Lisa Sangster's set suggesting a life that has roared by without pausing to see the view, Howard's production captures a tone that is both impressionistic and defiant in Paterson's writing. This is heightened even more by Greg Sinclair's live cello score. This fully comes into its own when at one point a slow and steady stream of people played by a community cast pass by bearing gifts. This suggests a funeral procession as much as visiting hour in an elegiac tapestry of a live lived to the max.
 
The Herald, April 17th 2014

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Forbidden Experiment - Enormous Yes

In 1493, a youthful King James 1V of Scotland embarked on a curious experiment, in which he decamped two infant children to Inchkeith Island on the Firth of Forth in the care of a mute woman. The point of the exercise for the curious monarch was to determine how the children might learn language while isolated from the rest of the world, and if, in its pure state, their utterances were in fact the language of the gods.

Fast forward five hundred years or so, and a couple of artists equally as curious as King James pick up on what remains a bizarre incident. Things become even stranger when the artists look into what happened when British troops were stationed on Inchkeith during the Second World War. A Freedom of Information request lodged with the Ministry of Defence about their own interests in language deprivation casts up some apparently startling material, which the pair determine to make public.

The result of all this is The Forbidden Experiment, the latest dramatic inquiry by performers and theatre-makers Rob Jones and Michael John O'Neill. Collectively known as Enormous Yes, Jones and O'Neill are the latest recipients of The Arches Platform 18 award, which enables and supports the production of The Forbidden Experiment as part of the centre's Behaviour festival before transferring it to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. With reference to feral children, make-believe army regiments, code-breaking and such technical linguistic terms as idioglosia and cryptophasia, the pseudo lecture structure of The Forbidden Experiment is part detective story and part historical excavation, with what sounds like some decidedly sinister discoveries.

“Inchkeith has always been strategically important,” according to O'Neill. “It was used as a place of quarantine for syphilitics and plague victims, then in the Second World War there was a fictional regiment called the British Fourth Army that was as a distraction to make the Nazis think they were going to invade Norway.”

As full of incident and colour as such findings are, they have long been in the public domain, and exactly what new ground O'Neill and Jones' FOI is breaking remains to be seen. For now, “There are elements of it I don't want to go into too much detail about,” is all O'Neill will say. “Most of it was epically boring, with stacks of stuff about shift rotations and things like that. There's stuff there as well about language research and code-breaking, and putting research into practise that has elements of a very sinister mystery.”

Jones and O'Neill formed Enormous Yes while students at Glasgow University, and, inspired by innovative American company, The T.E.A.M. (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), elected to make what they describe as 'theatre to make wrong what once seemed right'.

“Our process has been one of going through an extensive research period,” O'Neill says, “then developing things through improvisation before I go off and write a script.”

This approach has seen Enormous Yes look at libertarian cults, both in the interactive faux seminar of #neednothing, which appeared at the Arches in 2012, and in its sequel of sorts, #sleeptightbobbycairns, which formed part of the Tron Theatre's Mayfesto season.

These were followed by Bonny Boys Are Few, a quasi auto-biographical look at the relationship between sons, fathers and surrogate fathers, which was seen both at the Arches and at the Roundhouse in London in 2013.

What unites these shows is a willingness to fuse fact, fiction and historical mythology in a playful mix of forms that never loses sight of its own artifice as the lines between what is true and what is not become blurred.

“We like to chuck fictional and real things together and see what emerges,” O'Neill explains. “I don't see us in any way as making documentaries about our researches, but are interpreting it in other ways that we hope encourages people to question narratives. On one level, Bonny Boys Are Few was autobiography, but we pulled it apart with this mix of Irish mythology and real events. We see these bits of history and myth that we've found as being ample for being pulled apart in different ways, so well as having these elements of my own life, the Spanish Armada's in there as well.”

The immediate future for Enormous Yes sees them take a reworked version of Bonny Boys Are Few to the Brighton Fringe Festival this coming May. Beyond this, O'Neill, a graduate of both the National Theatre of Scotland's Auteurs scheme and the Traverse 50 new writing initiative, expresses a desire to write something “a bit less mad, something more tightly genre-based.”

In the meantime, four people will appear in The Forbidden Experiment, including dancer and choreographer Zosia Jo, while Jones and O'Neill will play versions of themselves.

“There's lots of collapsing of history in the show,” O'Neill says, “and mine and Rob's journey to getting the FOI becomes integral to things. Characters are paired off through history, and the one thing they all have in common is that they've all lost something and are trying to get it back.

Given the nature of The Forbidden Experiment, one can imagine some concerned overtures from the MOD might have been forthcoming. As it turns out, a surprising radio silence has been the order of the day.

“I've not got any sense that they care,” O'Neill says of the MOD. “If it looked like the play was doing anything that they didn't like then they might, but I suspect they have a lot of bigger scandals to deal with than an investigation into one that happened in the 1940s.”

The Forbidden Experiment, The Arches, Glasgow, April 22-25; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 1-3



Inchkeith – A Wondrous Place

Inchkeith, in the Firth of Forth, and which is part of Fife, has had a colourful history, which is known to date back to the twelfth century, when people had to cross the river by boat.

In the fourteenth century, Inchkeith was repeatedly attacked by English raiders during the Scottish wars of independence.

In 1493, King James 1V directed that a mute woman and two infants be transported to the island in order to discover which language the infants would grow up to speak isolated from the rest of the world.

In 1497, Inchkeith used as an isolated refuge for victims of the 'grandcore' or syphilis.

In 1589, Inchkeith was used to quarantine the passengers of a plague ridden ship. More plague sufferers came here from the mainland in 1609, while n 1799, Russian sailors who had died of an infectious disease were buried here.

In 1547, the earl of Somerset garrisoned Inchkeith, and built a fort on the site of the present day lighthouse. The garrison was later ejected from the island by a combined Franco-Scottish force.

In the eighteenth century, a now uninhabited Inchkeith was visited by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.

In 1803, construction began on the Inchkeith Lighthouse, which became operational the following year.

In 1878, construction began on three forts on Inchkeith, and in 1899, a foghorn was installed.

In 1915 during the First World War, HMS Britannia ran aground at Inchkeith.

In 1944, Operatioin Fortitude North was an elaborate plan used to deceive the German army into thinking that the British army was about to invade Norway, with a fictional regiment decamped to Inchkeith.

Following the Second World War, Inchkeith was worked as farmland, and in 1986, the Northern Lighhouse Board sold the island to millionaire philanthropist Sir Tom Farmer.
 
The Herald, April 15th 2014

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Monday, 14 April 2014

The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It's the voice of God you hear first in Vanishing Point's exquisitely realised impressionistic evocation of the life and times of the poet and song-writer whose influence on popular culture over the last half century is only now being fully recognised. It's a jolly voice compared to the deadpan melancholy of Ivor Cutler's own, but this unseen presence points up Cutler's own uneasy relationship with religious beliefs of all persuasions, even as this co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland is as much a spiritual meditation as any liturgy.

Using a framing device of an actual meeting between actor Sandy Grierson, who plays Cutler, with Cutler's partner Phyllis King below the Kentish Town flat where Cutler once lived, the first half is a celestial radio play that shows how a dreamy boy from Ibrox went from life as a pilot and a teacher to an underground cult figure and star of TV and radio. These scenes give us a glimpse of what shaped Cutler's mind even as they explore how such a remarkable life can be translated into the play we're watching. The second half shifts in tone to something more elegiac as it focuses on Cutler and King's love story, and a personal and artistic bond that proved indestructible even as Cutler slid gently into old age.

Accompanying all this in Matthew Lenton's beautifully nuanced production of a text knitted together by Grierson is a barn-stormingly good five-piece band led by composer James Fortune. Their rollicking new arrangements of Cutler's songs reinvent them as a colourful riot of Klezmer, Calypso and Indian Ragas to shed vivid life on Cutler's unique form of Zen absurdist music hall.

Elicia Daly makes a poignant Phyllis, while guitarist Ed Gaughan provides an array of comic voices that include Ned Sherrin and Paul McCartney. It is Grierson's remarkably observed study of Cutler, however, that carries the show as he charmingly and movingly captures his subject's sense of wonder even at his frailest in this most tender and loving of homages to a true genius.

The Herald, April 14th 2014

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Vanishing Point - The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler

The squall of feedback that pierces across the auditorium of Eden Court Theatre 
in Inverness may only last a few seconds, but, it’s enough to cause a brief 
commotion among anyone in the room. The cast and band are in the thick of 
rehearsals for The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, Vanishing Point theatre 
company’s impressionistic music homage to the Glasgow-born poet, singer and 
stalwart of the late John Peel’s radio programme, which - quite literally - 
speaks volumes.

Cutler was, after all, a member of the Noise Abatement Society, and claimed to 
loathe amplified music in all forms. The feedback is a consequence of a 
late-running sound-check caused by a piano’s exterior splintering in a way that 
rendered it unusable. A replacement piano found at short notice, a piano tuner 
was also required to before work could proceed.

The band is led my musical director James Fortune, and includes 
multi-instrumentalist and recipient of a Herald Little Devil award Nick Pynn. 
Pynn, who has worked with comedians Stewart Lee and Boothby Graffoe, won the 
award with his partner, Kate Daisy Grant, after the pair got married on their 
only day off from their Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. With keyboardist and 
vocalist Jo Apps, guitarist Ed Gaughan and percussionist Magnus Mehta also on 
board, Fortune has pulled together a dynamic and eclectic ensemble.

For me,” says Fortune, “the challenges are to investigate the songs enough so 
you can rework them, but still keep their original spirit intact. A lot of Ivor 
Cutler’s songs sound like they could have been sung by Paul Robeson. There’s 
cowboy music in there, and there’s something Jewish there as well.”

As well as the piano, the stage is awash with other musical instruments, with a 
couple of old-fashioned armchairs nestled in front of the piano in a way that 
suggests the Scotch sitting room immortalised in Cutler’s brutally absurd 
stories. Elicia Daly, who plays a version of Cutler’s partner, Phyllis King, 
sits obliviously knitting on one of the chairs, leaning up against the piano are 
a series of oversize reproductions of the sleeves for each of Cutler’s albums.
At the front of the stage, set apart from everything else, sits a harmonium. In 
it’s isolated state, this wooden monster of an instrument looks like a miniature 
altar. The fact that the harmonium once belonged to Ivor Cutler himself makes 
the presence of the man interviewers were instructed must be called Mr Cutler 
even more tangible.

The instrument was re-discovered by musician and Celtic Connections director 
Donald Shaw. It had lain in storage for years after Cutler had apparently 
abandoned it following a show in Glasgow, where he was overheard in the wings 
giving the instrument a stiff talking to. Shaw bought it, and has now lent it to 
Vanishing Point. While this anecdote in itself could form the basis of a Cutler 
tribute, it’s a long way from how Lenton originally envisaged the show.

It’s a biography, a celebration and a gig,” he says of how it’s turned out. 
What we didn’t want was just have someone imitating Ivor Cutler and what he 
did. You can get the real thing on YouTube, so there’s no point on that. We 
wanted to do something that told a story, but which said something about Ivor 
Cutler’s life.

I’ve always said it’s an anti Mamma Mia. When you look at Mamma Mia, it’s the 
work of ABBA structured together, but ABBA don’t play a part in that musical, so 
anyone could have written those songs. That was my first idea with this, to make 
it something completely separate from Ivor Cutler’s life, but the more work we 
did on it, the more we found that you can’t separate Cutler’s work from his 
life.”

Rather than make a Vanishing Point approximation of a jukebox musical, Lenton, 
along with Fortune and actor and company associate Sandy Grierson, have done 
something more akin to the rock and roll biographical shows Elvis and Buddy. 
This has been done using a mountain of research material pulled together by 
Grierson, and enabled with the help of Cutler’s son and King, who have allowed 
Vanishing Point unlimited access to their archives. Despite such exhaustive 
researches, Lenton isn’t aiming to creative something rarefied.

It’s got to be a story that people who don’t know anything about Ivor Cutler 
can come along,” he maintains, “as well as one that aficionados can enjoy. On 
one level it’s quite a simple story, although it’s never a naturalistic 
portrayal of Ivor Cutler. It’s a biography told through his songs, and it’s a 
celebration, but it’s not just fragments. There’s an aesthetic to Cutler, and 
there’s something really Russian in his radio plays, and that’s the essence we 
want to capture.”

With the piano tuned, the band warm up as Grierson walks the stage with a giant 
cut-out of a vivid green sea creature. Costume designer Jessica Brettle comes in 
carrying two tweedy tartan caps that wouldn’t look out of place on a 
well-dressed Womble. They are, of course, dead ringers for Cutler’s own 
head-wear, and Grierson dutifully tries them on for size.

The band run through a version of Cutler’s late song, A Bubble Or Two, which, by 
way of an alternating male/female vocal and a twanging guitar, becomes 
transformed into the sort of galloping wild west melodrama on which Lee 
Hazlewood might have duetted with Nancy Sinatra. 

It’s louder than Cutler’s original, but there’s a reinvigorated joy there that 
even a member of the Noise Abatement Society might tap a toe to.

I think he’d be alright with that,” says Fortune, “but you have to be careful 
to get the balance right.”

The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 9-20, then 
tours.
www.citz.co.uk
www.vanishing-point.org

The Herald, April 8th 2014

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Chris Corsano - Edinburgh Man

Time was that if you lived in Edinburgh it felt like you could see drummer Chris Corsano play live pretty much any night of the week. During his time living in the capital in the mid to late noughties, the New England-sired drummer whose collaborators range from former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore to free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker was a ubiquitous figure here.

Having hooked up with the city's fecund Noise scene, shows ranged from teaming up with assorted affiliates of the Giant Tank disorganisation, to duos with pedal steel vixen Heather Leigh Murray or bass player Massimo Pupillo of Italian power trio, Zu, to taking part in Arika's Resonant Spaces project. All this while touring the world with Bjork, whose Volta album Corsano appeared on.

One particularly busy couple of weeks in 2007 saw Corsano play Edinburgh with female Noise duo Hockyfrilla, another Edinburgh date in a duo with former Geraldine Fibbers and Evangelista vocalist Carla Bozulich, supporting Faust at the Bongo Club with the Vibracathedral Orchestra's Mick Flower prior to a solo show at Optimo in Glasgow, and somehow managing to squeeze in a recording with Bjork for Jools Holland's Later programme broadcast the same weekend.

Seven years on, Corsano returns to Edinburgh with Flower this weekend for the duo's only Scottish date as part of a ten-date UK tour sandwiched inbetween a slew of European shows with the likes of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and Indian-trained Finnish musician, Antti Solvi.

This current burst of activity follows some rare time out for Corsano, who, when not on tour, now lives quietly in upstate New York, “half-way between New York and Canada. I'd just had a hectic winter, and wanted to spend some time at home. I never really play in the town I live in. I don't know why, but Edinburgh was different.”

Sunday night's return will also continue a collaboration that began almost a decade ago when Corsano was living in Newcastle.

“Mick and I had played on the same bill,” Corsano recalls. “He was playing with the Vibracathedral Orchestra and I was playing with Paul Flaherty, and Mick asked me if I wanted to come over to Leeds.”

The result has been a long-term artistic marriage of Corsano's busy use of the drum kit alongside Flower's drone-based extrapolations from an electric shruti box and Japanese banjo.

“I like playing with Mick,” says Corsano, “because I like listening to him. I'm a fan. We go off and do our different things, but then when we get back together it's still really exciting. It it wasn't working I guess we wouldn't have pursued it as much as we have, and things do change. I can be playing with Mick, and then think, 'Oh, I haven't heard that before'.The synergies have always been in that state, which is one of pushing and pushing.

“There's a certain kind of comfort there as well, because if the acoustic of a room is difficult, or if a crowd is hard to please, you know that because you've worked together so much that there's something to fall back on. But you always want to keep trying things out, and want to keep it exciting and alive. It's the same with any relationship, personal or otherwise.”

Corsano's point about how much he enjoys listening to Flower is telling about Corsano's own approach. His playing is so sensitive to whoever else he's on stage with that, rather than dominate as a lesser drummer might with an over-riding clatter, Corsano's opens out a sea of space for others to fill, even as he pulses things along.

“I think we've practised once, maybe twice,” says Corsano of his and Flower's approach. “Everything else has been playing shows or recording. As what we do is improvised, you try to catch whatever's going on in the room and how the audience are. The key thing is to support the other person, and when you hear something that might be useful, you pick it up, so you're always trying to get better.”

The duo set-up is something that seems to suit Corsano. As well as his alliance with Flower, Corsano has long-standing partnerships with veteran saxophonists Paul Flaherty and Joe McPhee.

“The duo setting can be so much fun,” according to Corsano. “You learn so much about that one person you're playing with. A person like Joe McPhee, for instance, he subverts the idea of music in terms of what do I do to respond to what he does, which surprises the hell out of me still. But I don't think Joe would call himself a jazz player. There are some really angry things in what he does, but it can be really haunting as well.”

More recent collaborations include an ongoing partnership with artist and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Graf under the name Soliton, as well as with Rasmussen.

“That's a new duo,” Corsano says of the latter, “and it still feels really fresh. It's great you can still jump into something new and build from that. I didn't know Mette from before, but now I'm the older one finally. I'm not the young drummer anymore.”

One partnership that is unlikely to be rekindled is with Bjork. While Corsano enjoyed the experience, playing stadiums ans the main stages of festivals was “a different reality to what I was used to. You're playing all these major stages around the world, and then you wake up and think, 'Did that just happen?' I don't know if I'd do anything like that again, to be honest. There was never enough time to get the sound right at these places, and you'd be all over the place, drumming, and trying not to get lost. In a way it's kind of validated my position playing small, underground places.
It was some carry-on, but I guess I'm out of that one now.”

While Corsano appears on a multitude of recordings, both solo and with numerous collaborators, including five releases in 2013 alone, given his tireless range of activity, gaps remain in his back-catalogue.

“A lot of stuff does get lost,” he says, “but it's refreshing when someone steps up and wants to release something I've done, but even then things slip through the cracks.”

However many Cdrs and short-run releases Corsano and associates might put out, experiencing him play live is something that can never be fully captured on record. This is something Corsano more than anyone seems to recognise.

“I'm kind of a creature where a live setting is where I feel most at home,” he says. “That ephemeralness seems central to the improvisatory aspects of playing live, and I kind of live for that. I always end up doing different things with different people, and I'm always trying to surround myself with people better than me. So far, I think I'm doing pretty well.”

Braw Gigs present the Flower-Corsano Duo with Ashley Paul and Acrid Lactations, Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh, April 13th.

The List, April 2014

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

This May Hurt A Bit

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
It's a strange sensation, hearing an actor open Max Stafford-Clark's 
production of Stella Feehily's impassioned call to arms to save the NHS 
with Socialist firebrand Aneurin Bevan's speech that launched this most 
treasured of institutions in 1948. A politician with ideals and 
integrity is such a rarity these days that it can't help but sound 
heroic. This is the case too watching a piece of political agit-prop, a 
form which not that long ago was considered to be passe, but which now 
appears to have been reborn for the age of austerity with a vigorous 
sense of righteous urgency.

This is with good cause, as Feelihy proves in the play's central tale 
of one family's travails after their 90 year old mother Iris has a 
stroke. A sadly familiar story of over-crowded and understaffed 
hospital wards is punctuated by a series of sketch-like interludes, as 
Bevan and Winston Churchill step out of the audience to form a double 
act, and a weather girl points out exactly where all the health cuts 
have been made. Even Death himself makes a cameo.

Drawn from extensive interviews with hospital patients and staff as 
well as first-hand experience, Feelihy, Stafford-Clark and an 
eight-strong cast led by Stephanie Cole as Iris have produced a damning 
indictment of a government that puts corporate interests before saving 
lives that is both funny and full of bemused rage. When one character 
steps out to ask the audience “Why aren't people angry?”, the silence 
may be deafening, but the way Westminster's current occupants are 
going, it won't be that way for long.

The Herald, April 10th 2014

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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Best of the Village Pub Theatre

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
For the last couple of years, an ever expanding group of writers, 
actors and directors have set up shop in a pub function room in Leith 
to showcase their work at a series of lo-fi monthly events. Every night 
last week, Edinburgh's original home of new writing has hosted a set of 
similar events presented by the team behind  the Village Pub Theatre in 
a way that suggests VPT has quietly become a significant force on the 
theatre scene.

As a grand finale to the week, Saturday night saw script in hand 
presentations of eight works previously seen at the company's regular 
home alongside a series of quick-fire Twitter plays, with each one 
using no more than 160 letters. There was an end of term feel to 
proceedings as VPT founders, writer James Ley and director Caitlin 
Skinner, introduced the evening, which began with Morna Pearson's Of 
The Green Kind, a look at the effect an invading alien has on three 
very different young women. Short pieces by Ellie Stewart, Louise E 
Knowles and Sylvia Dow completed the first half, with new works by 
Catherine Grosvenor, Colin Bell and Sophie Good following in the second.

As performed by seven actors directed by Skinner and Caro Donald, 
themes of romance, ageing and family were explored both comically and 
more poignantly. Best of all was Ley's own Alison and Paulo, a tender 
hotel room liaison between a young Spanish man and an older female 
holiday-maker in search of love. All of the works on show displayed 
just how powerful short plays can be in an increasingly vital form of 
presentation.

The Herald, April 7th 2014

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Sam Halmarack & The Miserablites

The Arches, Glasgow
Four stars
There must be few things more dispiriting for a band if no-one turns 
out to see them play. But what if the band themselves don't turn up, 
leaving just the possibly deluded singer to bare his soul? No, this 
isn't the latest exercise in social engineering by The Fall's Mark E 
Smith, but is the premise of Bristol-based performer Sam Halmarack's 
hour-long dissection of pop mythology in miniature. There is no rise or 
fall here, only the bitter-sweet taste of never making it to cling to 
for comfort. Somehow, however, by getting the audience to join in on 
rudimentary glockenspiel, drums and keyboards as instructed by a 
home-made rehearsal video, Halmarack snatches triumph from adversity in 
a way that gives the Arches chair-stripped studio theatre the power of 
a stadium.

On one level, surrounded by an array of space-age silver instruments, 
Halmarack comes over like an electro-pop John Shuttleworth. Yet, in his 
gold track-suit top and pink day-glo headband, the indomitable spirit 
and thick-skinned determination against all the odds of Halmarack's 
character might also be channelling the spirit of Lawrence, the unsung 
genius behind Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart, whose similar craving for 
fame and fortune has made him an accidental icon.

It could happen too for Halmarack, who, by breaking the fourth wall 
 from the off, taps into the audience's need to participate rather than 
be kept in the dark as passive spectators. In his small, vulnerable but 
utterly life-affirming way, Halmarack is telling us something about 
faith, self-belief and how anything is possible. As for the missing 
Miserablites, who needs them? In Halmarack's world, at least, we're all 
Miserablites now.

The Herald, April 7th 2014

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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Stuart Paterson - Cars and Boys

Stuart Paterson never meant to write Cars and Boys, his new play which opens at Dundee Rep next week in a production by the Rep's artistic director, Philip Howard. The prolific playwright and screenwriter whose numerous Christmas plays are a staple of the festive theatre circuit had been working on another piece, which, by his own admission, “was going nowhere, and this one sort of crept up on me. I was going to the theatre a lot, and not really enjoying it. I saw plenty of ideas there, but what I wanted to do was something that was simple and human, and that wasn't just about words and dialogue, but was more about the sound of words as well.”

Cars and Boys tells the story of Catherine Miller, the ageing matriarch of a big-time haulage company who has been calling the shots all of her life. Even after she suffers a stroke and is confined to a hospital bed, it seems, Catherine is determined to take charge of everyone and everything around her.

“It's about the life of a business,” says Paterson. “It's a play about power and endeavour, and the language of business, which has a vitality to it. If it becomes fractured when the main character in the play has a stroke, she can reveal things that she wouldn't ordinarily reveal. We're not doing Ho;by City, but while it's always dangerous to use the word poetic, the stage is poetic, and you have to try and find a language to express that.”

There is an umbilical link between Cars and Boys and Paterson's 1999 play, King of The Fields, which first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. That play featured a couple at its heart who, while they don't appear in Cars sand Boys, are the parents of Catherine, and ran the haulage firm before her.

“Philip keeps teasing me that this is part two of a trilogy,” says Paterson, “but writing the play like that happened without me ever pre-planning it in any way.”

Given that Ayrshire-born Paterson's own father ran a haulage business, Cars and Boys sounds even closer to home, even though Paterson points out that “The play is completely fictitious, but, as with King of the Fields, it's totally rooted in family in a way that enables me to use phrases and bits of language that are quite private, so sometimes it's hard for me to listen to, but because of my repressed Calvinism, I couldn't out my parents onstage. One of the reasons I'm a playwright is because I can express emotions which might otherwise find difficult to do so in life. Although it was expected of me to take over my father's haulage firm, I never really wanted to but it's always in my blood.”

Cars and Boys will be staged with the audience sat in a transverse seating arrangement on Dundee Rep's stage in a way that effectively creates a temporary studio theatre more suited to Paterson's play. Such scaling down of the Rep's auditorium has previously been utilised for equally up close and personal productions of Howard Barker's Scenes From An Execution and Euripides' Greek tragedy, Hecuba, while a staging of Tom McGrath's play, Kora, took place in a building behind the theatre.

“Cars and Boys is a play that will benefit from intimacy,” says Paterson, “so staging it in this way suits the play.”

Beyond Cars and Boys, Paterson is working on a screenplay based on Dr Glas, a nineteenth century set novel by Swedish writer, Hjalmar Soderberg. While a new children's play may be forthcoming, for now, at least, it is the very grown-up world of Cars and Boys that is on Paterson's mind.

“It's always interesting to look at someone who's had power in their life, and is still trying to hang onto that power no matter what,” he says. “There's a lot about love in Cars and Boys as well, but it's a play about someone who is absolutely fighting to survive, and it's a bare knuckle fight between her and death itself. You know that if he came into the room, one thing for certain is that she wouldn't be afraid of taking him on.”

Cars and Boys, Dundee Rep, April 11-26

The Herald, April 4th 2014


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