Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sue Glover and Liz Carruthers - The Straw Chair

When Sue Glover's play, The Straw Chair, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1988, it's eighteenth century setting and focus on volatile female characters was in stark contrast to a prevailing trend of gritty realism. The play's study of Lady Grange, exiled from Edinburgh to a barren St Kilda by her philandering husband, was a hit nevertheless, and regarded by many as a contemporary classic.

It is curious therefore, that Liz Carruthers' revival of the play which embarks on an extensive Scottish tour this week, is the first time Glover's play will have been seen in Scotland in a full production for twenty-seven years.

“I never pushed for it,” says Glover today. “The Traverse used to say to me that if only I wrote about housing estates and drugs they could market me better, but I wasn't interested in that, and a lot of bigger theatres didn't think it suitable. The play wasn't published until later either, and after about five years or so, when things get to a certain age they're considered too old to be revived, especially for a play which I saw as a costume drama.”

Glover's Lady Grange is based on the real life figure of Rachel Chiesley, who, on squaring up to her husband James Erskine's various indiscretions in Edinburgh with unabashed abandon, was subsequently kidnapped by him and banished to various secluded islands. Into Lady Grange's unfettered domain comes newly-weds Isabel and her minister husband Aneas, determined to spread the gospel to what they see as untamed Northerners. It is Lady Grange, however, who opens up Isabel's eyes to other possibilities.

“I had a Gaelic neighbour,” Glover says of the play's background, “who was brought up on Mull and who told me about Rachel and suggested to me that I write a play about her. Then I read about her, and I thought, oh, boy, yes.

“The thing that really attracted me to her was a tiny wee article in a church magazine, and it said that Lord Grange couldn't legally divorce Rachel, so he gave her £200 and stuck her in Leith. She was a drunk, and used to walk up to the Royal Mile and stand outside her husband's house in Niddrie Wynd and shout at all of his friends in their sedan chairs. She was a wronged woman, but he was a vile hypocrite, and I just thought, oh, yeah!”

The idea to finally revive The Straw Chair was first hatched after Carruthers directed a short play by Glover, Bear on A Chain, at Oran Mor as part of the venue's A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. Having stepped into the production at the last minute, Carruthers hit it off with Glover, and went to a reading of The Straw Chair at The Visitors, a series of presentations of neglected twentieth century Scottish plays curated by writer Nicola McCartney at the CCA in Glasgow.

“I didn't see the original production,” says Carruthers, “but at the time I was learning Gaelic, and had to do a project, which I decided to do on Lady Grange, so to see such an extraordinary play based on her was great, and I knew then that I wanted to do it.”

That was five years ago, since when there have been a couple of false starts, with Carruthers and Glover teaming up to form their own company, Hirtle, who will be co-producing the play with Borderline.

Glover is on something of a roll just now in terms of seeing revivals of her work, with Borderline's production of The Straw Chair following Lu Kemp's revival of her 1991 play, Bondagers, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 2014.

“I think Sue has been under-valued as a writer,” says Carruthers, who describes The Straw Chair as Glover's masterpiece, “and you wonder if that is because she's a woman and because she's older. When I started out it seemed like there were very few women writers and directors, but you look around now and it seems like there's more women doing it than men. It's still about the youth in many ways, so I think it's quite good that two older women like us can start our own company.”

In terms of how women are perceived beyond the world of the play, not much has changed according to Carruthers.

“The play's very much about hypocrisy,” she says, “both of the church and of Edinburgh society, and how so-called respectable society like to sweep people like Lady Grange under the carpet and pretend they don't exist, It's about how if a woman steps out of line society won't tolerate it, and society today still won't stand for it. If a woman gets drunk she's thought far worse of than a man, and there's this continuing disapproval of women who don't stay in their place. I think we're living through a really misogynist era at the moment, and so much of that comes through in the play.

“It's a vivid piece. There's lots of humour in it. Lady Grange didn't follow social conventions and is obsessed with sex, so it's very rude and very funny, but I hope as well as finding it funny that people will be angered by what happens in the play. It's not preserved in aspic, that's for sure. It's as pertinent now as it was all those years ago.”

For Glover too, Lady Grange remains a formidable figure.

”One or two people regard her as a poor victim,” Glover says, “which on one level of course she is, but I remember taking my Gaelic neighbour to see the play, and she was quite taken aback by seeing this angry mad woman. I think she was expecting something gentler.”

The Straw Chair, Sabhal Nor Ostaig, Sleat, April 1; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, April 3; Birnam Arts Centre, April 4; Ardross Community Hall, April 7, touring until May.
www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 31st 2015
 
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Kai Fischer - Last Dream (On Earth)

When Kai Fischer was growing up in East Germany when the Berlin Wall still divided his country, the big dream of his generation was to travel beyond the Wall to all the perceived liberties the west apparently offered. Around the same time, the story of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 had been the first man in space, had already captured Fischer's imagination as it had little boys around the globe. More recently, Fischer saw parallels with African migrants trying to get to what they imagined to be a European land of freedom and liberty.

The result of these musings are brought together in Last Dream (On Earth), the theatre designer best known for his work with the Vanishing Point company's follow-up to Entartet, an audio installation based on transcripts that accompanied the Nazi Party's Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Using similar sound-led techniques devised with composer Matt Padden, this new co-production between Fischer, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow sees its creator come even more to the fore as a director and theatre-maker as he explores the show's twin narratives with three actors while the audience listen in on headphones.

“Gagarin's journey into space always fascinated me,” says Fischer, “and I recently came across the published transcripts of the conversations between Gagarin and Ground Control. That was with a man called Sergei Karolev, who was a guy who had been working with rockets since the 1930s before he was denounced for misappropriation of funds. He was sent to the gulags, and when he was released he went on to lead the Soviet space programme, and oversaw Gagarin's launch into space, so it was his big day, and we have this record of both men talking.

“I grew up knowing about Gagarin and his flight, but maybe now it is a story that's in danger of being forgotten. I spoke to somebody recently who thought that the first man in space was Neil Armstrong, and there are people growing up now who maybe won't understand why people like Gagarin and Karolev would have these dreams of going into space.”

The second aspect of Last Dream (On Earth) saw Fischer himself embarking on his own trip of a lifetime, to the Italian island of Lampedusa, as well as Malta and Morocco, where he interviewed refugees who had attempted to reach Europe. While some had tried and failed to make the journey, others had succeeded, only to be housed in detention centres.

“It was a very personal parallel,” says Fischer, “and even though it isn't really comparable with people in North African countries trying to get to Europe, because of my experience growing up in East Germany at the time I did, it's something I've always been interested in.

Fischer spent a week talking to people in a refugee centre.

“What was amazing was the extent they were prepared to share their stories,” he says. “Sometimes people arrived in Malta not knowing they'd done anything wrong, and then, thinking they'd arrived in Europe where freedom of expression is everything, suddenly found themselves detained and didn't know why. I might have been the first person they'd met who they could talk to about their experiences, and the way they embraced that chance to talk was an amazing experience to be around.”

Following this extensive research, Fischer developed the stories in a way that will allow audiences to eavesdrop in on Gagarin's conversations with Karolev while refugees on a beach prepare to embark on an equally perilous voyage.

“Using headphones started as a design idea,” says Fischer, “but then I realised that if I wanted the audience to experience the connection between Gagarin and Karolev, then there was nothing I could do better to get them as close as possible to that than have them actually listen in on those conversations. By doing that you're also leaving space for people to imagine their own place in what's going on.

“There are elements of the experience that are like a gig. There is Matt 's soundtrack and sound design, and the music creates a bridge between the atmosphere and the words spoken.”

Fischer left Germany to study in Glasgow in 1995, and has been a full UK resident since 1998. Since then, his large-scale designs for Vanishing Point shows such as Interiors, Saturday Night and Wonderland have been integral to the narrative of each.

With this in mind, taking the lead on shows as he has done with Entartet and Last Dream (On Earth) is something Fischer sees as complimentary to his pure design work.

“For me it's never really felt separate,” he says. “In my stage designs I always want to try new things out, and although the collaborative relationship is slightly different it's still the same thing. In whatever I do I really just want to continue exploring.”

This notion of exploration, be it simply to find our what's out there or else to try and change lives is something that feeds into Last Dream (On Earth).

“These days if you have the money you can now buy tickets for space flight,” Fischer observes. “Back then people did it because of an ideal, but now it's one more thing that's about to be commercialised, and this idea of building a better future has been lost. Like migrants trying to get to Europe, Gagarin and Karolev weren't doing it for themselves, but for something bigger that was about trying to create a better world.”

Last Dream (On Earth), Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 1-4, then on tour throughout April.
www.tron.co.uk
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
 
The Herald, March 31st 2015

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Hardeep Pandhal – A Neck or Nothing Man!

An Tobar, Tobermory, Isle of Mull April 3rd-June 27th

When Hardeep Pandhal first visited Mull, he heard a story of how a wooden statue of a highland warrior pointing passers-by towards a heritage centre had been physically defaced. The image seemed to tie in with a childhood memory of growing up in a Sikh community in Birmingham, where Pandhal remembered another image of legendary warrior and martyr Baba Deep Singh, who continued to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple by the Afghan army while holding on to his own decapitated head.

With a burgeoning interest in Victorian satirical cartoonist and original illustrator of Charles Dickens' George Cruikshank thrown into the mix, the end result is a four-metre high sculptural reimagining of the Cruikshank cartoon which greets visitors outside the Comar organisation's Tobermory-based An Tobar centre and gives the show its name. In the original, an animated guillotine takes flight to chase a government on the run. Recast as the sort of seaside attraction which holiday-makers could pose with for postcard style snapshots by poking their own heads through the holes that saw them become cartoon characters, the bloody blade above them that threatens to reform them here gives Pandhal's show an extra edge.

“The significance of decapitation in culture is the key to the exhibition,” he explains. “As a child I was always estranged from that sort of Sikh imagery, even though it was part of my heritage, then at some point I came across the philosopher George Bataille, who took things even further, and there was this thing about trying to re-enact the soul of the guillotine. There's this idea of anger as well, of losing your head in the heat of the moment.”

Now living in Glasgow following graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 2013, Pandhal was selected to appear in Bloomberg New Contemporaries that year, and produced a public art commission for the 2014 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art on the site of the city's former Camp Coffee factory. More recently Pandhal has been selected for the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh's Satellites programme for emerging artists, while a solo show as part of the Asian Triennial in Manchester has already caused a stir.

“There was a lot of concern about my depiction of decapitation,” Pandhal says, “which I can kind of understand, but this sort of imagery with displaced heads has been around for centuries, but what I like to think I'm doing is making something without a historical context.”

Also featuring in A Neck or Nothing Man! will be a hood knitted by his mum for a statue of St Columba that sits in An Tobar's cafe, as well as new video work and collage-based pieces. All of which embraces the immediate surroundings it sits in while recognising where it's come from.

“In terms of coming to Mull,” says Pandhal, “there's that escapist idea of getting away from things that drives people, and that becomes another metaphor for losing one's head.”
 
The List, March 2015
 
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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Hedda Gabler

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

There's an over-riding sense of languor at the start of Amanda Gaughan's revival of Henrik Ibsen's nineteenth century Freudian tragedy, seen here in a version by Richard Eyre. As the maid Berthe removes dust-sheets from the furniture of newly-weds George and Hedda Tesman's new house, off-white curtains waft in the breeze to far off piano patterns. Nicola Daley's similarly shimmering Hedda seems to sleepwalk her way onto the chaise longue where she lays hot and clearly bothered before unveiling a portrait of her stern-looking father that perches in the corner watching everything that follows.

All this is shot to pieces once Hedda has put on her well-practiced rictus grin and, in the face of a hopelessly devoted husband, his well-meaning fuss-budget aunt Julia and his highly strung ex Thea, she looks every inch the thoroughly modern woman who has it all. When Benny Young's horny Judge Brack and Jack Tarleton's tormented Loevborg come calling, Hedda seems to be playing the older men off each other to ease the boredom of her lot and convince herself she's in charge of her own destiny as much as her illicit suitors.

Such is Ibsen's mix of high manners and extreme taboo-busting that it's hard to avoid melodrama. Yet as Hedda's mask slips from vivaciousness to hormonally driven self-destructive grand gestures, her pistol-packing, book burning neuroses look closer to 1990s in-yer-face theatre than anything. If at times a sense of mass uptightness borders on a shrillness that threatens to undermine this tale of ordinary madness, when the lights go out as Hedda takes her final shot, the lack of a body denies her the immortality she craves.
 
The Herald, March 26th 2015

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Producers

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

If the brief hiatus that occurred when the curtain fell at the end of the first scene of this touring production of Mel Brooks' musical satire was really down to a technical hitch, it couldn't have been more appropriate. Because when Broadway has-been Max Bialystock explains to naïve accountant wannabe Leo Bloom later on that one of his three golden rules of producing is that you never ever bring down the curtain after the first scene, it heightens the show's self-referential meta-ness to the nth degree, winning deserved laughter.

As played by Cory English and Jason Manford in Matthew White's production for real life producers Adam Spiegel in association with Tulchin Bartner and Just For Laughs Theatricals, Max and Leo's plan to make a couple of million dollars by putting on the worst play on the planet backfires with spectacular effect. When the pair stumble across Phill Jupitus' manic Nazi Franz Liebkind's Springtime For Hitler, they think they've struck gold. This proves to be just the first piece of taboo-busting, however, in a magnificent parade of nymphomaniac old ladies, mincing theatre directors and leather-clad Nazi hotsie-totsies upstaged only by Tiffany Graves' pneumatic Swedish starlet Ulla.

While Brooks was clearly exploring some of the freedoms of the 1960s when his big-screen version of this libidinous cartoon come to rude life first appeared, the reason it works so well is that he was lovingly steeped in the showbusiness world the show so gloriously pastiches. He also recognised that sex, money and theatrical razzmatazz are a deliciously unholy trinity. This remains the case in a fantastically tasteless display of goose-stepping high camp sturm und drang.
 
The Herald, March 25th 2015

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David Hare - The Absence of War

When David Hare was granted access all areas to the Labour Party to research the play that became The Absence of War during what proved to be an unsuccessful campaign to get the Party's then leader Neil Kinnock elected Prime Minister in 1992, politics looked very different. Twenty-two years after Hare's fiction infuriated some Labour grandees, Jeremy Herrin's revival for the Headlong company in co-production with the Rose Theatre Kingston and Sheffield Theatres couldn't be timed better.

With a Westminster General Election looming as Herrin's production tours to Glasgow in a post independence referendum climate in which the Scottish Labour Party are predicted by many to be all but wiped out, Hare's play looks even more pertinent.

“Yet again,” says Hare, “the Labour Party has got itself into a situation where it daren't speak, and once again they seem to have in Ed Milliband a leader who can't seem to connect with the majority of people. They've had to buy into the Tory agenda, and they've had to say that has an economic agenda, but they've also had to try and deal with the things that stem from old Labour Party ideals, like the NHS, so it is different as well.”

The Absence of War was the last in Hare's trilogy of state of the nation plays which looked at the British establishment's most hallowed institutions. Where 1990's Racing Demon looked at the Church of England and the following year's Murmuring Judges was a withering assault on the British justice system, The Absence of War charts the rise of charismatic Labour Party leader George Jones, a man smothered so much by spin doctors that any ideals he has become lost in a triumphalist quest for victory.

The fact that Hare was allowed access to the Labour Party machinery at all is something PR gurus would never allow today.

“It was because Kinnock was a theatre-goer,” explains Hare. “He talked everyone around him into letting it happen, which subsequently had everyone in a flap, saying why are you doing this, as if I was going to betray confidences, which I never did. I was pretty insulted by that, but it was a sign of the paranoia that existed within the Labour Party leadership. You have to remember as well how beleaguered they felt in a climate where no-one trusted anybody else, whereas Kinnock wanted to trust someone.”

Even when the play went on, according to Hare, Kinnock never turned on him, and it's clear that Hare retains a soft spot for the theatre-going PM who never was.

“When he saw it he was very disturbed, but he never once thought I'd betrayed him,” says Hare. “There was a tremendous dignity about Kinnock. If he lost anything, you would see Edward Heath go into a massive sulk, and Margaret Thatcher go into an even bigger sulk with a defensiveness that defined the Tory Party for twenty years, but Kinnock was really the only one who took defeat on the chin and walked away.”

Hare is arguably the most high-profile of a generation of English dramatists whose leftist ideas were forged in the revolutionary fire of 1968. Since Thatcherism gave way to New Labour and everything that followed, Hare and contemporaries such as Howard Brenton, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths have dealt with the aftermath in different ways. Hare has even become a knight of the realm. While philosophical about how things turned out, he remains critical of an establishment he is arguably a part of.

“I came out with an analysis that turned out to be wrong,” he says of the revolutionary spirit that fired his generation. “At the end of the 60s we thought the country would either turn left or else collapse completely. Then when what happened in '79, when Thatcher was elected, which no-one foresaw, but which was the start of everything that came afterwards, with the weaker getting weaker and the stronger getting stronger, you had to think again.”

Other writers of Hare's generation have similarly dramatised the inner workings of an increasingly moribund political party. In Bill Brand, Griffiths charted an idealist young Labour MP coming to terms with real-politik in an eleven episode prime time TV series that ran in 1976. In 1983, Howard Barker's A Passion in Six Days went behind the scenes to take a critical look at an infinitely less stage-managed Labour Party conference than today's affairs. Michael Boyd's production at Sheffield Crucible caused controversy when then leader of Sheffield City Council David Blunkett walked out of the show in objection to a nude scene.

“How a blind man can object to a nude scene I don't know,” says Hare, “but it was an indication of some of the stuffiness that existed in the Labour Party at the time. “

More than two decades since his own play, might Hare be tempted to revisit what is now an infinitely glossier political landscape?

“No,” he says with certainty. “I feel that this play for me said everything I wanted to say about democratic society, but I do see parallels with what's happened since. Kendrick, the Tory Prime Minister in the play, his speeches are almost word for word what David Cameron says today. He's a PR man with a glib way with language, and is known for wheeling out his wife whenever he looks like he's going to be defeated, and that's what Cameron does.

“The big difference between when the play first appeared and what's happened twenty years later is the contempt for politicians that exists now. That came out of the expenses scandal, and when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are caught on camera saying the things they said that just exacerbates feeling towards politicians. When the play came out politicians were still felt to represent society at large, and you certainly can't say that of Rifkind and Straw.

“I think one of the things the play is about now is history,” says Hare. “It begins and ends at the Cenotaph, and the industries and the profound need that the Labour Party was founded on no longer exist, so if the industries don't exist, do the sentiments behind it? If the Labour Party is made up of people who've been to university and sip Cappuccinos, how can they share the same values which the party was founded on? Where is the common experience?”

In Scotland, Hare observes from a distance that “the speed with which the Scottish Labour Party is falling apart is phenomenal, and a single politician like Jim Murphy isn't enough to change that. One person isn't enough to retain the values of social justice. Society is changing, and you have to lead those changes. The Labour Party isn't leading, it's trying to catch up with them, whereas what the SNP seem to be doing is making the transition by really leading the way.

“Back in 1992 Kinnock thought the election was there for the winning, and he lost because in the end the people didn't believe in him enough to think he could be Prime Minister. Finally the electorate looked him in the eye and didn't believe he could run the country. To be rejected by thirty million people in that way, that's a bit of a blow to your self-esteem.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

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James Harkness - The Absence of War

When James Harkness utters his opening lines in the Headlong company's revival of David Hare's play, The Absence of War which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, he will mean every single word he says. This is how it should be for any actor, of course, but for Gorbals-born Harkness, the words 'I love this moment', as spoken by the minder for would-be Labour Prime Minister George Jones, will have extra resonance.

It was on the Citizens Theatre stage where Harkness first stepped onto as a teenage member of the community-based Citizens Young Company between 2007 and 2009. It was from this that Harkness appeared in the company's contributions to the National Theatre Connections season of plays performed by young people as part of the initiative's Theatre of Debate season.

It was here that Harkness was spotted by Anthony Banks, the NT's associate director of learning, who mentored Harkness while preparing for the drama school auditions he'd now decided to take on. From this connection, Harkness was sponsored by an anonymous donor, who supported the young Glaswegian throughout the duration of his studies in London. This alone is testament to how participation at a grassroots level can change levels. The fact that Harkness is returning home in a significant revival of one of the most important plays from the last decade of the twentieth century by a writer such as David Hare takes things to another level.

“It's hard to put into words,” says Harkness, walking down a Bristol street close to the theatre where The Absence of War has stopped off prior to its Scottish dates. “I grew up in that building, so to come back to it like this, and to have come full circle, and for my friends and family to be able to see me, it's made my year. Honestly, I could die of happiness. I can't wait to get up there.”

Appearing in the play itself is something Harkness admits has been “a challenge. It's hard to get your head round the language sometimes, but David's such a brilliant writer, and Jeremy Herrin who's directing it is such a great director that they make it easier for you to get a grip of.”

It could have all been so different for Harkness, who, prior to becoming an actor, drifted through a series of jobs, either cheffing or else working with his Uncle Arthur in a garage. Outside of another community theatre group and a Scottish Youth Theatre course, this experience too gave Harkness a focus.

“He taught me so much,” he says of his uncle. “He taught me you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I could do everything except electrics.”

Harkness laughs long and hard when he says this, as he does with most things. There's an unbridled energy and boyish enthusiasm in every word he says which has clearly found a natural outlet onstage. Again, things could have worked out differently if he'd continued to apply that energy elsewhere.

The change for Harkness came when he woke up in a hospital bed after what he describes as “a horrible fight,” which took place in an elevator and involved an axe. “I just thought about things and knew I had to stop messing about. I had a real problem with authority and giving respect to people who didn't deserve respect.

“I grew up in a very colourful area,” he goes on. “I love the Gorbals, but I never really got to grips with anything, but once I got involved with the Citizens it felt like home. Ever since I did the SYT course there, I was in and out of that building since I was a wee boy. The Gorbals is a brilliant area, but it needs a lot more things like that, where you can get to know people and find some kind of common ground.”

Harkins is full of praise for Neil Packham, Guy Hollands and others at the Citz, as well as those who run other community groups.

“They showed me where I could go and gave me focus,” he says, then pauses.

“There were hunners' of women there as well who were all beautiful,” he laughs.

Harkins took an HNC in drama at Reid Kerr College in Paisley before choosing to train as an actor at LAMDA in London rather than Glasgow, where he thought there might be too many distractions. As it was, Harkins “grew up again in that building. Coming from the Gorbals I'm not used to dancing and singing, and first year was tough. I had to get used to people, but LAMDA were brilliant, and let me do things in my own time.”

Now aged twenty-six, since leaving LAMDA, Harkness has already appeared with the National Theatre and on the West End, as well as several films and a couple of episodes of Silent Witness. He will soon be seen as Angus in a new film of Macbeth featuring Michael Fassbender in the title role. The first scene Harkness filmed was with Paddy Considine who plays Banquo.

“Angus is brilliant,” says Harkness of the young nobleman fighting Macbeth. “He's someone who's worked hard to be where he wants to be, and people can say what they like about where he comes from, but they can't think he's a toerag.”

If Harkness hadn't become an actor, he isn't sure where he would have ended up.

“I was on a downward spiral before I got into acting, so who knows?” he admits. “But where I am now, I appreciate every moment. I've never been happier in any other job.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

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Monday, 23 March 2015

The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars        

When the Edinburgh New Town dwelling Jekyll clan pose for a family portrait at the start of Morna Pearson's loose-knit large-scale reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel for Lung Ha's Theatre Company, they look like pillars of respectable society. Scratch the surface, however, and beyond Dr Jeremy Jekyll's scientific dissections of the human brain, his wife Jane sees her life through an ever refreshed wine glass, while son William wastes his days in lieu of his inheritance.

It is book-reading daughter Miriam who is most frustrated by her lot, however. Physically restrained by a too tight corset that becomes a symbol of a society that would rather keep women in their place, her fierce intelligence and ambitions for university combined with a blossoming womanhood sees her led astray by a black clad alter ego who unleashes her libertine spirit.

Pearson has constructed a fascinating feminist reimagining of Stevenson's story which resets it in Victorian Edinburgh, the original city where politesse becomes a facade for a far darker Old Town underbelly. This leaves plenty of scope for light and shade in Caitlin Skinner's production, which navigates Lung Ha's regular ensemble of some seventeen performers through the big city bustle.

Much of the atmosphere is helped along on designer Becky Minto's tableau of arches and Edinburgh landmarks by Greg Sinclair's live piano and voice-led score, performed by members of the show's co-producers, Drake Music Scotland. This lends things a Hammer horror eerieness which Skinner and choreographer Christine Devanay take full advantage of, as Emma McCaffrey's Miriam is burled through the city by Nicola Tuxworth's veiled and silent Hyde before Miriam is liberated forever.

The Herald, March 23rd 2015
 
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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Paul Vickers and The Leg – The Greengrocer (Pumpkintone/Alter Ego)

Four stars

Don't be fooled by the troubadourish mediaevalisms of the jaunty guitar flourish that opens the third and much belated opus by the wildest junkyard auteurs to ever embark on a galloping collision course of surrealist lyrical fantasms and stumblebum musical fury. There may be church bells and rivers flowing inbetween the ten manic vignettes contained therein, but it's open all hours in this food-stuff-based quasi concept album co-released through King Creosote's new micro-label, and which can't help but inspire words like 'opus' and 'therein' as they tap into Vickers' wilfully archaic fairytale-kingdom sooth-saying.

Within seconds, Vickers is phlegmatically regaling us with the poignant tale of 'My Trifle' with the guttural urgency of Kevin Coyne accompanied by the three-pronged assault of The Leg's Dan Mutch on guitar, Pete Harvey on cello and Alun Thomas on drums. Nothing more is to be taken as lightly, from the deranged East European gallop of 'Tulips of Delft' to the Jungle Book show-tune march of 'Bendy Bridge (Look Out Wendy)' and beyond.

Despite all this, the musical palette is more nuanced than on 'The Greengrocer's predecessors, 2008's 'Tropical Favourites' and 'Itchy Grumble' from 2010. Like them, this new epic is a sonic map of Vickers and co's collective psyche in all its warped glory, albeit with more tunefully produced levity. If 'Bound to the Sour' is a ripped and stripped B-movie western theme, the fiddle-led stomp of 'Horns and Anvils' threatens to break out into a full-on punk-folk hoe-down complete with keening chorus. The early hookline of 'Chaos Magic', meanwhile, oddly recalls Duran Duran's 'Planet Earth' before erupting with urgent abandon.

The title song's opening piano and cello refrain conjuring up eerie reminders to softcore Hammer horror reveries before launching into an off-kilter supper-time romp complete with clarinets, jungle pounding and the odd Roger Whittaker style whistle. There are hints of a Latin shuffle hidden in the thick of '7 Floors of Pleasure', while the extended spoken-word narrative of 'Polynesian Snuff' is a menacing ghost story avalanche designed to scare small boys and girls after dark.

The finale comes in the shape of the spoon-rattling re-appropriation of the Benny Hill theme that is 'Straggler on the Run'. After such a shelf-flying storm, everything is locked up for the night and the green-grocer whistles his way home, knowing only too well what happens when curious urchins shop local for the crunchiest and most intoxicating of ingredients in town.
 
The List, March 2015

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The History Boys

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

It's an interesting time for the enterprising Sell A Door company to be reviving Alan Bennett's boy's school smash hit a decade after it first appeared before going on to global acclaim on stage and screen. In a post Yewtree environment when barely a day passes without reports of establishment-based indiscretions with minors, having a maverick teacher who touches up his teenage pupils on the back of his motorbike at a play's centre probably means something different today to how it did back then.

Not that Bennett's 1980s-set play, in which Richard Hope's literature loving English master Hector prepares his very own crème de la crème for Oxbridge entrance exams, aims to shock. It is so pithily written, in fact, that Hector's downfall, when it comes, is treated with almost apologetic understatement.

Kate Saxon's production heightens things from the off, with Hector's motorbike hanging at the centre of the stage above his locked classroom full of precocious aesthetes like some carefully perched museum piece. It is Mark Field's proto Gove-like Irwin who points to the future in what becomes an impressionistic hymn to an age when education was about more than curriculums and quotas and cheesy pop came packed with quotably hormonal lyrics.

What Bennett illustrates most of all is the long-term consequences of every action, be it war, an exam result or a motorbike ride past the local charity shop. As for Hector's boys, while they go on to succeed in conventional terms, as Irwin says of their essays, they become dull, dull, dull. Like him, they had all their poetry educated out of them beyond the moment that shaped them.
 
The Herald, March 20th 2015

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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Christine Borland and Brody Condon – Circles of Focus

CCA, Glasgow, April 4th-May 17th

Donating body parts after death has long been a staple of the scientific world. Yet, despite occasional conceptual appropriations of blood and guts, art hasn't attracted a similarly civic-minded set of card-carrying citizens. Christine Borland and Brody Condon's 'Circles of Focus' project may go some way to change that, as the pair show off the fruits of their long-term researches in the shape of pit-fired ceramic sculptures, performance documentation and legal paperwork which will also function as a proposal to potential body donors who the artists have worked with over the past two years.

“The work with clay began after spending time with a local experimental archaeologist in Orkney focused on the reconstruction of Neolithic pots, and later with similar jar coffin experts in Korea,” explains Condon, whose previous collaboration with Borland, 'Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen', was seen at the 2013 Edinburgh Art Festival. “We were intrigued that, over many thousands of years, similar clay shapes and forms evolved across the globe. The contemporary recreation process of these vessels, based on excavated fragments, combined with current digital construction methods, has determined the development of our sculptures.”

This weekend ahead of the CCA opening, Borland and Condon will host an open firing at Cove Park, while during the exhibition itself, informal 'rehearsals' will document the abstract traces transferred from the sculptures to the skin of carefully positioned surrogate living bodies. This will see Borland and Condon make an aesthetic proposal for the physical remains of the donors.

“We immediately noticed, and were intrigued by, the unexpected indentations on the surface of the donor bodies,” says Borland, “these geometric shapes were in sharp contrast to the most organic of materials, the human body. The shapes had been created by the hypostatic process that occurs when blood stops flowing and moves to the lowest gravitational point, leaving an indelible impression of whatever surface the body was resting on at the time.”
 
The List, March 2015

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Possibilities of the Object: Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until May 25th
Four stars

Revolutionary spirit in abundance pervades throughout this compendium of eighteen contemporary Brazilian artists, many of whom have been rarely seen outside their volatile homeland since the 1950s which some of the earliest works on show date from. It's all too telling in the downstairs gallery that each of the ten black cubes scattered around the centre of the room that make up Antonio Dias' 'Cabecas' ('Heads') (1968) have a slot in the top. While they look as if they're awaiting a kiddy-sized bus party, they also have the air of stolen ballot boxes put into a more fun environment that redefines politics as playtime.

Elsewhere the bits and pieces of the show are denuded completely, with Jac Leirner's 'Vago 51' ('Vacant 51') (2008) a plastic bag not only flattened on the wall behind glass, but its innards gutted, rendering it useless other than the remaining handle which effectively holds the bag's frame and nothing else.Fernanda Gomes' untitled vertically standing shelf (2013) is even more functionless, sliced so close that storing anything would be impossible.

Then there is Carlos Zillo's tellingly named 'Para um jovem de brilhante futuro' ('For A Young Man With Brilliant Prospects') (1974), which puts an open briefcase filled with rows of nails pointing upwards inside a glass case with the jar of nails that make up 'Fragmentos de parsagen' ('Landscape Fragments') (1974) beside it. Ernesto Neto's 'Partula Passo' (1988) loads a pair of nylon stockings with lead balls, transforming hosiery into an undercover but no less deadly weapon. Even more disguised is Artur Barrio's 'Nocturnes (Transportative) no. 4' (2001), in which a fabric hooded bread box hangs from the ceiling, its status carefully documented on its covering. In the everyday dictatorship it sprang from, it is the contradictions inherent in the system personified to make perfect sense.
 
The List, March 2015

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The King's Speech

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Four stars

When a rather serious looking man comes out from behind a solitary blue curtain into an old-school wood-panelled BBC sound studio wearing just a vest, socks and undershorts, only his stately gait suggests he's about to become King of England during one of the most volatile periods of twentieth century history. Exposed in this way at the start of Roxana Silbert's revival of David Seidler's play, it really is a case of emperor's new clothes as a bustle of servants burl about the man known to his intimates as Bertie, dressing and feeding him while he looks on with bemused surrender.

When Bertie opens his mouth he's left even more vulnerable by a terminal stammer that renders his already stilted social graces even more disempowered. By flatly refusing to doff his cap to such stuffiness, vulgarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue is the only person who can help the future King George VI find his voice and give him the authority to lead his country into war and beyond the constitutional crisis of his brother's abdication.

There is a wonderfully heightened quality to Silbert's production that points to the fragile pretences of both men as failed performers who find a mutual strength beyond what both believe they're capable of. Raymond Coulthard's initially uptight Bertie and Jason Donovan's Logue spark off each other furiously, with Donovan projecting witty and withering disdain towards both church and state. It is the play's final scene as King George talks to the nation that proves the most moving, however. As he grows in confidence while Logue's model aeroplanes are lowered, it is as if they are both taking flight as equals.
 
The Herald, March 19th 2015

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Michael Green Obituary

Michael Green - Actor, producer, curator, theatre-maker

Born January 21 1957; died February 10 2015


Michael Green, who has died in a car crash aged fifty-eight, was a theatrical visionary, whose fearless radicalism pretty much reinvented the theatre scene in Calgary, Canada with One Yellow Rabbit, the company he co-founded in 1982, and was co-artistic director of. Working with like-minded free spirits, Green and One Yellow Rabbit introduced a hitherto rarely seen wildness to a previously staid Calgary scene, whether playing a Nazi colonel in Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp or an alien abductee in Alien Bait.

Both of these shows, as well as other One Yellow Rabbit creations such as Doing Leonard Cohen and Somalia Yellow, toured to Scotland, playing either the Tron Theatre in Glasgow or the Traverse in Edinburgh, where the company's audacious mix of absurdist counter-cultural vaudeville found fans and friends among each theatre's artistic leadership.

Green blazed a similarly unfettered trail a few years into One Yellow Rabbit's precocious life when he set up the High Performance Rodeo, an avant-garde performance festival which brought the likes of Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Brian Eno to Calgary, and which is now a major feature of Calgary's cultural calendar. When Calgary was named as Canada's cultural capital in 2012, Green applied similarly leftfield ambitions to his role as curator and creative producer.

More recently, at the heart of his work was Making Treaty 7, a major project which began at Calgary 2012, and which looked at the legacy of events in 1877 at Blackfoot Crossing in what is now Alberta, when several First Nation tribes ceded their rights to their traditional territories in exchange for hunting rights, a reserve to live on and payment by the Crown. It was a project close to Green's heart, and while in the midst of its creation he was thrilled to be bestowed with the Blackfoot name of Pona Ko’Taksi, or Elk Shadow, by tribal elders.

Green was born in Scarborough, Ontario, before moving with his family to Longueuil, Quebec, and in 1973 to Calgary. Green's father came from a carnival family, and, imbued with an oddball streak since early childhood, by the time he was six Green was already telling people he was going to be a comedian.

Green embraced recordings of the 1950s broadcasts of The Goon Show, and heard Frank Zappa's Hot Rats album at an impressionable age. The effect of both was profound, and Green was obsessed with Zappa and Goon Spike Milligan thereafter. It was perhaps down to his musical hero's application of of lateral-minded artistry, determined industry and a serious sense of the ridiculous that fuelled something similar in Green's own aesthetic.

Green applied this to drama from an early age, and at high school appeared in a production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade initiated by his drama teacher, Gary Stromsmoe. Out of this experience, Ikarus Theatre was born. Green had two stints at the University of Calgary, either side of a year in Toronto. On his return to Calgary, Green threw himself into Ikarus, a company he described as 'theatre buskers', who would drive around town in a truck and perform experimental works in ad hoc spaces.

With Green's sense of self-determination becoming increasingly honed as performer, producer and general huckster, Ikarus was as avant-garde as you could get in pieces such as Night Club. Meat Song, meanwhile, saw Green reveal himself to the audience by cutting himself out of a garbage bag suspended from the ceiling, only for him to emerge completely naked. Nudity was to become something of a trademark for Green.

Blake Brooker was in the audience watching Meat Song after a leather-trousered Green had invited him from astride his bicycle, and in 1982 the pair founded One Yellow Rabbit. With Denise Clarke and Andy Curtis joining the company shortly afterwards, as documented in the tellingly named Wild Theatre, writer Martin Morrow's history of the company, the Calgary theatre scene was never the same again.

Beyond his no holds barred performances, Green was the arch networker of One Yellow Rabbit, and was key to enabling the company's international profile beyond its DIY roots. The company's first appearance in Scotland came in 1991, when they brought The Erotic Irony of Old Glory to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where the theatre's then artistic director Ian Brown and associate director John Paul McGroarty became great advocates of the company.

Green and One Yellow Rabbit returned to the Traverse in 1992 with Serpent Kills, and by 1993 had forged links with the Tron in Glasgow, whose artistic director was then Michael Boyd. One Yellow Rabbit toured to both theatres with The Ugly Man in 1993, Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp in 1994 and Alien Bait in 1995. In 1998 the company brought Death in New Orleans to the Traverse .

A relationship with the Tron continued following Boyd's departure through producer Neil Murray, who had been at the Tron since 1996 prior to becoming the theatre's executive producer in 2002. Murray first met Green in 1999, following an invitation to see One Yellow Rabbit's show, Doing Leonard Cohen, in Philadelphia, with a view to it visiting the Tron.

“It was a mad weekend in Philly,” Murray, now Executive Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, recalls. “Apart from the show, which was great, my overriding memory was of Michael doing his show, The Whaler, every night in the Festival Club. That consisted of him, stark naked, reciting this long poem, and at the end of every verse, roared on by the crowd, pouring a bucket of water over his head. It was hysterical and electrifying.”

Murray brought Doing Leonard Cohen to the Tron in 2000, and another show, Somalia Yellow, in 2002. Inbetween, Thunderstruck visited the Traverse in 2000.

“The company became great friends,” says Murray, “and we planned other things which for various reasons didn't happen and we drifted. Then Michael pursued me a few years ago to discuss a project which became Making Treaty 7. We applied for some funding to make it a Canadian/European project but didn't get the money, although John Paul McGroarty has continued to work on it.

“Michael came to Scotland and then we spent a great weekend in Vancouver at PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, where NTS were performing The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which thankfully he loved. That was two years ago. I'm sure we would have done more things together.

“He could be impossible,” Murray says of Green, “but he was fantastic. A call from him was met with a combination of dread and excitement. A straight 'No' was never accepted as an answer. He was irrepressible.”

Only once, it seems, did Green become starstruck. In Wild Theatre, Morrow compares the effect of One Yellow Rabbit's iconoclastic style to that of the Velvet Underground, and it was while on a visit to New York's Knitting Factory venue attempting to lure Laurie Anderson to the High Performance Rodeo that he found himself in a near empty backstage area with former Velvets lynchpin and Anderson's partner, Lou Reed. With only an empty fridge for comfort, Reed was not in the best of moods. Rather than make small-talk with one of his musical heroes, Green passed Reed a note, and asked if he could give it to his girlfriend.

After a life-long adventure in theatre, Green's final performance was in One Yellow Rabbit's most recent show, What The Thunder Said. Inspired by TS Eliot's The Wasteland, it was seen at the twenty-ninth High Performance Rodeo, which took place in Calgary in January this year. The show took on an extra poignancy following the unexpected death of One Yellow Rabbit company member Richard (Rico) McDowell. Green's passing is a double body blow for the company.

At the time of his death, Green was travelling to Piapot, a reserve outside Regina, Saskatchewan, to talk about the experiences of Making Treaty 7 with a view to doing something similar in relation to Treaty 4. Travelling with him were Blackfoot elder, film-maker and Making Treaty 7 collaborator Narcisse Blood and two other aboriginal artists, Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais, who all perished.

In tribute to Green, the Langevin Bridge, Calgary Tower and Riverwalk in Calgary were lit with yellow during the days following his death. A packed public celebration of Green's life took place at One Yellow Rabbit's Big Secret Theatre space, while in a private ceremony, Green's seventeen year old daughter Maya was bestowed with her father's Blackfoot name, Elk Shadow.

Green is survived by Maya, her mother, Kim Green, his partner Morag Northey, his parents, Tom and Margaret, his sister Deb and brother Eamonn.

The Herald, March 12th 2015

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Stef Smith - And The Beat Goes On

When Stef Smith met Johnny McKnight, the playwright who first made her name scripting international hit, Roadkill, and the co-founder of the Random Accomplice company had quite a few things in common. Most of these, they discovered, were musical, and while their ongoing debate regarding the musical merits of Madonna looks set to run and run, their mutual fondness of Cher has already borne fruit. This comes in the shape of And the Beat Goes On, Smith's new play for Random Accomplice which is about to open at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in a co-production with Perth's Horsecross organisation.

“Mine and Johnny's entire friendship was founded on a mutual love of Cher,” Smith confesses. “I remember saying to somebody at the time that I don't think I'd ever met another Cher fan before. My love of her comes from when I was a child and my mum used to play all her albums, and I guess something stuck. There's something there as well about Cher being a strong independent woman and a survivor. Johnny loves a diva as well, and he said then that one day we'd make a show about her, and now we've finally come through.”

Rather than attempt some cheesy biopic of the singer, actress and all round showbiz icon formerly known as Cherilyn Sarkisian, Smith has opted to tackle something darker that even goes beyond Cher's ill-starred marriage to the late Sonny Bono. It was with Bono as Sonny and Cher that the star of Mermaids scored one of her biggest hits of the 1960s with I Got You Babe, the couple's 1965 debut single that in part defined its era, even as it was parodied by the Rolling Stones on TV pop show, Ready, Steady Go! and later covered by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.

“It's a song that's become bigger than life itself,” says Smith, not overstating things in any way. “It's a song about love, but which has transcended its origins to have earned its place as an important part of pop culture.”

This is no doubt a view shared with Peter and Lily, the couple at the heart of And the Beat Goes On who have been rehearsing their Sonny and Cher tribute act in their garage for eight years.

“Nobody's ever seen Peter and Lily's act,” says Smith. “The play is set in the 1980s, so it's before reality TV and X Factor, but for me the play is about escapism, and of dreams of getting away from your normal life through celebrity. It's also about the effect that grief can have. For Peter and Lily, who on the face of things look like they have a perfect family life, it's a chance to be Sonny and Cher for an hour each day. Through that they're trying to deal with an impossible situation, but when a new neighbour moves in, slowly the house of cards they've built starts to fall down around them as the outside world enters into their own private domain.”

Like Peter and Lily, things weren't quite what they seemed relationship-wise with their inspiration. This was most notable in the double act's 1970s TV variety show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.

“Sonny and Cher lived in this big house in separate wings,” says Smith, “and only really met up on the TV shows, which would start with a song, and would then have them making jokes at each other's expense, then there'd be another song, and it would go on like this, with guest stars like David Bowie and Elton John appearing on it.”

The show ran from 1971 to 1974 when the couple split up, after which each would appear in their own solo TV shows. The couple went on to reunite professionally at least between 1976 and 1977 for The Sonny and Cher Show. It was here that the fallout of the once golden couple's divorce became palpable, with some of their comic barbs betraying a noticeable edge. It was all a far cry from I Got You Babe.

“Cher came from extreme poverty,” says Smith, “and fell in love with Sonny Bono, who promised to make her a star. She never had the coolness of Madonna. She was quite cheesy, and that makes her a bit more real, although it doesn't make me want to like Sonny Bono anymore when he went off and became a Republican politician.”

Despite some of the obvious scope for camp with such a subject, And the Beat Goes On, named after the chorus of Sonny and Cher's Bono-penned 1967 hit, which became the opening theme for Sonny and Cher's Comedy Hour, isn't a comedy.

“I've resisted using that word,” Smith says. There's definitely lightness there, but it gets darker. Like the Sonny and Cher TV show, the humour becomes really diluted. I suppose here we're looking at this idea of celebrity lives, and how we can become fascinated with what we think we know about these other lives in order to help avoid our own. People can think they own a part of somebody, and because of that artists like Sonny and Cher can end up as no longer seeming like they're real. There's something there as well about how if the life is very bright, the darkness is even darker.”

Since the Olivier Award winning Roadkill, Aberfoyle born Smith's writing has gone from strength to strength through plays like Falling/Flying for the Tron The Silence of Bees for the Arches. Smith has just returned from Korea, where a new play under commission to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh was given a rehearsed reading. Smith also has plays on the go for the Royal Court in London and the National Theatre's Connections programme.

“I've changed a lot as a writer,” she says. “I've grown up a lot. I read as many plays as I can, and the few times I've re-read Roadkill I can see the changes I'd make now. One thing that gets me excited is looking at how to make changes in structure and form, anything to help get me out of my comfort zone as much as possible.”

While Smith's fandom for Cher holds no bounds, only occasionally can she be persuaded to don a long dark wig and take the stage herself.

“After a few glasses of wine I can be persuaded to do If I Could Turn Back Time as my karaoke song,” she says. “Like I say, I like to get myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible.”

And The Beat Goes On, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 24-28; Perth Concert Hall, April 2-4

 
The Herald, March 17th 2015

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Thank God For John Muir

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
Three stars

On a patch of leaf-sodden earth, a young man sits on a wooden chair, his eyes bound as if blinded by a blast from some bomb-powered war. As it is, the man who will go on to become the world's first eco-warrior has temporarily lost his sight in an accident at a saw-mill in his birth-place in nineteenth century Dunbar. Over the fifty minutes of Andrew Dallmeyer's interior monologue, Muir's spidey-senses are a-tingle as his sensory antennae becomes more sensitive to a natural world of sound rather than vision. As he notices the flow of rivers and the noises around him, the epiphany that engulfs him once he regains his sight prompts him to get back to nature and devote himself to a world beyond the all-encroaching industrial revolution.

Originally seen at Oran Mor in 2011 as part of the Glasgow venue's A Play, A Pie and A Pint season of lunchtime theatre, Dallmeyer's play is revived here in a new production by Paul Brotherston for a season of Muir-devoted projects taking place largely on the great environmentalist's own doorstep. With actor Eddy Hull stepping into Muir's shoes, Dallmeyer's script is an impassioned and impressionistic look at how senses can work overtime when one of them is lacking.

As he imagines everything around him, the descriptions culled from Muir's head are akin to a latter day radio broadcast by Chris Watson, that greatest of contemporary sonic explorers and sound recordist of the natural world. Like Watson, Muir was a pioneer who understood the value of public spaces, and why they should be left unravaged by predatory forces who would destroy them.
 
The Herald, March 16th 2015

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Beating McEnroe

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

What happens when your heroes lose, proving themselves to be not as invincible as you once thought they were? At an impressionable age the effects can be traumatic enough to last a life-time, as was clearly the case when a six year old Jamie Wood watched a brattish John McEnroe beat Swedish demi-god Bjorn Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon men's singles final, robbing Bjorg of a sixth victory. As Wood's hour-long solo show isn't ashamed to confess, he's been dealing with the emotional fall-out of such a tragedy ever since.

It begins with Wood sitting cross-legged on the floor playing catch with the audience and some tennis balls that match his green attire. Such meditations usher in Wood's very personal psycho-drama, which he gets the audience to act out in order to purge it from his being. Investing his performance with a mix of pathos and self-deprecatory humour, Wood manages to transform his inner turmoil into a comic ballet that takes in sibling rivalry, a quest for freedom and a very hippyish way of letting it all hang out as the origins of Love-All are revealed inbetween throwing eggs around the room.

This is all good, clean touchy-feely fun with a deeper edge that looks to expose a few emotional scars in as entertaining a way as possible. Oh, and audiences should probably be aware that as well as tennis, there is wrestling, and that, should they be the chosen one, their evening might end with them rolling around the floor with with a half-naked man while sporting a curly black wig and head-band. And yes, dear reader, I was that soldier. What a racquet.
 
The Herald, March 16th 2015

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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Roxana Silbert - The King's Speech

When Roxana Silbert decided to direct a new production of writer David Seidler's original stage version of The King's Speech, it was something of a calculated risk. Originally written in 2007 before being picked up by director Tom Hooper at the suggestion of his mother and turned into a hit film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, Seidler's drama about the relationship between King George VI and the Australian speech therapist who cured the monarch's stammer led a short if distinguished life when it premiered on the West End in 2012.

Then, the play's original producers were happy to admit that their show had been staged too soon after the film, which was still prevalent in the minds of many audiences. Three years on, Silbert's new co-production between Birmingham Rep, the theatre she is artistic director of, and Chichester Festival Theatre, would appear to have acquired just enough distance from both as it arrives in Glasgow as part of its national tour next week. While having former Neighbours star Jason Donovan playing speech therapist Lionel Logue in one of his most serious stage roles to date won't harm the show's commercial cache, this wasn't what originally piqued Silbert's interest.

“It's a bromance between these two men from very different backgrounds, but who somehow feel they have this common ground,” she says. “In the King we see a man with real integrity, and who wants to become leader of his country and make a difference.”

Silbert notes a contemporary parallel in this respect.

“What was interesting about the Scottish referendum, and which was something that the English press never really got, is that it wasn't about an economic argument, but something that came from the heart, and we've lost that in English politics.”

Donovan's character too has a set of ambitions he can't quite master.

“Lionel Logue wasn't brought up in stuffy old England,” says Silbert, “and he really wants to be a great actor, but he isn't one, and there's something there that prevents him from being one, but which made him a great speaker, and in these two men coming together like this they both become successful. It's very moving, and when Jason was looking for a serious theatre project, this was the one he really wanted to do, and as Lionel Logue it brings together all of the charm, warmth and wit for the character which the Royal family aren't really renowned for.

“What happens between Logue and King George is something I think that David Seidler recognised as well. He's a stammerer himself, who's a very successful film and speech writer, and I got really interested in talking to him about doing the play again. The first production was acclaimed critically, but it was on in the West End when the film was still running in London, so it was hard for it to have any kind of momentum, even though audiences were very positive about it. Sometimes these things can work with you and sometimes against you.”

Silbert has blazed quite a trail over the last two decades since the early days of her directing career took her to West Yorkshire Playhouse. After two years as an associate director at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Silbert was appointed Literary Director at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where she stayed for three years until 2004. Following this, Silbert became artistic director of Paines Plough, and in 2009 became an associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company before beginning her current tenure in Birmingham in 2012.

It was while at the RSC that Silbert directed Dunsinane, David Greig's fantastical sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth. In association with the National Theatre of Scotland, Dunsinane has gone on to tour the world, and at time of talking Silbert is preparing to visit the production during its Chicago leg.

As with Dunsinane, Silbert's position at Birmingham Rep has seen the theatre able to adopt an increasingly rare position in UK regional theatre, whereby the Rep's programme can straddle a commercial touring circuit beyond a show's initial run. Both The King's Speech and a current tour of Twelve Angry Men starring Tom Conti originated in Birmingham in a way which in part harks back to what is often thought of as a golden age of regional touring theatre in the 1970s.

“We have three spaces,” says Silbert, “the biggest of which is a 900 seater, which is the same size as the Olivier at the National. Last year the James Plays previewed here because it was the only place that could take something on that kind of scale. So our smaller spaces do a lot of work for young people and families, but our main space is epic, and we look for work that can fill that space.

“We also have great workshop facilities, which attracts producers, and I'm genuinely interested in collaboration. Also, Birmingham has a very diverse demography compared to somewhere like Chichester, but if we just put something like The King's Speech on in Birmingham for two and a half weeks and that was that, it would seem like a waste of our resources, whereas this has a life until June.

Given everything which The King's Speech has become by way of the film, how does Silbert, and indeed Seidler, transcend its iconic status?

“The thing to be quite clear about,” Silbert stresses, “is that it isn't an adaptation of the film. Sometimes people can't get the idea of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush playing these two men out of their heads, but at no point are we trying to recreate the film. This is a play made up of thirty-eight scenes in which Jason as Lionel and Raymond Coulthard as King George give their own unique and brilliant interpretations of these two men. The story is the same, but what we're doing is something a lot more theatrical, and with a totally different style.

“I love the film, and there's still a huge appetite for it, but it's much firmer as a play than you might think. It's a play that has magic. When these two men shake hands at the end, I still find myself getting teary.”

The King's Speech, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 16-21; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, May 18-23.
www.atgtickets.com
 
The Herald, March 10th 2015

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King Lear

Royal Conservatoire Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

The knives are out from the off in Mark Saunders' all-female version of Shakespeare's inter-familial political tragedy, performed by students from the MA Classical and Contemporary Text course. With Lear's throne set atop a chess-board flooring, as he courts the favour of each of his three daughters in full view of his extended entourage, he inadvertently sets in motion a series of physical, political and emotional conflicts which will rip apart an already divided kingdom.

Step forward Claire Winkleblack's Edmund, a floppy-haired dandy who takes advantage of both Goneril and Regan, adding an erotic frisson to the ongoing round of corruption and double bluffs that fuel the power-crazed schemes of each. Out in the wilds,meanwhile, is where Lear, Edmund's brother Edgar and their blinded father find out what really matters.

While Kristin Morris' Lear is a wild-haired demagogue surrounded by a tunic-clad court, Francesca Isherwood's Goneril and Tori Burgess' Regan are a pair of fur-clad power-dressing careerists. Rosa French's Cordelia pursues a more free-spirited path, with French also doubling up as a white-coated clown doctor Fool. When Davina Leonard's Kent dons flat cap and dour demeanour as he swears loyalty to the King, the effect of all this falls somewhere between Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey.

Burgess' Regan is a particularly nasty piece of work in this respect as she forms a grisly double act with Isherwood's Goneril. While Morris invests Lear with measured gravitas, French keeps a cool head as Cordelia, before she too is doomed. With the Chandler Studio stripped back to reveal the full expanse of what is usually seen as a more intimate space, this is a fascinating cross-dressing exploitation of Shakespeare's under-explored feminine side.

The Herald, March 10th 2015

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Blood Wedding

Dundee Rep
Four stars

“Whatever you say,” says Ricci McLeod's lovestruck groom Edward to his disapproving mother Agnes on the eve of his big flash wedding to his sweetheart Olivia in David Ireland's soap opera style reboot of Federico Garcia Lorca's classic tragedy, “say nothing.” Edward's advice to Agnes is all too telling in Jenny Sealey's slow-burning production, a collaboration between Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and the Sealey-led Graeae company. Edward's old mum Agnes, after all, is deaf, dependent on her boy to help her communicate with the world and deeply jealous of Olivia, though not necessarily in that order.

The fact that in their tight-knit city neighbourhood, Olivia, and pretty much everyone else, is connected to the gangster who shot dead Agnes' husband and her other son probably has something to do with it too. Oh, and she's disabled. As for Olivia, she has other fish to fry in the shape of her irrepressible ex, Lee.

With surtitles beamed onto Lisa Sangster's broken brick wall of a set, actors audio-describing the action into microphones and a signer joining in the action, neither actors disabilities are in no way ignored in Ireland's script. Instead, as the bride's father flails after politically correct terms or else bellows slowly into Agnes' face, they become elaborately realised and at times self-deprecating devices that become integral to the production's style.

Ireland, Sealey and a cast of nine do all this while remaining remarkable faithful to Lorca's original narrative, only with extra lashings of black humour. As Olivia, Amy Conachan becomes the pivot on which an entire community is ripped asunder with everyday prejudices still intact in this driest of dissections of the body politic.
 
The Herald, March 10th 2015
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Monday, 9 March 2015

Man in the Moon

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

While howling at the moon fuelled by a bottle of cheap cider probably isn't an uncommon pursuit for men of a certain age, few have maybe done it with quite so much venom or articulacy as Sean Doran, the bruised, battered but ultimately unbowed hero of Pearse Elliot's solo play. As performed by Ciaran Nolan in Tony Devlin's production for the West Belfast based Brassneck Theatre Company, Sean's litany of life, death and loss at every level is transformed from what could merely be bleak into something altogether more appealing as it becomes leavened by a gallows humour that falls somewhere between Runyonesque and Commedia dell'arte.

On one level, Sean's bench-bound reverie through which walk, run or lollop a cast of characters christened with street-smart nick-names who have barely survived the Northern Irish Troubles - “the black and white years” as Sean immortalises it – is as specific as it gets to a West Belfast housing estate. On another, much of Sean's sense of disenfranchisement, emasculation and an all too familiar retreat into gambling and drink could mark the territory of any poverty-stricken working-class community shoved to the physical and metaphorical margins.

All of which seems tailor-made for the Tron's Football Colours Allowed season. As Sean, Nolan flips from the depths of social-realist despair to grotesquely comic tales of internet dating, gate-crashing wakes and a Karl Denver sound-tracked lurch into exotic fantasy. Clocking in at just under two hours, there's probably an entire mini-series in Elliott's script, which is punctured throughout with richly colourful unreconstructed patter and forensic observations on privilege in a dark but ultimately life-affirming confessional.
 
The Herald, March 9th 2015
 
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Sunday, 8 March 2015

John Hopkins - An Obituary

John 'Hoppy' Hopkins – photographer, writer, activist

Born August 15 1937; died January 30 2015


John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, who has died aged seventy-seven, was a key figure of the UK's 1960s counter-culture. This was the case whether documenting critical events of the era including the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at a packed Royal Albert Hall, as co-founder of underground bible International Times and its short-lived spiritual home of the UFO Club, or else instigating the London Free School, a community-based adult education initiative which led to the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival.

As a photographer, Hopkins was in the thick of the action, whether playing records at UFO or being busted for cannabis possession. The latter event led to a high-profile trial that amplified the schisms that existed between generations, and prompted a full page ad in the Times newspaper funded by Paul McCartney and featuring messages of support from the likes of George Melly, Jonathan Miller and all four Beatles.

Hopkins' assorted social concerns were gathered in Taking Liberties, an exhibition of his images from the 1960s hosted by the Glasgow-based Street Level gallery. Here rarely seen images of pop icons such as poet Allen Ginsberg captured outside the Royal Albert Hall and a young Marianne Faithful were hung besides equally iconic pictures of CND's Aldermaston march and studies of a derelict London awaiting liberation, but which more recently settled for urban regeneration instead.

An image of the IT editorial board seemed to sum up the era perfectly. Here was a group of radical dreamers, whose numbers included poet and author of Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall, co-founder and spiritual guru of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, Jim Haynes, and Tom McGrath, future director of Glasgow's original arts lab, the Third Eye Centre and inspiration to many playwrights in Scotland, grinning away as they basked in the moment Hopkins had captured. If they were going to change the world, their grins seemed to say, they were sure as hell going to have fun while they did so.

Hopkins was born in Slough, Berkshire, to Victor and Evelyn Hopkins. After attending Felsted school in Essex, he studied physics and mathematics on a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was awarded an MA . More significantly in terms of what came later, it was while at Cambridge that Hopkins discovered sex, drugs and jazz, a holy trinity that would in part define his generation.

Hopkins arrived London in 1960, just as a new sense of cultural and creative possibilities was seeping into public consciousness. Much of these new ideas manifested themselves through music, and Hopkins' images of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, original blues artists Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk are as evocative of their age as Hopkins' images of tattoo parlours and bikers who resembled extras from a Kenneth Anger film. Many of these were gathered in From the Hip: Photographs 1960-66, published in 2008.

In 1965, Hopkins was a key figure behind the International Poetry Incarnation, an event at the Royal Albert Hall inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and which attracted some 7000 like-minded souls to hear readings by Ginsberg and other American Beats alongside the likes of Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, Alexander Trocchi and Tom McGrath. The event was filmed by Peter Whitehead as Wholly Communion.

Shortly afterwards, with Rhaune Laslett and others, Hopkins co-founded the London Free School in Notting Hill, then a run-down multi-cultural neighbourhood. With Laslett as president, this community based initiative aimed to democratise education, but gave rise to the UFO Club, founded by Hopkins with record producer Joe Boyd and with Pink Floyd as its house band. Ideas for a free festival, meanwhile, saw Haslett found the Notting Hill Carnival, while the School's newsletter, The Gate, set a template for IT, co-founded by Hopkins and Barry Miles.

In 1967, following a raid on IT's office, Hopkins set up 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, a fundraising happening at Alexander Palace attended by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and filmed by Whitehead as Tonite Let's All Make Love in London. The same year Hopkins was found guilty of possessing a small amount of cannabis, and, in a climate of hysteria concerning recreational drug-taking that caused the judge to brand him “a menace to society”, Hopkins spent six months in prison.

Following the social upheavals of 1968 when global revolution, more cultural than politically orthodox, seemed a genuine possibility, Hopkins moved out of the headlines and even more underground. While he embarked on a short-lived marriage to Susan Zeiger, aka Frank Zappa associate Suzy Creamcheese, Hoppy turned IT into a workers co-op and founded information service, Bit.

In 1970, with his partner, Sue Hall, Hopkins formed Fantasy Factory, a facility that brought low-tech video editing within reach of community activists and independent directors. UNESCO funded Fantasy Factory’s researches, and Hopkins edited the Journal of the Centre for Advanced TV Studies. He co-authored distance learning video training courses, and latterly exhibited photographs of flowers and other plants, co-authoring papers on plant biochemistry at the University of Westminster, before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007.

It was the heady days of the 1960s, however, that were captured in Taking Liberties, instigated by director of the Glasgow-based gallery, Street Level, Malcolm Dickson, who, while steeped in the key works and events of the era, “didn’t quite grasp the pivotal role of Hoppy in these platforms of free expression. I was aware that Hoppy was a central figure in the video culture of the seventies and eighties in Britain, and whilst researching an article on that subject, it was serendipitous that I was introduced to his book, From the Hip.”

Following many hours of conversation with Hopkins, Taking Liberties premiered at Street Level in the newly opened Trongate 103 arts hub in September 2009. Having only been seen in public once before in 2000, Hopkins' work was now proving to be a rich seam of inspiration, with a second show, Against Tyranny, opening at Ideas Generation in London in the summer leading up to the Street Level show.

Taking Liberties itself provided a springboard for a series of panel discussions named In Search of Space. These brought together counter-cultural luminaries of the period, such as Miles, Jenny Fabian, Jim Haynes, Joe Boyd and Bruce Findlay, founder in 1969 of Bruce’s record shop in Edinburgh. While in Glasgow, Hopkins also took part in two editions of writer and broadcaster John Cavanagh's Soundwave radio show. Inbetween an extensive interview, Hopkins' selections of music ranged from Bessie Smith to Notting Hill contemporary, founder of 1960s jazz-fusion Indian rock band Quintessence and more recently a pioneering DJ, Raja Ram.

A second, smaller version of Taking Liberties was seen at the Burgh Hall in Dunoon in April 2014.

“We made arrangements for Hoppy to visit and participate in a Q&A,” Dickson recalls, “but given the very short run of the exhibition it was practically not possible. Hoppy was frail at that time, and the effects of his illness were taking its toll. At that point, most of the exhibition scanned images held by Hoppy had been lost due to faulty hard drives, but with Hoppy’s cooperation provided us with a limited number that we would take the responsibility of printing. We managed to get several of these signed by the man himself, but his health was deteriorating rapidly.”

Street Level hopes to host Taking Liberties again in its entirety.

“It is critical that this work does not disappear into obscurity again,” says Dickson.

Hopkins is survived by his sister, Marilyn.

The Herald, March 6th 2015

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Nicola McCartney - New Plays from Russia and Ukraine

Five years ago, playwright and director Nicola McCartney was about to travel to
Russia, where over the previous seven years she had established a series of new
playwriting initiatives in a country still best known for its weighty theatrical
legacy rather than contemporary theatre. Before she left, David MacLennan, the
now late founder of A Play, Pie and A Pint, suggested to McCartney that she
should see if there was any scope in looking at writers to take part in
MacLennan's pioneering series of lunchtime plays at Oran Mor in Glasgow.

In association with the National Theatre of Scotland, PPP had previously hosted
seasons of plays from China, the middle east and Latin America, and McCartney
had already worked with a generation of writers who styled themselves as part of
the Novii Drama or New Drama wave of artists who broke the boundaries of
old-school social realism as well as political taboos.

The eventual result of this is a season curated by McCartney of three plays from Russia and Ukraine
which takes place at Oran Mor as part of the NTS' Belong season of work. Take
the Rubbish Out, Sasha, by Ukranian writer Natalia Voruzhbyt, seen in a
translation by Sasha Dugdale and directed by McCartney, will open the season at
Oran Mor in two weeks time. This will be followed by two plays by Russian
writers, The War Hasn't Started Yet by Mikhail Durnenkov, and Yuri Klavdiev's
play, Thoughts Spoken Aloud From Above. With both receiving literal translations
by Alexandra Smith, the first will be adapted and directed by Davey Anderson,
with Klavdiev's play adapted by Peter Arnott.

“I'd worked with all threewriter before,” says McCartney, “The first time I came to Russia in 2003 doing
Class Act Russia with the Traverse, Mikhail and Yuri were emerging playwrights
shadowing me, and since then have become hip, young experimental writers really
interested in social theatre.”

Both already have international track records, with plays having been produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company and
other places, with one work by Klavdiev, The Slow Sword, currently regarded as
the most dangerous Russian play ever written.

“I met Natalia three years ago,” says McCartney. “Her work is very popular in Russia, and when I was there,
whenever she walked into a room other playwrights would burst into
applause.”

The reasons these plays have taken so long to reach the stage
are many, not least related to the ongoing Ukranian-Russian conflict which
kick-started into dangerous life in 2014.

“There have been difficulties,” McCartney says. “Once we decided on the writers we wanted to work with, we
brought them over here about eighteen months ago, mainly to get a feel of how A
Play, Pie and A Pint works in terms of staging and how big a cast they could
have, how big the stage is, all that stuff. There have been times where we've
been finding it quite hard to pay people because of banking restrictions that
have been imposed, and then one of our Russian writers couldn't get a visa, so
that made life quite difficult as well.”

With a broad brief to write about about the state of their country now in a season enabled in part by
funding from the University of Edinburgh, where McCartney leads the Masters
programme in playwriting, each writer took a very different approach.

As McCartney explains, Vorozhbyt’s play looks at gender power in the aftermath of a
Russian colonel's death. 

“It reflects a very particular set of gender politics that exists in Ukraine,” she says, “where a lot of men were employed in
the public sector, and their earning power dropped, so their wives earn a lot
more. Many of the men feel emasculated and become alcoholics, sand the women are
very much under pressure as the sole earners.

“The play is set on the ninth day of Remembrance, which in the Russian Orthodox church means that the
spirit doesn't leave the body until then.”

Out of this comes the dead colonel's determination to prove his manhood and mobilise the dead.

“It's quite comedic,” says McCartney, “and moves from extreme naturalism to magic
realism.”

Durnenkov's play is a more absurdist piece made up of eight
seemingly disconnected scenes involving assorted characters. Out of this,
according to McCartney, “it really gives you a window on what it's like to be a
Russian living in Russia today. What I think he's doing is foregrounding the
absurdity of a situation where everything is propaganda. It's kind of like
Bulgakov, in that its extrapolating things from everyday reality to say
something about a day to day universe.”

Finally, Klavdiev's play takes things to even further extremes, as a man seeks sanctuary in the woods, where he
eats some magic mushrooms. The hallucinations that follow see the man role-play
a multitude of contemporary Russian characters, including a serious depiction of
a lesbian in a way previously unthinkable in Russian drama. 

“It's quite bizarre,” McCartney says of the play, “and reflects what a lot of Russians who
live in the city do, by getting away from having to fit into Russian society.
Usually homosexuality is only ever treated comedically, so this is quite an
explosive play in a Russian context.”

If all this sounds serious, McCartney points to the experience of the Moscow-based Theatre Doc to illustrate
just how big the stakes are for Russian and Ukranian drama.

“They deliberately stood up for free speech,” she says of the basement-based home of
radical Russian theatre built by its writers, “and did a performance of the
transcripts from the Pussy Riot trial. After that they were closed down, but
instead of saying we don't like you, they sent the fire department in to say a
fire door was in the wrong place.” 

After Theatre Doc made structural changes under the fire department's guidance, the City's property department
issued a press release stating the theatre had violated renovation rules
concerning structural changes. 

“There's something about theatre that means so much in Russia and the Ukraine,” McCartney says. “Here we had a rush on
that sort of idea during the referendum, but most of the time theatre's about
getting bums on seats. In Russia and Ukraine it's a life or death thing. Having
witnessed that world over the last twelve years, I hope our audiences can get an
insight into a place where if you disagree with something you can't do anything
but write, and which has always been the Russian way.”

A Play, A Pie and A Pint: International Plays from Ukraine and Russia; Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha,
Oran Mor, Glasgow, March 23-28, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 31-April 4;
The War Hasn't Started Yet, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May 4-9; Thoughts Spoken Aloud
From Above, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May
25-30.
www.playpiepint.com
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, February 6th 2015

ends

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Phill Jupitus - The Producers

When Phill Jupitus takes the stage of Edinburgh Festival Theatre in a couple of weeks clad in Leiderhosen and Swastika armband to play deluded Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks' stage musical of his film, The Producers, it will be a far cry from Jupitus' original stage persona of post-punk word-smith Porky the Poet as he can get. By his own admission, however, Jupitus' turn as the author of goose-stepping smash hit, Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, is something he fell into. Jupitus was only cast after Ross Noble, who will play Franz for the Glasgow dates, was unavailable for the first ten weeks of the tour.

“I'm very much wearing the number twelve shirt,” Jupitus says on a break from rehearsals. “Ross signed up to it first, but then he couldn't do the opening few weeks, so they asked me instead. I've never been in rehearsals for the start of something before. I've always stepped into it once it's been up and running, so it's a slightly new experience for me.”

Despite this, Jupitus has long been versed in the mores of Brooks' original 1968 film based around a pair of Broadway hacks who realise they can make more money from a flop than a hit.

“I've been trying to work out when it was that I first saw it,” Jupitus says, “I clearly remember seeing it as a kid, and that there were a lot of in Jewish references that a ten year old boy in the home counties wouldn't get, but he's such a great writer, Mel Brooks, and I think I may have seen Blazing Saddles first.

“It was the days before video, so it would be on the telly when you were fifteen or sixteen, and you'd be ringing up your mates to tell each other it was on, and it was like nothing we'd ever seen. As a teenager in the UK, comedy was about Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise or The Good Life, all these straight-up sit-coms and weird British humour, whereas Mel Brooks was so exotic. I think I'd seen Woody Allen's film, Bananas, by then, which also had this quick-talking New York Jewish humour, but I'd really never seen anything like Mel Brooks, so to be in The Producers today is absurd.”

The Producers isn't Jupitus' first stint at musical theatre, having just appeared on the West End in Urinetown The musical, while he was previously in Hairspray and Monty Python's Spamalot. Despite such high-profile shows, as well as his elder statesman status as the longest surviving panellist on TV pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks over nineteen years, Jupitus isn't shy of getting back to his fringe roots.

As well as reviving Porky the Poet for the Edinburgh Free Fringe, Jupitus has taken part in the Traverse Theatre's early morning Theatre Uncut seasons of hot off the press plays performed script-in-hand . He has also become one of the alumni of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour's theatrical experiment in which one performer picks up a script in a sealed envelope having had no rehearsal, with what follows remaining a secret between actor and the audience. With the likes of John Hurt and Stephen Rea having done the show since it was first seen in 2011, no-one has given the game away yet, and Jupitus isn't going to spoil things.

"The Traverse asked me to do it about three years ago,” he says. “I said to them, look, don't be shy of asking me to do things because you think I'll be too busy, so it's great. When I knew I was doing White Rabbit Red Rabbit I happened to bump into Marcus Brigstocke, and he said he'd done it, but he wouldn't tell me anything about it. It's such a clever thing to do.”

Such a willingness to take a chance on things has been the hallmark of Jupitus' career since his early days supporting bands as Porky the Poet. Even that came about by accident during a time when he was working as a civil servant with what was then the DHSS in the mid 1980s.

“It was about the time the ranting poets came out,” Jupitus says. “You'd had the Liverpool poets, and you'd had John Cooper-Clarke, and later you'd get the likes of Craig Charles and Lemn Sissay coming off the back of that, but at that time you had Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells, Joolz, Benjamin Zephaniah, Little Brother and others coming in off the back of punk. Some of them were amazing, but there were others that weren't, and I remember thinking I could do better than that, and I didn't even do it.”

It was Attila the Stockbroker who persuaded Jupitus to take the leap onstage after finding tow poems in a folder full of illustrations which Jupitus had been working on. Jupitus ended up working a fertile live poetry circuit as well as supporting the likes of Billy Bragg.

“At that time in the eighties,” Jupitus recalls, “you could earn as much as you would on benefits doing gigs, and doing gigs was much more fun.”

Jupitus packed in the DHSS and toured with Bragg, for whom he made a couple of videos, also working for Bragg's record label, Go Discs. As with most things in Jupitus' career, a move into comedy came about by accident, when fanzine writer and NME journalist James Brown, who would go on to found Loaded magazine, gave him some friendly advice.

“James said that the things I said inbetween the poems were funnier than the poems themselves,” Jupitus recalls, “and that was the first time I realised I could be a comedian. I was talking with Alan Davies and Jo Brand about how we all fell into it, and not one of us could remember a moment where we decided to be a comedian.”

For The Producers, Jupitus is particularly looking forward to the tour's Edinburgh dates, where he and so many of his peers cut their performing teeth.

“It feels like home,” he says of the city, “and to come back outside the Fringe is such a buzz. It feels like a village where everyone knows someone who knows someone, and I love to go to all the art galleries. Four of my favourite bars are there, and if I've got a pocket full of change in one of them I can work their jukebox for hours.”

Such are the perks of Jupitus' happily wayward career.

“It's either this or an office job,” he says, “and as I found out in the mid-eighties, a nine to five isn't something I'm really cut out for.”

The Producers, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 23-28; Theatre Royal, Glasgow (with Ross Noble), June 15-20.
www.theproducersmusical.co.uk

The Herald, February 3rd 2015

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