Thursday, 30 July 2015

John Hannah - The Titanic Orchestra

You could be forgiven for thinking John Hannah had done a vanishing act. The last time the East Kilbride born actor was on a Scottish stage was back in the 1980s, when he appeared in Communicado theatre company's take on Carmen and at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in 7:84's production of Robert McLeish's The Gorbals Story, directed by David Hayman.

Playing a down at heel magician in a little-known play called The Titanic Orchestra, however, marks Hannah getting back to his roots with his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe appearance since he was a drama student at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before being restyled as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Written by contemporary Bulgarian writer, Hristro Boytchev, The Titanic Orchestra focuses on a quartet of tramps hiding out in an abandoned railway station who dream of escape when a mysterious stranger turns up promising them the ultimate way out.

Steve King's translation of the play is directed by Russell Bolam, who cast Hannah in the title role of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which was given a grim-up-north Yorkshire makeover in London last year. That production marked Hannah's first time on stage in six years, and led directly to Bolam and Hannah working together again on The Titanic Orchestra. Hannah plays the stranger, who, depending on which way you see it, may or may not be Harry Houdini.

“Weeellll......,” Hannah hedges regarding his character's true identity. “He's someone who never confirms or denies who he is. He's described as a failed magician, which leaves you wondering. He's somebody who has a certain philosophy on life, but maybe he's a different kind of conductor. Maybe he's not an orchestra kind of conductor, but is actually a transport kind of conductor, but you don't know, and are never quite sure about what's true or not.”

Described as “a sad comedy” by its author, The Titanic Orchestra has been seen all over the world since it was first produced in Bulgaria in 2002, with King's version first seen at the Arcola Theatre in London in 2010. The only other of Boytchev's plays to have been seen in the UK was The Colonel Bird, which was directed by Rupert Goold in 1999 at the Gate Theatre in London, with a radio version heard on the BBC World Service. For Hannah, at least, The Titanic Orchestra is a play like few others he has worked on.

“I don't know if you could call it experimental or Becketttian,” he says, “but it's not linear or naturalistic in any way, and it's got this very east European philosophical kind of quality, and is a very difficult thing to challenge yourself with as an actor.”

Hannah was an apprentice electrician when he joined East Kilbride Rep Theatre Club, where he decided to take the plunge professionally. His first big break on-screen came in 1987 with a lead role as a student in Brond, Michael Caton-Jones' three-part adaptation of Frederic Lindsay's novel. While the series confused some viewers, it nevertheless opened the door for Hannah into a world that would see him become a fully fledged A-lister following his turn in Richard Curtis' 1994 rom-com, Four Weddings and A Funeral. Playing one half of a gay couple with Simon Callow, Hannah's graveside reading of WH Auden's poem, Stop All The Clocks, was one of the film's defining moments.

Hannah subsequently took the title role of a police pathologist in McCallum, appeared opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, and was the first TV incarnation of Ian Rankin's grizzled Edinburgh cop, Rebus. He acted alongside Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, and more recently was a cast regular in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Somewhere in-between Uncle Vanya and The Titanic Orchestra, Hannah has also made a couple of independent films as well as a pilot for a sit-com produced by UK Gold.

“I like being challenged to do things I don't know I can do,” Hannah says of the increasingly diverse range of work he's embarked upon. “It can get tedious if you're just asked to do the same sort of thing all the time, so when something like The Titanic Orchestra comes along you grab it while you can. It's great as well, because sometimes in the past I haven't always enjoyed being onstage as much as I have rehearsing, but I enjoyed doing Vanya and I'm really enjoying this.

“It's a fun piece,” he says. “It's not something you need a degree to enjoy, but it still posits some pertinent questions around the meaning of existence. The fact that the play's got tramps in it it is interesting itself. I'm sure some professor somewhere might be able to tell you about the position of tramps in literature and society. Both my character and the others are very much on the margins of society, so that perhaps allows them to comment on society from their position.

“This kind of work gets done, but not so much in the mainstream, I don't think, but you don't have to be making a deep comment on society to be profound. There's profundity in a custard pie in the face.”

The Titanic Orchestra, Pleasance, Aug 5-31, 5.25pm
www.pleasance.co.uk

The Herald, July 30th 2015

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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Galway International Arts Festival - An Extraordinary Experience

It's 10.30 on Friday night in Galway, the West of Ireland city that is hoping to become the country's next European Capital of Culture, and down-town Quay Street is buzzing with noisy life. Given the array of bars and restaurants dotted along the narrow street this isn't unusual, but given that it is the first weekend of the 2015 Galway International Arts Festival, an annual two-week melee of theatre, music, art, comedy and spectacle that styles itself as 'The Festival of Extraordinary Experiences', the vibe is different.

Sure enough, the sound of martial drums in the distance attracts revellers onto the street, where the crowds part as three gigantic frock-like constructions are wheeled by, with the white-painted faces and torsos of a trio of opera singers at the centre of each. As they pause every few hundred yards or so, flanked by the equally colourful Tin Soldiers' Band of Drummers, the sinhers of The Giant Divas and Les Tambours regale the throng with excerpts from Carmen and an Edith Piaf number before moving off again.

As extraordinary experiences go, French street theatre company Transe Express's latest outing into the international festival circuit following appearances at Sydney Harbour, the London Olympics and several turns during Edinburgh's Hogmanay programme dating back to the 1990s is the perfect larger-than-life weekend serenade.

It is also indicative of the spirit of Galway International Arts Festival, which, under the guidance of Paul Fahy, its director of the last ten years, has developed an already expansive programme even further. This mix of subversive populism can in part be defined by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, who took her seventy-foot tall missing link she calls Skywhale to the air in the form of a hot air balloon. Skywhale's cartoon-like enormity captured a collective imagination in a way that made audiences flock to Relativity, Piccinini's exhibition of similarly moulded mutant creatures at the city's temporary Festival Gallery set in an old print-works.

An unsettling mixture of cuteness and a form of anthropology culled from science-fiction, Relativity's uber-real looking sculptures offer up a world of possibilities as fantastical as GIAF itself. Only an unseasonal outbreak of high winds managed to ground Skywhale, and even then only temporarily. This may have had something to do with former Split Enz singer Tim Finn encoring with Weather With You, the hit single he co-wrote for Crowded House with his brother Neil, at the end of the first of two nights performing in St Nicholas' Church.

Weather With You and Split Enz's Six Months in a Leaky Boat, which he performed on the second night, were the nearest Finn came to greatest hits during White Cloud, an intimate and deeply personal mix of song, spoken-word and home movie footage that explored Finn's roots in New Zealand. While making for an at times raw experience as Finn sang with only piano and guitar accompaniment, White Cloud was a moving piece of multi-media storytelling that wouldn't look out of place in Irishman Fergus Linehan's eclectic inaugural programme for Edinburgh International Festival, which starts next month.

There are numerous connections between Galway and Edinburgh, both in current and past programmes. It was at the 1997 GIAF where Enda Walsh's career-making play, Disco Pigs, starring a nineteen year old Cillian Murphy in his first professional job, played to acclaim before Corcadorca company's ferocious production took the world by storm following its Edinburgh Festival Fringe run.

Walsh has continued his connection with GIAF, with the festival co-producing Ballyturk, Walsh's 2014 play that reunited him with Murphy prior to the show transferring to Cork and London. Also in the Ballyturk cast was Mikel Murfi, who will be appearing in The Last Hotel, Walsh's forthcoming opera which will premiere at this year's EIF.

This year's GIAF saw Walsh open A Girl's Bedroom, the second of what looks set to be an ongoing series of new texts presented as installations in a gallery setting designed by Fahy. With an audience of five led into Fahy's pink-perfect recreation of a six year old's room, the lights dim as the recorded voice of actress Charlie Murphy recounts a twelve-minute psychodrama about a woman who carries every detail of her past around with her. In tone it resembles Tennessee Williams' miniature masterpiece, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, and, delivered in Murphy's hushed tones, is similarly evocative of a life erased.

One of the major successes of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe was riverrun, Olwen Fouere's startling dramatisation of sections from James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, for which this most singular of performers won a much deserved Herald Archangel, an honour previously bestowed upon Walsh. This year at GIAF Fouere was performing Lessness, a staging of an experimental short story by Samuel Beckett inspired by composer John Cage. Like riverrun, Lessness was co-produced by GIAF, an initiative which has been developed during Fahy's tenure so that much of the festival's main programme sees it receiving a producer or co-producer's credit.

This was the case with both Amy Conroy's Luck Just Kissed You Hello, and a revival of Frank McGuinness' startling play, The Match Box. Where Conroy played the lead in her study of siblings at war with each other as their father lays dying in Caitriona McLaughlin's production initiated by Melson's HotForTheatre company, rising star Cathy Belton gave an equally astonishing turn in Joan Sheehy's production of McGuinness' play.

Conroy  put humour to the fore in a study of how family defines us, even as her character Laura returns home reinvented as Mark. As s/he enters the man's world of her brothers, the roots of all their dysfunctions begin to show as an everyday emancipation takes place.

A family is ripped apart in dramatically different fashion in The Match Box, in which Belton plays Sal, a woman on the run from herself as much as others as she relates her fate in an isolated country cottage. As she talks of a loss that gives vent to a rage worthy of Greek tragedy, Sal becomes emotionally and physically more brittle, striking matches as she goes, watching the flame of life burn quickly in a searingly powerful piece of work.

Visiting shows included Exhibit B, Brett Bailey's searing meditation on racism that was pulled from its London dates following protests last year after its EIF run. While the show went on in Galway without incident as was the case in Edinburgh, Bailey's depiction of racist atrocities using live performers in a series of tableaux vivants left audiences who saw it similarly stunned and discomforted.

A music programme featured a series of programmes by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and a series of traditional showcases, including the duo of fiddler Brid Harper and guitarist and whistle player PJ McDonald, who played a packed-out Saturday afternoon session in Monroe's Live venue.

On the banks of the River Corrib, meanwhile, the giant blue Festival Big Top held court to large-scale concerts by the likes of St Vincent, Damien Rice and John Grant, the latter of whom was upgraded to top of the bill after Sinead O'Connor was forced to withdraw through illness. O'Connor missed some of the biblical weather that caused some performances of outdoor shows such as the high-flying Turned Upside Down and Man on the Moon to be rained off, though that didn't bother the four thousand revellers watching Irish band Kodaline inside the Festival Big Top.

Nor did it bother the Giant Divas, who paraded through the streets a second time sporting mini umbrellas attached to their heads. By Sunday teatime, even Piccinini's Skywhale was airborne once more, providing a whale's eye view that showed just how extraordinary Galway International Arts Festival can be.

Galway International Arts Festival 2015 runs until Sunday, then in 2016 from July 11-24.
www.giaf.ie


Galway International Arts Festival and the Road to 2020

Galway International Arts Festival was founded in 1978 to provide a national and increasingly international showcase for some of the burgeoning artistic activity going on in the city.

While Ollie Jennings was administrator of GIAF from its inception up until 1991, it has had four artistic directors; Patricia Forde from 1992-1998; Ted Turton from 1997-1999; Rose Parkinson from 2000-2005, with Paul Fahy taking over in 2006.

Operating a multi-discipline approach, GIAF combines work by internationally renowned artists with street spectacles, grassroots events, gigs, clubs and comedy.

In recent years, as well as hosting works by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company, GIAF has featured work by the Abbey, the Royal Court, Steppenwolf, Propeller, Hofesh Schecter Dance Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

GIAF has also hosted Primal Scream, Philip Glass, David Byrne, Joni Mitchell, the Kronos Quartet, and shown work by David Hockney and David Mach.

Under Fahy's tenure, GIAF has become more of a producing organisation, and in the last year has toured productions of Enda Walsh's Ballyturk and Olwen Fouere's riverrun across the globe, with future tours planned.

Fahy has also brought the visual arts into the GIAF fold. With no permanent large-scale contemporary gallery space in the city, temporary spaces such as the Festival Gallery house major shows by Patricia Piccinini and others.

Elsewhere this year, Galway City Museum is housing a series of autobiographical works by Louise Bourgeois while a new space by the docks, The Shed, is showing Borders, a series of paintings by Russian emigre, Varvara Shavrova.

Also on show at GIAF this year is Primary Resources, a collaboration between Galway-based artist-led space, 126, and Glasgow's Transmission Gallery.

First Thought is a series of talks initiated by Fahy which look at themes relating to GIAF. This year's programme included Remaking the Shape of the World, in which climate change expert Kadir Van Lohuizen revealed that the coastline of Hull, the English city set to be the UK City of Culture 2017, is being eroded by as much as a metre a year.

In 2014, GIAF attracted audiences of 180,000 to 213 performances, talks and exhibitions across twenty-nine venues.

Key to Galway's artistic rise has been the pioneering work by Druid Theatre Company, which was founded by Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally in Galway in 1975, and was the first professional Irish theatre company to be set up outside Dublin.

Over their forty year existence Druid have become key figures in the Galway scene. The company have toured locally and internationally, premiered Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy, and have brought both their DruidSynge and DruidMurphy compendiums of works by JM Synge and Tom Murphy to Edinburgh International Festival.

Druid are currently in New York with DruidShakespeare, while a series of new plays were given readings at this year's GIAF season under the Druid Debuts banner.

Another significant Galway-sired arts company is Macnas, whose open-air spectacles have left a mark on GIAF in terms of other outdoor work programmed.This year that included French street theatre specialists Transe Express, Flemish trapeze artists Collectif Malunes, solo circus performer George Orange and acrobats Tac O Tac.

It was at the GIAF that The Waterboys singer Mike Scott first saw The Saw Doctors, with the two bands becoming close during the recording of The Waterboys Fisherman's Blues album.

Galway launched its bid to become European Capital of Culture 2020 in May this year. Having lost out in 2005 to Cork, where Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company Grid Iron took their production of The Devil's Larder, Galway's 2020 campaign will be looking at the long-term legacy of the award when it was won by Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008.

Glasgow 1990 was key to the city becoming a major European centre where art and culture has thrived. Venues opened during Glasgow 1990 include Tramway and The Arches, the latter of which was forced to close earlier this year after Glasgow City Council revoked its late licence following recommendations by Police Scotland.

The Herald, July 28th 2015

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Monday, 27 July 2015

Bailey's Stardust / Moonglow

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh until October 18th
Four stars

When David Bailey became a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine just as 1960s London began to swing, he became as much of a face of the era as his subjects, despite being on the other side of the camera. It is the pin-ups of Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithfull, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and a very sexy Yoko Ono striking assorted poses that initially catch the eye, however, in this major touring retrospective which arrives in town like a retro-chic hot date rubbing shoulders with the great and the good at Edinburgh Art Festival.

Moving with the times, there is pop iconography down the ages, from Jack Nicholson to John Lydon to Kate Moss to Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn, bad boys and girls all. An entire section is devoted to the Rolling Stones, while, old softy that Bailey undoubtedly is, a whole room is set aside for portraits of his fourth wife, Catherine Bailey, who he met on a 1980s shoot.

Yet, as with any 1960s chart-topper, there is a more complicated flipside. It was Bailey's harrowing images of poverty in Sudan, after all, that gave Live Aid a visual identity arguably worth more than the music that sound-tracked Bob Geldof's charity circus. Images of vintage boozers in London's East End and latter-day hard-men, meanwhile, are as anthropologically evocative as his portraits of eastern holy men.

It is the mixed media assortment of this compendium's second show, Moonglow, however, that reveals just how far Bailey's art has come through a series of paintings, screen-prints, sculptures and box-like constructions. The glamour is still there in distressed collages of the Kray Twins and others, but, like Bailey, the more weathered they appear, the more depth they acquire beyond the surface of this major archive.

The List, July 2015

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Sam Simmons: Spaghetti for Breakfast

If things had worked out differently, Sam Simmons might have ended up becoming a zoo-keeper. As it is, the thirty-something Australian has spent the last decade or so travelling the world as a self-styled professional idiot, brandishing an off-kilter brand of comedy that has confused and confounded many, even as it has reeled in critical acclaim and ever-larger audiences.

With his 2014 show, Death of A Sails-Man, being nominated for the Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Award following a previous nomination in 2011 for Meanwhile, Simmons returns this year with Spaghetti For Breakfast. This latest one-man extravaganza, which has already scooped the Underbelly Adelaide Award and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award for Best New Show, may take a nod at the inner world of its creator's psyche, but it still allows full vent for his inner dickhead to explode into primary-coloured life.

“There's some very dark stuff,” Simmons admits, “and it gets to the reason why I'm an idiot, which is to escape childhood stuff, but there's nothing saccharine there. There's nothing worse than seeing a show that's saccharine. It has to be funny.

“It also came about from some quite weird experiences playing all the club rooms in London, where I got quite a lot of negativity from club owners. They'd say, oh, the stuff you do, it's weird, it makes no sense. It makes total sense for me, and this is why I do absurd comedy, and why I don't want to do stand-up. Don't get me wrong, I love stand-up, but I don't want to do it. Live comedy doesn't just have to be about stand-up.”

Simmons first started to develop his stage persona when he appeared at a benefit show put on by himself and some friends after another friend lost a hand-bag.

“I got up and started being an idiot,” he says, “but it wasn't stand-up. It sounds vain, but I didn't have this great ambition to get up onstage and start telling all these jokes or anything like that.”

Simmons presented on Australian radio station Triple J and interviewed bands on the station's small-screen offshoot JTV before featuring in anthropological mockumentary series, The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote and sketch-based show, Problems. While a sense of Simmons' world beyond the stage can be gleaned in Wallstud, a three episode series of miniatures for Channel 4's Comedy Blap strand, the roots of Simmons' oeuvre dates right back to a mis-spent youth watching endless re-runs of cult 1970s Brit TV show, The Goodies.

“The Goodies was on every night when I was a kid,” Simmons reflects. “They showed them all the time, so it felt like it was on a loop for seven years. It would probably surprise a lot of people in the UK to learn that I think Monty Python was too weird for me, but with The Goodies, I think I connected with them, and felt all three of them were in my body. If you could condense Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie into one body it would probably look a bit like me.”

The spirit of The Goodies is certainly evident in Simmons' stage act, a manic pot-pourri of absurdist antics, fourth-wall breaking routines and sheer out-and-out puerility. Then there are the shared concerns with ex Goodie, ornithologist and nature documentary presenter Bill Oddie.

“I was training to be a zoo-keeper for years and then I left to do this,” says Simmons, “but what I really want to do is make Attenborough documentaries. That's the dream.”

Sam Simmons: Spaghetti for Breakfast, Underbelly, August 5th-30th, 9pm.

The List, July 2015


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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Richard II

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

The 1970s porn film style wicker chair flanked by chess pieces at one end of the Kibble Palace is a give- away that Bard in the Botanics' truncated take on the first episode of Shakespeare's historical mini-series might not be playing it straight. As too are the silver-maned showroom dummies standing either side of a pink-wigged statue. Sure enough, once a mercurial Robert Elkin introduces proceedings as a battered looking Richard in a vest and tight leather trousers, Jennifer Dick's production of her own adaptation has Adam Donaldson's Duke of Aumerle clean him up with a tender affection that is clearly mutual.

Together the pair look like they're having a hoot play-acting at running the country as they dole out judgements with a waspishness which understandably gets people's backs up. Finlay McLean's John of Gaunt is particularly unhappy about his heir Bolingbroke being thrown into exile, with the future Henry IV here remodelled by EmmaClaire Brightlyn as Lady Bolingbroke.

In what has become her speciality over the last few years, Dick puts just four actors onstage for a version of the play that focuses as much on the personal as the political. The amount of gender-bending homo-erotic content on show recalls the provocative radical chic of 1970s vintage Citizens Theatre by way of Derek Jarman and Neil Bartlett, an effect accentuated by Gillian Argo's playful design.

With Elkin an already dynamic presence, the use of a contemporary pop soundtrack gives things an extra flourish, with both Morrissey and Antony and the Johnsons adding to the melancholy as the lovers are forced apart in this most daringly audacious of reinventions.
 
The Herald, July 26th 2015


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Friday, 24 July 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

There's always been a knowingly subversive heart beyond the seemingly throwaway one-liners of Oscar Wilde's most celebrated dissection of polite society. There are hints of this during the opening of Richard Baron's revival when Gavin Swift's work-shy fop Algernon comes to at the piano following an all-night bender. With tunes blaring from the Victrola and complete strangers puffing on something dubious in the living room, just when you think Viz comic's Raffles The Gentleman Thug might gatecrash, in steps Reece Richardson's lovesick Jack Worthing.

The boys duly indulge in some bantz before Jack makes goo-goo eyes at Emma Odell's deceptively coy Gwendolen on the blind side of Margaret Preece's Lady Bracknell, a buttoned-up gold-digger who used to be a bit of a one. What follows as Algie and Jack embark on an elaborate game of kiss-chase with Gwendolen and Jack's country-dwelling ward Cecily seems to signify an entire class in search of some kind of identity beyond the numerous facades they flit between.

If keeping up appearances is everything here, the prospect of sex broods beneath each layer in a way that set a template for Made in Chelsea. There's an archness to proceedings as Swift and co play interior monologues direct to the audience in a set of winning turns that capture Wilde's recognition of his characters' sheer ridiculousness. In this way, the play winds up its world's occupants with a gleeful abandon that cuts through its respectable veneer without them even realising it. If Wilde is guilty of anything, it's of investing them with more intelligence than they deserve in this timelessly ribald exploration of the unbearable lightness of being.
 
The Herald, July 24th 2015


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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Jennifer Tremblay - The List, The Carousel, The Deliverance - A Very Personal Trilogy

Jennifer Tremblay never meant to write a trilogy of plays. Only after the Quebecois-born novelist and playwright's Herald Angel award winning solo play The List became a hit did she even consider a sequel to its moving and poignant depiction of a woman coming to terms with life in the country and the tragedy that results from the domestic creations she constructs to survive. Even then, Tremblay only wrote The Carousel after gauging some of the audience's reaction to its predecessor.

“People always said that the woman in The List didn't seem to like her children,” says Tremblay through a translator, “but that wasn't the intention of the play. Then as soon as I wrote The Carousel, because I'm obsessed with form I knew there had to be a third play.”

The result of this is The Deliverance, a new work which receives its world premiere during this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe in an English translation by Shelly Tepperman produced by Stellar Quines, the female focused Scottish theatre company with a long track record of producing Quebecois drama. This connection dates back to company co-founder and artistic director Muriel Romanes acting in the Tron Theatre's touring production of The Guid Sisters, a Scots language version of a seminal play by Michel Tremblay (no relation).

Here Romanes reunites the team who produced both The List and The Carousel, with actress Maureen Beattie performing in all three plays, while John Byrne again designs, Jeanine Byrne provides lighting and Philip Pinsky sound. With audiences having the opportunity to see all three plays as part of the 2015 Made in Scotland Showcase, Tremblay reveals a complex dramatic portrait of a woman in crisis.

“The List came from a true story I heard about a neighbour when I was living in the countryside,” she explains. “After what happened the whole village felt guilty about what they could have done to help, but I tried to capture all that guilt through the one character.”

In The Carousel, the same woman looks at her own past, ending as she prepares to visit her estranged mother. The Deliverance begins when she arrives, as the roots of their inter-familial conflict are gradually revealed.

“If The List is the head of the body of the three plays,” Tremblay says, “then The Carousel is very much the heart. With The Deliverance I very much wanted to write something more physical.”

Born in 1973, Tremblay wrote from an early age, and devised plays for friends before publishing a collection of poems while still a teenager. She had children at a young age, and after studying creative literature for a time, wrote extensively for children's television and penned a novel which was turned down by twenty-two publishers before she founded her own press. Several children's books followed, though it was only when The List won the Governor General's prize in 2008 that her work really started to be noticed.

“Writing was always a way of living,” she says. “It was something really natural to me.”

The emotional rawness that pulses her plays are typical of many Quebecois writers, including Michel Tremblay and other writers such as Daniel Danis, whose work has also appeared in Scotland.

“I feel very much part of that tradition,” Tremblay says, “partly because of the work by Michel Tremblay and others, but for me it always starts off with something intimate and personal. It starts with a need and an instinct, and then I take things from there. I write for children a lot, so it's different for me in that I use humour, but in Quebec a play often starts off with a lot of humour and then turns dark and sad.

“I'm still working out where that sadness comes from, but maybe it's from the high number of suicides there are here, which is something that theatre probably reflects. In Quebec as well people recognise a relationship with nature that is really wild, and people who live among nature in that way are also really wild and quite primitive.”

Despite such emotional intensity, Tremblay acknowledges some of the differences between the Scottish and Quebecois productions of The List and The Carousel.

“In Quebec the plays aren't regarded as a trilogy in the same way as they are in Scotland,” she says. “In Scotland as well The List lasted about fifteen minutes less than it did in Quebec. The rhythm was a lot faster, and that's about the actors knowing what is required for the public. In Scotland the List wasn't as a melancholy or as heavy as it was when it was done in Quebec, where audiences seem to need a little more time to absorb what is going on. When The List played in Avignon it was different again, where there was a musician onstage as well as an actor”

In whatever country The List and The Carousel have played, they seem to have tapped into something that audiences can identify with.

“The List is about mothers and children,” Tremblay observes, “and a lot of women can recognise themselves in that situation. All women can relate to what happens in the play. All men who talk to me after seeing it as well can relate to it. They recognise their mother or their wife.”

With Tremblay currently making plans to perform an adaptation of a recent novel with a musician, she retains a fondness for Stellar Quines' take on her work even as she already seems to have moved on from it.

“It's a play about things that are very close to a lot of women's experiences,” she says, “ and there's something universal there that people can identify with.”

The Jennifer Tremblay previews at Dundee Rep, July 24-26, with the Deliverance also previewing at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, July 29 and Heart of Hawick, July 30. The full trilogy runs at Assembly Roxy, August 6-31.

www.dundeerep.co.uk
www.assemblyfestival.com

The Herald, July 21st 2015

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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Romeo and Juliet

Dundee Rep
Four stars

On a mocked-up wooden booth stage, the lively cast of Shakespeare's Globe's touring revival of the bard's ultimate adolescent love story move from the auditorium where they've been mingling with the audience and strike up a lively tune with the assorted saxophones, clarinets and big bass drums they've been carrying. Their artisan outfits add to the effect of a hipster-led nouveau Balkan ensemble playing some boisterous homage to the ghosts of lost romances past, and after some out-front introductions, we're off into a show that doesn't let up for a second.

The lights remain on in director Dominic Dromgoole's production, which is exactly how it should be as his cast of eight plus three musicians burl their way through action which is at times cut up to juxtapose crucial moments as a film might do. So while Hannah McPake's Lady Capulet and Sarah Higgins' Nurse attempt to marry Cassie Layton's Juliet off to Paris with a girlish fervour that resembles a sorority sleepover, Samuel Valentine's lovesick Romeo and his tattooed gang strut and preen their way to gatecrashing the big fancy-dress do.

As the play's central couple, Layton and Valentine cut a youthful dash through the florid early scenes, with Layton's wide-eyed Juliet falling for Valentine's geeky charm as Romeo in a passion in four days done here as ripping yarn. Once things get serious, both with their affair and the fatal street fights they inspire, they're s understandably overcome with earnestness as any teen who becomes the centre of attention might be. When the inevitable happens, however, they're back to being players once more as things erupt into an appositely joyous dance of death.
 
The Herald, July 17th 2015
 
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Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Complicitie - The Encounter

Simon McBurney has always been an explorer, with the writer, actor and director's work with Complicite, the theatre company he co-founded in 1983 as Theatre de Complicite, pioneers in introducing visual-based European-influenced and playfully off-kilter work to British audiences. When twenty years ago McBurney was given a copy of Amazon Beaming, Romanian writer and film director Petru Popescu's 1991 account of National Geographic photo-journalist Loren McIntyre's 1969 trip to the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru, its account of McIntyre's three months with a rarely sighted Mayoruna tribe and his quest for the source of the Amazon opened McBurney up to an adventure of his own.

The result is The Encounter, a solo tour de force by McBurney, which marks Complicitie's début at Edinburgh International Festival, and which finds the audience being taken on a journey of their own to discover an ever-shifting world of sound that charts the profound extremes of human consciousness, climate change and beyond.

All of which is as far away from the days when Complicitie won the Perrier Comedy Award during the 1985 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it is from McBurney's turns in the latest Mission Impossible movie as well as providing the voice of house-elf Kreacher in the seventh Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.

It is McBurney and Complicitie's ongoing inquiry into the human condition, however, which has defined the company as much as the work itself. This is certainly the case with The Encounter, which by fusing Popescu's source material charting McIntyre's own experiences with hi-tech story-telling makes for a very twenty-first century form of communion. Where McIntyre claimed to have communicated with the Mayorunas through a form of telepathy known as 'beaming', paying witness to an ancient ritual involving fasting, dancing and ingesting natural hallucinogens that seemingly transported its arbiters back to the dawn of time, McBurney's audience don headphones for an intimate and potentially equally transformative experience.

As experienced by McIntyre, related by Popescu and subsequently absorbed by McBurney, this international co-production between Complicitie, Edinburgh International Festival and a coterie of partners looks set to continue the chain as it embarks on its own voyage around the globe following its Edinburgh dates. In this way, The Encounter looks set to play host to the purest of theatrical rituals.

The Encounter, Edinburgh International Conference Centre, August 8th-10th, 16th-17th, 19th, 21st-22nd, 7.30pm; August 14th-15th, 20th, 23td, 2.30pm.


Edinburgh International festival Blog, July 2015

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Shakespeare's Globe - Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a play that can come in many guises. As one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies, it's tale of star-crossed lovers caught in the crossfire of families at war has been
reinterpreted umpteen times down the centuries, with Leonard Bernstein turning it into teen-gang musical West Side Story while for his 1996 big-screen version Baz Luhrmann took inspiration from MTV. More recently the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Shakespeare's play on Twitter as Such Sweet Sorrow, with actors engaging with other Twitter users as well as each other.

The last time Shakespeare's Globe brought Romeo and Juliet to Scotland was back in 2007, when they played it outdoors in Glasgow University Quad in a production that featured future Game of Thrones star Richard Madden as Romeo. Eight years on, Shakespeare's Globe artistic director is back with a new touring production that moves indoors for dates at Dundee Rep and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

“Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with,” says Dromgoole. “It was with great pride that we resurrected this tradition after a 400-year break when we first toured Romeo and Juliet. The tours are now a large feature of our summer season as they enable us to take our fresh and revitalised productions of Shakespeare’s plays and perform them to new audiences in spectacular environments. In my final year at The Globe I wanted to return to Romeo and Juliet and take a new version to castles, gardens, churches and theatres around the UK and Europe.

“Our troupes of actors perform on a traditional booth stage inspired by Elizabethan paintings and etchings. This production adheres to the Elizabethan touring model, and is a rare opportunity to experience the freshness and simplicity of a theatre tour as it was in Shakespeare’s day. We cast eight actors who play all the roles, and have adapted the text so that some scenes can be played almost simultaneously. In terms of design, we wanted to convey the idea of 1920s travelling players, tattooed up and ready to go, slipping on signifiers of costume and character rather than full Elizabethan garb so that we could be light on our feet and tour the set easily and quickly from place to place.”

For Stirling-born Sarah Higgins, who plays the Nurse, Lady Montague and Balthasar, such an approach is certainly keeping her on her toes.

“It's this intense mixture of fighting and dancing and laughing,” says Higgins, who made her professional debut last year at Edinburgh International Festival in the National Theatre of Scotland's epic staging of Rona Munro's The James Plays. “The way the scenes are split so they're played together, it doesn't feel like a long play. It keeps things choppy, and I think allows audiences to get more involved in what's going on. That's helped along by the music, and by an opening number where we promenade through the audience.”

Dromgoole may have moved things indoors for his new take on Romeo and Juliet, but regardless of setting the play remains very much the thing.

“Our 2007 production was set around a VW camper van which the actors used as a base and background to the performance and which could be driven into castles and gardens across the UK,” Dromgoole says. “This year, even though in Scotland we're performing indoors, the essence of what we do hasn’t  changed. Our performers still interact with the audience and the emphasis is on the text just like it would be at the Globe. We even keep the lights on in the auditorium to reproduce the shared light of the stage and audience of our outdoor London home.”

Finding actors with enough depth as well as youthfulness to carry off the play's title roles is never easy, especially for such an extensive tour as this one.

“For Romeo & Juliet we were looking for openness, youthfulness and for people who the audience would fall in love with quickly,” Dromgoole explains of his decision to cast Samuel Valentine and Cassie Layton as the couple. “As we knew this tour would last six months, we also had to look at the casting as a whole and see how the group dynamics worked on stage and off, as it is always important to have a happy company.”

This current tour of Romeo and Juliet comes as Dromgoole prepares to step down as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, which he has run after taking over from Mark Rylance in 2005. With Dromgoole's departure announced in 2013, there is still a while yet until his successor, Kneehigh's Emma Rice, takes up the reins in April 2016, and beyond Romeo and Juliet there is still plenty to keep Dromgoole occupied.

“We are currently touring Hamlet to every country in the world,” he says, “It was 115 at the last count. We've just toured King John in this Magna Carta year to historic sites associated with the play, and are taking Much Ado About Nothing around the UK and South America.

“I'm currently directing Measure for Measure, then in October we're opening our third season in our indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I'll be directing The Tempest, and I'm visiting our Hamlet company when I can, so there's still a lot to prepare before I can start thinking about the end. However, I think after April 2016 I may go to France and make jam.”

Romeo and Juliet, Dundee Rep, July 14-17. Theatre Royal, Glasgow, August 4-8.www.dundeerep.co.uk
www.atgtickets.com


The Herald, July 14th 2015
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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Becky Minto - The Commonwealth Games, Great Expectations, the Prague Quadrennial and the V&A

When Becky Minto first went to study theatre design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in the mid 1980s, the Liverpool-born designer was by her own admission “a proper scally.” It wasn't just the acting students going around singing songs from Les Miserables that opened Minto up to a new world after studying interior design, but some of the technical terms themselves in her chosen field that threw her.

When one lecturer started talking about the male and female parts of a connector, Minto didn't know what he was on about, and only when she put her hand up to ask and it was explained that the male part had prongs on and the female part didn't did the penny drop.

Twenty-five years on, Minto is one of the most prolific theatre designers in Scotland, who has worked with the likes of the National Theatre of Scotland, Grid Iron and Vanishing Point as well as most building-based companies in the country. Last year she capped off more than two decades of experience as associate designer of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow, and actually designing the closing ceremony.

This year, in the thick of a busy year which has already seen her win plaudits for her design of Dundee Rep's production of Great Expectations, Minto has seen her work honoured in exhibitions in Nottingham and Prague before transferring to the V&A in London this week.

Make/Believe: UK Design For Performance 2011-2015 is a quadrennial exhibition presented by the Society of British Theatre Designers, and which this year took place in Nottingham. As one of more than a hundred exhibitors, Minto's work was represented in both film and photographs by her designs for White Gold, the site-specific spectacular produced in Dundee by the Iron-Oxide Company, and the car-based Ignition for the NTS, which took place on Shetland.

Twenty-two exhibitors were selected from Nottingham to represent the UK at the Prague Quadrennial of stage design, with Minto being the sole Scotland-based contributor before an expanded version of the show transfers to the V&A this week.

“It's nice being in the same building as Alexander McQueen's exhibition,” says Minto. “Prague was brilliant as well. It was lovely to be picked, and when I looked at other people chosen from the UK like Es Devlin and Neil Murray, it was such an honour for my work to be seen alongside them.”

Devlin has worked extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and designed the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Murray was for several years associate designer, and was Olivier nominated for his design for Kneehigh's production of Brief Encounter.

“You get to meet loads of different designers from all disciplines,” Minto says. “It's a bit like going to the Edinburgh Festival, but just for designers, and it's good from a research point of view as well, because it's good to see what other designers are doing.”

To this end, Minto's designs also sat alongside designs for The Passion, the Port Talbot-based promenade spectacle that starred Michael Sheen as Jesus.

“Each country was asked to put things in a social and political context,” Minto says, “and I think with my work they seemed to like the sense of community in each project, and how we used different locations. Some of the other work in Prague were more like installations you'd see at the Venice Biennale, and the Estonian design that won the gold medal was a film about creating your own political party.”

As a child growing up in Garston, the Liverpool district which also sired the likes of actress Rita Tushingham, rock and roll singer Billy Fury and comedian Les Dennis, Minto had originally been attracted to dance. With a road accident so serious that she was read the last rites in the road putting paid to such ambitions, Minto replaced her passion with art and design, and became fascinated by the stage designs used by bands such as Kraftwerk and Japan who she'd see at the city's Royal Court theatre. After studying interior design in Liverpool, it was Minto's aunt who alerted her to the course in Wales, which was when she realised that you could actually design stage sets for a living.

Having been advised by leading designer Nigel Hook that there was a job going as a scenic artist and set painter at Perth Theatre, Minto moved to Scotland in 1989, where she has remained ever since.

“I learnt more about design doing ten shows a year for three years in Perth than I probably had anywhere up to that point,” she says about the job that led to her first design job at the Byre Theatre in St Andrew's, where she became resident designer for two years and designed more than twenty shows. More commissions came out of this from companies as varied as Wee Stories, the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and Visible Fictions.

“I think I very much respond to the company, the site and the script,” Minto says when asked if she has a particular style. “I think over the years you develop a fell for what you prefer visually, but the foremost thing is to try and enlarge the piece.”

This was more than evident in Minto's design for Great Expectations, which took a brief from director Jemima Levick for a simple black space to create an inventive array of picture frames which both contained and served the onstage action.

Minto's experience on the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was something else again.

“It was amazing,” she says, “and was completely different to working in the theatre world. There were only actually two of us in the design department, and at one point we had to do 900 costume fittings in five days, then for the closing ceremony, we got in after the last medal was presented and went on at 8 O'Clock that night. The amount of talented people working on it was amazing, and to be part of it was a real honour.”

While Minto's enthusiasm for any job she works on is plain, each stands out for here in very different ways.

“There are some shows that you would go back and do all over again,” she says. “I remember doing Tryst with Grid Iron in Stavanger, where we were doing the show on an island with no distractions. I'd have happily gone home, washed my clothes and done it all again for nothing, but you take something special away from every job that helps you as a designer. Whether I'm sitting down with a director or starting a show from scratch I love being part of a team of people you collaborate with, and now these people you've been working with for years become your friends.

“I suppose one of the things that drives me is to always feel a sense of doing something that I've never done before,” she says, “and I suppose that's what we do, to never do the same thing twice, but to develop your own way of working and to think differently about everything. It's like with working on the Commonwealth Games. I've never experienced a show like that before, and I probably never will again, but I totally believe that every day's a school day.”

Make/Believe: UK Design For Performance 2011-2015, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, July 11-January 3 2016.
www.vam.ac.uk

The Herald, July 7th 2015

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Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer

Penny Arcade is in a New York state of mind. Sitting in her apartment in the city that was once presumed to be so good they named it twice, the sixty-something performance artist, raconteur, activist and force of nature takes stock of just how much the formerly bankrupt Big Apple has changed.

The once hip bohemia of Greenwich Village, where Beat poets and hippies defined generations, has become a slave to overpriced real estate, with its four zip codes ranked in the top ten most expensive places to live in the USA. CBGBS, the club that sired the New York punk and No Wave scenes, and gave a platform to the likes of Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, is no more following a dispute over increased rent. Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are all gone now, leaving a perfectly honed set of myths behind along with their poetry and art.

Then there is Penny Arcade, the dervish-like native New Yorker who first shook up Edinburgh with her hit show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! back in the 1990s. Now Ms Arcade returns for the first time since 2001 with a new solo show. Longing Lasts Longer looks at ageing, nostalgia, longing and loss by way of a torrent of words that is part stand-up routine, part anarchist manifesto and call to arms for the underground to strike back. Judging by the show's recent New York try-outs, it is Arcade's current bête noir of urban gentrification that is ripping the heart out of New York and pretty much every major city in the world, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London included, that forms the core of Longing Lasts Longer.

“Gentrification is over,” says Arcade. “We've been colonised. It's not just about gentrification of buildings, but gentrification of ideas. When ideas get taken over, what do you have left? One of the things this show is about which people will understand is how the early nineties alt music scene was the last time when there was a scene that was in opposition to mainstream culture. But what came out of that? The commodification of rebellion and the Broadway musical Rent came out of that. The government and the state absorb rebellion, and Longing Lasts Longer is about authenticity, and how we keep hold of ourselves, and we do that with a rock and roll soundtrack. We are creating an autonomous zone where we can talk about how we want freedom.

“I'm from the Lower East Side of New York, a city that's the centre of an appropriated culture that belongs, not just to New Yorkers, but to everyone in the world. That culture is about people who live by their own values, people who preserve their independence, and people who put pleasure over security. And pleasure is a radical value, especially now we're descending back into feudal times. Prince Harry just made that statement saying we should bring back National Service, but that's no surprise, because he grew up in a palace and was never in a punk band.

“They used to say New York was the city that never sleeps. Now it's the city that never wakes up. It's called the Big Apple, but now it's Cupcake City. It's an infantilised museum. We're living in peril of immense danger. It's 2015 and 1984 finally arrived. We used to be scared of Big Brother, but now he's a lifestyle guru with a mohito in one hand and a skateboard in the other. But it's in periods like this that the real spirit of rock and roll breaks out.”

This is how Arcade rolls. She could reel off eminently quotable epigrams like this ad nauseum. One to one this makes for exhilarating enough conversation, but put Arcade in front of an audience and it's mix of rabble-rousing, ferocious intelligence and frontline service in the culture wars is an inspiration.

“It's a show about supporting people's individuality,” she says. “It's vindication for the over fifties, and inspiration for anyone under fifty.”

Now aged 64, the artist formerly known as Susana Ventura has had a chequered career at the cutting edge of whatever underground scene was going. Aged eighteen in 1968 she became a member of John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous and appeared in painter Larry Rivers' film, 'T.I.T.S.' A year later she appeared at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in 'Femme Fatale', a play by Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis', who would later be immortalised in Lou Reed's song, Walk on the Wild Side. As well as Arcade, 'femme Fatale' also featured the first stage appearances of Patti Smith and Wayne (later Jayne) County.

Arcade herself became a Warhol superstar, appearing in Paul Morrissey's film, Women in Revolt before decamping to Amsterdam with Vaccaro and Co. After almost a decade in Spain, Arcade returned to New York in 1981, where she co-starred with Quentin Crisp in The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp before improvising her own solo works which eventually led in the 1990s to Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

In the fourteen years since Arcade's last visit, Edinburgh too has fallen prey to property developers who seem intent on imposing shiny new buildings on an increasingly homogenised landscape.

“I know what Edinburgh was like before gentrification,” Arcade says. “Edinburgh has been in the process of gentrification, partly brought on by the Edinburgh Festival itself, for forty years. I know all about the gentrification of Glasgow as well. I have friends who ran the Brunswick Hotel in what's now the Merchant City when it was the only business on the street. I've just been performing in Brighton, and I was saying to the audience, I don't know why you behave so prim and proper. This place was a cesspool of sex and violence.”

In an attempt to preserve her own city's hidden cultural history, Arcade founded the Lower East Side Biography Project, a documentary film-based oral history project designed to preserve the work of seeming marginal Lower East Side artistic figures in their own words. To date the likes of writer Herbert Huncke and singer Jayne County have been featured in a crucial ongoing archive.

“It's the actual erasure of history,” Arcade explains of the motivation behind the project. “Place names, signs and places were a band played or young people had a visceral experience are all being erased, but soi are people. That's the point of gentrification, to rob people of their history, but young people want to know about these people who did things on their own times and went to the university of hard knocks and can tell you what it was like. That's why we have to preserve these people, so young people don't have their histories erased. You know, I wasted my youth, and I had a great time. We're in the eleventh hour of saving our lives, but I believe in love, I believe in anger and I believe in rock 'n' roll.”

Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer, Underbelly, August 6th-30th, 8.50-9.50pm
 
The List, July 2015
 
 
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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Can't Forget About You

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three Stars

It speaks volumes that the cross-generational love story that drives David Ireland's potty-mouthed rom-com begins in the Belfast branch of Starbucks. Here, after all, is a now classic symbol of urban homogenisation, in which anything resembling character has been scooched away and replaced with the same shade of bland.

Such places can't plan for people, however, as twenty-something Stevie and pushing fifty Martha come together – eventually – over a good book and a mutual mourning for loved ones, even if Stevie being dumped can't quite match the death of Martha's husband seven years before. Where would-be Buddhist Stevie has his rabid Protestant sister Rebecca and an over-bearing mother steeped in tradition to contend with, Martha is a thoroughly modern Glasgow emigre with few superstitions left. Beyond the hangover of the Troubles, it seems, there are plenty of borders to cross.

There's a deceptive depth to Conleth Hill's no-frills co-production between the Tron and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Where the first act sets up an increasingly madcap set of situations that includes an extended riff on cunnilingus, this is just the sucker punch for a much darker and more intimate second half, in which the painful awkwardness of inter-familial intercourse is made plain.

Karen Dunbar gives a performance of low-key depth as Martha, playing it straight in the face of the hilarious largesse of Abigail McGibbon's Rebecca. While Declan Rodgers' Stevie is similarly underplayed, it is an at times frightening exchange between Martha and Carol Moore's Dorothy that cuts to the heart of the play's social, political and religious backdrop, where identity is everything and acceptance doesn't come easy.

The Herald, July 6th 2015

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Three stars

Leaving aside the unintended irony of the first night of Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com being rained off, if ever there was a play to be seen outdoors, A Midsummer night's Dream is the one. This was made clear once the seasons finally smiled on Emily Reutlinger's production, the second of this year's Bard in the Botanics season, which serves up a bright, youthful but utterly serious take on the play.

It starts with grey-robed besties Hermia and Helena appearing to have taken a vow of silence before the pair let rip with their heart's desires. With Theseus' attempts to preside over both greeted with disdain, once the pair morph into Bottom and Titania respectively, it looks more like they've not quite come down from Glastonbury.

As performed by just five lead actors, there's a trippiness in the way each character melds into another, as if they're being led astray between realities. Such high spirits are accentuated by an acoustic guitar-wielding Lysander, a ukulele-playing princess and a trio of fairies who look like they've wandered out of the dance tent.

If Martin Donaghy makes a swaggeringly shamanic Puck while David Rankine plays Lysander with an archness somewhere between Blackadder and Hollyoaks, this Dream belongs to the women. As played by Meghan Tyler and Joanne Thomson, Hermia and Helena are stronger, more assertive and more sexually knowing than sometimes seen, and their sparring here is a furious delight. Once the lovers come to, even the Mechanicals' botched take on Pyramus and Thisbe seems to have hidden depths before the finale sources the ultimate anthem for free spirits everywhere.

The Herald, July 6th 2015

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Friday, 3 July 2015

Unruly Wonders - Bard in the Botanics 2015

When Richard II talks of 'unlikely wonders' while alone in his prison cell awaiting his execution in Shakespeare's rarely seen history play, it's hardly the most positive of speeches. The phrase has nevertheless inspired Bard in the Botanics artistic director Gordon Barr to dub the company's latest summer season of outdoor Shakespeare productions in Glasgow's West End with such an appositely sunny sounding sobriquet. With familiar works such as The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream reimagined alongside rare sightings of Love's Labours Lost and the aforementioned Richard II, it's easy to see why.

“The quote is about how life can surprise you,” Barr explains before heading off to rehearsals for the first of two productions in the season he's directing himself. “Calling it Life's A Bitch seemed too much, but in Richard II it's much the same thing. For us, it's about us gaining in confidence, both in ourselves and in our audience. We want to take our place as Scotland's leading producers of Shakespeare, and we don't just want to churn out the same old stuff. Some of the plays this season are things which our audience won't have seen before, but which we want them to see.”

Love's Labours Lost remains one of the few Shakespeare comedies not to have received a Bard in the Botanics production, and Barr's promenade-based affair which has already opened is the first to have been seen in Scotland for the best part of fifty years.

“Love's Labour's Lost is a play I've wanted to do for a long time now,” Barr says. “that's partly because it's set in a park, so it's perfect for us, but that's hard, because it needs a big cast, because you can't really do any doubling up.”

With this in mind, Barr has drafted in MA Acting students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as part of Bard in the Botanics' emerging artists programme set up with RCS. Given that previous alumni of the scheme include Richard Madden, who went on to star as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, such a showcase bodes well for all involved.

“Love's Labours Lost is an incredibly dense play,” Barr points out. “It's full of really intelligent characters who use very complex language, but when you've got a core company who've been doing this as long as we have, we know we can handle that and get up there and get that complexity across. There's a really surprise ending as well, when the whole ground shifts, and which is really quite shocking and quite beautiful.”

The second production of this year's Bard in the Botanics season may appear more familiar, but A Midsummer Night's Dream is given a fresh twist by director Emily Reutlinger, who is the latest incumbent of the company's emerging directors scheme.

“I first met Emily when she was on the directing course at the RCS,” says Barr, “and she knows exactly what she wants to do. When she first came in she completely sold us on this feminist approach to the play that she's taking, so if she can sell it to us then she can sell it to an audience. The fact that she's not taking a conventional approach to the Dream really appeals to us as a company.”

Barr looks set to mix the familiar and the potentially shocking even more in his forthcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, which casts Bard in the Botanics regular Kirk Bage as Shylock as Barr relocates the action to the 1930s in his second stab at the play.

“It's a play that really fascinates me,” he says, “because it doesn't really fit into any category. It's a really thorny play. The moment the last word was spoken at the first read-through the actors couldn't wait to get into a discussion about which side they were on. The characters in the play aren't good people and they're not bad people. It's much more complex than that.”

While the portents of Nazi Germany won't be overplayed, it remains a reference that Barr sees as unavoidable.

“I don't want it to be heavy-handed,” he says, “but for me, since the second half of the twentieth century you can't look at The Merchant of Venice without acknowledging the Holocaust in some way. That doesn't mean we're going to send Shylock off to a concentration camp or anything like that, but I think we have to look at what such cowardly actions that occur in the play can lead to.”

For Richard II, Bard in the Botanics director Jennifer Dick moves a cast of just four into the Kibble Palace, which she has made a home for a stripped-back approach to some of Shakespeare's lesser-spotted plays. With Robert Elkin in the title role, Richard II is a rare opportunity to see this prequel to Henry IV.

“I don't think it's ever been produced professionally in Scotland,” says Barr. “It crops up with reasonable regularity in England, because Richard is this dynamic central figure and it's a star part, so it's no great surprise to have seen David Tennant do it with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I'm not sure if there's a slight reticence about doing it up here because it might be seen to be about an English king, but it's not really about an English king at all. It's about leadership and power, and it's about what it means to be a leader.”

This year's Bard in the Botanics season follows what has proven to be the company's busiest year in its thirteen year history. As well as developing a relationship with the RCS, Barr and co moved out of the Botanic Gardens themselves for a touring revival of Romeo and Juliet. The company also produced their first ever Christmas show at the Byre Theatre in St Andrew's, where they will return for the festive season this year.

“The central focus of our work will always be these crazy weeks in the Gardens,” Barr says, “but things are filling up rather nicely beyond that, and we're learning how to sustain all that so we can be a year-round presence.”

Bard in the Botanics runs at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow until August 1. Love's Labours Lost until July 11; A Midsummer Night's Dream, July 2-11; The Merchant of Venice, July 18-August 1; Richard II, July 22-August 1.
www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk

The Herald, July 3rd 2015

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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Improbable Fiction

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

A flash of metaphorical lightning is sometimes all it takes for your whole world to be turned upside down. So it is with Arnold, the haplessly under-achieving host of a small town creative writing group in Alan Ayckbourn's sixty-ninth play, first seen in 2005. For much of the first act Arnold is almost painfully nice to the disparate community who come together in his crumbling old house to share what they've not written, even as it provides respite from their assorted real world problems.

With Arnold's young work-mate Ilsa looking after his ailing mother upstairs, inspiration is in short supply for all. Like a toyshop after dark, however, when Arnold appears to have closed the door on his guests for the night, only then does the imagination run riot as an entire pulp fiction factory bursts from a sea of unpublished pages that never made it out of their creators' heads.

What follows in Clare Prenton's dexterously managed production is an ingenious series of fantasy wish fulfilment set-pieces involving an assortment of comic-strip style pot-boilers and a dazzling array of quick-fire costume changes. Yet for all the play's increasingly madcap ridiculousness, there are some serious points being made here about artifice, truth and the blurred lines between both. This is personified by Arnold, played by Ronnie Simon with an increasingly befuddled sense of inner despair that won't allow him to take a leap into the unknown. With the rest of Prenton's six-strong cast hamming things up to the max, and with Claire-Marie Seddon's Ilsa seemingly forever out of reach, for Arnold, alas, make-believe is as good as it gets.
 
The Herald, July 3rd 2015

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