Friday, 29 July 2016

In The Club - Mark Thomas on The Red Shed, Adura Onashile on Expensive Shit and Ruaraidh Murray on The Club

It was Groucho Marx who wrote how 'I don't want to belong to any club that will have me as a member'. Marx quoted his resignation letter tendered to Milton Berle's private members showbiz haunt, the Friars Club of Beverley Hills, in his 1959 autobiography, Groucho and Me. Immortalised in this way, Marx's words tapped into a form of wilful outsiderdom courted by would-be geniuses ever since.

Even outsiders, however, have to belong somewhere, as three very different Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows look set to demonstrate this year. In The Red Shed, Mark Thomas presents a loving homage to the forty-seven foot wooden hut that forms the Wakefield Labour Club where he cut his stand-up teeth.

In his play, The Club, Ruaraidh Murray sets up a fictionalised account of life in The Tardis, the Clerkenwell-based railway arch turned 1990s hedonist's hang-out, where Brit-artists rubbed up against great train robbers, Boy George was on the decks and absinthe was all the rage.

In contrast, Expensive Shit focuses on a Nigerian toilet attendant in a fictional Glasgow club inspired by real life establishment The Shimmy, which was discovered to have two-way mirrors in the Gents toilet that allowed men to observe women in the Ladies next door. Adura Onashile's new play, which forms part of this year's Made in Scotland programme, contrasts this with revolutionary musician Fela Kuti's very different Shrine club in Lagos, where the toilet attendant once dreamed of becoming a dancer.

In different ways, each play acknowledges a day to day need to come together, be it to campaign, or just to let off steam through laughter, music and dance.

“The Red Shed is this amazing place place that informed me when I was starting out,” says Thomas of the venue where he first performed while a drama student at the nearby Breton Hall college. “Me and my mates got involved in the Trades Council, and would do these benefit shows there that we'd write in the afternoon and perform at night. We first went in 1981, which was a very political time, and we very quickly got involved in left wing activism.”

This set Thomas off on a road which has seen him combine stand-up, activism and theatre in a series of increasingly autobiographical shows that include Cuckooed and the Herald Angel winning Bravo Figaro. Through all of these, Thomas has fused the personal and the political that reflects his roots at the Red Shed.

“What the Red Shed does is embody a sense of working class history. It's fifty years old, and it's full of this incredible mix of people who have led campaigns, and which during the miner's strike in the 1980s fed 150 miners families. Everyone there is an ordinary person who has done extraordinary things. People who go there have won and lost, and there's this real sense of a continuum in this place where everybody's welcome.”

Everybody was welcome too at Fela Kuti's Shrine club, where the radical singer and activist held court in a way that the Nigerian toilet attendant in Expensive Shit was once party to.

“The Shrine wasn't a club like a club in the west,” Onashile says of the club. “It was a big courtyard with stalls selling food and a stage for the band. It was very cheap and open to anyone, and people went there to hear the truth. This was a time of military dictatorship and people being killed, and there was nothing Fela didn't say about that. There was a sense of pan-Africanism, and going against the grain, and of galvanising the uneducated and the poor. Fela had a commune, Kalakuta, and he never turned anyone away from it, but somehow the revolution didn't feature gender equality, even though women were so important, and dancing, singing and performing with Fela onstage.”

Written and directed by Onashile in a production presented by the recently established Scottish Theatre Producers in association with the Traverse Theatre, Expensive Shit brings this home with the toilet attendant's conflicting experience in Glasgow.

“On one level the toilets in a club are a private space,” says Onashile, whose last work to appear on the Fringe was HeLa, which charted the life of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cell stems were taken without permission in 1951, and which were used as raw material for some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs since. “But there is also this awkward social interaction between these attendants, who are often of Nigerian descent, and who don't get paid. The play moves between the woman's experience in this club where men gaze at women through a two-way mirror, and the Shrine, and it becomes about how much agency or power women have.”

For Murray, there were no such barriers at the Tardis, where he began working behind the bar in the late 1990s shortly after he left drama school in London. Brit-pop, Brit-Art and Loaded magazine were in the ascendant along with a culture of hedonism that crossed class divides to make for one hell of a party.

“For me it was like a pirate ship,” he says of the Tardis. “It was full of people who'd all come down to London and found like-minded people there, people who didn't want to conform to the norm, so you'd have retired gangsters getting on famously with playwrights, and it didn't matter what your race or sexual orientation was. It was a family.”

Murray's fifth Fringe play following successes with Big Sean, Mikey and Me, Box Man, Bathtime and Allie focuses on club manager George's fictionalised attempt to stave off a hostile takeover bid by gangsters inbetween attempting to stage the best party in the world, where even Dustin Hoffman ans Sting might show face.

“The reason I've written the play is partly to document everything that happened, because there's nothing really online about it,” says Murray. “But it's also to try and make sense of why people come together like that, in a way that's trying to get away from authority and not giving a fuck. There's something great about that.”

In different ways, all three plays are about communities which form, and keep o forming, no matter what levels of gentrification or political disenfranchisement are thrown at them.

“What the Red Shed embodies for me,” says Thomas, “is a place where solidarity still means something, and where anyone can come for help, and that's a very beautiful thing.”

Murray, meanwhile, on the lookout for today's version of the Tardis.

“When I find it,” he says, “I'll let you know, and you can come along to the promised land.”

For Onashile, In Expensive Shit is perhaps more complex than the other two plays.

“I want to celebrate Fela's music,” Onashile says, “but I also want to question certain things. You have to be careful at the end of the play that you don't say everything's okay, because it isn't.”

The Red Shed, Traverse Theatre, July 31-August 28, various times ; The Club, Gilded Balloon Teviot, August 3-29, 5-6pm; Expensive Shit, Traverse Theatre, August 4-28, various times.

The Herald, July 29th 2016


Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Tim and Nel Crouch - Adler and Gibb and Fossils

When Tim Crouch brought his show The Author to the Traverse Theatre in 2010 as part of that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, his dissection of the right to be offensive onstage provoked several walk-outs. While this was in part a conscious provocation for such a reaction, the fact that Crouch's then teenage daughter Nel was ushering the show gave things an extra edge that neither have forgotten.

“I used to have all these irate members of the audience going 'This is appalling',” Crouch senior remembers, “and Nel had to stand there, and all she probably wanted to say was 'That's my Dad.'”

For Nel Crouch, it is the very first Traverse performance of The Author that she remembers.

“About a third of the audience left,” she says. “I've no idea why that was, because it was never that many again, but there is this plant at the start of the show who walks out, so that sort of invites it, and then if people do it means the show is kind of working.”

Six years on, and both Crouch's return to Edinburgh, as Tim Crouch stages a new production of his play, Adler and Gibb, first seen in 2014 at the Royal Court in London, while Nel, no longer ushering, is premiering her play, Fossils, which uses a backdrop of the Loch Ness Monster to explore the idea of people disappearing.

“We were thinking about mythology,” says Nel Crouch, “and the story of the Loch Ness Monster is the biggest myth of all, so we came up with a story about a biologist whose father disappeared when he was searching for the Monster, and we use that as a metaphor for a missing person.”

Adler and Gibb, meanwhile, is ostensibly about a young couple moving into a Scooby Doo style run-down house, but which switches time zones to a decade earlier when a performance art duo lived in the house. Such a description doesn't really do justice to Crouch's biggest theatrical experiment to date.

“You know, my work really lasts forever,” Crouch says of his revival of the play, inadvertently summing up his entire approach to theatre as he goes.

“I've never really seen the point of doing something that you rehearse for three weeks, it has a run and then it's done. Adler and Gibb took five years to put together, and I have a huge investment in this.”

It's an approach that seems to have rubbed off on his daughter, whose work ranges from a pub theatre take on David Greig's play, Yellow Moon, to an all female version of Romeo and Juliet performed by a company who travel the country on bicycles. Crouch's last Edinburgh outing was with her play, Lorraine and Alan, which was a contemporary exploration of the selkie myth, another nautical-based story told to her her by her father, and which has clearly left its mark. Crouch also brought her production of Sabrina Mahfouz's play, The Love I Feel is Red, initiated at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, to Oran Mor in Glasgow earlier this year as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint.

Tim Crouch's own work has woven a quiet but wilfully singular trail through the theatrical landscape ever since he performed his first script, My Arm, at the Traverse in 2003. This followed a career that began with him studying drama at Bristol University, where he formed the Public Parts company with his wife Julia, presenting a series of devised shows in offbeat venues. After stints acting in New York and London, Crouch began to make his own work. This included the Herald Angel winning An Oak Tree in 2005, while two years later Crouch was awarded a Herald Archangel for consistent excellence during the Edinburgh run of his show, England.

With theatre a constant presence around Nel and the rest of the family as they were growing up, it was perhaps inevitable that she would follow suit.

“I'm sure growing up around theatre all the time helped,” Crouch says, “but I was torn between doing theatre or art. My dad used to do summer rep I New York, and I'd go and see the shows ten times during the run, and that's what got me interested.”

Like her father, Crouch too went to Bristol University, where she also co-founded a theatre company, Bucket Club, with whom she will be presenting Fossils.

“After I left Uni I was working out what I wanted to do,” she says, “and if there's one thing I learnt off my old dad it's to just go off and do something. That's what he did when he was in his thirties with My Arm, and that's how everything started for him. It's a bit lame doing exactly the same as him by going to Bristol to do drama and then forming a company, but I love it as well. I wish I could see something they did and compare it with what we're doing.”

Even without first hand experience of his formative work, Crouch is a fan of her father's work, and is looking forward to seeing his new take on Adler and Gibb.

“He's constantly interrogating what acting is and what theatre is,” she points out, “and in Adler and Gibb he's just reducing it and reducing it.”

In terms of how her own work might have influenced her father, and Crouch is more circumspect.

“I don't think it has,” she says. “I'm a lot younger than him, I've not done much, and he's so picky and has opinions on stuff.”

Her father points out that “Nel and I will probably never work together. She's doing something very similar to me in terms of narrative, and I wish her real luck, because I know how hard it is, but she's having a real apprenticeship in Edinburgh in terms of fifteen people living on top of each other and all of that. But I don't feel that I've helped her in any way. All I did was be around that culture which she could swim in.”

While Nel Crouch reads her dad's work, she too is resistant to the idea of them working together.

“I can't think of anything much worse than assisting your dad,” she says. “It would be horrible.”

A mutual sense of pride remains, however, which clearly comes from a sense of play that has been key to family life, and which now pulses both their work.

“I love all the stuff my dad does,” she says, “where form and content are as important as each other. I don't know how he does it, but it's clever, but with this rich vein of comedy running through it. He's a silly bugger as well, which definitely comes through.”

As for her father's view of her work, Crouch recognises an inherent intelligence running through it, but he sounds relieved that there is little in the way of angst there.

“Sometimes misery can be a drive to make work,” he says, “but I don't recognise misery as being an engine that drives Nel. As a father, I'm very happy about that.”

Fossils, Pleasance Dome, August 3-29, 2.40-3.50pm; Adler and Gibb, Summerhall, August 3-27, 5.15-6.45pm.

The Herald, July 26th 2016


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Queens of Syria

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh
Four stars

Out of the darkness, thirteen Syrian women line up wrapped in a multitude of coloured robes and head-scarves. Speaking in their own language, they become the chorus of Euripides' battle-scarred tragedy, The Trojan Women, telling of fictional peers robbed of everything they had by battles not of their making. This is just a prologue, however, for the series of real life testimonies that come from the frontline of the war these women fled from, seeing refuge in strange lands in what they repeatedly call 'the boats of death'.

Over a brooding minimalist underscore, each woman takes it in turn to read letters, to their parents, children, brothers and sisters they left behind. Delivered directly to the audience, the women's' experiences are still raw, and there are moments when you fear they might not get through it. As their words are undercut by more passages from Euripides, however, the women gain strength from Hecuba, Andromache and Cassandra.

Zoe Lafferty's no-frills production was developed out of a drama therapy project and brought to Edinburgh as part of a UK tour in a collaboration forged by the Developing Artists company, Refuge Productions and the Young Vic. If that suggests a show full of liberal platitudes, think again. As one of the women says, they are not here to entertain us. They are angry, and they have a million stories to tell.

The result of this is a dramatic hymn of fury and sorrow, but which, in its delivery, becomes a fearless and profound act of defiance from a disparate group of survivors. By coming together in this way, they have reclaimed a power that speaks much louder than bombs.

The Herald, July 21st 2016


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Horse - Careful

Horse McDonald was in a recording studio in Cornwall when the seriousness of telling her life story onstage kicked in. The Lanark-raised singer/songwriter had just had a two-hour Skype session with writer and actress Lynn Ferguson, her long-term friend and artistic peer, who was turning Horse's true life tales into what has become a one-woman theatre show performed by McDonald called Careful.

With Ferguson in Los Angeles where she now lives, such transatlantic brainstorming sessions had becoming part of the creative process for Careful, and this session had tapped into some of the more painful areas of McDonald's story. Hyped up on adrenalin and the emotional anxiety of revisiting her past, McDonald's asthma kicked in, and a whole lot more besides.

“I was having flashbacks,” McDonald says midway through explaining the roots of Careful, which runs throughout August as part of the Gilded Balloon's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme. “There are a couple of stories in there that I've not visited since they happened. One in particular stems from something awful that occurred when I was about seven or eight. You forget that there's all that stuff down there. My biggest fear is that I break down onstage.”

Given the support she has, both from her fanbase and from Ferguson and theatre director Maggie Kinloch, who is overseeing the show, if such an event did happen, it's likely that McDonald would get through it. This has always been the way, ever since the artist formerly known as Sheena Mary McDonald was growing up gay in a macho town in the 1960s and 1970s. Horse's outsider status has remained throughout a thirty year adventure in the music industry, which has seen her work by turns feted, pigeonholed and at times marginalised, even as her heartfelt songs developed a following which old school major record labels might regard as niche.

“I was never really in the music industry,” she reflects today, some nine albums into her career. “From the outset, I never really fitted in. Any articles about me would go on about this cult lesbian singer from Lanark, rather than me being a great singer or whatever alongside my peers.

“Now Careful has come along at this point in my life, where I ask where I've come from and what I've done, and I think it's got a few important messages in it. I'm talking in it about being part of the LGBT community, because I'm someone who's lived through forty years of struggle, through Section 28, all of that. My life is an example of someone who has been through all of that, and one of the things I can say in Careful is that it does get better. There might be a fear of what people think of you, and part of that could be a fear of what you are, I think that mirrors a lot of people's lives, whether they're gay or straight.”

Named after what is probably McDonald's defining song, co-written with former band member Angela McAlinden and which first appeared on Horse's 1990 debut album, The Same Sky, Careful began from a conversation with Ferguson after McDonald and her wife Alanna were visiting her in America.

“I think I'd been telling my stories since I was ten years old,” McDonald says, “and my wife said to me isn't it about time I did something about getting them out there. I've never really been in, but going through all those traumas again did feel like coming out. “

McDonald and Ferguson had known each other since the 1980s, when they shared bills together, with Ferguson performing stand-up with Carolyn Bonnyman as one half of the Alexander Sisters.

“I love Horse,” says Ferguson. “She's a properly good human being, and when you meet her it's impossible not to love her. Some people might want to marginalise her, because she's gay, because she's androgynous or whatever, but for me, she's a national treasure. She's this lovely person who's been through a lot of s***, and is the most settled, normal person I think I know. What I wanted in the play, and it might be to do with how things are in the world just now, is that all the people shouting are the crazies, and I think we've reached a time where people who are thoughtful, caring and beautiful, like Horse, have to speak out.”

Ferguson wrote the play using a series of storytelling techniques she uses running classes designed to draw out peoples voices enough to reveal the real them. The result is a play structured like a set list, so each story leads to another as a song might.

“I'm sort of teaching myself a new language,” says McDonald. “When I first decided to do it, I thought, I've been on a stage, I'll be fine, but this is very different. People have said to me, it's your story, why couldn't you write it, but what Lynn's done is beautiful. It's like a song, and the way it was written was very similar to the way I wrote Careful the song with Angela McAlinden, passing ideas between us.”

Of the song itself, “Careful is a touchstone,” she says. “It's a thread that's run throughout my entire career. It's the song I always wanted to write. It's my My Way. When I wrote it I thought it was a lovely song, but I didn't realise the impact it's had on other people. The last few years some of my fans have reached out to me, and I never realised the effect it has until that happens. The first time it happened, a family sent me a video of them sitting in a circle, singing it, ad your song's not your own anymore. Music has been such an important thing to me, so when I hear a song that's special to me, I get the gist of what my song might mean to people.”

Like Ferguson, Kinloch was a fan of Horse's music, and when Ferguson approached her to direct Careful, “It was like a Christmas present. She's such a brave and bold performer, and to do something like this, that's not a gig, but is a theatrical experience, I suspect that as a musician she'd just reached a point where she wanted to explore things beyond her music. That's quite a scary thing to do, but maybe it's something to do with where we're at as a society just now, where we need people like Horse to just tell it like it is.”

Beyond Careful, music remains important for McDonald.

“It's like a drug,” she says. “It's something that happened when I was a kid, and started playing the guitar aged ten in my back bedroom. I couldn't talk to anyone, I had no friends and I was very lonely, so I found my own escape. My whole journey has been about getting through all that, and about finding my voice. Now, all these years on, I have my voice, but I also have the joy of performing.”

Careful, Gilded Balloon at the Museum, August 3-28, 7.30-8.30pm.

The Herald, July 19th 2016


Monday, 18 July 2016


Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

A storm may be brewing over London's Docklands at the opening of the third play in Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy, but that's just a hint of the explosion to come when Justin and Julie-Ann attempt to host a dinner party for their respective parents to announce their engagement. As they prepare, hints of trouble ahead are already apparent, both through Yorkshire lass Julie Ann's highly-strung brittleness and the phone calls from Justin's already pickled mother. It is only when ex lap dancer and gangster's moll Paige Petite literally drops onto the balcony from the penthouse suite upstairs, however, that things really start cooking.

What follows once the parents arrive is a devastating portrait of turn of the century Britain riven by a north-south and class-based divide, where the only thing that's on an equal footing is a destructively cloying patriarchal conformity. Director Richard Baron navigates a cast led by Christopher Price as Justin and Kirsty Mackay as Julie-Ann along a magnificent tightrope of tragi-comic grotesquerie, so by the end you're practically willing Justin to go on the run with Gemma McElhinney's already reinvented Paige, saviour complex and all.

While McElhinney taps into Paige's contrary complexities with a fearless mix of vulnerability and in-yer-face emancipation, it is Amanda Osborne as Ab Fab style casualty Arabella who blurts out the play's funniest line. In a world where even Paige's lunk-headed minder Micky finds a sense of freedom while the real bad guys get what's coming to them, the sozzled politesse with which it is delivered sums up the enormity of the social gulf she and everyone else totters so unsteadily between with comic class in abundance.

The Herald, July 18th 2016


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Doctor Faustus

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

The dressing up box sitting at one end of the Kibble Palace is telling about the latest venture put together for the fifteenth anniversary season of Bard in the Botanics. As a clock ticks behind it, here, after all, is the laid out apparel of dress to impress immortality designed for a life destined to be unlived.

After remaining monogamous to Shakespeare's collected works for so long, the Bard in the Botanics company have been tempted by his contemporaries for a new strand dubbed Writing the Renaissance. If setting out its store with Christopher Marlowe's unhinged and altogether wilder play than most of Shakespeare's canon is a statement of intent, the future should be nothing if not lively.

This is especially the case if Jennifer Dick's relentless ninety minute adaptation for three actors is anything to go by. Here Adam Donaldson's bookish Faustus chalks pentagrams either side of a Pandora-like box that sits dead centre on the floor. With Ryan Ferrie's Good Angel sporting a bright blue suit embossed with gold leaf crucifixes at one end of the room, and Stephanie McGregor's gothic sprite Mephistopheles at the other, it is as close a physical approximation of devils and angels looming over Faustus' shoulders as one can get onstage.

As good and evil wrestle for Faustus' soul, a form of celestial cos-play takes place which, stripped back as it is in Dick's production, possesses an intimacy that looks increasingly like a tug of love, where hearts and minds as well as souls are up for grabs. This is accompanied by swathes of sonic sturm und drang, which comes in the form of amplified piano crashes and satanically inclined vocal distortions that could have been lifted from big screen schlock-fests involving massed teenage possessions.

Beyond such technical alchemy, it is McGregor's full range of emotional extremities that is most memorable here. Like a comic book super villainess, her face is a picture of low attention span contortions that flit between manic glee and unhinged fury in a heartbeat. Seen in close up in this way, such a series of facial tics makes for a fascinating reflection of Mephistopheles' tortured psyche. As her presence as demonic predator crumbles with Faustus' own demise, it is the final image of Mephistopheles that is most affecting, as she exits heartbroken, back in Hell once more.

The Herald, July 18th 2016


Planet Pop, Flux and the 20-Year Trickledown Effect to Edinburgh International Festival

When Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan announced his first programme in 2015 would include a gig by FFS, a collaboration between Glasgow-sired art-rockers Franz Ferdinand and post-modern music hall duo, Sparks, it was a headline-catching statement of intent. While previous EIF programmes had featured the likes of rock and roll poetess Patti Smith performing alongside minimalist composer Philip Glass, here was an event rooted in Scotland's DIY pop underground which had subverted the mainstream.

This year, Linehan's contemporary music programme has been developed further. Glasgow instrumentalists Mogwai performing a live soundtrack to Mark Cousins' film, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. Former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat will perform alongside Where You're Meant To Be, Paul Fegan's film that follows Moffat's journey in song around Scotland.

Moffat's performance will take place in The Hub, where Chemikal Underground records mainstay and former member of the Delgados, Emma Pollock, will appear alongside a mini supergroup that includes the Cairns String Quartet and RM Hubbert.

Quebecois apocalypsists Godspeed You! Black Emperor appear in concert at Edinburgh Playhouse, where they will also perform a live soundtrack to dance company The Holy Tattoo's performance of their key work, Monumental. Back at the Hub, Edinburgh's own Young Fathers will play two shows that show off their unique mesh of beats, bombast and electronic fizz.

This comes at a time when a public consultation is being undertaken by City of Edinburgh Council on a legislation which states that all live music must remain inaudible beyond the four walls of the venue it is being played in. While such legislation has been derided as a physical impossibility, EIF's programme highlights the importance of grassroots music venues which are currently being gentrified out of existence across the UK.

This was made clear following the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Lost in France, Niall McCann's new documentary film charting the early days of Chemikal Underground records. The film focuses on one particularly messy French sojourn for the label's roster, who at the time included the Delgados, Arab Strap and Mogwai. Following the screening, Emma Pollock tweeted a picture of the West Bow branch of Sainsbury's Local where a large pub called the Cas Rock once stood.

Without the Cas Rock, it remains unlikely that any of the artists mentioned would have found an Edinburgh venue to hone their craft in a way that has seen them graduate to EIF. It was here too that collective desire to fill a musical gap during August's festival season resulted in Planet Pop, a month long annual festival which began in 1996.

Over twenty nights, one could see Mogwai playing third on the bill to a small audience waiting to see headliners Urusei Yatsura. Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos' early band, The Blisters headlined two nights before, while The Delgados supported Eugenius. Also on show were Edinburgh talents such as Ballboy and Idlewild, the latter of whom again played third on the bill, while Arab Strap played the following year.

“To us popular music was this massive gaping hole in the biggest arts festival in the world,” Jonathan Kilgour, one of the original collective behind Planet Pop and guitarist at the time with Police Cat remembers. “We didn't know what wasn't possible, so we decided to try to fill that hole ourselves.”

A similar idea had been hatched by David Sefton, who in 1993 had started the Meltdown festival on London's South Bank. Unlike EIF, Meltdown ignored categories in favour of a more eclectic approach.

“I was coming to Edinburgh every year with that background,” he remembers, “and was painfully aware that while you'd hear amazing things, at that time in Edinburgh, music was defined as purely classical in the International Festival. This became something of an obsession for me as so much great stuff was happening at the time that wasn't being reflected in the major UK arts festival.”

Sefton was joined by Alex Poots, who has also worked on Meltdown, and, after being rebuffed by EIF, the independently run Flux festival brought the likes of Nick Cave, The Divine Comedy and Michael Nyman to town. A triple bill of Scottish acts at Flux featured Mogwai, The Delgados and The Nectarine No 9. Like Planet Pop, Flux was designed, according to Sefton,“to plug what seemed like such an obvious gap. If you look back to the 1990s, and well into this century, most of the traditional festivals viewed their music programmes strictly in terms of the classical and traditional. Modern music was something written for an orchestra by someone who hadn't died yet.”

While all this was going on, a local operation somewhat fancifully dubbed the House of Dubois was introducing Edinburgh to leftfield electronica and experimental sounds in a way that was way ahead of the curve. One of the House of Dubois' earliest ventures in 1998 was to put on the second ever UK gig by the then little-known Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the decidedly un-rock and roll confines of Stills Gallery on Cockburn Street.

“I felt very strongly that the music I liked, at least, the more experimental stuff, wasn't coming to Edinburgh,” says Christine Wilson, who formed one half of the House of Dubois. “We came up with what now looks like a rather random plan to put GY!BE on at Stills. One of the curators there was a friend of mine, and she was up for it. In all honesty, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was only twenty-three, but the gallery was our idea. We contacted GY!BE, and the deed was done.”

Given the limitations of an art gallery sound system, it was perhaps no surprise that GY!BE blew the speakers, thus cutting the gig short. Within a year, GY!BE were on the cover of the NME and selling out venues ten times the size of Stills.

Young Fathers are a more recent addition to Edinburgh's musical landscape, but have made waves since first forming at the original New Street site of the Bongo Club, now demolished to make way for the controversial Caltongate / New Waverley development after being a gap site for more than a decade.

“Young Fathers have been all around the world at least twice now,” their former manager Tim Brinkhurst points out, “and it’s good for the world to come to them, for a change.”

Why it has taken EIF twenty years to embrace contemporary pop music the way Linehan's programme has is something to do with the sort of resistance identified by Sefton.

“There’s a lot of people still don’t think pop music is art,” Brinkhurst observes. “Just trying to get government to recognise the importance of pop music is painfully slow and in the meanwhile nothing changes. Maybe they should try to imagine what the city would be like without live music, apart from a few weeks every year. A bit like Elmore, Oklahoma?” he posits, referring to the film, Footloose, set in a town that has banned music.

Linehan himself accepts that “live music year round is really complicated in Edinburgh. People are doing really great things here, but institutions in Edinburgh aren't as connected with popular music as they are elsewhere. There's something to be said for rock and roll not being too institutionalised, but popular music is still an outsider artform in Edinburgh, and maybe doesn't get the respect it deserves, but that's changing, and I hope we can continue to be a part of that change.”

As Sefton and Poots went on to run the Adelaide Festival and Manchester International Festivals respectively, in Edinburgh, grassroots initiatives such as Tigerfest, Retreat!, and the Song, By Toad record label's archly named Pale Imitation Festival picked up the slack from Planet Pop. As did the Summerhall-based Nothing Ever Happens Here year-round promotions which have provided a focus of sorts alongside venues such as Henry's Cellar Bar and Sneaky Pete's.

As for the future of EIF, according to Brinkhurst,“They should give Young Fathers a venue to curate every year, with a decent budget so we can get some good stuff on from around the world. Ground-breaking music presented like a cutting edge theatre show, working with top lighting, sound and wardrobe designers. Apart from that, why shouldn’t it be taken as seriously as the other festival elements and included every year?”

Monumental, featuring Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 8-9, 8pm. Godspeed You! Black Emperor in concert, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 10, 8pm.
Young Fathers, The Hub, August 14-15, 9.30pm.
Where You're Meant To Be followed by a live set by Aidan Moffat, The Hub, August 16, 5pm.
Emma Pollock, The Hub, August 25, 7pm.
Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, with a live performance by Mogwai, Edinburgh Playhouse, August 27-28, 9pm.


Jennifer Bailey – Will I Make a Good Father, Mother, Sister?

Collective Gallery, Edinburgh until September 4th
Three stars

There's a deeply personal sense of uncertainty at the heart of Jennifer Bailey's new show, which forms part of the Collective's Satellites Programme 2016, designed to promote work by emerging artists based in Scotland and showing as part of Edinburgh Art Festival. This is explicit in the enquiry contained in the title, and is made even more so by the print stretched out across an entire wall that takes its lilac colour scheme from an old-time John Bull printing kit.

While its patterns resemble the sort of flowchart favoured by management training types, its words refer to the everyday contradictions between work, rest and play, a serious concern for Bailey's generation, many of whom work two or three jobs to make ends meet. On another wall, a head and shoulders photograph of Bailey's sister resembles a byline shot for a works magazine or a security pass dangling from a lanyard. Next to it, three small ceramic sculptures are miniature expressions of the infinite pressure to clamber up the battered ladder of success. Dissected, collected, archived and rubber-stamped in this way, life and art intersects in an all too real meditation on making it in every way.

The List, July 2016


Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Mayo Thompson - Well Red

When the Crayola company began to manufacture packs of crayons in 1903, they introduced kids to hitherto unknown multi-coloured artistic possibilities. Taking the ‘Cray’ from the French word for chalk, and the ‘ola’ from oleaginous, or oily, they also introduced new semantic potentials into the mix. Beginning with just eight colours, by the turn of the millennium they were producing 120 different hues, including 23 different shades of red.

The Red Krayola are a band formed in Houston, Texas, almost 40 years ago and still a going concern. They may have changed their ‘C’ to a ‘K’ after Crayola took legal action over their original name, but as an organisation, they too have expanded, morphed, reinvented, accommodated and appropriated an ever-expanding palette of multi-coloured strategies.

In 1967, when Mayo Thompson, Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham first released their debut album, The Parable of Arable Land and its follow-up, God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail with It, The Red Crayola’s extremes, freeform freak-outs and all, were considered too wigged-out even for the peace and love generation. The band imploded at the fag-end of the decade, and Thompson put out a solo record, Corky’s Debt To His Father, before effectively being locked out of the love-in.

Yet, as the spokesperson of The Red Krayola, Thompson has remained a Zelig-like figure, a free-thinking, dialectically inclined Dr Seuss, always on the inside of the outside, landing in the right place at the right time. This was the case whether working as assistant to pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, joining forces with the conceptual art collective Art & Language, or becoming in-house producer for the nascent Rough Trade record label, where he took a hand in what are now considered to be post-punk classics by such bands as The Monochrome Set, The Fall and The Raincoats.

Thompson was associate producer for Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last of England. He also talked Jarman into making videos for The Smiths. He had supermodel Rachel Williams pose for the cover of his 1995 album Amor and Language, penned essays for exhibition catalogues and, during the past decade’s incarnation of The Red Krayola, has worked with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, David Grubbs and other younger musicians centred around Chicago’s Drag City label.
Today, when he’s not lecturing in sound at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design in California,Thompson resides in Edinburgh. After releasing a singles compilation in 2004, The Red Krayola is now poised to release a new album, Introduction, while a documentary is currently in development, to be directed by Chicago film-maker Amy Cargill. At the same time, the band’s association with Art & Language is to be reignited via a long-gestating operatic project, Victorine. At the age of 62, Thompson, it seems, is still seeing Red.

"Red is a concept," he ruminates in his down-home Houston burr, contemplating the possible roots of his band’s name. "And there is something that is red. That’s an interesting thought, to think that there are shades of The Red Krayola. Sky red. Pink. Crimson, I don’t know. The thing I liked about the name was that it was a child’s expressive instrument. It’s the next step after fingers, and red is the basic colour. I’m pretty sure that between black and white, in the middle, somewhere between these two extremes, there is red."

Such an observation may be why Thompson named The Red Krayola’s 1999 album Fingerpainting. It also goes some way to explain the child-like glee with which he operates. But it hasn’t always been this way.

"I was in a bad mood for about 20 years," says this man of impeccable Texan good manners. "I was out of the music business effectively. It was like being in Hollywood and you knock on the door, you open it up and you walk in, and it’s just a fa├žade. That was a revelation," he admits today. "Then I got involved with politics, and I think that’s what put me in a really bad mood. With this tension between revolutionary thought and revolutionary practice, there’s always a kind of contradiction. After a while I realised that for my own purposes the contradiction was in keeping with that Left idea, to jack up the volume of the contradictions. Make them sharper, make ’em deeper, make ’em tougher, make ’em harder, make ’em more real, make ’em more powerful, make ’em inescapable, undeniable."

By the early 1970s, Thompson was working as an assistant to Rauschenberg. Thompson met him by chance in Paris, and cemented their friendship by writing blurbs for a forthcoming exhibition.

"He’s like Midas," says Thompson. "He’s got this in-built ability to not put anything in the wrong place, and I got to watch him work, and got to meet Cy Twombly, Leo Castelli, all these people who made American art history after the war. I also got to learn some stuff about how artists function. Because artists complain as a way of bragging. ‘Oh, I’ve gotta go to South America,’ and all this stuff."

Thompson became involved in a film about Rauschenberg, but was taken off it when he fell out with his mentor over politics.

"He eventually said that he always thought of himself as a loose Communist, and then realised he was actually a happy capitalist."

There’s little rancour left now, however.

"He’s done a damn sight more for the commonwealth than I have," Thompson admits, "and I will always have total respect for him. He’s a freedom fighter."

It was around this time too that Thompson began his extended association with Art & Language, the conceptualist collective founded on both sides of the Atlantic to explore lines of critical practice.

"I knew who they were from ’69 on," Thompson says, "but didn’t really get to meet ’em until ’73. Then I came over here and met Michael Baldwin and Philip Pilkington and Charles Harrison and those people."

When he invited members of the collective to express their opinions on Corky’s Debt to His Father, a not altogether favourable response caused Thompson threw down a gauntlet.

"I said, 'Well, why don’t y’all write some lyrics if you think that there’s another way of doing this? If you think this is bullshit, let me hear what you think ain’t bullshit.' They gave me some very consequent stuff, which was historically related and embedded in a deep understanding of English history, and touched on linguistics and analytical philosophy."

From the resulting 74 sets of lyrics, Thompson created Corrected Slogans, a densely populated album that somehow mixes an untutored, music-hall vibe with English folk airs, heavy theory and stand-up pranksterism. It also carries a palpable sense of liberation, whereby serious artists, of all people, are actually getting to be rock stars.

Thompson became a key figure in Art & Language, moving between the increasingly polarised London and New York factions and running the group’s journals, The Fox and Art-Language.

"We formed an alliance," is how Thompson sees it. "We had strategies, and this whole strategy got to be a way forward, a way of sorting out who was who and what was what in Art & Language, and what direction it was gonna take. You get involved in the conversation, and you think, This is the conversation. This is the one."

Around 1976, Thompson moved to London, where he was a key creative force behind the Art & Language performance video, ‘Nine Gross And Conspicuous Errors’. But it was an intense and volatile organisation, prone to schisms, and Thompson fell out with the group. The video was never released, though footage would later emerge in Art & Language’s 2005 exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London, where it came complete with karaoke opportunities. It was also presented alongside an exhibition in Nantes, France, earlier this year.

Thompson returned to music, collaborating for several years with Pere Ubu, the Cleveland band whose ideas were clearly rooted in The Red Krayola’s oeuvre, and who appeared on the 1979 Red Crayola album, Soldier Talk. An inevitable falling in with the fledgling record shop and label Rough Trade followed. In response to its DIY ethos, Thompson formed a Red Crayola ‘supergroup,’ featuring members of The Raincoats, Swell Maps and Lora Logic from Essential Logic.

The band’s first single, the dense and dubby 12’ cut, ‘Micro-Chips & Fish,’ was unjustifiably damned by John Peel as ‘arty shit’. The follow-up, the soundtrack to Lizzie Borden’s feminist future fantasy film, Born In Flames, found Thompson reunited with Art & Language. With the new supergroup loose-fit enough already, A&L stuck to writing duties for the era-defining 1981 album, Kangaroo?

"I think they’d missed us writing songs together," says Thompson, "and they liked the idea that they’d made this record, and began to appreciate the differences it made to their own practice and their own discourse. Something that art has had to face up to is that people who like art also like other forms of culture and other ways of doing things. There were people who admired Art & Language for their art, but who also liked the music."

The imagw on the cover of Kangaroo? was based on a painting by German expressionist Georg Baselitz. By depicting the eponymous marsupial inverted, it suggested the world really had turned upside down. Its tracks boasted titles such as ‘The Principles Of Party Organisation’ and ‘The Mistakes Of Trotsky’ and, given the militant climate of the times, its clattering, junkyard-Brechtian cacophony sounded like a manifesto. For sure, in the album’s accompanying booklet, each set of lyrics came complete with a short commentary.

"The philosophical premise of the record," Thompson points out, "was Socialist-Realist. It was a what if …? record. What if there was a record that took this idea seriously? What does socialist music sound like today? But ultimately it was a miscalculation. If it was a strategy to reshape the language and revolutionise the times, it failed signally."

While ‘Prisoner’s Model’ was a pithy assault on officialdom’s patronising embrace of art therapy for prison inmates, ‘Portrait of VI Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock Parts I and II’ was part of a much bigger Art & Language project, which included an essay published the previous year. The single, ‘An Old Man’s Dream’, was based on a German poem by Max Horkheimer, which concerns Freudian psycho-analysis in a bourgeois state. Despite this, it was a girly swoon of a song and Thompson was convinced it would make Top of the Pops. Then again, as an arch commercialist raised on doo-wop as much as Duchamp, why wouldn’t he?

"Pop songs are really free-standing things," Thompson points out, "and they can be surrounded by other things which are unlike them. Life’s a jukebox. Programme it. Have fun. Whereas in art, it’s much more tendentious in respect of the way meanings work. If you insist on pointing to the instability of certain kinds of functions, you’ve gotta do a lot of work to prove it."

The follow-up Art & Language collaboration, Black Snakes (1983) was altogether smoother and funkier, but The Red Krayola have yet to make Top Of The Pops. In 1986, Art & Language were shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Gilbert & George won it, though Derek Jarman was also on the shortlist.

That was year of The Smiths’s album, The Queen Is Dead, for which Thompson persuaded Jarman to direct a promotional video. The following year came The Last Of England, Jarman’s savage anti-Thatcherite montage of guerrilla film-making. Thompson wrote a song for the soundtrack, which he persuaded the film’s star Tilda Swinton to sing.

"It was something like working with Art & Language," Thompson says now, "convincing people whose natural domain is not music to sing. To win their trust really, and to say, 'It may feel funny for you, but I swear to you it works.'"

Decamping to Germany for several years, Thompson penned two yet-to-be-published novels, collaborated on exhibitions, and eventually met David Grubbs, who introduced Thompson to the Drag City crowd. He moved back across the Atlantic, and a third phase of Red Krayola activities began.

There has been no formal involvement between Art & Language and The Red Krayola during the last decade, but the title of the album Amor And Language (1995), which included contributions by visual artists Albert Oehlen, Christopher Williams and mainstay Stephen Prina, referenced the past directly.

The image on the back cover of scantily clad supermodel playing dead was, Thompson points out, "Oehlen’s idea of a joke. Christopher Williams calls me and says his teaching assistant works for a supermodel. We meet Rachel Williams, and she did that cover for zip. It was a great cover, but it generated brouhaha. People said it was sexist, because we’d taken pictures of a woman being dead. But it all worked out, because Rachel had also been a graduate student, and wrote a piece on Jeff Koons in which she didn’t slam him completely, but found something favourable there."

On the front cover, Williams wields a movie camera, and inside she brandishes a Red Krayola lyric book. If the images are knowingly Warholian, by coincidence, Thompson’s neighbour in California these days is sometime Warhol ‘superstar’ Mary Woronov.

Since 1995, Drag City has reissued the bulk of The Red Krayola’s back catalogue. Apart from the instrumental soundtrack to the film, Japan in Paris in LA (2004), another work concerning the nature of the artist, 'Introduction' is the first full-length Red Krayola album of new material since Blues, Hollers and Hellos in 2000. Thompson insists it’s "The friendliest record we’ve made since Corrected Slogans."

Thompson is also confident that the opera Victorine will be ready for production in 2007, more than 20 years after its original libretto was published in Art-Language. At last sighting, Victorine concerned a French policeman who mistakes the nude figures in paintings by Courbet and Manet for a serial killer’s victims. As you do.

"I see some of the strategies we developed in the ’60s have now proliferated and become ‘ways of working’," observes Thompson. "If that shows we were on time with our thinking then I’m pleased about that. But where this leads, I have no idea. I can maybe see it in form and possibly some political content. But has the rest of the world caught up? That would suggest I knew where I was."

MAP magazine Number 6, June 2006


Lynda Radley - The Interference

At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, Lynda Radley is sitting beside a group of American exchange students who have just spent the morning taking part in a workshop led by theatre-maker Kieran Hurley. After lunch they'll be getting on with rehearsing Radley's new play, The Interference, which was written specifically for them.

As Radley talks, their voices rise and fall behind her. They could be any students from anywhere, with all the excitement and high spirits being abroad brings with it. When these young people from the Malibu-based Pepperdine University step back into rehearsals, however, they will be squaring up to a troublingly prescient issue issue which could conceivably affect every single one of them.

The Interference is set on an American university campus, where a female student is raped by a sports star. While her predator is clearly guilty of the crime he has been accused of, it is his victim who is treated as though she is the one on trial in a damning indictment of privilege and institutional complicity in the demonising of the sports star's victim.

This sounds frighteningly familiar to the recent real life case in which Californian swimming star Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault on another student, but sentenced to just six months confinement followed by three years probation. If this is a frightening coincidence, Radley's initial inspiration for the play came from much closer to home.

“There was a video of Stirling University hockey team,” Radley says of a notorious incident which happened in 2013. “They were filmed on a bus singing these incredibly misogynist songs, and everyone around them being incredibly intimidated.”

As can be seen in the video, when a woman stands up to the hockey team, she is rounded upon and told to get of the bus. An elected member of Stirling University's student union stands by. The video is still freely available online.

“I was also thinking of what happened at Glasgow University Union,” says Radley, of the institution that only admitted women in 1980 after a long campaign, “where, at the debating society, women debaters were shouted down with sexist comments.”

Then there was the St Andrew's University student who was jailed in 2015 after being convicted of on-campus sexual assaults, and the thirty-four per cent of female students who indicated in a newspaper poll last year that they had experienced sexual assault or abuse.

“At the same time I was becoming aware of these things,” says Radley, “I also became aware of incidents in America of women who were raped at universities more interested in protecting their sports stars.”

Radley's story about a woman called Karen who experiences something similar may be fictional, but even though her writing predated the the Brock Turner case, its shadow looms large. The case went viral, not just because of the sentencing, but for the victim's 7,000 word courtroom speech which explained exactly how Turner's actions affected her.

“When you're writing something for twelve young performers,” says Radley, “you want to write something that is relevant to them. Of course, we couldn't have predicted the publicity that the Brock Turner case was given, but because of the woman's letter and her extraordinary courage in the courtroom, it went viral.

“What's tragic about it is that, although it's unique, there are lots of cases like that, and the story we're trying to tell echoes that. This is something that goes back generations in terms of rape and sexual assault on campus, especially where the attacker has a talent or is a star, and how that skews justice.

“I think that sort of thing is ingrained in culture in general, and one of the things we've been looking at is the risks we all carry round with us, when people ask what the woman was wearing and if she'd been drinking, so there's this ingrained form of victim shaming going on.”

The Interference is the latest fruits of Pepperdine Scotland, an ongoing cultural exchange between the Malibu-based Pepperdine University's Department of Theatre and Scotland's theatre community led by Playwrights' Studio Scotland and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. While Pepperdine has been bringing work to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 1985, the exchange began in 2012 with the Peter Arnott scripted Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?

Like that play, The Interference is directed by Cathy Thomas-Grant, who has been working on Pepperdine shows for the last sixteen years. Her production here features sound and music by composer Michael John McCarthy, who is also Radley's partner and a creative collaborator dating back to Radley's solo show, The Art of Swimming, which was first seen at the Arches in Glasgow a decade ago.

The Interference grew out of an initial development period with Radley working with the students in Malibu.

“There are lots of different voices in the play,” says Radley, “and that makes for a real cacophony of sound. There are teachers and parents and lawyers in the story, and there's a whole online section as well. Some of these are trolls, and some are Karen's friends instant messaging each other, and you see all the things that might discourage someone from coming forward and telling their story.

“We're telling Karen's story, but we're also trying to show that a rapist isn't necessarily who you think it is. It's not the guy in the ski mask, and when it's someone who's held in high esteem, and is someone who we might like, it becomes difficult, and that's reflected back on the victim. It goes back to when you're kids, and when people say, oh, he was only pulling your hair because he likes you. In the American situation, there's an economic imperative as well, and it's slowly coming to light that these things have been kept quiet to support campuses.”

Highlighting such institutional complicity in warping justice in this way is educational on every level.

“One of the things I feel strongly about,” says Radley, “is the need to teach consent to young people from an early age. It doesn't have to be heavy, but I think we need to do that, not just because we want young people to understand the law, but so we have responsible juries, and parents and teachers who are going to deal with incidents of rape compassionately instead of victim blaming.”

At the play's heart, however, is a painfully recognisable human tragedy.

“The most important thing for me is to tell Karen's story,” says Radley. “And for the audience, instead of having that thing that it's nothing to do with me,to sit back and think about this. Because victims of rape are anonymous, it's important that they're given a voice. It's extraordinary when you read the young woman's letter in the Brock Turner case. The power of having a voice really matters.”

The Interference, C Chambers St, August 3-16, 3.45-5pm.

The Herald, July 12th 2016


Monday, 11 July 2016

Paul Klee – Ghost of A Genius (1922)

I had a postcard of this for years. At first glance, it initially looks like the figure in the painting has two heads that are separated by a row of guitar strings, then when you look closer you see it's just one massive head on this long neck and skinny body. Even though the figure is standing disembodied on this kind of khaki-ish background, which he both blends into and stands out from, like he's looking into a mirror, there's a movement and musicality about it, like he's shaking his head so the guitar strings twang in this blur of motion.
I imagine him as a character in a 1950s Halas & Batchelor cartoon set against a blaring jazz soundtrack that plays as this strange little figure goes about the world having adventures and getting into absurdist scrapes while looking for inspiration, which he then goes home and paints.

The List Edinburgh Festivals Magazine, July 2016, commissioned as part of a multiple-authored piece I response to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's Edinburgh Art Festival show, Facing The World: Self Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, which runs from July 16-October 16 2016. The article also featured work by Laura Campbell, Rachael Cloughton, Rosie Lesso and Susan Mansfield.


Sunday, 10 July 2016


Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

The London Docklands des-res is as blandly immaculate as the soundtrack that accompanies it at the opening of the first in Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy of plays. For teenage schoolgirl Sorrel and her nice but dim best mate Kelly, however, it's about to get very messy indeed. First seen in 2001 and revived here for Pitlochry's summer season, the play's initial aspirational gloss is soon picked at by director Richard Baron to expose a dark-hearted twenty-first century farce of cracked morality, where everything is up for sale.

Sorrel's dad has walked out on her and her mum Lynette, who's taken a cleaning job after the dot com crash. The enterprising Sorrel, meanwhile, has set herself up in the online sex business, and, co-opting Kelly as her maid, sets up shop for some very special homework. The shenanigans that follow as Sorrel and Kelly prepare for their first client could have been lifted from Feydeau and given a contemporary kick by Martin Amis in a literary alliance with call girl blogger Belle de Jour, so hysterically wrong do things turn out.

It is the play's second half of bible quoting coppers, predatory hacks and where every male character is a creep of one form or another when the play's grotesquerie kicks up a gear. Kirsty Mackay and Gemma McElhinney let rip with comic abandon as Sorrel and Kelly, making for a spirited adolescent double act. McElhinney is a hoot as Kelly, while Mackay lends Sorrel a bluff vulnerability in a turn of the century tale of redemption coming through flesh and blood reality in the face of first world adversity.

The Herald, July 11th 2016


The Lonesome West

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

The felt-tip and sticky-taped on V shapes that adorn the dilapidated living room occupied by the two warring siblings at the centre of Martin McDonagh's 1997 play say everything about their relationship. As daubed on by a bear-like Valene marking territory from his biscuit tin of booze to his mantlepiece of religious figurines, the V could be for victory, however pyrrhic, over his equally volatile brother Coleman. If not, it could be marking out the v that divides gladiatorial combatants before they go into battle.

This is evident from even the most casual of sparring as Coleman and Valene return from their father's funeral with Father Welsh to act as referee as much as failed spiritual guide. Temptation for them all comes in the form of teenage wild child Girleen. Left to their own devices, however, Coleman and Valene continue a tug of war that increasingly becomes a very dangerous matter of life and death.

Andy Arnold's new production of McDonagh's manic sit-com adds nuance to an increasingly crazed situation, never allowing Keith Fleming and David Ganly's ferocious double act as Coleman and Valene to over-heat in the way that Valene's figurines do after they're thrown unceremoniously into the stove like born again tin soldiers at the gates of Hell. Biblical references are there too in Michael Dylan's Father Welsh and Kirsty Punton's Girleen. These are at their most obvious in the

rally of confession and forgiveness that sees the brothers square up to each other across the kitchen table. Like grand-masters in search of checkmate, as they attempt to reconcile their differences, the only thing left for them to have faith in is each other.

The Herald, July 11th 2016


Nicky Wilson - Jupiter Artland

As the name implies, once you step through the gates of Jupiter Artland, you are in another world. While Edinburgh city centre is a building site driven by a money-driven cartel of property developers, hoteliers and supermarket chains in collusion with the local authorities, a half hour bus ride out of town to West Lothian offers sanctuary of the most imaginative kind.

For a decade now, Jupiter Artland's science-fiction styled sculptured landscape has played host to a series of temporary and permanent architectural interventions that allow contemporary artists' work to breathe in a way that the restraints of a walled institution wouldn't allow for.

Beyond the verdant greens and lush blue pools of Cell of Life, American architecture theorist and critic Charles Jencks' manufactured landform that greets visitors, are more than thirty permanent works. These include piece by the likes of Nathan Coley, Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley, Jim Lambie and grand-daddy of environmental interventionists, Ian Hamilton Finlay.

When the Foundation opened for this year's season in May, it saw the permanent collection joined by two new additions. Animitis is French sculptor Christian Boltanski's first outdoor work in the UK, while Scottish artist Alec Finlay has made a new orchard-based work, A Variety of Cultures.

Temporary works include Piss Flowers by the late Helen Chadwick, songbirds creating music with electric guitars by French artist, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, in From Here to Ear, and a new floor-based piece by Glasgow-based Hayley Tompkins.

Jupiter Artland was created and is privately owned and curated by art collectors Robert and Nicky Wilson in the hundred-acre grounds of their home in seventeenth century Jacobean manor house, Bonnington House. As Jupiter Artland, the grounds have been open to the public since 2009, since when it has developed an expansive programme which has tapped into an increasing profile for sound and environmental-based art.

For the Wilsons, Jupiter Artland is clearly a labour of love, which, despite its non-institutional status, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Museum of the Year Award.

“It was our dream,” says Nicky Wilson of her front garden. “We couldn't just keep the door locked and keep all this to ourselves, and since we opened it quite literally has grown. Charles Jencks' works took five years to grow, and that was a real test of our mettle.”

With an ongoing emphasis on showcasing younger artists alongside more seasoned practitioners, Wilson resists theming her choices, although she does concede that this year's work “all has a sense of humour and slight subversion of the norm, but in a way that audiences can continue to engage with.”

A new indoor gallery space was completed in 2015, while an ongoing Learning Programme is becoming an increasingly key component of the Jupiter Artland ethos.

“There is a huge need for cultural engagement with schools and mental health groups,” Wilson says. “Art is a very valuable part of life's richness. One thing property developers never consider is how people relate to their environment. What we do at Jupiter is continue to honour and beautify the landscape in a way that people can engage with art at the lightest level.”

Wilson's personal connection to her programmme at Jupiter Artland is plain.

“I was taught by Helen Chadwick,” she says of the Turner nominated artist, “and seeing Christian Boltanski's early exhibition when I was a young artist in London completely changed my world, and I want Jupiter Artland to be a Wonderland which everyone can explore. We live in the middle of it, and I live and breathe it. I go to bed looking at the sculptures, and we are absolutely rooted in it. It is our life.

“We're not a huge, heavy institution. By making it that it becomes about joy and community. We want people to be happy looking at the work, and to be able to look at it in a way that isn't about institutional pomposity. Jupiter Artland is meant to be magic. That's all we wanted. We need a bit of Wonderland in people's lives.”

Jupiter Artland is open to the public every day throughout July and August, and from Thursday to Sunday in May, June and September, both from 10am to 5pm until September
The List Edinburgh Festivals Magazine, July 2016

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Karine Polwart - Wind Resistance

Karine Polwart has spent a lot of time watching the geese fly above her home close to Fala Flow, a windy peatbog in Midlothian, south east of Edinburgh. The end result of Polwart's observations is Wind Resistance, a music-led performance piece produced by the Royal Lyceum Theatre company in association with Edinburgh International Festival, where the show makes its world premiere next month.

While it forms part of EIF's contemporary music programme, Wind Resistance is a theatrical piece overseen by stage director Wils Wilson, and with dramaturgical work by playwright and the Lyceum's new artistic director, David Greig. For an artist like Polwart, who is best known for her folk-based songs but steeped in an oral storytelling tradition, this isn't as big a leap as it first appears. It is telling, however, that Greig and Wilson's last collaboration was on The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an intimate music theatre piece that reinvented the Border ballad tradition for the twenty-first century. It was the geese, however, that was the show's starting point.

“I love geese,” says Polwart on a break from rehearsing Wind Resistance. “My home in Midlothian is a flight path for geese, and I've watched them every year, and had no idea why they fly. But there's the way they rely on each other, and operate as a huge dependent family. Each one takes a turn at the front, and they all have a turn and watch each other's backs as they fly.

“That made me go off on a tangent about the elegance of the goose skein,” Polwart says of the v-shaped formation the birds fly in, “and made me think of the ways we're contracted to look after each other, like with the health service, and social things that we work out co-operatively. That's where my politics come from.”

With some two and a half thousand pink-footed geese making the annual migration to Fala Flow, the regarded as being of major ecological importance at an international level, and is an official Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as being a Special Protection Area.

“There's a little loch high above the Forth Valley, which I had no idea was an ecological sanctuary,” Says Polwart, “and that resonated with other things. High above it as well are the remains of a chapel, which used to be a mediaeval place of sanctuary, and this whole idea of sanctuary, and how we help each other's back became part of it as well.”

Polwart developed her ideas into a series of songs and texts that became an early version of Wind Resistance which she performed in the bar of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where she'd invited David Greig to the performance.

“It was raggedy and half-formed,” Polwart remembers, “and the pages were sellotaped together, but David rang me the next day and said he wanted to do it as a show, and if we could get some publicity material together over the day we could get it in the programme. I'd seen Prudencia Hart and loved it, so what a gift of an opportunity, to work with both David Greig and Edinburgh International Festival, and then bringing in Wils Wilson as well.

The next piece in the jigsaw came from Polwart's involvement as co musical director of Pilgrimer, novelist James Robertson's Scots reimagining of Joni Mitchell's 1976 album, Hejira. This was performed at the 2016 edition of the Celtic Connections festival in January, when Polwart brought in composer Pippa Murphy as part of the team. Murphy coincidentally lives in the next village to Polwart, and seemed a natural fit too for Wind Resistance, as did designer Miller Clark for what is now a fully fledged theatre show that nevertheless aims to retain the intimacy of Polwart's original Traverse performance.

“When I did the read-through,” says Polwart, “it was just a one-woman show. Now, my gags have evolved into stories, and I'm going to be working on a theatre set. Sound is a big component of it. It's not just songs, although there is a mix of my own songs, songs by others and traditional material, but now it's not just something that's being told in the first person. There's much more of an over-arching story now. There's a documentary aspect, but there's a mythical aspect as well that's about the symbolism of birds. There are pre-recorded songs and speeches as well, so the sound is doing a lot of work, and as an acoustic performer it's very much taking me out of my comfort zone. Normally I might do one night at the Queen's Hall, but Wind Resistance is on for seventeen nights.”

In terms of form, Polwart mentions the narrative-based shows by activist and comedian Mark Thomas as an influence. She also mentions iconic American performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose work she became “obsessed” by.

“She combines song, story, obsessions and political meditations. I think that will definitely be palpable here in my writing as I try to bring ideas about ecology and other things into it. Mark Thomas as well, the way he manages to be wry, and looks at things through a particular person. There's something about the way he does things that makes you think about what my place in the world means to me.”

Having studied politics and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Polwart “had a narrow escape from working in academic philosophy, but over the last few years I've been asked to write essays on various things, so now I write essays like a songwriter. I'm not an actor, but I am able to tell stories, and anyone who's been to one of my gigs in the last five years will have heard me talk about birds and how important they are to me, but with Wind Resistance there's a narrative arc that runs all the way through it that's very different to doing little set pieces.”

While Wind Resistance is ostensibly still a solo show, Polwart revels in the sense of community her artistic collaborators bring to the show. This in itself is a political act.

“I work in a field where collaboration and co-operation is at its core,” she says. “I've experienced that very profoundly in the folk scene, where collaboration is at its heart, so I was really cheered that it's the same at the heart of the theatre world.

“I'm a little wary to say this, but a lot of that desire to co-operate is to do with the Scottish independence referendum. A lot of people met and came together, and it was an exceptional time, but the folk music scene has worked like that for years. I met Pippa Murphy because I was working with James Robertson, and I met James Robertson because I was working on something when the referendum was going on, and that's how it works.

“With the referendum, people were trying to create a culture that was about big ideas, but ideas that weren't separate from each other. It wasn't to do with what people's views were on the referendum, but the fact that everyone was doing things, and this project could only happen after that.

“The importance of working together, and not being isolated, is really important in the face of this threat of neo-liberalism, which just wants us to be cut off from each other. How much we share and connect with the experiences of others in the faces of those just out for themselves is at the centre of our existence right now.”

She pauses.

“Really, it's just putting two fingers up to neo-liberalism.”

Wind Resistance, Rehearsal Studio, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 4-21, 8pm (except Aug 15-16); Aug 6, 13, 20, 2pm.

The Herald, July 5th 2016


Monday, 4 July 2016

Silver Threads

Paisley Arts Centre
Three stars

When you're handed a flyer supporting the workers while DJ Big Div plays civil rights tinged 1960s soul records, one might think Bruce Morton's new play is looking at a more recent protest movement than it is. Especially when a series of paisley pattern projections hinting at trippy Happenings to come punctuates each scene. In fact, Morton's hour-long comedy presented by producers Jim Lister and Stephen Wright's grassroots FairPley company is set in 1856 Paisley, when the weavers who produced such swirly patterns were fighting for a living wage.

The play focuses on Davie McKenzie, who starts both his day and the play by punching a horse, and ends it by resisting the financial advances of works foreman Andrew Galbraith, his integrity intact. Inbetween, he comes into contact with real life emancipated slave and funk-soul brother Frederick Douglass, all the while running the gauntlet of his much put-upon wife Hannah.

All this is presented in Philip Differ's one-off showcase production in a mixture of monologue and routines that show-off Morton's stand-up roots by way of some hip to the minute colloquialisms that mashes up past and present with possible futures ahead. With Morton himself playing a Scrooge-like Galbraith opposite Neil Leiper, who plays Davie as a hapless galumph with a heart of gold, the play taps into a form of righteous localism that may be rough around the edges, but has the audience booing the boss's lackey. As part of the welter of activity on the back of Paisley's bid to become UK City of Culture 2021, radical history reinvented as a sit-com with a conscience is a fine way to start.

The Herald, July 6th 2016