Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Richard Findlay obituary

Born November 5 1943; died July 8 2017.

Richard Findlay, who has died after a short illness aged 73, was a rare breed in the boardrooms of the numerous arts organisations he chaired. Unlike some of the familiar merry go round of Scottish establishment patricians looking to up their status by taking on such a role, Findlay cared deeply about the arts. This was the case whether as the inaugural chair of the newly set up National Theatre of Scotland in 2003, or stepping in to steer Creative Scotland out of a mess of the organisation's own making in 2015. The latter followed a period when Scotland's arts funding body had become mired in a culture of managerialism that lost the faith of the artistic community the organisation was there to serve. Such a culture was counter to everything that Findlay stood for.

As an actor, Findlay played small parts in several TV dramas. It was behind the scenes in broadcast media where Findlay would excel, however, particularly in local radio, where he proved to be a pioneering and steady hand. It was an interest Findlay retained throughout his life, latterly through New Wave Media, run by his son, Paul.

Richard Findlay was born Dietrich Rudolf Barth in Berlin. His father was presumed to be killed in action while fighting on the Russian front. His mother Inge was working as a translator with the British Occupation force in Germany when she met Captain Ian Findlay, and the pair married. The Captain returned to Edinburgh with Inge, Rudolf and his older sister Linde, where, in his new Scottish home, Rudolf became Richard.

The children had to learn English quickly, which they did through the pages of comics the Dandy and the Beano. Perhaps it was here that Findlay developed his sense of humour that he retained throughout his life along with a twinkle in his eye that co-existed alongside his ability as a shrewd boardroom operator. With his mother speaking English in an American accent, and with post-war anti German sentiments rife, Findlay was smart enough to cover his tracks by pretending she actually was American.

This acumen for play-acting led to Findlay enrolling in what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow, where he later sat on the Board of Governors between 2000 and 2004, after which he became chair of the RSAMD Trusts until April 2008. As a student, Findlay studied the Diploma in Dramatic Art from 1960 to 1963. Before his first year was out, he had taken the title role, albeit with seven others, in a production of Peer Gynt, Ibsen's rollicking fantasia about a wide-eyed young man's travails throughout the world.

Findlay also appeared in the likes of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Hobson's Choice. He was a one man Chorus in Antigone, and played Camillo in The Winter's Tale. In his final year, Findlay won second prize in a BBC competition, which came with a six month contract. Findlay made his small screen debut as a monk in a version of The Brothers Karamazov, before playing three separate roles in This Man Craig, the secondary school set drama that starred John Cairney as an upbeat science teacher, and which gave early roles to a host of now well known actors, including Alex Norton and David Hayman. Findlay also appeared in another drama series, The Revenue Men.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Findlay flirted with pirate radio, working on marketing for Radio Scotland (not BBC Radio Scotland, which wouldn't begin broadcasting until over a decade later) and Radio London. With the demise of the pirates, Findlay worked as a continuity announcer on the BBC, before spending a year in Saudi Arabia setting up an English language radio station. On his return to Edinburgh he met Elspeth Menzies. The pair married in 1971, and he spent the rest of his life with her. In 1972, Findlay joined the Central Office of Information's radio division in London, and he and Elspeth moved to East Sussex, where they converted a fourteenth century tithebarn.

In 1973, Findlay joined the newsroom of the newly established Capital Radio, and also formed Waverley Radio to compete for the east of Scotland license won by Radio Forth. Findlay joined Forth as programme controller, and his voice was the first to be heard on the fledgling station. After a false start, a shake up saw Findlay appointed chief executive of the station, and he was instrumental in helping regulations to be relaxed in a way that allowed Radio Forth and Radio Clyde to merge in 1991 as Scottish Radio Holdings.

In the early 1990s Findlay became chair of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where Kenny Ireland was appointed as artistic director. Over the next decade, Ireland's tenure gave the theatre an extra swagger. Findlay operated with similar boldness in 2003 when he was appointed founding Chair of the National Theatre of Scotland, and Vicky Featherstone became inaugural artistic director. The new company's radical Theatre Without Walls model allowed the company to make its mark in a different way than might have been expected by long-term campaigners for a national theatre. The early runaway success with John Tiffany's production of the Gregory Burke scripted Black Watch put the company on a global stage.

In 2007, Findlay became chair of a then floundering STV, and in 2009 was made a Fellow of his old alma mater, now the RCS. Other appointments included chair of Lothian Health Board and Rector of Heriot Watt University. In 2013, Findlay was made a CBE for services to the arts and creative industries.

When he was drafted in to sort out Creative Scotland in 2015, his wisdom and calm expertise was welcomed by an artistic community who had been driven to despair by the quango's disastrous and alienating propensity for behaving as if it were a private enterprise. One suspects his work to change the toxic managerialist culture within the organisation had barely begun before he took ill, and he will be a seriously tough act to follow.

For all his boardroom skills, friends of Findlay talked of his brilliance at spotting talent, and of his over-riding sense of joy with the world. They talked too of Findlay as an innocent who never expected to find himself occupying the positions within the worlds of arts, media and business that he did with such quiet diligence and care.

For any arts organisation to thrive, it takes a boardroom visionary to have faith and confidence enough in the artists creating the work to allow them to take risks. This was something Findlay understood with a sense of empathy and understanding of how art works in relation to other factors, and which gave them confidence to thrive. All of this was done with a selflessness that many arts bureaucrats could learn from. Findlay never wanted anything from his achievements, one friend said. He just gave.

Findlay is survived by his wife, Elspeth, their sons Adam and Paul, daughter Hannah and six grand-children.

The Herald, July 19th 2017

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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Zinnie Harris - Oresteia, Rhinoceros and Meet Me at Dawn

Zinnie Harris may have three plays on at this year's Edinburgh International Festival, but as she wishes to make clear from the off, it's not a retrospective. The fact that one of them is a speedy revival of a work originally presented as a trilogy, one a new adaptation of a twentieth century classic, and one a brand new work, seems to validate the increasingly prolific Edinburgh based writer and director's claim. The three productions also see Harris and EIF teaming up with three of Scotland's major producing houses as well as enabling an international collaboration with a company from Turkey.

First out the traps for the Harris season, if we can call it that, is Rhinoceros, a new version of the 1959 play by Romanian absurdist and contemporary of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, in which the population of a small French town turn into rhinoceroses. Often read as a warning about the rise of Nazi-ism before World War Two, director Murat Daltaban's co-production between the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and the Istanbul-based DOT Theatre should be given new relevance by recent events in Turkey and elsewhere.

The day after Rhinoceros opens, the Traverse presents the first preview of Meet Me At Dawn, a brand new play by Harris, which uses the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as a starting point for an exploration of loss and grief. Traverse artistic head Orla O'Loughlin will direct.

The Citizens Theatre's revival of Oresteia: This Restless House, Harris' epic reimagining of Aeschylus' ancient trilogy of tragedies continues Harris' drawing from Greek roots. Dominic Hill's mighty production duly won him the 2016 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland Best Director award, while it was also named as Best Play. Harris followed this up by scooping this year's Best Director award for her own Lyceum production of Caryl Churchill's play, A Number.

The latter point is telling, because, while all three of Harris' EIF plays come from classical roots, as with Churchill's work, they all deal with both the personal and the political in ways that play with narrative form. Despite Harris' experience writing for television on shows such as Spooks, all three are steeped in various forms of theatricality which wouldn't translate easily to the small screen.

“They are all very different pieces of work,” says Harris. “People are going to see a range of my writing, but hopefully they'll also see where my writing overlaps, and what it is I've been trying to do with each of them. This Restless House feels like something that's been tried and tested, whereas Meet Me At Dawn and Rhinoceros are going to be evolving in the rehearsal room.

“What's nice about revisiting a piece of work is that you get a second chance to fine-tune. That's a completely different level of interaction and process to Rhinoceros, which I'm working on in a much more muscular way. Then, because Meet Me At Dawn is brand new, it feels like a completely different proposition, and one feels a certain level of nervousness as one puts it out there. It's quite close to me in some ways. It's much more an exploration of a set of emotions, and a quieter tale that feels closer to my experience and the experience of others, maybe, than that big Greek epic story.”

A little Greek can still be found in Meet Me At Dawn, however, which Harris describes as “a story of a woman's journey through grief. My inspiration was Orpheus and Eurydice, but in fact it parts from that almost straight away. What I think is interesting about Orpheus and Eurydice is the obsession to see their loved one one more time, and I just took that as a jumping off point, really. Orpheus was allowed to walk out of the Underworld in the belief that Eurydice was following him, providing he never actually saw her, and what I suppose is my sort of thought experiment, is what if you did actually get to see the departed person, but it was in a very time limited way, so you literally got a day. What would that day feel like, what would it be like?

“I think the thing about Greek is that it can comes from a place of magical thinking, because you can get lost in the what if of things. What if this had played out differently? What if that accident hadn't have happened? What if these events had turned out another way? I think we can collectively do that sometimes when a political event goes the wrong way. You spend weeks going, what if that hadn't happened, and those processes of denial and self delusion almost happen in those moments too.”

Harris was writing Meet Me At Dawn in the wake of the result of the Brexit referendum, “when there was probably a lot of collective denial and disbelief and lack of acceptance in lots of different ways. Not just personally, but also politically, and I suppose I felt that exploring the what ifs and the land of Never-Never seemed like a fruitful place for a play.”

In a post-Brexit world, Rhinoceros heightens such notions even more, particularly given the current state of political affairs in Turkey.

“There was always a sense that we had to get this on quickly,” Harris says of the play, “because the world is changing so fast. People often say that Rhinoceros is a play about the rise of the right. To some degree it is, but I actually think it's a play about a crowd mentality suddenly coming up with a way of looking at the world that feels completely at odds with something that they would've thought a few months before. It's about that moment where there's a sort of collective turning on their head of upheld principles, and how there's something scary and unstoppable about that. Once that starts, there's a momentum and an energy to it that you can't really stand up against, and that I think is utterly timeless, because we don't know what's going to happen.”

The umbilical threads that bind each of Harris' EIF plays may not be obvious, but, again, as with Caryl Churchill's work, the meeting of the personal and the political are at their heart.

“I think they are all stories that combine a kind of personal moment of crisis against a backdrop that's either political,” says Harris, “or else they have to work their way out of something that's constraining them. In Meet Me At Dawn, there is the moment of crisis, which is the understanding that these two people have lost each other, and somehow work out a way to contain that and cope with it. In a sense, the whole play is about coming to terms with those things, and dealing with the hand that'd been dealt. In all three plays I think there is something about the personal experience, and looking at that in a contemporary context against a backdrop of constraint.”

Rhinoceros, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 3-12, 7.30-9.40pm; Meet Me At Dawn, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 4-27, various times; Oresteia: This Restless House, The Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 22-27, 6-10.25pm.

 
The Herald, July 18th 2017

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Monday, 17 July 2017

Queen Lear

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

“When the mind is free,” says the terrified old lady at the centre of Jennifer Dick's female reworking of Shakespeare's mightiest tragedy, “the body is delicate.” With Janette Foggo's matriarchal Lear having alienated her entire brood both from herself and each other, there's a double edged sword to such a proclamation, that is a cry for help as much as attention. In Dick's Bard in the Botanics production, however, Lear sees as much or as little as she wants to.

There are hints that the ageing Queen is losing her senses from the off, as she attempts emotional blackmail on her three kids, only to set off the ultimate family feud. It is telling too that, while her two daughters Regan and Goneril are at each other's throats, Lear dotes on her youngest, who here has been transformed from Cordelia into a geeky boy called Cornelius. He would rather play the fool than be molly-coddled, and when he disguises himself in clown make up as Poor Tom, his mother latches on to his new persona as a surrogate to stave off her son's seeming rejection.

All of this is played out on designer Gillian Argo's rustic shack, decorated with stags skulls that suggest any lingering male influence has been dealt with good and proper. Wearing jumpers and jodhpurs, the six actors onstage look like they've stepped out of a James Cowie painting. Composer Sally Simpson's underscore mixes cracked folk mournfulness with a storm that seems to have erupted from a BBC Radiophonic Workshop out-take. It is a mother's fear of being deserted by her offspring, however, that leads to her saddest of downfalls.

The Herald, July 17, 2017

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Measure For Measure

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

Temptation is everywhere in Gordon Barr's stripped down adaptation of Shakespeare's negotiation of power and justice, which for his Bard in the Botanics production becomes a simmering treatise on male privilege. Here, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is a Mad Men style boss who goes on sabbatical so he can keep an eye on the little guys beneath him. In true locker room fashion, he hands the keys to high office over to pious young pup Angelo, whose uptight manner can't resist falling into bad habits. This comes in the shape of trainee nun Isabella, who, in a bid to save her wild child sister Claudia from execution, is prepared to give away every virtue she has.

With only four actors to play with, and with Claudia a female composite of Shakespeare's male original, Barr's production cuts to the play's patriarchal heart. As church and state conspire to save their male skins, Vincentio's Machiavellian tendencies look almost filmic in Kirk Bage's tightly focused delivery of an establishment figurehead who looks after his own.

The production also contains a quartet of some of the finest performances you're likely to see on a stage for some time. As well as Bage, Adam Donaldson's Angelo is a self-flagellating adolescent, whose growing pains of sexual repression make him look like he's about to burst into tears or else soil his trousers. Isabella's difficult choices are captured by Nicole Cooper with a glance. It is Esme Bayley as both Claudia and Vincentio's compromised secretary Escalus, however, who expresses every complex distillation of personal politics the play is loaded with in its knowing nod to the normalisation of everyday misogyny.

 
The Herald, July 17th 2017

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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Adam McNamara - Stand By

Adam McNamara really enjoyed watching TV cop shows when he was growing up in Dundee. When he signed up to become one of the boys in blue, however, any resemblance to much of the on-screen action was incidental. A decade since he left the force to train as an actor, and with stints onstage in Black Watch and more recently on the West End in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child under his belt, McNamara has attempted to set the record straight.

This comes in the form of Stand By, an intense and claustrophobic new work, which attempts to show the tedium and frustration of a thin blue line on the verge of action, but forced to hang fire until the moment is right. Rather than give vent to the on-stage equivalent of car chases and gun-toting stand-offs, McNamara's play aims to get behind the police's public image.

“It's not a cop drama,” he says on a break from the first read-through of the play earlier this week. “It's about the humans behind the uniform. Having been a cop, I always felt watching them on TV that there was something missing, and the portrayals of them were kind of stuffy. I thought I'd have a go at doing something that showed off some of the humanity that exists among police. Their lives can be pretty dramatic without all the cliches that come out on the TV.”

The roots of Stand By Me stem from a TV drama McNamara was trying to write which featured a few scenes in the back of a police riot van. It was these that stuck out for Black Watch writer Gregory Burke when McNamara showed him his script in search of advice.

“The seed was planted, and a few days later I came up with the idea of having four cops in a riot van waiting for the disposal of a situation.”

This particular situation is a domestic dispute, in which negotiators are attempting to reason with a man wielding a samurai sword holed up in his flat. Out of this, the audience get to witness what McNamara calls “a pressure cooker situation, with all the frustration, comedy and internal politics between the police that brings out.”

What is unique in the story's telling is that the audience get to eavesdrop on action which the characters onstage are not party to through ear-pieces which they wear throughout the performance.

“I don't think this is something that's ever been done in theatre before,” says McNamara. “It's airwave radio, so you can hear some information before the people onstage do.”

Stand By is produced by Utter, the company formed by director Joe Douglas, and is being presented in association with the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, where it previews prior to an Edinburgh Fringe run as part of the Made in Scotland showcase of home-grown work. It also forms part of Army @ The Fringe, a British Army initiative, which houses Stand By alongside five other professional works with military themes in a drill hall in Edinburgh's New Town as part of Summerhall's off-site programme.

Such a setting may not be too far removed from McNamara's early days as a fitness instructor prior to him joining the police aged twenty-three. Having wanted to be an actor since an early age, he joined an amateur dramatic group with a colleague before applying for drama school.

“As much as I loved being in the police, there wee elements I'd started to dislike,” he says. “All the bureaucracy made it feel like I'd joined a secondary rat race, and it seemed like there was far too much paperwork going on when I'd rather be out catching criminals.”

As an actor, McNamara has perhaps understandably been cast as a fair few policemen on-screen, including in several episodes of EastEnders. In terms of any TV cop shows that broke the mould to serve up something resembling reality in relation to what Stand By is attempting, it's hard not to think of The Cops, which ran over three series in the early noughties. The documentary style programme, overseen in part by Scots director Kenny Glenaan, was controversial enough to see the sort of official police advice standard for police dramas withdrawn for the second series. In this respect, McNamara's presence makes Stand By something of an inside job.

“My aim is to try and write something that's never been written about before,” he says. “A lot of police men and women are restricted from having an opinion, but I don't have to worry about that anymore, so I can say what I like about how things really are.”

Stand By, Byre Theatre, St Andrew's, August 4-5; Summerhall, Edinburgh, as part of Army @ The Fringe, August 11-26, 6.45-8pm. The play tours Scotland in the autumn.
www.summerhall.co.uk


The Herald, July 13th 2017

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Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Sound of Yell – Light the Currents (Infinite Greyscale)

Music and art are hardly strange bed-fellows, and indeed the liaison has been an ever-fertile breeding ground for cross-artform collaborations. As releasing records has become a more bespoke affair, editionising what’s effectively several works of art in one has made for creations of rare beauty. So it goes with the Glasgow/Berlin-based Infinite Greyscale label. This new release ticks all the above boxes as part of their exquisitely realised 10” singles club, which has previously hosted work by German electronic duo Mouse on Mars and composer Holly Herndon.

This latest opus from Glasgow's Sound of Yell compounds and emboldens the label's aesthetic at every level. Released in a numbered edition of 300 on single sided aqua-blue vinyl with a screen-printed B-side visualised by Ulrich Schmidt-Novak, and with handmade artwork by label bosses/ curators Paul McDevitt and Cornelius Quabeck.

Sound of Yell is the chameleon-like project of Stevie Jones, whose peripatetic musical adventure began in the 1990s with recently reignited post-rock instrumentalists El Hombre Trajeado, before playing with the likes of Arab Strap and Alasdair Roberts. As Sound of Yell, Jones' ever-expanding ensemble has at various points included former Nalle viola player Aby Vulliamy and vocalist and electronicist Kim Moore, aka WOLF. Jones joins the musical dots with this low-key musical community as and when required.

Following the full length Brocken Spectre in 2014 and the Fortunate Fume single the year after, both on Chemikal Underground, a second collection remains pending. This two-part composition is a fully rounded entity in its own right.

Part 1 of Light the Currents was written for a performance at Dundee Contemporary Arts in October 2016 as part of an event to coincide with the major exhibition of work by the late Katy Dove. For the occasion, Jones enlisted flautist Georgie McGeown, Trembling Bells drummer Alex Neilson and vocalist, artist and fellow member with Dove of Muscles of Joy, Vikki Morton.

The result is a bright and jaunty affair, which buzzes in as Jones' busy picked guitar lays down its rhythmic steps that are driven by Neilson, over which McGeown's flute melodies waft in and out. Morton's vocal, augmented by McGeown's harmonies, serves up a pastoral meditation which, all wrapped up in pitter-patting skitters, blossoms into a creation cluttered with an intense sense of life which off-sets the circumstances surrounding its origin.

There's nothing whimsical at play here. A muscularity is at the heart of the song's concentrated insularity, giving it confidence to burst into the open and flower into a fleet-footed dancing bird. At the end, the little flourish that finishes the song seems to take a bow.

Part 2 was written in immediate response to both the exhibition and the experience of playing at it. Wordless, it sounds more reflective, instruments tip-toe around each other, circling woozily until flute, recorder and guitar find common ground on a record produced and presented with every ounce of love it deserves.

www.infinitegreyscale.com
www.soundofyell.co.uk

 
Product, July 2017

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Jac Leirner – Add it Up

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until October 22nd

Giving up smoking can do weird things to people. Just ask Jac Leirner, the Brazilian artist whose work was first seen at the Fruitmarket in the 2015 group show, Possibilities of the Object: Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Art. Cigarette butts, aeroplane ash-trays and rolling papers are some of the materials used in Leirner's first solo show in Scotland, each lined up and transformed into obsessively regimented arrangements that come on like Joseph Beuys with OCD.

The most striking thing to hit you first, however, is Blue Phase (1991), in which 50,000 obsolete Brazilian bank-notes are laid out on the floor in two rows that snake across each other, graded in a way that focuses on colour rather than monetary worth. Elsewhere, materials from hardware shops are lined up side by side in order of size and colour. Where, on their own, the spirit levels of Levelled Spirit (2017) the cords of 120 Cords (2014) and the rulers of Metal, Wood, Black (2017) might be dismissed as workaday accessories kept at the back of the tool shed, hung side by side they create vivid pictures of a world where everything is in its place and there's a place for everything.

Little Light (2005/2017), which lines up two miles insulated copper wire threaded from the plug, reveals Leirner as a DIY grafter on several levels. There is a self-effacing wit at play too, most apparent in Woman & Man (2014), in which arrangements of ropes and chains serve up a basic biology lesson.

Other source materials aren't initially easy to spot, with the 2,448 white rolling papers of Skin (randy King Size Wired) looking like some retro-futurist wall-hanging, As the tellingly titled The End (2016) transforms a bin full of joint roaches into a criss-crossing mobile, all this looks like aversion therapy on a scale grand enough to prove addictive.

 
The List, July 2017

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Jaimini Jethwa - The Last Queen of Scotland

Jaimini Jethwa was one year old when she and her parents were forced to leave Uganda and move to Dundee. That was in August 1972, when Uganda's larger than life president Idi Amin had ordered the expulsion of all 80,000 Asian Ugandans from the country within a ninety-day period or else face the consequences. Before they left, Jethwa's father had his own business, but Amin took that and everything else he had. When Jethwa's family arrived in Dundee, her father had £7 in his pocket, and they were housed on a council estate in Fintry.

With little memory of the country where she was born, Jethwa and her family were the only family of colour on the estate. Any discussion within the family of who they were and how they ended up there was taboo. Jethwa became a film-maker, has worked on short films for the BBC, and developed specialist skills working with vulnerable young people and adults. Even though she was now based at Abertay University, she still had questions she wanted to ask about where she was from, and why as a child she'd been scared to go outside for reasons she couldn't understand.

Jethwa was coming up to her fortieth birthday, and was in Spain. Conscious of how her own anniversary tallied with the fortieth anniversary of the expulsion, she found herself writing a poem. It wasn't a documentary poem like the films she worked on, but was something both more personal and dramatic. Jethwa wanted to expand on this, and, through Creative Scotland's International fund, visited Uganda. Once here, she talked to people who knew Amin and others who had lived through his terrors.

The result of this is The Last Queen of Scotland, Jethwa's new dramatisation of the Asian Ugandan experience in response to being forced into exile by Amin's brutal regime. Produced by Stellar Quines Theatre Company with support from the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep, the play, like her prodigal's return, has seen Jethwa to face up to some of her personal demons.

“In a way it was me trying to find Idi Amin,” she says, mid-way through talking about a journey to writing The Last Queen of Scotland that was as much a mental and emotional one as it was physical. “I was reading books and watching films, and just became immersed in everything about him. It was like I was with Idi Amin all the time. He saturated my brain, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. To exorcise the trauma I had to get close to him, so close that it made me sick, because I was frightened.

“It was the same as when I was a toddler, and I was scared to go out because I was frightened of seeing soldiers on the street. I didn't know where that came from, because, culturally, Indian people don't like to talk about what happened at all. Indian people are very good at moving forward. It was just something that happened, and then you moved on. I began to become aware of it all when I was about sixteen, and I started to make correlations in my mind. I decided that I had to face up to my fears, and the only way of doing that was by going back to Uganda.”

By this time, Jethwa had met Giles Foden at a symposium in London. Foden's novel, The Last King of Scotland, was a fictional account of Amin's regime which went on to be adapted for a film directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Forest Whittaker and James McAvoy. After Jethwa explained to Foden the story she wanted to tell, Foden gave his the then unwritten play and its name his blessing.

“A lot of people who came from Uganda were sent to Leicester,” says Jethwa, “but we ended up in Dundee. When I started researching Idi Amin and learnt about his obsession with Scotland, it made me think, because he took Uganda off me, and we came here, and then he wanted to take Scotland off me, and I thought, nah, you're not having that.”

Rather than tell her own story, Jethwa has fleshed out her play with her a fictional account of a young woman older than her, and who remains more aware of what was going on when she left Uganda.

“I decided I wanted to do something that was visceral,” says Jethwa, “and which was something that could touch people. This is my love letter to Dundee for giving me a life. It's a local story in that way, a community story. Dundee was quite a tough city when I first came here, and the play looks at trying to fit in. The character in the play gets into some very dangerous situations, and I think what I want the play to shed a light on is how she comes through that. One of the reasons I wanted to get this story out there is for people who are going through something similar now, and who might be confused about it. It's also about owning your own history, and to not be ashamed of it.”

As directed by Stellar Quines artistic director and former head of Dundee Rep, Jemima Levick, and

performed by Rehanna MacDonald, The Last Queen of Scotland previews in Dundee before forming part of this year's Made in Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“We're living in a different cultural climate,” says Jethwa. “Dundee is a multi-cultural city now, but if you go to the outskirts, like any place there's still some old school ideas around. Other than that, Dundee has been transformed.”

Jethwa illustrates this with a story that took place just before she visited Uganda.

“I was really nervous about going, and I went to the pub and bumped into these black Ugandan people. I was just staring at them, and eventually went and talked to them. It turned out they were at the University and were staying in Dundee. Part of me thought that me going to Uganda was going to be the end of my life, but these people put me in touch with their pals over there, and were really helpful.”

As a film-maker, Jethwa is conscious about wanting her story to reach as wide an audience as possible. If her play was to be filmed, there is so much she could expand on, she says. As a play too, Jethwa wants The Last Queen of Scotland to leave its mark.

“I want to try and open up theatre in a new style,” she says. “So many stories about refugees are restricted to black and Asian theatre, and one of my challenges is to get this to a mass audience. I would like to see it put on in Uganda, as well as other places where there is a big issue of segregation. That story is relevant anywhere. It's not just about refugees, but obviously where we are politically just now makes that really important as well. There were people coming over here from Uganda who didn't have a choice where they lived, and who came here with nothing, but it's not just about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. It has to have a resonance about human beings anywhere.”

The Last Queen of Scotland previews at Dundee Rep, July 21-22; Underbelly, Edinburgh, August 3-26, 6.50pm
www.dundeerep.co.uk
www.underbelly.co.uk


The Herald, July 11th 2017 

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Monday, 10 July 2017

Irineu Destourelles – Unturning

Summerhall, Edinburgh until July 16th

On opposing walls, two films play out in silence, each offering different interpretations of the truth, as if on either side of an invisible barricade before battle – intellectual or otherwise – commences. On one screen, in Mr Butterwick Remembers Mrs Thatcher, a former Fife miner and veteran of the Thatcher years recounts his personal observations of some of the epochal moments of 1980s Britain. Over eighteen minutes this moves from the Irish Troubles to the Poll Tax, taking in the Falklands War and of course the Miners’ Strike inbetween. Behind the black and white footage of Gordon Butterwick, in living colour, an edition of Jeremy Kyle's daytime TV freak-show plays out. Opposite, Glossary of Political Words gives definition to a set of twenty-first century keywords of political discourse that cut through the managerialist spin with deadpan cynicism as each word is flashed up in turn.

Butterwick's words are revealed only in subtitles beneath his image as he talks, while the glossary is given a quiet formality as each definition prints onto a rich blue backdrop. The gladiatorial hysteria of Kyle's programme too has been silenced, while the noise normally associated with protest has been muted.

The effect of this in the first film is to be able to watch without prejudice. There’s no accent, dialect or sense of where Butterwick has come from other than the words projected below him. He is articulate and engaged, a voice of experience who lived through Thatcher's attempt to destroy the working class. The 'silencing' of Mr Butterwick also recalls the absurd state of affairs when Thatcher's government banned the voices of Irish republicans from broadcast media, which TV and radio editors got round by having actors read their words over muted footage of interviews.

The second film looks to Raymond Williams by way of Roger's Profanisaurus, the potty-mouthed glossary of sexual euphemisms in Viz, the long-running adult comic which at times brutally depicts images of a Kyle-esque underclass who are the second and third generations of Thatcherism. Disenfranchised, the only outlet for their anger is in the vulgarian stand-offs played out with pantomime aggression mediated by Kyle and other ringmasters of poverty porn.

As a Portuguese emigre who grew up in the shadow of dictatorship, Destourelles' world-view brings an informed curiosity to his depiction some of the more volatile examples of British working class history and its ever-changing political discourse. For the viewer, there are choices to be made and sides to take. Do they sit and watch each film in turn, or do they try and watch both at once, caught in the crossfire of information from either side?

Thus far, the defining works of art to have come out of the strike are Billy Elliot and Battle of Orgreave, Jeremy Deller's filmed reconstruction of one of the strike's pivotal moments, when a new civil war spilled onto the Yorkshire streets. Unturning may be more complex than both, but, like them, it taps into a sense of roots and community that questions received notions of history and challenges those in power who get to write it.

Product, July 2017

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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Douglas Gordon - Black Burns

Rabbie Burns might not know what's hit him once Douglas Gordon gets hold of him. Or rather, the full length marble statue of Burns created in 1824 by John Flaxman and currently standing in the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh might not. The statue, originally housed in Thomas Hamilton's Burns Monument on Calton Hill, is the inspiration for Black Burns, a response to Flaxman's original by the Berlin-based Glaswegian. The result literally breaks down perceptions of Scotland's much revered national bard, who stands as the only full figure in a room full of busts.

“My initial idea was to have all the busts turning their back on Burns,” says Gordon, “so you had all the other characters ignoring the central character. Then I began to be intrigued by the way he was ivory coloured, which made me think about his history with slavery, and I thought, why not take this white man and turn him into a black man.

“I'd already started working with marble, and I found this wonderful black piece that was about the right size. We did a 3D scan of the existing sculpture, and made a mini Burns to see how it looked. It's being finished in Italy, where we're polishing him up, and then what we're going to do is shatter him, and bring him in bits.

“Burns did have to polish up his act. He had to change his language to make the move from being a farmer to becoming this Edinburgh society chap, and that must have left him shattered. It does when you have to become something else. I left Scotland thirty years ago, and I have to practice my accent every day.”

Gordon is possibly known best for his monumental film works, including his 1993 solo show at Tramway, 24 Hour Psycho, and his 2006 Mogwai sound-tracked homage to footballer Zinedine Zidane in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. More recently, the1996 Turner Prize winner has kept himself busy with projects including acting and writing. In 2013, he played a leather-clad trucker who befriends an eleven year old girl fleeing from her abusive father in fashion designer Agnes B's film, My name is Hmmm...(Je m'appelle Hmmm). In 2015, his play, Neck of the Woods, opened at Home in Manchester, where Gordon damaged one of the venue's walls with an axe.

Black Burns is the result of a long-standing invitation from the SNPG for Gordon to create a new work. As his last statement hints at, there is a personal impetus driving the end result.

“I'm about to make a phone call to my mum and dad to see if they can find a certificate for recitation which I was given at school. Rabbie was omnipresent in that way when I was younger, but as you got into music it faded away. Then as you get a little bit older you realise there's something more mutual going on.”

This trajectory is very much in keeping with that followed by Gordon's friend and Glasgow School of Art contemporary, Graham Fagen. Whether through accident or design, Black Burns will sit in the SNPG alongside The Slave's Lament, Fagen's own take on Burns, which reinvents the bard's lyric in a reggae version performed by vocalist Ghetto Priest in a new arrangement by composer Sally Beamish. Born from a long-time love of dub which ran alongside Fagen's Ayrshire roots, The Slave's Lament was Scotland's entry to the 2015 Venice Biennale.

“Graham got into reggae through The Clash,” says Gordon. “We were in the same class, and we were in the Mack doing a life drawing class, and the rumour went round that the Clash were playing the Rock Garden on Queen Street. One by one everybody dropped their charcoal and left, until there was just this naked woman left in the room. It was, “Gordon says of the Clash's legendary 1985 busking tour that would also see them set up in GSA's Vic Cafe the next day, “the most disruptive time we ever had.”

As both artists pursued their respective careers, reggae and Rabbie continued to loom large.

“It will have been different for Graham because he grew up in Ayrshire, whereas I'd been in Maryhill and then Dumbarton, but if you came from a certain background, which invariably involved heavy drinking, you were going to be aware of Burns.

“I went to London, and there was something in the air. I lived in Camden and had friends in Brixton, so there was always something going on. I got into Adrian Sherwood's On-u-Sound stuff, and I remember coming to Edinburgh to see Tackhead. But being away from Scotland, Burns becomes this totemic and anthemic figure, so he's still omnipresent. I used to do these Burns suppers, and they were quite messy affairs. It's even the case that my dad's birthday is January 25th. I like the idea as well that Ghetto Priest has got a gold tooth, and so have I.”

More than thirty years on, and with The Slave's Lament most likely to be audible while Black Burns is in the house, the Clash-inspired pair of Gordon and Fagen are still disrupting things.

“That sort of interference could work really well,” says Gordon of the relationship between the two works, “and the intention between Graham and I in having both things in there at the same time is to set up a kind of game between them. Just to invite two Partick Thistle fans in is amazing, and I don't want to undermine that. I want to make something that's contemporary rather than historical.”

While preparing to install Black Burns, one of Gordon's many projects is a planned film adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2010 novel, Point Omega, which features references to 24 Hour Psycho, with one of the book's narrators obsessing over the installation's details as he watches it all day long. Gordon first got wind of this through an email he received in 2008, but didn't take it seriously.

“I didn't even respond,” he says. “I thought it was some scamp taking the piss, and then I got sent a draft. After it came out, a friend said to me that I'd kidnapped Alfred Hitchcock's film, and now someone's kidnapped my idea, so why not buy the rights to the book.”

With plans to shoot in the Highlands, Gordon has also spent much of the last two years working on a film about Lithuanian born avant-garde film-maker Jonas Mekas.

“Mekas was born in a farming village the same as Burns was,” says Gordon, “so working on these two things at the same time seemed to make quite a lot of sense. Burns was very much a man of the soil. He was such an earthy man. It turns out as well that there are more statues of Burns than any other person. I was going to say any other living person, because it feels very much like he's alive, and since we started on this I've come up with another couple of Burnsesque ideas, so this may be the start of another furrow to plough.”

Gordon laughs at his own joke.

“With this,” he says of Black Burns, “I don't know if it's a shattered portrait of a man or a portrait of a shattered man...”

Douglas Gordon: Black Burns runs as part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2017 at Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, July 29-October 29.
www.nationagalleries.org


The List Festival Guide 2017, July 2017

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The Lying Kind

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

Christmas comes early to Glasgow theatre this year, in the form of Andy Arnold's summer revival of Anthony Neilson's grotesque suburban farce. First seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2002, the show opens on Christmas Eve, with hapless bobbies on the beat Gobbel and Blunt forced to do their duty by informing an elderly couple of the woefully unseasonal death of their daughter.

Except, as the pair dither on the doorstep before being allowed over the thresh-hold, things don't quite work out like that. What follows is a riotous set of slapstick routines that lob assorted contemporary grenades into a well-trodden comic path. The obligatory vicar is caught with his pants down amidst major misunderstandings galore, but the festive romp also takes in anti paedophile vigilantes, a pair of frisky pensioners and a Lazarus-like Chihuahua.

As the boys in blue who bite off more than they can chew, Michael Dylan and Martin McCormick are a deadpan delight as Gobbel and Blunt. Their physical tics seem to have lurched straight out of a silent movie in the face of the potty-mouthed mayhem around them. In this respect, they are like a pair of bumblingly inept Viz comic coppers come to life through an increasingly ridiculous set of sit-com style subversions. There is game support too from a rollickingly good supporting cast led by Anne Lacey and Peter Kelly as the seemingly bereaved parents. Neilson's yarn may not be much more than naughty fun, but as scurrilous a piece of nonsense as it is, it retains a self-effacing moral high-ground which suggests some things are better left unsaid.


The Herald, July 10th 2017

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Thursday, 6 July 2017

True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh until October 29th
Four stars

In the shop of Modern 2, the postcard reproductions of some of the eighty paintings brought together for this bumper compendium of 1920s and 1930s British realism are racked next to those of Ladybird book covers and vintage posters advertising Scottish holiday destinations. This may be a happy accident, but in their complimentary depictions of idealised versions of brave new post-war worlds, they are all too appropriate aesthetic near neighbours.

While the blast of World War 1 exploded Dada and other abstractions into noisy life elsewhere, here the landscapes look unsullied, their occupants impeccably turned out. Over four rooms we see that world at work, rest and play. From the Italian inspired co-opting of bustling communities and religious iconography in the first, the second room's set of portraits flit from the windswept idyll of James Cowie's much seen A Portrait Group (1933/about 1949) to haughty-looking women playing cards alone.

This not only points to tweedy subversions that would come later, but sets the template for TV production designers working on post-modern Agatha Christie remakes. Algernon Newton's Canal Basin (1929), meanwhile, which sits in the third room's collection of rural and urban still lifes, sets the tone for former Clash bass player Paul Simonon's own Thames based paintings a few decades later.

It is the fourth room's cavalcade of picnickers, hikers, circuses and funfairs that really capture a new sense of a new leisured class. It's no surprise that Fortunino Matabia's Blackpool, originally commissioned for a London, Midland and Scottish Railway poster, was also used to advertise the northern English fun palace as a holiday town. The realism here, then, is far from gritty, and, as everyday experiences are writ large in the likes of Edward Burra's The Snack Bar (1930), this particular truth points to the brightest of futures.

The List, July 2017

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Heathcote Williams obituary

Heathcote Williams – Poet, playwright, visionary
Born November 15 1941; died July 1 2017

Heathcote Williams, who has died aged 75 following illness, never rested in expressing his anger at an unjust world. Barely a week seemed to go by without some eloquent epistle appearing, either online in reinvigorated counter-cultural newspaper International Times, or else in YouTube montages, with Williams' words often read by actor Alan Cox. Williams' poems were up to the minute documentary polemics took on the establishment that bred him with forensic laceration and an intellect and wit that punctured pomposity at every turn. This was the case whether attacking the Queen in Royal Babylon: The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy, fellow old Etonian Boris Johnson in The Blond Beast of Brexit: A Study in Depravity, or what he saw as as the obscenity of Donald Trump in American Porn, published this year on the day of Trump's inauguration as president of the United States.

In this way Williams followed in the tradition of political pamphleteering, and was both an old school classicist and a utopian romantic who channelled the anarchic spirits of Swift, Blake and Shelley. As a playwright, his first play, The Local Stigmatic, was championed by Al Pacino, who produced and starred in a film version, while his lavishly illustrated ecological epics, Whale Music, Sacred Elephant, Autogeddon and Falling For A Dolphin were performed in Edinburgh, and were broadcast on television. Autogeddon inspired Julian Cope's album of the same name.

Williams was at the heart of the 1960s and 1970s counter cultural underground, both with the original incarnation of IT, and as an activist in the London squatting scene, and ran the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff 'estate agency'. He was one of the main players behind the squatters state of Frestonia in a yet to be gentrified Notting Hill, where his polemical graffiti became a feature. With Williams as UK ambassador, Frestonia declared independence from Britain, producing its own postage stamps featuring the face of London Zoo resident, Guy the Gorilla.

Over the next half century, Williams retained a revolutionary spirit that combined righteous anger with a playful disrespect for authority which, in the current global climate, seems to have found its time again. In this respect, Williams was more than a counter cultural agitator, but was a prophet and visionary whose beautiful truths argued for a better world.

John Henley Heathcote Williams was born in Helsby, Cheshire, the son of barrister Harold Heathcote Williams and his wife Julian (nee Henley). He was educated at Eton and studied law at Christ Church, Oxford, but didn't finish his degree. Williams real education, as he described it, had begun when he started to visit Speakers Corner in Hyde Park from the age of twelve. Williams collected money for a tattooed orator called Jacobus van Dyn, and watched in awe as anyone who spoke out against the royal family was arrested. It was here Williams developed an anarchic, anti-establishment streak that never left him. It was here too that the seeds were sown for his first book.

The Speakers was published in 1964 when Williams was 23, and observed the daily life of Van Dyn and others at Speaker's Corner. A stage adaptation was the first production by Joint Stock Theatre Company, set up by Max Stafford-Clark and William Gaskill in 1974. By this time, Williams had written The Local Stigmatic, which critiqued fame and celebrity. His first full length work, AC/DC, which appeared at the Royal Court in 1970, poked holes through some of psychiatrist R.D. Laing's then voguish ideas regarding mental health. The play won the London Evening Standard's Most promising Play award, and the 1972 John Whiting Award, and was hailed by theatre director Charles Marowitz as 'the first play of the twenty-first century'.

By this time, Williams had made a four minute film, Love, Love, Love, with poet Allen Ginsberg, and, with Jim Haynes, Germaine Greer and others, had co-founded the sexually driven Suck magazine.

Other plays included The Immortalist, Hancock's Last Half Hour, which remains one of his best known works, and, with Ken Campbell, Remember the Truth Dentist. Beyond his writing, Williams was taught fire eating by Bob Hoskins, only for him to accidentally set himself alight on the doorstep of his then girlfriend, Jean Shrimpton. Williams was a member of the Magic Circle, and in 1983 wrote a TV play, What the Dickens!, about Charles Dickens' propensity for performing magic tricks.

Williams penned the sexually explicit lyrics for Why D'Ya Do It?, sung by Marianne Faithfull on her 1979 album, Broken English, but not before Williams' words caused a walk-out of female workers on EMI's production line. New poems appeared in Michael Horovitz's magazine, New Departures, and the 1988 publication of Whale Nation and its subsequent success in other media put Williams back in a spotlight he studiously avoided, much to the apparent exasperation of his publishers.

Having been burned by fame twice-over, Williams spent much of the next twenty years painting, “a fairly silent activity” as he put it in a 2011 Herald interview, his first for many years. In 1993, a spoof Channel Four TV documentary presented by comic performer and Williams fan John Dowie looked at Williams' reclusive nature through a series of interviews with the likes of Harold Pinter and Al Pacino, with Williams himself appearing in various guises.

As an actor, Williams was perfect as Prospero the magician Duke of Milan in Derek Jarman's 1979 film adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The same year he was described in the London Review of Books as 'a kind of Prospero to the alternative society'. He was dolefully comic as the befuddled psychiatrist attempting to analyse teenage temptress Lynda, played by Emily Lloyd, in Wish You Were Here (1987), with the pair sharing an iconic scene going through an alphabet of swear words.

Williams also appeared in Sally Potter's 1992 film of Orlando alongside Tilda Swinton, and in Mike Figgis' 1999 version of Strindberg's play, Miss Julie. With Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan in the lead roles, Williams played one of several servants that also included Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn. Williams even appeared in Basic Instinct 2 (2006) and an episode of long-running American sit-com, Friends.

In 2011, Williams faced the unwelcome attention of the tabloids, when his son with Polly Samson, Charlie Gilmour, who had been adopted by Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour following his marriage to Samson, was imprisoned following student protests in 2010.

Having returned to writing, in 2011, Williams was awarded a Herald Archangel following performances by long term collaborator Roy Hutchins of a new collection of poems, Zanzibar Cats. The award also recognised Williams' huge body of work in Edinburgh, from The Local Stigmatic to Whale Nation and beyond. A book of science based poems, Forbidden Fruit, was published the same year, since when he published new work with increasing frequency.

For all the oppositionist intent of his writing, laughter was never far from Williams in both life and work. His outlook on life was summed up in his 2011 interview with the Herald when he quoted Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of science-fiction hippy conspiracy epic, The Illuminatus!, which was brought to the stage by Ken Campbell in 1977.

“If it doesn't make you laugh, it's not true,” Williams said. “Children learn first by playing. And laughing. In fact, you learn much more when you're happily absorbing something than when it's being shoved down your throat. Plato believed we're the playthings of God, and therefore the greatest act of devotion as God's playthings can be seen as just having fun. Which is a great perspective on life.”

Williams is survived by his long term partner, Diana Senior, their two daughters, China and Lily, three grand-children, Freya, Albi and Wilf, Charlie Gilmour, his son with Polly Samson, and his younger sister, Prue.

 
The Herald, July 5th 2017

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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

John Durnin - Peter Barnes and The Ruling Class

When John Durnin decided to programme The Ruling Class as part of Pitlochry Festival Theatre's summer season, early read-throughs were greeted very differently by various members of his cast. Peter Barnes' rarely revived 1968 critique of a nation divided by sanity, madness and the aristocracy focuses explicitly on a world riven by social schisms. The split here, however, depended largely on age.

“For the younger cast members, discovering the work of this strange and most forgotten of playwrights was a completely new experience,” says Durnin, who has been artistic director of PFT since 2003. “Whereas for the older members of the cast, who already knew the play and Barnes' work, it was a rediscovery of his unique use of language and theatricality.”

The Ruling Class charts the accidental rise of Jack Gurney, who becomes the fourteenth Earl of Gurney, despite being a long-term resident in a psychiatric hospital. Gurney he believes himself to be Jesus Christ after developing delusions of grandeur while at boarding school. The play was first produced at Nottingham Playhouse, where the leading theatre critic of the time, Harold Hobson, described it as one of the best debut works of its generation, and noted Barnes as one of the most distinctive and profound voices of his era.

Barnes had actually had two plays produced previously; The Time of the Barracudas in 1963, and Sclerosis in 1965. It was The Ruling Class, however, which captured the public and critical imagination. Its heady mix of anti naturalism and audacious critique of the British establishment also piqued the interest of maverick actor and some-time hellraiser Peter O'Toole, who went on to play Jack in the production's west end run. O'Toole also acquired the film rights, and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Peter Medak's 1972 big screen version.

The play shared the 1968 John Whiting Award with Edward Bond's Narrow Road to the Deep North, and in 1969 led to Barnes receiving the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Awards. The award came the same year as the appearance of Leonardo's Last Supper, a play about a family of undertakers tasked with preparing the funeral of Leonard da Vinci, only for the restless genius to stir from his coffin. It was through this follow-up piece to The Ruling Class that Durnin first discovered Barnes' work.

“Leonardo's Last Supper was the second professional piece of work I directed,” he says. “What struck me about it was the extraordinary imaginitive leaps it made, and the extreme ways he used language. These traits were characteristic of all of Barnes' writing, and his theatrical voice was so different from other voices that were coming from his generation of writers at around the same time. I always vowed I would try and get back to his work, and I suppose now seemed like the ideal opportunity to dust down The Ruling Class and let it breathe again.”

Allowing the play to breathe is arguably something Medak's film version never quite enabled.

“I think the film tried to do too little to what is an intensely theatrical piece,” says Durnin. “It doesn't take enough risks in terms of opening out what's already there, so you lose some of the play's sense of daring. Although O'Toole's performance was rightly praised, the rest of it never quite leapt off the screen.”

As Durnin observes, The Ruling Class may have arrived in the seismic year of 1968, but Barnes' work never quite fitted in with contemporary barricade jumpers such as David Edgar, Howard Brenton and David Hare. While those writers went on to blaze various trails throughout the 1970s and beyond, Barnes maintained a more singular voice. This saw him write a series of largely historical based works, including Noonday Demons, which appeared the same year as Leonardo's Last Supper, The Bewitched for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1974, and Laughter! for the Royal Court in 1978. In 1985, Anthony Sher appeared in the RSC's production of Red Noses, which won an Olivier award. Despite such high profile works, Barnes remains a marginal figure whose plays were perhaps too clever to be embraced by mainstream culture.

“Barnes' writing never found any degree of fashionability in the way his contemporaries did,” says Durnin, “and even though he'd been writer in residence with the RSC, much of the latter part of his career he spent writing mainly for American TV. For someone so imaginative, that's really surprising, but it was difficult for producers to see that, even though he always stood out as being distinctive and separate from his contemporaries.”

Much of Barnes' singularity might be put down in part to his resistance to being pigeon-holed politically.

“Barnes was often guarded about taking any political stance,” says Durnin, “but while he would never be pinned down to any particular ideology, he always supported the underclass in his plays, even when he was writing about the upper class.”

Much of Barnes' side-lining might also be down to the fact that he wrote dark and complex comedies.

“Barnes had a great belief in laughter as a great leveller,” says Durnin. “His great hero was William Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Johnson, who was similarly fascinated with looking at class, and who did that through humour and by using non-naturalistic language. Barnes could see how drawing on Johnsonian ideas of non naturalism could work. For him, laughter was a great unifier, and maybe that's why he didn't get the same respect that the likes of Edgar and Brenton received.”

Barnes' debt to Johnson can be found in his adaptations of The Alchemist, produced by the Old Vic in 1970, The Devil is An Ass, seen in Edinburgh in 1976 before transferring to the National Theatre a year later, and Bartholomew Fair in 1978. Barnes wrote My Ben Johnson in 1973 for radio, and it was through this medium he seemed to find another lease of life through several series of monologues, duologues and trialogues that began in 1981 with the much acclaimed Barnes' People.

Barnes's final stage play, Jubilee, was produced by the RSC in 2001, three years before his death aged seventy-three. The Ruling Class was last revived in a 2015 London production starring James McAvoy as Jack. With Durnin's take on the play about to open, both productions suggest that Barnes' unique dramatic largesse and sense of irreverence might finally have found its time.

“I think the play matters now because we seem to be living in an ever more divided world, where the things we used to take for granted are under more and more stress,” says Durnin. “While all of Barnes' work is about what divides us, he never had any pat answers, but never flinched from saying where the divisions come from.

"The Ruling Class is a piece that makes very clear how division and entitlement can exist alongside exploitation, and can drive people off the rails, but among all its darkness, it is also a relentlessly funny piece of work. Barnes forces you to recognise that the world he's depicting is inherently unjust and unfair, but by laughing at it, you can expose that unfairness more.”

The Ruling Class, Pitlochry Festival Theatre from July 25, where it runs in repertory until October.
www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

The Herald, July 4th 2017

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High Society

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

The stage looks gift-wrapped with a sparklingly expensive bow at the opening of John Durnin's revival of Arthur Kopit's Cole Porter based musical that reinvigorates the starry 1956 film where it originated. With the film itself drawing from Philip Barry's play, The Philadelphia Story, Kopit and Porter's depiction of the Long Island jet set says much about over-privileged party people, but retains a fizz that keeps it going till all passion is seemingly spent.

The action is based around the forthcoming nuptials of drop-dead gorgeous society gal and serial bride, Tracy Lord. With her daddy having run off with a show-girl, and ex beau next door CK Dexter Haven set sail for other shores, Tracy settles for George, a stinking rich would-be president for whom stupidity, as someone observes, sits on his shoulders like a crown. Enter Tracy's match-making kid sister Dinah and a pair of reporters for a trashy scandal sheet looking to stitch up the Lords, and the wildest of nights is guaranteed.

A succession of Porter's hits are powered by an eight-piece jazz combo led by Jon Beales, with a well-drilled chorus of servants stepping up to play the secondary roles among a cast of seventeen.

As Tracy, Helen Mallon swishes her way through a wardrobe-load of costume changes, lending her a studied indifference that only thaws once she hits the bottle. Her assorted suitors are played with stylistic verve, with Alex Scott Fairley's Dexter sparring gamely with Alan Mirren's George. As randy Uncle Willie, Mark Faith shows there's plenty of life in the old dog yet in a show where love, not money, wins the day in a class act on every level.

The Herald, July 4th 2017

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Absurd Person Singular

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

Don't be fooled by the initially kitsch-looking trappings of Alan Ayckbourn's 1972 dinner party comedy. If those last three words alone suggest something cringe-worthily middle-class, what forty-six years ago was painfully current now looks like a devastating prophecy of how property developing spivs came to rule the world.

Taking place over three Christmas Eves, the play's conceit is to set each of three acts in the kitchen of the respective des-res where the assorted seasonal shindigs take place. This sees the action move from the suburban new build of the upwardly mobile Jane and Sidney Hopcroft, then to Eva and Geoffrey Jacksons' thoroughly modern apartment, before alighting at the crumbling pile owned by Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright. As relationships develop, what starts out as a sit-com style bit-of-a-do moves into a more troubling world barely hidden behind the party faces on show.

The result in Richard Baron's deftly nuanced revival is fascinatingly agonising, as the desperation of keeping up appearances collapses into chaos. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the second act, when Helen Mallon's broken Eva wordlessly attempts fifty-seven varieties of suicide while everyone obliviously attempts to tidy up the mess. As high-rolling architect Geoffrey and old school banker Ronald are effectively consumed by Alex Scott Fairley's Sidney Hopcroft, a predatory Del Boy in waiting, it is the women who suffer most as they are all sidelined to their own self-destruction.

If such domestic damage is bad enough, it is only the by-product of Sidney's vulgarian aspirations. As the grotesque final scene spirals into manipulated mayhem, the Sidneys of the world may be winning, but only because we let them.

 
The Herald, July 3rd 2017

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Thursday, 29 June 2017

F For Fake – The Secret Goldfish, Spectorbullets, The Sexual Objects

Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh
Saturday June 24th

Orson Welles looms large over this art-pop triple bill brought east by the Creeping Bent Organisation, vintage purveyors of fine sounds and visions. The maverick auteur's 1973 documentary study of forgery and authenticity that gives the night its title beams out behind the acts on show. The soundtrack that results bursts forth from a set of conceptualists so rarely sighted as to out-do the late Howard Hughes, who also pops up in Welles' opus.

In real life, a trio of groovy bucket chairs are set up for what might well be a mock-up of a Dick Cavettt chat show, but is in fact an opening acoustic set by The Sexual Objects, here a guitar-wielding trio of Davy Henderson, Simon Smeeton and Douglas MacIntyre. Opening with an instrumental sketch inspired by a dream Henderson had about legendary producer Jack Nitzsche, the super cool, super louche set that follows sees the SOBs lay bare their roots with a cover of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers' It's Not Enough and play a couple of their own classics by way of Feels With Me and Here Come the Rubber Cops.

The transatlantic alliance that is Spectorbullets first convened on these shores some seven years ago. Based around the songs of wandering poet minstral Gustav Heden, and with guitarist Gavin Fraser and drummer Russell Burn on board, Heden channels the spirit of Jim Carroll for some hyper-literate CBGBs friendly rawk before morphing into a sub Sugarhill rap.

Outdoing the long absence of Spectorbullets is The Secret Goldfish, the Katy Lironi led bubblegum pop riot, who have just released their first album in eighteen years. They last played Edinburgh at the now demolished Cas Rock venue a stone's throw away from the Wee Red as part of the mid 1990s Planet Pop festival. If there are umbilical links between all three bands on tonight, this re-made and re-modelled incarnation of The Secret Goldfish is a family affair, with MacIntyre on guitar, while his and Lironi's daughter Amelia joins in on vocals. With Leopards guitarist Mick Slaven adding lead guitar, this mini supergroup sounds even brighter than they did two decades ago.

Opening with O. Pioneers, co-written with Sexual Objects Henderson and Smeeton, the six-piece line-up rattle through a nine song set drawn largely from the new Petal Split album, stopping off for the euphoric Four Excited People from the 1999 Mink Riots LP. The night ends with sublime covers of James Kirk's Get on Board and a final Holiday Hymn, the Vic Godard song recorded by Orange Juice before Godard's own version could get a look in. Almost forty years on, in The Secret Goldfish's hands it sounds better than the real thing.

Product, June 2017

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Nomanslanding

Tramway, Glasgow until July 2nd
Four stars

In the dead of night, the audience are split in two and led under-cover into lamp-lit tented structures. Inside, what look like peasant women on the run lead us down a ramp and into a large circular pod. It feels part cathedral, part space-ship, and to come blinking into the light of such a fantastical structure after stumbling in the dark disorientates and overwhelms. Sat around the pod as if awaiting prayers to begin, we watch as performers Nerea Bello and Judith Williams incant mournfully on either side of the room. Their keening chorales embark on a voyage of their own, twisting around each other by way of the international language of singing. As if in sympathy, the walls wail and whisper, before starting to move as those on either side of the pod are left stranded, a gulf between them.

This international co-commission between Glasgow Life and the Merchant City Festival, Sydney Harbour Foreshaw Authority in Australia and Urbane Kienste Ruhr in Germany brings together five artists from three countries to fuse a multitude of disciplines and shared interests. Australians Robyn Backen, Nigel Helyer aka Dr Sonique and Jennifer Turpin all work by various degrees in different forms of sonic architecture and environmental sculpture. From the Netherlands, Andre Dekker creates sculptural public provocations. More locally, Graham Eatough is best known as a theatre director and co-founder of Suspect Culture theatre company.

With input from Refugee Festival Scotland, there are echoes of lost civilisation(s) in this twenty-five minute performed installation. Those echoes show how a world, a country, a city, a street and even a person can be divided, not by natural seismic forces, but by artificial constructions. These walls aren't just physical, but stem from ideologies rooted in belief systems which have been co-opted and perverted. Through ceremonial, contemplation and reflection, Nomanslanding is a vital counterpoint to that, be it locally, globally or beyond.

The List, June 2017

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Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Lying Kind

Anthony Neilson is considering his future. The Edinburgh born playwright, director and one-time enfant terrible of mainstream theatre, whose early works were lumped in with the 1990s in-yer-face wave of plays turned fifty recently, and on a sunny day in London is taking stock.

“I'm trying to recharge,” says Neilson, whose most recent play seen in Scotland was a new version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which he created for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. “I've been working solidly for the last few years, and I think it's good to take a step back for a bit.”

After almost thirty years working up a body of work which has moved from the dark noir of his professional debut, Welfare My Lovely, in 1990, and the provocations of other early plays such as Penetrator, through to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland itself, you can see his point.

As Neilson takes time out, perhaps the Tron Theatre in Glasgow's forthcoming revival of his 2002 farce, The Lying Kind, which opens next week, will serve as a reminder to audiences of his broad palette as a writer. Dating from 2002, The Lying Kind is set on Christmas Eve, when two coppers on the beat must break some terrible news to an old couple in their neighbourhood. As they argue the rights and wrongs of their task, they are thwarted by a group of anti paedophile vigilantes and other unintended distractions.

“It's had a strange history,” Neilson says of the play, “because I originally did it at the Royal Court in London, where it was clouded by the context of that, and because it was a farce, the first thing that the old guard of critics was Joe Orton. He was never in mind. It was originally a Christmas show, and was the first Christmas show that the Royal Court had done for years, and the original inspiration had been Laurel and Hardy.”

With the play perhaps confounding expectations of what a Neilson work might be, The Lying Kind didn't do that well in its initial London run. Since then, however, it has received numerous productions, including runs in Sweden, France and Greece, where it ran for two years.

“It's my most financially successful play because of that,” says Neilson. “Other countries don't have the same context as London theatre has, and a lot of companies abroad have put their most famous comedy duos in it. I would turn up not knowing who these people were, but there would be queues to get in. It would be like us putting Fry and Laurie in it.”

The Lying Kind dates from 2002, the same year Neilson's play Stitching caused controversy with its frank dissection of the most intimate aspects of a couple's relationship. As with much of his work, the latter play was developed in the rehearsal room rather than at Neilson's desk. In a largely literary-based British theatre environment, such a wilfully individual methodology has often seen companies flying by the seat of their pants. It has also made for thrilling theatrical experiences such as the award winning The Wonderful World of Dissocia. The Lying Kind, on the other hand, seems to break Neilson's own rules.

“I wanted to do something with farce to try and test that muscle,” says Neilson of the roots of the play. “I can't remember what else I was doing at the time, but there seemed to be a lack of stuff that was around to make people laugh. I thought that because it was set at Christmas that would help ramp up the awfulness of what happens in it. There's a little bit of a point in there, that trying to be kind can often make things worse, but that's it.

“The odd thing is that it wasn't really created in rehearsals in the way that I normally do things. It went through that whole drafting process, which is fine for stuff like that. With farce, you really need to work it.”

The Tron's new production was instigated by the theatre's artistic director, Andy Arnold.

“I've known Andy for a very long time,” says Neilson. “When I was a student at Telford College in Edinburgh, I worked with him on a thing at Theatre Workshop, so there's a nice circularity to him doing this. He knows the mechanics of farce, and, like a lot of my work, the play hasn't been done in Scotland. I don't know why that is, but I think there's a certain sensibility to the play which is quite Scottish, and maybe that's what Andy's picked up on, so I think Scottish audiences will get something out of it that maybe London audiences didn't.”

Fifteen years after the play's premiere, in keeping with his current step back from making new work, Neilson is keeping his distance. Not for him a series of re-writes and updates unless absolutely necessary.

“Andy's changed a couple of references,” he says, “and there was a little cut I made to it, but that's it. There was a gag I really liked, but it was a Rolf Harris gag that came pre all that Saville stuff, and I struggled to find a replacement for it. Andy wanted me to come into rehearsals, but I said I didn't necessarily want to do that. If you have to look too closely at things you've done, you notice the mistakes, but by changing things you also lose some of the energy, so I'm either all in or all out. But it's one of those shows where the people doing it can put in a lot of their own stuff. That's what the comedians in the production in Sweden did when I saw it there. People can be fairly loose with it, because there's a strong enough structure in place for people to mess about with it.”

Being able to watch one of his old plays in this way seems to sit well with Neilson's current impasse.

“Having hit fifty earlier this year, it really is one of those times where you take stock about where you want to go now,” he says. “I feel I probably need to regenerate myself a bit, and think about which angle to come at things from next. I did a play at the Royal Court last year, and I feel, with that, I took my process to the most extreme I could. I've been ploughing that furrow for a while now, so where next?”

One answer might come from the current state of the world on Neilson's door-step.

“It's been such an interesting time politically,” he says, “and I'm feeling a draw to addressing some of that. I've always been wary of that sort of thing, and I don't really like issue based plays, but there's definitely something in the air. Not Brexit, because that's just dull, but all the Trump stuff might be interesting to do something with, so let's see.”

As for The Lying Kind, “It's just meant to be fun. I think people could probably do with a laugh right now. It's nothing loftier than that.”


The Lying Kind, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-22.
www.tron.co.uk

 
The Herald, June 27th 2017

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Monday, 26 June 2017

Timon of Athens

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

There's a wild party going on at the opening of Jennifer Dick's 1920s style adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most wayward tragedies, which forms the opening production of this year's Bard in the Botanics season. With the great hedonist that gives the play its title here transformed into the grandest of dames, Nicole Cooper's Timon shimmies into the Kibble Palace sipping champagne before winding up the gramophone and wriggling her way into a slinky little number. As assorted pleasure-seeking gold-diggers fawn over her affections, Timon buys her way into the in-crowd of poets and painters, with only EmmaClaire Brightlyn's glum philosopher Apemantus steering clear of all the fun. When the bills have to be made, however, poor Timon is left in the gutter, with barely a star in sight.

With allusions to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that followed in its wake, Dick's production cuts to the core of a society divided by wealth. Cooper burls her way through this six actor version with increasing abandon. Her interplay with Brightlyn as Apemantus is key here. While opposites attracted when Timon was a good time girl, her acquired misanthropy make the pair uncomfortable equals. There is a strong turn too from Kirk Bage as disgraced military man Alcibiades.

As she crawls through the world she's found herself washed up in, Timon uses a new pot of gold she stumbles on to get her own back on the parasites who bled her dry. When Cooper serves up platters of torn up bills to her former courtiers, it's one of the production's most damning illustrations of what it really means to be rich or poor.

 
The Herald, June 27th 2017

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People

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Three stars

Imagine Little Britain PLC as a giant porn film set, fetishising old world charm to make a quick buck. This is kind of what Alan Bennett does with his 2012 play, which he sets inside a crumbling stately home in Yorkshire. Here, fading belle Dorothy and her doting companion Iris live gamely in the past. While arch-deacon June is out tending her flock, Dorothy is attempting to flog off her heritage to the highest bidder.

On the one hand is the National Trust, a seemingly safe pair of hands overseeing the theme parking of the nation. On the other is the brasher face of The Concerned, a dubious think-tank who sound like Brexiteers in waiting. When an unexpected third way appears in the form of Dorothy's old flame and skin flick auteur Theodore, the women are awakened to a life of erotic promise by proxy.

There's something quaintly Chekhovian about the first half of Bennett's play, brought jauntily to life by director Patrick Sandford. There are shades of Ab Fab too in Valerie Cutko's portrayal of Dorothy's flamboyant ex-deb clinging to a time when life swung in the play's uneven mix of ennui and sit-com.

As the film crew lift Irene Allan's chair-bound and increasingly excited Iris out of shot to the other side of the room, it's no different than the National Trust's plan to transplant the house to somewhere leafier in Dorset. In this respect, the play's manifesto on how preservation can lead to gentrification is as polemical as Bennet gets. When Dorothy takes the remote control to the newly refurbished house, it's as if she's switching off the lights of an entire culture.

 
The Herald, June 27th 2017

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Death of A Salesman

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

'LAND OF THE FREE' goes the neon-lit legend emblazoned high across the back of the stage in Abigail Graham's production of Arthur Miller's damning critique of mid twentieth century capitalism. Like a contemporary pop art installation, the lights fizz in and out of life over the course of the play, mirroring how the spark has similarly faded in Willy Loman, the worn out patriarch in crisis who gives Miller's play its title.

What stands out first in Graham's Royal and Derngate Northampton production is how modern everything looks. This isn't just to do with the steel grey walls of Georgia Lowe's minimalist set, which features just a bed and plastic table and chairs. It is about how people dress. Tricia Kelly's Linda Loman wears jeans, with Willy's errant sons sporting tracksuit bottoms and trainers. George Taylor's under-achieving Biff lounges about in a checked shirt like a Generation X style slacker. Willy's profit obsessed boss Howard, played by Thom Tuck, hustles his way through the day in a 1980s wise-guy suit.

As Nicholas Woodeson's increasingly bemused Willy shuffles through all this, it is as if a collision of brighter, brasher worlds that he can't keep up with are rushing in on him. His cheap suit is probably older than the monster-size fridge that looms large in the corner, the ultimate past-its-sell-by-date symbol of broken down aspiration and built-in obsolescence.

Stepping into the breach as Willy following the untimely passing of Tim Pigott-Smith, Woodeson gives a mighty performance of a man out of time. It is a devastating portrait too of a world where apparent freedoms look cheaper by the day.


The Herald, June 22nd 2017

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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Makoto Kawabata, Atsushi Tsuyama and Tatsuya Yoshida - Japanese New Music Festival

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Sunday June 18th

When three key members of Japan's musical underground fall to the floor in unison a few minutes into a pummelling slab of power trio mayhem, it's easy to fear the worst. This supergroup of Acid Mothers Temple guitarist and co-founder Makoto Kawabata, the group's recently departed bass player Atsushi Tsuyama and Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida are playing it for laughs, however. They keep on playing even when they're down but clearly not out in a genre-hopping set broken up into eight 'projects' announced with a co-ordinated flourish.

In what is essentially a carefully structured revue that forms the latest collaboration between Edinburgh's Braw Gigs and Summerhall's in house Nothing Ever Happens Here initiative, this sees the trio play solo, in duos and in full-on wig-out mode. Despite the latter, the set belies any notions of freeform freakouts in a meticulously organised virtuoso display. Humour is key to this, and the group set out their store from the start as a multi-voiced hydra announcing their presence.

"Welcome to Japanese New Music Festival," they say in unison. "We're going to play eight projects by three people."

They make similar announcements between each section, with the opening salvo followed by a short solo set by Kawabata. This comes after the pre-show music, which has been left running throughout the trio's initial assault which drowned it out, is belatedly turned off. This too adds a levity to proceedings, before Kawabata takes a bow to his guitar, building little orchestral flourishes that make for a twisted symphony. This is aided further by Tsuyama, who mock-conducts from the side of the stage.

After a fleeting foray into pure noise, Kawabata ekes out a guitar melody which initially resembles Keith Levene's circular patterns on Poptones, one of first generation Public Image Limited's defining moments. Here things remain vocal free, with Tsuyama's busy bass runs and Yoshida's drums lending a dubby feel. As the volume seems to crank up several notches, the rhythm section lopes this way and that, while Kawabata's guitar seems to channel Like A Hurricane era Neil Young by way of Blue Oyster Cult.

Project Three takes a turn for the absurd, as a duo of Tsuyama and Yoshida take microphones to the zips on their trousers. As they pull the zips up and down, creating a little metallic call and response, they too jump up and down. Variations on this theme see the pair use scissors to create a piece of Steve Reich style percussive combat. The following miniature sees Tsuyama and Yoshida make egg slicers twang like the soundtrack to a discordant tea ceremony. Half filled water bottles are used as flutes. Yoshida mics up a camera so his snapshots can be heard as well as eventually seen.

Next up is a solo set by Tsuyama, who plays a solo guitar set which, accompanied by his own vocal, sound like mediaeval psych folk airs. Yoshida takes the helm for the fifth project, in which he constructs an aural battering ram of treated drums that morphs into an avant bump and grind routine.

Tsuyama describes the sixth project as "the most stupid duo in the world," as he and Kawabata embark on covers of what Tsuyama describes as "new music and famous song" is a cover of Deep Purple's Frank Zappa referencing Smoke on the Water. The trick here is that it's done in the discordant style of Captain Beefheart. Something similar is achieved with Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, before Japanese flutes prevail on something more traditional sounding.

The seventh project sees Kawabata and Tsuyama swap instruments, with Tsuyama taking the lead on the sort of psychedelic boogie that for more ordinary bands would be the climax of the show. Here, however, Kawabata, Tsuyama and Toshida follow up with the eighth and final project by getting up on their feet to seemingly pass words around in what becomes a game of vocal tig. Choral harmonies and silent movie madrigals gradually evolve into a piece of Kurt Schwitters style slapstick.

The band put stools and Yoshida's floor tom on their heads as they might with an elaborate hat, then perform a ridiculous march that weaves its way through the audience and back again, where they mime playing cards with the piled up CDs on their merch table. They encore, as they must, with a full on heavy garage thrash that marks out a ringing end to a festival that covered all bases.
 
 
Product, June 2017

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Gordon Barr and Janette Foggo - These Headstrong Women - Bard in the Botanics

Shakespeare's women don't always get a good deal. If they're not going mad or swooning over teenage suitors, they're dying in tragic circumstances after being psychologically abused by the same men. This is something this year's Bard in the Botanics series of open-air productions of Shakespeare attempts to redress with a season boldly titled These Headstrong Women.

Over the course of four plays, directors Gordon Barr and Jennifer Dick not only attempt to counter the perception of Shakespeare's female creations as being mere ciphers in thrall of his male heroes in The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. By initiating cross-gender casting for Timon of Athens and what is now styled as Queen Lear, they give strength to the characters alongside a new spin on some of the more complex aspects of Shakespeare's canon.

At the centre of all of this are a quartet of actresses who effectively lead each production. The title role of Timon of Athens will be played by Nicole Cooper, who did similar last year in Coriolanus, for which she recently won the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland Best Female Performer award. Emma-Claire Brightlyn will play opposite Cooper as Apemantus. With Cooper also playing Isabella in Measure for Measure, a radical reworking of The Taming of the Shrew features Stephanie McGregor as Kate. Taking on the mighty title role in Queen Lear will be veteran actress Janette Foggo.

“Women are at the heart of all four of the plays we're doing,” says Barr. “The season was born out of the choices of the plays we were interested in doing and the actors we wanted to work with. Once we realised how central to each play the female characters were, we just thought, let's go with it. We were also aware that we've never had gender parity with the company, and we feel we've got work to do in that respect. There's a really important discussion going on regarding classical theatre right now about gender, and about how there should be more opportunities for women, and in choosing to do these plays the way we're doing them, we want to reflect that discussion in terms of what's going on I the world right now.”

Barr's new adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is here styled as a more questioning Taming of the Shrew? This new version combines the original with material taken from The Tamer Tamed, a riposte to Shakespeare's unreconstructed world-view by his seventeenth century protege, John Fletcher.

“Given the name of the season it's something of a controversial choice,” Barr says of Shakespeare's original. “However you look at the play now, what happens in it is distasteful in many ways. By putting in material from The Tamer Tamed, we can see that Fletcher is saying that what Petruchio did to Kate is wrong. We've set it in the 1950s, when society was still steeped in old-fashioned attitudes towards women, but where things were beginning to change, and by doing it the way we're doing it, Kate gets her chance to fight back.”

The production of Timon of Athens that opens the same night has no need for such a reinvention.

“It's so rarely done,” says Barr, “but is such a prescient play for now. It explores capitalism and greed, and the selfishness that breeds, and it's really about how you have to get beyond that and start looking after your fellow human beings. As is the case with Shakespeare, there are scenes in it that could be about what's happening now, and Jennifer's setting it in the 1920s, so it has references in it to the Wall Street crash.”

While Cooper plays Timon, “this is one where cross-gender casting doesn't make a massive difference. It's still a strong and powerful role, whether it's played by a man or a woman.”

Queen Lear, on the other hand, was what Barr describes as a no-brainer in terms of what approach to take.

“Jen has been working towards this production for three years,” says Barr, “and after all the publicity surrounding Glenda Jackson playing Lear in London, we nearly put it on hold, but I think our approach is different to that. Jen wants Janette to play it as a woman, a queen and a mother, and for audiences to be able to see the consequences of that.”

Foggo comes to Lear after forty years experience as an actress, including playing opposite Cooper in last year's Bard in the Botanics season as the mother of Coriolanus.

“There's not a lot in Shakespeare about mothers and daughters,” Foggo says, “which is one of the things that interested me in playing Lear. It's not a part I'd necessarily want to do, but having just spent three months with the text at my side, all the questions the play asks about power and everything else besides, it gives you every answer you require, as any great play will do.

“One of the issues for women in classical drama is that they are completely isolated in a world of men. That's the same whether it's Lady Macbeth or Ophelia or Desdemona. They are all women living in a world of men, and that has an effect on how we talk and think about women.

“The thing about Lear is that, although there are three daughters in it, it's essentially a play about masculinity. A male actor can leave drama school and he could spend an entire career playing different parts in the play. There isn't a play that has that kind of range for women. Of course, doing it this way changes things a bit. The dynamic is different, But I'm a mature, sophisticated woman who's been around a bit, and why shouldn't I play a woman in power in this way?”

The final play in the season will be Measure for Measure, in which the focus will be on Isabella.

“Isabella's not the most popular of Shakespeare's women,” says Barr. “She can be seen as cold, but in the play she's asked to be raped to save someone's life, and that's not okay.”

In this way, the These Headstrong Women season is as much a critique of Shakespeare as a dramatic rendering of his work. Not everyone would approve. One of the most vocal detractors of onstage equality of late was playwright Ronald Harwood, author of The Dresser. Harwood made his objections to Glenda Jackson playing Lear plain.

“He said that if Shakespeare had wanted to write the character as a woman then he would've done so,” says Barr. “Well, he wouldn't, because he had fourteen year old boys playing all his women characters. We want to celebrate the plays by cross gender casting in the way we are doing, and looking at all the complex characters that can help create.

“Doing it in this way is less tokenistic now. I don't think we've ever done a season where there's not been some kind of cross-gender casting, but I think it's important to say that there are as many women on this planet as there are men. For us, it's about finding out all the different things the plays can be.”

Bard in the Botanics' These Headstrong Women season begins with The Taming of the Shrew, June 21-July 8 and Timon of Athens, June 22-July 8, both at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.
www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk


The Herald, June 20th 2017



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