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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland: shortlists announced

Published in The Guardian.

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland: shortlists announced

The nominations for this year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland applaud site-specific work – and prove that companies don't need a permanent building to create great productions

The shortlists are out for the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland (or CATS), the annual chance for my colleagues and I to give an extended round of applause to the best shows of the year – and take a snapshot of the theatre landscape. In recent years, the awards have tended to be dominated by a single big show: Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia in 2005, Gregory Burke's Black Watch in 2007, Dominic Hill's Peer Gynt in 2008. But what's invigorating about this year's list is that the nominations are widely spread.

David Leddy's Sub Rosa, Jemima Levick's Beauty and the Beast and the David Greig/Gordon McIntyre collaboration Midsummer all have four nominations. Vanishing Point's Interiors and James Brining's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have three. These shows will prove tough competition for each other at the awards ceremony on 14 June.

But beyond the headlines – 11 nominations for the Traverse, eight for Dundee Rep, seven for the Tron – it is good to see such a wide range of companies picking up the plaudits. They range from Matthew Zajac getting a best male performance nod for his one-man play The Tailor of Inverness, produced by Dogstar Theatre from Inverness, to Gerda Stevenson being listed in the best female performance category for The Lasses, O by the small Borders company Rowan Tree.

Although some of the big theatres figure strongly, the non-building-based companies are thriving. It doesn't necessarily mean the touring scene is healthy in Scotland; not all of these companies tour extensively and Leddy's Sub Rosa, for example, was designed for one specific site (under the stage of the Citizens' theatre). Indeed, since the demise of 7:84, Wildcat and a number of other companies with an active touring agenda, rural theatre provision has grown patchy, a problem addressed by a new producing company, Open Book, which has started taking shows from Glasgow's lunchtime series A Play, a Pie and a Pint (another nominee) on the road.

In this respect, there are parallels with the situation in England. However, companies such as Dogstar and Rowan Tree, as well as other nominees TAG, Visible Fictions and Vox Motus have done much to prove that great theatre need not be exclusive to great buildings. It is further justification for the without-walls model of the National Theatre of Scotland – which itself has five nominations – a company founded on the principle that a national theatre exists in the sum total of the nation's theatres, wherever they may be.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Ghosts, Citizens' Theatre review

Published in The Guardian.

Ghosts review

Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5

"All of us are haunted by dead ideas and dead opinions," says the matriarchal Mrs Alving in Ibsen's drama about new ways of living and old skeletons in the closet. Ironically, 130 years down the line, it is the dead ideas of Ibsen that haunt today's stage. No modern playwright would be able to get away with an opening act in which Pastor Manders tells Alving not to take out insurance on her new orphanage, followed by a closing act in which the orphanage burns down. The mechanics are just too obvious.

And whereas in Ibsen's day, Manders was the voice of conventional but very real authority, today he is one step away from ridicule, his homilies about marital fidelity sparking derisory laughter. It's a great credit to Kevin McMonagle that he plays the part with such conviction, riding the laughs but never playing for them, revealing a character who, like all of us, is a product of his age; well-meaning but blind to the bigger picture.

Despite it all, what strikes us is Ibsen's modernity. This is especially clear in Jeremy Raison's streamlined production of the recent translation by Amelia Bullmore, performed without an interval on Jason Southgate's airy, bleached-wood set. Alving's belief that "propriety and law make all the misery in the world" still has a radical charge, while the free-thinking life of her artist son (an excellent Steven Robertson) retains its unconventional allure.

In the lead role, Maureen Beattie seems too big for the world she is born into, too big almost for the stage. Despite the pressures - faithless husband, illegitimate stepdaughter, syphilitic son - she remains unbroken, too proud to let us wallow in her tragedy, too intelligent to accept defeat, making her a very modern woman.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Ducky, Borderline Theatre review

Published in The Guardian.

The Ducky review

Eastwood Park, Glasgow
4 out of 5

This play - DC Jackson's sequel to last year's The Wall - starts off light and breezy, charting the lives of a group of Ayrshire teenagers with a throwaway charm. It is neither adventurous nor deep, yet, in the middle of the second half, the play catches you unawares. Suddenly, you realise you care for these young people and their amplified sense of their own significance. Behind the rites-of-passage laughs, Jackson reveals a beating heart.

The Ducky rejoins the characters from The Wall two years down the line, as a traumatised Norma - exquisitely played by Sally Reid - recounts the reasons for losing her virginity. From "his hair was looking nice" to "the sun set pretty", it is a funny, poignant litany showing that Jackson has the popular touch of Willy Russell, packing tender home-truths behind a shield of first-rate one-liners.

Under the assured direction of Jemima Levick, the young Borderline company reminds us why it triumphed as best ensemble at last year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, capturing the intensity, frivolity, vanity and insecurity of adolescence with fine-tuned detail. Like Reid, Hannah Donaldson, Finn den Hertog, Alan Tripney and Jonathan Holt play with a conviction that makes these teenage dramas seem as important as the characters believe them to be.

The result is a feelgood hit, in which the geeky boy gets the gorgeous girl and the brainy outsiders almost figure things out. It's also about birth, death and coming-of-age heartaches. That, and falling fully clothed into the "septic swimming hole" they call the ducky. Roll on part three.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hoors, Traverse Theatre review II

Published in Variety.

Hoors review

A Traverse Theater, Edinburgh and Ustinov Theater, Bath presentation in association with Tron Theater, Glasgow, of a play in one act by Gregory Burke. Directed by Jimmy Fay.

Nikki - Catherine Murray
Vicky - Lisa Gardner
Stevie - Michael Moreland
Tony - Andy Clark

With characteristic dry humor, playwright Gregory Burke has been billing "Hoors" as the "disappointing follow-up to 'Black Watch.' " Funny though this disclaimer is, there's good reasoning behind it. Few new works could hope to match the acclaim of the National Theater of Scotland production, which just added foreign play honors from the New York Drama Critics Circle to its hefty haul of international awards. That "Hoors" falls short of that achievement is no surprise. What's unfortunate is that this black comedy is also a disappointing follow-up to Burke's earlier work.

It begins with a promising Orton-esque idea. Stage right on Conor Murphy's rather too luxurious set is a coffin containing the corpse of Andy, a young man whose death was brought on by taking too many drugs during a stag weekend in Amsterdam before joining the mile-high club with a stewardess on the flight home. The day earmarked for his wedding has been rescheduled for his funeral.

Burke turns tragedy into comedy by introducing a set of characters with no inclination to grieve. Andy's fiancee, Vicky (Lisa Gardner), has already realized she didn't love him, and is relieved to have her future given back to her. Vicky's sister Nikki (Catherine Murray) is a material girl who talks about her job in military research and development (an underdeveloped tangent), reminding us she has little love of humanity.

Stevie (Michael Moreland) has a severe case of male emotional inarticulacy, and has more coherent memories of the hedonistic excess of the stag weekend than he does of his friendship with Andy. Having established a new life in Dubai, Tony (Andy Clark) is a shallow opportunist who already has consigned Andy to the past.

Their indifference means the forthcoming funeral is less a moment of poignancy than a turning point, an opportunity to break from the past, interrupt old routines and make a new future.

Structurally, this leaves Burke with two problems. The first is that the most vivid action has either happened before the play begins or promises to take place in the future, leaving the characters at a point of stasis. Their conversation -- however witty and ribald -- takes the place of real dramatic action. The second problem is there's little serious conflict, only some minor scores to be settled. Nobody is on hand to be affronted by their disrespect for the dead, so there's little shock value in their irreverence.

On top of this, helmer Jimmy Fay fails to draw out the full raucous power of Burke's writing. Although there are some very funny volleys, the script is hampered by an uneven pace, partly because of the way Murphy's revolving set starts moving before scenes are over, and partly because Murray and Gardner, despite spirited performances, rarely capture the full-on attack of the playwright's language. Moreland and Clark are more successful in this respect -- perhaps a reflection of Burke's feel for the rhythms of male speech. But the play never takes off in the manner of his earlier "Gagarin Way" in terms of either comedy or the articulation of its potentially interesting themes.

Set and costumes, Conor Murphy; lighting, Paul Keogan. Opened May 1, 2009. Reviewed May 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Hoors, Traverse Theatre review

Published in The Guardian.

Hoors review

Traverse, Edinburgh
2 out of 5

A lot has happened before the start of Gregory Burke's new comedy, and a lot is likely to happen after it ends. But it's hard to maintain your interest in a play in which so little actually happens during the 90 minutes on stage. Every character in Hoors has reached a moment of crisis, but by setting the play so firmly at the still point of the turning world, Burke lands the audience in dramatic limbo.

His conceit has big comic potential. Vicky has been forced to turn her wedding day into a funeral after Andy, her fiance, has died during a hedonistic stag weekend in Hamburg and Amsterdam. It would be a bleak scenario were the young woman not happier without him. His death has opened a new world of opportunity for her.

Returning home for the occasion, her financially successful sister Nikki carries a similar sense of leaving the past behind. When Andy's friends call - partly out of respect for the dead, but mainly for the chance to chat up the women - they, too, come to realise his passing marks the end of an era. For father-of-two Tony, it's a last glimpse of a life he once had; for stuck-in-the-mud Stevie, it's the shock of seeing the world moving on without him.

But by focusing on this moment of transition - a vivid life left behind, an unknown vista ahead - Burke introduces an uncharacteristic feeling of inertia. Perhaps that's why Conor Murphy's set revolves more and more as the play goes on. Taking us from living room to bedroom, this bourgeois domestic interior brings its own circling choreography to Jimmy Fay's production, as if to compensate for the lack of dramatic action.

Unfortunately, its overly grand scale and tendency to start turning before a scene is over also saps much of the energy from Burke's writing. At its best, the playwright's language has the scabrous bite and hilarious attack that helped make Black Watch such a hit. Even as he searches for narrative tension, Burke can still deliver volleys of darkly funny barbs and one-liners.

Michael Moreland (Stevie) and Andy Clark (Tony) are perfectly attuned to Burke's rhythms, driven as they are by a forthright swagger and a need to say the unsayable. Despite spirited performances, Catherine Murray (Nikki) and Lisa Gardner (Vicky) seem to trust the language less, which adds to the production's uneven tone.

A less lavish staging would give greater vent to the upfront force of the script, releasing more of its Ortonesque darkness, but Burke has not set the stakes high enough to do justice to his themes.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Bliss/Mud, Tron Theatre review

Published in The Guardian.

Bliss/Mud review

Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

It is billed as "Tron Stripped" but, whatever the budget limitations, there is nothing low-rent about the intensity of this north American double bill. Seen individually, Bliss and Mud would pack a powerful punch; together, these bleak studies of the dispossessed are almost overwhelming.

Bliss by Olivier Choinière - in a crisp translation by Caryl Churchill - is the missing link between Hello! magazine and David Lynch's Eraserhead. It starts as an ironic portrayal of the life of Céline Dion as seen through the gushingly reductive prose of a celebrity magazine, then mutates into a desperate tale of child abuse and mental instability.

To Oracle, played by Gabriel Quigley, Dion is a latter-day goddess whose most minor actions she imbues with quasi-religious meaning. Initially appearing to be a figure of authority, Oracle turns out to be authoritative only when it comes to pop-star trivia. In every other aspect of her life she is a powerless victim; Quigley brilliantly captures the vulnerability, delusion and conviction of a deeply damaged woman.

Andy Arnold's production shows some signs of first-night nerves, but it is unsettling in its transformation from the throwaway to the horrific.

If there's something condescending about Maria Irene Fornes's portrayal of illiterate hicks in Mud, it is offset by the sensitivity of the actors' performances.

This time, Quigley is pinning her hopes of salvation on Grant Smeaton's mild-mannered Henry, whose marginally superior education offers the possibility of escape from poverty. Her attempted departure, bleakly echoing that of Nora in A Doll's House, leads not to emancipation but tragedy, brought on by Mark Prendergast's dysfunctional housemate. Dark humour and moments of hope compensate for the desolation.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Friday, May 01, 2009

Tom McGrath obituary

Published in The Guardian.

Tom McGrath obituary

It must have been about 1990 when I first interviewed the poet and playwright Tom McGrath, who has died from cancer of the liver aged 68. It was in his Edinburgh office at the Royal Lyceum, where he was the Scottish Arts Council's associate literary director. Some time around the point when I turned the cassette tape over, I asked my second question. McGrath did not do soundbites.

Such loquaciousness would be indulgent in some, but with McGrath - genial, generous and quick to laugh - it was just the way his mind worked. Each thought would trigger a new idea, each allusion a digression, each digression firing another set of mental synapses. Conversation with him was like navigating through a sea of possibilities; it took time to reach the destination, but the journey - always logically plotted - was fascinating. In a 1973 poetry anthology, his biographical note describes him simply as "explorer". It was a job title he never relinquished.

This was no less the case in 2005 when I met him near his home in Kingskettle, Fife, to talk about a revival of his debut play, Laurel and Hardy, and what would be his final stage work, My Old Man. This was two years after he had suffered a stroke; his recovery aided by physiotherapy, prolific writing and a subscription to the New Statesman ("the writers are very predictable but it did give me a point of attack"). Sneaking in a lunchtime drink against doctor's orders, he engaged in a conversation that ricocheted from Billy Connolly to Arnold Schoenberg, William Golding to Oscar Peterson, Liz Lochhead to serial music.

Born in Rutherglen, a suburb of Glasgow, McGrath was the son of an electrician and a housewife. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he instinctively looked away from the repressiveness of Scottish Presbyterianism and towards the freedom offered by American culture, in particular Charles Olson, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker. His first poems were published in 1962 and, by 1965, he was reading at the first international Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Allen Ginsberg.

While supporting a family in Bermondsey, south-east London - bringing up four daughters with his wife Maureen - McGrath was drawn to the burgeoning underground scene. A CND supporter, he had been features editor on Peace News when, in 1966, he was asked by John Hopkins, Jim Haynes and Barry Miles to be founder editor of the counter-cultural International Times (IT), brought together with what he called "the fervour of a revolutionary movement and the mystique of Zen". He stayed for 12 issues before "the story turned sour", and he left "on the edge of a breakdown".

True to the times, he experimented with psychedelic drugs and was a heroin user for two years. He would revisit his experiences in The Innocent, staged by Howard Davies for the RSC in 1979. At 28, disillusioned with London and "sick with heroin", he returned to Scotland, came off the drug and took a place at Glasgow University to study English and drama.

A gifted pianist, he was musical director on Billy Connolly and Tom Buchan's The Great Northern Welly Boot Show (1972), a riotous celebration of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders' work-in. Two years later, having already brought Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Glasgow, he set up the Third Eye Centre, a shrine to the avant garde, which is still in operation as the Centre for Contemporary Arts. By the time he left in 1977, he was establishing his name as a playwright with close ties to Edinburgh's Traverse, but also found time to establish Glasgow's Tron Theatre at the turn of the decade.

In 1976 Laurel and Hardy, a touching portrait of the double-act, was a popular hit, yet, like The Hardman, which he wrote with the convict Jimmy Boyle, it bore the hallmarks of his interest in jazz, improvisation and poetry. In 1979's Animal - his favourite - he produced a script consisting almost entirely of stage directions and the grunts of a shrewdness of apes.

His other plays include The Android Circuit, 1-2-3 and Buchanan as well as a two-part adaptation of Tankred Dorst's Merlin - translated by Ella Wildridge, his partner of 20 years. As important as these was his work supporting a generation of playwrights - among them David Harrower, David Greig and Douglas Maxwell - and it is thanks to McGrath that the Playwrights' Studio, Scotland was established in 2004.

Never one to trade on past glories, he was restlessly inquisitive to the end. No epitaph better sums him up than his own lines from Laurel and Hardy: "Growing old/My jaws unfold/My face is wrinkled/Starting to crinkle/But we'll be bold/Before we're old/We'll show them what we're made of."

He is survived by Ella and three of his daughters.

© Mark Fisher, 2009