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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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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Age of Arousal, theatre review 2

Published in the Guardian

Age of Arousal

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 stars
Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths doesn't so much adapt George Gissing's The Odd Women as explode it. She takes the genteel 1890s setting of this novel about a philanthropic women's secretarial college and gives it a vigorous modern voice. Like Janet Bird's costumes, which filter the stiff formality of the Victorian bustle through a 21st-century lens, she allows the passion to poke through the prim surface of respectability. The result, in Muriel Romanes's fluid production, is funny, dynamic and politically fascinating.

Gissing's original title is a reference to the gender imbalance in post-emigration Britain. By the middle of the 19th century, women outnumbered men by 500,000, leaving many single and the odd ones out. As Griffiths presents it, they were odd in other ways, too. Many spinsters, feeling socially and biologically redundant, were driven towards eccentricity and neurosis. Or, indeed, each other. The arousal of Griffiths's title is as much sapphic as straight

Prickly young businesswoman Rhoda Nunn (Clare Lawrence Moody, one of several first-rate performances) declares herself "ferociously odd", channelling her sexual energy into feminist zeal and paving the way for emancipation.

What the play does brilliantly is show how these first stirrings of progress were as much a result of social circumstance as of coherent ideology. Forever voicing their inner thoughts in pugnacious Howard Barker-esque asides, the characters are both subjects and instigators of social change, caught in the whirlpool of a revolution in which the place of love, eroticism, intelligence, responsibility and class has still to be defined. Like the impressionist paintings that so perplex them, the world they are helping create is strange and frightening, leading to a similarly turbulent production, both funny and fervent. (Photo: Marc Marnie)
 
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Age or Arousal, theatre review

Published in Northings

Age of Arousal
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 19 February 2011, and touring
THE standard view of the Victorians is they were all buttoned up. They lived in a world of social niceties where a woman could take offence at a man simply if he were a little too eager, and society could ostracise a woman just for stepping out with a male companion without a proper introduction. It is this kind of primness playwright Linda Griffiths has fun with in Age of Arousal. For although on the outside, her characters show the genteel restraint of their era, on the inside, they burst with a lusty passion that seems entirely 21st century

Rarely does an .exchange go by in Muriel Romanes' vigorous production for Stella Quines and the Royal Lyceum without a feverish aside to the audience. To each other, these women behave with due decorum. To us, they reveal the pulsing, uninhibited life-force they have to repress.
This is very funny and it's also a neat way of communicating information originally explained at length in George Gissing's 1893 novel, The Odd Women, on which Griffiths bases her play. It is not only because of etiquette that the women working at a philanthropic secretarial school feel their life-force ebbing. It is also because of the historical anomaly that in Victorian Britain there were 500,000 more women than men. They were "odd" in the sense of not being evenly matched with a man and odd also, as Griffiths has it, because their lack of prospects as wives and mothers pushed them into eccentricity and mental disquiet.

This side of the story provides much of the life and energy of the production, as Molly Innes and Alexandra Mathie play two splendidly unhinged sisters trying to keep pace with the modern thinking of Clare Lawrence Moody and Ann Louise Ross as they run their secretarial business without male help, and with Hannah Donaldson as their pretty - and pretty lusty - younger sister. Theirs is a brave new word of change, epitomised by an exhibition of impressionist painters that they find both shocking and intriguing.

But Age of Arousal reveals another consequence of the gender imbalance. The large numbers of independent, self-reliant women created a ready market for the radical new ideas that were emerging about emancipation and feminism. In the case of Rhoda Nunn (Lawrence Moody), her single status is not just a historical accident but a political act, a defiant rebuke to the institution of marriage and the tyranny of patriarchy.

Until she falls in love with a man, that is.

What's fascinating about the play is it avoids sentimentalising these proto-feminists as clear-headed sisters doing it for themselves. Instead, it presents them as women pulled in all kinds of directions, trying to forge a philosophy from the white noise of sexual urges, social convention, class prejudice, new ways of thinking, quack medicine and industrialisation. They are people of their time, drawn into the social revolution as much as instigating it.
With a fine ensemble performance making the most of the fluidity of Janet Bird's open set, Age of Arousal brilliantly captures the passion, the politics and the bewilderment of changing times. (Pic: Marc Marnie)


© Mark Fisher 2011
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Gagarin Way, theatre review 2

Published in The Guardian

Gagarin Way – review

Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline

 Three stars3

As the mighty Black Watch nears the end of its latest tour of duty, it is good to be able to revisit the play that made Gregory Burke's name 10 years ago. This is especially so because Rapture theatre's production kicks off in the place Gagarin Way is set. There is a special pleasure in hearing actor Jordan Young deliver Burke's Fife patter with such easy assurance to an audience familiar with the rhythms and cadences the playwright captures so well. It's hard to imagine the gag about Leven, 20 miles up the road, going down as well anywhere else on this UK tour.

The Dunfermline audience also understands that Burke's premise is rooted in reality. This is a factory heist comedy about four men who are, very specifically, the sons and grandsons of Fife miners. They exist in a modern-day world of outsourcing and globalisation, but they also know that only a couple of generations ago, the nearby mining village of Lumphinnans was dubbed Little Moscow because of its communist affiliations. To this day, there is an early-1960s suburban street called Gagarin Way in honour of the Soviet cosmonaut.

It means that underlying the caustic comedy of a less-than-competent kidnap attempt is a soul-searching drama about the need for a political identity in changed times. None of the men has the answer; not the old-school revolutionary, not the violent nihilist, not the wishy-washy politics student and not the reluctant global capitalist.

The play's only frustration is that it is the nihilist who appears to win, making the ending seem politically unresolved. This is particularly true in Michael Emans's production, which has a strong feel for Burke's comic exchanges, but too little sense of dramatic urgency, leaving us unconvinced about the necessity of his brutal conclusion.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Gagarin Way, theatre review 1

Published in Northings

Gagarin Way

Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 18 February 2011, and touring

WITH all the clamour around Black Watch – still on the road more than four years after its Edinburgh Fringe debut – it’s easy to forget it was not the first time playwright Gregory Burke had enjoyed a run-away hit. His debut in 2001, a cruel comedy set in a Fife factory where a heist goes horribly wrong, was the most talked about play on that year’s Fringe and catapulted him to national attention.

That play was Gagarin Way, which took its title from the street in the Fife mining village of Lumphinnans named after one of the heroes of the Soviet Union. Behind the riotous comedy, the first-time playwright had serious questions to ask about a community that had been repeatedly failed by economics. Exploited in the coal mines, dazzled by communism, now alienated by global capitalism, the people of Fife had yet to find a political credo that would give them control of their world.

Thus when Eddie and Gary decide to kidnap and murder an industrialist, their purpose is less than clear. For Gary, an old-school revolutionary communist, it is a chance to send out a message and challenge the system. For Eddie, his younger accomplice, it is more of a chance for some gratuitous violence; he has taught himself philosophy, economics and politics, but rejects it all, hating labels so much he won’t even call himself an anarchist.

In contrast, politics graduate Tom comes a cross as rather feeble in his moderate plea to choose the best of capitalism and socialism. One of the play’s comic ironies is that Frank, the man they kidnap, has a clearer understanding of the globalised system than any of them.

This is complex stuff and one of Burke’s extraordinary achievements is he makes Gagarin Way look first like a broad comedy then like a popular heist drama, almost without the audience noticing its deeper themes.

In Rapture Theatre’s production, opening in Burke’s Dunfermline heartland before a UK tour, including dates in Oban and on the Isle of Mull, the play gets off to a promising start as Jordan Young’s sparky Eddie runs intellectual rings around Finn Den Hertog’s nice-but-slow graduate Tom. Burke’s language is written with a very specific Fife intonation in mind and all the actors have a sharp feel for its inflections, which adds to the comic pace.

There are strong performances too from Jimmy Chisholm, as the well-versed old radical, and Dave Anderson, as the unexpectedly laid-back captive. But there is something about the pace of Michael Emans’ production that makes the rhythm lag as soon as the gags stop. He doesn’t build enough tension into the heist story to keep us on the edge of our seats. As a result, the political arguments seem less urgent and the play’s violent resolution less inevitable. It propels itself forward from the energy of the entertaining opening scenes, but leaves us a little deflated.


© Mark Fisher 2011

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Staircase, Tron Theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday
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WHEN the playwright William Goldman bought a ticket to see Staircase on Broadway in 1968, he was shocked to read the programme. It seemed to him that, in their biographies, the creative team had gone out of their way to stress how straight they were. Charles Dyer's play had been written as a respectful examination of gay life, but what was on stage in New York, reckoned Goldman, was "a charade".

A similar fate befell the film version. Someone had the bright idea that this story of two ageing homosexuals running a Brixton barber's shop would be a perfect vehicle for Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. But the only thing that made sense for such heterosexual icons - and their marketing department - was to treat it as a camp joke. Released in 1969, the film flopped, appealing neither to the mass market nor to a gay audience.

"I saw a clip of it and it looked appalling," says Andy Arnold, who is directing and starring in the Scottish premiere at Glasgow's Tron. "The film got slated and quite rightly so, because they sent the whole thing up and did it as two camp comedy characters. It is very funny, there are very witty lines, but actually it's a very dark, sad piece of theatre and the two characters are very serious."

It was a different story on Staircase's debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company at London's Aldwych in 1966. Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee played the aging barbers, one masochistic, the other sadistic. Of Peter Hall's production, The Times said: "Mr Scofield, blanched and desperate, runs through the whole repertoire of male effeminacy without once approaching theatrical cliché."

Admittedly, that was only after the Lord Chamberlain had excised many contentious exchanges, but in those days, when the British stage was censored and homosexuality was illegal, Staircase was seen as a milestone. It is a portrayal of two men - one with the tell-tale name of Charlie Dyer - whose witty banter turns ever darker as details emerge of the impending arrival of a daughter from a previous, even more closeted life and a court case for propositioning a police officer.

"It's fascinating historically," says Arnold, "which is why it has to be set at the time - you wouldn't update it - because it's not that long ago and yet the landscape has changed so dramatically. "These two people are living in the denial of their sexuality, the shame of it and the fear of legal repercussions. It was also a time when there was this incredibly rich vein of theatre writing."

So why has it taken nearly 50 years to reach Scotland? "Good plays do get forgotten about," he says, recalling the stagings of lesser-known plays he has done by famous writers, such as Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. Admittedly, as tastes change, some might find Staircase, in its original form, to be too drawn out. "We're doing a trimmed-down version, it's tighter and more dramatically powerful," he says. "In the West End production it was a happy ending, but there's an author's note in the script which gives a more interesting alternative ending, so we've employed that. I think it's a brilliant play. The quality of writing is easily comparable to Harold Pinter."

Arnold insists the new staging of Staircase does not rely on any special topical resonance, such as the current debate about same-sex marriages and church weddings. "I don't think that's what people take from the play," says Arnold, who is acting opposite Benny Young. "There's a fascinating historical insight into what was happening at that time, but the play itself is a piece of drama in its own right, which is not about any social politics or developments in terms of gay culture. It's much more a play about a power struggle between two people, as all good plays are. It's a story that keeps on unfolding and has a twist at the end, and that's what people take from it."

What they can also take from it is the chance to see Arnold on stage, a frequent sight in the early days of the Arches Theatre, but not since he took over at the Tron. "I'm one of these old-fashioned directors who believes you get a greater insight into the stage craft of actors by doing it yourself occasionally," says the man whose last major role was in Pinter's Moonlight in 2005. "I love acting, but it's been a bit of a luxury in recent years because there's too much else to do. It's reminded me what hard work it is - it's quite exhausting."

Staircase,Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wednesday until 5 March. www.tron.co.uk


© Mark Fisher 2011
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Smalltown, theatre review 2

Published in The Guardian

Smalltown

Tron, Glasgow
It will be remembered as the show with the masturbating fox sitting at the head of a bed with a masturbating stag. Yet this scene isn't some troubling piece of psychodrama from Anthony Neilson, but the culmination of a deliriously funny two-hander by DC Jackson. A kind of condensed version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is half bad-sex romp, half atavistic nightmare, and all hilarious.

What's more, it is only a third of a joyfully frivolous evening in which three thirtysomething Ayrshire playwrights club together to suggest possible consequences of a poisoned batch of bottled water on their hometowns. For Jackson, writing about a teenage night of passion-free sex in Stewarton, the water has Jekyll and Hyde properties, superbly demonstrated by Sally Reid, a master of the deadpan double-take.

For Douglas Maxwell, the water is rebranded as "Rabbie juice" to commemorate the anniversary of Robert Burns losing his virginity (nobody said this was subtle) and is causing a spate of deaths affecting anyone not native to Girvan: hellish for the tourist board.

And for Johnny McKnight, who doubles as director for this Random Accomplice production, the water has led to a lunchtime of the living dead as - in a cross between Dinner Ladies and 28 Days Later – two Ardrossan catering staff lose their temper with a zombie in the freezer who is playing havoc with their work schedule.

As if to underscore the inconsequentiality, the audience votes on which of the three scenarios it wants to see the end of, merrily forgetting about the other two. On press night, Ardrossan was victorious, Stewarton was robbed, and everyone went home with the kind of daft grin you get from eating too many sweets. (Photo: John Johnston)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Smalltown, theatre review 1

Published in Northings

Smalltown

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 16 February 2011, and touring

NOBODY would doubt the cultural significance of Northings, but even its most avid reader would be surprised by how much it has influenced the latest show by Glasgow’s Random Accomplice. The premise of Smalltown, written in three sections by Douglas Maxwell, DC Jackson and Johnny McKnight, comes directly from a Northings review of McKnight’s Little Johnny’s Big Gay Musical. That review commented on the uncanny similarities between those three writers – all in their 30s, all from Ayrshire and all with a preoccupation with their teenage years – and speculated that there must have been something in the Ayrshire water supply to produce such a coincidence.

Now, at last, we can know the truth. Well, not so much the truth as a hat trick of highly improbable scenarios that demonstrate the effects of contaminated bottled water on the citizens of Girvan (Maxwell), Stewarton (Jackson) and Ardrossan (McKnight). Depending on which writer you believe, the water is proving addictive for the locals and fatal for the tourists; causing Jekyll and Hyde-style mutations in randy teenagers; or turning canteen workers into zombies. And depending on which version you like best, you can vote at the end to see the completion of the story.

As the person who wrote that first review, I should apologise. In no way was it my intention to inspire such a daft and, in many ways, unnecessary piece of theatre. I recognise Smalltown adds nothing to our understanding of human experience. Anyone who seeks enlightenment on the nature of water, Ayrshire or small towns would be better borrowing a book from the library.

If, however, you are in the mood for an intoxicatingly inconsequential night of laughter, I make no apologies at all. Maxwell has described the show as being like the DVD extras from a pantomime, which is true not only in the air of ridiculousness but also in the seasonal feeling of over-indulgence on stuff that’s probably not very good for you. His own play gets closest to satirising the small-town mindset, as Richard Conlon and Anita Vettesse argue over which of them is the most loyal to Girvan, but what animates the audience are comic ideas such as a performing kangaroo with a fatal punch and a set of horror books with titles such as The Ayr Witch Project.

Jackson’s is my favourite of the three. We’re back in the territory of his teen trilogy (The Wall, The Duckie and The Chookie Brae) on a night of loveless first-time sex that takes on a surreal twist when Sally Reid’s Ruby loses her virginity and develops a tail. Reid’s alternating expressions of superiority and bewilderment are a joy.

The joke behind McKnight’s contribution is that his two dinner ladies cannot differentiate between a cause of major panic (a zombie in the freezer) and one of minor organisational irritation (the lack of a black bin liner in the bin). Such are the down-to-earth preoccupations of Trudy and Margaret (Julie Brown and Vettesse) in the face of a national emergency that they come close to driving a stake through the heart of the whole zombie genre.

The cumulative effect of the three plays is to produce giddy uproar in the auditorium, as if the audience has overdosed on E-numbers. It surely can’t be good for you, but it’s an undoubted guilty pleasure.

Smalltown is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 2 March 2011, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 3 March 2011. (Photo: John Johnston)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Smalltown preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Smalltown
 
Daniel Jackson has heard that the last person to walk through a door is the one with the highest status. So he and fellow playwrights Douglas Maxell and Johnny McKnight are standing in the corridor outside a Scottish Youth Theatre meeting room arguing over who should come in first.

McKnight accepts defeat and makes his move, sensing he has a diplomatic duty as the director of Random Accomplice and the man who had the idea of bringing them together in the first place. Maxwell is next, although he is the nearest this group has to an elder statesman, with a ten-year track record as a playwright and, at 36, being five years older than Jackson and four older than McKnight. For Jackson, it is a small victory.

But in this lunchtime rehearsal break, it is actually me who is claiming the upper hand (although, frankly, I'm failing miserably). That's because the show these three playwrights have written together turns out to be my idea. In 2009, I wrote a review of one of McKnight's plays and commented on the similar territory he, Maxwell and Jackson occupied. All are from Ayrshire, all are about the same age and all have a penchant for comedies about their troubled teenage years. Idly, I speculated someone must have put something in the Ayrshire water 30 years ago.

In McKnight's case I was thinking of plays such as Little Johnny's Big Gay Musical, a hilarious show that believed it was a Broadway spectacular even though it had only three musicians, an actor and a singer. In between the song-and-dance numbers, McKnight told a rites-of-passage tale involving such small-town concerns as sports days and embarrassing medical complaints. When you see McKnight as the abrasive Dame in his acclaimed pantos at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, you see little sign of the Ardrossan boy he once was. "I sometimes talk about my childhood days because I remember them better and I knew a wider variety of people," he says. "When I was a teenager I knew every person in my high school and in the pub I would sit with the old drunken women who had been out since Monday. So when I'm writing, I imagine people speaking in an Ayrshire voice."

Douglas Maxwell has returned repeatedly to his Girvan childhood for inspiration, although in recent plays such as Promises Promises (lined-up for a New York run next month) he has broken out into new territory. His most enduring hit is Decky Does a Bronco, revived last year by Grid Iron and performed in play parks around the country to capture the atmosphere of a teenage boy's summer holidays. Other plays including Our Bad Magnet, Helmet, Mancub and If Destroyed True have shown a special understanding of the teenage small-town mindset. "I've got quite a complicated relationship with Girvan," he says. "I hate it and love it at the same time. Once I realised you could write about somewhere like that, I found a voice. Setting stories there just made them come alive."

In The Wall, The Duckie and The Chookie Brae, Daniel Jackson mined his Stewarton childhood to create a hilarious rites-of-passage teen trilogy. Like Maxwell, he feels he has said all he has to say on the subject and is delighted that My Romantic History, a rom-com with a more adult perspective, was such a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe. "I do feel like it was 15 years since I lived in Stewarton and Stewarton is quite a different place to the one I went to school in," he says. "I'm writing those plays actually set in the early-90s but pretending it's now."

But he hasn't said goodbye to his childhood quite yet. That's because, after reading my review, McKnight called up Jackson and Maxwell and outlined an idea for a play. It would be about something in the water that was affecting the population of Ayrshire. They would write one act each and, at the end, the audience would vote on which character it would like to save and which story it would like to see completed. It would be called Smalltown and it would go on a six-week spring tour.

And that's why I'm now playing status games with three of Scotland's most entertaining playwrights. It is also why I am grappling with the postmodern dilemma of writing about a play I inadvertently inspired. I feel like a mean Victorian philanthropist who has commissioned a play without offering any money, I tell them. "Which is great, but you won't get any royalties," laughs McKnight.

"I read the quote and I was going, 'Why isn't it a good review that we've based this play on?'" says Maxwell, hilariously misinterpreting what I wrote. "It wasn't a bad review, but there's an undercurrent there. Should we have taken a slightly bad review as the foundation? But then I was thinking, "Aren't all of our plays reactions to bad reviews in some way?'"

McKnight acknowledges my position: "So if it’s an absolute stinker you won't be able to hold your head up," he says. "You've got a lot riding on this show professionally."

Jackson warms to the theme: "It'll be interesting to see how the other critics take it: 'Well, they didn't write a play about anything I said.' I think we can all agree this isn't a play for the critics. It's a play for the critic."

The banter does nothing to disprove my theory, so I ask them straight: was there something in the Ayrshire water? "It's not the water supply any more," says Maxwell. "I had to step in wearing my dramaturg hat. I had to go, 'There is no one water supply in Ayrshire.' So now it’s bottled water that Ayrshire has produced to commemorate the anniversary of Robert Burns losing his virginity. The South Ayrshire Tourism and Leisure marketing department has spiked the water with a drug to create mild euphoria in this time of recession, but it's backfired. They've reclaimed it all apart from three towns: Girvan, Stewarton and Ardrossan."

"Stewarton's in East Ayrshire," Jackson pipes up, like the teenager at the back of the class who hasn't been paying attention. "Have we discussed this already?"

"We've got East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and North Ayrshire," says McKnight. "Don't you worry, I've got my geography down. I like the way you worry about it a week into rehearsals."

Whether or not there was something in the water, there was certainly something in the artistic culture of the region. Jackson's father, Eddie, is the driving force behind the Ayr-based Borderline, a touring theatre company that prides itself on popular appeal. All three playwrights took the ethos of their local company for granted. "We all agree on what a night at the theatre is and that's not the case with a lot of my peers," says Maxwell. "We all go in thinking, 'We're going to have to entertain this audience.'"

It helps explain how their work can sit comfortably in a single show. "What classifies us all is we have a strong sense of humour through our work," says McKnight.

"There's the humour and the pathos related to the same thing," agrees Maxwell. "The same incident is both humorous and sad. Johnny's remit for Smalltown was just: "Funny and nothing else." That was a relief but a horrible challenge as well because normally in my work comedy is a side-effect; I'm aiming for the emotional core and the comedy is the way it comes through. Whereas this was like writing jokes. That made me nervous. I reckon you're a better joke writer," he adds, turning to Jackson.

"I'm not going to disagree with that," deadpans Jackson. "But I never sit down to write a comedy. Until they're in front of an audience, I never think they're comedies. So, yes, there is something intimidating in writing something that has to be funny."

It means that in Smalltown, you can expect zombies, B-movie motifs and three possible endings, but little in the way of profundity. "I wanted there to be at least a tiny bit of the small-town experience in each of the three plays," says Maxwell. "It's there deep down, but it's not that type of show. If you're looking for depth and exploration of the small-town experience, look at everything else we've done."

And with that, they exit – but only after arguing who should leave the room first.

Smalltown, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 15–19 February and on tour until 26 March.


© Mark Fisher 2011
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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, theatre review 2

Published in Northings

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 10 February 2011, and touring

AS the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) celebrates its fifth anniversary, the legacy of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil seems ever more pertinent. What John McGrath’s 7:84 (Scotland) did in 1973 was to marry the ceilidh, a cultural form indigenous to Scotland, with theatrical storytelling and a hefty dose of politics. Crucially, the company took the show to the people, performing in church halls and community centres throughout the Highlands and islands.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and we find the NTS, a self-styled theatre without walls, asking similar questions to McGrath. This National Theatre of Scotland makes no assumptions about what constitutes a nation, what constitutes theatre or what constitutes Scotland. All possibilities are up for grabs, which is how, after shows such as Duncan McLean’s Long Gone Lonesome (a true-life story performed as a country and western gig), Half Life (an investigation of Mid Argyll’s archaeological past performed as a countryside walk) and Home Shetland (a tale of leaving and departure performed as if on an actual journey on the Hjatland ferry), we find ourselves enjoying The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart not in the Tron Theatre but its adjoining bar.

Created by playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson (who was also responsible for Home Shetland), it is an exuberant piece of storytelling theatre that takes place, lock-in style, in every corner of the room, the actors doubling as an invigorating gypsy folk band whenever the mood takes them. It is sure to fit just as snugly into Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place as part of its appropriately eccentric tour of Scotland’s hostelries.

The point of all this is not simply to break down the fourth wall (and, frankly, every other wall too). Rather, it is to find a setting to suit Greig’s modern-day reworking of a Border ballad. This is a story set, for the most part, in a Kelso pub where a well-meaning but emotionally repressed academic, Prudencia Hart, gets stranded on the longest – and snowiest – night of the year. A collector of folk songs, she is a social anthropologist, at once fascinated by and distant from the object of her study. In a tale that goes from ironic send-up to erotic horror, she finds herself enmeshed in her very own Border ballad and must escape the clutches of the devil himself before she can reach a state of emotional fulfilment.

Greig takes a have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach, one minute making fun of anachronistic tradition, the next drawing us in to a supernatural tale which is every bit the Border ballad. With its merry rhyming scheme, lively music and ad-hoc use of props (from paper napkin snow showers to a bout of peanut throwing), it is a sprawling, rough-edged show that delights in its own informality. If this is what a theatre without walls feels like, here’s to the next five years. (Pic: Drew Farrell)
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the Ceilidh Place, Ullapool, on 25-26 February 2011.



© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com



Death of a Salesman, theatre review 2

Published in the Guardian

Death of a Salesman – review

Perth Theatre
Three stars

Arthur Miller's great mid-20th century dramas rarely let you down – but there are times when they seem more pertinent. When Miller directed Death of a Salesman in China, for example, it seemed to speak for a culture far removed from the one in which it was written. Its theme about a life built on the illusory promise of good times to come resonated in early 1980s Beijing.

In today's Britain, by contrast, where all the talk is of austerity and uncertainty, it is that much harder to see ourselves reflected in a play about hope. The tragedy of Willy Loman is that he has invested his life in the American dream and that his imagined success has turned out to be as illusory as the friendships he has forged on the road. He has been living the lie of a pathological optimist for whom nirvana is forever only one lucky break away.

In other words, it's a boom-time play – one that sends out a cautionary warning on behalf of those discarded by a runaway economic system. That is partly why Ian Grieve's production seems more miserable than tragic. In 2011, it is too apparent that Loman's hopes are delusions. We know it can only end badly.

But the play still has tremendous power, and the production captures well the innovation of Miller's dreamlike structure and his keen understanding of family dynamics. In the lead, Ron Emslie makes a persuasively gruff fallen hero, a man in painful denial of his own nervous breakdown, although he is less good at suggesting the charismatic younger man so idolised by his family. There are wobbly moments – notably, a botched final scene – but also the sense of a grave, compelling story. (Pic: Eamonn McGoldrick)
Until 26 February. Box office: 01738 621 031. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com



Death of a Salesman, theatre review

Published in Northings

Death of a Salesman

Perth Theatre, Perth, 12 February 2011, and touring

ARTHUR Miller’s working title for Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Head. Perhaps that title is not as catchy, but it gives you an idea of the formal experiment the playwright was attempting. Death of a Salesman is a mainstream play – it clocked up 742 performances on Broadway after its debut in 1949 – and because of that, you can forget how unorthodox its dreamlike structure is.

A portrait of Willy Loman, a washed-up travelling salesman suffering a nervous breakdown, the play glides restlessly backwards and forwards in time in a way that mirrors the protagonist’s troubled mental state. One minute he’s fretting over the state of his finances as his old salesman charm deserts him, the next it’s 20 years earlier and he’s giving his young sons a jovial pep talk, the next again he’s having an affair in some distant motel room. Instead of showing the usual cool detachment of a playwright, Miller really does seem to tell the story from the inside of Loman’s head.

Ian Grieve’s production for Perth Theatre ­– touring to His Majesty’s, Aberdeen and Eden Court, Inverness – emphasises this in two ways. One is the easily adaptable nature of Ken Harrison’s set that allows Ron Emslie’s Loman to step from kitchen to garden to office to restaurant as his wandering mind dictates. The other is the live score, courtesy of Steve Kettley on flute and saxophone, which captures the flavour of 1940s jazz and locates the play in an era of artistic innovation. Throw in some echoing laughter on the soundtrack and you have the impression of a point in history when anarchic forces were about to undermine the unsustainable image of an all-American nuclear family.

It is this image of a family struggling to stay together that Grieve captures best. Robert Jack and Ewan Donald do a great job as the two dissolute sons who would find their parents preposterous if it weren’t for the compelling force of filial love. They are far too old still to be living at home, but Emslie’s attitude of ambition for their future and disappointment in their achievements has them ensnared. There’s something appealing, too, in Vari Sylvester’s Linda, who giggles girlishly one minute and clutches herself arthritically the next and, curious accent notwithstanding, does what she can to hold an increasingly dysfunctional family together.

There is more dark than light in the production, however, and forceful though Miller’s tragedy remains, we don’t get enough sense of the idyllic life that has been lost with the collapse of this particular American Dream. (Pic: Eamonn McGoldrick)
Death of a Salesman runs at Perth Theatre until 26 February, then plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 1-5 March 2011, and Eden Court, Inverness, 8-12 March 2011.


© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Tron, Glasgow
Four stars

A small academic industry is building around the work of David Greig. Books are appearing with titles such as The Sense of Place and Identity in David Greig's Plays and the forthcoming Transnational Identities. You can imagine the playwright himself would be bemused by such attention. It doesn't seem quite in the self-reflexive spirit of The Cosmonaut's Last Message, let alone the throwaway charm of The Monster in the Hall. Perhaps that is why Greig sets The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in a world of academic pedants, a place of memes, signifiers and post-post-structuralists, where the head triumphs over the heart every time.

The setting for this raucous story is Kelso in the Scottish Borders, where the folk-studies community has gathered for a symposium on "The Borders ballad: neither border nor ballad", a title that perfectly satirises the empty dichotomies of the career academic. Poor Prudencia Hart wants to celebrate the narrative art of the ballad tradition, but to her elitist colleagues, notably the testosterone-driven Colin Syme, such an approach is dated, sentimental and gauche.

In true ballad fashion, Greig sets all this in verse. Using the kind of cheeky rhyming that can match "plectrum" with "autistic spectrum", he subverts the traditional poetic form with references to Facebook, Asda and bed-and-breakfast jigsaws. This scores many a laugh in Wils Wilson's rough-and-ready production for the National Theatre of Scotland, which is touring the bar-rooms of Scotland for added authenticity, wild musical outbursts and all. It also parodies the modern-day folk fan who goes in search of a genuine expression of community identity and finds only Katy Perry karaoke.

Yet the culture-clash comedy goes on for only so long. This play has its own ballad to tell: on a dark and snowbound winter solstice (snowflakes courtesy of the audience's torn-up napkins), Madeleine Worrall's buttoned-up Prudencia goes on an archetypal journey of self-discovery, housing estates and car parks notwithstanding.

Beguiled by a mysterious stranger, she sups with the devil and releases her own inner sexual power, as the play switches from brash comedy to an eroticised version of Sartre's Huis Clos by way of Burns's Tam o' Shanter. By the end, she has gone from detached academic observer to the protagonist of her own story, finding an animal passion for the swarthy Syme and an unlikely sensitivity to the work of Kylie Minogue. (Pic: Drew Farrell)

© Mark Fisher 2011
More coverage at theatreSCOTLAND.com