Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Macbeth

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Four stars

All the ladies in the house strut their stuff with the nobility of queens at the opening of this all-female take on Shakespeare's Scottish play, performed in Ian Wooldridge's dynamic production by a cast of twelve second year BA Acting students. This makes for a bold opening statement as they pace the catwalk-styled stage area, dressed almost identically in black, but with key personal motifs, be it for combat, the elements or for the greatest power to come.
 
Seven performers take on the role of Macbeth over the course of the play's interval-free hundred-minute duration, with four more playing Lady M. Such mantle-passing switches of identity may allow each actress a fair stab at the two main roles, but more significantly it heightens each facet of their ever-morphing characters. While Macbeth is by turns soldier, statesman, monarch and madman, his partner in crime takes a similar journey, from devoted wife to doomed social climber and beyond. Inbetween they take on all other roles, including an ever multiplying tribe of Weird Sisters.

This makes for a thrillingly primal piece of work, in which Wooldridge enables a cracking ensemble to revitalise and reinvent a play more readily steeped in machismo with an altogether different kind of energy. So while Macbeth's henchman go off on their killing spree, it is Lady M who initiates the rutting up against the wall with her husband.

When in the final act Macbeth has his misguided exchange with Macduff regarding“man that of woman born,” the lines are given renewed vigour as the king is pretty much slain by his own words in a final cacophonous melee that gives full vent to the play's female heart.

The Herald, January 19th 2017

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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Declan Donnellan and Max Webster - The Winter's Tale

Winter is coming. Or rather, as the turn of the year chill bites deep presumably on track for a white Easter, winter is not only coming thick and fast, but so is William Shakespeare's late-period play, The Winter's Tale. So blessed are Scottish theatre audiences, in fact, that not one, but two productions of it open on opposite sides of the central belt over the next few weeks.

First out of the traps is Declan Donnellan's production of the play for the internationally renowned Cheek By Jowl company, who open the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow's 2017 season next week. Hot (or cold) on the heels of this, next month, the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh open their own production of the play, here directed by Max Webster, currently an associate director at the Old Vic theatre in London.

Not actually set in winter at all, but named after the sort of fireside tales one might be told during the season, The Winter's Tale is is a play of two very different halves. The first, set in the kingdom of Sicilia, sees the king, Leontes, mistakenly presumes his wife Hermione to have committed adultery with his best friend, Polixenes. The much lighter second half, set sixteen years later in Bohemia and Sicilia, focuses on redemption and happy ever afters all round. It is this seeming inconsistency in terms of dramatic tone that in part appealed to both directors.

It’s a play about love, loss, and the difficulty of forgiveness,” says Donnellan. “It’s about how very important it is to forgive yourself and about the uselessness of guilt. The more we worked on it we also realised that a lot of the play comes from Leontes having a breakdown over being abandoned by his fried Polixenes, how he finds he can’t admit or reconcile himself to this, which is just in front of him, so must imagine something completely irrational and destructive as a reason for his anxiety. We all hate being abandoned, but sometimes it upsets us so traumatically that we cannot see it anymore, and although we look quite normal most of the time, we are in fact quite ill. That is Leontes' predicament.”

For Webster, who recently directed Royal Lyceum artistic director David Greig's stage version of Dr Suess' The Lorax at the Old Vic, there is much humour beyond this.

“It's going to be funny,” he says of his production, in which he will be re-locating the action to Edinburgh and Fife. “That shift in tone is quite magical. In the first half it's almost like a contemporary thriller like House of Cards, and then it makes this leap, so it becomes something else again. Shakespeare was a mature writer by the time he wrote The Winter's Tale, and this is an experiment, with language as much a everything else, which he wrote with a real sense of confidence.”

Like Webster, Donnellan names The Winter's Tale as one of his favourite plays, and this new production isn't the first time he has explored it.

Both Nick and myself love the play,” Donnellan says, referring to Cheek By Jowl's designer and co-founder Nick Ormerod. “I’ve seen it many many times in different versions around the world, and had directed it once before in Russian for Lev Dodin in St Petersburg in 1997. That production still plays in rep at the Maly Theatre there. I’ve always wanted to do the play in English, and thought that Orlando James, who’s been with us for a few years now, would make an excellent Leontes. It’s always good to work on a play with a specific actor or actors that you have in mind. That’s not to say it makes it straightforward. You find many interesting and new things along the way that can only come out in rehearsals.”

To this end, Webster's cast features John Michie, last seen onstage in Scotland at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in Rob Drummond's play, Grain in the Blood, as Leontes. The cast also includes Scottish stage stalwarts Maureen Beattie and Jimmy Chisholm.

While the Lyceum's production of The Winter's Tale marks Webster's first outing on a main Scottish stage, Cheek By Jowl's take on the play sees the company returning to Scotland following the company's Russian language version of Measure For Measure at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival.

We love coming to Scotland when we can,” says Donnellan. “Our first chair John Scott Moncrieff registered us as a Scottish Charity thirty five years ago. Cheek by Jowl’s very first performance was in Edinburgh at St Columba’s by the Castle on 17th August 1981, Wycherley’s The Country Wife. The Edinburgh Festival is fantastic, our Russian company loved coming over in August. We had such a great response from the people there. Some had never seen Shakespeare in Russian before.

We are personally hugely excited to make our debut at the Citz. We drove up often in the eighties and fell in love with the Citz chutzpah. Never parochial, always international, never navel-gazing about national identity, always throwing bridges across centuries of text, across Europe. Throwing a warm wicked smile across cultures. Never apologising for vision. In these days after Brexit that legacy feels more fragile and precious than ever before.

There was never anything earnest about the Citz, there was always enough of a whiff of sulphur about the work to make the place ambivalent, alive and adult. Never dumbed down, always entertaining. A proper place for adults. Above all there was the physical presence, the humanity of Giles Havergal, there in the foyer, welcoming, mediating the stage with the audience. Smiling and approachable. A giant artistic vision coupled with humble humanity. How totally wonderful. I like to feel that somehow even in some small way we were affected by that, and follow in those shoes.”

Cheek By Jowl opened The Winter's Tale in the United States last year, and visit Glasgow as part of an international tour.

The reaction of the American audiences has been overwhelming,” says Donnellan. “There were some interesting comments about political resonances of the play, but we find wherever we play Shakespeare there will always be political resonances.”

This is something that Webster also recognises.

Today's politics is changing,” says Webster. “There is lots of anxiety about things that we thought were certain, but which suddenly aren't, and that has an impact. This is a play about diversity and community, and it feels very much like an important play for now.”

Donnellan goes even further.

“It shows what politicians dare not speak of,” he says, “the human need to destroy. But it also shows us the possibility of forgiveness, of redemption and hope. I think these are very important and relevant things to consider right now, as they were four hundred years ago, and will probably be in another four hundred years.”

Cheek By Jowl's production of The Winter's Tale runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-28; the Royal Lyceum Theatre's production runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, February 10-March 4
www.citz.co.uk
www.lyceum.org.uk


The Herald, January 17th 2017

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

Joan Lindsay's darkly gothic novel concerning a group of private schoolgirls who vanish without trace on a Valentine's Day outing in 1900 has haunted the Australian psyche since it first appeared in 1967. It was made even more ethereal by Peter Weir's film version nine years later. Given fresh life onstage by writer Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton, this international co-production between Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and the Perth-based Black Swan State Theatre Company captures the essence of Lindsay's beautifully evoked mystery with a hypnotic staging.

At first, the cast of five women are lined up across the stage like maids in a row, their lives hanging in the balance as each pupil of the Appleyard Academy becomes the narrator of their own destiny. As they take slow-motion steps in unison while they talk, it is as if the girls are possessed by something drawing them beyond the fragile veneer of civilisation they so dangerously occupy.

This is the preface to a rapid-fire series of artfully arranged scenes, in which the acting quintet take on all roles in an atmosphere of looming hysteria played out on the expanse of designer Zoe Atkinson's perspective-shifting interior. As Hanging Rock itself becomes “a carbuncle in this anti Eden” as it is so evocatively described as at one point, the tight-lipped emotional desolation of head teacher Mrs Appleyard is offset by the burgeoning and unstoppable sexual awakening of the girls, led by dreamy Miranda.

The formally choreographed stage pictures at moments resemble something Pina Bausch might have dreamt up. Flashes of wordless shadowplay lean more towards the tricks of Victorian horrors. The splintered score of composer Ash Gibson Greig and creepy noises off provided by sound designer J. David Franzke heighten the mood.

Onstage throughout the play's slow burning eighty-five minutes, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels become teenage shape-shifters trying on identities for size beyond the walls that contain them. There is much going on here too, about the mysteries of a landscape that has lived several lives more than those who try to tame it. When the girls line the stage once more in a production that is as devastating as it is delicate, it as if they are taking a leap into an irresistible void in an experience designed to beguile.


The Herald, January 16th 2017

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Friday, 13 January 2017

Lomond Campbell – Black River Promise (Triassic Tusk)

A brooding melancholy pervades from the opening chord of FOUND vocalist Ziggy Campbell's debut full-length release, which is a world apart from the electronic abstractions of his Edinburgh-sired band. Having fled the not so big city to hole himself up in a dilapidated Highland school-house, Campbell's self-imposed exile has seen Ziggy morph into Lomond. The isolation the move has brought with it has given him space to breathe in a way that has clearly affected this set of seven songs and two instrumentals.

Like a home-grown musical reflection of Henry Thoreau's novel, Walden, and Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, this second release on the Campbell co-owned Triassic Tusk label is very much the sound of one man getting his head together in the country. Rather than bask in some wide-eyed nouveau-hippy idyll, this is Campbell, not in retreat, but more in bewildered and world-weary confrontation with himself.

As a scene-setter, Fallen Stag may begin with a low strum and a mournful fiddle, but as it comes blinking into the light, it morphs into a panoramic chamber instrumental driven by a lush orchestral sweep that conjures up wide-open spaces witnessed for the first time. This is the first taste too of the Pumpkinseeds, the glorious ten-piece string ensemble watched over by cellist, member of Edinburgh band The Leg and DIY supergroup Modern Studies and composer in his own right, Pete Harvey. His arrangements embellish Campbell's stark confessionals with a breadth and depth that brings them sensitively to life with a roaring empathy.

Campbell's first words come on the album's title track, a cracked downbeat epic which sees the song's narrator communing with nature. The strings wrapped around Campbell's delivery personify the river as the words meld into the landscape, becoming a part of it much as Campbell's hand-claps and one-man-band bass drum kicks become an extension of his musical soul.

The wild west showdown slide guitar that opens Every Florist in Every Town reveals Campbell as the proverbial stranger, a lonesome cowboy moseying about his business while contemplating the meaning of life, finding salvation and companionship en route. The plaintive harmonica and whining dog that end the song suggests a knowing reinvention of old-time back-woods porch songs.

The plucked metallic guitar and doleful faraway yearning on The Misery Bell sounds like a Highland cousin to to former Pale Fountains and Shack vocalist Michael Head's sublime, strung-out and criminally neglected 1997 album, The Magical World of The Strands. Brutes in Life is jauntier, and sounds like a man reflecting on shared intimacies over a skittery backbeat and plaintive harmonica. The Lengths may be spritely, but it is full of purpose and a call at least for renewed commitment. Acharacle, the second instrumental on the album, recorded, like Fallen Stag, in a five-hundred year old castle, features a moody slide guitar that ducks in and out of view before giving way to wide-screen baroque mediaevalism.

A cover of singer/songwriter Nuala Kennedy's Coal Daughter is possibly the most traditional song here in terms of structure, and Campbell's delivery is raw with vocal grit. It is in the final seven bittersweet minutes of Hurl Them Further, however, where Campbell seems to find closure. Harvey's arrangements fall somewhere between western film composer Jerome Moross and the mournful classicism of Arvo Part, this is Campbell tying himself up in emotional knots one last time. As he pleas for understanding from his sparring, the song's end is the musical equivalent of wandering off into the sunset as if a weight has been lifted on an album that is part purging, part revelation of the most quietly euphoric kind.

www.triassictusk.com

Product, January 2017

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Cat Sheridan and Susan Worsfold - The Attic Collective

Cat Sheridan was two days into her new post as Learning and Participation Co-ordinator at the Festival and King's Theatre in Edinburgh when she proposed an idea that would introduce a radical new way of working within the walls of Edinburgh's two receiving theatres run by Festival City Theatre Trust. Sheridan had seen first hand how workshops and other educational initiatives designed for budding theatre professionals were out of the price range for many, while other potential participants were restricted by external work commitments. Too often, Sheridan observed, this meant that only those with the economic freedom to be able to pay for such valuable initiatives could take advantage of them, while those with less disposable income but who were potentially just as talented were unable to develop their skills.

Eighteen months later, the result of Sheridan's proposal is the Attic Collective, a brand new theatre company for aspiring actors aged between eighteen and twenty-six, which will be run by Sheridan as creative producer in conjunction with director Susan Worsfold. From almost 400 applications, a company of eighteen were selected from two rounds of auditions to take part in three full productions over the next year, which will cover classical work, new playwriting and musical theatre.

The first show, a version of Aristophanes' ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women go on a sex strike in protest at the war, will open at the end of this month. This will be followed in May by the world premiere of War in America, by Jo Clifford, which is set to be performed in the unique interior of the Old Royal High School in Edinburgh. The third and final production will see the Collective take on Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. As with Lysistrata, this will be performed on the main stage of the King's Theatre.

Each production will be able to utilise in full the artistic, technical and administrative resources the King's and Festival Theatres can provide. This will include free workshops with professional practitioners in a way that will see the Attic Collective function as both a repertory company and a training organisation. So while there are similarities with community-based theatre and youth theatre, especially as the acting ensemble will be working voluntarily, the Attic Collective looks set to be a skill-sharing exercise designed for those serious about a future career as professional actors.

“The starting point for the Attic Collective is very much from the point of view that opportunities to become involved in the arts should be everyone, and that you shouldn't have to pay for it,” says Sheridan. “I see all these amazing theatre companies coming into the King's and Festival Theatres, and the workshops they run aren't always fully subscribed because not everyone can afford them. So it seemed a really obvious choice to offer these resources which these brilliant companies bring into the building to the talent there is in Scotland through something like the Attic Collective.

“To make things accessible we had to negotiate. It's important that the young talent coming in were able to have lives as well. People have to eat and pay rent, and it can be incredibly hard to earn a living in this industry, and that raises a lot of questions.”

Rehearsals for Lysistrata have remained flexible time-wise, with initial sessions taking place on Saturdays prior to the collective working more intensively over evenings and weekends in the run up to performances. While such inclusivity itself makes a political statement, as Worsfold points out, the season itself is even more overt.

“2017 will be the twentieth anniversary of the referendum on devolution in Scotland,” says Worsfold, “so I felt there had to be a political edge to the season. Every play we're doing in the season is about cash, capital, war and women. In Lysistrata, you can see that while we look a lot to Greek society in terms of democracy, the gender politics are still the same, but Lysistrata is a play that's trying to broker peace.”

War in America should prove to be even more of an eye-opener. Originally commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 1991, the play was subsequently dropped from the theatre's programme after the play's subject matter was considered to be too much of a risk for its subscription-based audience. Having worked extensively with Jo Clifford on plays such as Jesus, Queen of Heaven, Worsfold read the still unperformed script and was blown away by a piece which, twenty years on, seems to have found its time.

“It's a brilliant piece of work,” says Worsfold. “It looked at gun crime in America, it predates The Thick of It by about nine years, and there's a couple in the play who are in a same-sex marriage. When the company read it they got it straight away, and for an older artist like Jo to see a work which had been rejected resonate with a younger generation is an incredible thing.”

Given the funding cuts many professional companies are currently facing, setting up an initiative on the scale of the Attic Collective may seem a risk. With the resources to hand, however, Festival Theatres Trust Chief Executive Duncan Hendry, however, says that in terms of finances it requires “a relatively modest contribution, and doesn't require a huge outlay.”

Hendry had instigated a similar model for a younger age group during his tenure running His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, and recognises the value of the Attic Collective, which will run for a year before the company members move on as others hopefully take their place.

“I think trying to support young actors in this way is a good thing,” he says, “and I also think it's important to develop this sort of work on the larger stages that we can provide.”

This too is making a statement, as is the name of the company.

“We deliberately chose the name to be a collective,” says Sheridan, “because it's about those in the Collective taking ownership and responsibility for what they get out of it. It;s the same with the Attic Collective as a whole. If you're given an opportunity like this in the way we have, you've got to seize it. We're not an educational institution. We want to work at a professional level, but in a way that young actors have a chance to learn skills as they go.

“This first year is an experiment. All the ingredients are there to make it work in this first year, but but it may all go horribly wrong and we find we have to adapt things accordingly, but what we have in our favour is this incredible amount of support and the wonderful safety net that the Festival City Theatre Trust can provide to make it work. Out of that I hope the Attic Collective can be about absolute access, and become an established enough draw that will help it become a long term project that in turn will make it an established draw. At the moment, anything could happen.”

Lysistrata, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27-28; War in America, Former Royal High School, Edinburgh, May 24-27.
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, January 10th 2017

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Friday, 6 January 2017

Alan Kitching: A Life in Letterpress

The Lighthouse, Glasgow until March 5th
Five stars

For six decades, the typographical work of Darlington-born Alan Kitching has blazed a quiet trail that has given printed matter a visual identity which has defined its various times. To coincide with the publication of a lavishly illustrated 400 page monograph by John L Walters, this major retrospective charts how a trainee compositor went on to create a canon that moved from Jan Tschichold-inspired modernist experiments, to reinventing letterpress with an explosive energy while the rest of the world went digital.

Kitching's work has consistently channelled the vibrancy of its age, even before he combined skewed poetics and monochrome classicism for his poster advertising a screening of Peter Watkins' film, The War Game, at Watford College of Technology. It was during his tenure here that he learnt as much as he taught en route to producing his seminal manifesto, Typography Manual (1970), which the bursts of colour that define his later letterpress work all stem from. Inbetween is a breathtaking panoply of broadsides, maps and polemic, all fired with the same dazzling and forensically crafted force. The result is a vital document that illustrates a very British form of DIY radicalism it remains a part of, turning words and worlds upside down as it goes.

The List, January 2017

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Rothko – A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder For A Wager (Trace Recordings)

Since 1997, Mark Beazley has operated under the name of Rothko in a variety of incarnations, first as a group, then later in duo and solo form. Even as a trio, however, the bass guitar, or rather, several of them, have been at the heart of Beazley's instrumental canon. Having broken cover early in 2016 with Discover the Lost, the first Rothko release since 2007's Eleven Stages of Intervention album, Beazley follows up in double quick time with this stark and startling collaboration with Johny Brown, the restlessly prolific street poet, soothsayer and driving force behind The Band of Holy Joy.

The result is a suite of first person monologues charting the rites of passage of an inner city kid as he searches for something better, finding it in a doomed romance before drinking his pain away until he can move on. Recorded live in one take in July 2016, Brown's social-realist narrative is delivered unadorned by any musical frills other than Beazley's bass, which moves from plucky jauntiness to an echo-laden death knell that sounds like it might explode.

The opening The Mainline Landscape of My Youth sets the scene through a series of spoken word sense memories of brutal youth. These are scab-deep in the unsentimental cruelty of urban urchins scrambling in the dirt inbetween blowing up frogs or putting foxes heads on sticks. The ickyness of summers long since past is at play both here and in the title track in a way that recalls the early fiction of Ian McEwan, only grittier and more pungent. Its nostalgic grit bring Keith Waterhouse's There is A Happy Land and Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills to mind.

As old wounds are re-opened, One Day I Will Get There is a yearning for other worlds beyond the back streets. In We Have Great Fun, the bravura of kids games have given way to the macho bravado of running with gangs. The story's protagonist is painfully aware of 'that feeling that something is missing / I should be writing creating and kissing / When up the garage walls my life I am pissing.'

Salvation comes through a love affair with a flower girl in And Then A Silence For The Soul, which blossoms into something serious in The Rose Grows Tender in the Shade and the domestic bliss of Here I Am With Someone Who Cares. Things don't last, however, and Fabled Women, Transitory Disturbances gives way to the self-loathing and self pity of Because I Just Started Drinking Again. A final parting shot comes in I'll Be Gone Before You Leave before the restless quest out of the wilderness begins again in the closing The Boat Must Sail On.

While this sounds as kitchen-sink as it gets, Brown's first person confessionals become a litany of underclass aspiration delivered with an emotional rawness which, with only Beazley's bass to bolster it, sounds even more exposed. As the narrative darkens, the music clangs, echoes and simmers with portents of doom, yet leaves acres of space for Brown's voice to peal out, impassioned but still vulnerable from the effects of the short-lived joys and broken dreams he's purging.

In this respect, as the past catches up with him, and, accompanied by Beazley, Brown is like a Geordie Jacques Brel styling a set of twenty-first century post-punk chansons. These go beyond the drizzly sentiments of bedsit romances to lay bare a tortured maelstrom of words and music that eventually thunders to the raging calm of a story only a survivor can tell.

Product, January 2017

www.cargocollective/rothko

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