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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