Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Zinnie Harris, Morna Pearson, Stef Smith, Amanda Tyndall - Theatre Meets Science at Edinburgh International Science Festival Theatre

When worlds collide, what happens next is usually the stuff of disaster movies. This has never been the case with Edinburgh International Science Festival, however, as this year's substantial and expansive theatre programme looks set to prove. While the children and families theatre section features a brand new commission, Cosmonaut, site-specific specialists Grid Iron team up with Lung Ha Theatre Company for Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, which is performed in the grounds of Edinburgh Zoo.

Things take off even more in the adult programme, as both of the city's main producing theatres present major productions as part of the Festival. At the Royal Lyceum Theatre, playwright/director Zinnie Harris oversees the Scottish premiere of Caryl Churchill's look at cloning, A Number. At the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, artistic director Orla O'Loughlin presents Girl in the Machine, a new play by Stef Smith which looks at the all-consuming nature of twenty-first century technology. For the Science Festival's Creative Director Amanda Tyndall, this brace of work is as much a reflection of the times we are living in as recognising that arts and sciences have always been mutually supportive lifeforms.

“This is a real opportunity to find out where theatre and science interact,” says Tyndall “One of the things for me as a science communicator is that with some of the things going on just now, there seems to be a rejection of facts and expertise-based things. In these complex and uncertain times, people are responding to things in ways that are much more about emotions and beliefs, and that opens up a way of exploring these ideas in a different kind of way.”

This has been the case with television drama for some time, with a new wave of science-fiction or speculative fiction shows such as the clone-based Orphan Black, the robotic revolution in Humans and assorted technology-based dystopias explored in episodes of Charlie Brooker's series of one-off dramas, Black Mirror. Just as novelists and short story writers embraced speculative fiction before them, theatre writers and makers have increasingly kept one eye on the future to explore where we are now.

A pioneer in this has been Caryl Churchill, whose uncategorisable canon over almost sixty years has explored form and content in ways that have frequently confounded expectations of what British theatre can be. While her work has used myriad means of story-telling, her last work to be seen in Scotland was Far Away, which was set in a future landscape where nature was at war. In A Number, a thirty-five year old man who believes he is an only child discovers he is one of several clones following a genetic experiment.

“It's both playful and forensic,” says Harris. “It gives both audiences and the people working on the play some real intellectual meat to grapple with, as well as packing a real emotional punch. For anyone who's a parent as well, and thinking about being able to start the day again and not make mistakes, Caryl has taken that idea to the limit, and dared to ask what the emotional consequences of that might be.”

This is something addressed too in Girl in the Machine, which was first seen in a shorter version at the Traverse's technology-themed Breakfast Plays season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As if to demonstrate the current cross-fertilisation between disciplines, the show is being produced in partnership with the University of Edinburgh.

“My starting point was the human condition,” Smith says of her play, which looks at how a successful couple's relationship is affected by a new piece of hi-tech kit that promises them the earth, but ends up short-circuiting the reality the couple have built around them.

“One thing I'm becoming increasingly aware of is how our relationships are defined by technology. Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with social media, and from this seed of an idea that I had, it exploded out to how technology defines the rest of our lives, and to question if there is another reality.”

Despite such a back-drop, basic human needs remain at the play's heart.

“It's a love story,” says Smith. “It's about two people living through constant changes, and battling forward in constant motion when everything around them seems to be making things harder.”

In utilising science-fiction tropes, Smith points to novelist Margaret Atwood, author of dystopia-set feminist novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood, incidentally, is also the inventor of various real life technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

“Atwood described some of her work as being set in a parallel present,” says Smith. “They're set in a world and a situation that doesn't exist, but which still look familiar. I think theatre is increasingly having a relationship with science and science-fiction because it's so playful and so political as a metaphor for what's going on now.”

Morna Pearson takes this even further. Her child-friendly tale about a brother and sister who encounter a series of mythological creatures may be more prehistoric than futuristic, but sounds as fantastical as anything else Pearson has written. The production, co-directed by Lung Ha artistic director Maria Oller with Dundee Rep associate artistic director Joe Douglas, also ties in with Lung Ha and Grid Iron's previous science-based collaboration, Huxley's Lab.

“When I was trying to brainstorm what I wanted to do,” says Pearson, “I remember how impressed I was with mythical creatures when I was a child, and because Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery is a children's show, I wanted it to be a show where the audience could discover things, not just about the animals, but other things as well. It's a show about sibling rivalry, and difference and acceptance. It's about memory and imagination as well, and how your experience during childhood can shape who you are.”

This again points to speculative fiction used as a metaphor for other things. As Pearson points out, however, “Theatre is metaphor, and people will always read stuff into things even if it's not intended. Although I've said what something is about, someone else might think something different. There are so many TV programmes of a very good quality just now, but they're not necessarily about the things they say they are. They're about people, and the way they present them is just a different way of telling a story.”

Pearson cites Waking the Dead as a favourite TV show.

“That's a good example of something that's not really about zombies, but is about people,” she says.

As with all of the other theatre shows taking part, it is this over-riding sense of humanity that tallies with the ethos of Edinburgh International Science Festival the most. As Tyndall points out, “We're asking fundamental questions about people's lives. Whether that's a philosophical thing or a pragmatic thing, art and science can ask those questions in different ways. No single discipline can look at these things on there own. If there is going to be more innovation in anything, we need to merge the worlds of art and science more and more.”

Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, April 1-9; Girl in the Machine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 5-22; A Number, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 6-15.

www.lyceum.org.uk
www.gridiron.org.uk
www.sciencefestival.co.uk



ends

Monday, 27 March 2017

Mick Harvey

When Mick Harvey and band opt to perform a semi-instrumental version of Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus towards the end of a set of Serge Gainsbourg translations topromote Harvey's newly released fourth volume of Gainsbourg covers, Intoxicated Women, it's a bit different from the version played in London the night before.

Then, Harvey duetted with German chanteuse Andrea Schroeder in her native language translated as Ich liebe dich...ich dich auch nicht. With Schroeder unable to make the Edinburgh visit for this show curated by Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here operation, Harvey opted not to draft in guitarist and co-vocalist Xanthe Waite as what might have seemed an obvious stand-in. “She's my niece,” deadpans Harvey regarding her absence, “and that would've been wrong.”

Such a trifle probably wouldn't have stopped Gainsbourg from doubling up on one ofthe most erotically charged numbers ever committed to vinyl. Harvey's actions nevertheless sum up how surprisingly well-adjusted the former long-time collaborator of Nick Cave and others from the Australian post-punk diaspora, as well as P.J. Harvey, remains after almost forty years in the saddle. As de facto musical director of the Bad Seeds, his textured arrangements didn't always receive the credit they deserved, however key they were to that band's inherent melodrama.

With the roots of such low-key artfulness all over Intoxicated Women and its preceding three volumes, live too, Harvey makes Gainsbourg's canon his own. This was the case despite the band's instruments getting left behind at Gatwick Airport along with Harvey's lyric book.

Harvey charms his way out of this with dry politesse, as he does throughout a set that begins with him on bongos crooning about the 'little holes' in The Ticket Puncher. Waite joins Harvey, keyboardist James Johnston, German bass player Yoyo Rohm, drummer Toby Dammit and a locally sourced all-female string quartet for 69 Erotic Year. The intricate interplay between male and female exchanges has always been key to Gainsbourg, both between his characters and the singers themselves, and here Waite provides a more strident counterpoint to Harvey's passive croon.

Waite takes the lead on the gallop through Puppet of Wax, Puppet of Song and the roaring bounce of Harley Davidson, and spars with precision on Bonnie and Clyde and an exquisite Don't Say A Thing. Elsewhere the set is peppered with latin exotica, bump n' grind and groovy nightclub lasciviousness aplenty among the concentrated intensity.

Hearing the songs in English gives them a vigorous immediacy lent weight and propulsion by the strings. When Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus eventually comes around, that and Initials B.B. which follows it are revealed as perverse and subversive romances from a more innocent age. As Harvey proves in this most intimate of Sunday night affairs, the poetry of the profane which Gainsbourg channelled is full of light as much as shade. 
Product, March 27th 2017 
 
ends

Saturday, 25 March 2017

All The Little Lights

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It looks like a game at first, when the three girls in Jane Upton's play come together for a surprise birthday party on a make-shift campsite amongst all the rubbish down by the railway. Look closer, however, and beyond the supermarket cake and the games of dare on the track-lines, and it's clear that Joanne has got Lisa here for a reason.

Twelve year old Amy probably wouldn't understand. She's “cute, but not in a baby way,” but both Joanne and Lisa bear the scars of what happened at the grown-up parties with the man from the chippy. Lisa got out, to a nice house like those she used to make up stories about as she and Joanne peered through the windows. But unless Joanne does something soon, she'll never get out, and she'll take Amy down with her.

Inspired by recent cases of child sexual grooming gangs, in which some 'older' girls were used to procure younger ones, Upton's joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Most Promising Playwright award makes for a harrowing hour. This is made even more troubling by the lack of any adult onstage to be the bad guy. Instead, Joanne, played by Tessa Orange-Turner with flint-eyed vulnerability, is old enough to get just how damaged she is.

Presented by Fifth Word, an associate company of co-producers Nottingham Playhouse, and with support from the Safe and Sound charity, Laura Ford's production is brought to raw, unrelenting life by Orange-Turner, Esther-Grace Button as Amy and Sarah Hoare as Lisa. As Joanne is left alone in the wilderness to await her fate, if only she could take the leap out of there, perhaps she'd be free.

The Herald, March 27th 2017

ends

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

Business is business at the start of Hugh Hodgart's revival of Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com, as performed by MA Classical and Contemporary Text students at RCS, in partnership with Bard in the Botanics. Love and money are in the air as Theseus and Hippolyta announce their nuptials to the world's press, sealing the deal on an unholy alliance between Athens and Amazonia as they go. As Honey Durruthy's Egius seeks advice on the merry-go-round romance between Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, Theseus' line to Hermia about austerity and single life becomes even more pointed by its power-dressing context.

While Hermia and Lysander's camping trip to the woods doesn't end well, especially when Hermia's love-sick hippy chick mate Helena is around, the Rude Mechanicals' worker's playtime sees Bottom briefly become Titania's bit of rough. With Isabel Palmstierna's Puck at the centre of such cack-handed mischief-making, the transition from playing Philostrate is akin to some nice but dim intern with ideas above her station whose alter ego goes on a bender at the office party. At the end of the play's first half she even suggests a well-earned tea break.

As three very different communities rub up against each other before going their separate, class-based ways, an even brisker second half is addressed with an impressively light touch by Hodgart's cast of twelve. This is despite minimal carry on between Matthew Miles' Bottom and Lily Cooper's Titania. While Miles still has plenty of fun as the old ham, this becomes Puck's play. As Palmstierna's creations flit between worlds like a rootless social climber, the magic she conjures up en route proves infectious for all.

The Herald, March 24th 2017

ends

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Steven Severin – The Vril Harmonies

For almost two decades now, Steven Severin's solo instrumental work has largely kept its own counsel in the shadows. The output of the former co-founder and bass player of Siouxsie and the Banshees has been prodigious, with a dozen albums of dark ambient soundscapes released thus far.

This began in 1998 with Visions, an extended reworking of his soundtrack to Nigel Wingrove's short film, Visions of Ecstasy, almost a decade before. Unreleased until 2012, Wingrove's sensual fantasia inspired by the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila is the only film to have been refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors on the grounds of blasphemy.

Since then, Severin has released scores for theatre and film, including the soundtrack for supernatural thriller London Voodoo and Richard Jobson's film, The Purifiers, as well as for one-time Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance performer/director, Shakti. Since Severin himself moved to Edinburgh twelve years ago, he has become even more prolific, with soundtracks to Jean Cocteau's 1930 silent movie Blood of A Poet, and, with his actress wife Arban, collaborations with director Matthew Misory, first on Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, then on Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.

The first of four download-only new works released over the next month, The Vril Harmonies is a spaced-out instrumental suite that appears to draw inspiration in part from The Coming Race, an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton which charts the discovery of a superior subterranean master race fuelled by an energy form known as Vril. The book's life-enhancing elixir not only gifted Bovril half its name, but inspired theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner and George Bernard Shaw to buy into its philosophy. More recently, graphic novelist Grant Morrison and readers of the Fortean Times have been similarly fascinated by the power of Vril.

Unsubstantiated claims led some to believe that a secret Vril Society of occultists existed in pre-Nazi Berlin. This may or may not have been governed by a network of female psychic mediums who claimed to have contact with Aryan aliens living in Alpha Cen Tauri using their pony-tailed hair. Either way, the musical result of Severin's sonic explorations is an other-worldly exercise in synthesised hypnosis.

Split into two sections, the first, Black Sun Arcana features four pieces, and the second, Absolute Elsewhere section, two longer meditations. The eight minutes of Black Sun Arcana's opening track, Maria, is key to everything that follows. A sepulchral slow-motion drift around some imaginary cosmos, it references Maria Orsic, the real life Austrian psychic whose luminous visage peers from the album cover, as inscrutably beautiful as a movie starlet. Orsic was de facto leader of an organisation called the Society of Vrilerinnen Women, who were allegedly in cahoots with the aforementioned aliens.

Orsic's partner in such adventures was another medium known only as Sigrun, who gives the album's second track its title. Here the jittering frequencies at times resemble Bebe and Louis Barron's 'electronic tonalities' for director Fred M Wilcox's 1956 mix of sci-fi and Shakespeare, Forbidden Planet, or the end credit sequence of Gerry Anderson's cult live action TV series, U.F.O.

The stuttering low-end transmissions of Haunebo sound like Nazi flying saucers jockeying for position before they go in for the kill, while aether sounds suitably transcendent in intent. Referencing the much-mythologised fifth element, which in Vril lore contains the life-force of the universe, it's as if its repeated synthesised phrases were gathering strength as they go, with layer on layer of some intangible force powering them up to take on the world.

The Absolute Elsewhere section probably isn't referencing Paul Fishman's long lost prog rock project of the same name, although the inspiration of Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Daniken on Fishman's synthesiser-based In Search of Ancient Gods album sounds like it could be a fellow traveller.

The first piece, (Not All Good Comes) From Above, shares pretty much the same title as a track from Swedish post-industrialist, Vagr, who has recorded an entire trilogy inspired by Maria Orsic. Here, however, Severin's deep bass swathes scan around the ether, proceeding with forensic caution before it gives way to Phase Into Light. This swirls into view, increasing velocity as it gathers momentum over its twelve-minute duration before bursting into some twinkly-eyed idyll like a celestial merry-go-round on a trip to the warmer reaches of a hidden universe.

The Vril Harmonies is available to purchase at www.stevenseverin.com, and can also be downloaded at www.stevenseverin.bandcamp.com.

ends

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish - Offside

Sabrina Mahfouz wasn't interested in football when she started work on Offside, the play she co-wrote with fellow poet Holly McNish, and which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week. Mahfouz didn't really do sport at all, while McNish had been more interested in playing the game than watching it when she was a student, to the extent that she trained as a coach for young people. By the time they dug deep into the history of women's football, which forms the backdrop of the play, they were both very much on the same side.

“The initial idea for the play came from Caroline Bryant, who's the artistic director of Futures Theatre, and who's this massive football fan,” says Mahfouz. “Her daughter plays football, and she was always going on about wanting to make a show about women's football. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it, but as soon as I looked into it, and saw all this stuff about how football had been used as a political tool against women's rights, I knew we had to get that story out.”

That story of Offside focuses on two modern day women trying to make the team of their local women's football side. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to 1881 and 1921, years which marked key moments in a largely hidden history of the sport, in which the figures of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr were key.

Carrie Boustead was a goalkeeper who played for London-based clubs in games in Glasgow, Stirling and Lanarkshire during the 1800s. She was notable for being women's football's first ever black player.

Lily Parr was a professional player with the Preston-based Dick, Kerr and Co team, named after the munitions factory where many of the women on the team worked. Dick, Kerr and Co drew large crowds, including a game at Goodison Park in Liverpool attended by 53,000. Parr scored forty-three goals in her first season, and continued to play after women's football was banned in the UK in 1921. It is here that the history of the sport starts to become really interesting.

“I knew nothing about the F.A. ban beforehand,” says McNish, “but once I started looking into it all it made me really angry. They never said why they did it, and I think there was something really fishy going on. Even before the ban you could see how hard it was for women playing football. In the 1890s you'd get guys running onto the pitch and hassling them, and sometimes the police had to be called. Then the ban happened, and it seemed such an extreme response to it.

“There were other bans as well, like when women were banned from cycling unless they rode side saddle, but with football I think there was a lot of class warfare going on as well, because a lot of the teams were from Scotland and the north of England. To go from 53,000 people watching women's football in Liverpool to women not even being able to go onto the pitch for the next fifty years is pretty shocking.”

Futures Theatre has been putting such issues onstage since the company was founded in 1992 to put women's stories at the centre of the theatrical experience. It was while running a series of poetry workshops with the company that Mahfouz became involved in Offside, with McNish co-opted to bring some of her footballing expertise on board. As female poets who both started out on the performance circuit, it was an inspired pairing.

“I wanted to get the feeling of football's physicality into the writing,” says Mahfouz, “and Hollie's experience of football had a lot of influence on that. Hollie lives in Cambridge and I'm in London, so we'd go back and forth sending each other stuff as we wrote it line by line, and if it became clear that one of us was more interested in writing a specific part of the play, we;'d go away and do it, and then edit it between us.”

Mahfouz has worked extensively in theatre, with solo pieces Dry Ice and One Hour Only both premiering at the Underbelly as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her short piece, Clean, was seen at the Traverse Theatre as part of its Herald Angel-winning Breakfast Plays season, and an expanded version was later seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring to New York. Mahfouz's next play, Chef, was also seen in Edinburgh, and her more recent work has been produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and Paines Plough. In sharp contrast, Offside is McNish's first foray into theatre.

“It's been quite interesting for me,” she says, “because I've only been to the theatre a few times, so hearing someone else reading my words has been really nice. It's also made me more interested in writing for TV and film. I've always said no to TV so far, but I don't want to leave the character of Lily Parr. I've written loads more poems about her that aren't in the play, and I think she's such an amazing person to do what she did, and for women's football to be banned the way it was had a really negative effect on women's rights.

“The reason I started playing football was because there was a less posh crowd playing it, and I started enjoying it because of its universality. Football is one of the only sports I've played in different countries, and it breaks language barriers in the way music and dancing does. It's not like I watch it or anything, and I can't be bothered to follow a team, but it makes me frustrated that football is still seen as such a male sport, and I think it's a shame that girls get left out of that culture of having a kick-about with their mates.”

As part of her research for Offside, Mahfouz went to watch a few games in which women's teams took part.

“They were really fun,” she says, “and it really helped with the physicalisation again. Looking at the stories of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr really showed me how whitewashed these things are, and I think it's important to make a bit of noise about these women who were doing all these things.”

As McNish points out, “Offside isn't just a play for people who like football. I hope the people who come to see it will realise what a big thing it is that females are still playing football today. We can get a bit blasé and think that things have become easy, but I think it's important that we remind ourselves about how hard it was for women back then.”

Mahfouz agrees.

“I'd just like people to have a deeper appreciation of the legacy of football, and women's involvement in the game and the struggles they had to face,” she says. “Women who want to dedicate their life to football still have more of a hard time than they do in any other sport, and that struggle continues today.”

Offside, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30-April 1.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.futurestheatre.co.uk

ends

Monday, 20 March 2017

Between poles and tides

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until May 6th
Three stars

In difficult times, getting back to nature is one solution, as demonstrated in some of the works on show in this group-based exhibition of new acquisitions from the University of Edinburgh art collection. Things aren't always as they seem, however, in the series of paintings, video, publications and sound-based works, as the leopard's face looking out from Zane (2013), Isobel Turley's two-second video loop of this most endangered of species suggests. Filmed in Edinburgh Zoo, Zane's steely gaze may suggest he is guarding the other exhibits, when in fact he has been immortalised in another, more Sisyphean form of captivity. The voice-over of another video, Daisy Lafarge's Not For Gain (2016) hints at an even more invidious form of social control.

The row of wall-clocks in Katie Paterson's Timepieces (Solar System) (2014) points to the global interplay between such things, while her Paterson's Future Library (2014-2114) bends time and space even more. With nature and revolution coalescing in three pieces by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a work's chief protagonists spookily rubbed out in Jonathan Owen's Eraser Drawings (2014-16) and the University's digital collection repurposed in Fabienne Hess' Zebras, Blanks and Blobs (2017), this cross-generational showcase points to a quiet concern for worlds beyond the gallery's borders.

The List, March 2017

ends