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Kenny Miller, The Tron and Tamburlaine Must Die

Last week’s resignation of The Tron Theatre’s artistic director Gregory Thompson was, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, very much a case of losing one director being a misfortune, but losing two appearing very careless indeed.

Citing ‘the expanding programme of his own company’, last Wednesday’s press release said in reference to A and BC, ‘and consequent touring commitments, coupled with the obligations of a young family,’ Thompson’s announcement came immediately following his return from a two month tour of America.

Coming two weeks before the theatre’s co-production with Glasgay on a stage adaptation of Louise Welsh’s novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, Thompson’s explanation is sound enough reason enough for moving on.

Given such ongoing commitments, however, last week’s events were pretty easy to spot a mile off. Because, while there seems to be genuine regret at Thompson’s passing, in the wider theatre community there is little surprise.

Thompson’s departure comes almost a year to the day he began a tenure made vacant by Ali Curran, who herself only stayed in the post for just under twelve months.

Both directors arrived at The Tron promising long term visions for the theatre. Both left abruptly, with announcements leaving much in the way of speculation.

While Curran was a producer akin to her predecessor Neil Murray, Thompson marked a return to the organisation being led by a rehearsal room leader in the mould of Michael Boyd and Irina Brown.

Neither Curran nor Thompson were in post long enough for their plans to make any significant impact.

Thompson’s first and last season may well be remembered for his production of Grae Cleugh’s play, The Patriot, generally regarded as a disaster.

Production of a second show to be directed by Thompson was cancelled.

The current production of Antigone, directed by visiting director David Levin, is a sturdy and ambitious enough effort which suggests how Thompson’s long term programming may have gone.

Thompson is scheduled to direct a Tron show in February 2008.

His departure nevertheless raises some serious questions about how what turned out to be two short-term appointments were made.

Yet, despite last week’s announcement, Chair of The Tron board Peter Lawson remains chipper about the theatre’s future.

“It’s obviously disappointing for us”, he admits, “but these things happen and you just have to get on with them.

“The Tron is in a fortunate and very enviable position. We’ve got great staff, but people have artistic ambitions, and you’ve just got to deal with it. For us it’s business as usual.”

Part of that business is what’s starting to look like a Sisyphean task of advertising, recruiting and appointing their third artistic director in as many years.

The board might also wish to ask themselves why Thompson and Curran couldn’t fulfil the commitments they set out to achieve.

For the future, the board might wish to cast an eye over director and designer of Tamburlaine must Die, Kenny Miller.

Sitting in the foyer bar of The Citizens Theatre, just across the river from The Tron, less than fifteen minutes after The Tron’s announcement concerning Thompson has been made, Miller’s sole concern is getting his production into shape for its opening next month.

Miller isn’t aware of the announcement when we meet, and only receives formal notice of it via text message at the close of our appointment.

Without mentioning any ambition to succeed Thompson as the theatre’s head, though, he must be considered a serious contender for the post.

Here is a man, after all, who spent twenty years at The Citz as part of one of the most internationally renowned artistic partnerships in a theatre building this country has ever produced.

While never on an equal footing with the theatre’s much heralded artistic leadership of Giles Havergal, the late Robert David Macdonald and Philip Prowse, Miller became a crucial part of the theatre’s set-up.

Miller only left The Citz to become freelance after the old guard stepped aside to allow incoming directors Jeremy Raison and Guy Hollands a free hand.

Tamburlaine Must Die is Miller’s second outing on an adaptation of a Louise Welsh work following his production of Tam Dean Burn’s stage version of Welsh’s debut, The Cutting Room.

This follow-up is an Elizabethan pulp noir which follows playwright Christopher Marlowe’s imagined travails through the back streets of a very murky London.

“I fell in love with it”, Miller says of the first time he read after being gifted the book by Welsh on the eve of its publication.

“I love the play Tamburlaine and the opera Tamurlaine anyway.

I saw Philip Prowse do the play here, but these days unless you had a lot of money you wouldn’t be able to do it.

But this still has the same flavour of the play, and because it’s about Marlowe, and because his short life was so interesting, I love that thing that he can write the most beautiful heart-wrenching poetry, and then write a play that is so disgusting, violent and sexist it’s ridiculous.

You’d think the man was a complete psychopath, which in a way he was.

But there’s a love story as well. Even though Marlowe shagged his way round God knows where, and even though he was probably riddled with every disease going, there’s a tender side to him as well.”

In scenes that recall both Raymond Chandler and Stewart Home, sex and death drip off every page of the book as much as they undoubtedly will onstage.

Perfect material, then, for Miller, whose work as Associate Director and Head Of Design at the Citz included small-scale but gory compendiums of true life Glasgow murder stories, Blood On The Thistle, the equally bloody Ten Rillington Place and a devastating production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

With the old guard moving on from The Citz after 30 glorious years, if Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was Miller’s Citizens swan-song, his defining statement came via A Little Bit Of Ruff.

A five play mini repertory season featuring an ensemble cast, Miller’s own production of DBC Pierre’s novel, Vernon God Little, adapted by Andrea Hart, was just one of the highlights of an outing which didn’t so much revive a spirit of ad hoc literary and theatrical experimentalism as reinvent it with verve and vision for the 21st century.

As one might expect from someone groomed through the old Citz boot room, a Kenny Miller show is as instantly recognisable as one by his mentor, Philip Prowse.

Flamboyantly gothic with a clinical but deranged edge which threatens to burst through the walls of whichever theatre is barely containing it might just about sum up Miller’s style.

Given that Tamburlaine must Die is detective story, murder-mystery, gothic thriller, literary historical romance and dirty sex romp all at once in just over an hour’s duration, one can easily see the appeal to Miller of such a yarn.

But where oh where do such unsavoury predilections come from?

“I have no idea”, Miller chucklingly confesses.

“I’ve always been interested in those different kind of juxtapositions that make something really fascinating. In this there’s love, murder, sex, everything all rolled into one.

That’s what I’m interested in. My nature in the way I work is a need for that flamboyance that’s in that story, and put it into a theatrical device.”

Originally from Manchester, Miller’s theatre career was something he stumbled upon.

Disillusioned by his initial aspirations for fashion while a design student on a Manchester foundation course, he fell in love with the theatre design department while on a day-trip to Central St Martin’s College.

After specialising in the subject, his degree show attracted the attention of Philip Prowse, responsible for some of the Citizens’ more audacious creative moves.

Like Prowse, Miller began his tenure at the theatre exclusively as a designer for five years before moving into direction on returning after a break in the early 1990s when the theatre’s two studio spaces were opened.

He began as small as that era of the Citz ever did, first with a production of Look Back In Anger.

“Directing was something I never knew I could do,” Miller admits, “but Philip encouraged me, saying that the way I designed controlled what happened onstage, so I was as well going that stage further, working with actors and bringing that total vision to it.”

Fifteen years on, and this year alone, in terms of total vision, Miller has directed Peter Arnott’s Man Of The Crowd for Scottish Youth Theatre and designed Alan Wilkins’ brilliant Roman bath set epic, Carthage Must Be Destroyed.

Beyond Tamburlaine Must Die, Miller is already pretty fully booked.

As well as designing Jonathan Harvey’s new pantomime of Jack And The Beanstalk for The Barbican as directed by former colleague Havergal, he’s also designing the Christmas show for, yes, The Tron, and a one man drag queen show for London’s Drill Hall.

Long term, he’s planning an adaptation of Black Narcissus and is “desperate” to do a studio take on Antony and Cleopatra.

Miller is even more desperate, if the rights ever come up for grabs and the money is available, to do an epic stage version of Patrick Suskind’s novel of sex, smell and sensuality, Perfume.

Given such a smorgasbord of activities, the driving force of Miller’s current work can be made plain.

“I’m not scared anymore about what I want to do in a way that in the early days I was,” he says, echoing his Citizens mentors.

“You’ve got to be passionate about getting something on and doing it well, and you can see all my obsessions in this play. It’s grubby and full of murder, sex, romance and gothic swagger, with a little bit of modernist anachronism thrown in.”

If there was a theatre which could do with some of that right now, it might just be The Tron.

Tamburlaine Must Die plays The Tron Theatre, Glasgow as part of Glasgay. Previews November 3-4, then runs from November 6-11
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, October 23rd 2007

ends

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