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Mayfesto 2011 - Looking Left With Andy Arnold

There's a feeling of deja vu sitting in the bright and airy office of
Tron Theatre artistic director Andy Arnold. This time last year, he was
preparing to launch the inaugural Mayfesto, a mini showcase of
politically motivated but all too human theatre that drew inspiration
from the now defunct Mayfest festival that throughout the 1980s formed
a major part of Glasgow's cultural calendar. Then, as Arnold unveiled
his programme in what looked set to be the last days of New Labour in a
recession-blighted Britain, a happy coincidence saw Mayfesto open on
the day of the Westminster General Election that would – eventually –
force then Prime Minister Gordon Brown from office and usher in the
dubious alliance of Tory leader David Cameron and Lib Dem sidekick Nick
Clegg.

In the year since, there's been rioting on the streets, an increase in
unemployment and an increasingly widespread sense of public unrest
manifesting itself in threats of industrial action and civil disorder.
The people, it seems, have rediscovered their political mojo, and
Mayfesto's grassroots, small is beautiful aesthetic chimed perfectly
with such a groundswell.

Today, and again fortuitously, this year's Mayfesto opens on the eve of
the Scottish elections that may or may not see an even dodgier set of
alliances attempt to gain power at Holyrood. There's also the small
matter of the referendum on voting reform, currently proving to be a
cross-party hot potato as some very strange bedfellows align themselves
to one side of the other, with former Labour heavyweight John Reid
lining up alongside David Cameron, while, in a case of spot the
difference, Lib Dem Vince Cable sides with UK Labour leader Ed
Milliband.

May 5th, however, is also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of a
democratically elected politician who almost certainly won't be
receiving any fanfares on election day. It was a different story in
1981, when the emaciated form of Irish Republican prisoner and hunger
striker Bobby Sands finally gave up the ghost, making headlines around
the world. Mayfesto, at least, honours the occasion with a rehearsed
reading of Ten Men Dead, a work-in-progress of a play derived from
journalist David Beresford's definitive history of the hunger strike
that aimed to secure political status for convicted Republicans.

Developed from a Nasional Theatre of Scotland workshop by playwright
Nicola McCartney and Communicado director Gerry Mulgrew, Ten Men Dead
aims to put one of the most controversial periods of twentieth century
British and Irish history back in focus in a way that thus far only
visual artist Steve McQueen's film, the Enda Walsh scripted Hunger, has
managed.

“The book is regarded as the authentic document of the hunger strikes,”
says Arnold. “But having said that, it's not just about the hunger
strikes. There's a much more universal thing going on about elements of
the culture of hunger strikes, which go back hundreds and thousands of
years, when people would settle their disputes by going to their
landlords doors and starving themselves to death. The ignominy of
having someone starving themselves outside your house was always too
much, so people always coughed up, whatever the dispute was.”

Not so, it seems, under the 1980s reign of UK Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher, who, on the day Sands died, securing his own martyrdom to his
cause, spoke in the House of Commons of how Sands was 'a convicted
criminal.'

A strong current of Irish work runs throughout Mayfesto, reflecting a
similar influence on Mayfest itself throughout the 1980s. As well as
the reading of Ten Men Dead, the Dublin-based Fishamble company bring a
revival of Forgotten, a solo piece written and performed by Pat
Kinevane, who combines Irish story-telling and Japanese Kabuki theatre
to play four pensioners over eighty who reside in care homes. David
Ireland may be best known on Scottish stages as an actor, but in
Ireland he is fast forging a reputation for himself as a playwright of
note. His Everything Between Us is produced by Tinderbox Theatre
Company, and is set in Stormont in Belfast on the eve of a newly formed
Truth and Reconciliation Commission For Northern Ireland. As one woman
prepares to take her seat, her sister bursts into the chamber in an
action that may be a terrorist plot, or else might just be a means of
announcing her prodigal's return.

There are further acts of violence in Grenades, Tara McKevitt's tale
of childhood consequence for Mephisto Theatre, while the Blue Raincoat
company hark back to Ireland's literary heritage with their adaptation
of Flann O'Brien's comic novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds.

“There is such an appeal for Irish work in Glasgow,” Arnold points out.
“I love Irish plays, anyway, but you only have to put the tickets on
sale for an Irish play for them to fly out the door. The work on Ten
Men Dead hasn't even started yet, but its already sold out.”

Wales too gets a look in with the Tron's own revival of Gary Owen's
small-town riot of a play, Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco, directed by Leann
O'Kasi. It's to its own doorstep Arnold looks to for the rest of the
Mayfesto programme, however, which looks decidedly more user friendly
than last year. Iain Heggie's scurrilous solo piece, King of Scotland,
is revived by the Glasgow Actors company in a re-written production
featuring Only An Excuse funny-man Jonathan Watson as the play's
long-term unemployed hero.

A second Tron production finds playwright David Harrower directing for
the first time with A Slow Air, which features real life siblings
Kathryn and Lewis Howden as a brother and sister leading very different
lives who are forced together after fourteen years of mutual silence.
Elsewhere, performer and film-maker Catriona MacInnes will present Play
Me Something, a multi-media work-in-progress reinterpretation of
Timothy Neat and John Berger's 1989 island-set film. The Tron Young
Company will present From A City Balcony, a Glasgow-set work based on
the poems of Edwin Morgan, while scratch playwriting initiative Ink
will present 24 Hour Plays, in which five writers, ten actors will
write, rehearse and perform new works over the course of a single day.
Two more play-readings, of peter Arnott's 1985 debut, White Rose, and
of Alexander Galin's Stars of the Night Sky, first performed at Tramway
in 1990, will continue a programme by The Visitors company's mission to
reintroduce audiences to neglected home-grown classics.

Kick-starting Mayfest the night before the election, however, will be
It's A Dead Liberty. Of all the works on show, this compendium of sings
and satirical cabaret culled from the archives of left-leaning theatre
companies wild cat and 7:84 is the most explicit reminder of how things
have come full circle politically and artistically.

“This is a good old fashioned political cabaret,” Arnold says of the
four very different nights performed by Wildcat stalwart Dave Anderson
alongside musician, actor and some time Dick Gaughan saxophonist Allan
Tall ( he played, appropriately enough, on a song called Revolution),
comedian Sandy Nelson and others. “I think it'll be great fun, but
overall this is less of a political programme this time. There is more
populist stuff in that word's broadest sense that's just good theatre.
My main motivation with Mayfesto was just to have a celebration of
theatre in Glasgow, which is such a theatre-orientated city. Last year
it just happened there was a lot of stuff about casualties of war, yet
none of the plays were political in a way, but I think there may have
been a worry by some people that they might get lectured at. I worry as
well about political theatre, because it can be didactic, but the best
plays, while they might come out of a political conflict, there isn't a
political statement in them, because they're about people. So this year
I thought let's have a Celtic format as a loose umbrella, but with a
broader appeal so we can get to a wider public.”

Such aims are in keeping with the spirit of Mayfests past, and is
something Arnold aims to capitalise on in future Mayfestos, with an
ever-developing manifesto of his own.

“I don't want to get into the trap of programming a much bigger
festival,” Arnold admits, “but maybe next year we'll get other theatres
involved. Then in 2014 we'll maybe shove it into July and have a
Commonwealth arts festival.”

Mayfesto runs at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from May 4th-28th
www.tron.co.uk/mayfesto

The Herald, April 23rd 2011

ends

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