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Eve Nicol and Johnny McKnight – Mayfesto

Sex, power and money are at the heart of this year’s Mayfesto. Various notions of escape may be the official theme of the month-long mini season of politically driven theatre in its broadest sense, but more visceral everyday concerns are the drive behind two of its flagship shows. The Mistress Contract is Abi Morgan’s play based on a real life story of a woman who agreed to provide ‘mistress services’ for a man in return for paid income and a home. Johnny McKnight, meanwhile, offers up Low Pay? Don’t Pay!, his brand new Glasgow-set contemporary take on Italian maestro Dario Fo’s anti-capitalist classic about a group of women who liberate their messages from a supermarket’s aisles.

In different ways, both shows acknowledge the ongoing complexities of subjects which might initially appear to be black and white affairs. The Mistress Contract was adapted by Morgan from a memoir by the couple known only as She and He for a production in 2014 by former National Theatre of Scotland founding artistic director Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, where she is currently in charge.

Nicol’s revival, the play’s Scottish premiere, forms part of her tenure as Mayfesto resident artist, an initiative for early career artists she shares with writer Andy Edwards. His play, Arketype, will be seen as a work in progress directed by Nicol later in the month. Nicol’s brief was to present a Scottish premiere of a work that was intimate enough to work in the Tron’s bijou Changing House space. The Mistress Contract fitted the bill perfectly, as well as fitting in with Nicol’s other aims.

“I set myself a task to find a play in which a woman has a positive experience of sex rather than as a victim, so it was really good to discover The Mistress Contract,” Nicol explains. “Doing it now is really interesting in light of what’s happened with Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, as the conversations that we’re having now about sex and power have totally reframed the play from what they were in 2014.”

With just two actors onstage playing the couple known only as She and He, talk and everything else that goes with it is never cheap I what follows.

“It’s about how we engage with talking about sex,” says Nicol. “We’re still discovering the language to do that, and the play doesn’t provide any easy answers. It’s a real life story, and it’s full of contradictions because of that. I really hope people will go away and have their own conversations about it, and try and find ways to talk about sex and intimacy themselves.”

Whether consenting adults find it any easier to do so after seeing the play will probably remain as much of a private matter as it did when She and He began their arrangement. 

“The play is set between 1981 and 2010,” says Nicol, “and lots of things people were talking about in 1981 are still happening now, so it’s become much more about the current state of affairs, and how little has changed. They were talking about easy access to porn in 1983 in much the same we are with the internet now, and she’s lamenting the fact that he’s got a new lease of life aged forty, yet she feels like her life is over. This is still happening today.”

This is also the case with Low Pay? Don’t Pay! Originally presented in Italy in 1974 as Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!, Fo’s play was translated into English as Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! a year later, and became a staple of left wing radical theatre. The play’s power to tap into a wider public consciousness could be seen several years later when the play’s title was adopted by the anti-poll tax movement in 1990, the same year the play was produced in Scotland by Borderline Theatre Company. It was a later production, however, that is the roots of this current rendering of the play.

“It was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to Glasgow,” says McKnight of a 2003 production for 7:84 directed by the Tron’s current artistic director, Andy Arnold, “and it had a really big effect on me. It’s a farce, and it’s funny, but not dumb funny, and it’s got something to say about the world. When it was first done politics were a bit more black and white than they are now, with everything much more splintered, but I really liked the idea of setting it in Glasgow, and the idea of going to a supermarket and robbing it doesn’t seem too far away just now.”

For his new take on things, McKnight has written a version drawn from a translation by Joseph Farrell, the Glasgow-based writer who was arguably Fo’s greatest champion prior to the Italian maestro’s death in 2016 aged ninety. Following it’s Mayfesto run, Rosalind Sydney’s production for Glasgow Life will tour community centres around Scotland in a wat that aims to capture the spirit of the play, taking it to audiences at a grassroots level in a way that can’t help but evoke memories of what now looks like a golden age of political touring theatre during the 1970s and 1980s.  

“It’s such a big political play,” says McKnight, “but I don’t think politics is speaking to people today in the same way as it did when the play first came out. Unlike then, when the unions were really strong, it feels like nobody’s really speaking up for anyone anymore, so people become disengaged.

“We’ve all got this rage about politics, but we’re also exhausted with the fight and are starting to disengage again. So I suppose one of the things the play is about is looking at what it would take for people to get off the couch and get politically active gain.”

In The Mistress Contract as well, Nicol is looking at a more ambiguous dramatic critique that favours nuance over polemic.

“Most of the response to Time’s Up and #MeToo has been how this is good or this is bad, and there’s a very clear line that’s been drawn between the two,” she says. “I think The Mistress Contract is saying things aren’t quite so clear. There’s an openness and an honesty about things in the play. There are reasons why we’ve got to where we are now, and we have to try and find different ways of talking about how we connect with each other.”

Again, Low Pay? Don’t Pay! is similarly tapping into the mixed-up, muddled-up state the world is in at the moment. As history has shown us, it is times like these when the most radical forms of art burst through the barricades.

“There’s a real thirst for political theatre just now,” McKnight observes, “but with everything going on in the world, there’s a fatigue as well. For us, it’s about keeping it funny, and rather than just preaching to the choir, making sure there’s a congregation there as well.”

The Mistress Contract runs from May 1-11, and Low Pay? Don’t Pay! from May 2-11, both at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow as part of Mayfesto. Low Pay? Don’t Pay! tours to Barlanark Community Centre, May 15; Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre, May 16; Cumbernauld Theatre, May 17; Pollockshields Community Centre, May 18; Platform, Glasgow, May 19; Lodging House Mission, Glasgow, May 22; Penilee Community Centre, May 24; Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, May 25; Possilpoint Community Centre, May 28; Ruchill Community Centre, May 29; Barrowfield Community Centre, May 30; Barmulloch Community Centre, May 31; Paisley Arts Centre, June 1.

What Else is On

This year’s Mayfesto season describes itself as ‘a season of escapology’. As well as The Mistress Contract and Low Pay? Don’t Pay!, it features nine other shows.

Turn the Night (May 10-11) is musician Gav Prentice’s first play.

Woke (May 15-16) sees Apphia Campbell look at the twentieth century African American struggle through several generations of civil rights activists.

Electrolyte (May 15-18) is a piece of gig theatre which explores mental health through spoken word poetry and song.

This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing (May 17-18) is a contemporary fairytale for children and families co-produced by Imaginate and Stellar Quines.

Status (May 24-25) is a collaboration between Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin of American theatre company The T.E.A.M. about running away from the national story you’re given.

Arketype (May 24-25) is a work in progress by Andy Edwards and directed by Eve Nicol which reimagines the story of Noah’s Ark for a contemporary seascape.

Pyromania: Tomorrow, Under Snow – Pyromania is a programme initiated by the Fire Exit company, and here features a rehearsed reading of another new play by Andy Edwards.

Alice in Wonderland (May 29-June 1) sees Ireland’s Blue Raincoat Theatre Company return to the Tron with a visually sumptuous take on Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy tale.

AWOL (May 30-31) is a Scratch performance of a new show about escape by the ThickSkin company.

The Herald, April 27th 2019


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