Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Lot and His God

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It's hard to gauge exactly who's turned on the most in Howard Barker's
erotically charged reimagining of the Bible's Old Testament myth set in the last
days of Sodom. It might well be Daniel Cahill's horny angel, here named Drogheda
and sent down by God to save Lot and his wife from the destruction that's about
to wipe out the original Sin City. Or it could be Lot's wife Sverdlosk, played
by Pauline Knowles as a faithless drop-dead femme fatale resembling the
shoe-hoarding wife of a deposed dictator on the run, who gets her kicks by
defying Drogheda's celestial intervention.

Cliff Burnett's Lot, meanwhile, works himself into a lather over even the idea of Sverdlosk and
Drogheda embarking on a last-gasp pre-apocalyptic liaison. It might also be worth keeping
an eye on Ewan Somers' silently disdainful waiter who  clearly has ideas above
his station.

Debbie Hannan's production of Barker's late period chamber piece
sets out its store in a decrepit café where anything civilised has been
jettisoned to the dustbin of history, and only the sacred profanities of
language remain. As delivered by Hannan's cast in the Citz's stripped back
Circle Studio space, a near declamatory relishing of Barker's poetry makes for
an electric set of power games to witness.

Seen only once before on a British stage, Barker's play forms part of the Up Close season of work to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the long lost Close Theatre. With a libertine morality
at play, rather than Sverdlosk looking back at the decadent world where she
thrived, in Barker's version, at least, it is God who is left behind and
rendered speechless.

The Herald, October 8th 2015


The Shawshank Redemption

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

While there are plenty of bankers who should be in prison, Andy Dufresne,
the banged-up hero of Stephen King's 1982 short story, Rita Hayworth and
Shawshank Redemption, isn't one one of them. It is to King's original story
rather than the iconic 1994 big-screen version of it that Owen O'Neill
and Dave Johns' stage adaptation looks to.

Here, Dufresne's incarceration for allegedly killing his wife and her lover in 1940s America is told through the eyes of Ellis 'Red' Redding, the prison go-to man, who can supply pretty much anything
any self-respecting jailbird would need. For Dufresne, this includes a rock
hammer and a pin-up poster of Hayworth for reasons which are eventually made

Inbetween navigating his way through the institutionalised brutality of
the penal system on both sides of the law, Dufresne manages to negotiate a
library into being. This becomes a symbol of his quietly unwavering
determination to stay true to himself over the next two decades in the face of
the iniquities of the prison caste system. Salvation trickles down too through
hoarded copies of banned novels, while Dufresne guides George Evans' serial
delinquent Tommy Williams through his exams.

With its roots in O'Neill and Johns' own production seen in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, David Esbjornson's touring production of this rewritten version scales things up on
Gary McCann's expansive prison set. Ian Kelsey makes for a powerfully stoic
Dufresne and Patrick Robinson an equally charismatic Red, while O'Neill drips
hypocritical venom as Warden Stammas. All of which makes for a powerful treatise
on integrity and honesty for a full-blown meditation on the pains of confinement
and the power of hope beyond.

The Herald, October 7th 2015


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Megan Barker - Ghosts

It was a strange sensation for Megan Barker when she stepped off the train at Glasgow Central Station en route to the first read-through of her new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play, Ghosts, which opens at the city's Tron Theatre this week. Alighting onto Argyle Street from the station's back exit and into the gloom of the station bridge for the first time in several years, Barker was greeted by the sight of the former entrance to The Arches.

The understated doorway had once been a portal to one of the most important arts venues in Europe, a place which for twenty-odd years hosted a steady stream of audiences and artists. Now the venue where Barker's first play had been produced while still a student, and which, like so many others of her generation, opened her up to the possibilities of what theatre could be, lay locked up and empty after it was forced to close down earlier this year following Glasgow City Council's decision not to renew its late licence on the advice of Police Scotland.

“I feel grief-stricken by it,” Barker says of the closure of The Arches late in our conversation while reflecting on her roots as a writer and artist. “I feel it in a very personal way, and when I got off the train at Central Station it was really sad to see it so stricken. The support The Arches gave to me and to everyone who ever worked there was so important in terms of the outward looking thing that they had, so it felt like it was part of a bigger scene beyond. Everything I've ever done came from The Arches, so it feels like a very personal loss.”

While Glasgow City Council's role in the demise of The Arches was crucial, it's probably coincidence that Barker's contemporary update of Ghosts is set against a backdrop of local politics, with the main character Helen Alving a Highland councillor and seemingly model citizen whose carefully constructed respectable veneer masks a murky world of corruption in high places. Where Ibsen's original shocked nineteenth century society with its revelations of immorality and inherited sexual disease in a way that modern audiences can often be left wondering what all the fuss is about, Barker introduces a back-drop of addiction and institutionalised child abuse that sounds troublingly current.

“In lots of ways Ghosts is the most dated of Ibsen's plays,” Barker says of a piece first performed in Chicago in 1882 by a touring Danish company. “When Andy Arnold at the Tron first rang me up out of the blue and said he wanted to do Ghosts, but with a more modern approach, we talked a lot about its relevance, and how to make the religious conservatism that runs through the play more relevant to today.”

Barker initially thought about looking at the contemporary Catholic church, but turned instead to the political world, and how private indiscretions can eventually come to light as part of a very public disgrace.

“In the original,” says Barker, “syphilis is this inescapable physical thing that sums up this idea of the sins of the fathers, but in my version I wanted it to be a psychological inheritance, so there's this history of abuse, and the son is going to inherit that from his father. There's a thing there as well about hypocrisy and how that relates to power.”

Such a change might sound like a fairly hefty dramatic leap, but while Barker begs to differ, neither is she attempting to cause similar shockwaves to how Ghosts was first received in 1882.

“Shock's a funny word,” she says, “and I’m not really sure there's a huge amount of worth in it. I don't feel any kind of duty to shock, but there's so much in the press just now about powerful people abusing people who aren't as powerful that it felt quite natural to do it this way. It was a struggle going through some pretty horrible material about abuse, but I wanted to try and work on it from the inside of the characters rather than the outside.”

The last time Barker worked with Arnold was in 2009 on Monaciello, a very Arches-like work performed in a network of underground rooms at Naples Theatre Festival.

“I suppose Monaciello was pretty dark,” says Barker, “and that's maybe why Andy though of me for Ghosts. He said it's a dark piece and he knew I could do dark, but I'd just had a baby and was all love and happiness, so that really wasn't the place I was I when I began writing it.”

It's telling that it was Arnold who approached Barker to adapt Ghosts. Back in 2000, the boot was on the other foot when Barker and fellow University of Glasgow student Jackie Wylie first approached the then artistic director of The Arches with the idea of putting on a play Barker had written.

“We knew absolutely nothing about how to do it,” Barker reflects, “but we pretended we were professional theatre people. Andy must've known we were lying, but he let us put it on anyway.”

The play, Dead Letter, led to both Barker and Wylie developing a long-term relationship with The Arches, with Wylie eventually taking over from Arnold as Arches artistic director following his departure to run The Tron at the other end of Argyle Street in 2008. Barker went on to write Dead Pan with Rob Evans, and, with Faultline, the ad hoc company that produced Dead Letter, No Ghosts Expected, with both shows appearing in 2001.

While Barker left Glasgow in 2002, in 2006 she contributed a piece called Bernie to Spend A Penny, The Arches' fifteenth anniversary toilet cubicle-set compendium of five-minute plays. The same year, Barker wrote The incredible Human Heart Machine Part 1 (A Personal History) and Pit, which she followed up with Tongue Lie Tight a year later and Cria in 2008.

“I just kept going back to The Arches,” says Barker. “I loved it, and although I did stuff at the university theatre, The Arches certainly felt like it was the only home for me at the time. I suppose what Dead Letter did was give me the confidence to make my own work and just to do it, and eventually, through Pit and other things, I made contacts elsewhere.”

Having decamped to Hertfordshire, Barker embarked on a stint with the Royal Court Theatre in London, before having plays produced at Soho Theatre and the Sherman in Cardiff. Up until recently she also ran Feral, a site-specific based theatre company performing fantastical fairy-tale-based works in off-beat venues including a multi-storey car park.

Up until ghosts Barker thought she'd left playwriting behind, but once approached, “became excited again, and said yes against my better judgement.

“Every time I looked at the play from a different perspective I found the question of responsibility coming up,” she says. “The whole idea of turning a blind eye, allowing things to happen and not being bothered to stand up and challenge things we know are wrong kept coming up as an important issue. I was thinking about that from quite a personal perspective, about how people collude in various things to maintain a certain sense of security by trying to protect people they love or think they love, and how damaging that collusion can be.

“I think I'm always interested in, and I keep on coming back to, the potential we all have to make horribly wrong decisions born out of love, and how often these really bad decisions can have an even worse effect on things, and how our decisions to protect someone can lead to our demise.”

Ghosts, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 7-24.

The Herald, October 6th 2015


Monday, 5 October 2015

The Last Yankee

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Four stars

Disappointment pulses throughout every second of Arthur Miller's late
period 1993 play, revived here by Rapture Theatre as the second part of the
company's 100 Years of Miller celebrations following their large scale tour of
All My Sons last month. It's there on the face of Leroy Hamilton, the wilfully
underachieving descendent of one of America's founding fathers, who sits in the
waiting room of the state mental hospital where his wife Patricia is spending a
third period in an attempt to keep her depression at bay. It's there too in the
face of John Frick, who may have embraced the American Dream that Hamilton
rejected, but whose own wife Karen is in the same hospital. Most of all,
however, it is Patricia's soul itself that is so fatefully marked by failed
expectations as she attempts to take control of her life once more.

It's key to Miller's chamber piece that we see how men are prior to the doors opening on
Patricia and Karen's world, and director Michael Emans has cast things
beautifully. David Tarkenter's banjo playing Leroy is an insular, mono-syllabic
sociopath in stark counterpoint to Stewart Porter's bluff Frick, the epitome of
a blue-collar capitalist success story. It is Jane McCarry's sad-eyed Karen and
especially Pauline Turner's furiously self-determined Patricia who are
psychologically crippled by the long-term side-effects of their respective
husbands choices in life.

Touring as part of this year's Scottish Mental Health
Arts and Film Festival, Emans' production is a fascinating glimpse into one of
Miller's most intimate works in which an entire system seems to have left its
casualties in need of collective medication.

The Herald, October 5th 2015


Friday, 2 October 2015

Brian Friel obituary

Brian Friel – Playwright

Born January 9 1929, Killyclogher, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; died October 2 2015, Greencastle, County Donegal, Ireland.

Brian Friel, who has died aged eighty-six following a long illness, was a quiet giant of modern Irish theatre, whose greatest plays tapped into the beating heart of the human condition through notions of human frailty and community in the face of adversity. If the former was evident in Faith Healer (1979), a quartet of interlinking monologues charting the inconsistent muse of the Fantastic Frank Hardy, the latter pulsed throughout some of Friel's great ensemble works, including Translations (1980), which dealt with cultural colonialism during a volatile period of Ireland's history, and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), in which memory and history becomes an even more personal for of artistic endeavour.

Bernard Patrick Friel was born in Killcogher, near Omagh, to a school teacher father and post mistress mother, who moved their family to Derry when Friel was aged ten. Friel was educated in St Columb's College in Derry, also the alma mater of poet Seamus Heaney, and, after studying for the priesthood in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, followed his father into teaching.

By 1950, however, Friel was writing short stories, and in 1958 his early radio plays were produced by BBC Belfast. A year later he had become a regular contributor to The New Yorker, while the same year, his first stage play, A Doubtful Paradise, was produced at the Ulster Group Theatre in Belfast. This was followed in 1962 by a collection of short stories, The Saucer of Larks, and another stage play, The Enemy Within, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before transferring to the Queen's.

It was only after observing the great stage director Tyrone Guthrie for six months while on a sojourn to Minneapolis in 1963, however, that Friel fully found his theatrical voice. This was clear from Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which opened in Dublin in 1964 before transferring to New York and, eventually, London. By the time the two plays that made up Lovers appeared in 1967, Friel had moved to Donegal, where he continued to write plays such as Crystal and Fox, The Mundy Scheme and The Gentle Island.

By 1973, he was writing explicitly political plays such as The Freedom of the City, which was in part a response to events surrounding what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot dead twenty-six unarmed civilians during a civil rights march in Derry in 1972. by 1979, however, Friel had moved into both more personal and more epic waters with Faith Healer. Through monologues charting the rise and fall of a once great showman, Friel explored the fragile pursuit of art, with heroic failure the risk of every small success. Earlier this year John Dove directed a thrilling production of Faith Healer at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.

In 1980, Friel began an artistic collaboration with actor Stephen Rea on what would become Field Day Theatre Company to produce Friel's latest play, Translations. By the time it opened at the Guildhall in Derry in September that year against a backdrop of the Irish Troubles, both play and company were already on the map, with Friel's fellow writers Heaney, Tom Paulin and Seamus Deane forming part of a core group with Friel and Rea. While Friel maintained that Translations was 'about language and only about language', a play set in a rural Irish community co-opted by an English establishment who anglicise the local place names, effectively erasing an entire cultural history, was always going to cause a stir. In a production that featured Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally in the cast, this was even more the case.

Thirty-three years later, and with Translations now regarded as a modern classic, a new production opened in a very different Derry in the Millennium Forum, a brand new state of art theatre built to coincide with Derry/Londonderry's tenure as 2013 European Capital of Culture, which Friel's play and Field Day had arguably helped shape. Adrian Dunbar's production of Translations, which toured top Edinburgh, was quite right rightly one of the year's flagship events of Derry's year, though it was equally telling observing Friel at the first night party afterwards.

There Friel sat on a sofa, a gnomic figure beside Dunbar, who, despite being a well-known face from film and TV, was all but ignored as a huddle of young actresses from the show posed for selfies on their camera phones with the then eighty-four year old writer as if he was a pop star.

Friel quietly left Field Day in the early 1990s,by which time Dancing at Lughnasa, arguably Friel's greatest success, had already lit up Dublin, London and Broadway. Set, like many of Friel's plays, in the fictional rural town of Ballybeg, the play charted the lives of five sisters over one summer in 1936. The play won Olivier and Tony awards for Best New Play, and went on to be made into a film starring Meryl Streep.

While Friel was far from idle in the years that followed, writing Molly Sweeney in 1994 and Give Me Your Answer Do! in 1997,the last decade of his life saw him slow down, with Performances in 2003 forming a meditation on the artist's fear of ageing. In 2005, The Home Place was the last of his works set in Ballybeg, while in 2008 he adapted Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

If ageing had been a understandable concern in Performances, it was something at the back of mind a lot earlier. In 1971 he wrote Self Portrait, a 'fragment of autobiography' recorded for BBC Radio Ulster when in his early forties. In it, Friel wrote that 'I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment.'

Friel is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, three daughters, Mary, Judy and Sally, and son David. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia in 2012.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Brave New World

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

"Forget about the future," says pill-pacified pleasure seeker Lenina
at one point in Dawn King's stage adaptation of Aldous Huxley's dystopian 1931
novel en route to an emotion-free liaison with Bernard Marx, the most awkward
alpha male in town. "There's nothing we can do about it. Just live for

Such a self-absorbed lifestyle choice was probably as all the rage in
Huxley's between-the-wars world as it is today. All dressed up in space-age
wigs, video projections resembling a Brian Eno installation and a stentorian
electronic soundscape care of pop panoramicists These New Puritans, however,
James Dacre's production for the Royal and Derngate, Northampton and The Touring
Consortium renders the story as all too recognisable prophecy.

It opens as a lecture, with the audience the new trainees being given a guided tour around a
hatchery centre where test tube babies are sired in a social caste system that
seemingly seals their fate for a half-life of feels-free kicks. This sets a tone
of dispassionate ice-cool ennui only broken when Gruffordd Glyn's Bernard goes on
a not so hot date to the badlands with Olivia Morgan's Lenina. Here they stumble
on William Postlethwaite's John The Savage, a Shakespeare-quoting bit of rough
who becomes a messiah-like cause célèbre, inspiring random outbreaks of sex,
violence and poetry before running off to the wilderness with Lenina.

Watching over all this is the World State Controller, Mond, played by
Sophie Ward as a gimlet-eyed social engineer who calls the shots in a slickly
realised if bleakly desolate affair that suggests people power has already been
tranquilised into submission.


Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Agatha Christie – A Quietly Subversive Assassin

Imagine tempting eight of the most unpleasant people in the world to an isolated house on uninhabited island. Then imagine wining and dining them into a false sense of security before methodically and mercilessly bumping them off one by rotten one as an act of poetic justice for the crimes they've escaped punishment from.

This is effectively what happens in And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie's novel long regarded as her masterpiece since it was first published in 1939. And it is a trademark set-up of her murder-mystery oeuvre, whether putting her characters in a country house drawing room for the big reveal or else decamping them to the middle of nowhere.

The allure of taking characters out of their comfort zone and throwing them to the metaphorical lions may be sated these days by the mass appeal of reality TV, but Christie got there first. More significantly, perhaps, the mind games she plays are a whole lot subtler, shot through as they are with a hardcore sense of morality.

Because beyond the period cut-glass priggishness and primness of Christie's assorted grotesques, there is something quietly radical and anarchic about her tit for tat treatment of them. With World War Two looming, it's as if Christie is not only calling to account an over-ridingly self-entitled strata of society who genuinely believe they can get away with murder. She's also attempting to wipe them out.

It is this deceptive sleight of hand that makes Christie so quietly and exquisitely subversive, even as her genius with the thriller genre occupies the mainstream in a way that gives her sizeable back catalogue a perennially universal appeal.

This is why And Then There Were None has been translated into more than forty languages, has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and remains one of the best-selling books of all time. It is also why it has had more adaptations on stage, screen and radio than any other of Christie's works. This includes her own 1943 stage version, for which producers convinced her to graft on a feel-good ending, while later versions returned to the downbeat tone of her original.

This is also why her play The Mousetrap has run continuously on the London stage for more than sixty years, with not even the rise of social media encouraging audiences to spill the beans on who exactly done it, preferring instead to be part of a knowing conspiracy with Christie herself by way of her sainted crime fighters.

So it is with Miss Marple, one of Christie's most loved creations who featured in twelve of her novels and twenty of her short stories. A Murder is Announced was published in 1950 after being serialised over eleven instalments in the Daily Express. The book marked Marple's fourth full-length appearance in a series which had already established the notion of an elderly spinster and gimlet-eyed amateur sleuth keeping a close watch on the goings on in sleepy middle England villages.

While both And Then There Were None and the Marple stories are whodunnits, it is what lies behind each character that taps into a more vulnerable and dysfunctional society than their trappings might immediately betray. Beyond their respectable façades, Christie's creations are damaged goods, with histories which gradually unravel to leave them emotionally exposed.

Christie spares no mercy on the guilty, who are either caught red-handed by Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced, or else destroyed by some shape-shifting vigilante hiding in plain sight and seemingly as psychotic as their victims in And Then There Were None.

In a way both plays might be said to be crying out for the sort of post-modern deconstruction already afforded such familiar yarns elsewhere as The Thirty-Nine Steps and An Inspector Calls, and some of the starry TV adaptations have reinvented Christie's stories even as they retain their period setting. Onstage too there can be an archness to her work which allows actors familiar from the small-screen to have some very serious fun.

This is a tradition that goes way back, with William Templeton's 1956 small-screen adaptation of A Murder is Announced featuring singing legend Gracie Fields as Marple. With Leslie Darbon's stage version having been around since 1977, the Alan Plater scripted 1985 film featured Joan Hickson in the lead, with Geraldine McEwan defining her anew for the 2005 TV version of the story.

In the end, it is the out and out humanity of Christie's characters that appeal. They may be flawed enough to commit a crime, but as Christie makes damningly clear, it is their self-serving cowardice that will finish them.

And Then There Were None, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, October 19-24; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, October 26-31, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, November 2-7; A Murder is Announced, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, February 1-6 2016.

Commissioned by John Good as programme notes to accompany the 2015/2016 touring productions of And Then There Were None and A Murder is Announced, and published September 2015.