Friday, 6 March 2015

Nicola McCartney - New Plays from Russia and Ukraine

Five years ago, playwright and director Nicola McCartney was about to travel to
Russia, where over the previous seven years she had established a series of new
playwriting initiatives in a country still best known for its weighty theatrical
legacy rather than contemporary theatre. Before she left, David MacLennan, the
now late founder of A Play, Pie and A Pint, suggested to McCartney that she
should see if there was any scope in looking at writers to take part in
MacLennan's pioneering series of lunchtime plays at Oran Mor in Glasgow.

In association with the National Theatre of Scotland, PPP had previously hosted
seasons of plays from China, the middle east and Latin America, and McCartney
had already worked with a generation of writers who styled themselves as part of
the Novii Drama or New Drama wave of artists who broke the boundaries of
old-school social realism as well as political taboos.

The eventual result of this is a season curated by McCartney of three plays from Russia and Ukraine
which takes place at Oran Mor as part of the NTS' Belong season of work. Take
the Rubbish Out, Sasha, by Ukranian writer Natalia Voruzhbyt, seen in a
translation by Sasha Dugdale and directed by McCartney, will open the season at
Oran Mor in two weeks time. This will be followed by two plays by Russian
writers, The War Hasn't Started Yet by Mikhail Durnenkov, and Yuri Klavdiev's
play, Thoughts Spoken Aloud From Above. With both receiving literal translations
by Alexandra Smith, the first will be adapted and directed by Davey Anderson,
with Klavdiev's play adapted by Peter Arnott.

“I'd worked with all threewriter before,” says McCartney, “The first time I came to Russia in 2003 doing
Class Act Russia with the Traverse, Mikhail and Yuri were emerging playwrights
shadowing me, and since then have become hip, young experimental writers really
interested in social theatre.”

Both already have international track records, with plays having been produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company and
other places, with one work by Klavdiev, The Slow Sword, currently regarded as
the most dangerous Russian play ever written.

“I met Natalia three years ago,” says McCartney. “Her work is very popular in Russia, and when I was there,
whenever she walked into a room other playwrights would burst into
applause.”

The reasons these plays have taken so long to reach the stage
are many, not least related to the ongoing Ukranian-Russian conflict which
kick-started into dangerous life in 2014.

“There have been difficulties,” McCartney says. “Once we decided on the writers we wanted to work with, we
brought them over here about eighteen months ago, mainly to get a feel of how A
Play, Pie and A Pint works in terms of staging and how big a cast they could
have, how big the stage is, all that stuff. There have been times where we've
been finding it quite hard to pay people because of banking restrictions that
have been imposed, and then one of our Russian writers couldn't get a visa, so
that made life quite difficult as well.”

With a broad brief to write about about the state of their country now in a season enabled in part by
funding from the University of Edinburgh, where McCartney leads the Masters
programme in playwriting, each writer took a very different approach.

As McCartney explains, Vorozhbyt’s play looks at gender power in the aftermath of a
Russian colonel's death. 

“It reflects a very particular set of gender politics that exists in Ukraine,” she says, “where a lot of men were employed in
the public sector, and their earning power dropped, so their wives earn a lot
more. Many of the men feel emasculated and become alcoholics, sand the women are
very much under pressure as the sole earners.

“The play is set on the ninth day of Remembrance, which in the Russian Orthodox church means that the
spirit doesn't leave the body until then.”

Out of this comes the dead colonel's determination to prove his manhood and mobilise the dead.

“It's quite comedic,” says McCartney, “and moves from extreme naturalism to magic
realism.”

Durnenkov's play is a more absurdist piece made up of eight
seemingly disconnected scenes involving assorted characters. Out of this,
according to McCartney, “it really gives you a window on what it's like to be a
Russian living in Russia today. What I think he's doing is foregrounding the
absurdity of a situation where everything is propaganda. It's kind of like
Bulgakov, in that its extrapolating things from everyday reality to say
something about a day to day universe.”

Finally, Klavdiev's play takes things to even further extremes, as a man seeks sanctuary in the woods, where he
eats some magic mushrooms. The hallucinations that follow see the man role-play
a multitude of contemporary Russian characters, including a serious depiction of
a lesbian in a way previously unthinkable in Russian drama. 

“It's quite bizarre,” McCartney says of the play, “and reflects what a lot of Russians who
live in the city do, by getting away from having to fit into Russian society.
Usually homosexuality is only ever treated comedically, so this is quite an
explosive play in a Russian context.”

If all this sounds serious, McCartney points to the experience of the Moscow-based Theatre Doc to illustrate
just how big the stakes are for Russian and Ukranian drama.

“They deliberately stood up for free speech,” she says of the basement-based home of
radical Russian theatre built by its writers, “and did a performance of the
transcripts from the Pussy Riot trial. After that they were closed down, but
instead of saying we don't like you, they sent the fire department in to say a
fire door was in the wrong place.” 

After Theatre Doc made structural changes under the fire department's guidance, the City's property department
issued a press release stating the theatre had violated renovation rules
concerning structural changes. 

“There's something about theatre that means so much in Russia and the Ukraine,” McCartney says. “Here we had a rush on
that sort of idea during the referendum, but most of the time theatre's about
getting bums on seats. In Russia and Ukraine it's a life or death thing. Having
witnessed that world over the last twelve years, I hope our audiences can get an
insight into a place where if you disagree with something you can't do anything
but write, and which has always been the Russian way.”

A Play, A Pie and A Pint: International Plays from Ukraine and Russia; Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha,
Oran Mor, Glasgow, March 23-28, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 31-April 4;
The War Hasn't Started Yet, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May 4-9; Thoughts Spoken Aloud
From Above, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May
25-30.
www.playpiepint.com
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, February 6th 2015

ends

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Phill Jupitus - The Producers

When Phill Jupitus takes the stage of Edinburgh Festival Theatre in a couple of weeks clad in Leiderhosen and Swastika armband to play deluded Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks' stage musical of his film, The Producers, it will be a far cry from Jupitus' original stage persona of post-punk word-smith Porky the Poet as he can get. By his own admission, however, Jupitus' turn as the author of goose-stepping smash hit, Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, is something he fell into. Jupitus was only cast after Ross Noble, who will play Franz for the Glasgow dates, was unavailable for the first ten weeks of the tour.

“I'm very much wearing the number twelve shirt,” Jupitus says on a break from rehearsals. “Ross signed up to it first, but then he couldn't do the opening few weeks, so they asked me instead. I've never been in rehearsals for the start of something before. I've always stepped into it once it's been up and running, so it's a slightly new experience for me.”

Despite this, Jupitus has long been versed in the mores of Brooks' original 1968 film based around a pair of Broadway hacks who realise they can make more money from a flop than a hit.

“I've been trying to work out when it was that I first saw it,” Jupitus says, “I clearly remember seeing it as a kid, and that there were a lot of in Jewish references that a ten year old boy in the home counties wouldn't get, but he's such a great writer, Mel Brooks, and I think I may have seen Blazing Saddles first.

“It was the days before video, so it would be on the telly when you were fifteen or sixteen, and you'd be ringing up your mates to tell each other it was on, and it was like nothing we'd ever seen. As a teenager in the UK, comedy was about Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise or The Good Life, all these straight-up sit-coms and weird British humour, whereas Mel Brooks was so exotic. I think I'd seen Woody Allen's film, Bananas, by then, which also had this quick-talking New York Jewish humour, but I'd really never seen anything like Mel Brooks, so to be in The Producers today is absurd.”

The Producers isn't Jupitus' first stint at musical theatre, having just appeared on the West End in Urinetown The musical, while he was previously in Hairspray and Monty Python's Spamalot. Despite such high-profile shows, as well as his elder statesman status as the longest surviving panellist on TV pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks over nineteen years, Jupitus isn't shy of getting back to his fringe roots.

As well as reviving Porky the Poet for the Edinburgh Free Fringe, Jupitus has taken part in the Traverse Theatre's early morning Theatre Uncut seasons of hot off the press plays performed script-in-hand . He has also become one of the alumni of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour's theatrical experiment in which one performer picks up a script in a sealed envelope having had no rehearsal, with what follows remaining a secret between actor and the audience. With the likes of John Hurt and Stephen Rea having done the show since it was first seen in 2011, no-one has given the game away yet, and Jupitus isn't going to spoil things.

"The Traverse asked me to do it about three years ago,” he says. “I said to them, look, don't be shy of asking me to do things because you think I'll be too busy, so it's great. When I knew I was doing White Rabbit Red Rabbit I happened to bump into Marcus Brigstocke, and he said he'd done it, but he wouldn't tell me anything about it. It's such a clever thing to do.”

Such a willingness to take a chance on things has been the hallmark of Jupitus' career since his early days supporting bands as Porky the Poet. Even that came about by accident during a time when he was working as a civil servant with what was then the DHSS in the mid 1980s.

“It was about the time the ranting poets came out,” Jupitus says. “You'd had the Liverpool poets, and you'd had John Cooper-Clarke, and later you'd get the likes of Craig Charles and Lemn Sissay coming off the back of that, but at that time you had Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells, Joolz, Benjamin Zephaniah, Little Brother and others coming in off the back of punk. Some of them were amazing, but there were others that weren't, and I remember thinking I could do better than that, and I didn't even do it.”

It was Attila the Stockbroker who persuaded Jupitus to take the leap onstage after finding tow poems in a folder full of illustrations which Jupitus had been working on. Jupitus ended up working a fertile live poetry circuit as well as supporting the likes of Billy Bragg.

“At that time in the eighties,” Jupitus recalls, “you could earn as much as you would on benefits doing gigs, and doing gigs was much more fun.”

Jupitus packed in the DHSS and toured with Bragg, for whom he made a couple of videos, also working for Bragg's record label, Go Discs. As with most things in Jupitus' career, a move into comedy came about by accident, when fanzine writer and NME journalist James Brown, who would go on to found Loaded magazine, gave him some friendly advice.

“James said that the things I said inbetween the poems were funnier than the poems themselves,” Jupitus recalls, “and that was the first time I realised I could be a comedian. I was talking with Alan Davies and Jo Brand about how we all fell into it, and not one of us could remember a moment where we decided to be a comedian.”

For The Producers, Jupitus is particularly looking forward to the tour's Edinburgh dates, where he and so many of his peers cut their performing teeth.

“It feels like home,” he says of the city, “and to come back outside the Fringe is such a buzz. It feels like a village where everyone knows someone who knows someone, and I love to go to all the art galleries. Four of my favourite bars are there, and if I've got a pocket full of change in one of them I can work their jukebox for hours.”

Such are the perks of Jupitus' happily wayward career.

“It's either this or an office job,” he says, “and as I found out in the mid-eighties, a nine to five isn't something I'm really cut out for.”

The Producers, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 23-28; Theatre Royal, Glasgow (with Ross Noble), June 15-20.
www.theproducersmusical.co.uk

The Herald, February 3rd 2015

ends

Monday, 2 March 2015

LOVE 2.0

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh
Three stars

Whether intentional or not, playing former Jimmy Savile's Old Record Club favourite, Young Girl, by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, in the build up to the start of Andy McGregor's production of his own new play for the Sleeping Warrior Theatre Company gives what follows a creepier edge than the play's title suggests. Here, after all, is a full-on twenty-first century romance, in which teenage dreamers Suzie and Gary hook up, not at the youth club disco, but through Facebook, that all pervasive global village where cyber-stalking can lead to all kinds of trouble.

Where Suzie's posts gush about sentimental TV shows and the delights of Simply Red, Gary quotes Kerouac, puts up seriously arty selfies and claims to dig Beethoven. The trouble is, in an online world where you can be anyone you want to be, it's hard to spot who's faking it unless 'friends' meet in the flesh. Which, following an excess of likes, 'lols' and pokes is where the trouble really starts.

The trick here in replicating the highs and lows of virtual flirting, sexting, instant messaging and other social networking staples is to actually get physical. So post-it notes and big foam hands illustrate the merry dance Suzie and Gary embark on, while a Skype call is done by way of that old-school kids comic favourite of a couple of tin cans joined together with string.

Produced in an association with the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, all this is conveyed with increasingly manic brio by Lucy Goldie and Samuel Keefe in a refreshingly cynical comic dissection of virtual courting worth logging on to throughout its extensive tour.
 
The Herald, February 2nd 2015
 

ends


Fleabag

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The oh-so-tasteful wine bar jazz guitar version of Making Whoopee that ushers in this touring revival of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's solo play gives nary a hint of the psycho-sexual head-rip that follows over the next sixty-five minutes. Nor indeed does the opening scene, in which our eponymous heroine messes up a job interview with an instinctively inappropriate display.

This is just the start, however, of a no-half-measures roller-coaster ride through Fleabag's emotionally scarred world, in which she defines herself through sex, be it through masturbating to online porn or else sleeping with any man that comes her way. Either way, it reminds her she's alive even though she doesn't feel a thing.

As things gradually unravel while she either crushes or else pushes away anyone who attempts to get close to her, beyond Maddie Rice's jolly hockey-sticks delivery and the unfettered ridiculousness of Fleabag's guinea pig café, we see a little girl messed up so much by love that she can't let it into her life anymore.

With Rice taking over from Waller-Bridge's original portrayal of her creation, first seen on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, Vicky Jones' co-production for DryWrite and Soho Theatre is an insightful affirmation of how the endless possibilities of on-tap sexual liberation can sometimes numb the senses more than offer anything resembling joy.

Waller-Bridges' writing captures all the casual glibness imbued in this thoroughly modern but actually old-as-the-hills libertine sensibility, with Rice's delivery relishing its comic potential even as she doubles back into the roots of Fleabag's deceptively happy-go-lucky, anything goes world. The two words that Fleabag ends with cover all bases, exactly, one suspects, as she likes it.
 
The Herald, March 2nd 2015
 
ends

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Effect

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

What does it mean to be love sick? Lucy Prebble's award-winning play, first seen at the Royal National Theatre in 2012, explores this painful question through two couples confined in very different ways by clinical drug trials in a medical testing centre run by a tellingly named pharmaceutical company. Connie and Tristan arrive as strangers, but within hours find themselves attracted to each other in a way that might just be chemically enhanced. Lorna and Toby, meanwhile, are the doctors overseeing Connie and Tristan's trial, and whose uneasy shared history dictates everything that follows.

As Connie and Tristan's terminal flirtation eventually spills over, so Lorna and Toby come to redefine their relationship through a series of double bluffs which have devastating consequences for them all.

The inner landscape Prebble explores in this fascinating dramatic analysis of chemistry, biology and sheer physical and mental desire is the sort of material that one might expect to be dissected in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series of one-off TV dramas. Richard Baron's revival of Prebble's play for the Borders-based Firebrand company squares up to the heart and soul of the matter with a quartet of ferocious performances that render much of the digitally animated projections unnecessary distractions.

As the younger pair, Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton get fully to grips with Connie and Tristan's adolescent yearnings in a way that counterpoints beautifully with Pauline Knowles and Jonathan Coote's more grown-up pairing as Lorna and Toby.

“This is a storm,” says Toby to a prone and possibly medically dependent Lorna towards the play's end. “It passes.” For some, maybe, but for those like Lorna addicted to love, probably not.
 
The Herald, February 27th 2015
 
ends

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Twelve Angry Men

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The scales of justice hang heavy in stark black and white on the gauze through which the murder jury sit in the shadows at the start of this touring revival of Reginald Rose's post courtroom classic, first seen as a television play before being made iconic in Sidney Lumet's big screen debut in 1957. Christopher Haydon's production, first produced by Birmingham Rep before becoming a West End hit, casts Tom Conti as the anonymous Juror 8, initially the sole dissenter of a pack intent on sending a young boy of colour to his death in what initially seems a cut and dried case.

As the facts are gradually revealed over the next two riveting hours, they also lay bare an assortment of everyday prejudices and knee-jerk notions of law and order fuelled by ignorance, fear and self-loathing.

It's not hard to recognise contemporary universal parallels in Rose's play, which burns with claustrophobic heat in the shabby room of Michael Pavelka's set, where the jurors pace about as if they're the ones on trial or else already incarcerated.

Conti's world-weary understatement as the play opens is a deceptive foil to his fellow jurors as he quietly but determinedly changes everybody's mind. While unexpected gales of gallows humour ripple throughout, it is the ferocious bluster of Denis Lill's Juror 10 and especially Andrew Lancel's fierce turn as Juror 3, lashing out at his own estranged son by proxy, that defines the production. At the play's heart is a noble belief that truth, justice and the American way are still ideals to aspire to, however much they may sometimes be corrupted.
 
The Herald, February 25th 2015

ends




Alexander and Susan Maris – The Potter's Field / Tim Sandys – Damocles / Kenny Watson – Last Rites

Lust and the Apple, The Old School House, Temple, near Gorebridge until April 19th
Four stars

It's all too fitting that the outside lights weren't working on the opening night of this new venture from Paul Robertson, the iconoclastic former curator of Summerhall, whose sudden departure from the former Royal Dick Veterinary School in August 2014 has yet to be explained. Situated in the former primary school of a Midlothian village fourteen miles south of Edinburgh and steeped in Knights Templar folklore, Lust and the Apple's opening triple-headed hydra of shows appears tailor-made to cope with electrical gremlins, and seeing the work in the raw and partly shrouded by the blackest of night skies enhances rather than denudes their sense of public ritual.

This is evident from the moment you enter the old school's car park to be greeted by six helium balloons suspended in mid-air, each with a wooden spike pointed firmly downwards. As indicated by the spikes already embedded in the earth, when the balloons burst, the spikes will plummet downwards without warning.

This is Damocles, a new installation by Tim Sandys, which reworks the Greek myth of power, responsibility and the constant state of dread imbued with both, for a prevailingly precarious state of twenty-first century doom. That the inflatables that hang above us are themselves in the hands of gravity gives any visual sense of party-poppers and other such fripperies a grotesque sense of foreboding flapping in the wind.

In terms of narrative thread, in the unlikely event of prosecution for any of Damocles' potential impalings, in Lust and Apple's world they may well end up Suddenoakdeath, Kenny Hunter's wooden approximation of an electric chair which sits on the schoolhouse garden in the shadows as part of his all too appropriately named 'Last Rites' compendium of sculptures and paintings.

Perhaps it was here that the nine classical Muses lined up in pretty graves all in a row in Alexander and Susan Maris' 'The Potter's Field' were shocked into submission, sizzling spiritual inspiration to a crisp before being laid to rest. But these are paupers graves, simple mounds of earth, each one candle-lit by night and marked with only a piece of white quartzite from the Knights Templar linked Perthshire based mountain, Schiehallion.

As for survivors, they're more likely to be found indoors in the schoolhouse itself, even if a less pronounced but still tangible air of (self) negation permeates throughout. This is best seen in the main room largely devoted to Watson's paintings, where, besides the window, the lid of a small metal box bears the legend, 'PERHAPS ALL PLEASURE IS ONLY RELIEF'. The quote is from novelist, junky and explorer of altered states, William S Burroughs. Inside the box is a set of works for cooking and shooting up heroin.

The rest of the room is a infinitely brighter affair, with some of Watson's drip paintings leaving patterns down the walls like candy-striped wounds making a bid for freedom. The room's centre-piece, however, is Intermission, a billboard sized splash of movie iconography in which poster girl starlets who might just be some auteur's muse are immortalised in triplicate. For the debut of Lust and the Apple, this umbilically linked three-way split of life, death, transcendence and renewal is the perfectly dark entry to a potential cult in the making.
 
The List, February 2015

ends