Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stephen Jeffreys - The Libertine

Sex and drugs and rock and roll may have been a phrase introduced into
the world by the late Ian Dury in the post-punk 1970s, but such
hedonistic excesses have been around for centuries. Back in the 1600s,
for instance, Restoration poet and one of King Charles 11's court, John
Wilmot, aka the second Earl of Rochester, took full advantage of the
era's post puritan anything goes aesthetic to become the ultimate
libertine. Rochester's penchant for self-destructive behaviour, alas,
saw him dead at thirty-three of venereal disease.

All of this features in The Libertine, Stephen Jeffreys' flamboyant
drama made famous a decade ago in a film starring Johnny Depp, and
which receives its first UK production in two decades at the Citzens
Theatre in Glasgow next week. Given the Citz's own colourful history
with decadent period romps, this seems an all too fitting liaison.

“Rochester was a celebrity of the day,” says Jeffreys. “He was like a
rock star, and because London at the time was relatively small, you
could cause quite a splash just leaving your house and going for a cup
of coffee. But what annoyed Rochester was that he couldn't be the King.
He couldn't be number one. So he found all these ways to draw attention
to himself. Here was this man possessed with every possible talent, but
who decides to waste them as a statement on the meaninglessness of
life. Rochester lived this excessive life even as he hated it, and in a
way, romantic love, and how it can consume you so completely, was his
downfall.”

The roots of The Libertine date back to 1975, when Jeffreys' dentist
was off-loading the more adult areas of his book-shelf to patients so
as not to lead his increasingly curious thirteen year old daughter
astray. Jeffreys was gifted a copy of Rochester's tellingly named play,
SODOM.

“I don't think I'd heard of Rochester then,” says Jeffreys, “but it was
a green Olympia Press edition of what turned out to be what's probably
the filthiest play in the English language.”

Only seventeen years later while working as literary associate at the
Royal Court Theatre under then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark did
Jeffreys have a notion to dramatise Rochester's life, and only then
after another writer had proffered an interest.

What ended up as The Libertine was eventually produced in 1994 by
Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company in a double bill with an actual
seventeenth century play, George Etherege's The Man of Mode.

“At the time, the seventeenth century seemed more real to me than life
under John Major,” Jeffrey says. “I'd got very bored with all these
grim naturalistic plays, and I'd already written a play called The
Clink, which was about the death of Elisabeth 1. That opened in London
the week Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, so seemed to say
something about life in 1990s Britain.”

Jeffreys wasn't alone in his move away from naturalism. When The
Libertine was first seen at the Royal Court, Sarah Kane's debut play,
Blasted, was causing a furore in the venue's upstairs theatre. Both, in
different ways, announced how drama, like the world, was changing.

“It was Christmas, and there was snow on the ground,” Jeffreys
remembers, “and I remember looking out of a window from the theatre,
and on one side, Harold Pinter was walking towards the theatre, and on
the other side Edward Bod was doing the same. At first I thought they
were coming to see my play, then I realised they were coming to see
Sarah's. But they were both kind of scandalous plays. Both were
explosive in their own way.”

While contemporary parallels with Rochester are rife, in terms of the
the seriousness with which he took his own self-destruction, latter-day
poet wastrels such as Pete Doherty don't come close.

“It's interesting that some of the more recent casualties of a
self-destructive lifestyle are female,” Jeffreys observes. “Amy
Winehouse, she was a Rochester figure, in that she was someone who was
supremely talented. With Rochester, though, there was an entire
philosophy behind how he behaved, which is far more interesting than
someone who just takes lots of drugs for the hell of it.”

Historical figures have played a big part in Jeffreys' work, dating
right back to his early days writing a version of Carmen for the
Edinburgh-based Communicado company in 1984. Jeffreys had been working
with Pocket Theatre company at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal with
actors Rob Pickavance, Alison Peebles and Gerry Mulgrew when the idea
to found Communicado came up. It was his mother, according to Jeffreys,
who came up with the name for a company which has used history in
similar ways to himself.

“There was a point,” Jeffreys says, “when I was better known as a
writer in Scotland than England.”

Since Carmen, Jeffreys has penned a version of seventeenth century
comedy, A Jovial Crew, and, for Out of Joint, a new version of John
Gay's The Beggar's Opera, reimagined as The Convict's Opera.

More recently, Jeffreys co-wrote a stage adaptation of Iain Softley's
1994 John Lennon bio-pic, Backbeat, an earlier version of which had
originally premiered at the Citizens. Jeffreys also wrote the
screenplay of Diana, which cast Naomi Watts as the doomed people's
princess.

“In a way I'd rather not do it,” Jeffreys admits, “and just write
something purely fictional instead. What you do, I suppose, if you're
putting real events in your work, is finding out what happened, then
changing it. With John Lennon, you've got this whole life in the
spotlight with the Beatles, and with Diana, you've got a great deal of
biographical information, but you have to get beyond all that and find
out about something you don't know about. You don't want to rehearse
well-known facts.”

While Rochester isn't a household name, Jeffreys has given his subject
the kind of immortality he craved.

“It's about waste,” he says of the play, “and deliberately wasting a
talent. I never knew that when I started writing it, but it's a very
sexy play as well, very theatrical. It's like the difference between
getting a box of fireworks and looking at the label that says how much
they explode, then watching them launch themselves into the air and see
what happens. That's when things become really exciting.”

The Libertine, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-24
www.citz.co.uk

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Libertines Through The Ages

Lord Byron – While often regarded as the original libertine, poet
George Gordon Byron was born into the Romantic age a century or so
later. Inbetween penning lengthy narrative poems, Byron ran up huge
debts and had affairs with both sexes. There were rumours of an affair
with his half-sister, before Byron went into self-imposed exile in
Italy and Greece, where he died of fever aged thirty-six.

Marquis de Sade – Possibly the most notorious of all libertines, the
aristocratic Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade cut a swathe through
eighteenth and early nineteenth century France with a multitude of
literary works that fused philosophy and sexual fantasy. De Sade lived
his life as he wrote it, and spent some thirty-two years in prison,
gifting the world the notion of sadism. De Sade embarked on a four year
affair with a fourteen year old before dying aged seventy-four in 1814.

Peter Doherty – A man so in love with the image of a poet wastrel
ruffian that he named his band The Libertines, Doherty became tabloid
fodder, both for his misadventures with drugs and his high profile
affair with supermodel Kate Moss. Beyond all this lay a talented
songwriter who inspired devotion among a young fan-base.

Sebastian Horsley – Born in Yorkshire in 1962, and originally named
Marcus, Horsley cut a dash through Edinburgh's post-punk scene of the
1980s, was filmed being crucified in the Philippines so he could paint
on the subject, wrote about how he preferred sex with prostitutes and
held court to a Soho demi-monde. All of this was detailed in Horsley's
2007 autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld, which was turned into a
play in 2010 adapted by Tim Fountain. Horsley attended the opening
night, and was found dead of a heroin and cocaine overdose two days
later.

The Herald, April 22nd 2014


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Monday, 21 April 2014

Barry McGovern reads Samuel Beckett

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
Irish actor Barry McGovern has long proved to be the master of
interpreting the twentieth century's most iconic writer, ever since he
appeared on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1986 in I'll Go On. This
solo adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and
The Unnameable, was revived for the Edinburgh International Festival in
2013 following a rendition of Beckett's novella, Watt, the previous
year. So to hear McGovern read a seventy-five minute selection of
Beckett's prose and poetry as the culmination of Uncensored Life, a
weekend-long celebration of publisher John Calder, who first introduced
the world to Beckett, William Burroughs and many other literary giants,
is a thrill indeed.

McGovern stands with a folder full of photocopied texts, and begins
solemnly, only for Beckett's words to open out their meditations on
mortality to reveal a master comedian at work. With work dating back to
Beckett's early prose works, More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy,
McGovern flits between tiny love poems to what are effectively a series
of comic routines that make up a form of existentialist vaudeville as
they chart the everyday minutiae that give life meaning.

There are brief excerpts from Watt and the trilogy too, with the latter
becoming a rolling torrent of words delivered by McGovern with an
understated richness in tone. The evening closes, as it must, with What
Is The Word, Beckett's final, ultra-minimalist poem, written when he
was eighty-three for theatre director Joseph Chaikin after Chaikin had
suffered a stroke that left him aphasic. With Calder himself in
attendance, McGovern gives a masterly rendition of a poem that honours
several icons at once.

The Herald, April 21st, 2014
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The Edinburgh Passion

Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh
Three stars
It's nearly thirty years since Bill Bryden cast David Hayman as a
radical Jesus processing through the streets of Glasgow for The Holy
City, his contemporary television rendering of the Passion. Something
of that play's spirit seems to have trickled down into Rob Drummond's
own up to the minute version, which sees an authoritarian regime
campaigning for a No vote in a forthcoming referendum. Having already
reduced crime figures by bringing back the death penalty, political
figurehead Herod, his spin doctor McKayfus and police chief Pilate are
gunning for charismatic community spokesman and Yes poster boy Jesus.
Only when their nemesis is set up on trumped up terrorist charges do
Herod and his cronies appear to gain the upper hand.

Opening with two uniformed policemen flanking the Ross Bandstand,
Suzanne Lofthus' open-air production for the Cutting Edge Theatre
Company in association with the Princes Street Easter Play Trust is
played across three small stages in the Ross Bandstand enclosure before
we're led to a Last Supper in the Gethsemane pub beer garden. Here
Jesus signs autographs and poses for selfies before being sentenced to
death, not by crucifixion, but by lethal injection.

With a large community cast led by professional actor Duncan Rennie as
Jesus, such modern stylings work fine, though any parallels with
real-life referendums don't really stand up once the action moves into
more metaphysical, resurrection-based waters. While it's hard not to
sound preachy in a story designed to do exactly that, Drummond, Lofthus
and the cast have nevertheless pulled together a spectacle which asks
some still pertinent questions about faith, humanity and the need for a
dissenting voice to rise up.

The Herald, April 21st 2014
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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Tectonics - Seismic Shifts

 As it's name suggests, the Tectonics festival that runs over a long May weekend in Glasgow taps into the seismic shifts that have occurred across the entire spectrum of experimental music over the last decade. Instigated by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's former Chief Conductor and current Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov, who is currently the Chief Conductor and Musical Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, alongside AC Projects' Alasdair Campbell, the man behind the Le Weekend and Counterflows festivals, this second edition of Tectonics pulls together some of the world's leading experimental composers alongside a younger generation of musical free-thinkers   from a world where rock, art and classical music collide.

“There are so many strands of music now, and I think it's great to have people from different backgrounds working like this,” Volkov says from Reykjavik, where the Icelandic arm of Tectonics has just opened. “We've been doing this sort of thing in Glasgow on and off for ten years now, and it's great to be able to call up a composer who's maybe not used to working with an orchestra, and then to present the work in an interesting way. Audiences don't want just one thing, and with tectonics can have a whole range of ideas coming at them.”

So while iconoclasts such as composer Christian Wolff will perform some of their most thrilling works, a series of BBC commissions will feature new pieces from the likes of plunderphonist John Oswald and American composer David Behrman. Former Sonic Youth guitarist and long-time musical explorer Thurston Moore, who recently performed in London with Yoko Ono, will appear at Tectonics twice. The first will find Moore play a late show with Dylan Nyoukis, one half of Noise duo Blood Stereo and founder of the Chocolate Monk imprint as well as the Brighton-based Colours Out of Space festival. Moore's second appearance will see him hook up with Japanese maestro, Takehisa Kosugi, one of the key figures of the Fluxus movement, whose treated violin-based works saw him collaborate with the late choreographer, Merce Cunningham.

While a two-way traffic between Iceland and Scotland is spear-headed by a performance from the Reykjavik-based composers collective, S.L.A.TU.R., there is much input input too from internationally renowned Scottish artists. The opening concert of Tectonics will feature maverick pianist and composer and his National Jazz Trio of Scotland collaborator, viola player Aby Vulliamy, working with the BBC SSO to present a new arrangement of his AC Projects commission, 'Summer Dreams'. With appearances by female collective Muscles of Joy, absurdist duo Usurper, veteran 'ambi-dustrial' outfit Cindytalk and a new musical installation by Sarah Kenchington inbetween, the festival's finale will feature the world premiere of 'Past Fragments of Distant Confrontation', the first ever orchestral work by composer, singer and performer, Richard Youngs.

“I've known Richard's music for a long time now,”says Volkov, “and I wanted to give him a chance to do something new. Scotland is really special just now, and it's easier to put this kind of thing on in Glasgow than it is in London. Suddenly there are less and less barriers, and this is happening all over.”

Tectonics takes place in the City Halls, Old Fruitmarket and St Andrew's In The Square, Glasgow, May 9th-11th.
www.tectonicsfestival.com

The List, April 2014
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Jordan Wolfson

McLellan Galleries, Glasgow until April 21st
Three stars
It's the soft-core gloss that sucks you in first in 'Raspberry Poser',
the fourteen-minute billboard-size video projection that forms the
heart of Jordan Wolfson's life and death fusion of high-end corporate
ad-land stylings and provocative animations. A CGI-generated HIV virus
bounces around the neighbourhood like an ever-pulsating nail-bomb,
multiplying in a regimented choreographic display that ricochets around
the chi-chi bathrooms and bedrooms of the privileged to a soundtrack of
Beyonce's 'Beautiful Nightmare'. As a flipside to this,  a condom full
of chocolate hearts seems to be serving up something sweeter, but
possibly more sickly.

A cartoon bad boy looking somewhere between Hanna-Barbera doing Dr
Seuss and Sergio Aragones reinventing Dennis The Menace for the
counter-cultural age asks the viewer if they think he's wealthy or gay,
then proceeds to throttle himself or else cut out his innards ad
nauseum. Wolfson himself is cast as a leather-jacketed punk fucking the
grass in a Paris park

There's a self-laceratingly playful and almost joyous nihilism pulsing
through all this that basks in its backdrop of urban regeneration even
as it fires off poison darts. Wolfson's own Orson Welles-like cameo
recalls vintage footage of doomed Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, crashing and
burning in public in a way that Wolfson is far too savvy to fall for.

The other pieces on show are smaller and more self-contained, but no
less full of attitude and spunk. The best work is the smallest, as, at
the end of the McLellan Galleries downstairs corridor, a 16mm black and
white silent film shows a dicky-bowed man saying  something or other in
sign language. Only when you realise the speech is the impassioned call
to arms from Charlie Chaplin's 1940 satire on Hitler's rise to power,
The Great Dictator, do Wolfson's provocations fully speak volumes.


The List, April 2014


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Gabriel Kuri – All Probability Resolves Into Form

The Common Guild, Glasgow until June 7th
Three stars
in case of emergency, natural disaster, nuclear fall-out or biblical
engulfment, Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri is probably a very good man to
have on your side. By stocking up on blankets, fire extinguishers,
boxes of matches, bottles of water and assorted toiletries, then
assembling them in assorted sculptural show-and-tells on
silver-blanketed pallets in the town-house corridors of The Common
Guild, Kuri takes a practical and possibly life-saving survival kit,
then reassembles it in a way that suggests it's an in-storage archive
with everything in its place and a place for everything, even as it
awaits a situation in which it can be used.

Downstairs, alongside the two pallet-based pieces, a row of metal
compartments containing folded up and piled up blankets resembles both
a charity shop and a call centre store-room, the array of unopened
goods on the stairs themselves seem to awaiting the cleaner to arrive.
Upstairs, a network of primary coloured round tables with rolled-up
sleeping bags inbetween gives the air of an adventure playground
sleepover in progress.

With a title that gives a nod to philosopher David Hume's 1738 'A
Treatise of Human Nature', which suggested that 'All knowledge resolves
itself into probability', Kuri's collection of six new constructions
puts nuts and bolts on hard theory by giving it a quietly political
twist. This is made clear in subtle ways by the seeming class divide
hinted at across the two floors. The show's function as a form of
activism will only be made explicit at the end of the show, however,
when the found materials on display find their true calling by being
donated  to the GLAD Action Network and the Unity Centre, Glasgow, two
all too real support centres for asylum seekers and migrants in
Scotland, making Kuri's ordered arrangement a life-saver on every
level.

The List, April 2014

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Friday, 18 April 2014

Brassed Off - Paul Allen and John McArdle on the Miners Strike

When Paul Allen's stage version of Brassed Off appeared in 1998, two years after Mark Herman's film about a small Yorkshire community's efforts to win a brass band competition was first released, the Miners Strike that formed the story's backdrop was still a fresh wound on Britain's landscape. Thirty years after a civil war which became a defining moment of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's calculated assault on trade unions, the play's current revival for a tour which arrives in Edinburgh next week is an all too fitting reminder of one of the late twentieth century's most inglorious eras.

The fact that Brassed Off makes its point about how an entire community can be decimated by enforced pit closures through both a romantic comedy and the unifying power of music is testament to the play's staying power. Yorkshire-born Allen, whose work in popular theatre has seen him forge close links with Alan Ayckbourn and the Scarborough-based Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, welcomes a second life for his play.

“You've now got a generation of both performers and audiences who have never seen a pit-head,” Allen says of some of the thinking behind a tour co-produced by the Touring Consortium, York Theatre Royal and Bolton Octagon. “I was walking along a beach in Wales with a friend, and they picked up a piece of coal, which is such a rare thing to see now, but which used to be something that was essential to our lives.

“If you go to Grimethorpe, which is where the film was made, all you see are roundabouts named after the pits that were closed down. Everything has been bulldozed flat, so there's no real evidence of the mines. Yet both the mines and the strike are such an important part of our history, so it's good to keep them alive somehow, and to keep the anger about what happened alive as well.”

In the film, the role of Danny, the band leader whose closing speech in the film is a damning indictment of the government forces behind the pit closures (and which was later sampled on Chumbawamba's 1997 hit single, Tubthumping), was played by the late Pete Postlethwaite. For this new production, the baton is picked up by John McArdle. As a fan of the film,which also starred Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald, he too recognises its populist power.

“Sue Johnston was in it,” McArdle says of his former fellow Brookside star, with whom he toured in Jim Cartwright's play, Two. “She played one of the wives, and I loved Pete Postlethwaite's performance, but playing it myself is like playing any of the great parts, in that you have to try and forget all the great actors who've done it, and bring something of yourself to it.

“With Danny, though, there's only so many ways you can do it, because he's a very driven character. All he wants is to get his band to the Royal Albert hall, but he knows he's dying, and he knows his community is being ripped apart, and that politicises him, whereas in the past he's been apolitical.”

McArdle's own politicisation came during his first exposure to theatre during his early twenties while training to be a plasterer in Northampton, where “I helped build Milton Keynes,” he jokes.

“7:84 brought a play to the college called The Fish in the Sea,” McArdle says of an early play by the late John McGrath, which was first seen in 1972 at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, the grassroots venue where Postlethwaite cut his early acting teeth, “and I also saw a company called Belt and Braces, so I was exposed to agit-prop theatre from very early on. Where agit-prop hit you over the head with its politics, something like Brassed Off takes a much subtler approach with it. Brassed Off tells the story of a family, and it's entertainment for the masses, but it becomes political, and, rather than preach to the converted, it gets its message across to people who might not normally be interested.”

When Brassed Off was first performed in Sheffield, where the first four performers featured a poignant appearance by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, it broke box office records, and quickly transferred to the National Theatre. Since then, and to Allen's astonishment, the play has become something of a staple for amateur dramatics groups.

“This has often been in places that have barely heard of Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher,” says a still bewildered Allen.

“The last time Allen visited Grimethorpe, as well as roundabouts, he noticed that a memorial to miners who had been killed down the pit had been erected near to the war memorial that had long been in place.

“There were a lot more names on the miners memorial than there were on the war memorial,” he says. “There's an anger and a rage in places like Grimethorpe that exists to this day about what was done to them. To have whole communities destroyed like that was absolutely gob-smacking.

“Thirty years on, I think back to 1975, which was thirty years after the Second World War, when war films were still very popular, although in terms of them being made they dropped off shortly after. What happened after the strike, was that, while agit-prop plays were being made at the time, there was a silence. Since then, partly down to writers like Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, which also came out of the strike, and partly down to a system whereby cabinet papers are released under the thirty year rule, so we can see exactly how determined Thatcher's government was to break the unions, that silence has been broken.

“There is a long history that's come out of the Miner's Strike, and some of that history is awful. In parts of Wales where the mines shut, there are now two generations who'll never work again, and nobody is helping these people. Whether things like that causes the plays I don't know, but it somehow seeps into the collective consciousness, and it's our job as writers to articulate that.”
Brassed Off, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 3



Mining For Gold – The Miners Strike on stage and screen

The Strike – In 1988, alternative comedy troupe The Comic Strip made their most famous film as part of Channel Four's The Comic Strip Presents... series. The film focused on a former miner and would-be screenwriter, whose personal account of the strike is picked up by Hollywood producers, who proceed to cast Al Pacino, played by Peter Richardson, as miners leader Arthur Scargill and Meryl Steep, as played by Jennifer Saunders, as his wife in a big budget action movie. This telling satire on how history can be warped on film also starred Robbie Coltrane and Alexei Sayle, and won numerous awards.

Billy Elliot – Like Brassed Off, the Lee Hall-scripted film about an eleven year old boy who wants to become a ballet dancer was set against a backdrop of the Miners Strike in Tyneside, with several scenes filmed at the Ellington and Lynemouth collieries in Northumberland. Released in 2000, Hall's tale of the transcending power of art made a star of Jamie Bell, and has gone on to become a hit stage musical.
 
The Battle of Orgreave – In 2001, artist Jeremy Deller staged a re-enactment of one of the Miners Strike's defining moments, when running battles in June 1984 between Yorkshire police and striking miners looked like civil war. Deller gathered together more than 1000 volunteers for the public event, which utilised historical re-enactment societies as well as former miners and policeman in a spectacle that was captured by film-maker Mike Figgis.
 
The Herald, April 18th 2014

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