Thursday, 16 April 2015

Mother of All the Peoples

Dundee Rep
Three stars

In a city built on its heroines, there are few more towering than Mary Slessor, the Dundee sired mill girl who in the nineteenth century followed in the footsteps of David Livingstone and spent almost four decades as a missionary in Africa. Mike Gibbs' play was inspired by Elizabeth Robertson's biography of the play's subject, The Barefoot Missionary, and faithfully dramatises Slessor's colourful life beyond it.

The play is introduced by the older Mary emerging from a large grass hut on one side of the stage to narrate her back pages, which are duly played out on the other half. Here we find Mary's younger self, a precocious auto-didact raised in the slums by a mother who every Saturday night faced the back of her husband's hand. Burying herself in books, Mary embarks on a real life adventure that will take her to the other side of the world, where things don't always go according to plan. Witch doctors, suspicious natives, visiting do-gooders and even her very own toy boy enter Mary's sphere, and if she can't take the heat, then she'll slip off her shoes and hold court in her petticoats.

Produced on home turf by the Mary Slessor Foundation, and with all funds raised pooled into supporting the Foundation's ongoing work in Nigeria, there is much wit to be found in Gibbs' text. This is accentuated even more by his local all female cast, who play to an audience clearly already familiar with the material enough to sing along with Mairi Warren's music, played on piano by Euan Gow in a stately homage to one of Dundee's finest.
 
The Herald, April 17th 2015
 
ends

Maripol, Clare Stephenson and Zoe Williams – Spring / Summer 2015

Dundee Contemporary Arts until June 21st.
Four stars

After a succession of impressively immersive shows that have felt at times like being in assorted night-club chill-out rooms, the DCA comes blinking into the (neon) light for this triple-headed glamour chase spear-headed by the French Polaroid auteur, designer, stylist to art's original stars and sometime chanteuse, Maripol. In a collection that looks part boutique, part 1980s in-crowd affair which has only just been in full swing before everyone rushed off to the latest joint, Maripol's verite images are the stuff of a thousand private views, and her work really shouldn't be witnessed unless set to a sound-track of uber-cool loft-friendly avant-disco.

As it is, Maripol's own musical contribution to the show, a song recorded with Leonard Lasry called 'Love Each Other', can only be heard on headphones pitched next to a glass case containing 'EACH x OTHER' (2015), a calendar box etched with a series of epigrams that mark the seasons of desire. While commercial enough to be able to grace Eurovision if required, the song is nothing compared to the case it nestles next to containing assorted vinyl discs by Madonna, the street-smart icon who Maripol styled with assorted crucifixes, chains and an abundance of multi-coloured wrist bands of the ilk that would go on to keep Accessorize in business ever after.

By this time we've already sashayed past a clothes rail of Maripol's other creations, including shirts patterned with collaged reproductions of her Polaroid portraits, a leather jacket hung from the ceiling and a pair of equally Polaroided up high heels, caged, as with other accoutrements, in cake shop style domed display cases.

Sartorially speaking, then, Maripol was to New York's loft-dwelling Downtown No Wave scene what Vivienne Westwood was to London's punky, spunky King's Road, providing the Look to a mould-breaking DIY culture even as she led it somewhere more attention-seekingly aspirational. This is clear from the array of coffee table books showcasing her back pages laid out as self-mythologising reference points. And yes, that retro-future op-art image of Blondie on the cover of Debbie Harry and co's third album was set up by her.

It is the pictures on the wall, however, that speak volumes about how that culture panned out. While half the fun is spotting the famous faces – oh, look, there's Debbie, Madge and Grace, who together are actually three very different graces of female pop cool; and there's Keith, Jean Michel and Andy, inevitable, ubiquitous Andy. And of course, in among the superstars there are self-portraits too, and in a way Maripol's entire back catalogue is one big jumbled-up remodelling of herself and others

Yet for all the celebrity teeth and smiles on display, it's the less familiar visages in the simple slide-show in the gallery's back corner room that prove even more intriguingly enticing. Here in the shadows and out of the spotlight are all those all-dressed-up one-night-stands, striking a blink-and-you'll-miss-it pose during fleetingly blurry moments in crowded rooms where they're immortalised in after-hours snapshots that ooze fresh stains of colour as disposable as Xerox.

In what now looks like an archaic pre-selfie 1980s age, this was the sign of the times, a zeitgeisty trash aesthetic that ran parallel with and defined early editions of ID magazine, originally a non-glossy zine which suggested you too could join the fashion parade. Such a deceptively throwaway approach is confirmed before you even step into Maripol's world, where outside the gallery the sparkly letters headlining the show change hue as you walk past en route to the next big thing.

In this context, the latter comes in the form of Stephenson and Williamson's contributions to the show. Because rather than being added to the bill as hangers on, Stephenson's permanently drying out bikinis and giant cocktails set alongside but separate from Williams' synched-up video pieces awash with slo-mo dancers, perfume bottles and scarlet-painted nails are as crucial as they are complimentary. While it may appear as if the young set have been ushered in to do their own growing up in public, both artists are far from ingénues at their coming out ball. Stephenson and Williams are already the next new wave, bringing substance as well as style to a place where the art of parties is brought so vividly to life.
 
The List, April 2015

ends

The Woman in Black

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Have no fear. It may be only a week before the DVD and Blu-Ray release of what by many accounts is a below par sequel to Hammer's big-screen take on Susan Hill's 1983 gothic novel, but audiences may prefer instead to remain faithful to Robin Herford's production of Stephen Mallatratt's evergreen stage version. Touring for the umpteenth time in parallel with the show's ongoing West End run which began a quarter of a century ago, one of the spine-tingling joys of the piece is just how much Mallatratt and Herford strip things back to a form of poor theatre now being revisited by a multitude of DIY fringe troupes.

Only a dressing up box, a couple of chairs and a gauze draping the back of the stage are in evidence as the uptight Arthur Kipps attempts to bring to life the story which has haunted him for decades. Having hired a dashing young actor to play his younger self, Kipps plays all the other parts as his other half takes up residence in a dilapidated old house where the ghost of a tortured young woman is in residence.

The audience are lulled into a false sense of security before actors Malcolm James as Kipps and Matt Connor's Actor become party to an at times genuinely terrifying box of tricks, with light, shade and scarifying volume in abundance. As thrilling as this remains, beyond the cries and screams, there's something here too about the warped nature of Victorian values and the misery they caused in the name of deluded morality. The last face witnessed onstage suggests they are values that linger still.
 
The Herald, April 16th 2015

ends

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Peter Pal Pelbart - Ueinzz Theatre Company

When a patient in the A Casa psychiatric day clinic in Sao Paolo in Brazil suggested that residents form a theatre group, the proposal was to do 'real' theatre, and not theatre 'by loonies for loonies'. With A Casa's backing, the patients brought in professional theatre directors, who treated them, not like patients, but as they would any other actors with such singular ways of walking, talking and expressing themselves.

Nineteen years on, and Ueinzz Theatre Company are an internationally renowned group who operate in very different ways to more conventionally sired companies, as their arrival in Glasgow this week as part of the Arika organisation's latest episode of artistic inquiry, the tellingly named We Can't Live Without Our Lives.

“The group is very excited,” says Peter Pal Pelbart, the philosopher and essayist who has also been a member of Ueinzz since the group's inception, and will take part in a workshop, open rehearsal and performance of Ueinzz's latest show, No Ready Made Men. “Every trip for us is a huge adventure. As well as the prospect of experiencing another country, another language and another audience, sometime this distance provokes strange and let's say funny questions, like should someone bring some water with them, as if we were going to the moon. In their heads as well a lot of the group are already there before they make the trip, so it becomes one of many trips.”

This gives a hint of the aesthetic the company named by one of the original patients and pronounced 'Waynz' have developed over the last two decades, and which can make for an unpredictable experience. Pelbart highlighted this in a lecture he gave in 2011 called Inhuman Polyphony in the Theatre of Madness, and which went on to form part of his book, Cartography of Exhaustion.

In the lecture, given in Berlin, Pelbart relates how, two minutes before a performance was due to begin, one of the cast announced that he wouldn't be taking part in the play as it was the night of his death. In the end, the company member did go on, only to walk across the stage and leave the theatre in full view of the audience. When they came out, they found the performer sitting on the pavement, where Pelbart, who had been playing Hades, king of the underworld, had found him demanding an ambulance as his time had come. In the end he accepted a cheeseburger, but not before many of the departing audience had presumed the exchange to be a pre-arranged stunt that formed part of the show.

“Every performance we do is new,” Pelbart explains. “There are structures in place, but at the same time, many new things happen in performances that we can't predict, whether they are silences, speeches or eruptions.”

Since forming, Ueinzz have met once a week every Wednesday. This was initially under the guidance of directors Sergio Penna and Renato Cohen, who, with nods to influences including Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, Joseph Beuys and Samuel Beckett, co-ordinated a long term exploration of James Joyce's novel, Finnegans Wake. Following Cohen's death, the company worked with another director, Cassio Santiago, but now operate without any outside figure.

“We are a theatre group that has complete freedom,” says Pelbart. “We are not famous. We are singular, and that singular life can help us propose things together in a collective atmosphere. There is a lot of power and possibilities within that, so we've created a way of common life and common work, and we've also created a special way of taking care of one another and being able to recognise the fragilities and collapses of each other.

“There is no such thing as those who suffer and those who don't. Everyone has their moments, so we have a way of taking care, not in a paternalistic way, but in a collective way, and rather than exclude them, we put that into the performances. We're not just a theatre group. It's a way of being.”
Arika's Episode 7 takes place at Tramway, Glasgow, April 15-19. Ueinzz Crossings Workshop, April 17, 12 noon-2pm (free, booking required); All Fictions Are Biographical – Ueinzz Context Conversation, April 17, 7.30pm; No Ready Made Men – Open Rehearsal, April 18, 2.30pm; No Ready Made Men – Performance, April 19, 2.30pm. Peter Pal Pelbart will be in conversation in Cartography of Exhaustion, April 19, 7.30pm.
www.arika.org.uk
 
The Herald, April 14th 2015

ends

Robin Herford - The Woman in Black

When Stephen Mallatratt's stage version of Susan Hill's gothic horror novel, The Woman in Black, arrives in Edinburgh this week en route to Glasgow as part of the show's latest tour, Robin Herford's production marks a twenty-five year West End run second only to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap in terms of longevity.

“It's quite bizarre,” says Herford, who has been with the show from the start, ever since he commissioned Mallatratt to write it while running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. “Normally a show only goes out on tour once its finished its run in the West End, but because the Fortune where we are in London is such a tiny theatre with only four hundred seats, this is the sort of thing that we can continue to take on.”

The play itself opens with an old man called Arthur Kipps alone in a Victorian theatre, where he is joined by a young actor he has hired to help perform events that have haunted him for decades. Over the next two hours we enter Kipps' world in Eel Marsh House, where as a young lawyer he first encountered the mysterious Woman in Black.

“We were in two other theatres in the West End before we moved into the Fortune,” Herford says, “which is where we always wanted to be because it's so diddy, but touring it is really interesting as well, because the set is the theatre, and the play has this bizarre ability to expand or contract depending on the size of the theatre.”

The stage version of The Woman in Black was born out of what Herford calls “Yorkshire meanness” when it was pointed out to him that there was a surplus left over from the Stephen Joseph Theatre's public funding which he was advised to spend lest it get taken back.

“We thought we'd do an extra show in the bar,” Herford recalls, “and I asked Stephen to write me a ghost story for Christmas. We had enough money for four actors, and he suggested The Woman in Black, so I read the novel overnight but thought there were too many characters, and he said he had an idea to solve it, and came back with the play as we ended up doing it.”

Playing to audiences of seventy, The Woman in Black sold out its initial 1987 run, after which Herford and Mallatratt, who passed away in 2004, spent a year trying to mount a London production before it eventually opened at the Lyric Hammersmith, leading to its initial West End transfer.

“If we'd had lots of money for a cast of twelve, I'm sure we could've still done a good job,” says Herford, “but I doubt very much it would still be running today."

To keep things fresh, Herford brings in a brand new cast every nine months, overseeing rehearsals each time himself.

“There are times I feel a little hung round the neck,” he says, “and wonder if I can do it again, and if the show wasn't a two-hander I don't think I could. If there were six people in the cast, say, and I was bound by the moves that would dictate, I couldn't do it, but because there are only two people on a stage you can do anything you like, and I do encourage actors to take ownership of the thing.

“There are an incredibly different amount of ways it can be done, and because the only actor plays so many different characters, you can trust the actor's imagination and let them do what they do, and you can see that in all the actors who've played that part, whether it's Edward Petherbridge or Frank Finlay and so on.

“As a director as well it's taught be a huge lesson about not being perverse, and not doing Three Sisters set in a Chinese launderette or something like that. Just do the play and let the actors involved play it.”

One of the most striking things about The Woman in Black is how relatively lo-tech it is. Rather than rely on state of art technology to scare its audience as other commercial fare might, Herford's production looks to a bag of tricks recently rediscovered by a new generation of theatrical ingénues, whose lo-fi wares presented at venues such as Battersea Arts Centre and the Forest Fringe are considered infinitely more cutting edge.

“They're very old tricks,” Herford laughs. “I sort of get embarrassed when I say that what we're doing is theatrical magic, but stretching a gauze across a stage with a face behind it, it's not rocket science.”

In 2012, a film of The Woman in Black was produced by Hammer, the film company responsible for many of Britain's classic horror film from the 1960s and 1970s. Featuring former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps, the film was scripted by screen-writer Jane Goldman, whose husband Jonathan Ross had been long identified as a fan of the play.

“I remember Jonathan Ross seeing it at the Fortune and going on about it on his radio show,” says Herford, “so there was an obvious enthusiasm for it in the family. The difference is that they've obviously gone back to the book, although they've changed that as well, and I'm not sure why, but that's their take on it, and pound for pound there are a lot of frightening moments there. But the film's done us no harm at all, and the year it came out was probably our busiest, and we still get letters to Daniel Radcliffe sent to the stage door.”

A sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, was produced by Hammer two years later. The film stars Phoebe Fox, the daughter of actor Stuart Fox, who in a spooky piece of synchronicity, appeared in the stage version of The Woman in Black in London.

The show isn't just a UK-based phenomenon, however, and there have been productions of The Woman in Black in India, Hong Kong and New Zealand, while inbetween overseeing numerous other projects, Herford will shortly visit Japan to direct a Japanese language version.

“It shows no sign of slowing down at the moment,” says Herford. “That's theatre. It's not something you can hold in your hand. Everyone likes being told a story, and everyone responds to a human story. If you get nothing else from the slightly disjointed opening scene, it's that this older man is in trouble and in pain, and his idea of reading the story, with this younger man providing all the energy to make it happen, is the only thing that can help him. After that, we all want to know what happened, and if you stick it out until the interval, you're definitely going to want to know what happens next.”

The Woman in Black, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14-18; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 20-25.

 
The Herald, April 14th 2015

ends

Monday, 13 April 2015

Suzanne Andrade - 1927, Golem, The Magic Flute and Beyond

When the 1927 company won a Herald Angel in 2007 for their debut show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, its spooky mix of cut-glass spoken-word vignettes, pasty-faced vintage-styled cabaret and atmosphere-soaked animation was one of the major hits of that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Eight years on, the company co-founded in 2005 by writer, director and performer Suzanne Andrade with animator and illustrator Paul Barritt look set to return to Edinburgh this August. Rather than appear on the Fringe, however, the company will form part of Fergus Linehan's inaugural programme as director of Edinburgh International Festival with their collaboration with Australian enfant terrible Barrie Kosky on a version of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

This week, however sees 1927 transfer their most recent show, Golem, to the West End following a successful outing at the Young Vic, who co-produced the show with the Salzburg Festival and Theatre de la Ville in Paris.

Based on the Jewish legend of of a being made out of clay who was brought to life, Golem has clear resonances for a company such as 1927 whose use of animation is central to their aesthetic.

“Paul and I read Gustav Meyrink's novel, Der Golem,” Andrade explains on a break from rehearsals for the show, “and thought that this image of a man who makes this other man out of clay was something that might be fun for 1927 to explore. We knew we were going to do it as a show one day, but we didn't know when.

“Then after we did The Animals and Children, I started looking closely at the original Jewish myth, and at the same time I began reading a lot about artificial intelligence and cloning, and looked at my friends and how we're all becoming dependent on technology. Out of that I started thinking about these ideas about control, and about how, with mobile phones and computers, you think you're in control, but you're very subtly being controlled by your own Golem.”

While Andrade started writing a series of monologues for what would become Golem, it was only when 1927 were on tour in America that the show's other facets started to fall into place.

“There was this insane street,” says Andrade, “that was full of these old vaudeville theatres and lots of homeless people, and we took lots of pictures, and Paul started drawing that world. We knew that we had to set the piece in a city where there as no anarchy or chaos, but where it was completely controlled.

“Technology is pervasive in ways we now take for granted, and I spend my life trying to resist it. I don't have an iphone and I don't use Apple, and sometimes my friends look at me and go, Aww, why is she making her life more difficult, but I think we need to question whether technology has to be so pervasive, and just now and then try and take a step back from it.”

For all the company's retro stylings, given the extent to which 1927's own work relies on technology there's an irony to Golem's preoccupations which Andrade remains fully aware of.

“We're completely dependent on technology,” Andrade happily admits. “the technical aspects of 1927's work are just as important as the music and the performances, but Paul is an illustrator, not an animator, and the language that comes out of his mouth when he has to try and deal with new technology is choice to say the least. We're constantly trying to make our work look old and knackered, and digital is a dirty word.”

This was something a party of Americans couldn't quite get their heads round when they saw the show during its initial run in 2014 at the Young Vic.

“They got really confused,” says Andrade, “and kept talking about how the medium was the message. They couldn't get the idea that you could use technology to say something about that technology. So it's an interesting dilemma. When we first did between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea we ran it off an old laptop and an old DVD player, but with the shows we do now we can't do that anymore, but rather than making a big leap it feels like a natural progression.”

1927 were formed after Barritt heard Andrade on BBC Radio 3's much missed late-night showcase of left-field music, Mixing It. Andrade was performing spoken-word pieces that would go on to form the basis of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and Barritt contacted her to find out where he could buy them on CD.

The subsequent success of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea saw the company tour extensively, taking in dates at the Arches in Glasgow before following up with the more expansive The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. That show appeared for one night only at the Manipulate festival of visual-based theatre at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and went on to tour internationally.

The Magic Flute was first seen in 2012 at the Komische Opera, Berlin, where Kosky is artistic director. While Andrade and co have undoubtedly put 1927's stamp on the story, it remains the only piece the company haven't devised from scratch.

“It's probably the most camp show we've done,” says Andrade, “but it's still The Magic Flute. It's been challenging in all sorts of ways, and already having the music and story helps, but nothing's ever as challenging as devising your own works. The Magic Flute is something I hope everyone from eight to eighty year olds can enjoy.”

Prior to Golem, 1927 presented The Krazy Kat Projekt, a staged music and animation show based on George Herriman's anarchic comic strip, Krazy Kat, and which used music by iconoclastic composer Harry Partch and others.

Following Golem's West End run and the EIF dates for The Magic Flute, where 1927 go next is something Andrade remains philosophical about.

“We're just rolling along the same as we ever did,” she says. “We still have the same core team, but we're at the stage where we're thinking what to do next. Do we do big shows on the one hand, and then do smaller experimental works as well? Doing more politically motivated work is important as well, and work with a community aspect to it as well.

“It's great performing to an opera crowd, but it's not the same as doing Stratford Circus in front of an audience of teenagers. So I guess we've got to try and not disappear up our own bums.”

Golem, Trafalgar Studios, London, April 14-May 22. The Magic Flute, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 27-30.


The Herald, April 13th 2015

ends

Titus Andronicus

Dundee Rep
Four stars

The knives and pretty much everything else are out in this radical reboot of what is probably Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, in which a Roman general returns home to a leaderless state, only to have his human trophy Tamora, Queen of the Goths, take control as she marries into royalty and ushers in an increasingly pointless series of tit for tat killings. In outgoing Dundee Rep director Philip Howard's version, brought stunningly to life by director and designer Stewart Laing, 'Rome' becomes the sort of voguish open-plan restaurant beloved of European cities and fans of urban regeneration.

Into this environment, built magnificently into Dundee Rep's rarely used Bonar Hall space, the audience become the hungry diners sat at long wooden tables witnessing a political system in meltdown as a portraits of former demagogues line the wall. As assorted kitchen staff from all factions neck shots and dance on tables to JD Twitch's pumping techno soundtrack, at first what looks looks like after-hours fun for minimum wage slaves gets seriously out of hand. As Tamora's sons rape Titus' daughter Lavinia, hands are chopped off, tongues cut out and corpses piled into a wheelie bin along with the bin bags and empty bottles in a way that suggests that's just for starters.

Co-produced by Dundee Rep Ensemble and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Howard and Laing's version puts some of the play's goriest excesses on film, beamed onto the wall like mobile phone shot snuff movies shared on YouTube. In the title role, George Anton thunders with wounded pride as a largely young cast rage with fury as the body-count rises in a brilliantly brutal display. When in Rome indeed.

The Herald, April 13th 2015
 
ends