Thursday, 31 July 2014

Grimm Tales

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
When a family is so poor  that they abandon their hungry children in
the forest, you know things have become pretty desperate. This isn't
some contemporary tale of austerity culture and food banks, however,
but is the Brothers Grimm's much loved story of Hansel and Gretel, as
told here by the Cardiff-based Theatre Iolo for the Tron's
Commonwealth-supported Home Nations Festival 2014.

One of two Grimm Tales first reimagined by poet laureate Carol Ann
Duffy and dramatised by Tim Supple in 1993, Iolo's take on them is as
dark as Duffy's writing is sharp. With a cast of five scampering their
way around a set of artfully arranged door and picture frames, Kevin
Lewis' production is underscored by live banjo and guitar playing that
adds to the moody intimacy of the show. Both stories are brutal, as is
made clear when Hansel and Gretel shoves the Witch into the fire before
pocketing all her precious wares and making a prodigal's return home to
their now widowed father. As ecstatic as he is to see his lost
children, their dear old dad should really watch his back.

Sibling rivalry abounds even more in Duffy's radical take on
Cinderella, the abused young woman who is gifted here with her original
German name of Ashputtel. Here, Ashputtel's suitor is a  punky,
leather-jacketed, guitar-playing Prince who she shimmies with all night
long. Like a pair of wannabe WAGS, Ashputtel's nasty step-sisters are
desperate enough to go under the knife to get their man. When the birds
peck out their eyes at Ashputtel's wedding, it's a viciously downbeat
ending to a family favourite that's been reinvented forever.

The Herald, July 29th 2014


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Edwin Morgan's Dreams & Other Nightmares

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
Liz Lochhead's impressionistic homage to Edwin Morgan, her friend,
fellow poet and predecessor as Scotland's Makar, first appeared in 2011
as part if that year's Glasgay! festival. Three years on, as the
centrepiece of the Tron's Commonwealth-supported Home Nations Festival
2014 of poetic drama, director Andy Arnold has put the life and work of
this major artist on a world stage.

It begins and ends with Morgan's Life Force personified as a dynamic
and fearless figure at odds with Morgan's quietly mischievous public
persona, before moving into the care home where he spent his final
years. Here Morgan holds court, unveiling his past to his Biographer in
a tumble of anecdote and dreams peopled by lovers and dangerous
liaisons in Glasgow parks after dark.

Drawn in part from Beyond The Last Dragon, James McGonigal's published
study of Morgan, Lochhead's play weaves together a touching but
unsentimental study of a complex and contrary figure, whose parallel
lives powered his poetry. One minute Morgan is on a bus sat next to a
man with tattooed knuckles who puts his hand on his knee, the next he's
watching absurd 1970s TV quiz show, The Golden Shot, with his long-term
partner.

Morgan's ever-shrinking physical presence, so sensitively captured by
David McKay, is counterpointed by the more bullish tendencies of
Morgan's assorted companions, played by Steven Duffy. It is Laurie
Ventry's Biographer, however, who anchors things. Given an all too rare
insight into the private life of a literary genius who continued to
push boundaries until his final days, the end result, both for him and
for Lochhead, is a labour of love to cherish.

The Herald, June 28th 2014


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Beowulf

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
Three darkly dressed women sit on benches in a crypt-like room at the
start of Lynne Parker's staging of Seamus Heaney's majestic version of
what is probably the best-known Old English epic narrative poem to
survive the centuries. With the trio's contemplations underscored by a
whispered chorale, the women could well be Shakespeare's Witches in
retreat, seeking sanctuary or enlightenment or else in mourning in the
gloom. The wooden pillars that flank them are shattered and exposed,
with little shards of debris frozen in mid-air as  if hanging from a
Fluxus-inspired peace tree.

When the women start talking, the tale they pass between them, of
Beowulf's heroic slaying of the monster, Grendel, and his even more
monstrous mother after she seeks revenge, is related calmly and without
rancour now the battle is over. While this basic story is simple
enough, it comes accompanied by a cast of characters as myriad as those
in Game of Thrones, which at times it superficially resembles.

Parker's production for the Tron's Commonwealth Games supported Home
Nations Festival 2014 may be subtitled A Dramatic Reading, but,
performed by Helen McAlpine, Lorraine McIntosh and Anita Vettesse with
exquisite flair, Heaney's rich and vivid text transcends mere
story-telling to become a thing of flashing, pulsating life. Every stab
of Beowulf's sword is conjured up by words alone, without unnecessary
recourse to literal gymnastics, but with a raging calm at its root.

While by no means explicitly anti-war, in the current climate one can't
help but think of what happens when real-life monsters invade small and
vulnerable countries. There too, it seems, it is the women who are left
to tell the bloodiest of tales.

The Herald, July 28th 2014


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Friday, 25 July 2014

Olwen Fouere - riverrun

Olwen Fouere had never read James Joyce's epic novel, Finnegan's Wake,
before she adapted it for riverrun, her Dublin Theatre Festival hit
which arrives at the Traverse Theatre for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe
run next week. Being where she's from, the maverick Irish actress and
director had of course dipped into what is often regarded as an
impenetrable text over the years. Only when she read the last page of
the book out loud to celebrate the Joyce-based Bloomsday festival while
on holiday with friends, however, did she have any notion to transform
it into a piece of theatre.

“It was really one of those moments,” she says now, “that the tongues
of fire descended, and  I felt this vibration around the room, and it
had this extraordinary communicative effect. I knew then that this
would be my next piece, the voice of the river. I started from the idea
that she from dissolved into the ocean, and worked backwards from
there.”

At one point Fouere planned to only perform the last ten pages of the
book, but then became fascinated by the journey of the river itself.

“It's said now that water can hold memory, which I think is a wonderful
idea,” she says. “It's all a little bit on the borders of science, but
they've done these experiments where they play these sounds in water,
and there's this idea that water can contain history, which I think is
very beautiful.”

Born on the west coast of Ireland to Breton parents, Fouere has
developed a fascinating body of work since she first moved into acting
in 1976.

“The 1970s in Ireland were a very low period,” she reflects, “and art
was the one thing that was like a doorway that opened up all sorts of
possibilities. I was drawn to art and medicine, and studied visual art
for a while, though not formally. When I started going to the theatre,
I thought I might go into it as a designer, but then ended up becoming
a performer.

“One of the most beautiful things about theatre is its ephemerality. As
a visual artist I don't think I would ever have been happy with what I
was creating. It would never be finished, whereas with theatre you have
to have the humility to accept that you've got as far as you can before
you let the audience in, and then you can continue it together, but
it's never complete.”

While she has acted with all of Ireland's major theatre companies,
including the Abbey and the Gate, as well as the Royal National Theatre
in the UK, Fouere has carved out a canon of her own work that fuses
image, text and sound. Having been exposed early on to work by the
likes of Robert Wilson, The Living Theatre, visiting avant-garde Polish
companies and the young Laurie Anderson, Fouere developed a
cross-disciplinary approach that began with Operating Theatre, the
company she co-founded with composer Roger Doyle in 1980. Over the
twenty-eight years of the company's existence, Fouere created and
performed in stage and installation based work drawn from sources such
as Antonin Artaud and Sebastian Barry.

Running parallel with this, Fouere took the title role in Steven
Berkoff's take on Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1988, and worked extensively
with directors Michael Bogdanov and Patrick Mason. For Mason she
appeared in Tom Murphy's The Wake at Edinburgh International Festival,
where she also worked for Calixto Bieito in Jo Clifford's version of
Calderon de la Barca's Life Is A Dream. Fouere toured the world in Mark
O'Rowe's play, Terminus, and has just finished a science-fiction film
set for release next year.

“I've always had two streams to my work,” she says, “and that's because
I started in the theatre without really knowing at the start of the
journey I was on which way to go. Then I started to be offered a lot of
mainstream work, and  thought I would have to decide, but I've been
really lucky being able to straddle both streams, because they inform
each other and nourish each other. It's about learning to balance
things, but I feel now that those two worlds are coming together a lot
more.”

Fouere's latest platform is TheEmergencyRoom, which, as well as being
the logical step on from Operating Theatre, also implies a sense of
urgency about creating a space for what she defines as “work needing
immediate attention. It's work that I felt needs to be done, even if it
doesn't necessarily have any form of support system other than what I
can give it.”

This is certainly the case with riverrun, in which life and art come
together as one.

“I've always had an exploratory nature,” says Fouere, “which is tied up
with nature itself and spirituality, so I suppose what I do is kind of
a search, but it's also a no choice kind of search. Art is kind of like
love, a love you believe in, and which kind of pulls you towards it,
and it's up to you whether you follow it or not. It's more than just a
want. It's like with riverrun. It's saying for us to wake up, and in
that way I hope audiences leave the theatre with a sensation that they
can't put aside.”

riverrun, Traverse Theatre, July 29-Aug 24, various times.
www.traverse.co.uk

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Olwen Fouere -  A life in performance.

Fouere was born on the west coast of Ireland to Breton parents.

After being drawn to both the visual arts and the stage, she began
acting in 1976.

In 1980, Fouere co-founded Operating Theatre with composer Roger Doyle.

Fouere went on to work with the Abbey, the Gate, the Royal National
Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Fouere created the title role in Steven Berkoff's version of Salome,
was directed by Tom Murphy in his play, Bailegangaire, and appeared in
plays by Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Works with Operating Theatre include The Diamond Body (1984-1987), The
Pentagonal Dream (1986), Angel/Babel (1999) and Here Lies (2005-2007).

Fouere has won numerous best actress awards, has contributed to several
theatre journals, has acted opposite Sean Penn on film and appeared on
television in Ballykissangel.

A documentary film, Theatre in the Flesh, charted a year in Fouere's
life, and was shown on RTE in 2005.

In 2011, Fouere toured the world with the Abbey Theatre in two plays
written and directed by Mark O' Rowe, Terminus and The Broken Heart.

Other recent stage credits include Gerald Barry's opera of The
Importance of Being earnest, Maria de la Buenos Aires at Cork Opera
House, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka with Fabulous Beast Dance
Theatre at Sadler's Wells and Fouere's own translation of Laurent
Garde's Sodome, my love in a co-production between Rough Magic and
Fouere's own TheEmergencyRoom.

riverrun was first seen at Galway Arts Festival, who are co-producers
of the show with Cusack Projects Limited and TheEmergencyRoom.

The Herald, July 25th 2014


ends

Passing Places

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars
The giant map of Scotland tilted centre-stage above the audience at the
start of Richard Baron's timely revival of Stephen Greenhorn's road
movie for the stage not only shows off some of the country's
lesser-travelled pastures as the play travels from Motherwell to
Thurso. It also puts a roof on an entire world, with designer Adrian
Rees' wooden construction below doubling up as sports shop, Traveller
camp, ceilidh hall and ferry.

In and out of this weave Alex and Brian, a pair of small-town boys who
go on the run and on the road with a surfboard beloved by Alex's
psychopathic boss, Binks. With Alex as overheated as the Lada that
belongs to Brian's brother, and Brian trying to get beyond the
guide-book clich├ęs, the pair hook up with assorted free-spirits who
take them out of their comfort zone en route to somewhere else, all the
while with Binks in hot pursuit. The end result is one of the most
significant pieces of post-modern populism and end of the century
enlightenment to have roared out of our own back yard.

Baron navigates his cast lovingly throughout, with Derek McGhie as Alex
and Keith McLeish as Brian capturing their characters full Yin and Yang
mix of frustration, fear and born-again yearning. Romana Abercromby's
Mirren is  the female foil to their Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty,
bridging both in a play as steeped in pop culture as it is full of big,
philosophical meditations on identity and a quest for something real.
Only Alan Steele's Binks clings to the imaginary in a poignant and
irresistibly funny look at what can happen when you run away from home.

The Herald, July 25th 2014


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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Siddhartha - The Musical - Inside Milan's Maximum Security Prison

In a downtown restaurant in Milan, a group of actors are celebrating
the first performance of their new show. As one might expect for a
musical version of Herman Hesse's Buddhist novel, Siddhartha, the cast
for what is an an unashamedly commercial mix of Bollywood and pop video
theatrics are young, beautiful and bursting with post-show energy.

Earlier that evening, the young stars gave a dynamic performance of
Siddhartha – The Musical at a huge theatre complex in front of an
invited audience of friends, family and assorted co-producers of the
show, including representatives of the New York-based Broadway Asia
International. Such serious interest in the play bodes well for
Siddhartha – The Musical's Edinburgh showcase, which opens at the end
of the month as part of the Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe
programme, putting an international spotlight on something which has
already wowed audiences in Italy and beyond.

Overseeing the post-show festivities with equal measures of ebullience
are writer/director Isabella Biffi and producer Gloria Grace Alanis.
Biffi is an Italian musical star, Alanis a Mexican ex model who settled
in Italy. With successful careers under their belt, somewhere along the
way the two women bonded over Buddhism. Together they are a force of
nature, and take Siddhartha – The Musical very seriously indeed.

“It is the message of the performance that is important,” Alanis
translates for Biffi in excitably broken English. “Whatever happens to
you in the world, love and peace are the important things.”

These might sound like lofty ambitions for a commercial musical, but,
as Biffi nods in rapid agreement across the dinner table as the pair
flash the widest of smiles, you get the sense that there really is
something deeper at play here.

The next morning in L'Opera Prison is as far away from the glamour of
the night before as one can imagine. It is here, however, among the
1400 inmates of one of the biggest maximum security prisons in Europe,
where Siddhartha – The Musical began. Ushered into a large, if somewhat
more makeshift theatre space than the lavish arena the play was
performed in the night before, we're greeted by seven inmates, who
perform several scenes from Siddhartha for us.

What we see may be rougher in terms of physical technique, but in terms
of spirit, determination and rough-hewn athleticism, the L'Opera
performance adds a new resonance and depth to a show which is
effectively about one man's quest for self-knowledge as he goes about
the world. In this respect, this version of Siddhartha – The Musical is
theatre at its purest.

When the performers sit lined up across the stage to talk to us, it's
hard to equate these focused, beatific and near evangelical-sounding
men with the crimes they have committed. Given that 1300 of the 1400
prisoners confined in L'Opera are serving life sentences, those crimes
must be very serious indeed. Yet, when the men talk, while there's a
certain understandable swagger to their bearing which isn't that far
removed from the professional actors letting off steam the night
before, they sound transformed. As well they might.

Siddhartha – The Musical was developed by Biffi with the prisoners as
part of an ongoing theatre programme that has presented a series of
shows over the last seven years. With many of the men being involved in
the project from the start, you get the sense that Siddhartha has been
the pinnacle of their achievements thus far.

Many of these former hardened criminals have clearly softened over the
years, and some have themselves become Buddhists. It was the prisoners
too who suggested to Biffi and Alanis that they take the show out into
the world in a way that they will never be able to perform it.

“Before we did these workshops,” says one man who we've just watched
play the Narrator as if his life depended on it, “a lot of therapists
came in, but we are lifers for a reason, and they couldn't get through.
But the workshops opened my heart.”

In the clamour to talk to a rare audience not made up of fellow
prisoners, the same message, again translated by Alanis, comes over
again and again.

“Before,” says a younger inmate, “I was a bad boy, but when I joined
the workshops I became another person. I'm still a boy,” he laughs,
“but I'm a good boy now.”

This is the message Biffi and Alanis were so keen to explain the night
before. As one of the prison performers puts it, “We want to give the
message to the world that everyone can have a second opportunity. When
I get out of prison, I don't want to be seen as a prisoner anymore. I
want to become a good citizen, and do something of value.”

The nearest comparison with such a set-up is with Barlinnie, the
Glasgow prison that set up a radical art-based rehabilitation programme
in the 1970s. That scheme transformed convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle
into an artist and became something of a cause celebre before being
quietly wound down. In Milan, however, under Biffi and Alanis'
guidance, the message of Siddhartha – The Musical looks set to go on.

Future plans include touring the show to twenty-eight prisons in
Europe. A docudrama is also being planned to tell the story of how
taking part in the prison theatre project changed the men's lives as a
group.

How any of this will translate to audiences watching the professional
staging of Siddhartha – The Musical in the hurly burly of Edinburgh in
August remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it has arguably already
achieved its goal.

“We are so grateful to have been part of this community,” says the
inmate who plays the Narrator in the L'Opera prison version. “We're
aware that we've done bad things in the past, but now we are a part of
this, we can enjoy a new life.”

Siddhartha – The Musical, Assembly Rooms, July 31-Aug 24, 6.10-7.20pm
www.siddharthathemusical.co.uk
www.arfringe.com

The Herald, July 22nd 2014




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Monday, 21 July 2014

Under Milk Wood

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

As with all the best soap operas, it's fitting that the pub should be at the centre of Gareth Nicholls' staging of Dylan Thomas' seminal radio play concerning the bustle of life in a day in the imaginary hamlet of Llareggub. Presented as part of the Tron's Home Nations Festival of poetic drama that forms part of the Commonwealth Games' arts programme, Nicholls takes full advantage of the Tron Community Company's resources to put quaking flesh on the rich bones of Thomas' big, rambunctious symphony of inner yearning, shattered dreams and hidden hopes that the play evolves into.

With the narrator's lines split three ways between the bar staff of Charlotte Lane's wood-lined howf, the rest of the townsfolk either prop up the bar or else sit in repose at a floor of tables until they spring into life to lay bare their hearts desires. At one point in what at times looks and sounds like the physical evocation of a saucy seaside postcard, the entire sixteen-strong ensemble get on their feet for the sort of dance routine that only ever fully lets rip in an after-hours lock-in situation.

The musicality of the piece is accentuated even further here by a new chamber pop score by Michael John McCarthy, and performed live by a guitar, bass and percussion trio who provide a sublime set of arrangements for the songs of the ever fertile Polly Garter. These are sung with clarity and grace by Jacqueline Thain as Polly in a version of the play that grabs lustily at its libido-driven heart that pulses an entire community in all its topsy-turvy glory.

The Herald, July 21st 2014

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