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Posts Tagged ‘National Theatre of Scotland’

Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

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When I saw, and loved, this National Theatre of Scotland show at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh fringe two years ago, I would never have predicted I’d be seeing it in a West End theatre; it might be the most unlikely transfer ever. If anything, Lee Hall’s anarchic play with music is better second time around.

Our Ladies are the choir of a catholic school of the same name, from a back-of-beyond part of Scotland, who go to Edinburgh for a singing competition which turns into a bender of epic proportions, involving copious amounts of alcohol, underage sex and a riot of fun. The individual stories of the six girls are interwoven with the illicit hedonistic pleasures of the group.

It starts with some heavenly a cappella choral singing before they burst into the songs of ELO accompanied by an excellent three-piece band; ladies, obviously. These continue throughout, with choral pieces returning occasionally. It’s raucous, anarchic, rude and funny, yet the personal coming of age stories are often very moving and you get to empathise with and love these girls. The accents are sometimes impenetrable, which somehow adds to the authenticity. The six actresses, who appear to be the original cast, are all terrific, maturing in their roles.

It might be an unlikely West End hit, but it’s a breath of fresh air and I was so pleased I returned to see it again. A great curtain-raiser for my return to Edfringe on Friday.

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I missed last year and curtailed the year before, so this is my first full week in Edinburgh for three years, which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It seemed like a vintage year, with an extraordinarily high 70% hit rate of great shows and only two bummers out of 26.

The seemingly insatiable supply of monologues continued, with seven of the 13 plays falling into this category. Despite my ambivalence, even dislike, of them, there were some real crackers, led by Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia in Splott, an extraordinary take on Greek Tragedy with a stunning performance by Sophie Melville. Canadian genius Robert Lepage was back with another of his imaginative, innovative solo shows, this time 887 blended memories of his youth with material about memory itself. Comedian Mark Steel‘s show was, like Mark Thomas’ wonderful Bravo Figaro a few years back, a biographical story – in this case how he found out about his real parents. It was moving, poignant and very very funny. The fourth 5-star show was another flight of imagination, this time The Anomotion Show with percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing in the 17th century courtyard of George Heriot School whilst the live painting of Maria Rud was projected onto its walls. Brilliant. The final day produced not one but two gems, starting with Duncan McMillan’s extraordinarily engaging and captivating one-man play about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahue, which I’ve been trying to catch for some time. Our one and only opera ended the trip with the most inventive and original Die Zauberflote from Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with our own theatre genius’ 1927. Animation, performance and music in complete harmony.

The Traverse continued its trailblazing, hosting the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a rude and hugely funny play with music that followed convent school girls on a school outing (bender) to a singing competition in Edinburgh, with six very talented young actresses and a female band, directed and designed by women! and Vanishing Point’s outstanding, creative take on dementia, Tomorrow. They also hosted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s latest unsettling piece, A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed and imitated before observing myself, and leaving with a DVD of my experience! Their other two shows fared less well, with Christians, a debate about hell, hard for a non-believer to engage with (though superbly staged and performed, with a 24-piece choir) and another monologue, Crash, which was clever but didn’t captivate like some of the others.

Musical high’s included Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, which showcased his songs – sung and played by a duo – interspersed with quotes from the man himself, Antonio Forcione (again!) with his brilliant Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale, hugely enthusiastic five-piece accapella group Simply Soweto and Hackney Colliery Band, who weren’t at all what I was expecting (a brass band!) but whose rhythmic jazz funk was infectious late-night fun. Musical Theatre featured, with enterprising amateur productions of The Addams Family and Sunshine on Leith, neither of which have yet had London outings though both deserve them.

More solo turns, with Jim Cartwright’s Raz, about preparing for, and going out on, a night out, performed brilliantly by the playwright’s son James, contrasting with stand-up comedian Mark Watson‘s highly strung but hysterical Work In Progress. Then there was 10x10x10 where ten comedians did ten monologues written by ten other comedians – except  there were only six, as they split it into two shows, and I can’t tell you who wrote or performed them, except Jo Caulfield who did one. Not bad, though. The big disappointment was Tony’s Last Tape, where an interesting life was made deadly dull.

Other Welsh contributions included Ghost Dance, a highly creative piece of physical theatre but with a confusing narrative comparing a native American plight with a Welsh one. There was innovative use of a smart phone app for English dialogue and subtitles and more polystyrene than you’ve ever seen in one place. Not a lot to say about a rather amateur take on (part of) the folk tale The Mabinogion, except to say I blame Judith!

The Missing Hancock’s featured two lost scripts staged as if they were being recorded for radio, with occasional ad libs, by an exceptional cast. I’d enjoyed them on the radio and I enjoyed them live too. Favourite playwright Jack Thorne’s sexually explicit, harrowing but brilliant play The Solid Life of Sugar Water was another theatrical highlight with two fine performances and, unusually on the fringe outside the Traverse, a great design. Finally, a novel immersive staging of a rare Tennessee Williams play, Confessional, where you are in a seaside bar with the dysfunctional characters partaking of a beer or two with them. Not a great play, but inventively staged.

The usual diversity with higher quality this year. No doubt some will appear elsewhere, so now you know what to catch.

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By the time Ivor Cutler crossed my radar in the early 70’s, he’d been performing for a couple of decades but was now reaching people half his age thanks to the late, great John Peel singing his praises. Though he amused and fascinated me, I can’t say I ever became fan, more of a curious onlooker, but he stays with me in his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom album, his performance as the bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour and, more recently, some Mark Morris dances set to his words and music.

It’s almost impossible to describe his oeuvre. He was a poet, humorist, singer (of sorts) and musician (with his trademark harmonium). He spoke in a deadpan mild Glaswegian accent, though he lived from his 30’s to 80’s in London. This Vanishing Point / National Theatre of Scotland co-production perfectly captures the essence of his eccentric, absurd, somewhat surreal uniqueness.

They talked to Cutler’s partner as part of their research and the first meeting provides the show with its starting point, Phyllis King becoming a character. What follows is a series of biographical scenes, taking us from his childhood (he tried to kill his baby brother when he was three!) to dementia in his final years, interspersed with songs, poems and other writings. Sandy Grierson’s Cutler and Elicia Daly’s King are joined on-stage by five multi-instrumentalists who provide sounds and voices as well as music. It’s a very charming homage, as quirky as the man himself.

The show visited Brighton as part of the festival and it’s perfect festival fare, attracting a very healthy audience for a Sunday matinee, accessibly priced. It has now become England’s biggest festival covering the whole month of May, with 750 shows (though still only a third of Edinburgh in 10 days less). Work like this suggests it’s time I gave it as much attention as the other one.

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No, this isn’t the history of my family in three plays, it’s the 15th century history of Scotland; far less important. These three plays take us through a turbulent time from 1406 to 1488, when the Scottish nobility fought amongst themselves during the imprisonment of James I by the English, the youth of James II, too young to reign, and the excesses of James III. In England, the same century starts with Henry IV and goes through Henry’s V & VI and Richard III to Henry VII. Rona Munro’s plays provide a 6h40m Scottish history lesson, but also entertaining and thrilling theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s new Artistic Director, who was last at the (English) NT with brilliant and rare early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, starts his reign with a bang.

The first play covers just four years, from the end of James I’s imprisonment in 1422, at the time of the death of Henry V, through his return to Scotland aged 28 to deal with a bunch of noblemen who’ve got far too used to running the show on their own. He has to despatch rather a lot of them before he can rule for 15 years himself; it’s bloody and brilliant. In the second, James II becomes king aged 6 and a battle for power rages between noblemen on who rules on his behalf until he is 18, after which he goes on to rule for just 11 years. The third play starts when James III has been an adult king for around 15 years and has become an exceedingly unpopular one. Despite a seemingly successful marriage to Margaret of Denmark (played here by The Killing’s Sofie Grabol, a real Dane!), he has become a philanderer and spendthrift with a debauched lifestyle. Margaret tries to keep things in control, but rebellion becomes overpowering and she has to take power herself hold Scotland together. The third play ends movingly as James IV ascends the throne aged 15. It was a chaotic, anarchic century for Scotland, which brought out the worst in their greedy, blood-thirsty nobility. You can see why clans were forever in conflict. What struck me most was how young people had to grow up so soon and assume positions of power and authority as mere children.

Jon Bausor’s design make the Olivier Theatre in-the-round with seven entrances and action between and in the high-level stage seating. There’s a giant sword which at various times bleeds, it set alight and becomes bejewelled. The first two plays are costumed alike in rough-and ready period dress, but the third takes a more modern spin; I’m not entirely sure why, but it worked. The staging is wonderful, often thrilling, managing to play battles and intimate scenes equally effectively. It would be invidious to single out any performances because it seems to me that the excellence of the entire cast is key to its success. The second play isn’t as good as the other two (again, I’m not entirely sure why; maybe for us all dayers just a natural PM drop in energy) but in my view its not as much of a dip as others have suggested. Overall, I think its a theatrical feast, one which I’m glad I ate in a single day and one which I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Though a product of the ever enterprising and nomadic NTS, this co-production with the more static NT provides a timely example of what union can bring. A highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going.

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NEW PLAYS

Chimerica – Lucy Kirkwood’s play takes an historical starting point for a very contemporary debate on an epic scale at the Almeida

Jumpers for Goalposts – Tom Wells’ warm-hearted play had me laughing and crying simultaneously for the first time ever – Paines Plough at Watford Palace and the Bush Theatre

Handbagged – with HMQ and just one PM, Moira Buffini’s 2010 playlet expanded to bring more depth and more laughs than The Audience (Tricycle Theatre)

Gutted – Rikki Beale-Blair’s ambitious, brave, sprawling, epic, passionate family saga at the people’s theatre, Stratford East

Di & Viv & Rose – Amelia Bullimore’s delightful exploration of human friendship at Hampstead Theatre

Honourable mentions to the Young Vic’s Season in the Congo and NTS’ Let the Right One In at the Royal Court

SHAKESPEARE

2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar and James McAvoy’s Macbeth for Jamie Lloyd Productions were both raw, visceral, physical & thrilling interpretations. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello at the NT. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V for Michael Grandage Company and the RSC’s Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They all enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them.

OTHER REVIVALS

Mies Julie – Strindberg in South Africa, tense and riveting, brilliantly acted (Riverside)

Edward II – a superb contemporary staging which illuminated this 400-year-old Marlowe play at the NT

Rutherford & Son – Northern Broadsides in an underated 100-year-old northern play visiting Kingston

Amen Corner – The NT director designate’s very musical staging of this 1950’s Black American play

The Pride – speedy revival but justified and timely, and one of many highlights of the Jamie Lloyd season

London Wall & Laburnam Grove – not one, but two early 20th century plays that came alive at the tiny Finborough Theatre

Honorable mentions for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Open Air, Beautiful Thing at the Arts, Fences in the West End, Purple Heart – early Bruce (Clybourne Park) Norris – at the Gate and The EL Train at Hoxton Hall, where the Eugene O’Neill experience included the venue.

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Teenage vampire love stories aren’t exactly one of my genres. I haven’t read the book and I didn’t see the film, but I was hugely impressed by this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne for the ever enterprising National Theatre of Scotland, now at the Royal Court en route to bigger audiences I understand.

The stage is a snow-covered forest where ghastly murders are committed; an excellent design by Christine Jones. Other scenes are played out with a few props in front of it, most involving teenager Oskar, who’s mum & dad are separated and he’s being bullied. He befriends mysterious neighbour Eli who never goes to school and friendship becomes romance (of a fashion). Oskar starts to fight back, which brings the wrath of one of his bullies elder brother which in turn brings the wrath of Eli on the bullies.

It’s a superbly atmospheric production with a terrific soundtrack by Olafur Arnalds and stylised movement by Steven Hoggett and great special effects by Jeremy Chernick. John Tiffany’s staging really is masterly and it grips throughout. I jumped out of my seat once and had to turn away a few times. Martin Quinn, in his professional stage debut, is superb, as is Rebecca Benson as Eli. In the rest of a very good cast, Ewan Stewart is a menacing Hakan, Eli’s dad, and Graeme Dalling utterly convincing as bully Jonny.

This is a brilliant show to introduce teenagers to theatre and this ageing teenager thoroughly enjoyed it too.

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