The Winter’s Tale (Lyceum:10 February – 4 March ’17)

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie. Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

l-r: Maureen Beattie, Frances Grey and John Michie.
Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Accept that the Oracle at Delphi is a DNA lab – and why not? – and that no Bohemian sheep shearing feast is complete without See You Jimmy hats – ‘perhaps the most potent symbol of national self mockery in the world’ – and then you create a ‘Winter’s Tale’ to die for. And indeed little Mamillius does die, and the good lord Antigonus does get ripped apart by a bear, but that’s tragicomedy for you: part psychodrama, part romance, and now part ceilidh; all startlingly well realized in this Lyceum production, directed by Max Webster, designed by Fly Davis and with music by Alasdair Macrae.

Delphic maxim, admonition and genetic instruction, the aphorism ‘Know thyself’ would be a three-in-one cure all for Leontes, King of Sicilia. He might have found the motto in his Christmas cracker. Unfortunately, he doesn’t and goes insanely jealous instead: losing his wife, his son, his new born daughter and his best friend in the process. That’s roughly half the play, an hour or so, and then after the (16 year) interval there’s sixty minutes of making jolly good, when that lost daughter finds her Prince, the friends are reconciled and – miraculously – love between husband and wife is restored. Sweet? Nah, not when Jimmy Chisholm’s Autolycus is around, fleecing ordinary folk, pinching their gold, selling dodgy CDs and hawking his ‘delicate burdens of dildoes and fadings’ (that’s Shakespeare, not James Robertson’s proud and vernacular Scots). If it’s continuity you’re after, to oppose Leontes’ psychosis, then go with an expressive meld of The Proclaimer’s evergreen ‘I’m Gonna Be’ and the absolute integrity of Paulina (Maureen Beattie), as audacious in the face of power as you could wish woman to be.

The Winter’s Tale is late Shakespeare so it’s always interesting to see how a thoughtful production brings its mature ‘status’ into play. Rulers, Polixenes (Andy Clark) as well as Leontes, are petty tyrants in this telling. They act beyond reason, expecting loyalty and deserving none. Their women are their subjects. When Hermione (Frances Grey) pleads her innocence she knows that Leontes, husband, judge, and executioner, speaks a ‘language that I understand not; [that] My life stands in the level of your dreams’. In 1611 it was possible, and probably necessary, to admit that Leontes has regained his authority by the final scene; but not in 2017. The deluded male is busted and a near broken John Michie does it very well. It’s the same with position and rank, for who would be liege-men to lords such as these? Prince Florizel’s love for his common shepherdess (tho’ she’s not really!) cannot be doubted and Bohemia looks just the kind of subversive place where young people should grow up.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

Jimmy Chisholm as Autolycus.

The binary nature of the piece – Sicilia vs. Bohemia – locks it together. One is urban and a touch swanky with its musicians in a recording booth, expensive and insulated; whilst over in Bohemia, or is it in a field near Auchtermuchty?, Autolycus is on the make and Annie Grace plays her Border pipes on a makeshift platform and it’s all in for a Canadian Barn Dance. Perdita (Fiona Wood), pranked up in her goddess claithes and pink Converses, is made-for-Fife. ‘Too noble for this place’ reckons Polixenes. Prat!

Yes, judgements come fast and sure in this tale. The opening signal is a beautiful arrangement of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, whose plaintive ‘What can I give him?’ is Hermione’s anguished, unanswerable question. Mamillius is the sacrificial lamb – and bear. Rustics, pre-eminently John Stahl as the Shepherd are as funny, honest and whole hearted as they are gullible and foolish. Autolycus, complete with paper crown around his neck, is the disgraceful Lord of Misrule, whom you shouldn’t care about, just delight in.

What is apparent throughout is clear-cut. Indeed there’s a thematic insistence upon narrative clarity and serious moral direction that other productions can lose sight of. No chance here: not only is the lighting plot instructive, there’s even an ultrasound to pay attention to and, remarkably, an apt reference to the human genome project:

‘Your mother was  most true to wedlock, prince;

For she did print your royal father off,

Conceiving you.’

Invention does not diminish Shakespeare.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 February)

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SCO, Gamba. Bartok. Maxwell Davies. Sibelius. (Queen’s Hall: 1 Dec.’16)

Map of Orkney

“A complete and wonderful surprise … much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

The concert was promoted as “Peter Maxwell Davies: Orkney Wedding” and thereby probably did itself a disservice, as ‘Max’ is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a shame, as if his work was better known, it might well be. The concert was in fact only half ‘Max’, balanced with Sibelius and Bartok, was mostly very accessible and enjoyable, and made for a fabulous evening’s music.

The concert was in effect a musical treatment of the folk idiom over some 80 years, starting with Sibelius’s Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes, both from Kuolema (1903), although the former is probably best known in its own right. Valse Triste was historically Sibelius’s most regularly performed piece, with the double irony of it being composed while he put his magnificent Violin Concerto on hold in order to placate his brother in law who wanted some incidental music for a play, and more annoyingly that he failed to negotiate a royalty agreement and never received a kroner subsequently. It is a fairly light yet sublimely melodic piece and the SCO played it beautifully managing the many varying tempi and dynamics with complete ease.

The following work, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concerto No 2 (1987) was probably the only work of hard substance in the evening. One of ten “Strathclyde Concertos” commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it is part of their DNA and the SCO embraced its challenging tonality and technical demands skilfully. Moreover, cellist William Conway, who played on its first performance in 1989, was completely at ease with the work. While definitely in the modern idiom it is an accessible and at times beautiful and certainly moving work, and it was good to hear it.

Following the interval it was time for Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, having gone back 50 years to 1939. Beautifully orchestrated, we experienced a wide range of textures including witty pizzicato and rich, broad bowing producing resonant sonority. The orchestra was going at full tilt with attack and vitality of playing. A rewarding, and again, accessible work.

The concert was brought to an end with the banner piece, Maxwell Davies’s Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1984). This is not a serious work, but a hilarious one, and shows one should not take all of Max’s Orkney compositions too seriously. The piece does what it says on the tin, describes a riotous rustic wedding, and Gamba and the SCO interpreted it in that spirit, with outrageously vulgar brass, deliberately tipsy violin playing, and a steward appearing with a couple of tumblers of whisky gratefully consumed by conductor and leader. The whole was brought to a glorious conclusion by the sound of the bagpipes off stage, and then a piper appearing in full Highland Dress and Bearskin brought the piece to a close.

Overall, the evening was a complete and wonderful surprise. All the music was accessible, much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted. And Rumon Gamba was a stand in for the indisposed Alexandre Bloch. Bravo (which resounded throughout the auditorium)!

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 1 December)

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Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum, 6 Nov. ’16)

“Left me genuinely begging for more”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

One of the first things they teach you about writing reviews is not to gush: to keep your mass of uncontrolled instant reactions behind a dam and only let through those considered, pertinent and articulate comments that are most valuable to the reader. The Lyceum’s first variety night, however, attacked my stiff upper lip of a dam with such force as to make gushing almost inevitable, with an evening of real high quality and passionately delivered entertainment.

It feels very wrong to pass a simple two sentence judgement on each of the seven acts who graced the stage simply for the sake of wordcount – suffice to say every single one dazzled, entertained and left me, genuinely, begging for more. Author Christopher Brookmyre’s reading of a tale about a group of teenagers on an outing to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream transported us to that very place, creating wondrous magical moments; Luke Wright’s poetry had many audience members cheering before he’d even finished performing, with the gutsy IDS, a poem about Iain Duncan Smith, constructed using only words contain the vowel sound “i” being a real triumph of wordplay and wit. Jenna Watt’s excerpt from solo show Faslane beamed with all the relevance, energy and honesty of her five-star Fringe run earlier this year, and Glasgow band A New International brought the house down with some of their greatest theatrical gypsy folk pop songs, which was an uplifting and triumphant finale.

The acts themselves were all excellent – professional, well-prepared, and comfortable in the kind of setting where the audience is a bit more vocal than they might normally be. But the evening was hosted and compered by Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay who brought a wonderful human and sensitive likeability to their role. At times their witterings seemed a little underprepared, and it would have been nice to see them perform some of their own material, but it was easy to feel comfortable and inspired in their presence.

While pitched right in my personal sweet spot, it’s worth saying that at times the content was a little unashamedly left-leaning, and it’s a shame that there was quite a bit of similarity between some of the acts (for a real variety night I would have loved to have seen some more diverse art forms in there as well (for example: dance, art, circus, puppetry, maybe even a short film) but the relatively low-tech, one-night nature of the beast may well bring such limitations. One can only hope the format proves popular enough to make this event a more regular and extended feature within the Lyceum’s calendar.

Based on round one, I would urge anyone with any sort of passing interest in the arts to get themselves along to the next event on 26th February. I’ll be first in line.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Grain in the Blood (Traverse: 1 – 12 Nov.’16)

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff. Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“This hair-trigger of a play”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

What is it about valleys? There’s the BBC’s Happy Valley and Edward Norton in Down in the Valley, also far from ‘happy’, and – seminally – there’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is as good a place as any in which to locate Rob Drummond’s latest enthralling work. Once upon a time, ‘for hundreds of years in the valley everything was just so’, but then the thanksgiving poetry ran out, like blood. Time now, then, for a spell of compassionate release.

That’s the hope anyway, and it is hope that supports Sophia, whose grand-daughter Autumn, needs a kidney transplant if she is to live much beyond her twelfth birthday. Isaac, Sophia’s grown son, has it in him to help but naturally, dramatically, it is not as easy as that. In fact, after 85 minutes, it has all still to be decided, either by the words of a child terribly wise beyond her years or out of the barrels of a 12 bore shotgun. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction respects this hair-trigger of a play right to its showdown.

The action rises over 3½ days, counted as ‘three sleeps’ by Autumn, who is brat reporter and ancient Chorus combined. She knows the ‘Verses of the Harvest’ by heart and the rhythmic invocation of the Grain Mother as provider of health and happiness- sad joke –  sounds solemn and serious, ‘even though She doesn’t fucking exist’. That’s the thing about Autumn (Sarah Miele): she has that unnerving sacrilegious streak that adults can’t manage.

So, there is proper tension down on the farm. There’s even a game of ‘Truth or Dare?’ that contains the greatest reveal of them all, which is wickedly ironic as Isaac (Andrew Rothney) is described as ‘low risk’. Sophia (Blythe Duff) needs to believe that assessment whilst Burt (John Michie), is there as the phlegmatic companion to threatening circumstance. These two play out a nice challenge of ‘Would you kill scumbags to save your daughter?’, which just digs deeper into the disturbing, teasing, ethical dilemmas that Drummond delights in. Go to his Uncanny Valley for starters.

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The remote rural location is part of the piece. Where better to unearth the unsettling and the rooted? The harvest moon can glint off Isaac’s blade and there’s the suffering of Auntie Violet’s horse to put alongside Sophia’s claim that ‘We’re all animals’, which might be what her veterinary practice has taught her. Her house is modern, of machined and polished wood, where you might expect low ceilings, wood smoke and warped timbers. The spare, snappy dialogue and careful movement suits the space, whose back wall slides away to show Autumn’s bed with its blood drip stand, or the barn, site of an earlier, bloodier horror. Introducing classical tragedy for our times, anyone?

Intrigued? You should be, because this is fascinating theatre, still and severe in its way, but emotionally resonant, well-focused and very well performed.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 1 November)

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RSNO: Sondergard, Jansen: Usher Hall 21 Oct 16

Image result for RSNO

“What struck me …. was the precision, accuracy and vitality of the playing, with rock steady tempi combined with real verve”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Following on the RSNO’s opening gig a fortnight ago featuring the fabulous Nicola Benedetti and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Friday’s concert fielded another outstanding violinist in the persona of Janine Jansen playing the Sibelius. What is so special about live music is that you don’t know what you are going to get, in terms of interpretation and playing skill, until you hear it. You know it is (usually) going to be good, but how, and in what way? The RSNO, guest conductor Thomas Sondergard and Jansen, are all very fine artists approaching the top of their game, but who perhaps one would not yet categorise as world class. However, I defy anyone to name an artist or orchestra who could have performed better than they did on the night. I have never heard a rendition of the Sibelius Violin Concerto played with more clarity, dazzling technique and sheer artistic conviction, with orchestra and soloist joined at the hip through the sensitive yet controlled baton of Sondegard.

Intriguingly, the orchestra started the evening off with two short pieces by Mahler, Blumine, and What the Wild Flowers Tell Me, arranged by Benjamin Britten from the Third Symphony.

Blumine is a serious, complete piece. A quiet string introduction led to a short horn passage before the bleak solo trumpet established the theme, followed by lush strings that proved we were definitely in Mahler land. Plaintive oboe and mournful horn passages followed before the strings brought the work to an ethereal close.

What the Wild Flowers Tell Me made for a pleasant intermezzo. We were now musically well set up for the main event with our confidence in the orchestra and conductor fully endorsed.

Jean Sibelius was a violinist himself and knew the capabilities of his instrument, which he exploited to the full in his concerto. A violinist in the RSNO to whom I was chatting in the interval, described the first movement as “hard”, the second as “OK” and the third as “really very hard”. All I did was gasp at Janine Jansen’s ability to get concert hall audibility from pianissimo passages, and volume from high register playing and harmonics with little more than an inch or two of metal string to draw it from. The first movement conveyed an eerie dramatic tone that permeates much of Sibelius’s music, and suggested frozen wastes and Nordic mythology. The pianissimo opening with the interplay between the soloist and strings was brilliant and perfectly balanced, and as the movement progressed the theme was passed seamlessly from violin to woodwind and brass and then to a magnificent cadenza. To my satisfaction, the breath taken audience (I suspect a little more cognoscenti than on the opening night) refrained from applause.

In the second movement a rich woodwind opening gradually built up to a grand, panoramic finale. Come the third, the danse macabre, the soaring soloist and supportive orchestra brought the work to a deeply satisfying, enriching conclusion.

Our evening ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. What struck me about the performance of the work, which often comes across as a bit stodgy and clumsy, was the precision, accuracy and vitality of the playing, with rock steady tempi combined with real verve. A joyous, carefree end to an exceptional evening’s music.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 October)

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+3 Review: Mungo Park (Summerhall: 3 – 27 Aug. 8.45pm 1h 20m.)

Images: Dogstar Theatre.

Images: Dogstar Theatre.

“… an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

There is a Mungo Park Road in Gravesend, Kent, and sheltered housing at Mungo Park Court in Selkirk which seems all a bit sedentary when it comes to the tremendous life of Mungo P himself. Born in 1771, near Selkirk right enough, he ventured out down the Niger River and was the first European to reach Timbuktu. Of course, he did not have a passport so that nice phrasing, used in this show, about his Majesty ‘requests and requires [that] the bearer pass freely without let or hindrance’ did not apply. Instead his heroic travels are the stuff of bedtime stories, ‘To Selkirk … and beyond!’ if you will, which is where Mungo Park Theatre (Copenhagen) and Dogstar Theatre (Inverness) come flying in.

Writer and director Martin Lyngbo wants Hollywood-on-stage for the ‘inner eye of everyone in the audience’. So we get an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action. We move swiftly from the Highlands, to London, and – via the two journeys of 1796 and 1805 – to central West Africa, on foot and in a canoe.

Travel at the wrong time and it’s very hot and wet and deadly out there. The African interior was a huge gap surrounded by a coastline, for its ‘heart lies in darkness’ and between August and October forty-one out of the forty-five or so Brits on the second expedition died of fever. How Parks survived for as long as he did is an open question but – to judge by this play – it was a combination of physical toughness, determination (to see home and family again), good sense and good luck. Africa for him is ‘a fragile network’ of peoples and customs and you got nowhere without respecting that.

Mungo Park goes back to 2006. That first Danish production was rehearsed during the crisis that surrounded publication in a newspaper of the Muhammad cartoons. This English language version, by Jonathan Sydenham, still looks as if it is significantly influenced by that controversy. Clever caricature asks questions of how individuals are represented and received by ‘others’, culturally akin or not. African kings Desse and Ali play ‘up’ their obvious differences in sing-song pidgin speech; their messengers play their crafty roles as would flunkies of a European court but with outlandish accents. Sir Joseph Banks, notable patron of the natural sciences, is as interested in gold as he is in plants. Lieutenant John Martyn, in command of Parks’ escort, is more blood thirsty racist than an officer and a gentleman. Desperate and dangerous confusion results from misunderstanding and prejudice.

Kingsley Amadi (l)

Kingsley Amadi (l)

Matthew Zajac is impressive as the courageous and virtuous Mungo, whose story we follow at every turn, literally so as he fights his good fight on a turntable. Anders Budde Christensen is all exaggerated gesture and of wily tongue as emissary and as the not-so-enlightened James Rennell, map-maker, who would be master of all he surveys. Kingsley Amadi is black African potentate and crazy (white) army officer. It is so confidently performed that the zany is never risible, the indomitable never preposterous.

The rapid screenplay, to go with the filmic idea, produces strong exposition – particularly when its opening is chalked-up on the blackboard rather like title cards to a silent movie of colonial history in the making – and a dynamic narrative. No visual ‘shots’ are projected so there’s a spontaneous, on-the-spot quality to the whole piece. For the most part it is tightly focused upon Parks himself and when it isn’t there is some loss in terms of its depth of field. Performers running up and down the central aisle in a bright light did not look right.

Sturdy Mungo always has a satchel for his notebook and his Travels were published in 1799 but if you want a stirring measure of the man and of his life you won’t do better than this motion picture of a play.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 August)

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+3 Review: Care Takers (C, 3-29 Aug: 18.35: 55 mins)

“Astonishingly powerful”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

They say good things come in threes. To me, good theatre must have three essential ingredients: good concept, good script, good actors. Many shows have one or two of these, but this show has all three – and then some – making it very good indeed.

Care Takers analyses a simple conflict between a secondary school teacher who suspects one of her pupils is being bullied and the Deputy Head who will do nothing about it unless there is hard evidence. The tension is palpable, but a complex relationship between the pair unravels during four private meetings on the subject over a period of several weeks. What makes this show so engaging is the balance of how both sides of the story are played out – I found myself agreeing with both perspectives on more than one occasion, and power shifts from one to the other throughout to keep suspense all the way through.

From the opening phone calls she takes in her office, it’s immediately obvious that Deputy Head Mrs Rutter (Penelope McDonald) is busy: juggling budgets, workloads, staff, curriculum, and of course, her own career. She has experience and authority, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Cue the entry of Ms Lawson (Emma Romy-Jones) a newly qualified teacher: great at her job and genuinely concerned about the children in her care. The conflict that follows goes beyond what is best for an individual child, scraping away at personal prejudices, and questioning the very nature of what is best, and for whom.

McDonald and Romy-Jones both deserve awards for this performance, portraying characters so real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a play. McDonald is infuriatingly powerful and charismatic as Mrs Rutter, giving the most compelling acting performance I’ve seen at the Fringe so far this year, while Romy-Jones creates a perfect balance as underdog Ms Lawson, with a more subtle approach to her character.

The acting is superb, but the script is also first class – seamlessly and succinctly giving the titbits of information needed to develop the story and create a situation that makes you want to jump on stage and sort it yourself. The dialogue is very natural, with each interaction sounding like a genuine conversation that tries hard to keep professional though personal tensions clearly want to take it elsewhere. Narrative development is a bit on the slow side, though I wouldn’t sacrifice this for the amount of depth we get to see from each character.

When things turn more dramatic towards the end of the play, the question arises – who’s to blame? Did the individuals involved really do all they could? It’s the kind of production where everyone will have an opinion that makes for a very lively discussion in the bar afterwards – and that’s exactly what makes this a five star show.

It’s a tense and gripping piece of theatre, which, although occasionally verges on being a little bit samey, has the potential (moreso than many of the shows I’ve seen this year) to make a big impact in the commercial market. I’d love to see it picked up by the Traverse or another producing theatre to take it further and watch it soar. With a few small tweaks it really could be very special indeed.

Care Takers is astonishingly powerful – a must-see for anyone working in secondary education or with responsibility for children of that age.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED