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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Blog Archive

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Swindle and Death

© Mark Fisher

* Tron, Glasgow

Thursday June 19, 2008
The Guardian

Peter Arnott's satirical target is a good one. In Swindle and Death, the playwright contends that state subsidy of the arts, with all its requirements for civic accountability, has the effect of neutering the very work it seeks to support. Such is the hold of the bureaucrats that the only way for a theatre company to survive, he would argue, is to adopt the same dull, utilitarian values.

Arnott invents actor-managers Brian Swindle and Eric Death, who have sustained an ensemble for centuries without a penny of public money. All would be well, if it were not for a Scottish Arts Council that regards itself as an instrument of control, sending a young apparatchik to go undercover as an actor and bring the company into line. "You can't escape," she says in one of the play's funnier lines. "No one escapes from the Scottish Arts Council."

Wild, careless creativity versus a state that wants "a vehicle for positive cultural enforcement" sounds like something from Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution. Arnott's approach, however, is altogether more throwaway, a Crackerjack comedy in which the artists are as clapped out as the bureaucrats. Even before the story takes a silly turn into undead zombie territory, we have to put up with endless scenes of deliberately hammy acting and clunky historical verse dramas. Despite valiant efforts by the actors in Alasdair McCrone's Mull theatre production, it is not funny, largely because it trades in cliche more than truth. Apart from the mole's amusing reinterpretation of Mary Queen of Scots as a woman sensitive to gender equality issues, the play squanders a worthy debate on a feeble fantasy.

· At Byre theatre, St Andrews, tonight. Box office: 01334 475000. Then touring.

Les Parents Terribles

© Mark Fisher
Published in The Guardian
Tuesday June 17, 2008
The Guardian

Jean Cocteau's knowingly bourgeois play, a runaway hit in the Paris of the late 1930s, stretches the form of the domestic drama to breaking point. It is as if Oedipus, Lady Macbeth and Gertrude wound up in the same boulevard melodrama - with a couple more archetypes thrown in for good measure.

Any other playwright having dreamed up Yvonne, a matriarchal monster with an incestuous passion for Michael, her 22-year-old son, would have been content to leave it at that. But Cocteau ratchets up the stakes with a husband and sister of such unscrupulousness that the Parisian flat becomes a claustrophobic hothouse of duplicity.

So manipulative are this trio of pleasure seekers that even the conventional goodness of the younger generation is thrown into doubt. Is Michael a corrupted mummy's boy or love's young dream? Is Madeleine genuinely swayed by her love for both father and son, or a two-timing money grabber?

Such uncertainty keeps us gripped enough to forgive the overly explanatory passages of the play, produced here in the sparky 1994 version by Jeremy Sams. These characters are at once grotesque and credible, the more so in a brilliantly acted, late-60s production by Stewart Laing on a superb twin-level letter-box set of his own design.

As Yvonne, Ann Louise Ross gives a great show of volatility, switching by the line from frisky to hectoring to narcissistic. She is matched in spiritedness by Kevin Lennon's Michael, and in deviousness by Irene Macdougall's passive-aggressive sister and John Buick's adulterous husband. It is hard to decide whether Emily Winter's earnest young lover is an innocent party or this frightening family's natural heir.

Laing captures the conflict between primal passions and polite exteriors by tempering the actors' restless energy with a painterly awareness of space. Melodrama rarely looked so good.

· Until June 21. Box office: 01382 223530.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland: the winners

The winners of the 2008 CATS were announced last night.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The price of success for Edinburgh comedy

© Mark Fisher
Guardian blog

The last time I saw Doug Stanhope it was 2am and we were in a Las Vegas casino. He'd just come back from the loo and, reaching out to pass him his bottle of lager, I accidentally knocked it onto the roulette table. A puddle of Budweiser seeped across the green felt. "Hey, everybody, I'd like you to meet my friend Mark from Scotland," he yelled, suggesting I place my remaining chips on red 27 before we made a run for it.

Continues here

The First to Go

© Mark Fisher
Published in The Guardian
Three stars
Actor/playwright Nabil Shaban's play about Hitler's treatment of people with disabilities risks the charge of stating the obvious. Obviously, the Nazis were a bad lot. And obviously, the innocent die in the end. State agents repeat terrible truths about fascist philosophy while their intended victims cower in fear. But there are three aspects of this long evening that make it more engaging than you might expect.

The first is on the level of education. It does us no harm to be reminded of the cruel logic of a politics based on racial superiority, nor to see the banality of evil - in this case, the daily justifications of a medical profession working in an atmosphere of intimidation. Shaban points out it was the disabled who were "the first to go", and it was their use as human guinea pigs that put German scientists at the forefront of medical knowledge. Today's debates about medical ethics need to be tempered by this memory.

The second aspect is about the definition of disability. Shaban makes much of the irony of Goebbels, a man with a club foot, pursuing a policy against "inferior" human beings while trying to distinguish between those who were disabled from birth and those whose disability was acquired. The play makes it clear that the distinction is a philosophical one. The experience of disability does not depend on whether you are war-wounded or have an inherited condition. It could affect any of us.

Third is Peter Clerke's production for Benchtours, which breaks a potentially unwieldy script into a series of neat vignettes. Yes, they die in the end - and with a melodramatic flourish - but the route is not always so obvious.

· At the Tron, Glasgow (0141-552 4267), from Thursday until Saturday. Then touring.

Little Otik

©Mark Fisher
Published in the Guardian
Four stars

The creepiness kicks in from the start. The house lights are still up when a young girl in a plain dress appears in the aisle distractedly bouncing a ball. Making a tremendously assured professional debut, Rebecca Smith is like an otherworldly spirit, enigmatic and all-knowing, as if possessing secrets denied the adult world. In Vanishing Point's adaptation of the Jan Svankmajer film, she becomes the focal point of a nightmare fairytale that is a cross between Eraserhead and Little Shop of Horrors.

The central story is about the girl's neighbour, the infertile Bozena Foster, who transfers her maternal longing to a tree stump dug up by her husband. What first looks like neurosis turns out to be chillingly prescient as the wood acquires a murderous life of its own. "Be careful what you wish for" is the moral of the modern-day fable, steeped in a fear of birth and childhood.

Matthew Lenton's production, a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, is visually ravishing. Kai Fischer's set is a field of barren soil, waiting for the rain to usher in new life, while projections of sperm, foetuses and babies flicker across the back wall of the family's flat. There is no such thing as the innocence of childhood for as long as the neighbourhood paedophile is at large.

Extending Svankmajer's surrealism, Lenton's actors coax babies and cabbages from the ground and even find a real cat in a pram, while Christopher Shutt's score keeps the show on an uneasy line between laughter and fear. As distinctive in its way as Improbable's Shockheaded Peter, Little Otik is a macabre delight, even if its love of gothic horror denies the story a lasting emotional impact. At Eden Court, Inverness, tomorrow and Wednesday. Box office: 01463 234234. Then touring.