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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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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cherry Blossom

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Cherry Blossom
Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

The disorientation we feel watching Catherine Grosvenor's Cherry Blossom is the disorientation of her characters. They are economic migrants, venturing from Poland to the UK with more drive than language skills. In this co-production between the Traverse and the Polish company Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz, Grosvenor weaves their sense of confusion - of understanding only one side of the conversation - into the very fabric of the play. Writing in both Polish and English, she makes a monoglot audience strain to keep up.

Director Lorne Campbell adds to the air of uncertainty by rotating the characters between the four actors. All four of them - Scotland's John Kazek and Sandy Grierson, and Poland's Marta Scislowicz and MaƂgorzata Trofimiuk - take on, for example, the central role of the Polish mother who finds a job in an Edinburgh meat factory to pay for her daughter's education. As well as introducing a surreal theatricality (the heterosexual love scene between two male actors is particularly effective), the technique turns the story from the individual to the universal. Theirs is the loneliness, bewilderment and fear of all immigrants.

Set against this everyman tale is the true story of Robert Dziekan´ski, a construction worker who, having left his native Poland in October last year, died in Vancouver airport after a 10-hour ordeal of miscommunication. It's a curious story - delivered straight by the actors reading from clipboards - but one that becomes more comprehensible when put in the context of Cherry Blossom's evocation of linguistic confusion.

This evocation is the play's strength. Without it, the central story would be as banal as a soap opera. That is also why the 90-minute production seems a couple of scenes too long; the characters' fate is less interesting than the turmoil they experience along the way. But it is tremendously acted by the bilingual cast, with the passion of the Polish actors making a fiery contrast with the underplayed reserve of their Scottish counterparts.

The real star of the show is the set by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, the much-touted team behind the innovative multimedia company 59 Productions, and the youngest ever associates of London's National Theatre. It's a crazy-paving of white oblongs laid flat across the stage, on to which they project a tumbling collage of words, translations, scene-setting illustrations and video footage. Not only is it a technical wonder, but it also plays a fully integrated part in building the production's dizzy atmosphere of dislocation.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ioanna Anderson interview

© Mark Fisher - published in The Herald

End of a not so beautiful relationship

If you want a lesson on modern Scottish identity, look no further than Ioanna Anderson. The 38-year-old playwright is a walking embodiment of 21st-century multiculturalism.

The first clue is in her name: Anderson is from her Irish father; Ioanna (pronounced Yo-anna) is from her Greek mother. The cultural cross-currents don't stop there. Having spent her childhood in Edinburgh, where she was expelled from school for spending too much time in the cinema, she headed to Dublin's Trinity College - the only place that didn't care about her references - to study English.

After a short stint in London, she settled in Dublin, working as an administrator for a number of small-scale theatre companies. When one of those companies, Greenlight Productions, was looking for a new play, she was in the right place to turn her hand to writing a monologue, so beginning a second career as a dramatist. One critic described Words of Advice for Young People, her debut with Rough Magic theatre company, as an "auspicious introduction of a writer with a great deal to say and exceptional skills with which to say it".

All of which means, 20 years on, Anderson is routinely described as an Irish playwright. "Because I started writing in Ireland, I mysteriously became an Irish writer," she says in an accent that carries echoes of Edinburgh and Dublin. "I was writing for Irish voices and I'd lived there for quite a long time and so everyone called me an Irish writer. I was like, No, I'm from Scotland', but it's too complicated to explain."

Things don't get any easier now she's making her Scottish debut at Glasgow's Tron Theatre while plotting the move "home" to Edinburgh with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. She'd blithely assumed Six Acts of Love was the kind of play that could take place anywhere, but as soon as director Andy Arnold put it in front of a cast of talented Scottish actors - including Una McLean - it became clear how much of an Irish play she'd written.

"Andy Arnold and I decided it was a universal play with universal themes and there'd be no problem transposing it to Scotland," she says on a flying visit to Glasgow. "Then we went away and phoned each other and, in the same breath said, Actually, it's not going to work.' There are specific times that created these characters. There are versions of them over here, but you would have had to change some key points to make it fit - and still people would be trying to identify exactly where they came from. It's more specific than I thought, so, yes, for a while I was an Irish writer."

Written for Dublin's Abbey Theatre during an unhappy time when more plays were being workshopped than staged, Six Acts of Love was like a "play going round and round on an airport conveyor belt" with nobody claiming it as their own, until Arnold seized on it as the perfect way to launch his inaugural season as artistic director of the Tron. It's a bitter-sweet comedy about a woman deserted by her husband and saddled with a mother losing her mind.

As well as the subconsciously Irish rhythms, the play's Irishness is most apparent in the true-life story that inspired it. "My mother- in-law had a great story about a friend of hers who had to do a peculiarly Irish thing," she says. "To get a divorce, she discovered she was never legally married. Although bizarre, it has happened to many people in Ireland. When they got married in the Catholic church, there was no registry office and they had to sign a civil document. A lot of the time it wasn't produced - the priest would forget. Divorce was only made legal in 1995 and then it was discovered that the documentation didn't exist. To get divorced, they had to go to the same priest with the same witnesses and re-enact the original marriage. It is peculiarly Catholic and of the moment."

The opening of Six Acts of Love coincides with You Are Here, a site-specific play she's written to be performed in an apartment in the Dublin Theatre Festival. If she times it right she can just see the first nights in both cities. All of which will be a good starting point as she makes the move back to her native Scotland and establishes herself as a bona fide Scottish playwright.

"I am actually writing a play for Scottish actors," she says. "That's been interesting. You have to come home and listen to people's voices and read the paper again. Scotland is at a totally different moment to when I left; politically, socially, everything has changed. It's a very dynamic moment here, which I hope to gatecrash."

Six Acts of Love, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tomorrow to October 11.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Northings - Highlands & Islands Arts Journal

MACBETH (Mallaig and Morar Community Centre, 17 September 2008, and touring)

POWER CORRUPTS and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But watching Alan Steele in the title role of Macbeth, you see power also does a few things in between.

First, it sends you off the rails. Not only do you see visions of your dead victims, but you start clutching neurotically at your robes, panicking at the presumption of your claim to the throne. Then, once it looks as if you're succeeding regardless of your insecurity, power goes to your head. You develop a messianic self-belief and think yourself infallible – after all, who ever heard of a walking wood or a man not born of woman? That's when power turns you into a fully fledged tyrant.

Steele marks these transitions clearly, letting us see that his violence is a front for his inner weakness. He might have had a reasonable claim to kingship had his honourable qualities not been undermined by his own moral decline. He lashes out because of fear not courage.

Interestingly in Alasdair McCrone's atmospheric production – a revival of the last ever show at Mull Little Theatre in 2006 – the power behind the throne is not only Beth Marshall's lucid Lady Macbeth, but also the mysterious forces of darkness embodied by Sarah Haworth. A lingering presence throughout the show, Haworth plays all three witches – thanks to the concealed mirrors of Alicia Hendrick's turret of a set – as well as various bit parts, until she lays Macbeth to rest in the final silent moments.

It gives her the status of puppet master – albeit a deranged one – dreaming this tragic parable into life. She is less a supernatural being than a shaman warning us of what can happen when a good man ventures into the dark side.

Performed beneath a fog of dry ice, the production makes a virtue of its small cast, not only in the efficient doubling of the six actors, but also in creating an air of no-nonsense directness. It's a real achievement to give such a full account of the play with so few actors and it is this, rather than any startling insights, that gives the production its distinctive energy.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Don Juan

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Don Juan
Citizen's, Glasgow
2 out of 5

It worked for John Simm in Life on Mars, so why not for Mark Springer in Don Juan? Like DCI Sam Tyler in the TV series, John D is a modern-day man who, thanks to some jiggery-pokery in the space-time continuum, finds himself in a bygone era. The production doesn't make clear whether he is a Max Clifford-style media manipulator or a pop celebrity, but by the time he wakes up in the 1730s, it's plain he is a real Don Juan.

The idea behind director Jeremy Raison's version of the story, reworked from Robert David MacDonald's Goldoni translation, is to underscore its 21st- century relevance. It has the opposite effect. By going back in time, this Don Juan puts the play in quotation marks. It's as if we're seeing this world of frisky country maids, impotent men and sexually repressed ladies from the outside. We are detached observers, which means however many ideas Raison throws at the production - and there are a lot - and however well it is acted, the characters remain at one remove.

It isn't that Goldoni's play no longer speaks to a modern audience. A vain-glorious man concerned only with his libido could easily be a product of today's sexualised society. But the challenges Don Juan faces here are not of 2008. What woman would insist on marriage after a single night? Who would hunger for a Don Juan to rescue her from an arranged marriage? When Springer asks, "What did I do that was so bad?" you have to wonder yourself, because his violations only make sense in an 18th-century context.

His egotism makes him a bit of a prat, but in today's terms he's doing little worse than playing the field, which means, without the irony of Life on Mars, the play ends up stuck in time.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

One Giant Leap

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

One Giant Leap
Caol Community Centre, Fort William
4 out of 5

Professor Michael Reiss should have bided his time. Instead of causing all that hullabaloo over creationism in science lessons, the Royal Society's now ex-director of education should simply have prescribed One Giant Leap for every school in the land. Though the head-spinning production by Wee Stories and the National Theatre of Scotland does not address creationism head on, in its humanist inquiry into 2,500 years of scientific thinking about space, it persuasively argues that the greatest enemy of knowledge is foundationless religious dogma.

The giant leap of the title is a reference to the small step taken by Neil Armstrong nearly 40 years ago when he set foot upon the moon. But the giant leaps that most interest performer Iain Johnstone are those taken by history's freethinkers, the people who upturned religious and scientific orthodoxy to present a new vision of our place in the cosmos.

The hero of his story is Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient Greek astronomer who suggested the Earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. It was an idea that remained at best forgotten, at worst heretical, for 1,700 years, until Copernicus thought he'd give it another spin. Those ideas inspired Giordano Bruno, a rebel Dominican friar, who was burned at the stake for his ungodly beliefs only 400 years ago. There is real anger in Johnstone's performance as he describes the church's stranglehold on knowledge, while back projections make an ironic link between the flames that destroyed Bruno to the burn that propelled Apollo 11.

As if mocking themselves for their own lecture-room earnestness, Johnstone and his collaborators Andy Cannon and David Trouton present the show before a school blackboard next to a library of forbidding books. It is a classroom of the imagination, however, one in which the chalk stars magically move across the black emptiness of space and in which a teacher describes the size of the solar system in terms of an unfurling toilet roll.

Wee Stories has produced more joyful shows, and some of Johnstone's jokes are tentative. But any play that requires the audience to join in a plainsong chant about the Earth being at the centre of the universe gets my vote. As with the company's The Emperor's New Kilt earlier this year, the inspirational message is that sceptical inquiry is more wondrous than blind faith.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian


Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

Liam Brennan is alone on the stage when, as Macbeth, he first mentions the idea of "assassination". The very word catches him unawares; he breaks off mid-sentence, looks nervously around in case he has been overheard, then continues sotto voce

It is the key to an interpretation that shows the aspiring king of Scotland not as a merciless warlord, but as an introspective thinker with little appetite for bumping off his enemies. He is more a Hamlet than a man of action - racked with indecision, his monologues measured, calm and reasoned. Allison McKenzie as Lady Macbeth is on the mark when she refers to his "heart so white", although her sleepwalking scene and his visions of the murdered Banquo suggest the pair have equally delicate psychological make-ups.

On the face of it, Brennan's is a brilliant, lucid, intelligent performance: his initial low-key approach allows him gradually to extend his emotional range, and his delivery is exquisite. He plays us Macbeth in an unfamiliar key, revealing the contemplative poet behind the power-hungry tyrant. This is fascinating, but it does make Macbeth seem too reasonable a bloke to warrant the ire of the whole English army. He is a politician who has made a few policy misjudgments, rather than a monstrous despot - something that lessens the necessity of his death.

This effect is heightened by Lucy Pitman-Wallace's staging, which attempts to avoid directorial gimmickry with an 11th-century setting of broadswords and sackcloth tunics. Not only does this come across as old-fashioned - the witches in their rags look like something from a 1950s drama-school exercise - but it negates the drama's political resonances, giving it the pleasant air of a BBC costume drama such as Robin Hood, rather than the urgent bite of a play for today.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian


Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

There are three good reasons why Fleeto should not work. One, it is written in blank verse and inspired by the Iliad, surely a recipe for deadly modern theatre. Two, it is on the topic of knife crime, a subject of interest chiefly to tabloid editors. And three, after its initial success as part of last year's A Play, a Pie and a Pint season, it has been revived for a UK tour with the backing of the Scottish Prison Service's violence reduction week, which gives the impression of an instructional piece of agitprop.

It is a tremendous accomplishment that Paddy Cunneen's 80-minute drama overrides all such reservations, offering a gripping portrait of inner-city violence that lends a mythic resonance to what could have been a simplistic knives-are-bad message.

Drawing on Homer's story of the bereaved King Priam confronting his enemy Achilles, Cunneen vividly portraits the intensity of a senseless gang attack, the horror of a motiveless murder and the wider social causes and effects of knife crime. He does this in a way that strips away the banalities of naturalistic speech, using instead the heightened monologues of the Greeks to explore the human emotions generated by grand social forces.

Performing on a bare stage with only the raw power of Cunneen's language for ammunition, the four actors never lose the attention of a young audience. Jordan McCurrach is especially mesmerising as the assassin with a guilty conscience, tough talking but as helpless as a tragic hero.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sunset Song

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Sunset Song

His Majesty's, Aberdeen
4 out of 5

Straight through the heart of his protagonist, Chris Guthrie, the author Lewis Grassic Gibbon drew the line between modernity and the past. At the radiant centre of his 1932 novel, Sunset Song, and its sequels Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, Chris represents a schism that would divide the nation.

As the daughter of turn-of-the-century Aberdeenshire farmers, she is of the land, yet her education causes her to see her upbringing with the detachment of an outsider. As a teenager on the cusp of maturity, she is both child and woman, while the onset of motherhood represents the transition from freedom to responsibility.

This duality haunts the book as it paints a romantic yet unsentimental portrait of the land. "You hate it and love it in a breath," says Hannah Donaldson, a sturdy, luminous Chris at the still centre of Alastair Cording's fluid adaptation, reworked since its first airing in the Edinburgh festival of 1993. The further she moves from her childhood independence, the closer looms the first world war and the end of the old countryside ways. Neither she nor the village of Kinraddie, nor indeed the world, will ever be the same again.

Kenny Ireland's production is the first in-house drama at Aberdeen's His Majesty's Theatre for nearly 50 years. Appropriately for a story so rooted in community, it is a lively ensemble piece, moving deftly from the choreography of spring ploughing to the sweet harmonies of a winter wedding, and so on through the novel's key moments. Accompanied by live music, the cast create instant vignettes of sturdy carthorses, marching soldiers and toiling labourers, sometimes in a manner that's too self-consciously arty, but more typically managing to give a full sense of the novel's tapestry of life.

Inevitably, given the constraints on time, the adaptation glosses over the languid poetry of the original, becoming more about events than atmosphere, and rattles along at too speedy a pace in the earlier scenes. As the production gets into gear, however, it does much justice to Grassic Gibbon's rich north-eastern language and, with the ever-shifting watercolour landscapes at the back of Hayden Griffin's open set, creates a vivid sense of the countryside and all its cruel beauty. With strong supporting roles from Rod Matthew as her bullish father and Finn Den Hertog as her rebellious brother, Donaldson gives a central performance that, like the novel voted Scotland's favourite read in 2005, is both rooted and romantic.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 05, 2008

Outlying Islands

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings - Hi-Arts Journal

OUTLYING ISLANDS (Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 3 September 2008)

FIVE YEARS after Outlying Islands made its debut at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2002, playwright David Greig translated The Bacchae by Euripides for the National Theatre of Scotland. This was the show in which Alan Cumming played Dionysus, the god of good times, upturning the prim and proper world of Pentheus, played by a buttoned-up Tony Curran.

With this in mind, it's fascinating to return to Outlying Islands, superbly staged by Ken Alexander as the last show of the Pitlochry season, and see that it is about exactly the same struggle between order and chaos, the head and the heart.

The play is set on the outermost of outlying islands off the Scottish west coast where the pre-war Ministry of Defence is considering testing the new anthrax virus. Unaware of this plan, two young Cambridge graduates, Robert and John, have been stationed on the deserted outcrop by the ministry to study the birdlife for a month. Their hosts are a curmudgeonly old sheep farmer and his attractive niece. Apart from them, they have the island to themselves.

In terms Euripides would have understood, Greig uses this extreme no-man's land to test our twin impulses towards Dionysian freedom and Apollonian restraint. An outlying island is a symbol for our desire to escape; the characters are drawn there by its wildness, its distance from civilisation, its air of danger. Even the abandoned chapel is a place of pagan, not Christian, worship.

Grant O'Rourke's Robert is most forcibly attracted by the island's destructive beauty, a reaction to the repression of his public school upbringing. Joel Sams' virginal John finds it harder to shake off the values imposed by his social class, so must wrestle valiantly with himself the more he is smitten by the sexuality of Claire Dargo's sonorous and beautiful Ellen.

The tension, in other words, comes from more than just the comedy of manners as stuck-up toffs meet earthy locals; it comes from the clash of interests between "gamblers and savers", the reckless and the rational, that is forever at play in our psychological make-up. When John and Ellen finally get together, breaking free of social protocol, embracing the Dionysian, it is the cue for Robert to push himself even further into the wild unknown.

Along with Martyn James, giving a brilliantly dour performance as old farmer Kirk, the cast make a flawless ensemble, catching the humour, intelligence and narrative drive of Greig's play with warmth and understanding.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mums and Lovers

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Mums and Lovers

Oran Mor, Glasgow
3 out of 5

A Play, a Pie and a Pint is the most unlikely success story of Scottish theatre. Run by David MacLennan, a veteran of the 7:84 and Wildcat theatre companies, it has been attracting sizeable lunchtime audiences for the past four years. Indeed, so many people turned up to claim their pie and pint before curtain-up on Monday that the performance was forced to start late.

It isn't only audiences who are keen. The forthcoming 14-play autumn season includes directors such as Paines Plough's Roxana Silbert, writers with the standing of Chewin' the Fat's Ford Kiernan, and actors of the calibre of Gabriel Quigley, Julie Austin and Shonagh Price - the stars of Mums and Lovers. This raucous girls-night-out comedy is written by no less a figure than Ian Pattison, whose best-loved creation, Rab C Nesbitt, will be back on BBC2 for a one-off special later this year.

Part of the appeal is the lack of formality. Writers can try things out in a congenial atmosphere (Pattison has a full-length version of Mums and Lovers ready to roll should this week prove a success), and audiences don't complain if the set amounts to no more than a table and a couple of bar stools, as it does here. Even though Pattison's comedy breaks no new ground, it is bright, brisk and funny, and feels like a lunchtime well spent.

We're in the territory of Women On the Verge of HRT and of Shirley Valentine, as three old school friends gather for their weekly Thursday drink and bemoan the state of their loveless marriages. That they miss sex is understood; what they hunger for most, however, is validation. In the forbidden fruit of a bar-room flirtation, they see something they can't get from their suburban barbecues.

The idea of the frustrated housewife is not new, but few have been represented with as much feistiness as Pattison's tough-talking trio. "He probably uses cake tongs to take a pee," says Austin's Louise, dismissing the pompous husband of Quigley's Elspeth with typically surreal vulgarity.

Pattison can't resist a wisecrack where sometimes a human truth would do better - which might account for the occasional overplaying of the comedic lines - but he excels in scatological one-liners and keeps the audience laughing. If his full-length version finds room for poignancy as well as gags, he could have a hit on his hands.

© Mark Fisher, 2008