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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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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heer Ranjha (Retold)

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Heer Ranjha (Retold)
Tramway, Glasgow
2 out of 5

Heer Ranjha has survived since the 15th century because it is a tale of archetypal dimensions. Popularised in 1766 by the Punjabi poet Waris Shah, it is a tragic love story in which the beautiful Heer plays Juliet to Ranjha's roaming Romeo. Faced by the repressive forces of the older generation, they are repeatedly frustrated in their romantic aspirations until, after a journey that brings them closer to spiritual maturity, they are foiled once more and united only in death.

This battle between the purity of youth and corruption of old age engages our imaginations on a fundamental level. We have a deep need to see a new generation flourish with its idealism intact, overturning the prejudices of the establishment and thus rejuvenating society. This is why it is disappointing that playwright Shan Khan chooses to retell the myth not with the grandeur of an epic, but with the banality of a soap opera.

That he has updated the story to modern-day Glasgow is not in itself a problem. In this version, Heer is the "face and voice" of Five Rivers, the most successful chain of restaurants in Scotland, while Ranjha is an under-qualified drop-out who has only once ventured outside the city. Her being a Sikh and him a Muslim only makes things more awkward.

What is a problem - aside from working out why Nalini Chetty's confident Heer would ever be attracted to Taqi Nazeer's low-charisma Ranjha - is that the challenges they face are so pedestrian. Too little is at stake in Khan's overly explanatory storytelling to make us care for this commonplace romance. There are compensations, however, in Daljinder Singh's lively staging for Ankur Productions, with its inventive use of space, well-drilled performances, modern nods to Bollywood and forceful music by Tigerstyle.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us
Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

You can tell Paul Higgins has spent time on the set of The Thick of It. The first-time playwright, who played a hate-fuelled press officer in the vicious political satire, rarely lets a line go by without a wounding barb or a sardonic put-down. His language, in this bleak comedy about a dysfunctional working-class family on the cusp of meltdown, is driven, argumentative and brutal.

As a result, Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us is pugnaciously funny, not least in John Tiffany's sharply modulated production. But, along with the three plays preceding it in the National Theatre of Scotland's series of Traverse Debuts, it has such a fear of the future that Higgins can find no escape from the self-destructive world he creates. As domestic banter gives way to morbid gloom, the play's search for tragic redemption achieves only a sense of deflating despair.

The principle cause of the friction is the family's father, a back-seat socialist and bar-room poet whose authoritarian hold over his wife and grown-up children is a front to disguise his being a pathetic alcoholic. Superbly played by Gary Lewis, he is a slippery character able to turn on the charm, or the tyranny as it suits him. With his wife (a hard-bitten Susan Vidler), he has passed on not only intelligence but also impotence to his three children. Despite their talents, they seek quick-fix answers in religion, gambling and drink.

The plot centres on the attempt by the eldest son (a surly Ryan Fletcher) to repay his debts by risking more stolen cash on a high-stakes game of snooker. This attempt to escape his financial problems is a projection of his desperate desire to flee the home - and ultimately, it is just as futile. Meanwhile, after dropping out of the seminary, his younger brother (an amusingly unpriestly John Wark) can no longer promise a life in the hereafter as a release from their earthly torments, and it's not certain that even kid sister Cath (a loveably slow-witted Carmen Pieraccini) believes in communing with the dead.

Higgins deals with all this with a keen sense of theatrical dynamics, vigorous dialogue and ready wit. But, though he has something to say about our society's poverty of expectation, his scenario of an authoritarian father and a young man's crisis of faith is surely a generation out of date, and the story's dead-end despair communicates helplessness more than hope.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Dogstone/Nasty Brutish and Short

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

The Dogstone/Nasty, Brutish and Short
2 stars / 3 stars

If new plays are a measure of the times, the National Theatre of Scotland's series of Traverse Debuts tells us these are depressing days. After Sam Holcroft's unsettling Cockroach, with its gloomy prognosis that war is a Darwinistic inevitability, we have a double bill of Kenny Lindsay's The Dogstone, about the slow demise of an unemployed alcoholic, and Andy Duffy's Nasty, Brutish and Short, a snapshot of callous exploitation among a disenfranchised underclass. Although different in tone, these two short plays, directed by Dominic Hill, proclaim the death of optimism.

That is specifically the case in The Dogstone, in which Andy Gray plays Danskin, a Highland Don Quixote whose dreamy love of Celtic myth grows increasingly pathetic the more dependent on drink he becomes. His son, played with assurance by Scott Fletcher, grows from the wide-eyed credulity of an eight-year-old, beguiled by his father's tales, to a disillusioned teenager embarrassed by this self-destructive behaviour.

In its favour, The Dogstone paints a vivid portrait of Oban life and a poignant picture of a man's decline. But the picture would be more poignant if Lindsay had given the myths full dramatic life and made a deeper connection with his story, instead of just telling them straight.

Rarely has a title been as apposite as Nasty, Brutish and Short, a throwback to the in-yer-face generation of the 1990s. With a rumbling soundtrack and water-logged design, it is as if Shopping and Fucking had been directed by David Lynch. Hill brings an ominous intensity to this bleak story of a homeless young man seeking help from his brother, who signs him up for an armed robbery and rapes his girlfriend. It is a gothic and disheartening sketch, but Duffy's chillingly credible vision of a soulless manipulator promises powerful things to come.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

King Lear

© Mark Fisher - published in Variety

King Lear
Everyman Theater, Liverpool

A Liverpool Everyman, Playhouse, Headlong Theater presentation in association with the Young Vic of a play in three acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rupert Goold.

"King Lear" is the most mythic of Shakespeare's tragedies. With none of the specificity of Elsinore or Glamis, it has the archetypal appeal of a fairytale. So it's a surprise to see a production given such a concrete setting as Great Britain in the early years of Margaret Thatcher's government. But while this decision by helmer Rupert Goold (whose staging of "Macbeth" made a splash on Broadway last season) puts the play's political machinations into interestingly sharp relief, it takes a toll on the tragedy's majestic scale.

The production begins with a voiceover that draws us back to Thatcher's victory speech of May 1979. "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony," said the new prime minister, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. Ironically, her premiership would be characterized by the disharmony of urban riots, union strife and war, so here, her speech serves as a portent of the social breakdown about to be ushered in by Pete Postlethwaite's Lear.

Goold's idea is not always an easy fit with the play, nor is it arbitrary. This co-production with the helmer's own Headlong company is one of the last major events in Liverpool's year as European City of Culture, a program that has helped redefine the city's identity after decades of post-industrial decline. That decline was at its most acute during the Thatcher years, when a left-wing city council did battle with a right-wing central government and, in 1981, the residents of the deprived Toxteth neighborhood took to the streets for a weekend of rioting.

You feel these resonances in Giles Cadle's set of weed-strewn steps leading not to some grand civic building as might be expected, but to a shield of corrugated iron. More explicit are the period film projections and, in the closing scenes, the arrival of soldiers in riot gear. Goold builds a powerful impression of an empire in decline, from rampaging soccer hooligans and the loveless sex of Jonjo O'Neill's Edmund to the "Dallas"-style power dressing of Caroline Faber's Goneril and Charlotte Randle's Regan.

The atmosphere of moral disorder is intensified by the violence of the blinding of Gloucester (John Shrapnel), during which Regan appears to end up with an eyeball in her mouth. It's illuminating to see Lear's madness coincide with this social malaise, but to link his story so closely to a period of British politics -- however bleak -- is to limit the full range of his journey.

Although Postlethwaite has a bushy white beard worthy of George Bernard Shaw, in his 1970s man-made fibers he looks more librarian than king. Arriving to a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and quoting Frank Sinatra, he's less patriarch than team leader. This diminishes the magnitude of his subsequent disappointments and the depths of his fall from grace.

It isn't so much a matter of the actor's interpretation -- which is lucid and earthy, showing an easy relationship with the audience -- as of the context in which he finds himself. This is a world of small-town councilors, not a regal court, and the open heath on which Lear wanders is no more desolate than the urban wasteland he leaves behind.

As a result, the production has too steady a tone and too muted an emotional range. But it does display the spark of creative energy that explains why Goold is London's hottest young helmer.

The man responsible for the recent hits "No Man's Land" and "Six Characters in Search of an Author" -- not to mention a forthcoming "Oliver!" -- directs with clarity and wit, whether he's showing Edgar (Tobias Menzies) as a marathon runner doing laps of the theater or putting the deranged Lear in a flowery dress. It makes for a lively production weighed down by the imperfect fit of its own concept.

Set, Giles Cadle; costumes, Nicki Gillibrand; lighting, Howard Harrison; original music and sound, Adam Cork; movement, Georgina Lamb; fight direction, Terry King; video, Lorna Heavey. Opened Oct. 30, 2008. Reviewed, Nov 7. Running time: 3 HOURS, 45 MIN.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

4.48 Psychosis

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

4.48 Psychosis
Cumbernauld theatre, Cumbernauld
4 out of 5

There are three players in Adrian Osmond's audacious staging of Sarah Kane's swan song. The first is you. To enter the theatre, audience members are taken individually into the dark by an usher wearing night-vision goggles. Having stumbled to your seat, you are clueless as to your surroundings. It negates the social aspect of theatre and turns you inwardly on yourself.

The second player is a tape recording. Working with sound designer Kenny MacLeod, Osmond recorded Kane's text before rehearsals began. Rather than using one voice, he fragmented the script into a panoply of speakers, ranging in age, gender and class. The intention is to turn the playwright's private evocation of a mind in deep depression into something universal, reminding us that mental illness can affect anyone.

It is only after we have come to terms with all this that the third player comes flickering into view. Actor Keith Macpherson emerges from the gloom, standing in a bare room with a rope hanging from the ceiling and window frames looking out at our anonymous gaze. Whether he is calmly shaving or writhing in mental anguish, Macpherson is haunted by the tape's interior soundtrack, a man replaying the day's events in the loneliest hours of the morning.

In juxtaposing these three players the production adds an unsettling quality to an already disturbing play. Your own isolation widens the gulf between you and Macpherson even though the voices pull you in the opposite direction to suggest his experience is not unique. At the end, after the naked actor has gone to his watery grave, we do not applaud. It is partly because of the bleak subject matter, but largely because we have been made incapable of collective action. We leave, as we entered, alone.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Otter Pie

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts journal

Otter Pie (Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 5 November 2008, and touring)

LOCAL IDENTITY is a nebulous thing. We all know what we mean when we talk about the character of place, but try and pin it down and it slips away. Not everyone in Glasgow is friendly, not everyone in Edinburgh lacks generosity and not everyone in Liverpool has a great sense of humour. Yet these are the images of each city that persist.

It's the same with nations, few more so than Scotland where the desire to forge a collective definition is strong enough to have produced a whole year-long marketing campaign in the form of 2009's Homecoming.

Typically, people shape their national definition through cultural talismans. Scotland's love of Runrig and the Proclaimers, for example, goes far beyond mere music. Another such talisman is Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, a book not only voted the nation's favourite in a recent poll, but also assuming its place as a very cornerstone of the country's identity.

This is where Glasgow theatre company Fish & Game comes in. A mixed group of young Scottish and English performers, they've noticed that the world Grassic Gibbon so poetically describes has almost nothing to do with their own experience. These 21st century city-dwellers have no real feel for the Aberdeenshire countryside of 1912 with its sense of community, hand-to-mouth living and primitive farming methods. So for all the book's many qualities, it speaks to them less directly than, say, a Michael Jackson record.

Recognising this, they've created Otter Pie, a show that sits – a little uncomfortably – at the interface between popular theatre and performance art, deconstructing Sunset Song with a mixture of deliberately clunky acting and abstract movement sequences.

What's frustrating about the show is it only sporadically capitalises on its amusing premise. Despite a long period of development, too much of it feels like workshop exercises displaying an abstruse connection with the main theme.

When it gets into stride, however, Robert Walton's production is refreshingly daft. The performers show more energy than technique, but they have a loveably self-deprecating sense of humour and a subtle awareness that Grassic Gibbon's novel is both distant and close to them. It's a bit of a curiosity – as you'd expect with a title like Otter Pie – but with just enough oddball entertainment to be worth a look.

Otter Pie is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 11-12 November 2008

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Traverse at Polmont Young Offenders Institution

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

A rewrite? Of course I've got time ...

In a room in Polmont young offenders' institution, two men have dropped a tab of acid and are starting to hallucinate. "See that tree?" says one, staring at a pot plant in bewilderment. "See that goblin in the garden?" counters the other. Paranoia ensues - "It's the tree, man, I swear to God it's controlling me" - until the first throws up and the second wets himself.

It's not the kind of behaviour usually sanctioned by the prison - the largest of its kind in Scotland, where more than 650 young men between the ages of 16 and 21 serve sentences for everything from burglary to murder and drug crime. But then, Polmont doesn't usually open its high-security doors to a project like OutWrite. Led by playwright Alan Wilkins, this Traverse theatre scheme is designed to get six inmates, most of whom have never been to a theatre, to write their own scripts. The programme culminates in two performances: one by professional actors in the prison, and one for the public at the Traverse in December.

The acid-induced goblin fantasy is the work of Chrissy, a good-humoured inmate with a knack for punchlines, with improvised additions by actors Tom Freeman and Martin McCormick. Today is the midway point in a three-month programme, and it's the first time the writers have heard their words spoken by actors.

Chrissy feels a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. "This one's pure shite," he says defensively before the reading begins, but the look on his face as the actors start tells a different story. In this drab classroom, with its strip lights and soul-destroying view of a barbed-wire fence, his words are coming to life. He roars with laughter.

"You have to applaud them for taking their masks off," says the prison governor, Derek McGill. "In prison, the mask says, 'I'm a hard character, I can cope with this, I can take anything anyone wants to throw at me.' The reality of writing is that you expose your soul, your innermost thoughts. Your enemies can turn that against you, so you need to be a strong character to get involved with this."

Of course, theatre in prison is not new. More than 50 years ago, director Herbert Blau staged Waiting for Godot in San Quentin state prison, and today, Birmingham's Geese theatre company continues its issue-based work behind bars. But there is little precedent when it comes to prisoners having their work staged by professionals. "It is exactly the same process as developing a play at the Traverse," says Freeman, "and they deserve no less."

The prison's only stipulation is that inmates should not write about their own crimes. One script is about an inheritance row and a hitman; another touches on domestic violence; a third is set in a world of pickpockets and knife-slashing. Even the jungle fantasy adventure has an air of menace.

Their language has a vigour all too rare in the classroom. "They've written fantastic dialogue," says director Cheryl Martin. "Usually, the problem is that you can't get that flavour of real speech, but these plays really flow. They just wrote what they heard without worrying about it, and it sounds fantastic. The stories are a bit violent, but a lot of us get our aggression out through our writing."

These young inmates are not only writing scripts, but rewriting them. During the session, Joseph, author of marital breakdown drama Northern Lights, starts scribbling. There was a discussion after his reading about whether the play could end with something other than knives ("guns", quipped Chrissy), and now he is trying to put this into practice. "I've done an extra three pages," he says. "Hearing the actors just gave you more confidence in yourself."

Banned from watching television as a punishment for some misdemeanour, Joseph has been making the most of his free time. "I've been writing in my cell," he says. "I thought, I'm in the jail anyway, so I'll just finish it. It's turned out pretty good. I enjoyed it."

Michael, author of the family feud drama Graveyard Shift, was also motivated by a need to pass the time. "It gives you something to think about when you go back to your cell," he says. "You get the jail for doing something wrong, and then we get to do stuff we couldn't do before. If I was outside I'd never have thought about it."

As far as the prison service is concerned, the Traverse project is a success. "We've seen an increase in confidence and self-esteem," says Ruth Facchini, assistant manager of the prison's learning, skills and employability centre. "Some of the boys have committed dreadful crimes, but a lot of them are victims themselves, and this has been a real opportunity."

The governor is a long-time advocate of using the arts to initiate change. This Christmas, Glasvegas will be performing at Polmont, with a prison band in support. "The more music and drama that comes in, the more we can encourage these people to participate, the more we see behavioural change," says McGill. "And if we don't try to change behaviour, who will?"

• OutWrite is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, on December 4. Details: 0131-228 1404 or

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Suddenly Last Summer/Like the Rain

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Suddenly Last Summer/ Like the Rain

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

There is every reason to be impressed by the British Film Institute's 14-film Tennessee Williams retrospective coming up in London, but that shouldn't eclipse the achievement of the Tron. Andy Arnold's company is ticking off five of the playwright's shorter works on a single evening. If, after that, you still want more, you can follow a Williams strand in the citywide Glasgay! festival.

The centrepiece of the evening is 1958's Suddenly Last Summer, in which a domineering New Orleans mother attempts to suppress the story of her late son's homosexuality by arranging a lobotomy for her niece, the one witness to his death. Arnold's production underplays the grandeur of the Deep South setting, with Jessica Brettle's cardboard set suggesting economy more than wealth. At its centre are two steely performances by Morag Stark as the cruel matriarch and Clare Yuille as a decidedly sane outpatient from a mental home.

The viciousness of their relationship echoes across the evening, whether in the catty chat of the opening piece, A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot, in which two women make merciless comments about each other's bodies, or the trio of low-life plays under the heading Like the Rain, in which alcoholics, sex workers and neglected children seek solace from a tough world. Life has been unkind to these characters, but Williams reveals their tragic beauty.

A strength of the evening is the chance to see the actors take on different roles. Yuille excels again as an abused orphan in This Property Is Condemned, while Jill Riddiford convincingly plays both frumpy mother and brothel-keeper. On the downside, it's like a buffet that never fills you up. When Suddenly Last Summer ends without a second act, it leaves you full yet wanting more.

© Mark Fisher, 2008