Monday, April 27, 2009

Philip Pullman interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday.

Philip Pullman interview

DO YOU have difficulty telling your hobbits from your daemons? Can you spot the difference between an Orc and a Gyptian? How easily could you distinguish a Ringwraith from a Cliff-ghast?
If you're at all unsure, you better not mention it to Philip Pullman. The author of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (collectively known as His Dark Materials) is in no doubt that his trilogy is in a different class to the work of his fellow fantasist JRR Tolkien. They may be operating in the one genre, but the two are not the same.

"I don't like The Lord Of The Rings," says Pullman. "It is profoundly conservative. It is Little England nostalgic in a way that I have never enjoyed."

This is worth keeping in mind when Birmingham Rep visits the Edinburgh Festival Theatre with its mammoth adaptation of the first two His Dark Materials novels.

Yes, the story of Lyra Belacqua and her travels into parallel universes is a work of rare imagination – alive with fantastic inventions such as the truth-telling alethiometer, the mysterious particles known as Dust and the animal-like daemons who are invisibly conjoined to every person – but so too is it rooted in the real world.

We're sitting by the open stone fireplace in Pullman's low-ceilinged cottage in a village near Oxford. On the windowsill is a maquette of a leaping polar bear, a gift from the design studio of The Golden Compass movie, adapted in 2007 from Northern Lights. It is nearly 15 years since that book picked up a Carnegie Medal, but the 62-year-old still talks animatedly about the trilogy, as if he were as astonished as the rest of us by the universes he created.

"When I was thinking of writing this big fantasy, I thought, 'How can I justify it to myself, morally?'" he says. "'If I don't find a way of connecting it to our lives, if I don't find a way of saying something about what it means to be a human being, then I shall waste seven years on something frivolous.'"

He found the answer in John Milton's Paradise Lost, the epic poem about the temptation of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. Although Pullman, a prominent atheist, would go on to create a three-volume allegory about the falsity of religion, he saw in this 17th century Christian classic a blueprint for what he could achieve in His Dark Materials.

"I realised that what Milton was doing in Paradise Lost was writing a fantasy – it has people with wings and dungeons full of fire – but he connects most deeply with real life," he says. "Milton was doing something profound and important with fantasy, so I thought it must be possible. That's why in His Dark Materials there is a political subtext and a religious subtext – not very 'sub' either – because I realised I could use fantasy to say something about what it means to be a human being."

The success of The Lord Of The Rings movies and the Harry Potter franchise – and, to a lesser extent, The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig – suggests there is a large public appetite for pure escapism. Pullman makes no overt criticism of the JK Rowling books ("When people read Harry Potter presumably they like to escape into the fantasy of an English boarding school with magic things happening," he says. "I don't want to disparage Harry Potter"), but he has little time for Tolkien. "When they read Tolkien, they want to take refuge in Little Englandism, the sense that the hobbits – which are us – are menaced by the nasty people who are somewhere else, but we're jolly brave and we'll fight through. It's a Churchillian vision of fighting on the beaches."

But doesn't His Dark Materials play to the same desire for escapism? "Well, it would be escapist if you just go there to have a lovely time," he says. "If you go there and find it's bloody horrible, you've got a terrible deed to do and it's dangerous and frightening, then maybe the real escapism is in the realistic novel that talks about being a publisher in London and having an adulterous affair."

Exactly why he should find himself so drawn to telling stories about adolescents is a subject he is uncharacteristically reticent to explore. "Those are the stories that come to me," is all he is prepared to say. As for his own adolescence, it was marked by the usual "difficulty, frustration, unhappiness and bewilderment", but above all, it seems to have been characterised by a tremendous creative flowering.

"I became very interested in painting and the visual arts," says Pullman, who was born in Norwich in 1946 and lived in Zimbabwe and Australia before spending his teenage years near Harlech on the North Wales coast. "I had a book about the history of art which I pored over and I did a lot of drawing. I always remember that sense of discovering a world that was opening up. There was a part of me that responded to the arts like a gong being struck. There was a whole world of artistic excitement. Philosophy! People asking questions about if there is a God. What's life about? It was extraordinarily exciting."

Although he gravitates so instinctively to writing about this period in our lives, he does not project the feeling of arrested development that you find in writers such as JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. That is deliberate. When he came to write His Dark Materials, he was determined to resist the romantic tradition of childhood laid down by these men.

"The pity of it is they were very gifted writers, so they set a mark for childhood nostalgia and whimsy – and there's something rather sickly and unhealthy about it," he says. "For a certain class of British male writers from the late-Victorian period to the 1920s, there was an unhealthy longing to go back to the nursery. I loathe it. And one of my conscious intentions in writing His Dark Materials was to do a story about children that would not be in the least sentimental, that would show what children really want, which is not to go backwards, but to go forwards – children want to be grown up."

Now Birmingham Rep is bringing the first two books to the stage – using the adaptation first seen at the National Theatre in 2003 – Pullman is genuinely interested to see how it shapes up. He is not precious about how other artists deal with his work as long as they treat the stories with respect. "I've always thought it was utterly stupid to sell the rights to an adaptation and then moan about the way they do it," he says. "If you wrote a strong enough story it will stand up to adaptation. The only thing I'm zealously protective about is the integrity of the story. There was a moment early in the film discussions when somebody high up at the studio said, 'Let's make Lyra into a boy.' That sort of thing you zealously protect."

His Dark Materials, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, May 21-24

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Copenhagen, Royal Lyceum Theatre review

Published in The Guardian.


Forget the physics. The greatest experiment in Michael Frayn's threehander is in the dramatic form itself.

It isn't merely Copenhagen's unlikely subject: the meeting in 1941 between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his German protege, Werner Heisenberg.Nor is it that it treats this encounter less as fact than as a series of speculations to be tested, as if the stage itself were a laboratory. It is also that Frayn dares to put arguments about quantum theory in the very place where most playwrights would field old-fashioned devices such as plot, action and characterisation.

That he does this while capturing a sense of the politics of the Holocaust and the arbitrary way in which we have escaped global catastrophe suggests Frayn is more eccentric genius than mad professor. Even so, it is an experiment that comes at a price.

At its best, as in the tremendous rallies between Tom Mannion's Bohr and Owen Oakeshott's Heisenberg in Tony Cownie's production, the play is a dazzling drama of ideas, headily matching concepts about splitting the atom with a debate about taking moral responsibility for one's actions. At its worst, in those moments when the actors seem dwarfed by designer Neil Murray's set of outsize control rods, it is a play in which the physicists tell each other what they must already know, while Sally Edwards, as Bohr's wife, chips in like a character from an arch sitcom.

Mannion and Oakeshott give assured performances, but the lack of action means you're sometimes more impressed that they have learned their lines than you are engaged with the big ideas.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Djupid (The Deep) review

Published in Northings.

Djupid (The Deep)

A LIFE at sea is tough. Every fisherman contends with long days away from home, brutal working conditions and primitive domestic arrangements. It's the same in all northerly waters: the unforgiving sea does not care what country you have sailed from. That is why Jon Atli Jonasson's short, vivid and intense monologue will carry as much resonance for audiences in Halkirk, Skerray and Durness as it does for those in the playwright's native Iceland.

Jonasson's story is as simple as it is familiar: a 300-tonne trawler sets out to sea, gets into trouble and does not return. If there is a weakness in the piece, it is its lack of narrative complexity, but its great strength is in the rich, poetic detail of the language that so compellingly captures the fisherman's life.

In this production originating from A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Glasgow's lunchtime theatre season, Liam Brennan plays a young trawlerman who leaves before dawn to join a semi-comatose crew, hung-over after a two-week on-shore bender, then takes the chance for a brief nap below deck before the real work begins. The journey has hardly begun when disaster strikes.

Superbly translated by director Graeme Maley into a colourful contemporary Scots idiom, Djupid invests this austere life with nobility, capturing a sense of the importance for the community of this dangerous work.

At the same time, the play does not romanticise the fishermen. Hard workers though they are, they are emotionally repressed and capable of nothing more than the most gruff exchange. This is in sharp contrast to the vigour and breadth of Jonasson's language.

As Brennan's character steps from the certainty of land, with its promise of fast cars and pretty girls, to the volatility of the sea, offering only hardship, it is as if he is journeying from life to death metaphorically as well as literally. The dark depths of the sea give him cause to reflect on the richness of life and the small, everyday details that give it value.

Sharing the stage with nothing more than a table and chair, Brennan is on excellent form, powering into Jonasson's script with compelling energy, giving voice to its comic ironies, yet modulating his delivery to allow room for pathos and poetry. The piece shines brightly in the imagination during the telling and, even if it has less lasting resonance, it is worth seeing for his performance alone.

The Deep tours to Ross Institute, Halkirk, 20 April; Village Hall, Skerray, 21 April; Village Hall, Durness, 22 April; Village Hall, Rosehall, 23 April.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Orgy of Tolerance, Jan Fabre review

Published in The Guardian.

Orgy of Tolerance

Tramway, Glasgow
3 out of 5

If I say this latest piece by Belgian iconoclast Jan Fabre is banal, it could give the wrong impression. After all, there aren't many shows this side of the Jim Rose Circus that feature an actor stripping naked and inserting a rifle up his arse. Neither is it common to see a man having full-frontal sex with the revolving spokes of a bicycle. After such scenes, you are little perturbed by the Easter weekend imagery of Jesus Christ balancing a full-size crucifix on his hand, while being cast as a supermodel by a vacuous fashion photographer.

This is not shock for shock's sake, however. In this episodic collage, en route to London's Spill festival, Fabre and his athletic company are making the connection between masturbation and consumerism. Theirs is a vision of a society dedicated to instant gratification, one in which sexual stimulation is on the same orgasmic continuum as the fetishisation of high-end goods. While they're at it, they suggest this me-generation indulgence results in anything from casual racism to out-and-out slavery.

Fabre expresses these ideas with considerable visual flair, whether it's a Blue Danube waltz of Lidl supermarket trolleys or the Olympic wanking competition that opens the show. At its best, Orgy of Tolerance creates surreal yet loaded metaphors, such as the sexual coupling of a luxury leather couch and a designer handbag, and the women who give painful birth to bags of sweets, tins of baked beans and cans of lager.

So far, so vivid: if only Fabre's politics were not so commonplace. It's not just that his vision of the idle rich is out of kilter with our recessionary times, it's that his insight into the superficiality of retail therapy is a good 20 years too late. Despite the sound and fury, the show is without satirical bite.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

John Cairns interview about theatre touring

John Cairns: reviving the touring circuit

IT DOESN'T SEEM so long ago that promoters in the Highlands and Islands could pick and choose the theatre productions they programmed. Scotland had a wealth of companies dedicated to small-scale touring, allowing village halls and rural theatres to book what suited them. In recent years, however, many of those companies, such as 7:84 and Wildcat, have disappeared, while others have found their budgets no longer stretch to the extensive tours of old.

The result is that promoters are crying out for shows. Fortunately, one man has spotted the gap in the market and has come up with a way to fill it. Producer John Cairns, a mainstay of Thurso's Grey Coast, is in the process of launching Open Book, a "virtual theatre company" that will offer promoters a portfolio of productions, many of them originating from the lunchtime theatre series A Play, a Pie and a Pint at Glasgow's Oran Mor, which he hopes will bring a once vibrant circuit back to life.

He dipped his toe in the water last year with short tours of Iain Heggie's The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer and Dave Anderson's Mobile, and is convinced he can revive the touring circuit not only in the Highlands and islands, but also in the Borders and perhaps even in England and the Republic of Ireland.

Having recently organised a week-long tour for a new Heggie show, Wide Asleep, he is now bringing Djupid (The Deep) by Icelandic writer Jon Atli Jonasson to Halkirk, Skerray, Durness and Rosehall.

"Everything we've done so far people have said, 'Why can't we get more?'" he says. "Five or ten years ago people were knocking stuff back and now everybody is saying there's nothing coming."

Talking to agencies such as North Highland Connections, Shetland Arts and North East Arts Touring, as well as David MacLennan, the producer of A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Cairns is identifying suitable shows and building up a package to offer promoters.

That package, subject to negotiation, is likely to include the two shows by Heggie, The Price of a Fish Supper by Catherine Czerkawska, The Bones Boys by Colin MacDonald, Poem in October by Robert Forrest, The Waltz of the Cold Wind by Paddy Cunneen and Metrosexual by writer and comedian Sandy Nelson, who recently moved to Unst.

"We would be able to say to promoters, 'You pick, you know your audience best,'" he says. "They have that right to choose. I'm not trying to influence that choice at all; I'm just trying to get them to be able to see as much as they can."

Having identified a similar dearth in touring provision in the Borders and Ireland, Cairns is hoping to pave the way for reciprocal visits from theatre companies in those places. "The conversations have started," he says, adding that the more bookings each show gets, the more affordable it becomes.

"Everybody has said that, for example, they would like to see shows coming into the Borders, but they would also like to see stuff coming out. Ireland is exactly the same. We would love to do it because the more people see, the more they influence each other and we're not just relying on a small pool."

He does not believe he should limit the range of plays on offer to those with Highland themes ("People want to see the same things as people want to see anywhere"), but when one comes along, such as The Deep, he is excited about the connections that can be made.

"Jon Atli Jonasson is concerned about the state of Iceland and what's been going on in the banks – and he was saying those things before the credit crunch happened," he says.

"People always go on about the historic similarities and the Nordic links in Caithness, but the modern truth is that the experience of the arts in the far north of Scotland is much more similar to the way Iceland is now. There are many more links between these countries than is acknowledged. Iceland is very like Caithness in a lot of ways. There is a common cultural experience that would be very interesting to explore."

The Deep tours to Ross Institute, Halkirk, 20 April; Village Hall, Skerray, 21 April; Village Hall, Durness, 22 April; Village Hall, Rosehall, 23 April. Contact

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lucky Box by David Harrower, review

Lucky Box

Òran Mór, Glasgow
3 out of 5

As the younger character in David Harrower's drama suggests, Lucky Box is "some kind of fucked-up fairy story". It takes place one afternoon on a forest path where a middle-aged man in a suit is sitting on a plastic container, making it hard for 17-year-old Jack to get by. Played by Stuart Bowman, always an intimidating actor, the man is just the kind of big bad wolf your mother warned you about: tricky and volatile.

It is not clear why Jack doesn't just make a run for it, but the sturdy young actor Scott Fletcher successfully holds his ground. What Harrower offers is a battle for status, the boy undermining the man's assumed authority, seeing through his lies while revealing as little of himself as possible. In Dominic Hill's production, their exchanges are crisp, loaded and tense, combining the toughness of Mamet with the elliptical brevity of Beckett.

Harrower, who proved himself a master of reserve with Knives in Hens and Blackbird, is in characteristically enigmatic form here, although sometimes he makes us feel less tantalised than strung along. His theme is not perfectly articulated, but he seems to be making the connection between society's disregard for its victims and the broken lines of communication between fathers and sons.

For all his conversational dominance, the man has been made impotent by the recession, having lost his job as a school careers adviser. The beating meted out to his son (who is the same age as Jack) by a gang of boys compounds the impression of a callous society. That he hasn't spoken to his son for months suggests that male emotional inarticulacy and economic violence are bound together - a theme Harrower might yet invest with more dramatic weight if he develops this promising play further.

Interiors, Vanishing Point review 2

Traverse Theater, Edinburgh; 250 Seats; £16 $23.50 top

Barnaby Power, Aurora Peres and Myra McFadyen star in 'Interiors,' a play in which the aud can’t hear what the characters are saying.
A Vanishing Point, Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, Mercadante Teatro Stabile di Napoli and the Traverse Theater, Edinburgh, presentation in association with Lyric Hammersmith and Tron Theater, Glasgow, of a play in one act created by Vanishing Point and inspired by the play "Interior" by Maurice Maeterlinck. Conceived and directed by Matthew Lenton.

With: Elicia Daly, Sara Lazzaro, Myra McFadyen, Andrew Melville, Aurora Perese, Davide Pini Carenzi, Barnaby Power, Damir Todorovic.

Faced by a multinational cast of English, Italian and Serbian speakers, helmer Matthew Lenton has devised a novel way of leaping the language barrier: cutting out the dialogue. But far from coming across as gimmicky, his wordless production for Glasgow's Vanishing Point company -- which travels next to the Lyric Hammersmith in London en route to Naples -- is a beguiling piece of social observation. Even in its funniest moments, "Interiors" is tinged with sadness, building from gentle comedy to a sweet meditation on the nature of life and death.

Wordless theater is not without precedent. Latvia's New Riga Theater sustained two silent hours in "Long Life" to evoke the mundane existences of a group of senior citizens with nothing left to say. "Interiors" is different, however. Here the characters do talk to each other -- theirs is the kind of banter recognizable from any dinner party, at turns polite, awkward, merry and jovial -- it's just that the audience is on the other side of a wide window and cannot hear a word of their exchanges.

This has three clear effects. The first, which makes the show as accessible as it is experimental, is to emphasize the physical comedy of manners. The scene, excellently realized by designer Kai Fischer, is a domestic dining room in some northern country where a genial widower (beautifully observed by Andrew Melville) holds an annual get-together to mark the passing of the darkest day of winter. It starts with some gentle comic business as he prepares for his guests, wandering the house without trousers while his granddaughter (Sara Lazzaro, brimming with adolescent nerves and potential) goes through the rituals of teenage dressing.

So far so whimsical, but things gather pace as the guests begin to arrive, each carrying a shotgun as if having battled through a ferocious wilderness. It's not the only surreal touch, although more typically the comedy has to do with minor struggles for social status and quirks of human behavior, as in the case of the couple who dance with unseemly enthusiasm to "Video Killed the Radio Star."

The second effect of the silence is to place all our attention on subtext. As long as we get the gist of what they're saying, we can dispense with words and focus on the characters' motivation. It gives the production an unexpectedly Chekhovian air as we see each character as both foolish and sad, well-meaning and misunderstood. It makes the failure, for example, of Barnaby Power's marriage proposal to Aurora Peres at once heartbreaking and funny.

The third effect is to turn us into voyeurs. Rarely has the theatrical fourth wall been marked by so literal a divide. Peering so intently into this stranger's house feels almost indecent. The unusual perspective was inspired by "Interior," an early symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck in which a man brings bad news to a family gathered on the other side of a window. Here, we get another shift in perspective through the commentary of Elicia Daly (the play, in truth, is not entirely wordless) who plays a ghostly figure lurking on our side of the auditorium and showing an otherworldly knowledge of the characters' inner lives and future deaths.

Along with the strength of the performances and the assured pace of Lenton's direction, Daly's contribution adds a metaphysical dimension to a piece that could have been just a clever rehearsal-room exercise. By switching back and forth from the intimacy of the scene to the cool objectivity of her observations, the production creates a touching commentary on life in all its intensity and ephemerality, its tragedy and its comedy.

Set and lighting, Kai Fischer; costumes, Eve Lambert; original music and sound, Alasdair Macrae; projection and video, Finn Ross for Mesmer. Opened April 3, 2009. Reviewed April 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Interiors, Vanishing Point review

Published in the Guardian © Mark Fisher


Traverse, Edinburgh
5 out of 5

Imagine watching Festen with the sound turned off. You would see family and friends gather for their celebratory meal, you would have a sense of the tensions and attractions between them, but on a dialogue basis you would be left guessing. This is the effect of Interiors, an audacious production by Glasgow's Vanishing Point - en route to the Lyric Hammersmith and the Naples Theatre festival - performed behind a glass window that turns the audience into voyeurs and the actors into characters whose actions speak louder than words.

Inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck's early symbolist play Interior, in which a visitor interrupts a family gathering with news of a daughter's death, Matthew Lenton's production is at once whimsical silent comedy and touching meditation on the transitory nature of life. What starts as a light-hearted gimmick builds into a beguiling piece of theatre that is sad, funny and heartbreakingly humane.

Its premise is simple. We are in the depths of winter in the kind of northerly country where people travel with shotguns for fear of wild animals. An elderly widower, played with exquisite tenderness by Andrew Melville, holds his annual dinner to mark the approaching spring. His guests arrive and do the things that guests do - eat, flirt, dance, joke and squabble - until it is time to fade back into the night.

We hear not a word of this apart from the wry commentary of a ghostly Elicia Daly, who stays on our side of the divide, and yet the subtext comes across more volubly than classic Chekhov. The incidents have an archetypal familiarity - exploring varying degrees of social embarrassment from thwarted teenage crush to a mid-meal nose bleed and a fated marriage proposal - yet what could have been a slight comedy of manners becomes deliciously poignant.

© Mark Fisher, 2009