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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

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Works, RSAMD/One Academy theatre review

Published in The Scotsman

New Works

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

THE Traverse used to take a break after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe , but not any longer. Just a few weeks after the curtain fell on the theatre's last festival season show, the Traverse is back in action with exactly the kind of mix that makes it's programme such a magnet in August.

Vox Motus has been attracting big crowds for Bright Black (now on tour); Traverse artistic director Dominic Hill is already in rehearsal for The Dark Things and, in the studio for three days, the RSAMD's One Academy company has been staging works in progress by Linda McLean, Douglas Maxwell and David Harrower.

These three plays are something of a mid-term report both for the student actors making their first steps towards a professional career, and for the writers who, thanks to a collaboration with the Playwrights' Studio, have been able to give their unfinished plays an early airing. The programme recalls the exciting The World Is Too Much series of early-morning readings during the Fringe, which gave audiences a first-draft insight into the creative process.

In Reminded of Beauty, Linda McLean is in the same troubling territory of traumatised children and dysfunctional adults she established in Riddance and Strangers, Babies. Here she juxtaposes scenes of violent child abuse with the story of an estranged couple haunted by the death of a daughter. At this stage, we don't know the connection between the two, but the answer could be in the strange sock puppet whose benign presence brings comfort to her distressed characters.

David Harrower's Ashes Blood, by contrast, is unlike anything he's done before. The author of Knives in Hens and Blackbird switches between narration and straight drama to tell a compelling story of a young man desperate to do right by his father in the family coach-hire business. It'll take another act before we find out what led to the suicide attempt that opens the play, but the very promising first half certainly leaves us wanting more.

Which is also the case with Douglas Maxwell's The Fever Dream: Southside, a funny, hallucinatory thriller with an apocalyptic atmosphere, set in a present-day Glasgow where a serial killer is at large. The only one of the three plays that appears to have been written with the cast in mind, it shows promise for the future – and is also a thoroughly accomplished hour of theatre right now.
© Mark Fisher 2009

The Beggar's Opera, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Beggar's Opera

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
2 out of 5

You have a great idea. You imagine John Gay's 18th-century satire could be set in some cyberpunk future, where the highwayman Macheath is now a "super-thief" at large in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. It would be an oversexed society in which the outlaw's girlfriends, with their nostalgic obsession for early 21st-century designer gear, would be motivated by lust, while the older generation would care only for money. At the age of 121, Madonna would be the last surviving celebrity from the time of the global floods, and the world would have descended into dog-eat-dog violence.

You realise that instead of using the musical arrangements of Johann Pepusch or Benjamin Britten, you could bring in Glasgow's A Band Called Quinn for an authentically grungy blast of Goldfrapp-style electro-pop. And you know designer Kai Fischer would dream up a stunning set, a literal underworld beneath a root-strewn ceiling with a large skylight through which you could see Finn Ross's comic-book animations. It would be bold, adventurous and of-the-moment, and would break the rep theatre routine for the Royal Lyceum as it launched its autumn season.

Indeed, Matthew Lenton's hugely ambitious production for Vanishing Point achieves all of these things – but entirely at the expense of the play.

The actors can't be blamed for looking lost, and not only because many are performing from behind gas masks or up to their ankles in sand. It's also because the black-and-white certainties of the production's Bladerunner world leave no room for characterisation, making most of them look like hammy pantomime villains.

They are not helped by an updated script that sets out to be witty but comes across as plain vulgar: Macheath, says one, is "an absolute fucking turn-on". This is a production that, despite ticking all the fashionable boxes, has nothing to say about today.

© Mark Fisher 2009

The House of Bernarda Alba, NTS review

Published in The Guardian

The House of Bernarda Alba

Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

With not an Andalusian plain in sight, this House of Bernarda Alba is not exactly as Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca imagined it in 1936: it's less about pre-Franco oppression than post-credit-crunch neurosis. The closest we get to Spain is a Royal Doulton figurine of a flamenco dancer. And even that smashes on the plushly carpeted floor of Bernadette Alba's all-beige Glasgow living room as soon as the play begins.

Beneath the family's penthouse apartment, meanwhile, the El Paso nightclub is gearing up for a same-sex wedding reception. And outside, camera crews are queuing up to find out who shot Bernie's husband, a crime boss and father to the five sisters who are just back from the funeral in their designer mourning gear.

However, Rona Munro's bold translation for the National Theatre of Scotland is not the gimmick it may sound. This is a portrait of an all-female household cocooned from the outside world by a domineering mother (a sharp-tongued Siobhan Redmond) and fear of the paparazzi. With only one man – the son of a local mobster – to share between them, the daughters let claustrophobia and sexual frustration get the better of them. By staying loyal to the family, they repress their instincts until something has to give.

But although the relocation does not jar, it cannot match the brooding intensity of the original. Having swapped Spanish austerity for consumerist comfort, these women are more grumpy than desperate. When things get tough, they can always lie back on the sofa and escape into an episode of Gossip Girl. That might make us smile, but it doesn't elicit our sympathy. And, refreshing though it is to see Lorca played with humour, John Tiffany's production strikes an uncertain note. It looks like a raucous all-girls-together comedy – especially with Munro's waspish language – but it pulls us in the opposite direction, towards tragedy.

The approach works well in the communal scenes, as the strong cast engage in a delicate tussle for power. It is less successful in quieter moments, however, when the actors' energy is muted by Laura Hopkins's enclosing white box of a set. The result is a 21st-century family drama with a conclusion that is bitter and bloody, but lacks any sense of cruel inevitability.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, September 07, 2009

Edinburgh Festival and Fringe critic's notebook

Published in Variety

Edinburgh critic's notebook

Such is the power of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival and Fringe that the population of the Scottish capital doubles during August. The city pulses with cultural tourists, and the relationship between actors and audiences is at its most intense. This summer, that relationship emerged as a theme in itself.

In some cases this was explicit. In "The Event," given simultaneous productions in Edinburgh and in Gotham’s Intl. Fringe Festival, playwright John Clancy picked apart the act of staging a play in forensic, postmodern detail. Thesp David Calvitto (Matt Oberg plays the part in New York) spent an hour telling us about being an actor in the play we were watching, but before the metatheatrical games were through, he turned the tables to accuse us of treating real life as a similar kind of spectator sport.

Nobody questioned the role of the audience more unsettlingly than Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. In "Internal," five audience members lined up in front of five actors and found themselves paired off for a one-on-one speed-dating session. After 15 minutes of animated conversation -- or embarrassing silence, depending how well each couple hit it off -- the 10 people reconvened for some group therapy.

If you clicked, you could find yourself in a passionate embrace with a pretty actor. If the sparks failed to fly, you sat there squirming. Either way, you left in a state of emotional turbulence, quite unable to determine where reality had blended with artifice.

One of the most talked about shows on the Fringe was "Trilogy" by the young dancer and theatermaker Nic Green. In an effort to re-engage with feminist ideas -- most notably those expressed in "Town Bloody Hall," a landmark debate involving Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Gotham, 1971 -- Green invited a group of local women to dance naked with her.

By the end of the performance, many women in the audience accepted her invitation to remove their clothes for a rousing (but not arousing) chorus of "Jerusalem," a startling example of women reclaiming their bodies from the tyranny of the male gaze.

It sounds shocking, but Green made it feel natural, as did playwright David Greig when, during a rehearsed reading of "Brewers Fayre," he asked the early-morning audience to play the part of the chorus. The relevant lines were projected onto a screen and the audience performed with surprising gusto. It was a clever way of exploiting the unspoken pact between spectator and performer, and made this funny new play about adultery all the more engaging.

Edinburgh audiences have grown used to site-specific theater and thought nothing of dressing in white kimonos for David Leddy’s intimate "White Tea," about a woman reconnecting with her estranged Japanese mother. Likewise, they freely accepted a drink from the bar for Grid Iron theater’s "Barflies," based on the stories of Charles Bukowski and performed in a real-life watering hole.

This also meant auds were primed for Mark Watson’s "The Hotel," possibly the world’s first example of site-specific comedy, in which the audience played guests in a "Fawlty Towers"-style inn run by a neurotic staff with no concept of customer relations or health and safety regulations.

You expect such experiments on the Fringe, but similar realignments were made in the Intl. Festival as well. In Silviu Purcarete’s majestic "Faust," once Ilie Gheorghe’s scholar and Ofelia Popii’s sexually ambiguous Mephistopheles had made their pact, the back wall disappeared from behind them revealing a carnival-like vision of hell taking place in a massive hangar-like space. Ushered out of their seats, the audience joined an increasingly skeptical Faust among the theatrical fireworks and flames.

More subtly, Brian Friel toyed with our suspension of disbelief in "The Yalta Game" -- one of three of his plays staged consummately by Dublin’s Gate Theater -- in which he drew a parallel between the escapist fantasy of a holiday romance and our willingness to escape into the fictional world of the stage.

The Edinburgh Fringe wrapped Aug. 31, while the Intl. Festival closed Sept. 6.

© Mark Fisher 2009