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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 25, 2009

Interview: Johnny McKnight, pantomime dame

Published in The Scotsman

Johnny McKnight in Sleeping Beauty

IF YOU'RE planning on seeing Sleeping Beauty at Stirling's MacRobert this season – and all the omens suggest you should – don't set too much store by the advertised running time. Last year's festive offering, Mother Goose, lasted anything between two hours and two hours 40 minutes depending on how carried away writer and star Johnny McKnight became during any given performance.

"I got into a wee bit of trouble for that," laughs McKnight who, at 32, is at the vanguard of a new generation of great Scottish dames. "The longest show was when I caught two wee wifies on a matinee with a bottle of vodka in their bag, literally mid-pour. You can't not rip them apart for a whole show. That's what makes the show: wee Ina and Betty sitting there half-cut on a Monday afternoon at one o'clock. I love that."

It sounds a riot, but if the Ayrshire-born McKnight has blossomed into what last year The Scotsman called "a sparkling new Scottish panto star", it was far from inevitable. For a start, the teenage McKnight was nearly put off panto for life by a spot of exuberant audience participation on a P7 theatre trip to the Ayr Gaiety. "I remember the two dames coming into the audience to get somebody up and I was terrified," he says.

Then, having developed an interest in theatre in spite of this formative trauma, he went on to take a place on the RSAMD's contemporary performance practice course – a programme better known for turning out avant garde experimenters than mainstream dames. "When we came out of drama school, we thought we were going to be pure radical live artists," he says. "We did shows with baked beans, if I remember right."

Things might have continued along the same leftfield path, with McKnight and fellow graduate Julie Brown running their own small company Random Accomplice, had director Andy Arnold not spotted his potential as a cross-dressing leading lady when he met him at an interview for the Arches Theatre's directors' scheme. "I thought, 'Should I be insulted by that?'" he laughs.

A season as an Ugly Sister at Loch Lomond gave him a taste for the panto life and, after a series of shows in Dunfermline working with Tony Roper, he joined the cast of The Wizard of Oz in Stirling. "I played the lion like a dame," he says. "I think that's the only character I'm able to play: myself and myself with stilettos on."

Before he knew it, though, he was running the whole show. Sleeping Beauty is his fourth MacRobert panto as dame and his third as writer. They have been successful enough to travel: this season, the Byre Theatre in St Andrews is doing his Mother Goose and Platform in Easterhouse is doing his Cinderella. "I did a performance course where you learn to play yourself and that's quite handy being a dame," he says. "The dame's not unlike me and I'm quite good at being myself. Just before I graduated, I started going to pantos because I had pals who were in them and I really got it. It's quite like live art because there's no fourth wall and you interact. I came to the realisation that theatre is all about entertainment. That's its primary function. If I go to it and I'm bored, it's not worked." His background makes the MacRobert show an invigorating fusion. On the one hand, it has the traditional variety elements that make pantomime such a popular force in Scotland. As well as McKnight's dame, inspired by the sharp-talking women in his own matriarchal family, this show even features that dying breed, a female principal boy in the shape of Michelle Gallagher (cue a round of "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It"). All the boos, hisses and he's-behind-yous will be firmly in place.

On the other hand, the show has borrowed the cheeky self-referential elements from Glasgow's Tron pantos with their knowing subversion of convention. This is a world where characters train at Panto Academy to become principal girls and where the wicked witch turns out to be a pretty good mother.

In addition to that, McKnight is a strong believer in the power of narrative. "I get really frustrated when I see pantos and they aren't telling a story or the story is superfluous to the tricks," says McKnight, who sets to work on each script as early as January. "You need to make your story clear and you need to have characters. If you're writing a baddie, why are they a baddie? In Sleeping Beauty, why does she cast a spell on a new born baby? I need to find a logic for why she would do that."

What it means is that his experience on stage in Stirling does not feel so different to his high-camp adventures with Random Accomplice in autobiographical comedies such as Little Johnny's Big Gay Musical. "With the Little Johnny shows and with the pantos, you've got to charm the audience and take them on a journey with you," he says. "They're quite similar. You know the audience is there, there's no fourth wall and everybody's in this together. All my stuff puts the audience first."

He promises more Little Johnny japes later in 2010 when his company collaborates with the National Theatre of Scotland, but first there is another gear change.

Four days after the last night of Sleeping Beauty, he goes into rehearsals as director of a new play by Douglas Maxwell. Promises Promises is a dark classroom thriller about a supply teacher, played by Joanna Tope, and a six-year-old Somali girl who is accused of witchcraft. "It's a really different style of play for Douglas and for us as a company," he says.

"It's theatre noir, horrific and brilliant. When I read the script, I thought if I don't do this justice, I will hate myself for ever."

Sleeping Beauty, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, today until 31 December

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Autobahn, theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

As we move from car to car in Neil LaBute's series of six two-handers, the road seems to get wider, the possibility of escape more remote and the conversation more disturbing. Performed for the first time in the UK by the newly formed Theatre Jezebel, the Autobahn journey starts off light with a sinister edge, and ends up plain sinister.

The playwright doesn't exactly blame the roads for his catalogue of stalkings, gang bangs and child abuse, but he uses cars – "our bubbles of glass and steel" – to exemplify the social atomisation that lets such things happen. It might not have the misanthropic shock value of the London hits that have earned LaBute his bad-boy reputation, but beneath each of these compelling exchanges lies a dark seam of dysfunctional behaviour.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression of an evening of gloom and malaise. This is for two reasons. The first is LaBute's spare dialogue, which gives away just enough and no more, meaning you're never certain you've come to the right conclusions, though invariably you have. Autobahn is as much about the keenly observed interplay of the characters – the gaps in communication, the evasions and the status games – as it is about society's ugly underbelly.

The second reason is the production by Mary McCluskey and Kenny Miller, a masterclass in acting. With some parts cross-cast to reveal intriguing gender possibilities, each dazzling performance seems to outshine the last. Sally Reid, with Mickey Mouse ears, shows the psychopath behind the dumb date; Candida Benson is a mess of neurotic tics, as she searches for the words to say sorry; Alison Peebles disguises a night of debauchery behind her shades; and so on, until Johnny Austin delivers a stunning exercise in silence and stillness as his wife, played by Angela Darcy, uncovers his one last terrible secret.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

Derevo's Natura Morte theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Natura Morte by Derevo/Akhe/Conflux theatre preview

IF YOU go down to The Arches this week, you're in for a big surprise. The show you see in the subterranean Glasgow theatre will be of your own choosing. It might not even be the same as the show your friends see.

That's because at 20-minute intervals during Natura Morte, a promenade performance in the rarely used basement-level arches, you will be asked to decide where to go next. All the time, there are seven or eight scenes running in parallel. Unless you return on successive evenings, you will see only three of them. "Even husband and wife will be divided," says director and performer Anton Adasinskiy. "One room will be a dance show, in another a piece of storytelling, in another a clown piece."

Adasinskiy is the founder of Derevo, the Russian-German physical theatre company that has built a formidable cult following on the Edinburgh Fringe. Natura Morte is a collaboration between Derevo and another Fringe favourite, Akhe, a visually ravishing company from St Petersburg. Where previous visits have allowed us to see established productions from their repertoire – Fringe First- winning shows such as Akhe's White Cabin and Derevo's Once – this is a rare opportunity to be in at the start of one of their productions, and one custom-built for this remarkable space.

"The work will be very experimental," says Derevo's Elena Yarovaya, sitting in the Arches restaurant after an intense day of rehearsal and discussion. "It's the first time we have collaborated with performers who are not from our style of theatre. We have a long relationship with the Scottish public, but this is the first time we are trying to do something together."

She is referring to Conflux, a new project dedicated to the development of street theatre and circus in Scotland, which is the third part of the creative team. Not only is Natura Morte an opportunity for Scottish practitioners to work at an international level – the show goes to Dresden after Glasgow – but it also opens up possibilities for Derevo to work in a new way. "They're all professional, they're all great, but they're very different," says Adasinskiy. "We're improvising every day, then Elena and I will choose the best pieces and the best people and combine the groups and start to put things together. All the material will come from the artists and they'll be happy to play because they will have created it themselves. My task is to press people to make sure they produce only diamonds."

"When we start to work together we create a common atmosphere," says Yarovaya. "We call it a soup, boiling in a pan. It's interesting to see how the Scottish performers can be part of our soup."

To bring together such a varied ensemble – 21 artists in all – Adasinskiy has devised a loose story into which the different elements can sit. It is about the Weatherman, a magical figure who can influence the weather. Nobody can see him, but he is always just around the corner, leaving traces of his presence. "He spends years to make himself an expert in different art forms," says Adasinskiy. "He is a good dancer, musician, mime, singer and clown. He doesn't want to show himself, but he will show his art. So the artists play different parts of his soul. All their different styles speak about one man."

For the director, it's a way of talking about the capacity within us all to pursue different avenues in life. It's a reminder that, whatever age we are, we are never too old to return to the ambitions we had in our youth. "The main message of the show is that there's still time to change," he says. "There's still time to go left or right, to return to your dream when all doors were open."

The choices that we make as an audience, deciding what show we see, remind us of the choices we have in life. It is, he says part of a renewed interest in narrative, that he plans to develop further in Harlequin, a new show that Derevo will bring to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010. "Sometimes I see a dance show and I can't decide what they're trying to say," says Adasinskiy, whose shaven head and gaunt looks make him ideal casting as Mephistopheles in Alexander Sokurow's Faust, which he recently finished shooting in Iceland. "Who put that movement on the stage? Why did some people jump all together? I want to go back to a time when theatre was very understandable, like a fairytale. I want to make a simple, beautiful, lyrical story for people and this will be my next show. It's important for me to get back on the stage with an open heart."

• Natura Morte is at the Arches, Glasgow, 10-13 November.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

PETER Pan might be the boy who wouldn't grow up, but he has no trouble proliferating. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth of JM Barrie, our appetite for the Kirriemuir writer's most famous creation appears to be insatiable. The boy from Neverland is everywhere.
In a year when Scottish audiences have enjoyed productions of Peter Pan by Glasgow theatre company Visible Fictions and New York's Mabou Mines, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is about to stage it again as a Christmas show. "Every man wants to be Peter Pan," says director Jemima Levick, who wants to explore new dimensions to the story, "but I'm interested in Wendy and Hook." Meanwhile, the second best-selling show in London this summer was a high-tech staging of Peter Pan in Barrie's old stomping ground of Kensington Gardens directed by Ben Harrison, famed for his work with Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company. So successful was this multimedia spectacular that it is about to open for a pre-Christmas run at London's vast O2 arena and plans are under way for productions in San Francisco and Australia.

All this is before the National Theatre of Scotland takes on Peter Pan for a UK tour to coincide with the Barrie anniversary on 9 May next year. Staged by four of the team who brought us Black Watch, it is being relocated to Victorian Edinburgh by playwright David Greig. Director John Tiffany calls it "the most influential story ever written by a Scottish writer".

So what is it about this story, first staged in 1904 and put on the cinema screen by Walt Disney in 1953, that continues to capture our imagination? In the year when Michael Jackson, the self-styled Peter Pan of pop, tragically proved himself a boy who really couldn't grow up, what does our obsession with this myth tell us about our own times? And in an era when no-one can get near a child without the approval of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, what are we to make of Barrie himself, a man who openly revelled in the company of little boys?

As far as Barrie biographer Lisa Chaney is concerned, Peter Pan is a play of timeless genius. "It is one of the great – and profoundly underestimated – works of art of the 20th century," says the author, whose Hide-And-Seek With Angels: A Life of JM Barrie was published in 2005. "His contribution is enormous."

Chaney's enthusiasm is echoed by Ben Harrison. "It's up there with Waiting For Godot – and there's more flying," says the director. "It's an endlessly fascinating myth and, just like Peter himself, it is always slightly beyond your grasp."

If Peter Pan has been underrated, it is because of the patronising assumption that the story is for children and therefore lacks seriousness, an assumption bolstered by pantomime versions that pile on the swashbuckling action and cut out the profundity. At it's best, however, the play talks to people of all ages not simply about battles with ticking crocodiles and pirates with hooks, but about creativity, the passage of time and the elusive nature of childhood.

"It's about unfulfilled desires of all sorts," says Liza Lorwin, writer and producer of the heartbreaking Mabou Mines production in this year's Edinburgh International Festival. "When I read it as a teenager, it was the atmosphere of the book that got me, its adolescent yearning and unfulfilled desire. As I looked at it again as the mother of a five-year-old, it was more about that moment when you re-experience your childhood through your child and then they start to fly away."

For Chaney, Peter Pan plays on the tension between having to grow up and the fear that adulthood will steal our imagination. Barrie relished the creative spirit, but knew we deny adulthood at our peril. "Michael Jackson is an example of how, when you don't listen to that message, terrible things happen to you," she says. "Jackson tried to deny time and when you do that, you become a tragic monster. Peter Pan doesn't become physically monstrous, but the tragedy for him is that, when he flies back, the bars are up and he can't get in the room. He is condemned to be youthful for ever."

What it says about today, suggests Chaney, is that ours is a society reluctant to face the responsibilities of adulthood. "Intuitively, Barrie was trying to understand the West becoming an industrial society," she says. "Nineteenth-century man began to dislike adulthood because adulthood meant accepting the age that he lived in. You escape that subconsciously by becoming a child. Today there are many Peter Pans and there are many different ways in our society of people not accepting what it means to be a true adult. It's just too painful. Peter Pan becomes more relevant every day."

But Barrie's insight came at a price. Haunted by the death of his 13-year-old brother, yearning for his mother's affection and forced to grow up quickly when he was sent away to school, he developed a fixation with childhood that, to modern eyes, seems unhealthy. He was not alone in this. As author Philip Pullman sees it, Barrie was one of a generation of turn-of-the-century male writers with a highly romanticised view of childhood.

"Barrie is the extreme case (of arrested development] but that sort of feeling was very strong in a number of British writers of around that period," says Pullman, citing also Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. "I've got a complete set of Punch from the 1920s when Milne was an assistant editor and the cartoons, which are beautifully illustrated, have a feeble joke and some half-dressed little nymphet standing there looking appealing and saying something winsome to a fondly adoring mother. You think, this isn't a joke – there's something weird going on here."

Exactly how weird, in Barrie's case, we can only speculate. Was his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family – as played out in the 2004 film Finding Neverland with Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp – merely the act of an avuncular thirtysomething? Or was there some more troubling motivation behind his affection for Sylvia's five sons? When his wife, Mary Ansell, said he was impotent, did she mean he was asexual or that his passions were directed elsewhere?

And when we read The Little White Bird, a precursor to Peter Pan, with its descriptions of a man undressing a little boy before bathing him and sleeping with him, is it really only our post-Freudian sensibility that causes us to raise an eyebrow? "I placed him on my knee and removed his blouse," Barrie writes with unsuppressed excitement. "This was a wonderful experience."

Psychologist Lorraine O'Sullivan says it is impossible to know if Barrie loved childhood or children, but his behaviour – like that of Jackson, who named his ranch Neverland, invited boys to play and once declared "I am Peter Pan" – would alarm any child protection expert today.

"The question people ask about Barrie is was he trying to corrupt children with an adult desire or was he trying to rejoin them in the innocence of childhood?" she says. "But you can't join children in the innocence of childhood when the power balance is not equal. He was a wealthier man than the family he was involved with, so he was able to buy them gifts and had financial influence as well."

We would call that grooming, but Chaney argues it is wrong to project our values onto another era. After all, Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest brother, saw nothing underhand in the behaviour of "Uncle Jim", saying Barrie "was the least interested in sex... he was an innocent".

"I think he was non-sexual," says Chaney. "I put Michael Jackson in the same category. I think he probably did have kids in bed with him and I do not believe he did anything more than cuddle them, just as I don't believe Barrie did anything more. I don't think either of them was capable of it. Barrie couldn't be normal, but that doesn't mean he was a sexual freak. He loved the children with a smothering love because he didn't understand emotionally how to be a proper adult."

That, says O'Sullivan, could be just how sexual predators would like us to think of them. What better disguise than to write openly about your desires? "People who behave in a predatory way towards children create their own norms. As far as they can push it, they get society to accept their norms. By saying things in a matter-of-fact way, you're saying, 'This is normal and it's innocent.' People get away with an awful lot when the inveigle their way into families. That's what grooming is about: you think, 'Am I over-reacting if I think this is wrong, because everybody else seems to think it's OK?' I could never say one way or the other about Barrie, but when you have a male in a position where he's wanting to play in an innocent way with children, it's either incredibly naive or it's manipulative because the power balance is so different."

What all this should mean for our enjoyment of his work is debatable. Like the music of Michael Jackson – at least before he turned messianic – Barrie's Peter Pan remains a towering achievement whatever his sexuality. It has endured because it affects us on the deepest level. "At its heart is the idea that growing up is the most exciting and most terrifying thing," says Tiffany. "And that makes Peter Pan the ultimate tragic figure."

A literary life

BORN in Kirriemuir, 20 miles north of Dundee, on 9 May, 1860, James Matthew Barrie was the son of a weaver and the second youngest of ten children.

At an early age he was packed off to Glasgow Academy, where two of his siblings taught, and continued his education in Forfar and Dumfries. While studying at Edinburgh University, he began writing theatre reviews and went on to spend 18 months as a journalist on the Nottingham Daily Journal before returning to Kirriemuir and turning his mother's stories into publishable works of fiction.

These kick-started a literary career that began with his debut novel, Auld Licht Idylls, in 1888. He developed a parallel career as a dramatist, enjoying his biggest successes in the early-1900s with Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton and Peter Pan. The theme of the boy who wouldn't grow up continued to haunt him and, in 1911, he published Peter And Wendy, a more sophisticated reworking of the play in novel form. He married actor Mary Ansell in 1891, a childless marriage that ended 18 years later after she had an affair. He died of pneumonia on 19 June, 1937.

© Mark Fisher 2009