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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, January 26, 2010

Chekhov at 150

Published in The Scotsman

Check out Chekhov

THIS week marks Anton Chekhov's 150th birthday. His four major plays – The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya – have cemented his status as one of the world's great dramatists.

But in Britain, he is a playwright with a long history of being misunderstood. Over the coming months in Scotland, however, three productions will show how today's directors and translators are determined to present the Russian master in a different light.

The problem goes back to the earliest London productions of his work. The first UK staging of The Cherry Orchard was in 1911, six years after its debut at the Moscow Art Theatre. Like the productions of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya that followed soon after, it was a worthy attempt at engaging with this new Russian voice, but it failed in one crucial respect. It didn't get Chekhov's sense of humour.

Imagine taking the deadpan irony away from Ricky Gervais in The Office and you'll have an idea of why these stagings left audiences puzzled and depressed. A whole generation came to regard Chekhov as a "moody, moping, muddled highbrow", observed one commentator.

Things improved in 1925 when a production of The Cherry Orchard reached London via Oxford. There were still those who found it "dull, stupid stuff" and saw "no reason why this fatuous drivel should be translated at all". They were not typical, however, and there were enough people calling it "flawless" and a "masterpiece" for the production to transfer to a second London theatre and enjoy a run throughout that summer. "Once we knew we were allowed to laugh, of course, everything fell into place and took on meaning," recalled the critic WA Darlington.

But in the course of his review of The Cherry Orchard ("an imperishable masterpiece"), the critic James Agate made a revealing remark. He said he had overheard a woman in the audience complaining that "these Russians have a very un-English way of looking at things". She was voicing a recurring resistance among audiences to anything that did not conform to their own worldview.

Perhaps as a consequence, British productions have had a tendency to vary between two extremes. Some have made Chekhov's world seem very alien, a place of samovars, serfs and impossibly long journeys to Moscow. Others have infused the plays with a very English sense of torpor and wistful longing for the past. Reviewing a production of The Seagull in 1949, one critic observed that the acting was "too English in its reserve" and, as recently as 1996, playwright Howard Barker was touring his own version of Uncle Vanya (in which Vanya's gun hits its target instead of farcically missing), written partly in reaction to the way he thought British audiences found an unhealthy comfort in the inertia of Chekhov's world.

He might have been right in that, but directors had begun to correct the imbalance as early as 1958 thanks to a visit by the Moscow Art Theatre to London. In a typically brilliant review of a Cherry Orchard that blew the "cobwebs off the play", Kenneth Tynan complained about the mood of elegy that Britain liked to impose on Chekhov. "We invest it with a nostalgia for the past which, though it runs right through our culture, is alien to Chekhov's," he wrote.

Director Sean Holmes, whose production of Three Sisters for the Lyric Hammersmith is touring to Edinburgh's Traverse this spring, is less quick to criticise his forebears. "It reflects its time," he says. "Before the new writing revolution of 1956, how could you not do it through the prism of the rest of the theatre that was going on? Chekhov, like Shakespeare, is classical writing; it can take a lot and it reflects the concerns of its age. He was writing at a time of immense social change. He saw the inertia and the corruption and he also saw the possibility of change. Of course, if you do it in Britain afterwards, it's going to be inflected by a sense of the lost age; it'll end up being Edwardian. And some of those productions might have been great for their time."

All the same, in his collaboration with Filter, an experimental theatre company, he has sought to break free of the usual Chekhovian trappings. "We've set it in its world without finding the exact replica of a Saint Stanislav's medal, second class," he says. "Sometimes your energies go into the pursuit of historical accuracy rather than what's going on in the play. With Filter, I want to see the play afresh. Every photo of a Chekhov production has a man in a crushed linen suit. I just wondered if there was a way of starting from somewhere else. Our design is a collection of furniture you might get in a rehearsal room and the costumes are a nod to anything through the 20th century."

John Byrne, celebrated author of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, is not a playwright you could accuse of being too English. His version of The Cherry Orchard for Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is set in a country house somewhere between Braemar and Pitlochry, where the accents range from colloquial Perthshire to well-to-do landowner. Madam Ranevskaya is now Mrs Ramsay-Mackay.

"The thing that initially appeals to you is the threnody for that whole class humbling," says Byrne, who translated Uncle Vanya as Uncle Varick for a production starring Brian Cox in 2004. "It's a romantic idea and you get so fed up with it because it isn't what he was writing about at all."

His second shift is from turn-of-the-century Russia to our own winter of discontent. In place of the onset of revolution anticipated by Chekhov, we get the first hints of the Thatcher years. The local shop has been turned into a deli and, just like in the original, the land is going to be given over to holiday homes.

"It's the early months of 1979 which gives it a whole context," he says. "They've just had all these train strikes and the train is two hours late getting to Pitlochry. It's not about that, but there's a background of that history and what we've ended up with now. We've inherited the counter-revolution that came through Margaret Thatcher. There were big changes we can recognise historically."

For director Kenny Miller, working for Glasgow's lunchtime theatre, A Play, a Pie and a Pint, will force him to conceive of The Seagull afresh. Not only will he compress the four-act play into an hour in a version by Mary McCluskey, but also he will do it with just four actors.

"I love a challenge," says Miller who has previously directed reduced versions of Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra in the same slot. "When you're doing a show in the classic season for Oran Mor, you have to approach it as a completely new piece. It gives you a more modern way of looking at it."

&149 Three Sisters is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-27 March; The Cherry Orchard is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 16 April-8 May; The Seagull is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, in June. The RSAMD is also staging a production of Three Sisters, at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow from 30 March-3 April.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Douglas Maxwell interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Interview: Douglas Maxwell, playwright

DOUGLAS Maxwell has a refreshingly honest way of telling you how badly his plays nearly turned out. He spent years, for example, working on a commission from the National Theatre of Scotland only to end up with a 200-page script that was quite unstageable. They described it as more of a novel than a play and, today, he doesn't even think it would have made much of a novel.

"It was a tome," laughs the Ayrshire-born playwright, who had already ditched a version inspired by Derren Brown-style magic. "I had a little piece of paper on my computer that said 'grand'. I wanted it to be a grand, national play. It turns out I can't do grand."

By the time he had got to that point, however, the fee from the NTS was in the bank. The thought of earning money from a play that wasn't even staged unsettled him. "They paid me in full and it had the opposite effect that you might think," he says. "I felt guilty that I hadn't done the work I was paid for. The guilt got to me and I went back to it. The word 'grand' came off the computer and 'pop' came on. It was not Girls Aloud pop, but Martha and the Vandellas pop. Undoubtedly pop, but really good."

Opening in March, the all-new version of the play, The Miracle Man, is "a two hour, 15 minute pop epic" about a hapless teacher, the laughing stock of his school, who is in urgent need of a miracle.

Despite the rocky journey, Maxwell himself appears to be in no such need. In 2010, his star is in the ascendant. The Miracle Man is only one of at least five plays being staged this year. Later in the spring, Grid Iron will revive his Fringe First-winning hit Decky Does A Bronco, performed in a real-life playground, for its tenth anniversary. He's also written a play, Too Fast, for the National Theatre in London, and is working on a musical for Cumbernauld Theatre called The Bookie. "It's a story that Gilbert and Sullivan would have had dramaturgical problems with – it's preposterous," says Maxwell, who set up a musicals society when he was at Stirling University.

"It's about a bookie who has been taking bets on real-life things, like betting on your daughter passing all her exams or betting on falling in love. He calls them lifestyle bets and business is booming. The dead brother of the owner has left one of these bets involving everyone in the play and the owner stays in town to make sure it doesn't pan out. The others get together to make sure it does pan out. I don't think it's ruining anything to say it pans out."

Before all that comes Promises Promises, a one-woman show starring Joanna Tope and produced by Random Accomplice for a UK tour – another commission that didn't go to plan. "They originally commissioned me to do a comedy," he says. "I sat down to write this thing that was going to be called Humbug, which I wanted to be like 1001 Arabian Nights where someone tells a story and in that story someone tells another story. But it didn't work. I spent months on it and it was just dead. They were ten B-side ideas that never congealed into a big idea."

Instead, Maxwell offered director Johnny McKnight a monologue he had written to please himself. It was a bit of a gamble as he hadn't intended anyone to see it, but McKnight loved it. "It's been relatively straightforward and it's not wildly different from that first draft," says Maxwell.

Inspired by the experience of a friend who was teaching at a school in London, Promises Promises is about a supply teacher whose class includes a six-year-old Somali girl who refuses to speak. To the teacher's horror, she learns that community leaders have decided the girl is possessed by devils and must be subjected to a traditional exorcism cure. The teacher, meanwhile, has problems of her own, having been forced to retire in disgrace from her full-time job. The monologue plays out somewhere between edge-of-your-seat thriller and dark horror.

"Although my story goes off in a gothic direction, I don't think it's anywhere near as mental as the true story," says Maxwell, who has avoided making any big statements about multiculturalism or the education system. "There will be a reasonable local authority explanation about why it happened, but I'm much more interested in the woman telling the story."

It is a change of pace for the playwright, best known for his witty coming-of-age comedies. It wasn't deliberate, says Maxwell, it's just his previous writing in this vein has tended not to be produced. "It's pretty dark," he says. "But you don't really have any control over which of your plays work and which don't. In between Our Bad Magnet, which was ten years ago, and now, there have been lots that aren't about teenage boys in Ayrshire, but those are the ones that stick. I don't think this is radically different, but it feels different from what people have seen."

If there is a link that connects Promises Promises to the wealth of Maxwell's work on show this year as well as earlier plays such as Helmet, Mancub and Melody, it is his belief in storytelling. A keen theatre-goer, he enjoys watching the artistic experiments of others, but when it comes to putting his own pen to paper, he is determined to hook the audience through the power of narrative.

"If you get someone walking on stage and saying, 'You'll not believe what's happened…' you'll have the audience," he says. 'For me, theatre is a storytelling form, rather than a sharing or a political act. You can't really help the way your work turns out and for me it is narrative, even though you don't really need a narrative in theatre for a play to work – a back-story is more important than the story very often. But somebody telling a story does work for me."

Promises Promises opens at the Tron, Glasgow, 3-6 February, then tours. The Miracle Man, Tron, 18-20 March, then on tour. Decky Does A Bronco, Too Fast and The Bookie follow later in the year

© Mark Fisher 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Price, Royal Lyceum Theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Price

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Fred Goodwin, the poster boy for the banking crisis, has just landed a high-flying job with an Edinburgh architectural firm. Not everyone is as fortunate as the former RBS chief executive. Some, like the dead father whose memory hangs heavy over Arthur Miller's The Price, lost millions in the Wall Street crash and, in the face of the Great Depression, never recovered. The question Miller poses is how to respond to such a calamity: should we fight egotistically for our own success or should we retrench to the old values of love, trust and selflessness?

It's a dialectic that takes flight in the second half of the play when stay-at-home Victor, who has settled for a job as a police officer rather than fulfil his promise as a scientist, meets his estranged brother Walter, a surgeon who has made a fortune developing and selling nursing homes. Having loaded our sympathy towards Victor, whose ineffectuality has an everyday charm, Miller presents Walter as a self-made man who has refused to romanticise their father's fall. Bright and confident, he makes Victor's dedication to their father seem more pathetic than noble.

In these scenes, John Dove's ­production takes a mesmerising hold. If you can't imagine Greg Powrie's Victor as a former star pupil, he is convincing as a downtrodden man doing the decent thing as his life slips by. In contrast, Aden Gillett's Walter is tall, liberated and radiant, a seductive advert for free-market ambition, despite the breakdown of his marriage and mental health.

His charisma makes Victor's decision to stick to his principles seem as much a gesture of defiance as the victory his name suggests. For that reason, the play lacks the emotional punch of other Miller classics; but it remains a pertinent analysis of our unhealthy love of ­possessions, profit and shopping.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

John Dove interview about Arthur Miller's The Price

Published in The Scotsman

John Dove interview

THE Royal Lyceum Theatre's rehearsal room is a big, airy space, but this afternoon it is looking unusually cluttered. Standing in the middle of it is a wardrobe, with a model ship perched on top; beside it, on the floor, a harp next to a wind-up gramophone player. Among the other bits and pieces is a small rocking horse. Sitting on the sidelines, director John Dove looks dreamily on. "It's a masterpiece," he says. "You would never miss a chance to work on a thing like this in a million years."

He is talking about The Price, Arthur Miller's powerful 1968 drama, which is set in the attic of a New York brownstone, amid the clutter of a dead man's life. In a day or two, all this paraphernalia – and a good deal more besides – will be moving over the road to the Lyceum's stage, so Dove's four-strong company can enact the story of two estranged brothers trying to make sense of the loss of their father. One of them, Victor, has dedicated years to caring for the old man, a victim of the Wall Street crash of 1929. The other, Walter, has pursued his career as a doctor with a different kind of single-mindedness. With typical Miller thorniness, the play teases the audience about which course of action was best.

To have Dove back in the Edinburgh theatre is good news. This is his fourth Arthur Miller play here and his track record is exemplary. He came first – at the invitation of artistic director Mark Thomson, who had worked with him at Hampstead Theatre – with a production of Death of a Salesman in 2004. The show had a fierce emotional momentum, the 11-strong cast was flawless and Paul Jesson's fantastic turn as Willy Loman earned him a nomination for best actor in the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland.

In 2007 – after an admirable staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Dove was back with that other Miller classic, All My Sons. His superb production tuned in to the timely theme of big business profiting from war, but hit home most profoundly because of its emotional plea for social responsibility. Then, last year, he proved he could be just as persuasive with The Man Who Had All The Luck, an early Miller play whose classic status is far from assured (it lasted three days on Broadway) and yet here came across as compelling, funny and brimming with ideas.

"Miller puts people – whether they are intelligent or not intelligent – in a situation which is such a shock that they are robbed of intelligence," says Dove. "That's when an audience will get interested. The most interesting moment to see a human being is when they don't know what to do, because we all have that in life. Arthur is massively compassionate about people who have lost the map."

The pairing of Dove and Miller seems such a good match that it is surprising their relationship began as recently as Death of a Salesman. Perhaps it is modesty, but the director attributes much of the success, not to his own skills, but to the people of Edinburgh who, for whatever reason, seem to embrace Miller with particular enthusiasm. "With Death of a Salesman, I got a real feeling that the audience loved the heart of it," he says. "That relationship between Arthur and the Edinburgh audience is so fulfilling that we kept getting tempted to come back with another one. We seemed to get the same response from the Edinburgh people each time. It speaks to them. You can't necessarily say why. I was there when one of Arthur's plays went on at Hampstead and the relationship had no real feeling. It wasn't a reflection on the production; it's something in the air."

Miller, who died in 2005, is not exactly short of admirers elsewhere, but if Dove is right, it will be fascinating to see what nerves The Price strikes in a city so deeply affected by the banking crisis. The play's dead father, Gregory Solomon, was a victim of the financial system he hoped to profit by, a system that was part of the go-getting American Dream. Does such a man deserve our sympathy or contempt?

It is a question we could ask of today's financiers. "All of that is there," says Dove. "Walter says, 'So why did he need looking after? There's how many million people – they've all gone bust – why couldn't he go on welfare?' All the issues of today come out. Of course, it's the American Dream crashing, but our dream did, too, last year. Should we be supporting our dads if their pension has lost its value? Where's the responsibility? Arthur really brings both sides out."

If that theme does strike a chord, it will be down to the audience, not the production. Dove feels it is his job not to underscore the topical resonances, as if winking to the audience, but almost to disappear into the work, allowing its archetypal dramatic forces to work on us unencumbered. "You've got to have a clear idea, but keep it very simple and keep your head down," he says.

The director divides his career between new plays and classics. On the one hand, he has specialised in premières, spending 13 years working with living playwrights at Hampstead Theatre and now teaming up with Howard Brenton for a play about the making of the King James Bible. On the other, he has focused on the greats, such as a Measure for Measure he did with Mark Rylance at the Globe Theatre, on Broadway and also in Broadmoor. "With the giants, they find the simple in humanity, and at that point everybody turns round and looks," he says. "When we took Measure for Measure to Broadmoor, we had a man playing a woman trying to argue for her brother's life. There were three women inmates with three guards around each one and they were all following it. I couldn't believe this writer had hooked those women with a man playing a woman four centuries later."

The secret of his success with Miller, he suggests, is his determination to make every action seem unpremeditated. The playwright can come across as mechanistic if the characters appear to be mouthpieces of a particular ideological line. The way to avoid that, says Dove, is for the actors to lead with the heart and not the head.

"When they're playing every line as though they've no idea what's going to happen next, you don't get a feeling of Miller controlling at all," says Dove, who hopes one day to stage Miller's A View From the Bridge. "It has to come off the top of the head. You've got to get rid of intellect. The lines have got to be spontaneous, otherwise it will sound like a ploy by the author. If you hit it right and the actors have backed off, it's almost as if Miller is talking with the audience. Life becomes really possible when people are being surprised, either as writers or actors or the relationship between the writer and the audience. If there's surprise in the air, everything is possible."

• The Price is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from tonight until 13 February.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Dancing to Ivor Cutler, Off Kilter preview

Published in The Guardian

Ivor Cutler's songs lift Scottish dance

One weekend last summer, Ashley Page was sitting at home playing some CDs. The choreographer credited with revitalising Scottish Ballet was searching for some music to slot into Off Kilter, a show celebrating Scottish dance. He had, perhaps unsurprisingly, ruled out Hebridean psalms. "They did nothing for me in terms of choreography," he says. So he put on Ludo, a 1967 album of strange songs and poems by the late cult poet Ivor Cutler.

"My kids were hysterical," he recalls. "They were saying, 'What's this?' It became a family favourite. We were almost sick of hearing it." Glasgow-born Cutler, who found an odd sort of fame after playing the bus conductor in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, was a hero to everyone from John Peel to the philosopher Bertrand Russell; more recently, he was the inspiration behind Franz Ferdinand's song Jacqueline.

Page, a former Royal Ballet principal dancer, began working on a sequence of eight songs from Ludo that somehow fuse humour and jazz, many of them powered by a pedal-driven harmonium. He concentrated on the more upbeat numbers, songs such as Cockadoodledon't and Good Morning! How Are You? Shut Up! This means Page's dancers have the rare experience of counting out time to a man singing about his "granny at the pictures biting all the buttons off the seats". Off Kilter, now touring, received its premiere in Edinburgh during the Hogmanay festivities, where audiences guffawed their approval at Paisley Patter, as the Cutler work is called.

It all sounds very unlikely, this union between a cult Glasgow poet, who died in 2006, and a choreographer with an OBE. But Page says we should not underestimate Cutler's skill as a musician. Produced by George Martin and performed by the Ivor Cutler Trio, Ludo is the most musical of his albums, with fewer of the spoken-word tracks that characterise favourites such as Jammy Smears and Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume 2. Listen closely to Culter's hilarious tales of shoplifters lifting shops and astronauts dealing with dirty trousers, and you can hear the influence of everything from Calvinist hymns to calypso, from Middle Eastern chants to boogie-woogie.

"It's infectious, danceable music," says Page. "You laugh spontaneously because he's made it sound like he just sat down at the piano and knocked this thing out. One song repeats its verse three times, but the second time, instead of being two phrases of eight, it is an eight and a seven. It took me ages to work out why I couldn't make it fit."

To turn it all into a work for three dancers, Page took inspiration from a rhythm here, a phrase there, taking care to reflect Cutler's exuberant spirit while avoiding anything self-consciously comic. Sometimes he took the lyrics literally, turning the bucolic I'm Going in a Field (a hymn-like paean to lying in the grass with a lover) into a romantic duet. Other times, he let the music lead the way: the dancers make woodpecker movements to the woodblock tap of A Great Grey Grasshopper, a stream-of-consciousness fantasy that starts with a grasshopper leaving a mark on Cutler's trousers and ends up with Martians in space.

Performed in front of Oscar Marzaroli's famous black-and-white images of deprived 1960s Glasgow (featuring lots of knobbly-kneed boys in shorts playing in the streets), Page's 13-minute sequence has the odd effect of creating nostalgia, not for a happier time, but for one that certainly seems more eccentric, if not downright bonkers. It is one of the highlights of Off Kilter, the other being a world premiere of Cease Your Funning by New York wunderkind Mark Morris, set to some of the Scottish songs written by Beethoven between 1815 and 1818, using the words of Robert Burns and William Smyth. "There's a great drinking song in it called Sally in our Alley," says Morag Deyes, Off Kilter's mastermind. "It's very Germanic, but also quite balletic, delicate and pastoral."

Paisley Patter isn't the only work to take its inspiration from a rather unlikely source: the bill also features a piece inspired by Archie Gemmill's spectacular goal for Scotland against the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup. Choreographed by Andy Howitt of YDance, the four-man work focuses on what is regarded by many as one of the greatest goals ever. "It's a four-minute piece based on the moves Gemmill made," says Deyes. "In the 70s, they didn't have multi-camera filming, but now we can see it from all these different angles. He curved his leg around, moved through, then ends up as this triumphal moment – fist in the air and head up."

Off Kilter, a defiant rejection of cultural stereotypes, has set its sights on the international market, with early interest from North America and China, so the Ivor Cutler dance could go global. "It's nice not to do an ultra-serious thing," says Page. "But what I've given the dancers to do is really hard – they're not just having fun."

© Mark Fisher 2010