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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, March 31, 2010

Huxley's Lab, Grid Iron/Lung Ha's theatre preview

Published in The Scotsman

Scotland's leading site-specific theatre company is tackling body fascism in a brave new show

WE'RE in an upstairs room of the Informatics Forum, the open-plan tower block that sits at the heart of the University of Edinburgh. Rolled out on the floor is a large poster featuring a portrait of two impossibly blonde girls. The words above them read, "Fitter, better, more productive". It's a phrase with the plausibility of an election campaign slogan; you can almost hear David Cameron saying it with that sincere look in his eye.

It also has the grim overtones of eugenicist propaganda, the kind of supremacist catchphrase that would have appealed to Joseph Goebbels.

In fact, it is neither of these things, although the resonances are deliberate. Rather, it is a stage prop for a show by site-specific theatre cuckoos Grid Iron, working for the first time in collaboration with Lung Ha's, a company dedicated to actors with learning disabilities. The poster, not so different from images of perfection you can see in any magazine, shows an idealised vision of humanity, one that in these technologically changing times is less and less the stuff of science fiction and ever more a possibility.

It is one of the images that will confront us in Huxley's Lab, a dystopian drama inspired by Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. Writing in 1932, Huxley had a chilling premonition of a society in which test-tube babies have replaced natural reproduction and lab operatives determine each person's status before birth. There is nothing ethically dubious going on in the award-winning Informatics Forum, which opened in 2008, but nonetheless the building felt like a perfect fit.

"It's the atmosphere of the building," says Grid Iron director Ben Harrison, who is trying to create the sense of a sealed world in which the family has been superseded by atomised individuals and childbirth is considered disgusting. "The space supports the reality of the story. If it was done somewhere else, people could dismiss it as science fiction, but there's something about the modernity of this building … its sophistication helps."

From our vantage point, we look down on the central lobby with its spiral staircase that reminds Harrison of a double helix of DNA. Through the many windows, you can see the university staff at work on their computers, catch glimpses of white boards covered with formulae and spot the odd lab coat hanging up. This is a working building and it will remain at work while performances of Huxley's Lab are under way. Today, we are prevented from going in one room because a retirement party is in full swing. For Harrison, who has staged shows in Edinburgh airport and an after-hours branch of Debenhams, it's a minor inconvenience.

In this show, the audience will be given the role of job applicants hoping to be recruited by a futuristic hi-tech company. They will snatch glimpses of a top-secret eugenics lab, before taking the lift to the meeting rooms, at one point dividing into two groups to watch scenes played out in parallel. Eventually they will escape to the rooftop garden, home of the "naturals", poor creatures bred by nature, the old-fashioned way.

"The naturals are naturally born and want to stay natural," says Harrison, secretly hoping for rain to add to the drama. "They are exiles, forced to live on the roof, but we were keen not to make them victims. In fact, they pity us."

At the centre of the performance, which is being presented by the Edinburgh International Science Festival, are four actors from each company, all of whom bring distinct qualities. "There are many things the Lung Ha's actors can do that the Grid Iron actors can't," says Harrison. "There's one actor, Mark Howie, who's so 'in the moment', he's just completely 'on' the whole time he's on stage, it's a complete presence. If you give him a task he does it with a fullness of commitment that is beyond any actor I've come across."

The irony of a play about eugenics being presented by actors with disabilities will not go unnoticed. Co-director Maria Oller expected some members of Lung Ha's would be uncomfortable dealing with such sensitive material. Not only was she proved wrong, but the actors found a new sense of liberation as they took on board the contentious material about the absurd race to find perfection.

"You can feel the freedom for them to be able to say, 'F*** off' to the perfectionism," she says.

"The naturals have mad costuming and more lumps and bumps than they do naturally, so it's very extreme, joyous and carnivalesque," says Harrison.

"And that then made our company members really enjoy having a disability," says Oller. "By making it extra-big, they have the freedom of playing that isn't limited to their physical limitations. It's so powerful."

For Oller's company to engage in site-specific theatre for the first time is less a stretch, she says, than a widening. "I think it is really good for them to experience that theatre can be anywhere," she says. "I was surprised how well they took to the space. They are very excited about it. It's widening our possibilities of ways to work. And for the four core actors working alongside the four Grid Iron actors to be valued as professional actors has helped them take a huge step forward."

Harrison, too, is learning. It's the first time he has worked with actors with disabilities and it's a rare opportunity for him to make use of a large chorus. There are 30 actors, more even than his hit London production of Peter Pan. "I was nervous because I have no training in directing people with disabilities," he says. "But Maria was really helpful. She said, 'Just do theatre with them'. And, of course, she's right. It's like anything; you just get used to people's different strengths and energies."

The play, written by Harrison after a couple of development weeks last year, is not an adaptation of Brave New World, but it takes a similar approach to the scientific knowledge of today. Our pursuit of bodily perfection, combined with the increase in technological know-how, throws up troubling questions. The two directors are prepared for controversy.

"What Huxley calls the 'pneumatic' body is very contemporary," says Harrison. "It's the pornographic body, if you like, inflated, Pamela Anderson-style. The taut body is held up as the ideal. There's no-one in the company who looks like that, but, through brainwashing and repetition, it's what we're all striving for, if you take enough drugs, do the right exercises and repeat the mantra that it's what we will magically become one day.

"It isn't only to do with eugenics; it's to do with perfecting the female and male body more generally, the gym culture. If you're a man you need a ripped stomach, if you're a woman you need to be tall, muscular and filled, which Huxley predicted."

The power of the performance, says Oller, will come in the truthfulness of the message: "We got a lot of information from company members about how it is to be disabled and they have a huge urge to tell."

• Huxley's Lab, Informatics Forum, Edinburgh University, tomorrow until 8 April, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Laurel and Hardy, Mull Theatre review

Published in Northings

Laurel and Hardy
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 26 March 2010, and touring

IF MY house was on fire, the first thing I would grab is the Laurel and Hardy DVD box set. I suspect I am not alone in that to judge by the audience for Mull Theatre's revival of the late Tom McGrath's bitter-sweet tribute to Stan and Ollie. When one of the actors says wistfully, "Those were the days", someone near the stage lets out a yelp of approval.

Yet there is some quality in McGrath's play that elevates it beyond a mere nostalgia-fest. If you have no knowledge at all of the comedy duo, I dare say there is much that will puzzle you, not least the valiant – and surprisingly successful – attempt to recreate on a very small stage the scene from The Music Box in which a piano careers down an enormous flight of stairs.

Neither are you likely to get the full measure of the many movie dialogue quotes scattered throughout the script or to work out which are original and which pastiches.

But I like to think that, in the performances by director Alastair McCrone – playing Stan Laurel for a surely unprecedented sixth time – and Barrie Hunter as Oliver Hardy, you will get a flavour of what made the unlikely pairing of a portly American from the Deep South and a skinny Brit from the Lake District by way of Glasgow the greatest double-act of the 20th century.

You will recognise it in Hunter's understanding of the balletic punctuation that accompanies Hardy's every phrase, each authoritative gesture in comic contrast to the ignorance of his speech. And you will recognise it in McCrone's emulation of Laurel's phenomenal ability to spin out the smallest of actions, such as getting out of a lift, into the most extended, and funny, of routines.

You will appreciate too how McGrath captures the sense of an unrepeatable moment of history. Brought together more or less by chance, conceived as a double act on a whim, Laurel and Hardy made the world laugh for over two decades before their time passed. But hanging over the play from the start is the feeling that the bubble must burst, that for all the joy they created, the laughter cannot go on for ever.

This note of sadness could be more forcefully played in McCrone's production, which can seem rushed, particularly in the portrayals of secondary characters (this, despite it doing a good job of explaining the secret of Laurel and Hardy's slow timing). But, rather like Morecambe, the Olivier award-winning one-man show that recreates the glory days of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, the production is played with so much affection and taps into so much collective love in the audience, it can only send everyone home with a warm glow.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Garden, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

The Garden

Oran Mor, Glasgow
3 out of 5

I have been at the theatre when an audience member collapsed, but never have I seen two keel over at once. Such was the unfortunate, not to say unlikely, scene at Oran Mor for this lunchtime performance, bringing Zinnie Harris's two-hander to a premature end. Having consulted the script, I realise we missed only the final few lines of a domestic drama that, like many plays in these apocalyptic times, is about the impossibility of a future.

Mac, played by Sean Scanlan, works for a scientific sub-committee investigating, we presume, the climate upheaval that has sent temperatures soaring. Stuck at home, his wife, Jane (Anne Lacey), has a vision of an apple tree growing through the lino of their fifth-floor apartment, for which she tries not to blame her depressive illness.

In cheerier times, the tree might have been a metaphor for green shoots of recovery, but in this desolate place, it is a symbol of humanity's destructive power. A kitchen floor in the sweltering American heat is no place for a new garden of Eden. Jane takes the scissors to the unwelcome plant, leaving it more forlorn than the tree in Waiting for Godot, before cutting it down altogether.

This is a barren planet incapable of regeneration. Like the lost child Jane cannot speak of, the tree's death rules out the possibility of rebirth, still less redemption. A political remedy is no more likely, and even Mac admits the committee's report is an "exercise, not a solution". No wonder the couple retreat so eagerly into the inertia of alcohol and anti-depressants, a haven from the literal and metaphorical madness of their lives.

Such bleakness is dispiriting, but Harris, who also directs, writes with a crisp, elliptical style and sense of political engagement that temporarily keeps the fatalism at bay.

Ends today. Box office: 0844 477 1000. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Every One, Royal Lyceum theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Every One

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
5 out of 5

In the past five years, the author of Every One has lost a wife to a brain tumour, undergone a heart bypass operation, embraced Christianity and become a woman: John Clifford is now Jo Clifford. This upheaval has found expression in her writing, from a translation of Faust to the bereavement-based Leave to Remain. But it is in Every One, an astonishing response to the medieval Everyman, that she processes the trauma of death most profoundly.

This is a high-risk strategy. Every One is an open wound of a play, tender, private and vulnerable. It is protected by a self-deprecating humour and a rhetorical elegance – not to mention a superb production by Mark Thomson – but it is essentially raw and exposed. Clifford is either brave or foolhardy. You'd call her egotistical if there weren't tears rolling down your cheeks.

Like her own story, the play is both extraordinary and everyday. Mary is a mother of two whose sudden death leaves her husband and children struggling to find the order they had previously sought in Latin verbs, video games and fashion design. Journeying with Death towards heaven, Mary reflects on her life in a discussion that ranges from the futility of ironing to the Holocaust and the greed underpinning global warming.

As with many plays about death, it does not know how to end, and concludes in a frustrating stasis. But it has two absolving qualities: it is about a presence rather than an absence (Kathryn Howden, stunning as Mary, is scarcely off the stage); and it engages with the outside world, relating the bereavement on stage to every death of the last century. It is a work of cathartic brilliance.

Until 10 April. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Peter Brook interview

Published in The List

Peter Brook's 11 and 12 marks director's return to the Glasgow and Tramway he transformed

The director who raised the bar for Glasgow’s Year of Culture is returning to the city for the first time in 13 years. At his base in Paris, Peter Brook tells Mark Fisher why he is delighted to be back

Let’s start with some history. Throughout the 20th century, Glasgow was as dangerous as it was dreich. You couldn’t leave your tenement slum without being stabbed. It was a bonus if you avoided a head-butting. A trip to the steamie or even to your outside cludgie involved a perilous journey past bampots and razor gangs. It was pure mental, so it was.

But then came 1990 and the city council reinvented Glasgow as a city of culture. Overnight, it exported the violence to Edinburgh where Irvine Welsh had just bought his first biro. Now everyone in the Dear Green Place was drinking cappuccino, doing yoga classes and hanging out with graphic designers. The hard men renounced their ways and bought season tickets to the GFT.

And the man primarily responsible for all this was Peter Brook. The celebrated theatre director and author of The Empty Space had been invited in 1988 by Bob Palmer and Neil Wallace, the architects of Glasgow’s cultural bonanza, to check out a possible location for The Mahabharata, his nine-hour epic based on the Sanskrit story of mankind. He agreed to cast his eye over a space that had the same dilapidated charm as the Bouffes du Nord, the 19th century theatre he has run in Paris since the 1970s.

That place was the former Museum of Transport in the Southside, an all but derelict building ear-marked for demolition. As he told The List at the time, Brook liked the way it was ‘somewhere where the earth on the ground fits naturally with the walls; somewhere with a feeling that life has gone through it’. With a £75,000 makeover and the construction of a brick wall on either side of what would become the playing area, it would be a good match for his own crumbling theatre.

‘We were playing in Zurich and after the first performance two very vibrant people came up to me,’ says Brook today, looking more the wise old sage than ever as he approaches his 85th birthday. ‘They said, we in Glasgow have a space and we can convert it, not because we have money, but we can get a band of really enthusiastic students and people who will come and help us in the spirit of what you’re doing. Glasgow was a really marvellous discovery.’

The arrival of Brook’s international company was the first signal that Palmer and Wallace planned to make their year of culture a world-class occasion. Events would take place all over Glasgow during 1990, of course, but it was the renamed Tramway that would generate some of the biggest waves as it played host to Robert Lepage, the Maly Theatre, the Wooster Group and other heavy hitters. In 1988, in one of its more prophetic moments, The List wrote: ‘It would be wonderful to think that Brook’s production will leave behind it a permanent exciting new space – something entirely lacking in Scotland – that could become a centre for this sort of brave, experimental work.’

That is exactly what happened and, for many years, the Tramway was also Brook’s home from home in the UK. ‘In The Mahabharata you had a conflict in which gods and ordinary people come together and this undercurrent of something mythical,’ he says, sitting in an appropriately spartan office in the Bouffes du Nord. ‘One of the best places we ever played in was Glasgow for that reason. We found that in Scotland, consciously or unconsciously, all that goes back to the hills, the mists, the mythical tradition, is still alive, which it isn’t in the south. In Glasgow the audience would roar with laughter in an open way and a second later would be listening intently.’

After the majestic sweep of The Mahabharata, which managed to be both elemental and breathtaking, he brought La Tragédie de Carmen in 1989 and, in 1990 itself, a francophone version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play he had first staged at Stratford in 1957 with some actor called John Gielgud. ‘The best big show is less interesting than what can appear if you pare it down to the bone,’ he told me when I met him in Paris that year, a sentiment that sums up the drive for simplicity and spareness in all his later work.

It is a line that connects shows as varied as Debussy’s Impressions de Pelléas, the Oliver Sacks adaptation The Man Who … and Samuel Beckett’s Oh Les Beaux Jours. When trying to identify the distinctive qualities of a Brook production, it is easiest to describe the absence of directorial intrusion, the stuff that is left when all else has been stripped away.

That is the case with 11 and 12, the show that marks the director’s return to the Tramway for the first time in 13 years. The play is adapted from a true story from French-occupied Mali, where a long-simmering conflict intensified between Sufi factions over how many times to recite a sacred prayer. The difference between saying it 11 times and 12 times might sound insignificant, but it led to a major tribal conflict which intensified when the French took sides. For Brook, though, it is really the story about Tierno Bokar, a Sufi master who pursued the values of forgiveness and tolerance to great personal cost.

‘I don’t feel my job is staging or directing, but it is helping to bring into the open, to make visible something which otherwise would remain buried,’ he says. ‘But why do you do it? Because one feels it is right for this moment. What touches us now is audiences saying that to feel something that can touch one beyond prejudice is important. I’ve got no beliefs that one can change the world, but believe that for 500 people in one night something can be touched.’

11 and 12, Tramway, Glasgow, Tue 30 Mar–Sat 3 Apr.
Tramway's track record

Peter Brook’s relationship with the Tramway has been long and varied
The Mahabharata

April 1988
‘It is an exciting entertainment, but it deals with all manner of human, social, important questions,’ Brook told The List about his epic marathon. ‘It is about life and about living and about war.’ It was also about nine hours long.
La Tragédie de Carmen

April 1989
Brook was convinced we had lost sight of the clarity of Prosper Mérimée’s original story in the fog of elaborate staging and full orchestration for Georges Bizet’s opera. He fielded just 16 musicians and focused on the power of the acting.
La Tempête

October 1990
Even for those with a poor grasp of French La Tempête still clearly showed our need, in Brook’s words, for ‘compassion, pardon, forgiveness, love, freedom’.
Impressions de Pelléas
February 1993

A boil-in-the-bag Pelléase et Mélisande, distilled from Debussy’s three hours down to 90 minutes with just two grand pianos and six singers. It was sensitive and achingly beautiful.
The Man Who …

April 1994
Oliver Sacks described the neurological crossed wires that could make patients talk in a barrage of poetry or lose awareness of their own limbs in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Brook took these case studies as the raw material for a theatrical investigation into the wonders of the mind.
Oh Les Beaux Jours

December 1997
Brook’s wife, Natasha Parry, took centre stage in the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days that remained faithful to the playwright’s vision.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Preview: Edinburgh International Festival

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Preview: Edinburgh International Festival

WHEN Jonathan Mills took the top job at the Edinburgh International Festival four years ago, he made a study of the organisation's history. The year that particularly caught his eye was 1983. That was when the outgoing artistic director John Drummond put together his Vienna 1900 programme, inviting companies as diverse as the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and the Tokyo Quartet to take a fresh look at the Austrian capital at a time of great cultural flowering.

Drummond realised that the EIF, with its combination of artforms, could reflect on such a period from multiple standpoints, whether it was Scottish Opera doing Death In Venice or the Municipal Theatre of Haifa doing a play about philosopher Otto Weininger. The theme did not apply to every production, but it was broad enough to be felt throughout the programme. According to Drummond's memoirs, the critics said it "made sense and added to the understanding of the period".

Subsequent directors have toyed with similar themes, but none so overtly as Mills. His first programme in 2007 explored the influence of Monteverdi and the idea of setting words to music; his second considered geographical and cultural borders; and his third took us back to the age of Enlightenment and Scotland's influence on the world.

The starting point for the just-announced 2010 programme is New Worlds, not only the relatively familiar landscape of North America, but also the more exotic textures of South America and the cultures of the Pacific Ocean right across to the islands of Australasia. He is bringing us dancers from the Amazon basin, actors from Chile and musicians steeped in American jazz.

To keep things connected, he is also presenting European artists who have things to say about the Americas. The late choreographer Pina Bausch pays homage to the rhythms of Brazil in Agua, the National Theatre of Scotland remembers this nation's unsuccessful attempt at establishing a South American colony in Alistair Beaton's Caledonia and Opéra de Lyon reinvents Porgy And Bess.

If you look hard, you will find events that do not fit the pattern – performances that are there on quality alone – but there are relatively few. This in itself is a considerable feat in such a big festival. Mills has a finite commissioning budget, so he has to enthuse artists to join in with his theme or find existing work that complements it. And, of course, that work has to be good.

Is it worth the effort? There are certainly some immediate benefits. It provides an instant angle for newspaper reports, which generates good publicity, and it makes marketing easier. To present the festival as a coherent narrative and not a disparate list of events takes less explaining.

But then what? Will the midweek visitor with a ticket for the Cleveland Orchestra care that they could have been seeing the South Pacific choreography of Lemi Ponifasio on the same night? Even if they saw two shows in a day – say, a matinee of the Chilean political drama Diciembre followed by an evening performance of Paco Peña Flamenco – would they make the connection? How many shows would they have to see before the theme started to resonate?

As Mills sees it, this is not an issue. Each show stands on its own merit, but the theme is there to be explored for anyone who is so minded. If you have the time to investigate a number of shows and the willingness to move from artform to artform, then the performances will become more than the sum of their parts.

On balance, I think he is right, although some themes work better than others. It was easy, for example, to get a grip on the words-and-music theme in 2007 when you had the Wooster Group in La Didone staging a collision between a sci-fi B-movie and a Cavalli opera. By contrast, the theme of borders in 2008 seemed more theoretical. Another risk is that thematic relevance overrides artistic quality, a feeling shared last year by some who saw the critically panned Diaspora.

But more importantly, a theme invests the EIF with a sense of purpose. It stops it becoming a decadent event for privileged westerners, a feast of high-art consumerism, and gives it an intellectual rigour. Just as an individual performance can change an audience's perspective, so too can a whole festival. In that sense, a theme becomes a political act, one that challenges the status quo. It will be fascinating in 2010, therefore, to see how far Mills succeeds not only in entertaining us but also in shifting our Eurocentric worldview in the direction of the Pacific.

Tickets for the Edinburgh International Festival go on sale to the public on Saturday, 27 March. The Scotsman will carry a Festival guide the same day. The Festival runs from 13 August until 5 September.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Peter Brook interview

Published in the Scotsman

Interview: Peter Brook, director

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TO GET to Peter Brook's office, you come in off a grimy Parisian street at the back of the Gare du Nord, head along a nondescript corridor, cut across the stage of the Bouffes du Nord – half faded glamour, half rough-and-ready empty space – before climbing a staircase that is open to the crisp December air, as if you were approaching a fairytale turret.

The room itself is rather like one of the great theatre director's productions – spare, elemental, stripped to the essentials and on another plane. There is a square table on a mat on a bare floor, a couple of family photos, an African souvenir and there, sitting calm and focused at the table, Brook himself, at 84, his blue eyes sparkling with the same intelligence of mind and generosity of spirit that has characterised his work since he burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old graduate directing Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Unsurprisingly, he is looking a little more delicate than when he first arrived in Glasgow in 1988 at the invitation of Bob Palmer and Neil Wallace, who wanted his epic nine-hour production of The Mahabharata to presage the city's Year of Culture in 1990. It was an invitation that not only brought the Tramway into being – a brick wall built specially to emulate the old proscenium arch of the Bouffes du Nord – but also led to return visits with La Tempête, The Man Who … , La Tragédie de Carmen and Impressions de Pelléas.

What is surprising, however, is just how well Brook has weathered. He makes the occasional remark about the day when age will force him to stop, but it is clear he is not going to retire without a struggle. Squeezing half of an hour for an interview into what is obviously a busy day, he has lost no energy in his dedication to his work and none of his lucidity when it comes to answering questions. A typical Brook reply is considered, insightful, grammatically perfect and anything up to ten minutes long.

His latest production, a play called 11 and 12 that visits the Tramway as part of a UK tour, is based on The Life and Teaching of Tierno Bokar by the African writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ. It is a true story set in French-occupied Mali about Bokar, a Sufi master who lived from 1875 to 1939.

Legend had it that a century earlier, some members of the Tidjani Sufi order had been saying their special prayer, the Pearl of Perfection, as part of their morning ritual. The tradition was to repeat the prayer 11 times after which their master, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tijani, would bless them. But on this occasion, the Sheikh arrived late. In order not to embarrass him, they said the prayer one more time. From then on until his death two years later, he would always wait until the 12th recitation before giving his blessing. He gave no explanation, but a new tradition was born.

This innocent event would go on to tear families apart. Factions formed, as the supporters of 11 prayers distanced themselves from those who had changed to 12. There was a campaign to return to the older tradition, which some regarded as more pure, not least because the French authorities had sided with the 12 supporters, who were in the majority, believing the 11s to be secretly in league against them. In the years after 1910, tribal conflicted escalated.

"The 12 were well in with the French and the French exploited it and said, 'Well, these are our friends, so of course the others must be attacked because they are our enemies,'" says Brook. "All that polarising led to something which came all the way through to Pétain, Vichy and eventually to General de Gaulle. All because of this man arriving late for prayer. This seemed to me a hell of a story."

What interests Brook, however, is less the violence than the attempts between the two masters, Tierno Bokar and Cherif Hamallah, to live a life of tolerance despite the bloodshed around them. Bokar, having been brought up in the 12 camp, was persuaded by the younger Hamallah to adopt the 11. By changing sides, he knew he was making a terrible sacrifice.

"The Islam that he taught was a religion of tolerance, of non-violence, of openness to all the other religions, of refusal of any dogma," he says. "This seemed to me to be a very remarkable figure. His early life was the old traditional Africa. He had round him a small community, a compound, which was like a little island, where he could arrange a happy, closely-knit life.

"But you can never isolate yourself from the world and gradually the pressures of the world entered and he had to find his way of standing firm for his beliefs and principles. This is where I began to feel the dramatic life."

Two months later, Brook is centre stage at London's Barbican theatre, surrounded by the multinational cast of 11 and 12. He is in an upright chair and the actors' artful arrangement on the stage around him only adds to the guru-like image he says he detests. They are there for a post-show discussion, but two things are unusual. The first is that the entire audience – stalls, balconies, the lot – has stayed behind to hear him speak. The second is that Brook has decided against taking questions, preferring to give an impromptu speech-cum-workshop instead.

"Let's do something together: just point," he instructs us and there is the strangest sensation as 1,000 people stand and move as one, all directing fingers towards him.

His argument is on the esoteric side, but he wants to give us an awareness of space and what lies between the words and the musical notes. "We're delighted at the warmth that's exchanged the moment there is sound, but there's something further, which is the most precious thing of all with a shared experience when, without forcing it, silence arrives," he says. "Silence is not a dead, empty, clinical word. When it is there, we're in it and it's full of life."

Back in Paris I ask Brook, the author of the seminal 1968 manifesto The Empty Space, how he has avoided the complacency of middle age. "One of the best lines I know is the last line of an obscure play by a German writer – I think it's Hebbel," says Brook, still able to recall a one-off reading of a play called Maria Magdalena when he was studying German at university. "It was a completely naturalistic play about a middle-aged father who gradually begins to learn about life. His daughter commits suicide and all these terrible things. The last line is all I remember: it's this man alone on the stage saying, 'I don't understand the world any more.'"

So does Brook wake up in the morning and say he doesn't understand the world any more? "Yes," he replies with a beatific grin. "Not only in the morning, but midday as well."

11 and 12 is at Tramway, Glasgow, 30 March until 3 April.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Battery Farm theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Battery Farm

Oran Mor, Glasgow
3 out of 5

It is the democrat's dilemma: what if, having given someone a voice, you don't like what they have to say? That is the situation faced by Kate in Gregory Burke's apocalyptic comedy, a lunchtime collaboration between the Traverse theatre and the Play, a Pie and a Pint series. Kate is an undercover activist who has infiltrated a futuristic "contentment facility" in which old people are stored in life-support units before being fattened for human consumption. While freeing the occupant of row NN, pod 777, Kate is alarmed to discover he was responsible for the death of the environment.

The role is underwritten by Burke and overplayed by Denise Hoey, so the idea does not go very far. But it is typical of the author of Black Watch and Gagarin Way that, even in a piece of whimsical sci-fi silliness, he will throw in such a big ethical problem.

Using the symbol of the serpent eating its own tail, Burke presents a vision of a self-destructive human race that will make any number of moral compromises for the sake of personal gain. The idea of a society that recycles its own flesh in high-end restaurants is darkly funny – especially in David MacLennan's production, where the audience is cast as the pod-bound pensioners – but it is also a satirical comment on a species even now burning up its own future.

The lab operative James is played by novelist Alan Bissett, who has a natural ear for Burke's comic rhythms even if he sometimes lacks physical authority. No such problem for Andy Gray as row NN, pod 777, who enhances Burke's verbal wit with his trademark double-takes and gives us the best orgasm scene since When Harry Met Sally.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0844 477 1000. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Empty/Mr Write theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Mr Write
5 out of 5

1 out of 5

Tron, Glasgow

Imagine being the only sober guest at a party of teenagers. Imagine you don't know any of them. Imagine they get drunker still. The evening would be deeply tedious. About as tedious as Cathy Forde's Empty, in which a 16-year-old's attempt to get a snog spirals into an orgy of sex, drugs and flooded bathrooms.

Vicky Featherstone's production for the National Theatre of Scotland does this very realistically, but it's only partial compensation for a play that's all incident and no drama. It bashes on from one act of domestic destruction to the next, but nothing changes.

What a contrast to Rob Drummond's Mr Write, an unmissable treat showing as part of the same three-play teen-friendly package. The concept is similar to Improbable theatre's Lifegame: Drummond seeks a volunteer from the audience and, after a series of questions, improvises a play based on their fears, friendships and passions.

As he scrawls phrases over the white backdrop, taking suggestions from the audience and their texting friends, Drummond creates the illusion of happy chaos. This is his first show for the NTS, he quips, and he hasn't even written a script. But he has constructed the show with the same unobtrusive discipline as his opening mind-reading trick – just watch the efficiency of his technical team as they match his free-flowing imagination sound cue for sound cue.

That is why it seems like magic when, from one girl's insecurities and ambitions, he types out a feel-good wish-fulfilment fantasy before our eyes. And it is why it is so moving when he prints out the freshly written script and hands it to the delighted girl.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-552 4267. Then touring until 2 April.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Miracle Man theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Miracle Man

Tron, Glasgow
2 out of 5

Another month, another Douglas Maxwell classroom play. In the excellent Promises Promises (still on tour), he gave us a teacher at the end of her career who snaps under the pressure of long-buried childhood repressions. In The Miracle Man for the National Theatre of Scotland, he gives us Ossian MacDonald, a thirtysomething PE teacher who is living in the shadow of his father. That man, a famous poet, is dying of cancer, giving his son the possibility of escaping his insecurity complex and reaching a delayed maturity.

In this, the teacher has something in common with the teenagers in his care whose response to the frightening demands of adulthood is to take a pledge of virginity. Theirs is a lusty brand of abstinence, but their denial of sex symbolises a fear of growing up.

Looking like Mackenzie Crook's comic school teacher Mr Bagshaw in his unbecoming tracksuit, Keith Fleming gives a tremendous performance as the ineffectual Ossian who seeks solace in the mythological power of storytelling. He yearns for a narrative that would rewrite his history of mediocrity and a miracle that would transform him into his heroic brother Fingal.

No shortage, then, of meaty raw material and no diminution in Maxwell's way with a funny one-liner. Lots of high-energy performances, too, in Vicky Featherstone's production, notably from Jimmy Chisholm as an eccentric headmaster.

But Maxwell has not fully digested his own promising ideas. He lets every scene run twice as long as it needs to, reducing the impact of the jokes and making it hard to sift important material from background colour. He leaves it unclear how the story of the virginity rings relates to Ossian's reconciliation with his father. It feels more like a writer working out personal demons than a story with universal resonance.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-552 4267. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Name is Rachel Corrie theatre review

Published in the Guardian

My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5

This week, the parents of Rachel Corrie bring a civil suit against the Israeli defence ministry over the cause of their daughter's death. The 23-year-old campaigner was crushed by a bulldozer in Rafah as she stood in peaceful defence of Palestinian homes in 2003. Her parents hope to put on the public record that the killing was intentional.

Corrie was not only an activist but a prolific, imaginative and lucid writer. It is the vigour of the language that distinguishes My Name Is Rachel Corrie from other pieces of verbatim theatre. Although pieced together from emails, journals and phone messages, it is polished. If the raw expression of a passionate young woman can be this good, you mourn the loss of a great writer as well as a dedicated idealist.

When the play – skilfully compiled by Alan Rickman and this paper's deputy editor Katharine Viner – appeared in the fine Royal Court production at Edinburgh's Pleasance in 2006, the big stage gave the sad ending an air of self-importance. Here, in the tiny stalls studio, Ros Philips's well-directed production can afford to be more subtle. Corrie's political reasoning is measured and persuasive, just as her love of life is unconfined.

Mairi Phillips's exemplary performance brings to mind the recent research that suggests a link between political activism and happiness. Her youthful fervour is earnest but never foolish and she displays the ironic humour Americans are supposed to lack. Her expertly modulated performance goes from brazen to righteous to distressed, evoking Corrie's spirit with tremendous honesty.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Equus theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Dundee Rep
3 out of 5

The director who brought Beauty and the Beast and The Elephant Man to Dundee continues her examination of the animalistic outsider with Peter Shaffer's study of the violent power of sublimated sexual desire. In this stripped-back Equus, Jemima Levick puts the story of Alan Strang and his devotional love of horses under laboratory conditions to reveal a tense drama of personal discovery. Although the argument about the uses of psychiatry seems dated, and the boy's motivation not entirely convincing, the play still drives home with the immediacy of a whodunit.

Most striking for anyone familiar with the recent Daniel Radcliffe/Alfie Allen revival is the staging. Alex Lowde's set reconfigures the space into a theatre in the round, the non-performing actors joining the audience on four sides of the clinically white stage like jurors sitting in judgment. Free of naturalistic garb, the characters come under our closest scrutiny as they stand exposed beneath the strip lights. Our task is less to be swept away by the story than to evaluate the claims of a mother whose religion is merciless, a father whose socialism is ungenerous, a psychiatrist whose private life is dysfunctional and a criminal whose motives are devout.

In the lead role as the boy guilty of terrible animal cruelty, Duncan Anderson clenches his fists on the bottom of his hoody as he makes the painstaking journey from blank-eyed aggression to fearful revelation. We are touched by his vulnerability. He is egged on by Robert Paterson's Dr Dysart, a dishevelled underachiever with a now familiar hang-up about his profession's purpose. They underplay the clash of brain and brawn, but, in their therapeutic ritual, they summon up the rippling muscularity of four bare-chested dancers in horse heads, who evoke the kind of passions that cannot be pinned down even by the most antiseptic of laboratories.

Until 20 March. Box office: 01382 223530.

© Mark Fisher

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

New theatreSCOTLAND mailing list

I've set up two Scottish theatre mailing lists.

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Pobby and Dingan, theatre review

Published in Northings

Pobby and Dingan
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 27 February 2010, and touring)

IT TAKES a while to warm to this adaptation of Ben Rice's novel. For one thing, there doesn't seem to be much at stake: just an everyday family hoping to get lucky in Lighting Ridge, an opal mining town in the Australian outback. For another, the production by Catherine Wheels takes a straight-forward approach that rules out the kind of imaginative leaps that children's theatre does best. The initial impression of Gill Robertson's staging is of a routine domestic drama.

All the same, you sense something is going on. Apart from the father (Damien Warren-Smith) with his Elvis fixation and conviction that untold wealth is just a day away, and apart from the mother (Ros Sydney) trying to keep order in a household with little money and a broken washing machine, and apart from Ashmol (Scott Turnbull), their son, zipping round town on his bike, there is the question of daughter Kellyanne (Ashley Smith).

Although the least vocal of the four, she is the most intriguing, because everywhere she goes she is accompanied by her two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan.

On the stage, Kellyanne's belief in the reality of these two characters is no less preposterous than our belief in the invisible food the mother puts on the table or the motionless journey Ashmol takes on his bike. One of the most touching aspects of Rice's tale, adapted by Rob Evans, is the willingness of the whole town to indulge in the little girl's fantasy. It is as if they recognise that her imagination offers an escape from the hard-bitten reality of their mining town that is so persuasively evoked by the play's incidental details.

But Pobby and Dingan goes further than that. Contrary to expectations, there is an awful lot at stake. This is a play about nothing less than childhood illness and death. It is about the way we can use the imagination not only to make sense of the world, as all children do, but also to come to terms with life's greatest traumas.

We take the play at face value when it treats the mysterious disappearance of Pobby and Dingan as a surreal and whimsical comedy, but all the while it is preparing us for us for the weightier events ahead.

Along the way it demonstrates the importance of community, ritual and shared belief as the townsfolk put aside their petty antagonisms and stand together in recognition of what is truly important. From its innocuous beginnings, Pobby and Dingan matures into a profoundly moving play, low on sentiment and high on good humour, that will leave you sobbing for the loss of more than just your invisible friends.

Pobby and Dingan is at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 20 March, and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 22-23 March 2010.

© Mark Fisher 2010