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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Blog Archive

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bus Stop, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Bus Stop
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
3 out of 5

If you read contemporary accounts of mid-20th century American theatre, you routinely see the names of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge listed together. The first two are no surprise, but you wonder at the third. In the 1950s, Inge was celebrated for a run of Broadway hits including Come Back Little Sheba and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and he attracted stars as big as Marilyn Monroe to his film adaptations. Today, he is largely forgotten in the UK.

If Bus Stop is our measure, we can see why. Set in a small-town diner on the night of a snow storm, it is an amiable work, but has none of the majestic ambition – nor the psychological demons – of the playwright's major-league peers.

As the passengers of a Denver-bound bus kill time before the road is cleared, the play works through three parallel stories of sexual attraction. There is the virginal cowboy who has abducted the first Kansas City showgirl he's stumbled across; the landlady taking the chance of a one-night stand with the bus driver; and the elderly Shakespeare scholar with an unhealthy appetite for the teenage waitress. After finding out who the good guys really are, we leave content that the right man got the girl.

The stakes are low, but there is merit in the play's portrayal of the midwest. It captures a hard-working, unsophisticated side of the country that grittier dramas overlook. And while Ken Alexander's production takes a while to convince of its authenticity, the company's wide-eyed charm proves a match for Inge's sweet-tempered vision, leaving us with no masterpiece, but a minor pleasure.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Teatro en el Blanco's Diciembre, EIF theatre preview

Published in The List

Teatro en el Blanco go back to basics with politically engaging EIF production

The Pinochet years continue to leave a deep scar on the Chilean psyche. Playwright Guillermo Calderón tells Mark Fisher why Diciembre tackles some dark memories but still finds humour in his nation’s tortured past

Guillermo Calderón was 17 and in his first year of university when Augusto Pinochet stepped down as president of Chile and returned the country to democracy. It should have been a moment of liberation, but for Calderón, whose whole life had been shaped by the dictatorship, it was a big disappointment. ‘My generation grew up during the dictatorship and then we were welcomed into this new democracy, which we didn’t like. We wanted to challenge it.’

Saying goodbye to an authoritarian regime was one thing, but welcoming a system governed by the free-market philosophies then being championed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was another. It meant Calderón and his friends never let go of the political fervour that shaped their formative years. The system had changed, but they still had something to rail against.

‘The years of dictatorship were very traumatic, but at the same time very exciting because we were all working together for a common goal,’ he says. ‘I was active in politics and we were very optimistic. But when democracy arrived, it basically preserved the neo-liberal economic model based on the Milton Friedman school in Chicago. That was the economic model they preserved; the political model was basically what Pinochet had planned. Our big frustration was there wasn’t a big process of truth and reconciliation based on justice; it was just based on trying to find out whatever happened, but we wanted more. It was frustrating; and still is.’

That is why when the playwright and director talks about the theatre scene in his native country, it is in terms not of escapism but of seriousness. ‘It’s not what you would expect from Latin American theatre,’ Calderón says. ‘You’d expect folk music, folk dancing and plays made out of local legends. But, no, it’s more like eastern European theatre: small rooms with sad people, angry people.’

Calderón sees himself as part of a generation of theatre-makers who have been shaped by their country’s history and are determined to change things. He is a decade or so younger than his compatriot Juan Carlos Zagal, whose Teatro Cinema is presenting two plays in the Edinburgh International Festival in the same week as Calderón’s Diciembre. Both men are all too aware of the historical background from which their work emerges.

‘A lot of us in my generation grew up during the dictatorship,’ Calderón says. ‘We’re concerned with mostly political issues in order to deal with this collective trauma we have. Compared with Teatro Cinema, we are more overtly political. Juan Carlos Zagal is 10-15 years older than me, so we have a different experience of the dictatorship. I can see each generation trying to walk away from the trauma. We’re defined by the experience, but we work on it differently.’

Diciembre, a three-hander by his Teatro en el Blanco company, is about a soldier who comes home from battle for 24 hours only to find himself at the centre of an argument between his twin sisters, both of whom are pregnant. One is a pacifist and would willingly give him shelter if he deserted from the army. The other is a patriot and is disgusted at the idea of such a defection.

Set in a near future when a century-old territorial battle between Chile, Peru and Bolivia has been reignited, the play makes the connection between a great political movement – so great, in fact, it threatens to annihilate the country – and our private lives. If all this sounds terribly earnest, it should be said Diciembre is also a comedy, albeit a dark one. ‘It’s the comedy of confusion, word play and absurd situations,’ says Calderón, explaining that each of the actors doubles as a second, more farcical character. ‘I write for these specific actors, so I try to get their own sense of humour into their characters. I want to revitalise the stage, not to treat a grim subject in a grim way. I’m not here to torture or bore the audience.’

After Neva and Clase, the play is the third in a trilogy that is united by an examination of violence that infiltrates the home. Before getting the measure of Edinburgh theatregoers in August, Calderón will have the chance to see how a Russian audience reacts to Neva when it plays at the International Chekhov Theatre Festival in Moscow.

In the EIF, Diciembre is one of the ways in which artistic director Jonathan Mills is trying to shift our cultural centre of gravity away from the Atlantic. A play that makes reference to the 19th-century War of the Pacific reminds us there are other ways of looking at the world.

‘Guillermo Calderón is a really remarkable new voice in South American theatre,’ says Mills. ‘He’s somebody to watch. We should be bringing these voices in.’ The feeling is mutual. ‘As theatre people, we usually go to Europe to get inspired and see what’s going on,’ says Calderón. ‘So the fact that they’re looking at us now, changing seats, is really strange. Moscow and Edinburgh are big highlights for us.’

In Diciembre’s previous tours out of Santiago, Calderón has seen the way different countries react to the material. You do not need to be an expert in Chilean history to understand the play, he says, not least because the experience of war and economic migration is sadly universal. But the country you come from will affect what you get out of it.

‘When we show Diciembre in Latin America, they usually concentrate on the racial issue,’ he says. ‘In the United States, they focus on the war issue because of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they don’t read the racial issue as well. Other people just connect with the play’s sense of humour, which is fine, although it’s a superficial reading.’

Hailed by the LA Times for ‘its masterfully economic blend of near-poetry and graphic context’, the play was written and rehearsed over a period of about six months. Calderón’s method is to write with specific actors in mind, feeding short passages of material into rehearsals as he goes along. The play is not devised – he is still the playwright – but the actors’ input, their personalities and their discussions all go to shaping the finished work.

‘It’s good because I get to edit the play with the actors on stage, I get feedback and I change things really freely,’ says the playwright who also works more conventionally as a director of existing plays. ‘I’m really inspired by the rehearsal process.’

Reacting against the wave of cool postmodernist detachment that dominated Chile’s stages in the 1990s, he is on a drive to get back to theatrical basics, concentrating on the good old values of acting, drama, humour and, of course, politics. ‘Theatre is very important if you want to say bold things about a society. There’s not a lot of independent media in Chile, so art has a really strong tradition. That tradition allows us to say a lot of things, and people who go to the theatre expect to see politically engaging stagings and plays.’

Diciembre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 2–4 Sep, 8pm; 4 Sep, 2.30pm, £10–£27.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Theatre preview: Ontroerend Goed's Teenage Riot

Published in The List

Renowned Belgian theatre group explores teenage angst

Belgium's ground-breaking theatre company Ontroerend Goed is back with a darker set of teenage kicks. Mark Fisher speaks to director Alexander Devriendt about being in touch with his own rebellious side

Everyone who visits Alexander Devriendt in the rehearsal room says he must be crazy. He is 33 years old, yet he thrives on working with the most exuberant of teenagers. ‘It’s not about wanting to stay young, I don’t think about it,’ says the Belgian theatre director. ‘I don’t mind the chaos and the noise.’ This is just as well. It was Devriendt who was responsible for Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, the high-energy hit by Ontroerend Goed that blasted onto the Traverse stage in 2008. It was a remarkable show – as remarkable in its own way as the same company’s other Fringe sensations The Smile off Your Face and Internal – the more so because it was performed by 13 teenagers.

In a series of punchy scenes that ranged from the anarchic to the hallucinatory, they summed up everything that is great about being an adolescent. They were unapologetic, vigorous and passionate and their energy was infectious. Having thrilled audiences in Edinburgh, they picked up bookings from festivals around the world. No international tour has ever depended so much on the dates of the Belgian school holidays. It played for 182 performances.

In all that time, Devriendt never tired of it and neither did his teenage performers. In New York, they did some school dates and the director was alarmed to see the kind of audience he’d previously encountered only in the toughest movies. ‘I didn’t expect the show to make a connection with other cultures,’ he says. ‘In New York, it was like Boyz n the Hood, these really heavy guys. I was a bit afraid: “What do we have to tell them about being young?” But one of the guys said in the post-show discussion that “it is so weird a couple of guys from Ghent have the same feeling as me”. It was beautiful and a surprise that I made something that resonated with other youngsters.’

But it was a show with a built-in sell-by date. The actors could not stay teenagers forever and, after two years together, they fought, danced, snogged and fooled around for one last time in their home town of Ghent. ‘The 165th performance, for instance, was still as energetic as the first one,’ he says. ‘I can pretend I know why, but I don’t. They just loved playing it. At the same time, for some of them, they felt it was the last taste of youth they had; when Once and for All stopped, adult life began. So they cherished every performance they could play. For the last performance, they didn't change anything, they just played every scene like their lives depended on it. It was the first time I watched the piece with tears in my eyes. It was the best one they ever did.’

After so much acclaim, the director might have been wise to leave it at that, but he had unfinished teenage business to attend to. Devriendt returned to the rehearsal room, this time with a smaller group, some of whom he had got to know through Once and for All. Initially he worried about trying to improve on the earlier show, but once he realised that was impossible, he felt liberated to go in a new direction. ‘That gave me so much freedom. It was more of a collaboration between people I knew and that gave me a totally different feeling and joy in making this.’ Now, with Teenage Riot, the plan was to explore aspects of adolescence that the earlier show had deliberately ignored.

‘Where Once and for All was the teenagedom I wish I’d had, I wanted to make something that was closer to the teenagedom I experienced. It was more personal. And I chose actors who had a rebelliousness in them.’

First he had an obstacle to overcome. If he wanted the youngsters to speak openly and honestly and to devise a script that was all their own words, he needed a way for them to say in public what they would normally say only in private. His solution for anyone used to seeing live theatre was an odd one. He put them in a box. They would communicate with the audience via a camera inside. ‘The room on stage is a good way of getting out of the actors things they really wanted to do but they wouldn’t dare show in plain view. In that way, I could go a little bit tougher and harder.’

To generate material, he set them loose with a video camera. On one occasion he suggested they should cram themselves into a room the size of a toilet for 15 minutes and film in there. ‘Only 15 minutes?’ said the performers and insisted on staying in there for an hour and a half. Every 15 minutes he handed in a supply of food. ‘It gave them a lot of freedom because the camera was an easy way to give confessions.’ On another occasion, demonstrating Devriendt truly is in touch with his teenage self, he gave them a camera and the keys to his own flat for the night. Remarkably, it was still in one piece the next day. ‘They filmed some beautiful moments and the house was really clean the day after, though my bed was full of crisps they'd forgotten to clean.’

From such exercises, they generated perhaps four hours of material which they whittled down into Teenage Riot, finding a way also to communicate directly with the audience. ‘In form and feeling it’s a different show to Once and for All,’ he says. ‘Some people think it is funny, but for me it is darker. Generally people left Once and for All with a feelgood feeling; after this, I leave them a little bit more distressed. It’s more of a shock for adults.’

Teenage Riot, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 0131 228 1404, 18–29 Aug (not 23), various times, £17–£19 (£6–£13). Preview 17 Aug, 12.45pm, £12 (£6).

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Valhalla!, theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

The coalition government has just brought in Niall Ferguson to jazz up the school history curriculum. Despite the Harvard academic's talk of war games and television in the classroom, however, it is by no means certain he would give the thumbs-up to the retelling of history in Paul Rudnick's Valhalla!

First seen in 2004, this boisterous American comedy filters the story of Ludwig II, the 19th-century king of Bavaria, through a gauze of such outrageous camp that – at least in Andy Arnold's exuberant production – it comes across more like a video by Adam and the Ants than a session with AJP Taylor.

If you haven't got the measure of Rudnick's approach by the time of the scene in which two Texas teenagers masturbate over a stolen library copy of A History of Greco-Roman Art, then you will once you witness the gay prince dressed as a nun fondling his mother's right breast.

With designer Kenny Miller in charge of the wardrobe, it is a total frock-fest, as Johnny McKnight's Ludwig switches outfits with the frequency and relish of a panto dame. Particularly fetching is the gold braid military jacket with half-length silk trousers over white tights, not forgetting the black pageboy wig and the gold chains on his naked chest. No wonder the "humpback" Duchess Sophie falls for him in a fairytale meeting where they discover a shared passion for Richard Wagner.

We can attribute the lewd comedy to Rudnick – as we can the parallel story of James Avery, a small-town 1940s reprobate in the mould of Vernon God Little – but the bigger joke is that Valhalla! is historically accurate. Ludwig really did have an escapist imagination, supported Wagner in his operatic excesses and blew his fortune on building Versailles-style castles. By retelling his life story with such flamboyance, Rudnick not only claims a piece of gay history but also makes narrative sense.

Sometimes the cast give sketch-show caricatures where the script calls for New York brashness, but more typically, they bring a very funny vaudevillian energy. Like Miller's set, which reveals the bare canvas frames behind the gold-fronted proscenium arch, they convey a sense that the whole narcissistic charade might collapse at any moment. Despite this, the play's touching conclusion, in which past and present collide, suggests that beauty is the greater truth.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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