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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, August 04, 2010

Interview with Enda Walsh about Penelope

Published in The Scotsman

Interview: Enda Walsh - playwright

ENDA Walsh waves to me across a Galway street. Only last night I spoke to the playwright as the final preview of his play Penelope was about to start in the town's tiny yet mighty Druid Theatre.
Then, he was all of a flutter because his idol Tom Murphy, author of The Gigli Concert, was in the audience. Today, he is holding a sachet of headache powder a friend has just handed him.

The well-wisher had spotted him out on the town after the show, having a rare old time with Murphy ("He was on hilarious form"), and was certain he'd need something for his head this morning.

So what did Murphy think of the play, I ask, as we take a seat in Druid's boardroom and Walsh empties the sachet into a glass of water.

"He said, 'You are a romantic,'" he laughs, mimicking the older writer's careful emphasis and showing no signs of a hangover.

"Romantic" is as good a description as any for Penelope, although anyone familiar with Walsh's global hits, such as Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, will know a word so conventional could never do justice to his eccentric worldview.

The play is the result of a commission from a German theatre to respond to Homer's Odyssey. There is no shortage of dramatic stories of derring-do in that 2,800-year-old epic, but it is typical of Walsh's preoccupations that he was not drawn to the superhuman Odysseus, venturing home from his island captivity, nor his fearless son Telemachus, voyaging to his father's rescue. Instead, he was captivated by the degenerate bunch of suitors who hang around Odysseus' wife Penelope in the vain hope of her hand in marriage should the hero fail to return.

"I'm fascinated by those figures in the book," says Walsh. "You look at that book and you look at the travels, the geography, the adventure and the extraordinary scale of it and then you go back to these men waiting and there's nothing. Their life has gone."

It is these figures, self-absorbed, competitive and impotent, we find squabbling in an empty swimming pool in Mikel Murfi's brilliantly acted production. Like the housebound family in The Walworth Farce and the elderly women enmeshed in their own past in The New Electric Ballroom, these men are compelled to live a repetitive and futile life by the force of their own warped logic. Standing under the gaze of a CCTV camera, they are like contestants in a surreal episode of Big Brother.

"The opening of this show is a series of five conversations that don't go anywhere," says Walsh, 43, who also wrote Hunger, Steve McQueen's BAFTA-nominated film about Bobby Sands. "They're arguing over whether it's taste or heat that you feel from eating a sausage. It's like they're at the end of their vocab and something else needs to be created out of that."

The one thing that galvanises them is the imminent return of Odysseus. Suddenly they realise their wooing of Penelope, which has become a meaningless ritual, must come to an end. Only if they break their old habits will they have a chance of seducing her. Otherwise they're all dead. "They create very odd worlds for themselves," he says. "They're worlds created out of nothing. It seemed really important to me that the men should try and find themselves and start anew. I imagine that's what would happen if I couldn't leave somewhere, if I couldn't get to live Odysseus' wonderful life."

It is a dilemma that reflects his own existential crises, the perpetual battle between the meaninglessness of life and the need to take it seriously. "All my plays are powered by my terrible anxieties," he says. "Wanting to do good stuff but finding it really difficult. It's about how I can quickly turn the volume on life and completely distance myself or make it really sour and horrible. It's about my usual fears about life and worth - who cares about a writer anyway? Does the world need another play? Yet, that's the only expression that I have. It means everything, but it's teetering on meaning absolutely nothing. And that's the dilemma for the characters who are about to not exist any more."

Their solution - and it is the one Tom Murphy was thinking of when he said Walsh was a romantic - is to edge themselves, foolishly, farcically and fumblingly, towards a genuine expression of love. Having started out as narcissists, with an idealised view of Penelope, they approach a state of enlightenment.

"There's a line about loving the love itself," says Walsh. "The men have used love to trick her and to win her, so that notion seemed ludicrously romantic. In their minds, they make it happen. They fill this pool with life and optimism for her and Odysseus, so at least they've achieved something and given her something. I was completely surprised by that; I certainly didn't plan for the play to go where it went. It was a massive shock to me when this Fitz character started talking about loving the love itself."

Hearing Walsh talk about his characters, it is as if he has had no say in their creation. That audiences find their behaviour other-worldly is not surprising. That the playwright is equally bemused is curious. Yet it is how it always happens for him.

"That's why the plays tend to be formless," he says. "They create their own form. I never fully understand it. I still don't understand many things about The New Electric Ballroom even though I directed it. It feels so huge to me.

The plays tend to happen in the second. A lot of the past seems to have gone quickly and there's no sense of where it's going. That excites me, that it will find its own form."

What is fascinating is that writing of such singular vision - a vision that surprises even its author - has found such widespread acclaim. Walsh has come to accept that his work is not for everyone - and the occasional walk-out is par for the course - but Druid's tours of his last two Fringe First-winning plays were major hits at home and abroad. Penelope is already lined up for autumn dates in Helsinki, New York, Dublin and London. So how can he be popular and eccentric at the same time?

"I always think it's 60/40: 60 per cent get it and 40 per cent hate it and that's the way it's always been. When you introduce logics, specific languages and worlds, that's always going to be the case. The only way I can explain it is that I don't know what is happening as I'm writing it and the audience have exactly the same experience. For me, that's when theatre works. I like to make people laugh, I like the excitement of it, I like the show if it - that's a good half of me. The other half of me is really happy to be lost in the work and trying to find my way through it."

Penelope is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5-29 August, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Mutatis Mutandis, La Fura dels Baus, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Mutatis Mutandis

Gannochy sports centre, Stirling
3 out of 5 3

The last time La Fura dels Baus played in Scotland was with XXX, a defiantly adult show that featured sexual practices from sodomy to incest. It gives an idea of the ambition of mFest, a groundbreaking festival programmed by teenagers for teenagers, that the centrepiece of its inaugural weekend should be a collaboration with this maverick Barcelona company. With several young Scots in the cast, Mutatis Mutandis is an explosive piece of image theatre that makes up in exuberance what it lacks in subtlety.

Jürgen Müller's production begins atop a white pyramid in some primitive time when a shamanistic woman wonders among wolves baying at the moon. We flash forward to a scene of modern-day dancing, which, in turn, is interrupted by the arrival of four figures representing the forces of religion, capitalism, media and the military.

It's standard agit-prop imagery – and frequently the actors have little to do but stand and grimace – but the show finds life as the pyramid separates into four units that race precariously towards the standing audience. It creates a sense of unease, exacerbated by the cacophonous soundtrack and glaring lights.

Before long, the authority figures grow decadent, revelling in their might and abusing their positions. On ground level, a rebellion is afoot and, only after the audience is assaulted with chains, weapons and water, and fireballs have been spun and fireworks exploded, is harmony restored.

The wilder things become, the more entertaining the show is, but it's hard to be convinced by its revolutionary spirit. The images of corrupted power are too generalised, which makes the rebellion look like so much posturing. It means more sound and fury than emotional engagement.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Lorraine McIntosh interview for Beautiful Burnout

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Interview: Lorraine McIntosh, actress, singer

WHEN Lorraine McIntosh takes to the stage for the premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland's Beautiful Burnout, she knows who her fiercest critic will be.

In the first-night audience will be Ricky Ross, her husband and fellow Deacon Blue bandmate, who is a voracious theatregoer - a three-times-a-week man, she says - and no mean director himself. A couple of years ago, he staged a mystery play at their local church and, according to McIntosh, made a tremendous job of it. So when it comes to her high-profile performance with the NTS, she knows he'll tell it like it is - just as she has always been frank with him about his music.

What's impressive is that McIntosh is on stage at all. Many people in her position - six top 20 albums before the age of 30 - would have accepted the riches of stardom and settled back for a quiet life. Even after seven years playing Alice Henderson in River City, she could have chosen to cruise or concentrate on bringing up her three children.

There was indeed a time when she found it easier to rest on her laurels than take a risk, but it didn't last. "I've taken enough easy options in life," says the 46-year-old, sitting in an airy Glasgow rehearsal room. "I had quite a number of years of never having to be challenged. You can get really lazy.

"When you are a success, you don't want to come down from that. You don't want people to think you're less successful than you used to be, even though you are - your band's stopped, you've stopped making records - and for a number of years, I thought, I'm not going to do anything, I'm just going to sit here in this position, and then you can't fail. It would be lovely not to fail, but I do fail in lots of ways and you realise it's not the end of the world."

McIntosh, who became the family carer at the age of 11 when her mother died of leukaemia, could not be held back for long. After a commercial tour of Mum's The Word and an experimental performance at Glasgow's Arches, she is acting on stage for only the third time.

It's a job she adores. "I do like doing things that scare me a bit," she says. "Financially, I probably don't have to be doing things, but emotionally I definitely need to. I get loads of time to be at home taking care of my kids, which I do love doing - and it has broken my heart that they're all off on summer holiday and I'm missing it - but at the same time, I do need to be challenged. I'm too young to retire."

Although she has sung in front of thousands - most recently at Glasgow's Hogmanay - she is in no doubt about which job makes her most nervous. "Doing things with Deacon Blue doesn't scare me at all, but acting is a whole new..." she breaks off, trying not to let the fear get to her.

Beautiful Burnout is about the allure of boxing for working-class boys. Bryony Lavery's play is also about the contradictions of a sport that can lead to brain damage in the name of entertainment. It horrifies McIntosh to think her own nine-year-old son would ever step into the ring. "When I was growing up in a wee mining town in Ayrshire, if there had been a boxing club, my brothers would have been in it," she says. "The parents see it as a really positive experience and in loads of ways it is.

"The gym is a place where there is a real atmosphere of love and care for these young boys coming up. Yesterday I watched a YouTube clip of Gerald McClellan, the world champ, who was put out by Nigel Benn (suffering brain damage in the process]. Watching him now, it's heartbreaking. When you watch these boxing fights, it's really exciting - even for someone like me who disapproves of it - but you see this guy and you think, this is the possibility at the end of all this."

For her role as the mother of a boy bitten by the boxing bug, she has taken inspiration from a woman she remembers from her Cumnock childhood. "She was the single mother of a boy I used to go out with when I was 18. The bizarre thing is, I then remembered he was an amateur boxer.

"She was a really fiery, determined, tenacious, ambitious woman. We were having a chat about our characters and what kind of things they did, and I said, on a Friday night my two friends come round with a half-bottle of vodka, we listen to records, dance and we have a wee cry. And that's what she did every Friday night. That was her letting off steam. I'd love to contact her."

The production is a collaboration with Frantic Assembly, the London-based company famed for its highly physical approach. Although McIntosh herself is not required to break sweat during the performance, she has been joining the rest of the cast in their vigorous daily regime. "They call them warm-ups, but they're work-outs," she jokes, looking all the more radiant for the exercise.

Mucking in with the rest of the cast like this comes naturally to a performer who, even at the height of Deacon's Blue's fame, always kept her feet on the ground. "I wish success had gone to my head a bit more," she laughs. "We were so bloody Scottish about it. I remember the first time we had an album go to number one and someone asked us how we were going to celebrate.

"There was almost a perverse pride in not celebrating. I think deep down there was a bit of a fear that if we made too much of it, it was all going to disappear. I was aware of where I'd come from, the people I knew, and life wasn't like that for them. When we started earning lots of money, it was quite difficult to say we're just going to do this for ourselves, because you're leaving behind people and you want them to share in it, which means trying not to make too big a deal of it.

"We were disappointing pop stars in that way. We had a great time, we had great fun and it was very intense, the eight years we had together, but I don't think intrinsically we changed. We were all fairly rooted people."

It is a rooted nature that has only strengthened with age. "I had to find out fairly young who I was, but as I've got older I've spent a lot of time trying to work out what I like and don't like about me, and what I'm willing to accept as me. Like everyone does, you mature, get a bit of wisdom and you look back and you think, when I behaved like that, that was stupid. I just think I know who I am and I don't think I can be shaken from that."

Beautiful Burnout is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, Wednesday until 29 August, 7.30pm

© Mark Fisher 2010

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