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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, October 27, 2010

A Doll's House, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

A Doll's House

Dundee Rep
4 out of 5

If Henrik Ibsen had been around to set A Doll's House in the 1950s, as it is here in Jemima Levick's excellent production, perhaps there would have been no need for Mad Men with its polarised genders and conspicuous consumption. The pre-1960s world this Nora Helmer comes to reject is a chic, modernist place, all white walls, spindly furniture and Bing Crosby on the radio, with clear demarcation of roles for husband and wife: business for him, children for her. As Nora skips in with her big skirt and her Christmas shopping, you get a taste of the consumer boom to come. As she stomps out, leaving her children, you feel the first articulation of feminist revolution.

All this looks stunning on a two-level set by Alex Lowde that lets us see half-a-dozen rooms through skeletal windows, conveying a sense of the life of the house beyond the immediate action. Like the ominous rumble of Jon Beales's sound design, the looming presence of other people – the children at the top of the stairs, the husband in his office – reminds us of the impending tragedy. It makes us see how the schemes Nora dreams up in the living room will affect the whole family; a family framed by the clean lines and cool spaces of each room like figures in an Edward Hopper painting, striking, isolated and trapped in time.

The shift in setting from 1879 is surprisingly seamless, appearing anachronistic only at the height of Torvald Helmer's tirade about the social shame of his wife's unorthodox money-raising methods. For the most part, the play is liberated from its usual period trappings, freeing the actors to be less formal and making the sexual politics less one-sided. This is not a polemic about oppressive men and put-upon women, but a subtle drama in which neither party is guilty.

The complexity extends to the supporting roles. Kevin Lennon's Krogstad starts out weasely and nervous, and ends up merely misunderstood, while Irene Macdougall's Kristine is an austere figure of moral rectitude who, seeing a chance with Krogstad, acts with callous self-interest.

At the heart of the play, Emily Winter's kittenish Nora – all twirls, spins and giggles – and Neil McKinven's affable Torvald establish a warm and genuine relationship that makes their eventual separation seem not of their own making but of social movements beyond their control, a catastrophe equally shared.

Until 6 November. Box office: 01382 223530.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Clockwork Orange, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

A Clockwork Orange

Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

In his swansong production as artistic director of the Citz, Jeremy Raison goes to some efforts to give Anthony Burgess's tale a modern-day spin. He stages it on Jason Southgate's set, a striking concrete and aluminium structure that suggests the most soulless 21st-century car parks, apartments and wine bars. As if to comment on the state of our nations, he casts actors from London, Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin and Glasgow. And, at the height of Alex's Pavlovian brainwashing, the doctor's litany of state-sanctioned violence includes a reference to Guantánamo.

But it doesn't quite ring true as a play for today. A naive older generation, an unaccountable medical profession and controlling state are not without their present-day parallels, but it says more about the mods-and-rockers era of post-50s social change when the story was written than about today. It's hard to see Jay Taylor's Alex as a figure of satire or subversion when he could be another media-sanctioned rebel in the mould of Pete Doherty.

And, although their fruity Nadsat slang gives the play a Jacobean flourish, Alex and his droogs have all the menace of a gang of Russell Brands. With their mix-and-match costumes and cartoon grins, they make unconvincing thugs who never seem equal to their acts of violence. Alex's lawlessness should fascinate and appal in equal measure, so when, in the second act, he is turned into a neutered shell, we should find ourselves mourning his anarchic spirit in spite of the cruelty that come with it. But it is hard to feel bothered about the loss of this angry young man.

Still, it is all put together with a lively theatrical eye, a disregard for Kubrick iconography and, in the hospital scenes, a suitably dystopian chill.

Until 6 November. Box office: 0141-429 0022.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh, interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Interview: Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh, writers

THE directions Louise Welsh has given me to her Glasgow flat are so precise I feel like I'm a character in one of her novels. "Go through an underpass… climb the stairs… cross the square…"

They are fail-safe instructions and get me there just as her partner and fellow writer Zoe Strachan is arriving home. We climb the stairs together, past the plant pots on the top landing and into their neatly kept flat where Welsh awaits us, the bookcase taking pride of place in a sunny, TV-free living room.

Strachan, it transpires, is the map reader of the household. Welsh is not, hence the precision of her directions. Her most trusted method of navigation when abroad is to carry a postcard of her hotel and to show it imploringly to strangers. People feel so sorry for her they tend to help, she laughs.

Now, in a rare artistic collaboration, the two novelists are venturing beyond the Glasgow backstreets where Welsh's shabby auctioneer Rilke goes on a solitary quest in The Cutting Room; and beyond the West End launderette where Strachan's Myrna risks meeting a nasty end in Spin Cycle.

In a jointly written play, Panic Patterns, they are taking us to a remote island in the far north of Scotland for a suspense drama involving dead radios, looming disaster and bird watching.

"We're interested in the tension between nature and technology," says Strachan, sitting on the living-room floor.

"I like the country," says Welsh, settling on the couch. "But I wouldn't want to be out there at night on my own. We see this couple and the dark outside could potentially have some menace."

Commissioned by Glasgay, Panic Patterns is about ornithologists Jacq and Fay ("birds that like birds," says Welsh) who have spent three days waiting for their boat off the island, getting more tense the longer they are delayed. The changing migration patterns of the birds and the illumination of the supposedly decommissioned lighthouse only add to their discomfort.

"It is not horror, but we're engaging with a lot of those conventions," says Welsh. "You're not quite 100 per cent sure what's going on. That's a sensation I really like: I don't quite know where we are, but I'm enjoying this."

Ask them where the idea came from and they are unable to say. The theme of isolation is something they have idly chatted about for years, as is the idea of something post-apocalyptic. When they started thinking about the play in earnest a year ago, those ideas belonged equally to them both.

Now rehearsals have started and the script is going through the usual last-minute tightening up, neither can remember who wrote what. "When a line gets cut, you never think, 'Ha-ha, that was your shit line that got cut,' or 'Oh dear, that was mine,' because you can't actually remember," says Welsh, delighted to be working with their director of choice Alison Peebles and actors Veronica Leer and Selina Boyack.

The uncertainty is because, as collaborations go, this one could not have been closer. Like partners in a small family business, Strachan and Welsh would set off every morning for Sauchiehall Street, where they had desk space in the Playwrights' Studio Scotland. Welsh had read that it is more sociable to sit at right angles ("you're not looking each other in the eye"), so they set up their computers accordingly and agreed to write one line at a time, ping-ponging back and forth from one to the other.

"There were moments that were a bit like an improvisation," says Strachan. "Because there were two of us, we could play around with ideas and try things out (in a very non-actorly way). At points, we brought out a flip chart and Magic Markers."

"I loved the flip chart," says Welsh. "We've both collaborated with composers before, but never writers. With another writer, trust was much more to the fore and you had to try to put your ego to one side. There were things that were faster because you had somebody there. You could really brainstorm and bounce ideas around and we often resolved things quickly that might have taken me a day or two to work out on my own."

"But it wasn't any less tiring," says Strachan. "And I don't think it actually did take less time. The process of working things out was a bit more fun, but it wasn't necessarily easier."

It helped that they had already spent a lot of time imagining the characters, sketching out the plot and discussing the themes. And although they would never use the same technique to write a novel, it seemed to make sense for a play.

"There were various motifs and metaphors that we were really aware of all the way through and we would bring it back to those and check that it all fitted together as a whole," says Strachan. "Things like the images of the birds, the sound, and the island that the women are trapped on. We thought about those things a lot."

Initially they laughed all the time. The play is not a comedy, but they amused each other with implausible plot twists and the simple joy of creating something together. Inevitably, there was tension too.
"This is one of those Hello moments," jokes Welsh when I ask if they are pretending to be a couple just for my benefit.

"Although we were writing together, there were moments when we would both sit quietly," she laughs. "Each of us would write something and then we'd come back and look at what we'd got. Quite often, we hadn't got it – but it was a way of opening up discussion again. Then sometimes, one of us would have written something and you'd say, 'That's it.'"

Their hard day at the office done, they would head out for a "decompression" drink. But the pub was rarely enough to stop them bringing their work home.

"We just talked about the play," says Strachan. "It didn't leave us. We got lots of ideas and had to bring out our notebooks – all of these after-a-glass-of-wine ideas that we looked at in the morning and thought, 'Forget that one.'"

They are quietly confident about the results and the experience has only whetted their appetite for theatre. Both have written lunchtime plays for A Play, a Pie and a Pint (and Welsh has enjoyed seeing other people's adaptations of The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die) and they enjoy the novelty of writing for a form in which, as Strachan has it, the "subtext is the subtext". They have also both written for Scottish Opera's annual Five:15 programme and Welsh is currently working on a full-length libretto. "Writing for different mediums is really stimulating," says Welsh, nonetheless itching to get back to novel writing.

Strachan, who has recently completed her third novel, is particularly enthusiastic about the dramatic form. "I'd love to do another play," she says. "I love the difference between sitting in a little room working away on my own and seeing the actors bring the words to life and the excitement of the audience. I'm really enjoying it."

Panic Patterns is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday to 30 October

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sea and Land and Sky, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Sea and Land and Sky

Tron, Glasgow
2 out of 5

Abigail Docherty's play about nurses in the first world war is light on plot and heavy on reflection. At its best, it captures something of the carnage of Sarah Kane's Blasted and the desolation of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. Its strength is in the strange, hallucinatory air that undercuts the period realism, although it is a quality that alienates as much as it intrigues.

The winner of the Tron's Open Stage competition, the play is based on the diaries of nurses sent to the Russian front in 1916. It begins in familiar culture-clash territory as volunteers from different social backgrounds are thrown together and left to cope with each other, the journey to the frontline and the demands of a taxing job.

This is a conflict in which limbs are severed, dysentery is rampant and blood is everywhere. One nurse warms her hands by plunging them into a dead man's innards. Even with the unconvincing corpses of Andy Arnold's production, this is a vile and violent vision.

By focusing on the women, Docherty highlights not the politics but the messy, corporeal consequences of war. She takes it a step further by examining the fighting's toll on mental health, breaking with stiff-upper-lip convention to suggest the women would make rash sexual advances on the soldiers, go on suicidal rescue missions and generally display Lady Macbeth-style neuroses. Despite the play's factual basis, much of this is historically implausible but, as the whole piece takes on a delusional air, it does have a metaphorical power. Less satisfying is the way the characters blur into one beneath their various psychoses, and develop hardly at all once the madness sets in.

Until 23 October. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Dirty Paradise, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Dirty Paradise

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

It has the hallmarks of a run-of-the-mill one-woman show. Inspired by a Gabriel García Márquez story? Check. Woman going on a voyage of self-discovery? Check. Flashbacks to troubled adolescence? Check. But there is something else going on in this 75-minute monologue, and it's not just the vibrant performance by writer Leann O'Kasi.

It takes a while to figure out what it is; why director Alison Peebles has made Steve Bain's excellent sound score so intrusive, and why O'Kasi's first-person narration should turn more inward-looking still. The answer is that her character, Maria Cruz, is not just another holidaying Londoner seeking reinvention amid the sexy rhythms of Brazil. Much more unsettlingly, she is a woman who is plagued by voices in her head. In its moments of greatest intensity, Dirty Paradise brilliantly conveys what a disturbing and dislocating condition that must be.

In one poignant scene, Maria makes a drawing of how it feels to hear the sound of unseen people crying, hectoring and squabbling. By the end of the speech, the paper is a scribbled mess.

O'Kasi, who has proved herself an incisive director in productions such as Topdog/Underdog at the Citizens, shows herself to be equally intelligent as a writer and actor in a supple, vivid and assured performance. She holds the attention on Arlene Wandera's car-wreck set every step of the way.

After its initial promise, however, the story pulls its punches: the cacophony of Brazil not only eases the noise inside Maria's head, it lessens the emotional impact of her fear, stigma and isolation. The concluding psychological explanation for her condition is too convenient a way to resolve a dilemma that has been so disturbingly evoked. Having unleashed such dark forces, O'Kasi could have rattled us even more before claiming her happy ending.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Good With People, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Good with People

Oran Mór, Glasgow
4 out of 5

Say what you like about David Harrower, but the author of Knives in Hens is not known for big laughs. Yet, here in the 199th lunchtime show produced by A Play, a Pie and a Pint (this time with Paines Plough), he uses his talent for high-precision dialogue to very funny effect. He also continues to explore the way the past haunts the present, as he did in Blackbird, and introduces a theme that recalls the political tension at the heart of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding.

In George Perrin's razor-sharp production, Blythe Duff is brilliantly deadpan as a Helensburgh hotel landlady, hilariously hidebound by petty regulations. She maintains a professional front until she realises the guest now checking in is Evan Bold, the boy who bullied her son at school.

As the guilty party, Andrew Scott-Ramsay points out that his victim's name, Jack Hughes, sounds awfully like Zola's "J'accuse". Evan is not as innocent as Alfred Dreyfus, the court-martialled soldier championed by the French novelist, but, as one of the "Faslane kids" brought into the area because of his father's job on the nearby nuclear naval base, he had cause to resent the locals' frosty reception.

Covering considerable ground in 50 minutes, Harrower moves deftly from linguistic games to social commentary, and a touching study of two characters learning to free themselves from their past. It's a tremendous piece of work.

Also doing a five-city tour and also well worth seeing are Fly Me to the Moon by Marie Jones, a crime caper about two care workers, which has the throwaway charm of an Ealing comedy, and In the Pipeline by Gary Owen, which adopts the interlinking monologue format pioneered by Brian Friel to observe the impact of global economics on a Milford Haven community.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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