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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A View from the Bridge, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

A View from the Bridge

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

When John Dove staged Death of a Salesman for the Royal Lyceum in 2004, it was the start of a five-play Arthur Miller odyssey that reaches its triumphant, soul-shaking end in A View from the Bridge. No one would call Dove a flashy director; no intrusive concepts or clever deconstructions for him. Instead, what he has shown – whether in the watertight tragedy of All My Sons or the novice experiment of The Man Who Had All the Luck – is a clear-headed gift for letting Miller's plays sing.

He puts such steady heat under A View from the Bridge, it feels ready to boil over at any moment. Even in the domestic opening scene where we get to know longshoreman Eddie Carbone, his blossoming niece Catherine and pragmatic wife Beatrice, the director conveys a terrifying sense of volatility. Miller is meddling with primal forces – incest, sexuality, impotence, honour, justice, coming of age – and Dove shows how close these destructive passions are to breaking through the sheen of everyday family life.

We see this especially in Stanley Townsend's Eddie, a heavy-eyed bear of a man, turning from cuddly to untamed with each line. With his low-slung belt emphasising a middle-aged paunch, Eddie is a well-liked working man, patriarchal but not tyrannical, who finds himself gripped by impulses he can neither articulate nor comprehend. The shrewd Beatrice can see he has displaced his lust for Catherine by turning on the girl's boyfriend, the illegal immigrant Rodolpho, but Eddie is a creature without self-reflection and has no such insight.

Much as we know it will end badly, Eddie has no control over his own destiny, and Townsend suggests it could still go either way. It's a compelling performance, even if he admits defeat a scene too early, making his demise seem less the fall of a mighty beast than a broken animal being put out of its misery.

In Eddie's tragedy, Miller was consciously drawing on an archetypal form. Equally vivid is his vision of an economic system in which work is the defining force. It is why the immigrants have left Italy, why Catherine yearns to leave school, and why Eddie, who was once forced to traipse from dock to dock in search of a job, genuinely desires better things for his niece. It is another reason the play is a masterpiece, and why Dove's production marks the completion of a masterly series. (Pictured: Kathryn Howden and Stanley Townsend Pic Douglas McBride)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Derek Jacobi interview for King Lear

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Derek Jacobi in King Lear

The role of King Lear is a vertiginous challenge that only the most accomplished actors dare climb. Vast in its emotional range, it requires an old man's gravitas and a young man's stamina. If you have tackled Hamlet at the start of your career, you will want to tick off Lear before you retire. The part has been played by Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, Brian Cox, Christopher Plummer, Sir Ian McKellen - a litany of greats now joined by Sir Derek Jacobi in a thrilling production by London's Donmar theatre that tours to Glasgow this spring.

This mythic character, who bequeaths his kingdom to his daughters only to be abandoned and hurled into madness, is a special part and Jacobi is giving it a special performance. "Overwhelmingly moving," raved the Guardian. "The finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen," said the Telegraph. These are sentiments confirmed by Jacobi's fellow performers when I meet them before the show.

"He is an amazing actor and an amazing man," says Gina McKee, star of Our Friends In The North, who gives a chilling performance as the wicked daughter Goneril. "He's absolutely stunning as Lear."

Sitting next to her in the empty theatre is Ron Cook, who plays the Fool. He is only in the first half and has a vivid memory of seeing the production all the way through for the first time.

"I saw three runs and I was in bits," he says. "The first time I saw it I couldn't talk. I thought, 'Next time I see it I'll be fine,' but it was the same thing. It touches something very deep."

Jacobi cuts a modest figure as he sits in a corner of the small Donmar bar. Even with the wild white beard he has grown for the part, he does not seem his 72 years.

He does, however, have to preserve his energy - and, crucially, his voice - to power him through eight performances a week until June. Since appearing as a teenage Hamlet on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1955, he has established himself as a towering force of classical acting in leading roles such as Peer Gynt, Prospero, Richard III and Macbeth, not to mention I Claudius on TV. Despite this pedigree, in person he is genial and unkingly, a man with no illusions about the magnitude of the task before him.

"I'm bearing up," he says cheerfully. "It's a wonderful play, with wonderful parts, but it's a mountain. Michael Grandage, the director, was the motor for the whole thing, telling me I had to do Lear. I kept saying, 'Give me time. I've got to get a bit older.' But this year coincided with my 50th year in the business and age no longer seemed a problem.I felt righter for the part than I'd ever done before."

Certainly, it's on a different scale to his Emmy Award-winning guest appearance in the 2001 episode of Frasier in which he played an appalling Shakespearean actor. The dramatic pause he inserted into Hamlet's "the rest is… silence" was hilarious. "Doing Shakespeare badly comes naturally to me," he says with a laugh. "Playing Lear was harder."

Harder and longer in the planning. He and Grandage have been talking about the idea for seven years. You could argue Jacobi's preparation goes back even further.

He saw his first King Lear in Hammersmith as a schoolboy in a production starring actor-manager Donald Wolfit and has caught a handful of stagings since, most recently the Rupert Goold version starring Pete Postlethwaite.

"Actors are scavengers," he says. "We steal from one another. When you see another actor doing something rather marvellous, you put it in the bag for future reference. Not to suggest that one's own interpretation is an amalgam of everything one has seen - it's not - but the more performances you see, it does start to peel the onion away a bit."

Performed in the tiny Donmar, with the wooden planks of Christopher Oram's timeless set surrounding actors and audience, Grandage's production will work well when it is broadcast to cinemas on 3 February as part of the NT Live programme - a month before it arrives for real at Glasgow's Theatre Royal.

Fast and focused, it creates a terrifying sense of mounting chaos as the forces of good (the innocent daughter Cordelia) are banished and the forces of evil (the bastard Edmund played by Glasgow-born Alec Newman) take control.

The cast's assessment of Jacobi's performance is no exaggeration. It is tremendous, charting Lear's decline from charming autocrat to babbling geriatric in a way that is deeply moving.

Even before Jacobi and Grandage had worked together on Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Don Carlos, the actor quickly found they had a shared approach to the role. "We are on the same wavelength," he says. "It has to be true to yourself and it has to involve your own personality, your own look, sound, you - it's yours."

This being the case, it helped both men to have approached the performance slowly. "To know seven years ago that an actor who wanted to tackle Lear was asking me whether I would like to tackle it with him was a great privilege," says Grandage.

"As an actor, he was most interested in finding a world. We wanted to create somewhere that had a pagan feel to it without going into a Flintstone place - out of that came timber, something very rooted, something of the earth.

Our discussions about the text were about the bit of Lear that we both felt was most interesting to us, which is the domestic tragedy at the heart of it, the way this family tears itself apart."

Like Hamlet, it is a role that gets under an actor's skin, making him think about the relationship with his own father and, according to Jacobi, relationships in general. "It's a very emotional part," says the actor. "He has to rage with incredible anger and incredible grief. Compared with Hamlet, I found Lear a harder nut to crack. It has to encompass a more hazardous journey than Hamlet's."

The challenge as a performer is to feel those intense emotions every night, eight nights a week. Does he always feel them afresh? "I do try to," he says, with characteristic modesty. "Gielgud's famous remark when he was doing eight Hamlets a week was, 'Sometimes I have to send on technique.' I try not to do that. I try to immerse myself as much as I can."

King Lear, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 7-12 March; NT Live, selected cinemas, 3 February.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Scottish theatre preview 2011

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Scottish theatre preview 2011

It'll be a good year for catching up with Scotland's key plays. While the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) continues to tour Gregory Burke's Black Watch, Rapture Theatre Company has assembled a strong cast to tour the playwright's breakthrough comedy Gagarin Way (17 February until 9 April).

On a bigger scale, several major venues have come together to revive the late Tom McGrath's The Hard Man about the life of Jimmy Boyle (31 March until 30 April). And Des Dillon, frustrated that Six Black Candles has not been seen in Scotland since its hilarious debut in 2004, has brought together most of the original Royal Lyceum cast to tour the play himself (15 April to 22 May).

David Harrower's Knives In Hens has been produced all over the world since its astonishing debut in 1995, but only a couple of times in Scotland, so a new NTS production (touring, 3-20 June) is very welcome. The NTS is also reviving Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep (touring, 16 September to 8 October), the 1930s tenement drama.

Among the new plays vying to become the classics of tomorrow are two by David Greig: The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, going on a tour of pubs courtesy of the NTS (10-26 February), and Dunsinane, a sequel to Macbeth (touring 14 May to 11 June).

It's a promising year for women playwrights – and snappy titles – with Sue Glover's Marilyn (Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and Citizens', Glasgow, 17 February until 2 April), Rona Munro's Pandas (Traverse, Edinburgh, 15 April to 7 May) and Abi Morgan's 27 (Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 22 October to 12 November).

© Mark Fisher 2011

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