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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

Friday, September 30, 2011

Interview: Rachel O'Riordan

Published in The Scotsman

THE high heidjins at Perth Theatre wanted their new artistic director to make a splash. Rachel O'Riordan, they thought, should arrive in style. So they were all for letting her make her debut with a big cast and high production values. For the Northern Irish director, that meant only one thing. "As soon as I heard that, it was Shakespeare all the way," she says, tucking into a baked potato in her rehearsal break. "There's no more exciting writer on the planet. And Twelfth Night is probably in the top ten plays of all time – it's exquisite."

Today she's buzzing with excitement not only about Shakespeare's comedy, with its mixed-up plot of cross-dressed twins and mistaken identity, but about doing it in Scotland with Scottish actors. "Working in Ireland and being Irish, you're aware there's a Celtic sensibility that is different from an English one. I'm not saying Ireland and Scotland are the same, but there is a cultural inheritance that is shared."

Determined to engage with her new home, she and her creative team have been venturing into the Perthshire countryside to find inspiration for the setting of the play, which she is updating to the 1920s. She's not making an explicit connection, but in her head, the play's Orsino could be the Duke of Atholl, his home might be Scone Palace and Perthshire could be Illyria. To maintain the geographical consistency, she's given the roles of the shipwrecked twins, washed up in an unfamiliar Scotland, to Irish actors.

"It's loose, but I wanted to get a sense of the country I'm directing in." O'Riordan, is working with long-time collaborator Conor Mitchell, the composer behind the Fringe First-winning Ten Plagues with Marc Almond and Tuesdays at Tescos with Simon Callow.

"I've been going around on the train a lot with the set designer and lighting designer and just stopping off and spending afternoons in bits of the lower Highlands. It's so mind-blowingly beautiful. The quality of light is particularly stunning and I'm trying to get a sense of space and light in this production."

Having had a masterclass in verse speaking when she worked under Sir Peter Hall on Measure For Measure, she is delighted by the way her actors are handling the text: "The way the verse and prose is spoken in a Scottish accent is very exciting because the last thing Shakespeare's actors would have spoken in is an RP accent. There's such a muscularity and clarity in the Scottish accent, really embracing the consonants, finishing words off, and it just brings the text vividly to life."

O'Riordan switched to directing after training at the Royal Ballet School and the Kirov Ballet and spent her twenties as a choreographer and movement director, but she made her name in 2002 when she turned director for Hurricane, a play about snooker legend Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, starring her husband Richard Dormer.

Transferring from Belfast to Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms and on to London, it took her "from 0 to 60" and kick-started a career that has included stints in Bath, London and Manchester. Seeing Perth Theatre for the first time at her interview, she knew instantly this was the job for her. "I walked into that auditorium and just went, 'Jesus!' because it's beautiful."

Cheered by the reception of The Absence of Women, a play she directed for Belfast's Lyric Theatre and which did a short run at Perth earlier this month, she wants to entertain the theatre's existing loyal audience while broadening its appeal with new strands of programming. In February, she'll be directing Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness's powerful play inspired by hostages Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, followed in March by the Scottish premiere of Moonlight And Magnolias, a comedy about the behind-the-scenes machinations on the set of Gone With The Wind. That production will also play at Glasgow's Tron.

Additionally, she'll be branching out with a visit from Grid Iron's Fringe First-winning Barflies, performed in the bar, and a commission for Perth playwright Ben Tagoe on a co-production with Glasgow's A Play, A Pie And A Pint.

"The audience here is an educated audience that knows what it likes," says O'Riordan, who is planning co-productions with other Scottish and Irish theatres, toying with the idea of a site-specific production of her own, and is excited by a plan to give the theatre a more welcoming glass frontage.

"I'm not here to change our audience, I'm here to add to our audience. My job is to lead the audience, to be their friend, it's not to bully them or say, 'I know better than you.'"

Until Orla O'Loughlin arrives at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in January, she is the only woman in charge of a building-based theatre company in Scotland, though she says that as a director she has tastes that could be described as masculine. Perhaps that's because she has three younger brothers or maybe it's simply because she believes theatre should have a sense of urgency.

"What I like on stage is a tough quality. I like brave choices. I like the audience to feel something is happening that needs to be on a stage, that couldn't happen on a telly screen or radio. That means a physical understanding of the text and a robustness of how you convey it – and it needs to be entertainment."

Twelfth Night is at Perth Theatre until 15 October.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Singing Far into the Night, theatre review

Published in Northings

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 23 September 2011, and touring

THERE’S a fascinating article by playwright Hamish MacDonald in the programme for this Mull Theatre production. 

He writes about the experience of his father’s friend, a Royal Navy rating, in 1931 when sailors of the Atlantic fleet went on strike. They were furious about a 25% pay cut brought about by the austerity programme of Ramsay MacDonald’s government. Their action at Invergordon was tantamount to mutiny.

He writes also about his mother’s memories of journalists being hounded out of the country because of their communist sympathies. Supporting the striking sailors made them guilty of incitement to mutiny and at risk of the death penalty. Getting out was the only option.

These stories have modern-day parallels (as well as the austerity, the prime minister was responsible for a coalition government), but they also evoke a very different time when class distinctions were extreme, when young idealists gravitated towards Moscow and when collective action by the workers could have such repercussions that the economy was rocked and Britain had to pull out of the Gold Standard.
No denying, then, that the Inverness playwright, who is also a joint director of Dogstar Theatre Company, has alighted on a story ripe with dramatic potential and topical power. Unfortunately, in Singing Far into the Night, the material seems undigested, sometimes giving too much information, other times too little and, despite a cast of only four, never establishing whose story is being told as it meanders across the decades.

Inspired by his parents’ stories, MacDonald imagines two brothers: one, Finlay (Barrie Hunter), is a far-left journalist sacrificing everything to publish a revolutionary newspaper; the other, Connal (Harry Ward), is an experienced sailor who, although sympathetic to the cause, is no radical. Caught up in revolutionary times, however, Connal becomes a scapegoat for the strike, persecuted by Greg Powrie’s establishment interrogator, while Finlay and his activist comrade Erica (Helen McAlpine) flee to the USSR, which turns out not to be the workers’ paradise they’d imagined.

There’s a great story in there, but the script raises too many questions. Who is the interrogator and why is he so single-minded in his pursuit of Connal? Why does Connal appear to go mad? Why do Finlay and Erica have to escape Scotland? What happens when they get to the USSR that causes them to split up and what prompts Finlay to return home many years later?

MacDonald gives some clues in his own programme note but, in this dramatic form, the answers are as hard to make out as the gloomily lit set. The second act is less obscure and the actors in Alasdair McCrone’s production make of the material what they can, but it’s a story that remains more interesting in theory than in practice.

© Mark Fisher 2011 (pic: Douglas Robertson)

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Para Handy, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Three stars

Imagine Last of the Summer Wine set on a Clyde puffer and you'll be close to the mild-mannered territory of Neil Munro's Para Handy stories. Written initially as a newspaper column in 1905, they are the whimsical tales of the eponymous Para Handy (a Gaelicisation of Peter Macfarlane), the skipper of the Vital Spark, on his voyages from the Inner Hebrides to Glasgow, shipping coal, herring and, on a humiliating day, sawdust.

It is ephemeral stuff, but also much loved, not least thanks to the three television adaptations, the most recent starring Gregor Fisher. It is in this spirit of affection that director John Bett has adapted the stories for this mainstage tour. The show tootles about on gentle waters, an episode here, an anecdote there, before alighting on the slow-burning romance between Jimmy Chisholm's genial Para Handy and Annie Grace's prim Mary Crawford, the baker's widow.

Typically, this romance seems more to do with Mary's cakes than any primal lust. In this world of minor misdeeds and gentle japes, the appeal of Para Handy and his crew is in their sexlessness. Despite their years, they are childlike innocents at large in an unthreatening world, a romantic vision of Highland naivety, sweet tempered, well meaning and mildly eccentric.

Endearing though all this is, Bett seems to understand it's scarcely substantial enough for a proper play. Consequently, he places equal emphasis on Robert Pettigrew's live score, a rousing compendium of sea shanties and folk songs, sung with gorgeous harmonies by musicians and actors alike. It often feels less like a play than a ceilidh with the odd sketch thrown in.

The approach maintains the breezy spirit of the originals while rooting the stories in their Highland home. It's utterly inessential, but performed with too much gusto to dislike.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars

What sets Liz Lochhead's 1987 play apart is the way past and present rub up against each other, setting off sparks of recognition as text-book history clashes with modern-day topicality. You hear it in the language: "cauldron o' lye" one line, Princes Street the next. You see it in the dressing-up box costumes, the frocks as much 1950s prom as 16th-century regal. And you understand it in a story that makes the link between coin contemporary Scottish sectarianism and the power politics of the French Catholic Mary and the English Protestant Elizabeth, the virgin queen.

Director Tony Cownie's Lyceum/Dundee Rep co-production is duly anachronistic. Neil Murray's set is a decidedly un-period jumble: a phone box, a rusting car, a skip with a crucifix and a hospital screen to shield us from Mary's beheading. The scavenging eclecticism of the language is done justice by Ann Louise Ross as the Corbie, a crow-like narrator, and Liam Brennan as the hot-headed reformer John Knox.

But for all the cultural collisions of the story, there is nothing abrasive about Shauna Macdonald's Mary or Emily Winter's Elizabeth. They give merely pleasant performances when they should be larger than life. A flame-haired Macdonald, whose dialogue is hampered by an unconvincing French accent, seems less queen than little girl lost. Likewise, Winter is glamorous and self-regarding but not grand. Their modesty means there is too little at stake at the heart of the evening and too little urgency to drive it home.

And what the production doesn't muster – at least, not until the playground sequence at the end – is the sense of a company coming together to tell a story with a single voice. This is a show of moments – a nice performance here, a jarring explosion there – but not of a unified ensemble spirit.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Men Should Weep, theatre review

Pic: Louise McCarthy and Lorraine McIntosh Pic: Manuel Harlan

Published in the Guardian
Four stars

The tenement flat is claustrophobic, cramped and colourless. There is no room for manoeuvre between sink, table and bed, yet new people constantly arrive and are somehow absorbed. In Ena Lamont Stewart's 1947 slice-of-life tragedy, the inhabitants are caged creatures who can do nothing but lash out.

So when Arthur Johnstone walks on stage between scenes to sing a working-class folk song, he brings a heady shift in perspective. On the one hand, he offers a release from the grim intensity of so much 1930s deprivation, piled on by Lamont Stewart in an unflinching vision of poverty's social consequences. For the audience to join in The Day We Went to Rothesay, O' is like coming up for air.

On the other hand, Johnstone's songs put the play in a tradition of socialist dissent: "We've been yoked to the plough since time first began" goes The Workers' Song. These full-voiced songs emphasise that the hardships of Men Should Weep are not an anomaly, but part of a pattern. Like the scene of modern deprivation (shell suits, corrugated iron and barbed wire) that frames Graham McLaren's powerful production for the National Theatre of Scotland, the songs give this brutally unsentimental play a political and historical context.

Likewise, playing the stoic matriarch Maggie, Lorraine McIntosh brilliantly conveys the sense of being a product of her economic circumstances. She is merciless in criticising her neighbours, ferocious in disciplining her children, and vocal in her complaint that there is "nae work for the men, but aye plenty for the women". 

Yet, behind her fury, she shows us a good-hearted woman making the most of the little she's got. As our own government demonises the poor, hers is an example as pertinent as ever.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Liz Lochhead on Mary Queen of Scots

Published in The Scotsman
When you hear the team from the National Theatre of Scotland talking about the days before the opening night of Black Watch in 2006, you get an impression of chaos and foreboding. Director John Tiffany, playwright Gregory Burke and the rest of the crew were half expecting a flop. Certainly, they had no inkling they were sitting on top of one of Scotland's greatest theatrical exports.

The same was true 20 years earlier when director Gerry Mulgrew, playwright Liz Lochhead and the performers of Communicado found themselves hurtling towards the first night of Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off on the Edinburgh Fringe of 1987. "We were working too hard to know – or even to think about it," says Lochhead today. "The actors must have been terrified, but the thing had a life of its own. It must have been like that, on a much bigger scale, with Black Watch. They were working so hard that they just didn't know."

The uncertainty was for similar reasons. In part, it was because they were too close to the material to have any sense of perspective. They couldn’t see the wood for the trees. And in part, it was because on the first day of rehearsals, as was the case with Black Watch, they didn't have anything they could confidently call a well-made play.

In fact, they didn't even have anything they could call a title. Until the day they had to get the posters done, they were calling it the Mary Queen Of Scots Show. "Gerry came in one day to rehearsals and said, 'I was at the designers and I just told them it was called Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off,'" says Lochhead. "He said, 'I couldn't help it.'"

Fortunately, she loved the title. In any case, she had other things to worry about. It wasn't that she was unprepared. She had been working on the play since Mulgrew suggested the idea nearly three years earlier. He had realised that 1987 would be the 400th anniversary of Mary's beheading and the two of them found if funny to imagine a play that would commemorate her death rather than her birth. Lochhead was excited by the project and did lots of historical research in the library. She even did a fair bit of writing. Indeed, she had many scenes ready to be performed. What she didn't have was a structure to put them in.

"Just as we were about to go into rehearsal I still didn't have a play," says the playwright and poet, who was made Scotland's makar at the start of this year. "I just had a completely incoherent mess. I remember I had to go and meet Gerry. It was the day after the election and Thatcher had got in again. I was actually going to accidentally on purpose get on the wrong train and run away from Gerry. I did go and meet him and I said, 'We don't have a play! I'm completely stuck!'"

Mulgrew suggested she should write it like a fairy story, beginning "once upon a time", an idea that unlocked her imagination. Somehow in the heat of rehearsals, the show started taking shape. A scene from the start moved to the end; a passage from the middle became the opening speech; Lochhead wrote into the night and Mulgrew cast his theatrical magic. Only when they showed it in public did they know what they had. Audiences and critics loved it, the Scotsman awarded it a Fringe First and one reviewer called it "full-bodied, subtle, humorous and virile".

"We were working so much right up to the wire that it was a surprise to me that it was this enormous success," says Lochhead, delighted to have seen subsequent productions at home and abroad, most recently by the National Theatre of Scotland and, now, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in a co-production with Dundee Rep.

Directed by Tony Cownie, a long time Lochhead colleague, the play is not only a boisterous retelling of the story of Mary, the French Catholic queen, and Elizabeth, her Protestant English adversary, but also of the Scotland of today, a place where sectarian rivalry is alive and festering. Mulgrew, coming from a Catholic family, and Lochhead, from Protestant stock, realised they were looking at Mary's story from different cultural perspectives.

"It's about us now," says Lochhead, whose new play, Edwin Morgan's Dreams – and Other Nightmares, is part of this year's Glasgay! "It's about interesting things that happened in the past and how that past is alive today in Scotland. It deals with the roots of sectarian Scotland. The fact that we were at war with ourselves about this stuff – Gerry was at war with himself and I was at war with myself – made it very rich."

It'd be nice to say that, nearly 25 years later, such concerns are no longer with us, but as the Neil Lennon saga shows, we have yet to see the end of religion-based conflict. "I think it's got real resonance just now because of the sectarian debate in Scotland," she says. "We're largely a secular country, so sectarianism is not religious any more; it's got to be cultural and tribal. All these jokes – 'What kind of an atheist are you, a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?' – are coming from a real place."

Another part of the play's richness is the built-in theatricality created by a playwright knowing exactly the actors she was writing for. The original Communicado company included Frank McConnell, who is known primarily as a dancer, and Ann Wood, a fiddle player, as well as talented actors such as Myra McFadyen, Anne Lacey and Alison Peebles. The knowledge of this team of people and their various qualities is written into the fabric of the play. Even if Cownie chooses to go down a different stylistic route for the 2011 production, he won't be able to ignore the exuberance, direct address and in-your-face poetry that is part of the play's make up.

"It's a play of patterns," says Lochhead. "In the first scene that Mary has with Darnley, he's got measles and she's feeding him soup from a spoon. On the last night she's with him, he's got smallpox and she's feeding him from a spoon. That scene should mirror the one before and should visually be the same. It's not boring to do it the same, it's in the DNA of the play."

She is thinking also of the way Mary and Elizabeth occupy the stage. In real life, the two queens never met, although they were endlessly fascinated by each other. To have two lead characters who don't talk to each other is a problem that Lochhead solved by having them mirror each other, so they occupy the same theatrical space, even if it is not the same literal space. In an instant, Elizabeth becomes Bessie, who is Mary's maid, and just as quickly, Mary transforms into Marion, servant of Elizabeth.

"That still leaves directors an enormous amount of freedom," she says. "All theatre depends on the words, the actors and the audience. The director's job is to make them all come together."

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 16 September–15 October; Dundee Rep, 19 October–5 November. Edwin Morgan's Dreams – and Other Nightmares, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 2–5 November.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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My Romantic History, theatre review

Published in The Guardian
4 Stars

Borderline theatre company is brandishing a lethal comedic weapon with DC Jackson's workplace rom-com. The first gag comes after less than 10 sentences and, from then on in, the laughs strike home with machine-gun efficiency. Jemima Levick's production is like a standoff between actors and audience, a tense exchange of laugh-lines from the stage and guffaws from the stalls with neither party giving an inch.

It proves that last year's debut production of the play by the Bush and Sheffield theatres was no fluke and that Jackson's comedy has staying power. This time round it's given a more stripped-back staging in front of the large square panels of Lisa Sangster's set, which doubles as open-plan office, one-bedroom flat and boozy bar room, with a brief diversion to Glasgow's George Square for a painful round of samba drumming.

Jackson's premise is simple. Tom, played with everyman charm by Garry Collins, is the new boy at work, where he finds himself the centre of sexual attention. Alarmed by the enthusiasm of his colleague Amy, sharply observed by Jessica Tomchak, he switches from "Don Juan in Dennistoun" to "a romantic Gandhi", using passive resistance to extricate himself from their affair.

The tables turn when we hear Amy's side of the story. She reveals Tom's standoffish cynicism to be a front for his fumbling vulnerability, while her own eager-to-please demeanour is a cover for a harder heart. Only Katrina Bryan's relentlessly cheery Sasha, in spite of her new age tendencies, seems to have got things right.

Spiced with hilarious observational detail and, in Levick's production, an anthropologist's eye for body language, it is a comedy of bad manners and embarrassments. The only shame is that Jackson denies us the happy ending we long for in favour of a bittersweet resolution that's too much like real life.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Marc Almond interview


Think back to the chart-toppers of 1981 and imagine the one least likely to end up performing a song cycle about 17th-century pestilence at Edinburgh's Traverse theatre. Of all the candidates, Marc Almond would score most highly. Thirty years ago, this slightly built man in black eyeliner and studded wrist bands, whose cover of Gloria Jones's Tainted Love had more passion than tuning, would have seemed the most unlikely candidate to play the art-house theatre circuit.

Yet reset the clock to 2011 and here he is, gearing up for a prime Edinburgh fringe slot in Ten Plagues, a sophisticated piece of music-theatre written by playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell, directed and designed by Tony-award winner Stewart Laing. "It's been a great learning challenge," says Almond, now 53 but looking puckishly younger. "I'll either sink or swim, but that's how I've always gone for things."

Appearances, though, can be deceptive. Yes, he was at the vanguard of electropop as the singer of Soft Cell. Yes, he sang about seedy films, sex dwarfs and extravagant parties. And, yes, he would spend the next 20 years in a very rock'n'roll haze induced by cocaine, crack, ecstasy, ethyl chloride, Halcion, heroin, LSD, MDA, mescaline, opium, purple haze, special K, speed, sleeping pills and Valium – and those are just the ones he admits to. "I look back on a lot of the 80s and 90s and I can't think of them with fondness," he says. "I look back with a shudder. I wasn't in a very good place for a lot of that time. It all ended in tears."

Where other acts of the era added detached vocals to the mechanised beat of new musical technology, Soft Cell broke the mould with Almond's vulnerable, impassioned and very human sound. The band forged the missing link between Kraftwerk and northern soul, a strategy that, in Tainted Love, got them to number one in 17 countries. Acclaim continued with Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, but Tainted Love remains the calling card. "Thank God for Rihanna sampling it in her song," says Almond, referring to the singer's 2006 single SOS. "I really like Rihanna – I download her singles from iTunes – so I loved it."

This, though, is the same Marc Almond who, with only two O-levels to his name, talked his way into Leeds Polytechnic to study fine arts. Here, under the guidance of the late counter-culture activist Jeff Nuttall, the sometime Guardian poetry critic and co-founder of the People Show, Almond became a specialist in performance art. In one student show, he shaved half his body and performed naked but for his boots and a "strategically placed swastika". In another, he smeared his naked body in cat food.

When he met fellow student and future Soft Cell comrade Dave Ball, he drafted him in to provide electronic "squelches, squeaks and swoops" for highly theatrical performances about androgynous nightclub singers and rent boys. His theatre credentials, in other words, are long-standing.

As further evidence that he is not the man he once was, we meet not in the kind of Soho dive he described in such lurid detail on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell's debut album from 1981, but in the bare-brick splendour of Wilton's Music Hall. The grade II-listed relic in London's East End is the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world. As its patron, Almond wants it to survive some more. The failure in a recent bid for Heritage Lottery funding puts that in doubt.

Elements of the moody rock'n'roll star remain. This morning, he has shown up in regulation rock-star black. He has black shades, black leather jacket, black shirt, black hair . . . even his eyebrows are the colour of coal. He has a skull ring on his right hand and another skull on a chain round his neck. He was doing goth before the goths, yet one less lucky break with the nascent Soft Cell and he could have been a man of the theatre.

"I always wanted to be a dancer rather than a singer," he says. "But because I have no coordination, it never worked for me. At art college I put on performances involving slides and films, with me at the centre doing very theatre-based things. It evolved into something more pop-orientated. My problem was I can't memorise lines, because I'm dyslexic and I had minor learning difficulties when I was at school. Having a stammer as well – it was very bad when I was young – meant music was a great way for me to go. When you sing you don't stammer and for some reason I could always memorise songs."

Despite his professed dislike of interviews, he talks in an excited babble, animated, intelligent and chatty. He breaks off only for the occasional giggle and refuses to be cowed by the mild stammer that returned after a motorcycle accident in 2004 that also left him with a collapsed lung and a punctured eardrum. When his assistant points out our allotted time is up, he cheerfully carries on regardless.

It is because of Almond's love of theatre that Ten Plagues came about. After seeing Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House, a vision of 18th-century sex and commodification at the National theatre, he told the playwright he would love to collaborate. Ravenhill returned the compliment by writing a libretto with Almond in mind. It was about the great plague of London and took inspiration from Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe and Susan Sontag's polemical AIDS and its Metaphor.

Composer Conor Mitchell was drafted in, turning Ravenhill's text into a song cycle set in 17th-century London, where a decimated population is struggling to maintain social order. "It's about loss, grief, survival – and shopping," says Almond, who plays a man journeying through the city, observing the devastation. "You could take Ten Plagues literally, as a historical piece, but you can also see parallels at a time when we seem to be obsessed with fear, pandemic and viruses. Turn on the television today and it's all about E coli. Last year it was bird flu. It seems apt that plagues are still in our mind."

One such "plague" is HIV. That Almond himself survived his sexually adventurous years (he calls himself an "inquisitive" person) without contracting the virus is to his great good fortune. "I came very close," he says. "It's not that I haven't come unscathed from those times – I suffer bouts of ill health now which are probably a consequence of earlier times of my life – but I was very lucky to avoid having HIV. It could have easily happened to me."

It was on his first trip to New York in 1981 to record Soft Cell's debut album that he heard about AIDS. "On the radio in the taxi on the way to Manhattan they were talking about how a handful of people had died from what they were calling a new gay plague," he says. "I spent a lot of time in New York in the 1980s with the downtown arts crowd and it became more and more visible. Places closed down and the whole landscape of New York seemed to change. It seemed to go very dark, desperate, fearful and unfriendly."

In the 30 years since, he has lost friends and colleagues including avant garde opera singer Klaus Nomi, Freddie Mercury and Derek Jarman. The experience has taken its emotional toll. "In Ten Plagues, the character becomes very hardened towards death," he says. "I can understand that. Whereas I used to get very affected by somebody dying, now I feel a grief but I take it in my stride. That's a thing of getting older anyway; we're all on this conveyor belt and dropping off the end of it. As you get older, the diseases start coming, often the consequences of the things we did in our hedonistic days, we become more frail, more fragile and you do take death more in your stride. Being someone who's had a number of near-death experiences myself, it doesn't frighten me."

Today he has been free of drugs for over a decade and never goes to pubs or clubs. He is awake by 6am and in bed at 10.30pm. It pleases him to be booked into an afternoon slot on the Edinburgh fringe because ill health (he suffers from anaemia, food allergies and aching joints) means he gets tired easily. There is, however, still something of the night about the man who has chronicled the lives of outcasts and outsiders in over 20 albums with Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas and under his own name. He admits he doesn't care for the sun and he needs some gentle cajoling by the Guardian photographer before removing his shades. But, more than a decade after going through rehab, he seems more comfortable with himself. "The years from the Millennium to now have been the most satisfying, creative and happy time of my life," he says.

The move into the theatre is typical of a career that has rarely played to expectation. There was nothing obvious about marrying an old northern soul track to an electro backing with Tainted Love and if he was concerned about keeping the Soft Cell fan-base on side, he'd never have embraced Spanish rhythms with such enthusiasm on Torment and Toreros, his second album as Marc and The Mambas in 1983. Subsequent releases took on similarly wayward influences, from Gene Pitney to Jacques Brel, right up to this year's, Feasting with Panthers, a sumptuous piano-driven collaboration with Michael Cashmore, in which he makes songs from the poetry of Jean Cocteau, GĂ©rard de Nerval and Jean Genet. "It's decadent poetry translated by Jeremy Reed, who's like a glam-rock poet," he says. "It's a beautiful, emotional record and it's more narrative, which puts me in a good setting for Ten Plagues and getting away from the verse-chorus-middle-eight of the classical pop song."

He says he is as creative as ever, but also, at last, reconciled to his past, in particular that one song. "I've had to learn to love Tainted Love. There was a period in my life when I never wanted to sing it or play it again. That's always a big mistake, because then it comes back even more. People say: 'Why don't you ever do it? Why do you want to disrespect our growing up? Why do you want to deny it.' And they're right. It's like a theme tune and you have to accept that people will want it until the day they die – and thank God they do because it's something that brings you down to earth. You can do all kinds of artistic, esoteric or theatrical projects and then you can come back to earth and sing a few pop songs. You go on stage and sing Tainted Love and everybody loves you and forgives you everything."

He lets out another big giggle. "You've made them all happy for three-and-a half minutes."

Ten Plagues, Traverse, Edinburgh, August 6–28; Feasting with Panthers is out now on Cherry Red Records.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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The Animals and Children Took to the Streets interview

SUZANNE Andrade is a girl out of time. She is a woman captivated by the 1920s, not only in the way she dresses, but also in the work (and indeed the name) of her multi-award winning theatre company, 1927.

Edinburgh Fringe audiences got a taste of this obsession in the run-away hit Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a sepia-tinged gothic cabaret that evoked the pioneering days of cinema. And now, four years later, they will get another taste in The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, a darkly comic amalgam of animation, live music and archly spoken narration set in a pre-welfare state world of deprivation and cruelty.

"I just really like early cinema, crude drawings, grainy old film and having my ear and eye to the past," says Andrade, sitting in London's Battersea Arts Centre in an ever-so 1920s beret.

She developed this retro interest at university while studying grand guignol, the Parisian horror shows that peaked in popularity in the inter-war years. She says she loves to listen to early musical recordings, not so much for the music itself as the crackly quality of the period technology. When it came to naming the theatre company she founded with animator Paul Barritt, it seemed appropriate to pick one particular year. "1927 just came up because it was the year the first talkie came out," she says. "It's got some resonance with what we do, the look of it and being about storytelling."

At the same time, she does not feel hidebound by the name. The Animals and Children Took to the Streets marks a move into colour and a step away from the deliberate graininess of her Fringe First-winning show of 2007. "This one is slightly less set in the 1920s era," she says, "although a lot of it came from looking at some Otto Dix and George Grosz pictures, looking at this decadent side of the 20s as opposed to this romantic, black-and-white grainy side."

A big hit in London before Christmas, the show is a creepily comic tale of disappearing children in a decaying tower block known as the Bayou Mansions. There is perfect synchronisation between actors and images, as animated insects crawl the walls and characters sweep the stage just as a cartoon dust cloud blows up behind them. With the speech all emotionally detached BBC English, it is both funny and disturbing.

It is also a step forward in the sophistication of the company's singular technique. A dazzling combination of live performance and pre-recorded cartoons, it is a multimedia marvel. To make sure it works as a piece of theatre with seeming spontaneity, Andrade is exacting in rehearsals, repeatedly returning to the editing room to get the pace right. "What I do theatrically is all about rhythm," she says. "Because we're combining performers, live music and the film, it's really important that the rhythm doesn't drag and it's tightly choreographed."

Pleasance Courtyard,
19–28 August, 4.10pm.
Tel: 0131 556 6550

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Anish Kapoor preview

SPARE a thought for the poor curators who have to install Flashback in the sculpture court of Edinburgh College of Art. There are only two pieces involved in the Anish Kapoor exhibition, but one of them is massive.

Untitled (2010) is a wax bell the colour of blood. Previously unseen in the UK, it stands at 5m high and 5m wide. 'It’s absolutely huge,' says Natalie Rudd, sculpture curator of the Arts Council Collection. "It's incredibly ambitious for us to be showing it in Edinburgh and we won't be showing it anywhere else. So it's a real coup."

With Kapoor's work, it is often sheer volume that makes the first impression. The Turner Prize-winning British sculptor creates pieces that are elemental in shape and arresting in scale. A case in point is the ArcelorMittal Orbit. When this twisting steel observation tower is completed, it will stand at 115m high, a permanent legacy of the London Olympic Games in 2012 and the largest piece of public art in the country.

"Anish has always been interested in this idea of something being self-made, auto-generated," says Rudd. "So in the wax installation, this arm sweeps around and creates this form. There's an absence of the artist's hand, it looks like it's been touched by a robot rather than by a human. Its sheer volume will dwarf everybody standing alongside it."

Edinburgh gallery-goers have already been enjoying the Indian-born sculptor's Suck the Neck at Jupiter Artland. Locked in a 5m square cage, it is a vortex of smooth cast iron spiralling into the ground in such a way that you can never see the bottom. For the duration of the Edinburgh Art Festival, that piece is being joined by Untitled (2010) and also White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers. This work from 1982, when Kapoor was an up-and-coming player in the new British sculpture movement, is a set of four organic-looking objects made from plaster and coated in bright, primary coloured pigments.

"We feel this is a really special Anish Kapoor work and it's one he returns to in his thinking," says Rudd. "He talks about it as a critical piece for him. Many of the subsequent themes and ideas in his practice can be visualised in that initial piece. They look like icebergs rising out of the floor or piles of pigment you might see in Indian market places. This approach to sculpture catapulted Anish into the international art scene in the 1980s."

To get the full Flashback experience is no easy task. The touring exhibition is designed to highlight the way the Arts Council Collection has supported artists at the start of their careers through the purchase of their work, hence the piece from 1982 as well as from 2010 in Edinburgh. But although Flashback is showing in Manchester (run ended), Nottingham (in the autumn) and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (next year), it will have different sculptures in each venue.

"It is a bespoke exhibition that changes because of the nature of the spaces," says Rudd. "Some are historical, some are purpose-built galleries, so we’ve had to adapt. We see that as a positive because it means every venue will be different."

Working in consultation with Kapoor, Rudd and the head of the collection Caroline Douglas put together this mini-retrospective. "We invited Anish literally to flashback on his career to date," she says. "It's been fascinating to work with such an esteemed artist. We wanted to put Anish back into contact with those early works to see where he took it. He really appreciated the opportunity to reflect."

Edinburgh College of Art,
4 August–9 October, 10am–5pm
Tel: 0131 221 6000

© Mark Fisher 2011

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David Greig interview

WHEN David Greig was asked by Glasgow's TAG Theatre to write a play about young carers, he thought he'd better talk to the teenagers themselves. The company hooked him up with a group of young people in Fife who were responsible for looking after family members. He asked them how they would like to be represented on stage and their message was clear: make it funny.

"My initial instinct was informed by quite a lot of assumptions," says Greig. "I thought of them as poor things in a terrible situation. And, of course, they're just normal teenagers who are in a particular situation which they respond to just as you or I would, and there's a great deal of joy and humour in the situation."

That was all the inspiration he needed to write The Monster in the Hall, a highly entertaining four-hander about a girl called Duck who has to keep an eye on a father with multiple sclerosis while getting on with the serious business of dating a boy. "I started to think about some of the dilemmas inherent in teenage life about authority or doing as you're told," he says. "And it was interesting to think about those dilemmas in a reversed situation."

By chance, the play is one of two teen-friendly plays by Greig on the Fringe. In Short Productions, from the University of Bristol, is reviving his Yellow Moon: The Ballad of Leila and Lee, a tremendous piece of storytelling theatre about two teenagers who are forced to go on the run. Both plays work equally well for adults (and are definitely not for anyone younger than 14) but by taking teenagers seriously, they strike a particular chord with an age group often neglected by the theatre.

Performed in stripped-down fashion by four excellent actors, Monster in the Hall plays with a young carer's fear of being taken into care. Many such teenagers go to great pains to appear to be in control and that made Greig think of farce – what he calls the funniest form of theatre.

"Farce is exactly about pretence," says Greig whose CATS award-winning comedy The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is also appearing on the Fringe. "It's about someone desperately trying to hold up a picture of the world that is respectable, while in fact it is crumbling all around them. My assumption was I would write a very tragic, noble story about a brave young person and their struggle, but in fact I realised I had to write a farce about a girl desperately trying to pretend everything's OK when it plainly it isn't."

It was an approach that worked and, although it was critically lauded, there was only one audience Greig cared about. "The young carers saw it at a gym hall in Methill and they responded fantastically. They were very nice about it and I was thrilled. It got a great response on tour, and that was extremely gratifying, but I felt immune to any responses because my primary audience had enjoyed it."

Traverse Theatre,
4–28 August (not 8, 15, 22), times vary.
From £11,
Tel: 0131 228 1404

C Soco,
3–29 August (not 16), 7pm.
From £8.50,
Tel: 0845 260 1234

Traverse @ Ghillie Dhu,
2–27 August (not 8, 15, 22), 3pm.
Tel: 0131 228 1404

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Diana Quick interview

WHEN it comes to the Edinburgh Fringe, Diana Quick has pedigree. She made her debut in the city as an 18-year-old undergraduate performing on the Royal Mile with the Oxford Revue in a show directed by Michael Palin. She remembers her impression of Marlene Dietrich going down well. "It was enormous fun and I met lots of people who I still know," she says.

She was back again in 1992 with her own sell-out adaptation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Woman Destroyed. Two years ago, she was at the Book Festival after the publication of her family memoir A Tug on the Thread. She has only happy memories of the place.

So the actor who played Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited and, more recently, our very own monarch in the Channel 4 docu-drama The Queen is delighted to be back on the Fringe, even if she's a trifle alarmed at being in a one-woman show. "It's much more challenging when there's only you," she says.  "You have to be very on the ball."

Nervous or not, Quick, 64, is in the privileged position of having a play specially written for her. As a sponsor of the HighTide new play festival in Suffolk, she got to know Adam Brace, a 31-year-old writer starting to make a name for himself. He wrote Midnight Your Time with her in mind. "Adam is a very interesting playwright," she says. "He's a real talent."

The play is about a retired lawyer whose controlling instincts are put to the test when her daughter takes up a five-year contract in Palestine. Their only contact is via weekly Skype conversations, which only intensifies the mother's helplessness at a point when she is still adjusting to retirement. "It's a subject that speaks to people," says Quick, whose own daughter, the actor Mary Nighy, is in her mid-20s. "It's the problem of parents letting their children go and letting them be whoever they want to be. It speaks to both the parent's generation and the child's generation. I was just as bad at that age; I wanted to get as far away from the family as possible."

In the play, the mother is a lobbyist, while the daughter believes in direct action. But the play is not about the particularities of the Palestinian conflict as much as the idea of seeing your offspring put themselves in any kind of danger. As such, the preview performances have been striking an emotional chord with parents. "One man came out with tears running down his face, saying, 'That's my relationship with my son,'" she says. "There are things that really seem to touch people, that they recognise."

Glad to be in a play that raises the question of the invisibility of older women, Quick is all too aware of the paucity of roles in Britain for her generation. At the same time, she is not the type to be defeated by it. "Life continues to be interesting," she says. "There's enough to keep me focused."

Assembly George Square,
3–28 August (not 8, 15, 22), 5.20pm.
From £12,
Tel: 0131 623 3030

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Hiroshi Sugimoto interview

PHOTOGRAPHY is all around us. There's a picture on my computer screen, a Polaroid snap stuck to the wall, an image on the side of a book jacket and a glossy face staring out from a magazine. The form is so ubiquitous it is easy to forget the technology was still in a rudimentary state as recently as 170 years ago.

That's why when leading Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto looks back at the work of Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype process in 1841, he is full of admiration. "Not only was he the inventor of negative/positive photography, he was a mathematician, a botanist, a politician, an archaeologist, a poet, a physicist, and one of the first decipherers of the Sumerian written language of Cuneiform," he says. "He was truly a 'Gentleman Scientist'."

Investigating Fox Talbot's techniques for himself, Sugimoto found himself humbled by the achievements of the British pioneer. His attitude, he says, went "from curiosity to awe". It is that sense of awe he hopes to convey in his Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition – a collaboration with the Edinburgh International Festival – which is deeply rooted in the story of photography. "I feel it is important to understand the history of the medium I work in," he says. "My Photogenic Drawings series is meant to bookend the birth and death of traditional photography."

On show in Europe for the first time, Photogenic Drawings (a term coined by Fox Talbot) are enlargements of the master's earliest negatives unearthed by Sugimoto in the darkest corners of museum collections. Fox Talbot himself never saw the startling, painterly effects because these negatives pre-date his invention of a reliable technique to turn them positive.

Also on show is Lightning Fields, a series of amazing light effects created by Sugimoto using a Van der Graaff generator. "It took many years of testing – different generators, film emulsions, techniques, et cetera," he says. "Using the scientific method, I would change one parameter for each experiment and keep detailed notes of the results. This technique is very similar to the procedures Fox Talbot used in developing his Photogenic Drawing process."

So detailed were his experiments that he came to have considerable control over the seemingly random bursts of light and spiky streaks of energy. "While the results may seem somewhat unpredictable, depending on the tools and techniques I use, I can predict the character of the spark," he says. "I discharge the electricity onto large sheets of film that come on a roll and then cut the film down to a printable 8x10 size, so I have complete control of the final composition."

These defiantly old-school methods are a reaction to the chemical-free processes of 21st-century cameras. "With the rise of digital photography, perhaps traditional silver-based photography can have a self-reflexive moment, since it no longer has concern itself with representing the world around us, much like what happened with painting after the invention of photography," he says.

"As for deciding what looks good," he adds, "well, that is my job as an artist."

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
4 August–18 September, 10am–6pm.
£7 (£5),
Tel: 0131 624 6200

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Steven Berkoff interview

THE scene is the Sahara desert. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Berkoff are on location, filming a movie called Legionnaire. The shoot is going painfully slowly. There is time to kill. But Berkoff has a solution. "In a trailer you go mad," he says today. "You read books, you read the papers, you roll up cigarettes. What is better to do in a trailer than write? I wrote two works over two or three weeks – and I suddenly got involved with Oedipus."

It wasn't the first time Berkoff had focused on the Sophocles tragedy. His 1979 play Greek relocated the myth to the modern-day East End of London. Here the story of the king who inadvertently murders his dad and marries his mum was told in terms of waitresses in a decaying Britain and a hero called Eddy. Like his debut play East, Greek became a mainstay of student theatre groups in Edinburgh and helped secure Berkoff's place as an unofficial Fringe figurehead. Now he has brought his new, more faithful, version of Oedipus published in 2000, to the stage for the first time.

Having directed it in Liverpool and Nottingham earlier this year, he is joining the cast himself to play Creon on the Fringe. Simon Merrells – last seen in Edinburgh in Berkoff's adaptation of On the Waterfront – reprises the central role of the arrogant king and is joined by Anita Dobson as Jocasta, his wife and mother. Performed around a long table, with imagery drawn from renaissance painting, the production is a prime example of ensemble playing – heightened, intense and visceral.

"My theatre is actor-led," says Berkoff, 73, sitting in his East End studio flat overlooking the Thames. "In a Greek play, you have the ensemble who are the storytellers and the chorus who reflect the events. I see the ensemble as the backbone of the company, therefore they must have absolute control and command over the material and over the play. They are a dynamic reflection of the events, telling the story and articulating the doubts of the people. The leading actors are enhanced by this meteor tail of the ensemble. For that they must be ambitious, versatile and physically dextrous."

To return to the Greeks, he says, is something audiences have an appetite for, but it is an appetite rarely satisfied. "The Greeks do speak to us very profoundly," he says. "It's unfortunate that we don't see enough of them – or, when we do see them, they're not put on in a way that expresses the underlying depth of humanity."

It makes perfect sense that filling the wall opposite him should be a collection of nine Peter Howson originals. The Glasgow artist, with his bold, masculine directness, finds an ideal match in Berkoff's muscular theatre. "All my savings go into Peter Howson," says Berkoff, who played Bond villain General Orlov in Octopussy. "There's an intensity, a compassion, a strong feeling, an identification with the common man and also the poetic description of labour. That's something you don't get very much of in the present art world."

Today Berkoff, dressed in black tracksuit and rolling a cigarette, is in benign spirits – breaking off only to rant about the bourgeoisification of his beloved East End – but whether as an actor, director or writer, he is a tough-talking artist who despises mediocrity. Far from the prim Greek tragedies of the classroom, his version of Oedipus is an abrasive play that talks of "new-born brats", "black bile" and "sceptic poison". "You've got to make it real, give it substance, give it gravity, give it some kind of grittiness," he says. "Most Greek plays are dull as dishwater. They're so boring: 'Oh! Great Zeus, mighty king – la, la, la!'"

He demands a similar kind of forcefulness of his actors and knows exactly what he's looking for: "I can just see the rhythm of their body language, the swiftness of response, the way they read, good timbre in their voices."

As a director, he has no qualms about cutting his own script when he needs to, but he also enthuses about it as if someone else had written it. "The text flows, it has a drive," he says. "It's rhythmic, because I'm a very rhythmic person – I've studied dance, I love music – so it's great to work on this text. It's not so much about muscularity as the jazz of text. It was the same in the blues, in black music, when the people took hold of music and made it their own. When the working man started making music, it was the sound of the people that was exciting. You have to make theatre as dynamic, thrilling, awesome as possible. I want the audience to see something they have never before seen."

Pleasance Courtyard
Aug 3–29 August (not 9, 10, 17 or 24), 1.20pm
£10–£17.50, 0131 556 6550

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Junction 25/I Hope My Heart Goes First preview

Published in The List
The youth will out
I Hope My Heart Goes First has been given the thumbs up from the Made in Scotland fund. Remarkably, finds Mark Fisher, it is performed by teenagers
Say what you like about Junction 25, but don't call it a youth theatre. 'The young people we work with experience the world the same as an adult would,' says Jess Thorpe, co-director of the Glasgow company. 'We reject youth theatre as an idea. It suggests young people are somehow less able to perform or less able to have an idea.'
It's certainly true your average youth theatre doesn't get asked to tour to London and Norway, nor end up with backing from the prestigious Made in Scotland fund for a two-week run on the Edinburgh Fringe. It's also true your average youth theatre doesn't get reviewed in the daily papers, let alone attract five-star raves. 'Pure joy,' said The Scotsman. 'Outstanding,' said The Herald.
Those write-ups were for I Hope My Heart Goes First, an hour-long amalgam of theatre, dance, music and comedy in which 20 teenagers expound on the workings of the human heart. At the centre is Adam, the group's youngest member, now 13, for whom adult relationships are a mystery. While he sets to work writing an improvised list of all the things he loves – anything from Shredded Wheat to computer games ­– the rest of the cast put him right by sharing their experiences of romance.
'It came from adults saying, "Oh, you don't understand it when you're only that age – it's not real love,"' says Thorpe. 'But the show expresses that it is.'
What distinguishes the company's work are two things. One is the high production values. 'When we started, our remit was to produce a young company with a professional aesthetic,' says co-director Tashi Gore. The other is that what you hear is the true expression of the actors themselves. 'We make really good theatre and it's us that makes it,' says Megan Reid, 18, a member for five years. 'It's our input, our performance. You're performing as yourself and you're performing something you've made and you're proud when you show it.' 
Francesca Lacey, 19, was the first member to sign up to Junction 25 when it launched at Glasgow's Tramway six years ago. She is now a student on the contemporary performance practice course at the RSAMD, but still acting in *3I Hope My Heart Goes First*2 for as long as it tours. 'I'd gone to drama groups when I was younger and they'd give you a script and you’d learn your lines,' she says. 'Junction 25, I found really different. It was all about your opinion, your voice and what you wanted to say about the world as a young person. That was really exciting. It felt as though I was being listened to.'
It also feels to the performers as though they are being treated as artists. 'Not only is Junction 25 a place where young people can take ownership of the material, but also it is the opportunity to be part of something that is quite professional,' says Megan's sister Rosie, 19, also at the RSAMD. 'The work speaks for itself, not only in terms of young people making it, but in the wider theatre context.'
For the directors, the trick is not to impose their ideas but to tune into what interests the young performers. In this way, the actors become raw materials for Gore and Thorpe to shape into a finished production. 'We get excited about their different qualities and then build something using those qualities,' says Thorpe. 'People ask us how we got that performance out of them, but that's what they're like all the time. There's a poetic framework around it and a craft that goes alongside it, which is what we do.'
It's a democratic process in which the directors allow the actors to be heard, perhaps as a slightly exaggerated version of themselves, but close enough to let them speak with confidence about real experiences. 'The stories I tell are stories that have happened to me – ridiculous stories about failures in love,' says Lacey, blushing. 'Every time I tell them it's funnier for me. I think, 'Why did I do that?' It's so embarrassing. And if the audience are in a particularly funny mood, I'll throw some things in that'll make them laugh even more.'
I Hope My Heart Goes First, Remarkable Arts, St George’s West, 0131 226 0000, 5–16 Aug, 2pm; 24 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8).

© Mark Fisher 2011

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