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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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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Big Noise, Gustavo Dudamel, Raploch feature

Here's an article I wrote for the London 2012 Festival guide. Not much of it survived the subbing process, so here it is in full.
MUSICAL director Francis Cummings takes his place in front of the 40-strong orchestra and raises his arms, poised to launch into Henry Purcell's Rondeau from the Abdelazar Suite. "No counting to three, because that's for children," he says. The musicians duly burst into the opening bars without missing a beat.

Nothing unexpected there, except for one thing: counting to three may be for children, but not one of Cummings' players is older than 12.

"They treat us like grown-ups, like mature people," says cello-player William, the day before his 11th birthday. The children return the compliment with their impeccable behaviour.

Even at this early rehearsal, it's astonishing to see such young musicians perform with so much precision. It will be more astonishing still when, on 21 June, they take to an outdoor stage in the shadow of Stirling Castle as the opening act of the Big Concert conducted by the exuberant Gustavo Dudamel in front of 8000 people.

Some of them will even stay on stage to join the 200-strong Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for the overture from Beethoven's Egmont. That's before the Venezuelan guests give a rousing rendition of Beethoven's third symphony, the Eroica, and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. After that, the only way to finish the evening will be a magnificent display of fireworks.

How it is even conceivable for a primary school orchestra to share a stage with such internationally celebrated company is down to the pioneering Big Noise project. Based in Raploch, a short walk from the centre of Stirling, this £3.8m scheme was launched in 2008, drawing on the inspiration of the same "El Sistema" philosophy in Venezuela that produced the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

In a community of only 3000, there are 450 children under the age of 12 who are joining after-school rehearsals up to four nights a week. By working collectively and intensively, they are able to race ahead. Even some of the youngest are able to sight-read. Everyone learns together, no one is turned away and the results, both musically and socially, are breathtaking.

"They took to it straight away," says local volunteer Cath who has watched with pride as her five children have taken up flute, percussion, viola, violin and cello. "It's changed them completely. It's brought them closer. Before they used to bicker, now it's just singing, dancing and playing their music. They're a lot more settled, a lot more focused . . . it's brought a new light everywhere."

The Big Noise approach is to treat the orchestra, with its need for cooperation, good behaviour and sharp focus, as a learning ground for being a responsible citizen. It's something fellow parent Charlotte has seen in practice: "They're a lot more disciplined and have more respect towards people," she says. "When they've got a concert, they're like adults - they're sat there and quiet. It's amazing."

This afternoon, it seems every room in the Raploch Community Campus is vibrating with musical activity. In the school hall, the youngest class is sitting at primary-coloured music stands while violinist Guido de Groote introduces them to notes and rests. To answer questions, they raise their bows in the air. "That's the best bow hand you've ever had," he tells one little girl.

In a nearby classroom, the next age group is working its way up the scale of G major in the hope of winning the Kit Kat taped to the whiteboard by cellist Josip Petrac. When he tells them it's time to move on from a harmony exercise, all 30 of them groan in disappointment.

"It was quite hard at first," says eight-year-old Morgan, already an experienced cellist, "but then when you get used to playing an instrument, it's actually quite easy. When we're all in the orchestra together, it's actually quite joyful."

With a generation of sight-reading musicians about to hit secondary school, the possibilities for the future are mouth-watering. "Heaven knows what kind of hip hop will come out of here and genres of music we've not even heard of yet," says George Anderson, one of the Big Noise team. "What will these kids do when they know how to arrange a string quartet and put samples on it and use beat boxes?"

For the children, rehearsing together has become a way of life, something they look forward to and enjoy. "It makes you see all your friends, plus it makes you have fun playing an instrument, so it's two things in one," says William. "It's brought a lot of music into Raploch and made a lot of difference."

The Big Concert, Thursday 21 June, Old Schools Site, Drip Road, Raploch, Stirling.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Little Shop of Horrors, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Three stars
Pitlochry Festival Theatre

SEYMOUR the florist has a lot in common with Macbeth. Like Shakespeare's antihero, the misfit at the centre of Little Shop of Horrors gets his first break through his own skill and resourcefulness. Where Macbeth wins favour by his bravery on the battlefield, Seymour puts Mushnik's flower shop on the map with his cultivation of a previously unseen variety of plant.

For both men, it's only when the going gets good that fatal ambition steps in. Eyeing the chance to take over the florist kingdom, get rich and get the girl, the mild-mannered Seymour finds cause to dispose of his enemies by feeding them to his increasingly hungry plant. The greater the potential prize, the less morally justifiable his actions.

But where Macbeth is told as tragedy, this musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is played as comedy. This leads to two problems. One is that the tension lessens every time you remember we're dealing not with a tyrannical warlord but an outsize pot plant; to take the premise seriously, you have to buy into the B-movie melodrama, otherwise the whole thing seems silly.

The other is that, comedy or not, Seymour is on a tragic trajectory and, with co-worker Audrey, his Lady Macbeth, he must get his comeuppance. Killing off your two most likable characters is a deflating way to finish a musical, and it takes a rousing encore by the Pitlochry company to win back our favour.

One solution could be to play up the Roger Corman pastiche and make everything look like an ironic in-joke. That's not the route chosen by director John Durnin, who focuses instead on the songs. With their Phil Spector harmonies and girl-group charm, they are jolly enough to distract you from the frivolousness of the story and are performed here with a gutsy energy, creating a jaunty if inessential show.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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The Tempest, theatre review

Irene Macdougall and Samuel Dutton Pic: Douglas Robertson
Published in the Guardian
Four stars
Dundee Rep

AT THE hands of director Jemima Levick, Shakespeare's isle is not only full of noise but women, too. As seagulls scream over a very 21st-century set of washed-up bin bags, computer terminals and Irn-Bru crates, Irene Macdougall's Prospero is cynical, bitter - and unquestionably female. As well as looking out for Kirsty Mackay as daughter Miranda, she casts her magical control over a boiler-suited Emily Winter as Ariel and a pock-marked Ann Louise Ross as Caliban.

This unconventional casting turns the play into a metaphor not just for the sexual awakening of Miranda as she falls for Kevin Lennon's Ferdinand - the first man she's ever seen - but for relations between men and women everywhere.

Shipwrecked off the island, the all-male crew goes on a nightmarish journey laced with drunkenness, magic and despair, before finding resolution in the female heart of this "poor isle" where "no man was his own". When Ross's Caliban promises to bring wood, she grabs the crotch of Keith Fleming's Stephano to demonstrate.

There's nothing sexual, though, about the final reconciliation; rather, a tremendous sense of restored equilibrium between the sexes. When Prospero and her brother Antonio (Alan Francis) resolve their old dispute, it satisfies on a much broader scale than mere family argument.

Ti Green's stunning set is a repository for the world's rubbish, and Prospero's "most harmonious vision" of beauty an illusion projected by discarded computer screens. Showing a mastery of the verse that eludes some of her colleagues, Macdougall is an assured and rooted Prospero, a woman saddened by experience but with enough humour to suggest that there's life in this once brilliant creative mind yet.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Macbeth with Alan Cumming, theatre review

Alan Cumming in Macbeth Pic: Manuel Harlan
Published in the Guardian
Four stars
National Theatre of Scotland at Tramway

IN HIS one-man Elsinore, Robert Lepage had to have a sword fight with himself. In his solo adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth, actor Tam Dean Burn had to beat himself up. Now, in his one-man Macbeth, Alan Cumming fairly convincingly has sex with himself.

"Bring forth men-children only," says Cumming as Macbeth, lying topless on the bed, while Cumming as Lady Macbeth straddles her husband, goading him on towards regicide. It is oddly erotic.

Even without such a scene, however, you might reasonably have made the charge of onanism against an actor who has chosen to play every character in Shakespeare's tragedy. But in this production, by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg for the National Theatre of Scotland, en route to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York , Cumming has a greater purpose than simply showing off his very considerable acting skills.

Finding himself scarred and scared in an imposing Victorian sanatorium, with the green tiles of Merle Hensel's set rising oppressively high, Cumming is a mental patient for whom the plot of Macbeth is a kind of schizophrenic nightmare. After moments of greatest intensity, such as the murder of Duncan and the appearance of Banquo's ghost, actors Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig rush on as the medical staff in order to sedate him.

It turns the play into a feverish exploration of mental illness, whether it's Cumming on TV monitors as the three hallucinatory witches, Cumming as Macbeth, desperately trying to process the horror of his own dark deeds, or Cumming as Lady Macbeth, dealing with the OCD torments of that damned spot.

Painted like this, the play is a vision of one man's helpless descent into madness and suicidal despair. No production since Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia has so distressingly captured the inescapable hold of mental illness.

Cumming has a masterful command of the language, making it clear and comfortable on the ear as he subtly shifts register from character to character. Whatever the part, you rarely see casting this good. Tiffany and Goldberg orchestrate his performance with a fabulous sense of space and pace, breaking up the potential relentlessness of a one-man show with a dynamic use of movement and stillness.

But although we can admire his easy transitions from a vulnerable and vacillating Macbeth to a good-natured apple-tossing Banquo and a buffoonish Prince Philip-like king, the performance is not about technique and stagecraft so much as a tender and sensitive investigation into a damaged psyche. What elevates Cumming's performance (or should we say performances?) above an actorly display of virtuosity is that it is also sad and moving.

Inevitably, what this approach sacrifices is a sense of the broader community. Shakespeare is a writer with an insatiable interest in the social fabric, telling stories that have an impact on all levels of society. Presented like this, however, his characters become shards of a single fragmented personality, a man plagued by the projections of his own mind.

But if it is a private tragedy not a public one, it is a tragedy nonetheless. And when, at the end, Cumming asks his doctors, "When shall we three meet again?" just as he did at the start, we see it is a tragedy that will be repeated tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. 

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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