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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars

TOWARDS the start of Shakespeare's comedy, the fairy queen Titania tells her lover Oberon how their quarrel has turned nature upside down. "The seasons alter," she says, and the "mazed world … knows not which is which." Much later, as the play nears its conclusion, would-be husband Demetrius confesses that his love for Hermia is now "melted as the snow".

Neither line usually catches the attention, but here in Matthew Lenton's production, both leap out. This particular Midsummer Night's Dream is set in the depths of winter: fairies in white toss snowflakes into the air, the "rude mechanicals" huddle in their overcoats and, at moments of greatest tension, blizzards blow up. To prove their mettle in front of Helena, rivals Demetrius and Lysander strip down to their bare chests in a feat of icy endurance.

It's an idea that minimises the play's sense of feverish midsummer madness, but replaces it with a vision of rebirth and renewal. With the return of sanity come spring flowers pushing through the frozen stage and the promise of a fertile future. The image is reinforced in a framing device, in which Jordan Young's excellent Bottom sits at his wife's hospital bedside, waiting for signs of recovery. The whole play is his dream – complete with the funny and surreal image of his fellow mechanicals doubling as fairies during his transformation into a donkey – and its resolution offers him personal hope.

Despite these arresting ideas – often realised with striking beauty on Kai Fischer's set – the production scores less well in making you care about the lovers. Dressed in primary colours, like extras from a 1970s sci-fi series, they do better at comedy than romance. Because we don't fall in love with them ourselves, their eventual union carries no special frisson.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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The Authorised Kate Bane, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Grid Iron at the Traverse, Edinburgh
Three stars

"I'M at home and I feel homesick," says the character of Kate Bane, explaining her unresolved anguish to the boyfriend who has come to meet her parents. Or rather, in Ella Hickson's new play for Grid Iron, it is one version of Kate Bane; whether or not she is the authorised version is hard to tell. Either way, she is a young woman trying to make sense of her past.


Bane has an incomplete record, however: disputed family anecdotes, hazy recollections and photographs that don't quite connect then with now. Playing a series of meta-theatrical games, Hickson teases us with the idea that memory is provisional. The stories we tell about ourselves are just that – stories. We not only write our history, but rewrite it as well. Every so often in Ben Harrison's production, the action stops and actor Jenny Hulse switches from Kate the protagonist to Kate the playwright, redrafting scenes that are not to her liking and testing out exchanges that might have been.

The Authorised Kate Bane couples the uncertainty of Six Characters in Search of an Author with the soul-baring family revelations of a minor Tennessee Williams play (minor because this particular family has suffered no trauma worse than an unhappy divorce). It is also an examination of how stories dominate our lives, affecting not only the way we understand the past, but how we project our future. If she is to be married, Kate must reconcile with her history and accept the possibility of a "happily ever after" ending.

There are times when the play drifts away from its central thesis, leaving some ideas dramatically unprocessed, but the clever concept holds it together, as does Hulse's impassioned central performance.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Sex and God, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Magnetic North
Four stars


IMAGINE a string quartet, but with actors instead of musicians. In place of a score, a set of overlapping monologues. As they riff on similar themes, they could be from a family of musical instruments, each with her own timbre and pitch, but each part of the ensemble. Phrases echo like a melody from one performer to another, sometimes dissonant, sometimes in harmony, taking on different meanings according to their setting.

That's what Linda McLean's beguiling new play for Magnetic North is like. Not for the first time, McLean has expressed her artistic purpose through the form of her work. She conducted similar experiments in 2010's Any Given Day, which communicated the sensation of loss by dropping two main characters after the first act, and 2007's Strangers, Babies, which showed different aspects of one woman's character by placing her in a series of unrelated scenes.

Here, in a production directed with a conductor's attention to detail by Nicholas Bone, she tackles themes such as pregnancy, domestic violence, male domination and female independence in an impressionistic collage of voices. Her four characters speak out from different points in the 20th century; they have no direct relationship to each other, but are united in a shared female experience of struggle against the odds.

Their stories are ordinary, but as they resonate with each other, they say something bigger about the female experience of sexuality, motherhood and survival. The strands of the play are not always easy to follow, but in the moment, it is as beautiful and delicate as a chamber concert.

© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Colin Hattersley)

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lifeguard, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

National Theatre of Scotland/Arches/Govanhill Baths Community Trust

EVEN a trip to the swimming baths is full of ritual. First comes the initiation ceremony of changing room, wire basket and wristband – just as it is here in Adrian Howells's literally immersive performance in the out-of-use Govanhill Baths, Glasgow. We prepare for this show just as we prepared for childhood visits to the local pool: clothes off, trunks on, towel at the ready.

And it is with a ritualistic poise that Howells joins us as we sit on benches around the teaching pool. Seemingly in a world of his own, he manipulates the long brush to clean the tiled surface, stands alongside the lithe form of swimmer Ira Mandela Siobhan and gazes across the water with its rippling projections of bodies torpedoing by.

It takes time to adjust to the meditative pace of this National Theatre of Scotland and Arches production. For a while, it seems Howells has little more to offer than a minor childhood anecdote about being pushed into the deep end by his father.

Gradually, however, the impressionistic images take hold, be it the rough-and-tumble of dive-bombing boys, or the dreamy memory of standing naked in an Aegean rock pool. We are in the world of the civic amenity, but sometimes Lifeguard recalls the shimmering beauty of David Hockney's Californian poolside paintings.

By the time we meet a man who learned to swim in Govanhill Baths (now under the management of a community trust), and applaud a young learner as he completes a couple of lengths, our minds are awash with the memories of water. It is then with a joyous sense of communal sharing that we put our towels down and enter the pool ourselves.

Before home time, there are two more rituals left: a mug of hot chocolate and a teeth-chattering return to the changing rooms.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Peter Dibdin)

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Medea, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens/Headlong/Watford Palace

HE ENTERS in socks, tracksuit bottoms and faded grey T-shirt. Her blood-red hair is a shade away from the glossy surfaces of her fitted kitchen. Her son has just been dropped off by one of the neighbours.

None of this fits the archetypal image of Medea, which is what makes Mike Bartlett's version of the Euripides classic initially so arresting. Behind the photorealist facade of Ruari Murchison's suburban set, we find not a spurned wife in Corinth, but a single mum living in a new-build residential street just beyond the London commuter belt.

This Medea, played by Rachael Stirling with a take-no-prisoners wit, lives in a world of Richard Curtis movies and Wii Fit games. Defiant and more than a little deranged, she runs rings around her prim, middle-class neighbours (strong turns from Lu Corfield and Amelia Lowdell), as she denies them the security of polite conversation. She can switch in an instant from making a cup of tea to listing the ways she'd like her estranged husband to die.

The contrast is shocking and funny. This Medea is too big for a place like this, her passions too intense, her intelligence too vicious, and in Bartlett's own production, there are an unexpected number of laughs.

Those laughs can quickly turn to distress, however, as Stirling reveals Medea to be a woman suffering severe emotional trauma. She denies being mentally ill, but it's hard to know how else to interpret the behaviour of someone who locks herself in her room, plunges her hand into a pan of boiling water and takes a knife to her only child. As writer, Bartlett doesn't just transfer Euripides to the modern world – he exposes him to the full weight of post-Freudian psychology.
Despite all this illumination, however, the 2,000-year leap from ancient Greece to gossipy middle England comes at a price. It isn't only Medea who is confined and reduced by these circumstances. The play itself seems to get smaller. 

Instead of a conquering hero, Adam Levy's Jason is nice but dull in a business suit. His complaints about Medea's behaviour are perfectly reasonable; in these 21st-century terms, she is being over the top and he's right to protest. At such moments, the play becomes a soap-opera episode about a woman reacting badly to a messy divorce, her fate seeming to be more private misfortune than archetypal tragedy.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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