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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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Byre theatre closure

This morning the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, announced it was closing because of the danger of becoming insolvent. Here's the official statement

As a reminder of what we are losing, I dug out this article I wrote for the Herald in 1997:

LAST week I took a peak into the Byre Theatre auditorium for the last time. Never again will I see that narrow oblong room, the audience occupying little more space than the stage, in a building hidden away on a footpath off the main road, like some clandestine meeting house for the artistically deprived.

Thanks to a £3,385,000 lottery award, the biggest of its kind in Scotland, the St Andrews theatre is being demolished, and a completely new building going up in its place. The bulldozers are expected to arrive at the start of August. Next time a member of the public gets inside the town's only professional theatre space, it will be the autumn of 1999, when the old 174-seat auditorium will have been replaced by a 220-seater with back-stage facilities previously only dreamed of.

It's the most ambitious of the various lottery-funded projects taking place around the country at the moment. Many theatres are upgrading their dressing rooms, re-upholstering their seats, or sprucing up their box offices, but to go as far as starting again from scratch is something else.

It's certainly an unimaginable leap from the theatre's first incarnation in a former cow-shed, rented for £10 a year in 1933. The actress Una McLean got her first job there in 1954, and remembers having to climb out of the dressing room down a ladder to get onto the stage. If she took her exit on the opposite side, she had to go out into the yard and back up a steel staircase. "You had to exit prompt side in all kinds of weathers," she recalls. "You'd be out in the pouring rain, and having to go up the staircase to come back on the other side."

That building was vacated in 1970 to make way for a new purpose-built theatre on the same site. Sadly, they lost the notice saying "Please keep your feet off the stage," in the process. Happily, leg room was no longer a problem. The new theatre served the company well, but after 25 years the roof was leaking, the heating malfunctioning, access was poor for disabled people, and there was little hope of it surviving into the next millennium.

When artistic director Ken Alexander returns at the end of his itinerant season in two years' time, he will find vastly improved facilities. No longer will passers-by on Abbey Street be faced by an unwelcoming concrete facade showing no signs of life. Instead they'll see a long, airy foyer running along the north side of the building, leading to a first-floor restaurant and second-floor box office.

The architects, Nicoll Russell Studios, who also worked on Dundee Rep, have aimed to retain the intimacy that has characterised the Byre throughout its history, increasing the audience capacity only to 220. Backstage, there'll be major improvements, with the introduction of a fly-tower, a full-size scenery dock twice as big as the stage, and substantial wing space on both sides of the stage. The increased playing space will allow the theatre to present dance for the first time.

"Actors and audience are all agreed that the thing that works about the Byre is the intimacy between the stage and the auditorium," says Ken Alexander. "You can get away with smaller and more intricate detail in this space. The new theatre will have a similar relationship, although it encircles slightly more."

Additionally, there will be a studio space which will be used for rehearsals, workshops and meetings of the busy Byre Writers' Group. Changing rooms, administration offices and workshops will be positioned together, somewhere above where the cafe used to be. The house next door to the theatre is being demolished, giving the architects a third more ground space to play with.

At the moment, the company is able to skimp by with four full-time staff, but there'll be no such economies with a big new building to run. The plan is that some costs will be offset against increased revenue from the bar and restaurant, but the experience of other theatres suggests that benefits and expenditure are impossible to estimate accurately. "Costs are likely to increase because we've got a more interesting space to work with, with more possibilities," says Alexander. "The Scottish Arts Council recognises that increased costs will be an issue, but it's making no promises."

The director does not regard the project simply in terms of bricks and mortar. He sees it as a chance to develop his programme, reach new audiences, and make artistic connections previously denied to him. He's treating this homeless period as a chance to spread the Byre's name abroad, taking the forthcoming Worzel Gummidge to Kirkcaldy after St Andrews, premiering Jan Nathanson's Californian Poppy on the Edinburgh Fringe, and initiating a community touring policy that will continue even after the new building is opened.

Once back in Abbey Street, he aims to cater to a range of audiences - not only the holiday-makers who account for up to 70 per cent of his summer trade, and not only the typical subscription audience. Like many a disciple of the late Joan Knight, Alexander is a populist to the last, and he makes no apologies for giving people what they want.

"You can programme in an exciting manner and be popular too," he says, already commissioning writers with a view to increasing the national stock of popular plays. "Rather than just doing a summer season, as we have done in recent years, we will be able to extend the programme of our own work, and have a greater ability to attract touring work. The potential at St Andrews is great because you've got three distinct audiences - tourists, students and local residents. In terms of the programme we'll be aiming to get as diverse an audience as possible. We'll have more flexibility in the spaces we can use, and therefore the range of activities we can programme. I hope we'll have the stability to programme Whistle Down the Wind one week, and Trainspotting the next."
© Mark Fisher, 1997 and 2013

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Traverse theatre celebrates 50-years with new plays

Published in the Scotsman

FOR two dozen Edinburgh residents, 2013 began with a theatrical pilgrimage. Spurred into action by Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, they gathered in the city’s Cambridge Street on the evening of 2 January to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Traverse Theatre. From there, this impromptu gathering walked back in time; first to the Grassmarket, where the theatre was resident in the 1970s and 80s, and then to James Court off the Lawnmarket, where the company launched in 1963 with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and Fernando Arrabal’s Orisons.

The party included current artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, plus folk who’d worked at the theatre or simply enjoyed the company’s work. On the way, they traded stories about late-night sessions in the bar, narrowly-won battles with the funding bodies, and the occasion, on the second ever performance, when actor Colette O’Neil was stabbed on stage with a paper knife, leading to an emergency dash to hospital and some fantastic publicity for the new-born theatre.

They talked also about the plays they had seen in a theatre which, after its initial explosion of European avant-garde energy, became known as Scotland’s home of new writing. In the history of 20th century British theatre, only London’s Royal Court can compare in its sustained commitment to showcasing the work of living playwrights. 

What, then, is the legacy of this theatre? This week, the Traverse will kick off a year of 50th anniversary events with a rehearsed reading of 500-word scripts by 50 playwrights. The majority of these writers, whittled down from 630 applicants, are unfamiliar names and there’s a chance that among them are the playwrights who will shape the story of the theatre’s next 50 years. 

It’s hard to think of a professional playwright in Scotland who has not had an association with the theatre. The few exceptions are those who have been intimately involved with their own companies: Robert David MacDonald at Glasgow’s Citizens, John McGrath with 7:84 and today, perhaps, David Leddy with Fire Exit. 

To assess the theatre’s impact, let’s start with the two most internationally successful Scottish plays of the past decade. We should be clear that the Traverse was not responsible for David Harrower’s Blackbird (that was the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005) nor Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (that was the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006) but, crucially, it was the Traverse that gave both writers their first break. In fact, if it weren’t for Blackbird and Black Watch, we’d probably still be saying Scotland’s biggest theatrical exports were Harrower’s Knives In Hens and Burke’s Gagarin Way, both of which premiered at the Traverse before being produced scores of times abroad.

Those two debut plays say a lot about the theatre’s approach. On paper and in performance, there is almost nothing to connect them. Knives In Hens is a subtle study of a primitive community that seems to live in fear of language itself. It is sober and mysterious. Gagarin Way, by contrast, is a hilarious heist comedy that takes its name from a street in the communist stronghold of Lumphinnans in Fife. It is abrasive and polemical. Both plays worked because they were true expressions of the playwrights’ sensibilities. They hadn’t been written to order or knocked into some predetermined house style. The Traverse trusted the writers’ instincts and audiences welcomed their distinctive voices.

Often, writers have gone on to higher profile (and better paid) work after a Traverse hit. Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places, a “road movie for the stage”, was directed by John Tiffany in 1997, before the writer invented River City, scripted episodes of Doctor Who and Marchlands, and wrote the Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith (soon to be a movie). Likewise, Simon Donald acted in many shows in the Grassmarket era and, with The Life Of Stuff, wrote one of the first hits of the Cambridge Street era. After this black comedy of drug-fuelled excess, he wrote the feature film Beautiful Creatures starring Rachel Weisz, the TV movie Low Winter Sun, plus various episodes of Dr Finlay, Murphy’s Law and Wallander.

But the Traverse is much more than a jumping off point. It is prestigious in its own right and a place where playwrights at any stage in their career want to be seen. A case in point is John Byrne, who was given a boost by the success of The Slab Boys in 1978 in a production starring the young Robbie Coltrane. He went on to write Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart in parallel to his work as a visual artist, but he was still happy to return to the Traverse in 2008 with Nova Scotia, the fourth part of his “trilogy”.

It was a similar story for Liz Lochhead, who wrote her first full-length play, Blood And Ice, for the Traverse in 1982 and returned in triumph with Perfect Days, starring Siobhan Redmond, in 1998. Jo Clifford and Chris Hannan also had plays staged at the Traverse when they were starting out in the 1980s and returned more recently with, respectively, The Tree Of Knowledge and The Three Musketeers And The Princess of Spain (winner of a CATS best new play award). 

Other writers, such as Iain Heggie and Zinnie Harris, have come to the Traverse after building their reputations elsewhere; others still, such as Linda McLean, just can’t stop coming back. In this, the prolific David Greig leads the field. His Traverse CV includes Europe, The Architect, The Speculator, Outlying Islands, Danny 306 + Me (4 Ever), When The Bulbul Stopped Singing, Damascus and Midsummer, as well as various early-morning Fringe shows. With patience, we’ll find out which of the Traverse 50 writers is equal to matching that tally.
• 50 Plays for Edinburgh, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday and Saturday.
© Mark Fisher, 2013

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A Taste of Honey, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Four stars

THERE is much that is extraordinary about Shelagh Delaney's debut play: that it was written by an 18-year-old after watching something by Terence Rattigan and thinking she could do better; that instead of making an issue of single motherhood, interracial sex, teenage pregnancy and homosexuality, it presents them as part of life's tapestry; that, in its unsentimental representation of a working-class Salford experience, it became year zero for everything from Coronation Street to the Smiths.

Even its imperfections add to its energy. The story favours slice-of-life realism over narrative neatness, so characters come and go with no regard to the resolution of a well-made play. All this means that A Taste of Honey goes on a bit, meandering to its ambivalent conclusion, but you might also argue that's the point. School-leaver Jo has never had control over her life, and that is exemplified by the random departures of her mother, lover and best friend.

What seems most extraordinary of all, especially in Tony Cownie's production, is the vivid intensity of Delaney's two central characters. When Rebecca Ryan's Jo and Lucy Black as her mother, Helen, are on stage together, they are as ruthless – and as alive – as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Showing a deep feel for the dialect's rhythm and pace, they fire out the language with machine-gun ferocity. Their exchanges are cruel, unyielding and bleakly funny, but the viciousness is also their bond.
Delaney shows, quite brilliantly, that the more Jo rebels against her wayward mother, the more she becomes like her. As the play goes on, the dry wit and hard-as-nails philosophy that makes her a catch as a young lover transforms into a much less attractive cynicism and selfishness. Delaney tells it like it is, and Ryan and Black show how even the most startling life-force can be warped by fear, defensiveness and circumstance.
© Mark Fisher, 2013

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The Maids, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Two stars

THE class war isn't over yet. Just ask the House of Commons catering staff whom MP Christopher Chope referred to as "servants" last week. Let's hope they don't react like the sisters in Jean Genet's The Maids, so damaged by the social pecking order that they spend half their time plotting to murder their mistress, and the other half indulging in cruel master-servant role‑playing fantasies.

In this all-male production, director Stewart Laing makes the connection between Genet's outsider status and the rock'n'roll spirit he inspired. It begins with actors Samuel Keefe, Ross Mann and Scott Reid getting out electric guitars for a stately rendition of Metallica's One. They intersperse subsequent scenes with Venus in Furs and The Man Who Sold the World. Elsewhere, there are references to Nirvana and Take That, and the show ends with a massive pin-up of the actors in boyband pose.

What's disappointing is the lack of rock'n'roll dynamics in the performances themselves. Laing reminds us that Genet paved the way for the danger of the Velvet Underground, the shape-shifting charisma of David Bowie and the histrionics of Metallica, yet his actors show none of those qualities. Worse, they make a simple story hard to follow, owing to their monotone delivery.

This is a shame because there's lots to love about Laing's production. His decision to avoid camp should, in theory, have given the play a pansexual ambiguity. This is the theatre where the flamboyant Lindsay Kemp, mentor to Bowie, staged the play in 1971, but Laing's version is free of drag-queen flouncing. Though it's not clear what has replaced it, the show offers many entertaining surprises such as the clip of a Genet interview and, midway through, a question-and-answer session with the director. If only the bold production ideas were equalled by the performances.
© Mark Fisher, 2013 (Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

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David Bowie and Metallica feature in Stewart Laing’s new show

Published in the Scotsman

Preview of The Maids, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

STEWART Laing is sitting at the long table that fills the room where his company, Untitled Projects, is based. It’s the former design studio of Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre and one of the brightest office spaces in the building. 

In theory, this is a rehearsal break for him and he should be able to relax, but there’s no escaping his work. From an adjacent room comes the distinctive riff of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. Then it comes again. And again.

It’s the sound of Laing’s actors trying to master rock guitar. With help from guitar tutor Scott Paterson, formerly of Sons and Daughters, they are also getting their fingers round Metallica’s One and the Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs. The reason is typically unexpected. Laing is staging Jean Genet’s The Maids, a cross-dressed tale of power, role-playing and identity, and he reckons it has an untapped rock’n’roll energy just waiting to get out.

“There are lots of connections between Jean Genet and rock music,” he says. “He was so influential in the 1950s with the whole idea of an underground culture being more interesting than the main culture.”

The 1946 play pre-dates the rock era, but it has impeccable rock credentials. Proto-punk singer Patti Smith has taken to staging gigs on Genet’s birthday because she doesn’t believe the writer and political activist was sufficiently recognised in his lifetime. 

“In the 1950s it was said that those who aspired to be Beat read Kerouac, but that the real Beats read Genet,” she wrote in Details magazine. On one occasion, she was joined by REM’s Michael Stipe who performed an acoustic version of David Bowie’s Jean Genie, the title a pun on Genet’s name. Bowie, meanwhile, learned his androgynous Ziggy Stardust moves from choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, who himself directed The Maids at the Citizens’ Close Theatre in 1971.

It’s something of this iconoclastic spirit Laing hopes to capture now. “Genet didn’t like a pure psychological reading of his plays,” he says. “And he didn’t like pure political readings either. He thought something magical happened in theatre when it was good. A lot of actors expect the entire conversation to be about psychology, but I think it’s more interesting to add other stuff in there. Having guitars in the show has got nothing to do with psychology.”

Working with three young actors who are students or recent graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he is following Genet’s wishes by casting men in the female roles. The play is loosely based on the 1933 case of servants Christine and Léa Papin who murdered their mistress and her daughter. In Genet’s hands, it becomes a strange story of class warfare and sadomasochistic power games, made more ambiguous by the cross-dressing. 

“Genet grew up in all-male environments,” says Laing. “He was in orphanages and then he was in borstals and then prisons. The female figures in his life were people pretending to be women, like the feminine figures in prison who are fulfilling the role of the female. The play was written in the middle of the Second World War when those ideas of masculine and feminine were much more clearly defined than they are now. I was interested in looking at it in the early 21st century where there’s a much more fluid crossover between masculine and feminine behaviour.” 

Rock music adds its own gender associations: “As well as a Bowie song, they also play a Metallica song, which is completely testosterone-fuelled. I’m wondering what the association is if you put those two things together.”

It’s a surprise it has taken this long for Laing to get round to Genet. A designer turned director, he has been steadily working his way through a long list of French writers including Rimbaud, Cocteau, Proust, Marivaux, Foucault and Guibert. Where this Francophile fascination comes from, he finds it hard to say; his mastery of the language means he can get by in a restaurant, but no more than that, yet he is repeatedly drawn back to this countercultural work. “I’d really love to do Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Marie Koltès at some point.”

His most audacious show to date also took influence from France. First seen at Edinburgh’s Traverse in 2011, The Salon Project was a remarkable performance in which the audience was professionally fitted out in the clothes of a 19th-century Parisian salon before partaking in a series of talks and performances. The stiff formality of the clothes seemed to change the audience’s attitude, as if we really had stepped back to a more sober, intellectually probing time. It was a complex, labour-intensive event to stage, and the great news is it’s coming back. As well as dates at London’s Barbican, it will have an eight-day run at the Citizens’ in March.

“Even though I was in there throughout every performance, it often wasn’t until afterwards that somebody would say, ‘This amazing conversation happened over in the corner, were you aware of that?’ – and I was completely unaware of many things that were going on. It’s exciting thinking we’ve got another 18 performances and every one of them is going to be very different.”

Both The Salon Project and The Maids are examples of the way Laing likes to push at the definition of what theatre can be. Fifteen years ago, in Myths of the Near Future, he staged three stories by JG Ballard in unusual spaces, including a disused swimming pool in Govan. More recently, in Pamela Carter’s Slope, he positioned the audience above the actors, who performed in a fully plumbed Victorian bathroom below. It’s an approach that means every production is an experiment – a big “what if?” – and he hopes the audience will approach it in the same spirit of adventure.

“I’m unsure what the outcome is, but I would hope that if the audience have had an interesting experience, they’re not going to be dissatisfied,” he says. “Douglas Gordon says the reason to make art is to have a conversation and I profoundly believe that.”
• The Maids is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, today until 2 February. The Salon Project is at the same venue, 15–23 March.

© Mark Fisher, 2013 (Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

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