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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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Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Paul Michael Glaser, Fiddler on the Roof

Published in the Scotsman
I’M not exactly expecting Paul Michael Glaser to jump over the bonnet of a red Ford Gran Torino and pull up the collar of his chunky-knit cardigan as he walks over to greet me, but neither am I quite ready for the man who comes down the stairs at the London Welsh Centre. 

It’s not that he’s looking his age – you’d never guess the Starsky and Hutch star was 70 – it’s just that his full head of grey hair is now accompanied by a voluminous beard and you have to look beyond the glasses to spot that old familiar twinkle in his eyes.

It’s there, of course, as is the boyish enthusiasm for the job and a wonder at the weird way his life has turned out. Here he is in rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof, doing a big mainstage tour of the UK, and he can’t help thinking back to 1971 when he was the heart-throb star of the famous movie version. 

Back then, in his first film role, he played Perchik, the earnest young firebrand determined to introduce modern ideas to his traditional Jewish community, to overturn the inequalities of Tsarist Russia and, this being a musical, to get the girl.

Now, more than 40 years later, Glaser has acquired the status of elder statesman. In a production directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood of Strictly Come Dancing fame, he is taking the lead role of Tevye. Where once he called for revolution as Perchik, now he is the upholder of tradition, a well-meaning patriarch trying to ensure his daughters uphold the Jewish faith as they come of age. 

That’s why today he is looking more like the avuncular Topol, the actor who made the part his own, than the idealistic 27-year-old he was in his pre-Starsky and Hutch days. It’s a transition he’s happy with. “Not since Starsky and Hutch have I felt this comfortable in a role,” he says. “When I did Starsky, I could play anything: silly, funny, serious, tragic, angry. I had the whole gamut of emotions to play with and that’s what Tevye has. He’s this amazing mix, which is necessary because he’s a bit of an everyman.”

An awful lot has happened to Glaser in the intervening period. It’s astounding he hasn’t been ground down by it. In 1985, his wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with HIV. She had been infected by a contaminated blood transfusion four years earlier when she was giving birth to their daughter Ariel. This was the early days of the virus and, by the time they realised what had happened, she had given birth to a second child, Jake. Both children also had the virus. Ariel died in 1981 at the age of seven; Jake is now in his late twenties and continues his mother’s charitable work.

Before her death in 1994, Elizabeth set up the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which operates in 16 countries and aims to prevent and treat childhood AIDS. Her husband served as chairman of the board for six years and is now honorary chairman. 

In addition to his campaigning work, he donates the profits from his self-published children’s book, Chrystallia and the Source of Light, to the foundation. The story is a fantasy adventure about a brother and sister whose mother is terminally ill and whose world is falling apart. It could be a metaphor for what he has gone through.

“I really wanted to share with people what I’d learned about helplessness and fear,” says the actor, who also has a 15-year-old daughter, Zoe Anne, from his subsequent marriage to producer Tracy Barone, which ended six years ago.
To come to terms with the loss of Elizabeth and Ariel, he consulted a specialist (he prefers the word “teacher” to “therapist”) and developed a philosophy from which he drew strength. 

“I can see now how I can use fear,” he says. “Fear is a natural state of the human condition. It’s there. One can ignore it, suffer from it or try to use it. The mind doesn’t want to cope with helplessness. It doesn’t want to deal with the fact that it has no power over mortality.

“We always use the words, ‘I am scared,’ but that’s not really what we mean. What we mean is a part of us is scared. We can even look at that part, give it a perimeter, give it a colour, and that means we can also perceive parts of our body that aren’t scared. When we can acknowledge that fear, we can say, ‘Good for you for having the courage to carry on, to seek faith and to live in hope in the face of this helplessness.’ You find courage and you find compassion for yourself. The purpose of fear for me is to remind me of my conscious self which can then choose my heart.”

It’s a philosophy that gives him a perspective on many of the world’s problems. He observes, for example, that the racist politics of the Russian authorities who threaten the Jewish village in Fiddler on the Roof are also motivated by fear. “We hold on to bigotry and racism because we are afraid. We don’t want to deal with our fears so we blame someone else. We delineate a difference between us and them. That makes us feel valid, powerful and like we are not helpless.”
That the story of Fiddler on the Roof continues to connect to audiences, irrespective of their religion, gives him great cheer. Now, taking on the part of Tevye, in a show produced by John Stalker, the ex-director of Edinburgh’s Festival and King’s theatres, he finds himself being fascinated by the character’s uncertainty. He is a man trying to uphold tradition but, ever willing to see another point of view, constantly overtaken by change. 

“He is all of our voices,” says Glaser. “He’s not being clever, he’s not being anything but very human and very fallible. He’s trying to find himself – and that’s what we’re all trying to do.”
• Fiddler on the Roof, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tomorrow until 5 October.

© Mark Fisher 2013
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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Theatre review: Dark Road

Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars
IT HAS been a while since the stage has had much truck with genre fiction. Not since the days of weekly rep, when Agatha Christie was reigning queen of the whodunit, has there been much space in the theatre for plot-driven mysteries and thrillers. Those forms have proved better suited to novel and screen. That's why the theatrical debut of Ian Rankin, with a play co-written by artistic director Mark Thomson, is at once familiar and strange; the genre is everywhere, but we rarely see it on stage.

In manner and appearance, Dark Road plays by the rules of the modern TV cop show. Thanks to Forbrydelsen, Broadchurch and the adaptations of Rankin's own Inspector Rebus novels, all of us are up to speed with the idea of the troubled detective, a figure whose intuitive gift for sleuthing is threatened by inadequacies in their private life.

Thus we have Isobel McArthur, played with characteristic gutsiness by Maureen Beattie, who would be happier about her completion of 30 years' police service and her accolade as Scotland's first female chief constable if it weren't for her dysfunctional relationship with her 18-year-old daughter and the nagging doubt that her most high-profile conviction was made possible only by dodgy 1980s forensic techniques.

In this sense, Dark Road is less a whodunit than a did-he-really-do-it? Alfred Chalmers, played by Philip Whitchurch with a creepily believable mixture of anger and geniality, has spent 25 years in a psychiatric hospital for the murder of four young women, all of whom had sought abortions in the hospital where he was an orderly. The aging detectives who got him banged up are instinctively convinced of his guilt, but have conveniently lost the one flimsy piece of evidence that clinched the case. The killer's mind games that so unsettled them in the past are taking hold again.

Thomson draws out a set of ferocious performances in a pacy production that papers over the more implausible corners of the plot and the clunkier passages of exposition. What's harder to transcend is the hermetic nature of the genre: when everything rests on solving the mystery, there's little room for metaphor. Rankin goes some way to dealing with this by developing a theme about living with the consequences of guilty secrets and half-remembered mistakes, but by the end, when the play lurches into Victorian melodrama, we're left with the empty feeling of a story which, however well told, lacks resonance.
© Mark Fisher 2013
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Theatre review: Macbeth

Published in the Guardian
Perth Theatre
Four stars
WE are in a relentlessly masculine landscape. The towering, grey edifice of Kenny Miller's set looms over an all-male cast dressed in muted colours, their clothes looking as bruised as their battle-worn faces. Even the witches in Rachel O'Riordan's formidable production are played by men. Gaunt, angular, hard as nails – they are weird sisters indeed.

Keith Fleming's Macbeth is tough, plain-speaking and austere, which is why Leila Crerar's Lady Macbeth makes such an impression when she appears in an off-white shawl, bathed in the glow of Kevin Treacy's majestic lighting. She is – and will remain – the only woman on stage.

She is also arrestingly young. Swinging her bare legs in the air, Crerar's Lady Macbeth is a child on the cusp of womanhood, one for whom adolescent thrill-seeking rather than steely forward planning drives her ambition. She can be stern, but she can also be carelessly superficial. Crerar says the line about being made bold by drink like a teenager who is giddily under the influence.

Until Lady Macbeth's mental health deteriorates, Crerar's flippancy contrasts sharply with Fleming's sober thane. Wild eyed and sweet voiced, he is as uncomfortable with his accumulating power as he is with his bloody crimes. He is a man possessed, and distressed, by some bigger force. When the final assessment – that he was a tyrant and she a "fiend-like queen" – comes, it rings false. These Macbeths are less sociopaths than impulsive victims of circumstance.

Both stars give lucid, driven interpretations, but the show is not theirs alone. O'Riordan brings forth clear and intelligent performances across the board. From the magnetic stillness of Richard Conlon's Ross to the bottled-up bitterness of Michael Moreland's Banquo, they seem not so much angry as sadly let down by the once-golden couple.
© Mark Fisher 2013
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Theatre review: Victoria

Published in the Guardian
Dundee Rep
Three stars
DAVID Greig has already demonstrated his range this year with the premieres in close succession of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the West End Dahl musical, and The Events, a study of life after a Breivik-style massacre. Now, for the first time since its RSC debut in 2000, Victoria gets an outing and, in a long, ambitious and rewarding evening, we find the playwright showing yet more versatility as he channels the spirit of Robert Lepage. 

Like the Québécois wunderkind's Dragons' Trilogy, Victoria is an epic journey across time that conjures up echoes, reflections and mirror images as it straddles the generations. Unlike Lepage, however, Greig has a political motive. In contrasting the same Highland community in 1936, 1974 and 1996, he traces the way the mood of the times mutated from the socialist/fascist conflict of the inter-war era to the hippy/capitalist strands of the 70s, to the post-Thatcher exploitation/environmental activism of the 90s. 

The more we see the greed-is-good mantra of the free-marketeers taking hold, the stranger the idealism of the Spanish civil war volunteers becomes. At the same time, Greig suggests such cultural tensions are the norm, whether it's landowner v servant in the 30s or businessman v resident in the 90s. The philosophical justifications mutate, but their essential character (Nietzsche v nature) remains the same. Tying a loose thread through all this is the figure of Victoria. Played by a cool and understated Elspeth Brodie. Now servant, now US geologist, now tycoon's daughter, she is a restless life force, forever torn between the pull of the land and the urge to escape, always searching for a moral purpose that may finally root her. 

Philip Howard's debut production as the Rep's artistic director is marred by an inelegant design and lopsided staging, but it feels like a bold statement of intent: large in cast, epic in scope and challenging in intellect.
© Mark Fisher 2013
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Theatre review: Crime and Punishment

Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
DOSTOYEVSKY'S great philosophical novel is like Shakespeare's Hamlet in reverse. Early in the story, the fatal deed is done; the procrastination, self-analysis and madness follows thereafter. There's little rationale in the double murder by Raskolnikov, the student drop-out, and it takes the bulk of the story for him to come to terms with it.

Thus, with the bloodbath dispensed with in this powerful staging en route to Liverpool and Edinburgh, we find Adam Best's Raskolnikov facing out to the audience, his body stooped, near-crippled, as one hand rises neurotically above his bare head as if to grasp a solution to his existential predicament. Only by subjecting himself to a purgatorial punishment will he find redemption. Until then, it'd be no surprise if he broke into "to be or not to be".

In Dominic Hill's production – stark in presentation, rich in detail – this is a journey shared by the whole community. The 10-strong cast lurk on stage, emulating the teeming streets of an impoverished St Petersburg. Their babble of voices echoes the confusion of Raskolnikov's thoughts; their percussive bumps and scrapes (an excellent score by Nikola Kodjabashia) are a reminder of the city's buzz. Much as Raskolnikov would like to see himself as superior and independent, he is inseparable from his society.

It's a society beset by a brutal want of cash, a theme underscored by Colin Richmond's set of mismatched chairs, bare walls and springless couches. His poor-theatre aesthetic reminds you that the drinking, prostitution, tuberculosis, hunger, perhaps the murders themselves, all have their roots in poverty.

To find a theatrical structure, adaptor Chris Hannan roams freely through the novel. He turns interior monologue into direct address, thins out subplots and reconfigures the sequence of events to fashion a fluid route through the story. It's one the vigorous ensemble tells with drive and authority.

© Mark Fisher 2013
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Theatre review: A Little Bird Blown Off Course

Published in the Guardian
Three stars
 
Last month in the Edinburgh international festival, the Bang on a Can All-Stars used field recordings as a jumping-off point for a series of modernist compositions. In most cases, the new scores were less interesting than the source material which, even worse, was exoticised in the process. No such complaint here in the Outer Hebrides, where singer Fiona J Mackenzie is evoking a living tradition of Gaelic song in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Blas festival.

The little bird blown off course was Margaret Fay Shaw, an American woman who took an unexpected migratory path from Pennsylvania to South Uist in 1929. While at school in Helensburgh, she developed a passion for Gaelic song. Having travelled to South Uist to do some research, she dedicated her life to the preservation of an oral tradition that would otherwise have been lost. Here and on neighbouring Canna, where she lived with her folklorist husband John Lorne Campbell, she built up an invaluable archive of photographs, cine films, recordings and scores, until her death in 2004.

The stage world inhabited by Mackenzie is consequently one of scratchy 78s, crackly phonograph cylinders and black-and-white images of sheep shearers, fishermen, crofters and guisers. Accompanied by a superb four-piece band, playing Donald Shaw's bright and inventive arrangements, Mackenzie runs through a repertoire of work songs, laments and lullabies, her voice soulful, melodious and pure. As a musical experience, one with deep and considered roots in the culture, it is exquisite.

Theatrically, however, the show is under-developed; it tells us little about Shaw and nothing that isn't already in the printed programme. It is honest in its excavation and celebration of the island's culture, but makes no pretence to be dramatic: splendid as an enhanced gig; too cautious as theatre.

© Mark Fisher 2013
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