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Archive for November, 2008

The Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland have put on 4 new plays this autumn.    I missed Cockroach but caught this double bill as well as Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us.

Both of these new plays were directed by Domenic Hill, and Naomi Wilkinson designed the sets.    The pair have worked together before, notably at Dundee rep for Peer Gynt  and Midsummer Night’s Dream which both won set design awards.    The latter involved a large amount of water, used to great effect.

So, the Dogstone was a two hander by new playwright Kenny Lindsay about a father, Danskin and his son Lorn, set in Oban.    Andy Gray played the now alcoholic father – how good to see him in a serious role, and Scott Fletcher was the boy.     While both performances were very good, I was not convinced there was enough to make this worthwhile, although there were some interesting father/son moments.

After the break, it was Andy Duffy’s Nasty Brutish and Short.    The set was some furniture and piles of magazines placed in about 3 inches of water.    There was en electric bar fire sitting in the water too, and a sort of sparky (in a short circuit way) soundscape.    And the piece was very edgy indeed involving a teenaged couple Mary Jane and Luke (Ashley Smith and James Young) and Luke’s elder brother Jim played by Martin Docherty.     At first the actors wandered in and out of the water, but as things became more animated, water went everywhere, and I found this effective.    But this was a dark, dark tale with a particularly brutal rape scene – yes, thrashing about in the water.   

I generally like a challenge when I go to the theatre, but I did struggle with this.   Perhaps because it was seen in a week when the newspapers were printing the real story of ‘Baby P’ in simply unreadable detail that it threw up more questions than it might have otherwise done.    In the end, I was not actually sure what we were supposed to take away from this, apart from the fact that it lived up to its title.

I like Traverse 1 in the round, although it means that we do see backs of heads for at least some of the performance.    You also get to see the rest of the audience, and there have been some very famous Scottish faces in the ranks.     I also like the fact that Domenic Hill, the Traverse director, is always around somewhere, if not at the actual production, then networking in the bar.    To be fair, his predecessor Philip Howard was also ‘omnipresent’.      A sign of a good theatre.

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Midsummer – Traverse

A crowded diary ment that getting to Midsummer  – a new play with songs from David Greg was –  looking unlikely.   But a glowing review from Waldorf and Statler over at View From the Stalls, and being a long-time David Greg fan, made this a ‘must see’.

And what a hugely enjoyable night it was.   A story about a man and woman from different social strata in Edinburgh who are thrown together by events over a mad midsummer weekend.   Sex, drink, a Tesco bag of hot money, a chase through Edinburgh and a great joke about the hated Trams made for a very funny evening of sheer craziness.    It was wonderfully performed by Cora Bisset (Helena) and Matthew Pidgeon (Bob) who acted superbly and sang and played guitars.    The audience played its part too, and I loved Bob’s Annual Conference.

Although the run ended a while ago, apparently this may well come back in the Festival, when there will be a script at accompany the Fleetwood Mac single I received in my programme pack.    And, yes, I do still have the equipment to play it!

Midsummer harked back to a much earlier and equally successful David Greg play, also set firmly in the Capital, called Caledonia Dreaming.    Perhaps we will see both next summer.

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homecoming_2009Homecoming 2009 is an initiative to encourage people with Scottish connections living abroad to visit the old country in 2009.   It is to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth, and there are 200 events running from Burns Night through to St Andrews Day.   It is costing the taxpayer dearly, yet we are hopeful of a return – difficult in a year of worldwide economic turmoil.

So on Friday, the promotional video was unveiled.      Various Scottish celebs sing a line of Dougie McLean’s song Caledonia in front of iconic scenery.     The idea is imagination on auto-pilot.   I have to say that it is appalling.   Most of the performers look very uncomfortable, and Sean Connery only manages to speak his line.    It is badly shot with poor sound.

Surely we can do better than this.   We badly need to.    There is a lot at stake.

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I had never heard of multi award winning Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto before, and this concert was billed as a ‘wildcard’ with no advance programming available, except that we were promised something amazing.

Fire - Scottish Ensemble

Fire - Scottish Ensemble

What we got was unlike anything we have had before from the Scottish Ensemble:    Jonathan Morton actually devolved leadership of his band to the Finn for the whole evening.    OK, I am sure that there was lots of discussion in rehearsal, but effectively, it was Kuusisto leading everything on the night, which demonstrates the high regard in which he is clearly held.    The Ensemble were watching him like hawks, because clearly no two performances on this tour were the same.

The first half was entirely Finnish music.   Each of Rautavaara’s 5 movement work Fiddlers is based on old traditional fiddle tunes from Ostrobothnia in Finland, and uniquely, Pekka Kuusisto performed the original tunes ahead of each of the movements, which gave us, the audience, a good insight into the piece.    His playing was mesmerising to watch, facing us, then facing the Ensemble and stamping his feet to the old fiddle tunes.      He held his bow further up the shaft than is usual, the increased pressure causing much bow hair loss during the evening – he must get through bows pretty fast.   

The other scheduled pieces in the first half were  Some Aspects of Peltonemi Hintrik’s Funeral March by Sallinen, and a short brilliant Humoresque by Sibelius.      Between these three pieces, Pekka Kuusisto plugged in an electric violin to boxes of electronics to perform what he called ‘Suitcase Music’ – completely improvised electronic music.    In the pre-performance talk, Pekka told us a bit about this – he said that he played jazz aged 3, and that although the classics like Mozart were all very well, if we did not push boundaries, then we would end up in a muesum.      So the improvisations were both different, and both built up layers of sound.     They were pleasant enough, and accessible – I was dreading extended abstact music, like Alan Davie’s group was doing in the late 1970s.    Some of the music reminded me of Eberhard Weber.     

The second half was just two pieces – Passion by Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur – a piece which built from a bass and cello start through the group to include the violins.    In places it reminded me of Barber’s Adagio.     And to finish, the Divertimento for Strings by Bartok, but played in a totally unexpected way bringing out darkness in the music.

An encore of a short Finnish Folksong rounded off a very unusual and highly enjoyable evening in style.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

This was billed as a production using modern theatrical tricks to recreate the atmosphere of a seedy quarter in New Orleans, and it only partly worked.    The theatre had a smell pumped into the auditorium which was supposed to be something like coffee and banana I think, but in fact just smelt rather nasty.    We were fairly near the front so received this at full waft.    There were some nice visual techniques, but the sound effects to accompany Blanche’s reveries needed a bit of work to make them convincing.

The set was a clever design, showing us the cramped two room apartment squalor with transparent curtains to allow projections onto them at various points in the play.    Particularly effective was the overhead shot of the poker game, and what happened to Stanley when he was manhandled off stage into the bathroom by his fellow poker players.   Also, close up footage of Stella’s and Blanche’s eyes was innovative.   I also liked the commissioned sax and piano music by John Beales – so much better than just finding some music to fit.

I had forgotten what a big play this was, and this was a pretty good stab at it, although it did not all work well.    Firstly, and there is no nice way to say this:   the accents were mostly poor – the southern states accent is very difficult to get right, and particularly so for the women.    There was no accent coach credited in the programme, and this production really needed one.    Funnily enough, Hank Williams’ daughter was speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4 the following morning (they have discovered some new tapes of her father) – I rather hoped that Amanda Beveridge who played Blanche (lapsing into RP) and Kenny Blyth playing Stanley (lapsing into Scots) were listening.     Putting the accents to one side – and that is a big ask in this play – the actors worked hard under Ian Grieve’s direction to convincingly to tell the story.    And a nice Perth touch to bring on Leslie Mackie and Terry Wale at the end.   

The play is a sad tale, but has some wonderful dialogue.   There is a lot to take in.    The audience certainly enjoyed it, and I would recommend it.

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I have wondered about Tracey Emin for a while, and have seen various pieces of hers as they have visited Scotland over the years.     I have never made up my mind about her, so I wanted to catch the Retrospective at the Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh before it closed.    And I had not seen her famous unmade bed before.

It was an interesting and very personal exhibition.   Emin has had a troubled upbringing, including being raped at an early age, having underage sex with too many people and having two abortions.    She got into art colleges in Maidstone, and in London, where her experiences were not always happy.   She destroyed a large amount of her work, stopped painting for several years and had a string of unstable relationships.

My Bed.   Photo Murdo Macleod, used with permission www.murdophoto.com

Tracey Emin: My Bed. Photo Murdo Macleod, used with permission http://www.murdophoto.com

So against this background, her art emerged, as a reaction to her circumstances.   Emin’s art reflects her life, and concentrates on sex (often violent), Margate, pregnancy and her grandmother.   I found it difficult and awkward.   A series of drawings explained what she felt like after a particularly nasty abortion.    There was a touching video explaining why she never became a dancer.   There were A4 panels of her handwritten thoughts – describing in detail her early teenage girl experiences – too overwhelmingly personal for me to get through them all.

There were lots of blankets with with the familiar writing stitched onto them, and perhaps these were the most accessible works.    Also, several pieces in neon lighting – a seedy medium reflecting a tacky past.    And some more recent paintings, which I tried but failed to completely understand.

And suddenly, there was her famous unmade bed, right in front of me.    Complete with stains, and all the mess of stuff on the floor.   It is by now so iconic that it has lost its initial shocking power, but it was exciting to see such a famous work right there in the room.

I enjoyed the exhibition, and understand Tracey Emin all the more for visiting this.   Her life has been pretty extreme, as her art reflects.    She is as famous for her experiences as she is for her art.     

But I still cannot make up my mind whether she is a good artist.

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Laptop Frustration

Laptop Frustration

Towards the end of the second episode of the current series of Spooks, a vital disc containing ‘just in time’ information was delivered to the spook team sitting in a car.    The disc was stuffed into a laptop, and the information downloaded in a very very few seconds to MI5 HQ, with disaster averted.    

So I am desperate to know what sort of laptops these guys have.   One would expect them to have the whizziest kit, but also the most secure systems.   And secure systems take time to load and need passwords to remember.     Nothing in real life works as fast as this.    Most normal laptops take ages to fire up, then faff about with the anti-virus software and download yet another microsoft update – which can take ages and requires a restart of the computer.   

It would have been a lot funnier if the laptop screen had said “This disc appears to be in Russian.   Would you like to download the Russian character set now?   You will need your master disc and the code on the box.”

Just for once, it would be be great to see someone in Spooks throwing a slow laptop out of a window – like we all would love to do at times – but don’t for obvious reasons.

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