Archive for February, 2009

Scottish Opera has built on last year’s Five:15  by commissioning five more new 15 minute operas from composers and writers.

A 15 minute opera is a very strange task to pull off:   in writers’ terms, it might be seen as a short story, but in fact the text has to be minimal and pared down to fit in with this art form.    Too wordy simply does not work.    And composing a 15 minute opera must be no less odd – most chamber operas will last for at least 40 minutes, which is enough for composers to get their teeth into the piece.     So, given these demanding artistic constraints, we were in fact well entertained in Glasgow at the weekend.

Richard Rowe, Philip Gault.   Photo, Richard Campbell

Richard Rowe, Philip Gault. Photo, Richard Campbell

We started with The Lightning-Rod Man, composed by Martin Dixon and written by Amy Parker from a Herman Melville Story.      A strange tale asking us, through the stars and stripes suited Commentator Richard Rowe, to choose to believe in God or science.     Amazing what you can do with one chair and a big stick.   

Happy Story composed by David Fennessy and co-written with Nicholas Bone (who also directed) was about a man obsessed with flight.     This was perhaps the weakest offering, as the story, though amusing, was a bit  thin.    

However, White, composed by Gareth Williams and written by Margaret McCarthy took us into the serious world of hospitals and loss.    A foreign cleaner, superbly sung by Emma Carrington, emptied the bins and changed the flowers in a very ill patient’s room.     As time passed, she learnt more of the local language, and was able to have a conversation about the hopefulness and promise of the Spring with the ill lady.    However, the ailing patient sparked off the cleaner’s own memories of loss.    The intense minimal and moving score and harsh strip lighting set this opera apart from the others – just as Gareth Williams’ King’s Conjecture did last year.    It all came together perfectly.

I was especially looking forward to Zinnie Harris’ opera, as I have seen her plays Further than the Furthest Thing and Fall.    She has been quoted as only being able to write about dark things, so it was no surprise that she chose Death of a Scientist – about the last moments of David Kelly, the government scientist who committed suicide over the WMD in Iraq report.   I think that this was easily the best libretto of the evening, and there was so much detail in so few words – Kelly was so softly spoken that they had to turn off the air conditioning to hear him speak, and later on we meet  the two women ‘harpies of war’ who are set to plunder his dead body for bits to take to the battlefields of Basra:   “…. his teeth to bite children..”      Serious stuff, and effective music from John Harris.    Great performances all round, but especially from Richard Rowe as Kelly, who was clearly overwhelmed by the end.

Photo, Richard Campbell

Mary O'Sullivan. NOT a photo album. Photo, Richard Campbell

And finally, Remembrance Day from composer Stuart MacRae and writer Louise Welsh was a horror story where 17 year old Lyn cleaned her elderly neighbour’s house.    She put on a record, and opened what she thought was a photo album.     What she found in the pages was shocking.    Good story.

Like all new writing, some worked well, and  some worked less well.    The singers were all excellent, dealing with incredibly difficult and unfamiliar music, and they had to act well too.    There is something intensely exciting about hearing opera singers with big voices in a small intimate space.    The chamber orchestra conducted throughout by Derek Clark was also on good form.

Well worth catching.    It is repeated at the Hub in Edinburgh on the 7th and 8th March.     I do wonder if this is bringing in new audience to opera – I did recognise quite a few faces from the audience down the road at Theatre Royal.

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Shun-kin – Barbican – London

Tsukasa Aoki

Photo: Tsukasa Aoki

We were looking for something to go and see during a recent visit to London, and Theatre de Complicite caught our eye.    We have been big fans of Complicite and Simon McBurney ever since they visited Dundee and performed Street of Crocodiles.    They don’t do many performances, but what they do is different and special.

So a play completely in Japanese seemed pretty different from your usual West End show, and we booked to see Shun-kin.

The story is based on two 1933 writings from Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki:   A Portrait of Shunkin and In Praise of Shadows.     Shunkin was a blind female  player and teacher of a Japanese stringed instrument called the shamisen.   She was stunningly beautiful.    She lived with her servant Sasuke, who became her pupil and then her lover in a complicated often sado-masochistic relationship.     A story then about devotion, expect, as McBurney says, in Japan it is sometimes hard to know what you are looking at.

Shunkin was a petulant child, getting her own way, but her servant Sasuke stayed loyal to her, despite her being unspeakably cruel.    There were children, but these were taken away and adopted – Sasuke never saw them again.    One day, a pupil deliberately burnt Shunkin’s face, causing horrible disfigurement, and Shunkin wrapped up her head in a bandage, determined that Sasuke should not see her in her ugliness.     But Sasuke made a huge sacrifice so that he might stay with Shunkin, and fixed it so that he could never see her again.    With a needle from the sewing room.     A poor man who threw away so much to stay loyal.     Why did he do that?

Perhaps a clue lies in the second text which praises the beauty of darkness and shadow.    The set was very dark, with much use of candlelight, and this was a very dark haunting tale, so beautifully told by Complicite.     McBurney spread the story across the generations, so at the beginning, an old man wandered onto the set with a long stick and explained all about it, and about the graves of Shunkin and Sasuke who lived in the mid 19th century.           The action took place back then, but told through an actress reading the book in a Tokyo radio studio for modern-day transmission.    “Mushi Mushi” she said into her mobile phone to her on/off lover between takes.

And the stagecraft from Complicite was just awesome using movement, sound and video projection seamlessly.    Shunkin’s pet lark was taken out of its box – a flapping bit of paper, then a flock of flapping bits of paper by the actors, and then the video projection took over and the flapping bits of paper became birds flying up and up and across the stage.   Poles became swaying branches.     But the coup de theatre was that Shunkin was portrayed first as a child puppet, then an adult puppet – wonderful work by Blind Summit Theatre – but then morphing into a real actor later on – still with a puppet mask, still moved by puppeteers.       The sound-scape and effects  from Gareth Fry – including the now trademark Complicite effect of a soundtrack taking over from an actor speaking completely seamlessly – was a big integral part.   Fry has worked on most Complicite productions, but also did the sound for Black Watch.

And as a bonus, we got a surprise appearance from McBurney himself:    the play started, and the old man came in and explained in Japenese about his stick, and then introduced another man with a big book.     But the promised supertitles failed to start, and the stage manager had to stop the action, and then McBurney came bouncing on to explain that we really needed them – nice to see him there.

I found the action on stage so mesmeric, that it was a struggle to look away and read the very wordy surtitles at either side of the stage.     In opera, there are far fewer words, making surtitle reading much easier, but this was quite a struggle as it was so text based.

But we really enjoyed this very different evening at the theatre.    Shun-kin is transfering back to Tokyo in March.

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This was a play, from a book written by Vivian French using her actual experience dealing with pregnant teenagers and directed by her daughter, Jemima Levick.      It was about two 15 year old schoolgirls from very different backgrounds who find themselves pregnant and who go on to have a baby each.

Posh April (Hannah Donaldson) with her designer clothes, perfect hair and snow white trainers and pink haired black lipsticked street-goth Pinkie (Ashley Smith) are recruited to give a talk to a school, clearly to present the message that having a baby at 15 is difficult, and looking after one is an ongoing 24/7 commitment…… and don’t have sex …… ever!    But the stories don’t quite convey the message the authorities want to hear.

The acting and direction was spot-on, but the play fell down on its obviousness, and the themes it never quite got to:    why did posh April’s mum chuck her out of the house, yet Pinkie’s mum allow her to stay at home?    Why did April’s mum continue to have minimal contact after the baby was born.     I was also not completely convinced by the relationship between April and Pinkie, but perhaps that was the point.   And why was there no mention of what it was actually like to have to leave school and school friends early?     And how did pregnancy affect the very different social circles of both girls?

I was not sure what to take away from this play, except that we should not perhaps judge 15 year old pregnant girls too harshly.     Other than that, this was a bit thin.   The two 17 year old girls who came with us thought so too.

But is was good to catch up with actors Hannah Donaldson, seen in Romeo and Juliet at Dundee, and Sunset Song in Perth, as well as Ashley Smith, last seen ankle-deep in water in Nasty Brutish and Short.    And Jemima Levick, who also directed a wonderful Beauty and the Beast at Dundee Rep is a director to watch in the future.

Coming in the week that the UK’s youngest Dad at 13 has been feted in all the papers, and the week that we discover that the 15 year-old mother has possibly been dividing her attentions round the community, the play was certainly topical.

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Who is the Father?

I simply don’t know which is worse:

A baby-faced 13 year old father, or the fact that his paternity is now being challenged by other boys who think they have a valid claim.

Story here.

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Tam O’ Shanter – Perth Theatre

tam-o-shanterRobert Burns’ wonderful and much loved poem was given an amazing stage treatment at Perth Theatre in a production devised and directed by Gerry Mulgrew.    The timing could not have been better coming just on the 250th celebration of Burns’ birthday, and the start of Homecoming 2009.

But how to pad out a fifteen minute poem into an evening’s entertainment?    Retain the poem, of course, and add in some other Robert Burns poems and songs as well as some modern links in a Burns style.    

The result was  a 90 minute show which was a pure delight.    This was Mulgrew at his storytelling best where the actors worked very hard with few props.      As well as the main story, we met all the individuals in the pub, who took the chance to dress up as other characters in an extended party piece session.     Nice turns from Andy Clark as Tam, and Kirstin McLean (last seen in The Lesson) as Meg, Robbie Jack as the Poet and Gerda Stevenson as the Muse.

As well as the excellent acting, the music played a big part here, as Annie Grace, Brian McAlpine and Aly Macrae tackled a large assortment of instruments with great gusto.

Great fun for a cold night in February.   Let’s have more like this in Perth.

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London Busses

london-busSince I was last on a London bus, they have introduced an audio system which tells you which bus you are on, and the name of the next bus stop.    Good idea – or at least it is for a while.    After about 20 minutes it starts to become annoying.   Goodness knows how the drivers put up with it all day.     Got to find something to spend all that congestion charge money on, I suppose.   Anyway, it is called the iBus project, if you are interested.

Perhaps the drivers are silently registering their frustration by driving with their lights on all the time.       Why is this?    And how much extra fuel does it cost?    During the day, you can hardly miss 12 tonnes of bright red London Bus coming at you.

And the 176 I was on lost the tracking system on Saturday, so we were eerily silent for a while …. until it found out where it was again.     And who, I wonder, is the voice behind the announcements?

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The Lady With the Whistle



The 4.00 train from London to Aberdeen was packed on Friday – trains out of London on Friday afternoon usually are, I suppose.     An open return does not guarantee a seat, but I struck lucky and found a seat which had been booked from London, but was not occupied.     I sat down and said hello to the lady beside me, as you do.

Sometimes fellow passengers are up for a bit of conversation, and sometimes not – they might be deep in a book, or on a laptop, or just hiding under a coat trying to get some sleep.     This lady was American, and had not been in the UK before – she had been at a trade show in London and was going to York for a couple of days.

We had a really interesting conversation – it is 2 hours from London to York, and we managed to fill in the time just fine.    It is always interesting to hear what first-timers to the UK think of us, and this lady liked London, and had managed to get to a couple of shows – fitted in round a hectic work schedule.    Being brought up on English children’s literature, she ‘knew’ some familiar names, and loved just walking about the city.   

And we got to talking about California (which is where she was from):    the weather, trains, wine, climate change and the ever-present threat of earthquakes.        And spotting a “Yes We Can Do It” bracelet, Obama was a safe bet as a topic, which filled in a good few miles.

And the whistle attached to her necklace?    Her simple but effective earthquake kit, carried everywhere.

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Trains, Trains, Trains

I had to go to London for a meeting last week, and went there and back in a day by train.    Edinburgh to London, city centre to city centre is about as quick as flying these days.

National Express

National Express

National Express now run the East Coast line, and when it works, it is a great service.    There is even Wifi on the trains now – except the Wifi was not working going down this time, but is was OK on the way back up.     Everything went to time, even down to the 6 minutes I had to change trains at Edinburgh onto the Scotrail service to Perth.    6 hours London to Perth is pretty good really.

But coming from the comfort of the National Express onto the Scotrail service to Perth was a bit of a jolt.    Just two carriages long, this new service through Fife was casebook old rolling stock.   The wind whistled in through the windows, the heating was not working well, and the train was filthy.   Really bogging.     The carpet where passengers got on and off near the door was worn flat and was brown – it looked like a herd of cattle had been through.   It is supposed to be the colour of purple heather that Scotrail uses (see photo).   The rubbish leftover from the last passengers was still there – sticky table with a half-eaten punnet of blueberries at mine.   I was not brave enough to finish them – like communal bowls of peanuts in a pub, you really never know where other fingers have been.   

scotrail interior - not brown

scotrail interior - not brown

We rattled across the Forth bridge and through Fife, and when I say rattled, I mean it:     the train shook,  grumbled and clanked.       And the automated signs and speech were not tallying up at all:   “This is Perth” announced the automated voice brightly …….   “Change here for stations to Inverness”.       The moving sign in my carriage was stubbornly stuck on ‘Dunkeld’ ……. where the train was not going.    

The Scotrail staff were very cheery, as always.    The lady checking tickets scribbled on mine in her biro.     “Why doesn’t Scotrail give you nice ticket punching pliers?” I asked.    ” Because if you punch holes in the tickets, the automatic ticket barriers can’t read them”, she replied rather sadly, “it’s just how it is”.

A scribble with a biro is ultimately rather disappointing.    National Express still punch neat holes in theirs.    And Perth does not have automatic barriers.

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