Love at First Sight Part 2 – reprise

Previously…

My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.

I fell in love with Glasgow.

And, forty years on, I still am.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

The last – and first – time I’d seen the place, it looked like a run-down cash-and-carry.  Now its frontage and south side were covered in scaffolding.  As if on life support.

I saw this web of metal as I got off the bus, by the high-rise flats, on Gorbals Street.

I made my way round to the Stage Door.  I was greeted by a huge man with bushy sideburns.

You’ll be the new manager.  I’ll tell them you made it.  Was there some doubt? 

Giles, the director, came through the corridor and grasped my hand.  Hello! You made it! (not him as well – or was this the standard greeting?)  Welcome, welcome!

He led the way up dark stairs to the dressing rooms.  He opened a door into a narrow space, with mirrors and light bulbs along one side.  Dressing Room 4 – our office!

The Citizens’, for the third year running, was being done up.  Major works on the stage, south side and foyer.  Phase 3.

The dressing rooms were the only areas free for the few production and admin staff, who would keep the place going over the summer.

As well as the refurbishments, the company was preparing 2 shows – Chinchilla and The Good-Humoured Ladies – for Edinburgh International Festival in August, plus a full autumn season in the renovated Glasgow base.

I realised, in alarm, that I was to be the main contact with the contractors, to ensure they gave us back the building in time for our September opening.

That looked unlikely.  What a mess!  Peeled back to the stone, swathes of old plasterwork and ceilings hanging off, pipes and cables snaking everywhere, bare floors strewn with timber, tools and machinery.

Even more impossible, I felt, was my main job: keeping on top of the finances for the shows and staff.  There was a highly competent group of people setting up casting, rehearsals, set-building and costumes.  But responsibility for sticking to the budget was mine.

You’re going to be busy! said Giles, brightly, at the end of my first day.

Busy – and daunted.  I got the bus home, wracked with worry.  I was now in charge of all the Citizens’ money.  Everything and everybody from cleaners and front-of-house to directors and actors.  I’d only run a fringe co-operative in Bristol.  I didn’t even fully understand VAT!

Just another zero on the end! said Giles, still brightly, at the end of my second day.

I recall near-sleepless nights that first week.  Several times, I resolved to go in the next day and tell Giles I simply wasn’t up to the task.  I was the youngest theatre manager in the country.  Would I also be the one with the shortest tenure?

But, mercifully, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and taught me a lot in a short time.

Each time I drew near the Stage Door, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It receded over time, but never completely went away in all the years I worked at the Citizens’.  Maybe a theatre should always make you feel a bit on edge – keeps it exciting!

Rehearsals for Edinburgh started.  Chinchilla was a sort of Citizens’ emblem about why art matters, by Robert David Macdonald.  All about Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet. 

The other piece was an Italian comedy, by Carlo Goldoni.  The Citz loved him, and so did I.  Final rehearsals for Country Life had knocked me out, on my first Glasgow trip.

Two actors, David Hayman and Gerard Murphy, greeted me with open arms.

I also took heart walking round the theatre.  It was, even in disarray, a remarkable place.

The stage was clear to the rafters, roof vents opened.  They were installing a new flying system and needed daylight.  As I craned my head skywards, countless motes of dust spun through the slatted sunlight, like tiny dancers heading for the stage.

The solid outlines of the walls, bars, grid and beams were reassuring.  The place had been up since 1878.  It would surely survive this latest disruption.

The foyer, though stripped of its red, gold and black skin, was recognisable as the welcoming hub of the building.  The entrance, box office portholes, glass doors and carpetless stairway kept the front-of-house skeleton visible. 

Progress was slow.  But, as new panels, facades, and beadings were applied, the heart began to emerge as well.  Part of me couldn’t wait until the people showed up to bring it back to life.

Amidst the sea of messy improvement sat the auditorium.  It was due no improvements.  New seats, décor and carpet would have to wait till next year, money permitting.  Phase 4.

The gilt-sprayed double doors were screened by a loose plastic veil.  I pushed the brass handle on the right-hand opening.

Inside, subdued light.  Decked with even more red and gold than the foyer would be, it was an island of calm.  The bangs and clatter of the building works were dulled by the black-and-gold safety curtain. 

Yellowed dust sheets covered the seating rows.  I lifted the hem of one, to reveal a few seats off the centre aisle.

I sat.  Soothed.

I tried to see beyond the construction, the trials of playing Edinburgh and the efforts to re-open on time.  It wasn’t too hard to imagine these seats filled with people, busy and vital.

It was a vision that, once realised at the end of that long summer, would keep me going for years to come.

The Edinburgh shows went well and we did – just – get the place open on time.  The freshly painted foyer looked splendid, though the entrance was still run-down.

That facelift would come later.  Like most old theatres, the Citz seems in constant need of an upgrade.  Now, in 2020, a fresh round of improvements is underway.  Must be about Phase 20.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

And, forty years on, it still is.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, July 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Screening theatre – reprise

Cinema is truth 24 times per second – Jean-Luc Godard

Don’t you love it when eternal truths turn out to be neither eternal nor true?

In the theatre, one eternal truth used to be: Don’t let the cameras in

If a TV or film company wanted to film an extract from a play, the answer (at the Citizens’ at least) was always the same.

No.

The set would look flat, the lighting drab, the sound hollow and the actors stiff.  How could a two-dimensional medium capture three?

Now, these reservations no longer apply.

Digital cameras, light and sound have changed everything.  Forever.

In June 2019 I saw – at Glasgow Film Theatre – Small Island, a National Theatre production which ran at the Olivier, London in summer 2019. It’s recently been streamed as part of National Theatre at Home.

It’s an ambitious show.  Huge cyclorama, double-sided screens, a revolve and 40 actors on an enormous stage. 

There are also intimate, domestic scenes.  Close-up acting of family relationships.  Like Hortense, the perjinkt spitfire newly migrated from Jamaica, trying to settle into her husband’s tiny London bedsit.

Shifts in scale and focus, sweeping history, intrepid travels to a new world, the petty prejudice of local places and private domesticity – all conveyed vividly to both types of audience.

It was fascinating to sit in the GFT, 400 miles away, watching the play like you’re actually there. 

You also got shots of the theatre audience and their reactions, their buzz.  As if you’re in with the in-house crowd.

Thanks to this new reality, thousands of people can watch productions previously unavailable to them by dint of geography, price and limited seats.

The theatre-only audience numbers are hugely multiplied when a show gets the NT Live treatment. 

Since 2009 they’ve done 80 live broadcasts.  Last year, plays like Richard II, One Man, Two Guvnors, All My Sons, The Lehman Trilogy, Fleabag and Present Laughter watched in 65 different countries, 2500 venues, 700 of them in the UK.

The audience statistics must blow normal playhouse attendance figures out of the park. 

As a theatre manager, I watched our box office returns to the point of obsession.  I’d love to get a swatch at the total numbers of people seeing these shows, once all the screens are included.

For most people running theatres, accessibility has always been a fundamental goal.  This innovation offers a phenomenal connection with a new public.

I also find it amazing to see how sophisticated cameras and lighting have made this happen.  No flat, drab, hollow and stiff.  With the right positions, angles and number of cameras, cinema audiences miss nothing: close-ups of actors’ faces, wide, full and long shots.

Sound, too, can now be astonishingly faithful.  One of the best screenings I’ve seen was La Traviata (my favourite opera ever since I saw Zeffirelli’s 1982 movie!).  This was the 2014 production from Glyndebourne. 

What pleasure to be immersed in the detail, visually and sonically.  The camera and microphone scripts must have been as thorough as preparations for the staged opera.  And they captured not just the singers, but the orchestra as well.

I’ve never been to Glyndebourne, nor plan to.  It’s nearly 500 miles away and ticket prices are exorbitant.  Like thousands of others, I can now have a front row seat and watch opera from the New York Met, Covent Garden, and the London Coliseum.  For a fraction of the price.

One of the funniest moments in Small Island is when the doddery dad disappears, in his armchair, through a hole in the floor. The 2019 cinema audience loved this old trick.  Amongst all the cutting-edge, here’s an effect from the 18th century.  Possibly earlier: was there a trap door in Shakespeare’s Globe for the grave scene in Hamlet?

Plus, we get late 1940’s newsreel of the Windrush ship, overlaid with hi-tech projections of silhouettes (named after Etienne de Silhouette, 1709 -1767, by the way!) of people leaving Jamaica. 

Then there’s a racist punch-up in a cinema which is showing a film, also from the late forties. 

So, you’re in a cinema – or at home – watching actors in a theatre watching a film in a cinema.

This heady mixture of techniques, old and new, is echoed in some ambiguities amongst the audience. 

To what extent are you in tune with the live audience in the theatre?  Do you reiterate their buzz of anticipation before the curtain goes up, share their quietening hush as it does? 

And, if there’s an interval, do you go out for a drink at the bar, as they’re likely to? 

Most puzzling of all: do you clap at the end, while the actors take their curtain call?  What’s the point?  It’s not as if they can hear you! 

I’m always bemused at the equivocal, hesitant applause (mine included) in these circumstances.  Sure, it’s a play, not a film.  You want to show your appreciation – though, why? 

But maybe it depends on the occasion.  Last October, I watched the Scotland – Japan World Cup rugby match on a large screen in a pub.  No reticence here; we yelled our heads off at the oddly unresponsive Scottish team.

Opening up theatre to thousands of people.  Fantastic new technical possibilities. 

What’s not to like?

Screenings of theatre shows, currently at least, tend towards the famous, the large-scale and the metropolitan.  London shows, beamed to the rest of the world, from properly funded companies, with well-kent actors in them.

Nothing wrong with that.  But will it start to spread, to originate from other areas and other types of productions?

Why not?  Technology works on any scale.  Digital cameras can point at unfamiliar faces and places as well as familiar ones.

Two 2019 examples, albeit small-scale, in Scotland might point the way.  Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and a Pint recently worked with the BBC Scotland channel to televise 6 of their hour-long shows – from the Chic Murray tribute, A Funny Place for a Window, to a one-man drag musical, Crocodile Rock

After performances in the Highlands and Islands in 2017, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rocket Post was screened at the CCA in Glasgow and is available online, free.

Of course, these are not the same as NT Live events.  But would it take too much to film and broadcast productions – say, from the Lyceum in Edinburgh, the Citizens’ in Glasgow and other producing companies in Scotland?

The Lyceum’s Local Hero, based on the hit film,could’ve been a contender.  It was bound for London, as was Nora, the Citz version of A Doll’s House.  Might shows like these be screened in future?

It’d take dedication and set-up resources, but let’s hope it may happen.

One of the liveliest screenings I’ve seen was the RSC’s Richard II, broadcast live from Stratford-on-Avon in 2013, with David Tennant in the title role. 

It was exciting because this was the premiere, with all the fizz and unpredictability of a first night stage performance.  It was brave of the RSC to open a fledgling show to 2 different audiences.

It gave an edge missing from the safer option of pre-recording well into the run, or broadcasting as live, but not actually simultaneously.

The Small Island screening I saw wasn’t broadcast live, having been pre-recorded some nights before the country-wide screening.

Somehow a live broadcast feels that bit edgier, a touch more authentic, than an encorerepeat encorereplay or captured live deferred screening, because stage and screen versions are happening at one and the same time.

Does this matter?  Not a lot, perhaps.  But it raises another issue.  Can the cinema experience in any case – whether concurrent or deferred – ever be as totally real as the theatre one?

Whilst, thanks to great camera and sound work, you get nearly the whole event.

These screenings offer an experience that’s as true-to-life as it’s possible to get, short of being in the theatre.

And yet.  Isn’t a performance essentially a live act between actors and audience, sharing exactly the same place at exactly the same time?  It only exists there and then.  That’s what makes it exciting and special.

At the Citizens’, we called it Kleenex theatre.  The minute it’s done with, throw it away, forget about it. 

That’s the beauty of it: fantastically vital in one peculiar set of circumstances, pointless otherwise.

Uniquely, theatre is an unrepeatable experience, an ephemeral coincidence of molecules, energy and atmosphere.  It can’t be technically recreated.  The result is bound to be synthetic.  If you want to film a drama with actors, why not make a movie or a TV series?

Watch a play on a cinema screen?  Like having a bath with your pants on!

Part of me agrees.  But I’d say, given the much lower ticket price, ease of access plus the tremendous technical advances, the NT Live model is worth it.

Maybe it’s a kind of trade-off.  75% of the experience for 20% of the price. 

As long as those behind the camera remember to capture the best of the live elements of theatre.  It can’t just be on-screen product, another way of feeding an insatiable hunger for multi-platform spread.  Would you want to watch Hamlet on your mobile?

One final question.  NT Live.  Cui bono?  Who stands to gain?

The theatres reaching wider audiences and increasing investment into their productions.  And those new audiences.  And the cinemas. And NT Live

There’s another partner.  You can’t fail to notice them.  They’re prominent in glossy ads, featuring the artistic great-and-good. All very cultured and alluring.

Sky Arts.  Headline sponsor of NT Live productions.  I’m sure the money comes in handy. 

But what’s in it for them?  Do they get exclusive TV screening rights to recordings of the stage event for Sky subscribers? 

Most of the screened productions come from subsidised arts organisations.  The origination costs for script, rehearsals, production and overheads are borne in part by the taxpayer. 

How great therefore that – for the price of a cinema ticket – the finished product can be more available to the general public.

But is it right that subsequent showings of plays subsidised from the public purse should be restricted to a commercial operation like Sky, so it can profit from its sole use to paying customers?

Just asking.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, July 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

The future of theatres

I sometimes think it would do Scottish theatre no harm if theatres were knocked flat, and companies consigned to school halls, car parks, and any other space that offered itself. – Joyce Mc Millan, 1982

Sparrows in a ploughed field.   Theatre patois for a small audience.  When we had audiences.

Theatre means hard work, but in my experience the toughest task is to be front-of-house – or backstage – when a mere dribble of people turn up to watch the show.  Apart from the loss at the box office, the dip in morale is palpable.  Just keeping people’s spirits up feels like a Herculean labour.

I was lucky.  This happened mercifully few times at the Citizens’, Glasgow.  And there were always better times to look forward to. Times when the house would be crammed. 

Now, there’s nothing much to look forward to.  We’re all at sea – theatre workers and audiences alike – lost, struggling to make sense of it all.  Just as nobody fully understands the virus, none of us knows quite how theatre will work in future.

Scottish comedienne Karen Dunbar has played every sort of venue – Celtic Park to the Tron.  I asked her what she’s working on now.  It’s probably going to be a one-woman show.  No’ me, the audience!

In Perm, Russia, that’s no joke.  In the 850-seater Opera and Ballet Theatre, the single winner of a lottery gets a private performance of Eugene OneginA novel way to keep the company performing, says the stage director, but financially catastrophic.  As for the performers, their temperatures are regularly checked and the premises disinfected.

In Germany, the State Theatre of Hesse, Wiesbaden held a performance with its audience correctly social distancing.  The 1000 capacity was cut to 200 people in alternate seats and rows.  The photo shows what sparrows in a ploughed field look like:

In trying to understand the significance of Covid-19, some look to past plagues, real and fictional.  In Japan they’re panic-buying Albert Camus’s novel, La Peste.  Many people latch on to the parallels between Covid-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic whose second wave (watch out!) was much deadlier than its first.

But, when it comes to grasping the full repercussions of our present plight, we might look to the Black Death of the mid-1300’s.  A recent New Statesman article sees it as the trigger of the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern world.  Will this pandemic, it asks, remake the world as we know it?

Naturally we can’t know what that will look like, least of all in those areas of our lives dependent on close, numerous and simultaneous congregation of human beings.

Playhouses date from the late 1500’s.  Last week, London’s earliest purpose-built theatre – the Red Lion (1567) – was unearthed, in Whitechapel.  Scotland was a bit later to the game. Its first public theatre wasn’t opened until 1736. 

So, buildings are not the whole history of the theatrical age.

Theatre (literally, a place for looking), in western civilisation, goes back to Greece in the fifth century B.C.  We’ve been at it for over 2500 years!

Theatre seems bound to continue as long as people want to tell stories and act them out to their fellow human beings.  We probably couldn’t stop it even if we tried. 

I feel sure that those who yearn to create and present drama in Scotland – and the rest of the world – are bursting with enough imagination, ingenuity, insight, inspiration, intellect, intelligence and intuition to make it happen – in any circumstances.

For now, Scottish theatres are straining to withstand the crisis.  Several, including the Lyceum, Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Tron have cancelled their 2020 Christmas shows (the most lucrative production).  The Lyceum, Pitlochry Festival Theatre and others are hoping to hold on to some key roles, but are planning redundancies to keep their operations from going under.

These venues are echoed by others on the cusp of collapse.  They are appealing to governments, local authorities and the public to provide funds to keep them alive. 

But – until somebody can devise practical steps to get actors and audiences back together again – such moves are essentially defensive.

The Citizens’ is in a peculiar position.  Homeless while the Gorbals venue undergoes a massive rebuild (itself delayed until building sites resume), they can’t even produce in their temporary berth, Tramway.

Let’s hope the pleas for funding are met so that the Lyceum, Tron, Pitlochry and other companies can stay alive, at least.  Let’s hope the Citizens’ completes its project to renovate and restore that people’s palace of pleasure. They’ve started, so they’ll finish.

But it does raise the question – would you begin a new building project now?  The King’s Edinburgh refurb is on hold.  As for a new venue, who’d be bold enough to create one when we’ve no idea how audiences and actors are going to be able to reassemble in the world to come? 

If you were setting up a company today, wouldn’t you just focus on production – writing, directing and acting – and then work out the best form to deliver your ideas? 

It makes the National Theatre of Scotland’s founding motto, Theatre Without Walls, seem more prescient than anyone imagined.  The title of its current streaming sessions, to raise funds, is just as apt: Scenes for Survival.

Scenes for Survival involve, amongst others, Aberdeen Performing Arts, the BBC, the Citz, Scottish Screen, Stellar Quines and Summerhall; actors Kate Dickie, Janey Godley, Brian Cox, Peter Mullan and Jonathan Watson; writers Jenni Fagan, Frances Poet and Stef Smith and directors Cora Bissett, Debbie Hannan and Caitlin Skinner. 

Other virtual programming includes Oran Mor’s mini-series of plays; the Traverse’s young writers’ work, workshops and 5 monologues swiftly adapted from the cancelled Donny’s Brain; The Scotsman Sessions ofshort video performances and Rapture Theatre’s Mini Bites.

There’s loads more.  The immediate recourse has been to deliver online, hastily put together in an urge to get some product out there.  Hasty can be good, not least when all sorts of people are unexpectedly available!  And it proves how ingenious theatre practitioners can be in testing conditions. 

The quality of this material, mostly monologues shot in limited conditions, could be improved with time, work and substantial start-up funding. 

Longer term, it can’t just be a filmed version of whatever is – or would have been – on stage, nor just more screen product.  It needs sensitive understanding of the interaction between the live and the recording.

The screening of theatre is not, of course, a substitute for the full-on live theatre experience – everybody together in the same space, at the same time, responding to the same atmospherics.

Some other questions arise from our current state.

First, should the artist should come before the edifice?  Creativity first, institutions second?  It’s understandable that organisations will look for funding to shore them up until things get back to normal.  But, even if that’s possible, normal means the practitioner in the performing arts is poorly rewarded and precariously employed.

Should this be a time to reassess, to find ways that artists no longer exist on a shoestring? 

The furlough scheme is, for now, some kind of security blanket for staff, but hardly any performers or freelancers get help.  Who always gets left out in the cold?  As support for actors, writers and other creatives diminishes, so we risk the diversity of people making the work and the richness of the stories being told.  In other words, it’s the art, the theatre’s imaginative heart, that suffers most.

Second, is a fallow period such a bad idea?  As theatres closed and the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe were cancelled, there was a genuine cry of loss.  Of course, everything must be done to preserve, even strengthen, what we had.  But is it heresy, from an artistic point of view, to suggest that producing nothing for, say a year or more, is not the end of the world?  

Naturally we don’t want anyone to starve.  It seems to me that the case for a Universal Basic Income is becoming unanswerable (though don’t expect the Tories to agree).

Things are bound to change.  I suppose the question is who wins the struggle between those trying to restore the old, unequal norms and those of us who view this as a chance for renaissance?

It’s hard to see how we’ll get a new system without a struggle.  Will protest give rise to new forms of theatre?

It also helps to keep a sense of global perspective.  In countries less affected than the UK, is the resumption of live performances with large audiences only a matter of time?

The whole Coronavirus saga might just be a one-off and our return to normal a few months away.

Alternatively, we could be in the early stages of an epoch-changing event which will keep venues closed for a long time to come.

The Thatcher virus reduced Scotland’s industrial monuments to rusting, useless shells.  Will Corona (or whatever economic chaos, environmental calamity or further pandemic follows) do the same to our cultural infrastructure?

Armageddon outta here!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, June 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Theatre is hard work – reprise

There’s a great scene in Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film, All Is True, when he, as William Shakespeare, hits back – verbally – at Sir Thomas Lucy.  They loathed each other.

All Is True Trailer: Kenneth Branagh Plays Shakespeare With Judi ...

Sir Thomas goads Shakespeare: I can’t loll about all day thinking pretty thoughts like you poets.  I must to business.

Shakespeare’s response (as in Ben Elton’s screenplay) is an exposition of the work involved in running a theatre and producing shows:

Business, Sir Thomas?  Oh, I thought you meant real business, like building, owning and operating London’s largest theatre, for instance.  Actors, carpenters, seamstresses.  Crew to pay.  Bribes to pay.  Security to mount.  Politics to navigate. 

3000 paying customers to be fed and watered every afternoon, each promised a spectacle greater than the last…  Have you ever considered the logistics of mounting the Battle of Shrewsbury in the banqueting hall at Hampton Court?   Please don’t.  It would make you so tired. 

Sir Thomas isn’t alone in regarding the theatre as a haven for feckless dilettantes.  If only these artsy-fartsy types would get a proper job. 

A friend, who ran a smaller but no less demanding, nor less successful, playhouse than Shakespeare’s Globe, was asked, by his military brother, Still doing your play-acting?

Yet the reality of working life in theatre – onstage or off – is one of arduous labour. 

Banish from your mind images of gadflies, lounging around in cravats, sipping gin and conjuring up witty aphorisms.

For most actors the hours are long, the conditions rough and the pay nugatory. 

There’s precious little lolling about.  Unless it’s the wastes of time waiting for your call or for the technical rehearsal to grind on to the next lighting cue, while you go over your lines, which you probably learned in your own time.

The longest wait of all is for the phone to ring in the first place, while friends ask you what you’re up to at the moment, with the attendant erosion of status and confidence.

Sure, there are compensations, like the sweet spurt of applause at the curtain call (though if you’re not on for ages before it, you even have to wait around for that).  Then you’re out the stage door, back in the dark and cold, wondering if you can afford the fare back to your lousy digs.

That’s the performers, who have it relatively easy.  The really thankless tasks are the province of the technical crew, stage managers and assistants, paid Equity minimum to ferret out untraceable props and set, strike and reset furniture so that the actors don’t bump into it.

Meanwhile, as the lights fade and everyone else goes home, front-of-house staff and cleaners mop up discarded drink cartons, crisp packets and vomit.

Perhaps hardest is the non-stop responsibility for pulling all these people – directors, actors, stage management, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe, design, marketing, box office, cleaners and front-of-house, not forgetting the audience – together.  Simultaneously, consensually and smoothly.

This is probably special pleading, as that’s exactly what I tried to do for many years.

I loved it.  But, to echo Donald Dewar’s words on restoring the Scottish parliament, it wasn’t a downhill skoosh.

Or, as Robert David MacDonald put it in Chinchilla:

This company is founded on the talents of every man and woman working in it, coming together to create something none of them could have conceived, let alone achieved, on his own. 

Keeping the show on the stage – or on the road (touring can be even more Herculean) – is a challenge all of its own. 

Can all these disparate factors – people, sets, costumes, props, lights, sounds, effects, cues, tickets, seats, toilets, heating, transport, weather etc. – possibly combine to go off, without a single hiccup?

The show must go on.  5% inspiration, 95% perspiration. Break a leg. 

It’ll be all right on the night.  Merde.  In bocca al lupo.

They’ll never notice in the stalls.  Bad dress rehearsal, great premiere. No peacock feathers.  

No whistling.  The Scottish play.  A warm hand on your opening.

Fabulous is not the word! 

As many maxims as chances of failure.

What’s more, the idea is to try and make it entertaining and enlightening enough to be, in John McGrath’s timeless phrase, a good night out.

It’s just pretend.  None of it’s real. 

Theatre’s urge to make itself seen, heard and enjoyed defy all logic, sense and reason.  Why does anyone bother? 

Well, thousands of workers, for thousands of performances, over thousands of years have, still do and probably always will.

Of course, there are lots of upsides.  I’d need to devote a separate blog post to count them all. For now, suffice to say that memorable productions, great performances, the buzz of excited audiences and the relationships forged in the heat of all this intense activity – well, they are benefits that stay with you for a long time.

But Noel Coward was right.  Don’t consider it as a career.  Unless you relish hard work for little reward.  Unless you yearn to be caught up in a pointless enterprise that remains utterly compulsive and utterly human.

Coda – mea culpa!

As well as special pleading, I also feel a twinge of guilt at my own part in the imposition of hard labour in the theatre. 

The Citizens Theatre, 119 Gorbals Street, Glasgow

I was the tyrant responsible for the schedule of panto performances at the Citizens’ Theatre.  More than once, I programmed 3 consecutive 3-show-days: 9 performances at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, just before Hogmanay. 

All within 56 hours.  By the time they reached the Saturday evening show, the actors and crew didn’t know if it was Christmas or Cockfosters.

I cite 2 factors in my defence.  First, we made certain that the show ran for just under two hours, including interval.  So, there was time for a break between sessions backstage and (just) time for front-of-house to get one audience out and a new one in.

Secondly, it wasn’t solely exploitation, but for the greater artistic good.  All theatres see their Christmas show as a chance to maximise box office.  Anyway, it’s how most people experience live theatre and a full house makes it even more enjoyable.

 

A Conservation Management Plan - Citizens Theatre by Citizens ...

The extra money from a successful panto helps cross-subsidise the rest of the year’s repertoire, increasing employment (bigger casts, longer runs), artistic choice and output for the public.

But I hold my hands up – it was a very stringent rota.  If anyone who worked all those shifts is reading this, I’m truly sorry.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, June 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Marlowe, Genet & Orton: Highbrow and Low-life – reprise


 We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars
 – Oscar Wilde

Christopher Marlowe, Jean Genet and Joe Orton: in the pantheon of playwrights, their works performed everywhere.

Great plays like Doctor Faustus, Edward II, Tamburlaine; The Maids and The Balcony; Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw.

A pact with Lucifer and damnation, sexuality, abuse and regicide, bloody conquest, suicide and savagery; sadomasochism and violent fantasies, prostitutes and revolution; robbery, dead bodies and corruption, sexual manipulation and murder, farcical seduction, insanity and Winston’s Churchill’s penis!

It’s not only the themes of these works that make them special, but the style, the language and the ideas of these original, challenging and memorable dramatists.

If we look at their lives and – in the cases of Marlowe and Orton – deaths, it’s not hard to see where these ideas might come from.

Marlowe was killed in a drunken knife fight after a row about money, the culmination of a life of arrest, imprisonment and alleged spying. 

Orton ended up bludgeoned to death, the hammer wielded by his jealous lover.  Parts of his life were as sordid as his death was brutal, with countless dangerous (and, at that time, illegal) encounters in public toilets.  He was jailed (I had a marvellous time in prison!) for defacing hundreds of library books.

As for Jean Genet (immortalised in David Bowie’s song of almost-the-same name), he spent much of his early life in correctional institutions and became a thief, a vagabond and a prostitute, all of which found its way into his dramas, novels and poems.  The film, Querelle, based on a novel by Genet, captures the danger and sensuality of his themes: betrayal, power and love.

Many plays by these and similar writers positively thrive on the idea of the outcast, the unusual and the unsavoury. 

It’s a passion, a disease, a lust.  Art can rest on sinister foundations and has the most intimate knowledge of sickness.

Those words are from a speech by Chinchilla, a character based on Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.  The play was written by Robert David Macdonald, with whom I worked for many years at the Citizens’, Glasgow.

David was a most erudite and articulate writer, translator and director.  At the same time, he firmly believed that any masterpiece of European dramatic literature could be improved with a fart gag.

This mixing of the exotic and the demotic, the sacred and the profane, may not be as incongruous as some may think. I’m always surprised when somebody describes theatre as poshmiddle class or respectable, when it often depends on being the very opposite.

To presume the absence of sordid vulgarity and squalid transgression is to deny the evidence of theatre as it has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Look back through the history of performing arts – and other genres – and you can see quite how much they rely on the degenerate for inspiration and expression.

Rape, tongues and hands cut off, several filicides and a mother eating her sons in a pie, as well as countless killings.  Yet Jan Kott (Shakespeare Our Contemporary) says Titus Andronicus is by no means the most brutal of Shakespeare’s plays.

Infanticide is possibly the most horrible act imaginable, yet it happens with blood-chilling frequency in so many stories and dramas.  Greek mythology is full of child-killings, including parents serving them up at feasts.

In Medea, one of the great classic dramas, Euripides has her poison King Creon and his daughter, her rival in love, before taking a knife to her two sons.

Those bloodthirsty old-timers, eh?  Not really: contemporary dramas haven’t exactly shied away from lurid, violent breaches of good taste, morality and the law. 

Sarah Kane deals (or dealt, she hanged herself, aged 28 in 1999) with pain, sex, torture and death.  Her first and most infamous play, Blasted, includes male rape, eyes sucked out, a baby dying and being eaten.  In 2010, a revival won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement.

The death of a baby – this time being stoned, centre stage – also features in Edward Bond’s Saved, originally prosecuted but later praised for its ‘remarkable delicacy’. 

OK, so not every play goes as far as these, but the creation of drama does tend to mix the noblest of ideas with the basest of actions.  Marlowe, Genet, Orton, Shakespeare and the rest know that in order to reach our hearts and our minds, they have to look life right between the legs.

Theatre isn’t a refined art that just occasionally sinks into the sewers; it positively embraces the low-life and the perverse alongside the highbrow and the inspirational.  They work together; they’re symbiotic, dependent one upon the other to make the most powerful dramatic effect.

Is present-day theatre safer and more respectable than in the past?  Maybe dramatists and producers used to have a more free-wheeling attitude to those who helped pay the bills. 

Is there a danger nowadays that the culture of public funding and compliance risks making subsidised theatres less likely to embrace the base and the beastly?  Let’s hope not. 

As long as those who write, produce and present theatre understand the vital relationship between highbrow and low-life, we should be spared too much respectability.  Or, as Chinchilla has it, Many reasonable people are appalled, many despicable people delighted, but none of that matters. 

As we stood in the foyer of the Citizens’, in our heads we were bank managers, but in our hearts we were mesdames of a brothel.

As it’s still commonplace for proper theatres to combine the sublime with the cor-blimey, it might be fun to imagine how it would work the other way round. 

What if the commercial theatre incorporated a bit of high art in its populist repertoire?  Instead of Elvis tributes there could be Make Like Mozart and Beethoven Karaoke.  Not so much Dirty Dancing as Smutty Swan Lake or Naughty Nutcracker.  Forget The Real Glesca Dance Mums – try A Midsummer Night’s Dram!

So here – by way of a frivolous coda – are my top ten plays, ripe for adaptation and inclusion in the next brochure of the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow:

  1. Mary Doll’s House
  2. Lady Windermere’s Scran
  3. The Duchess of Malky
  4. Drouth of a Salesman
  5. Lidl Women
  6. Langside’s Journey into the Night
  7. A Steak Bake Named Desire
  8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Street?
  9. Anne of Green Gorbals
  10. Measure for Massage

by Paul BassettGlasgow, June 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Is naturalism on its way out? – reprise

Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally – John Donne

Many years ago, I saw a fringe theatre company do Hamlet.  It was a bit rough at the edges but the most remarkable thing was that 4 different actors took the role of the Danish prince.  Other characters were played by more than one actor, too.

They swapped brightly coloured tunics so it wasn’t confusing; in fact, a switch of actors in the main part helped flesh out Hamlet’s ever-changing moods.

They even managed to send the concept up, with a tall actor handing over the lead to a short one, so the audience could laugh and get the idea at the same time.

It was so liberating, so exciting. I’d never seen anything quite like it and hardly have since, not in conventional theatres.

More recently, I had a similar sensation seeing Hamilton, the musical.  Young Latino, Asian and black actors portray the old white founding fathers of America.  It took my breath away – how audacious!

The boldness of the idea is matched by the smartness of the staging, the brilliantly original music and lyrics – plus the theme of Alexander Hamilton as an immigrant which echoes the performers being outsiders too.

Conventionally, theatre stays within its own fourth wall, beyond which sits an audience willingly suspending its disbelief.  The actor faithfully portrays a character as s/he really is, was or would be in real life.

The entire cast keeps up the myth that what’s happening on stage is just as if it was nature itself, so that each actor looks like the person they’re playing, wears the right clothes and behaves just naturally, like they really are that character.

Same goes for the whole situation: the world on stage is true to life, as close a reflection of reality as it’s possible to be.  And all this so we can fit what we’re watching into our own existence: it’s recognisably life as we live it.

But, as Brecht – the great proponent of epic, non-naturalistic theatre – said: Art isn’t a mirror to hold up to reality.  He went on to say that it’s a hammer, which seems a bit brutal, but you get the idea.  Don’t regard the stage as a faithful reflection of reality, but rather an alternative way of looking at the world and the people in it.

Personally, I’ve always preferred it when theatre breaks the rules of naturalism because it tends to be more exciting, unexpected and inventive.

All my most magical and memorable theatre visits – images and ideas that make you think and feel something different – are of ‘conceptual’ productions, or at least extraordinary moments inside an otherwise ‘normal’ show.  Productions which aren’t trying to cover up the fact that it’s all pretend; instead they positively embrace the idea, play it up to present more than a mere 3D version of the script.

Here are just a few examples, personal favourite moments when breaking the fourth wall enabled a show to transcend the norms of perception and give a more powerful insight into its message, themes and ideas.

The stampede scene in The Lion King musical; the house collapse in Stephen Daldry’s version of An Inspector Calls; Robert Lepage spiralling vertiginously up and down, surreally lit, in Needles and Opium.  And, from a long time ago – I saw it as a theatre student and it changed my view forever – Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in a great white box with trapezes, swings and spinning plates thrown from one bendy pole to another.

Another instance comes from my own professional alma mater, the Citizens’, Glasgow: a tiny moment within a relatively true-to-life production of an Italian comedy.  David Hayman, holding a cup of coffee (there’s no liquid, it’s painted brown inside, just another trick of the trade), turned and flicked the cup towards the front row, who flinched.  A momentary crack in the fourth wall, but a funny, swift reminder that we are witnessing illusion, not a literal representation.

By contrast, I can’t think of a single wholly naturalistic production whose images and messages have stayed with me.

The box-set, fastidiously crafted props, costumes and authentic characterisation may be admirable technically but they don’t cut the mustard when it comes to having a lasting effect, bringing an idea or feeling right home.

Why limit stage and spectators by faking a simulacrum of life when the whole exercise of theatre is capable of such illusion, imagination and flights of fancy?

It’s all pretence anyway. You can do anything, be anyone, turn any object into another and no need to explain why.  And these days technology, especially lighting, sound and the use of film, can surpass realism even further.

Now, there seem to be more and more examples of productions ready to defy the rules of verisimilitude.

This isn’t just style – it’s also the actors.  It seems like real change is happening. Especially in how shows are being cast.

Recently, to give just a few instances, there’s been the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female cast Shakespeare trilogy (Julius CaesarHenry IVThe Tempest) and a black actress as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (smart casting even though there’s no reason the character should be white).

The Globe Theatre, home of Shakespeare, did a production last year of Richard II where every single person in this company is a woman of colour: all the actors, stage management, the directors and designers – the first time this has ever been done on a major UK stage.

And so many female actors as Hamlet these days.  It’s not a new idea – star actresses like Sarah Siddons in the eighteenth century and Sarah Bernhardt in the nineteenth played the prince, but the trend now is much greater.

In some productions the character stays a man, just played by a woman.  Other Hamlets have been androgynous (Maxine Peake).  Some are fully female – the princess of Denmark. What happens then to Frailty, thy name is woman?  The story and other characters are bound to change as well, so that the imaginative possibilities provoked by a change of gender spread to the whole show.

Perhaps the biggest hint of naturalism being on the skids comes from recent instances of casting in television and film, usually more naturalistic than theatre.  I was delighted to see David Oyelowo as Javert in the recent BBC Les Miserables.  Not a rousing song to be heard, this is a deliberately faithful-to-the-original naturalistic drama, with a black actor playing a white character.

In the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots Adrian Lester plays Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to the Scottish court and Gemma Chan is Bess Hardwick.  This seems more unusual in a blockbuster period drama.  The film’s director, Josie Rourke – a woman, from a theatre background – reckons cinema (a film set is a very white, male place) is about 10 years behind the live performing arts.

We shouldn’t get too carried away.  This trend away from naturalistic casting opens up a much bigger question.

In November 2018, Adrian Lester joined with Lenny Henry and others to deliver a letter to 10 Downing Street calling for tax breaks to try and overcome the crisis of the lack of diversity amongst those working in the film and TV industry.

It seems that the horrendous political realities of inequality still impede artistic progress – it’s not just a question of colour-blind casting by a few directors and producers.

The greatest barrier to non-naturalistic casting isn’t a lack of imagination on the part of directors nor audiences yet to open their minds.

The white elephant in the dressing room is the lack of opportunities throughout the whole of life for women, disabled people, and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

It’s our old enemy, the deep-rooted issue of inequality and the skewed representation of society as a whole, hardly a problem exclusive to film, stage and TV.

We still live within a massively, blatantly unequal system and it seems to take ages to make the glacial changes we’re seeing a little of nowadays.  How long, oh lord, how long?

Is it time, in Scotland at least, to speed things up with a Sweden-style agreement requiring production funding to directors, writers and producers to be distributed 50/50 between men and women?

Might be a start.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, May 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

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Hamnet – Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy?

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain – Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother

What if a writer turns personal loss into artistic gold?  Can art imitate life when it involves the death of a child?

Hamnet Shakespeare was the only son of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare.  Hamnet died aged 11, in the middle of a plague.  His twin, Judith, lived beyond her 77th birthday.  Susanna, their older sister, was 66 when she died. 

The twins were raised mostly by their mother.  It seems Shakespeare wasn’t there for Hamnet’s birth, nor his death in 1596.  After his son’s funeral, he left Stratford-upon-Avon to return to his burgeoning theatre career in London. 

His histories and comedies were written for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company – later The King’s Men, when James I (James VI of Scotland) took the throne in 1603.

Shakespeare’s plays matured towards tragedies including Hamlet, written at the turn of the century.  The Bard, who also acted in the company, became a success.  His works were popular with audiences and he made money.

I’ve just read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s great new book, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family.  It could have been called Agnes – O’Farrell uses Anne Hathaway’s other name – because it centres on the fascinating character of Shakespeare’s wife. 

Agnes is deeply attached to nature.  Her mother appeared out of the forest and went by the name of a tree.  As Agnes’s free spirits grow, she becomes a dispenser of herbal cures and a visionary, able to divine what is hidden within a person.

When Shakespeare (at times a walk-on character, his name never given) first sees her, he’s captivated.  On her fist sits a kestrel.  Agnes is William’s polar opposite – instinct and raw emotion to his literate, Latin learning.

The passages in Hamnet, following the boy’s death, made me cry.  Agnes’s boundless grief is achingly detailed.  She cannot accept her husband’s long absence and apparent lack of remorse.

This culminates in her shock discovery at the title of his new play.  Within 4 years of Hamnet’s death.  Just one letter different in the name.  How could her husband do that?  Why would he?  What has the play to do with their lost son?

What’s in a name?  In the play Hamlet, the protagonist’s name, like the story, is of Scandinavian origin.  He’s a Danish prince in his twenties, not a pre-adolescent commoner in England.

Hamlet is about lots of things as well as death.  Like many plays of the period, revenge is at its heart.  So, art thou to revenge, says the ghost of the murdered king – also called Hamlet – to his son, giving the plot its driving force.

Free will versus fate is also part of Hamlet. By opposing a sea of troubles, can you end them?  Or is there a divinity that shapes our ends? 

Incest, too, has been seen as a key to the play.  Freudian interpretations, including Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, are common.  Gertrude marries her brother-in-law and Hamlet gets very close to his mother.  Freud’s biographer even suggested Ophelia is overly fixated on her father, Polonius.

Freud was going to call his Oedipus theory the Hamlet Complex.  He may have misread Shakespeare just as – says Stephen Fry – he misread the classics.  The point about Oedipus is that he didn’t know Jocasta was his mother when he married her.

Is Hamlet Shakespeare’s second most-performed – and longest – play because it’s so complex?  No single interpretation catches it.  (The most-performed is A Midsummer’s Night Dream, by the way, and Macbeth the shortest.)

Though direct links between Hamnet and the substance of his father’s play may be few, it’s hard to believe that Shakespeare’s grief didn’t feed into Hamlet and the other works – such as King Lear which ends with the crazed, grieving Lear carrying in his arms the corpse of his youngest daughter. The plays are the things wherein he caught the spirit of his son.

The relationship between his child’s death and his output is not as direct as, say, Eric Clapton’s lament for his dead son, Tears in Heaven.  Victor Hugo, on the other hand, couldn’t write for years after his daughter drowned.

Did Shakespeare channel his anguish into not just his plays and poems, but also the exacting demands of running a company?  Was he an alchemist of his own grief, processing it into a prolific complex of ideas and action through writing, acting and producing?  Is it even a secret of his success?

The bubonic plague hit London hard.  Theatres, including the 3000 capacity Globe, closed – on and off – for more than half of the first decade of the 17th century.  Shakespeare, like Brecht in exile, wrote some of his best plays when there was scant prospect of staging them.

Not one to let a crisis go to waste, he kept writing.  King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were scripted in 1605-6.  Lear says to Goneril, another daughter: Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood.

Shakespeare was absent, but not neglectful of his family.  In 1597, with his new-found theatrical wealth, he bought New Place, a large house in the heart of Stratford.  Anne/Agnes, Susanna and Judith made it their comfortable, spacious home.  It wasn’t until 1613 – after the Globe had burned down – that William himself came back from London to settle there with them.

After retiring to Stratford, William lived just 3 more years.  He died on his 52nd birthday in April 1616.  Anne/Agnes, 8 years his senior, survived until 1623, when she was 67.

Back to Hamnet.  By seeing it all through Agnes’s eagle eyes, O’Farrell completes the circle between the son’s death and the play.  Towards the end of the book, Agnes ventures to London and watches her husband’s drama in the newly built Globe Theatre.  He also plays Hamlet senior (as Shakespeare really did, the ghost being one of his regular roles). 

Agnes sees the two Hamlets together, father and son, and understands that her husband has brought Hamnet back to life, in the only way he can.

Earlier in the book, there’s a vivid description of a physician who visits Agnes to dispense a dried toad, to tie to the stomach of her plague-ridden child.  The physician wears a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird.

Plague.  Closed theatres.  Face masks.  Bizarre cures.  Thousands of deaths.  Who says Shakespeare’s time has nothing in common with our own?

by Paul BassettGlasgow, May 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Space is special – reprise

With silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high, untrespassed sanctity of space – John Gillespie Magee

On a trip to Prague last year, we visited the Museum of Communism.  Hardly sounds a bundle of fun, but somebody had recommended it and we wanted to know more about post-war Czechoslovakia.

It really should be called the Museum of Anti-Communism, so virulent and one-sided is its condemnation of everything that happened between 1948 – when a communist coup ushered in Stalinist Soviet control – and 1989, when the Velvet Revolution defied the dying regime to establish a parliamentary republic.

The text on the display boards – alongside images of demonstrations, protests, military hardware, imprisonment, torture and domestic privations – is unremittingly harsh in its total denunciation of all things official and institutional that existed during those 41 years of subjugation.

This extreme rejection of the past (not to say, in some instances, rewriting of history) is understandable and forgivable, unlike the murderous Soviet regime which controlled the country so ruthlessly.

I don’t remember the Hungarian Rising of 1956, crushed by an invasion of Soviet troops, with thousands killed.  Its main effect in countries to the west was the mass resignation of communist sympathisers.

I do recall the 1968 Prague Spring, when Dubcek’s reforms and mass protests were smashed, again by invasion, from Warsaw Pact armies and tanks.  I was just getting interested in politics, but here was every reason to have your socialist stirrings and hopes dashed by the only left-wing system in existence.

It took over 20 years before the Velvet Revolution led to the collapse of the communist state in Czechoslovakia.

Though the revolution won out, the velvet was red.  I was shocked to see the Prague Museum videos of the 1989 protests.  Riot police were frenziedly beating the shit out of demonstrators with batons.  It could have gone the other way.  It’s chilling to see the lengths a near-dead system will go to save itself.  

So, it’s easy to understand the intensity of the denunciation of communism.  Perhaps, even now, after 30 years of independence and the Velvet Divorce (when Slovakia peacefully seceded in 1993) perspective takes a little longer to arrive.

But amidst all the vitriol and dismissal of anything faintly positive during the Communist era, one aspect of Soviet achievement seems to evoke, begrudgingly, a sense of admiration, even pride.

Space.

A fair amount of the Prague exhibition features Yuri Gargarin, first man in space, with film of him being spun around in a centrifuge and kitted up for his big adventure. 

There’s even a cameo exhibit of Laika, first dog in space.  Surprisingly, the museum doesn’t make anything of how this stray mongrel suffocated within hours of the flight.

The section devoted to the Soviet space programme of the late 1950’s and early 60’s is quite positive, at odds with the rest of the presentations. 

In the gift shop, among sarcastic T-shirts and ironic imagery – Lenin and Stalin candles; vicious-toothed nesting dolls and a cuddly Soviet bear, Kalashnikov in its paw – the beer mats, posters and badges celebrating Sputnik, Gargarin and the Soviet space programme stand out as genuinely celebratory icons from the otherwise heinous age of terror.

This recalled a visit we made to Moscow in 2013.  There’s hardly a better story of Communism to tell there, at the heart of the whole system.  The faded pavilions in the VDNKh – the vast park of former soviet states – bear pathetic witness to how the mighty USSR crumbled.

But it’s a different samovar of fish at the Space Museum in the Russian capital.  Though almost as firmly consigned to the dustbin of history as the VDNKh’s exhibits – its full title is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics – an earnest sense of world-beating endeavour still shines through. 

Our son was living in Moscow then – hence our visit – and, with bright-eyed enthusiasm, he showed us round the exhibits with which he was already familiar from previous visits.

Though born decades after the Sputniks, Vostoks and other space capsules were mothballed, he got it: the depth of the technical achievement, the height of the dream and the significance of it all. 

Maybe that’s why he’s ended up studying Astrophysics at Glasgow Uni.

There is such pride in the achievements lovingly presented in the Moscow museum.  Lots of Gargarin, of course, but also featured are the research pioneers, scientists and engineers of the Soviet space programme, as well as detailed replicas of satellites, spaceships and rockets. 

And Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, (still alive at 82) is given a fulsome tribute.

And to top it all, there’s the soaring rocket-shaped tower of shining titanium, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.  No hint of regret nor revision, just pride and the fulfilment of dreams.  

The sense of achievement persists from that amazing, now almost unbelievable, period when it looked like the space race between the Soviets and the USA was being won by the former.

Inevitably, as the battle for supremacy between east and west raged ever more fiercely, it became more race than space, a token of political and military dominance.   Yet that’s not the full, or only, story

Space represents, in every sense, the Soviets’ highest achievement.  Not gulags, tanks and cold wars.  A genuinely uplifting consummation of humanity’s greatest aspirations, combining the most advanced and meticulous application of science with the spiritual desire to break free from Earth and fulfil mankind’s yearning for the stars.

I think the Soviets believed in it, as did the people living under all those highly repressive regimes in Eastern Europe.  Sure, it was exploited for its propaganda value, but space is still special. 

It was an expression of peaceful struggle.  It may be the only legacy that the Soviet era has to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.  And no amount of opprobrium, however justified, can bury its brilliant, noble and ambitious reach for a better world.

by Paul BassettGlasgow.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.co

Scottish actors – pure dead brilliant … – reprise

Bloom: Actors aren’t animals! They’re human beings!

Bialystock: Have you ever eaten with one? – The Producers

It all started with Stanislavski. 

Konstantin Stanislavski.  Muscovite.  End of 19th and early 20th century.  Father of a performance system that grew to be known as method acting.  I remember, as a theatre student, reading his Building a Character and An Actor Prepares.

Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre toured the US in the 1920’s and the method lived on, adapted through the Group Theatre and the Actors’ Studio in New York (Al Pacino is to this day a co-president).

Roughly speaking – and this is personal reflection, not scholarly analysis – method acting is the close identification of the actor with the role.  S/he gets inside the skin of their character in order to better portray them

Now some people (Oi – you, Daniel Day-Lewis, stop being somebody else and pay attention!) take things too far, beyond the approach advocated by Stanislavski and later gurus of method like Lee Strasberg.

It’s not just about staying in character off-set or offstage.  The idea is to work out, through improvisation and other techniques, what motivates the character, put yourself in their position and adopt their attitudes towards what happens in the script. 

You might also, in building your character, deduce what happens off-script – But, Mister Director, I’m holding my chin as I come on because I’ve just been to the dentist! 

You act from the inside, emotionally, trying to feel your way towards behaving as naturally as the character.

Most of us are familiar with the method style from American film actors like Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Pacino et al. 

De Niro, for instance, piled on 4 stones to become Jake La Motta, the boxer in Raging Bull.  Charlize Theron added 2 stones for her role in The Monster.  Maybe the Oscars they won for their performances made the subsequent dieting easier.

Contrast the method’s approach with a very different tradition – British acting style.

Laurence Olivier, it seems, gave up on method in the 1950’s.  It then became more Give me a withered arm and I’m Richard III; a lisp and, hey presto, Malvolio in Twelfth Night

Olivier told Dustin Hoffman, agonising over his role in The Marathon ManTry acting; it’s so much easier.

The British way tends toward outside in, not inside out.  It relies on a mixture of intuition, intelligence and imagination; it’s a sort of non-method.  Pragmatic, flexible and inventive. 

And, I suggest, this approach is practised even more by Scottish actors.

It’s not the actor’s job to be the character; instead they should cleverly pretend.  The performance is built on situation, technique and ideas. 

Objective rather than subjective, the actor thinks of the character they’re playing in the third person – how would s/he behave and how can I best convey that to the audience?

There are several reasons behind this difference – the theatre tradition’s stronger in Britain.  Shakespeare must have something to do with it.  His characters and scenarios are already out of the ordinary, the poetic language is heightened.  It’s inherently theatrical, a conscious creation of another world, not a faithful simulation of real life.

Add to this the old weekly rep model which dominated stage production up to the 1960’s.  No time to explore characterisation, you were lucky if you could learn the lines and not bump into the furniture.

Plus, in Scotland, there’s the major role played by Variety and Pantomime.  And there’s been crossover from stand-up performers into theatre.

The straight-to-the-audience style of these immensely popular forms has bled into other types of theatre. 

Some crossed both traditions – stars like Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton and Gerard Kelly, plus the dames at the Citizens’, Alex Norton and Peter Kelly, would play not just panto but also serious roles.  Many actors working in Scotland today still do both over-the-top, two-dimensional shows and straight plays.

The upshot of all this is a free-wheeling, quick, flexible acting style here in Scotland.  It’s the opposite of precious; actors can turn on a sixpence, switch to the best way of playing their part, with the minimum of fuss.

This alacrity means that watching actors here gives the play or show an energy of its own.  It’s as if the actor wants to involve the spectator as much as their own egos.

The normal rules – the naturalistic fourth wall and suspension of disbelief – still exist in Scottish drama, but they are more prone to be breached, or bent, by a closer engagement with the public through acting style, attitude and an understanding that the whole experience is a shared one.

Is this why Scotland produces such great comic actors? 

Just take a few examples like Maureen Carr, Karen Dunbar, Barbara Rafferty, Elaine C. Smith, Gail Watson, Jimmy Chisholm, Richard Conlon, Greg Hemphill, Ford Kiernan, Greg McHugh, Gavin Mitchell, Grant O’Rourke and Jonathan Watson and so many others, all of them with theatre a big part of their CV.

Back to Konstantin Stanislavski.  He contrasted the art of experiencing with representation.  That difference still holds true. 

Method and ‘outside in’ acting styles: which is more effective, which more likely to bring out the truth of the character for an audience?

Hollywood and the King’s, Glasgow are miles apart in every sense.

All acting is a quest for authenticity.  But I believe it’s wrong to see the introspective method actor who goes to extreme lengths to be their character as somehow deeper, more meaningful than the external, flick-of-the-wrist spirit of actors in this part of the world.

Just because it’s on the surface doesn’t mean it’s superficial.

Quick identification with the externals of a role, talent, skill and the ability not to take yourself too seriously all add up to a more rewarding result for audiences. 

I’ve seen it happen thousands of times in Scottish theatres.  I’m sure it’ll happen for a long time to come, thanks to our think-on-your-feet, get-on-with-it and connect-with-the-people performers.

I love Scottish acting.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, May 2020

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

The Patient Returns

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm, 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

 – William Blake

It was the boy who noticed.  He tugged at his mother’s sleeve, but she was preoccupied.  The waiting room was starting to fill with patients.  Any more and it would be impossible to keep a safe distance.

The boy pulled at her coat again.  He whispered in her ear: That man done a pee-pee on the floor.

The woman shot a glance to the large, filthy, wheezing figure standing in a corner of the room.  Horrified, she saw – from the patch of yellow liquid circling the cracked, crumpled shoes – that her son was right.

She shuddered in disgust, unsure if she should do anything or summon anyone.  To her relief, her son’s name was called over the intercom and, grasping his hand, she hurried out.  As she passed the reception, she told the woman behind the desk about the puddle in the waiting area.

The receptionist went briskly to a nearby cupboard, ran some water and, grabbing a bucket and mop, wiped up the urine pool until the floor was clean again. 

The hideous-looking man moved and leaned against the door jamb.  His entire frame shook and he coughed vehemently.  A frantic, stertorous breath, then he exploded in a fit of violent sneezes, spraying snot everywhere.

Cover your face! yelled the receptionist.  She flung a toilet roll at him.  Clumsily, he caught it.  The gesture revealed his right hand. 

The receptionist had heard about this patient.  She’d seen almost everything, but nothing as peculiar as this.  Unlike the left’s blackened nails, cut flesh and puffy wrist, the man’s right hand was manicured to perfection.  The skin was smooth and lissome.

On his wrist she saw the most expensive watch, with myriad dials, hands and intricate actions.  An immaculate strap of rich leather encircled the forearm.

On his smallest finger sat two rings.  The gold one held an exquisite, brilliant emerald.  It must have cost a fortune.  But not as much as the narrow band of platinum next to it.  In its middle glittered a diamond, the size of a molar, polished, flawless. Gleams from the ceiling lights glinted off its facets.

The receptionist nipped back behind her desk, lifted the phone and spoke softly to one of the doctors.

The next name called was the man’s.  He bound his soiled greatcoat across his chest and shambled along the corridor to the allocated room.

The doctor had already laid a pad on the grey plastic seat, set a couple of metres away from her own.  She winced as she looked the contorted body up and down.  Here we go again, she thought.

He was a big, lumbering mess, clearly in a bad way.  The chair would barely hold him and, as he tried to lower himself into it, he fell forward.  He thrust out his right arm to steady himself before awkwardly sitting down.

The doctor was not so surprised as on previous visits, but it was still a shock to see the opulence of his right hand, in stark contrast to the rest of his broken, dishevelled body.  The obscene watch, encased in rose gold, the beautifully trimmed hand, the perfect rings. 

She overcame her distaste and made a swift examination of his chest.  She addressed him decisively.   Well, Mr Bass, you’ve made no improvement.  This happens every single time.  What are you here for today, exactly?

His reply scunnered her.  I just came, he gasped, to let you know I’m completely better.

She strove to retain her composure.  Don’t be absurd!  I know from the nurse that your bloods showed even higher cholesterol.  And glucose, so your diabetes is getting worse.  Your heart, your lungs, your back – everything’s deteriorating.  Yet again, you’ve ignored all we’ve told you.  And I gather you’re incontinent as well.

She carried on.  She’d had enough.  You stubbornly fail to change your lifestyle, against all our instructions.  I assume you’re taking your medications, at least?

How’m I supposed to get them when there’s none?

What on earth do you mean?

Last time I went to the chemist, they said they couldn’t get my drugs.  There’s a shortage.

This really was beyond the pale.  That’s arrant … the doctor checked herself.  She was so vexed she was about to say pish, but (thinking of his recent accident) she merely said …nonsense!  And it was nonsense; she’d prescribed the same things to several patients and knew the man was lying.

You’re havering, man. My colleagues and I simply don’t see how you take such extreme care of your right hand at the expense of the rest of your body.  For the cost of that watch alone, you could get the best health care in the world! 

To top it all, you’re lying to us.  Saying you’re getting better.  Telling me there’s no medication to be had.  You’re lying to yourself.  How in god’s name…

She stopped.  Suddenly, she understood.  This was pointless. Hopeless.  The deception and inequality weren’t adjuncts to his sickness.  They were his sickness.  As much as the cholesterol, the diabetes, the slipped discs, the limp, the obesity, the overtaxed heart and the breathless lungs.

The wretched health.  The lies.  The display of outrageous wealth on the right wrist and fingers, clashing with the pathetic condition of everywhere else.  It was all of a piece, the same thing.  He would never admit to his condition, any more than he would rectify the flagrant inequality between his rich and poor divided selves.

She gave up.  He was not as vociferous as on his previous session – when he’d left, shouting and bawling oaths.  Now, he just hissed, low and vicious: Sod you – you’ll see, I’ll bounce back.  Very, very soon.

The doctor felt drained.  Nothing more to do, nor say.  She watched him heave to his feet, lumber down the passage and hirple through the main door.  She doubted she’d see him again.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, April 2020.

Comments welcome here or via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Love at First Sight – reprise

This blog has been going for 9 months; it may seem a bit soon to raid the archives, but STAGE LEFT has picked up a few more readers since then. So in case you missed it, here’s what kicked it all off – in every sense. A fresh blog post soon.

  ‘Mother Glasgow’s succour is per-pet-u-al’    Mike Marra

Have you ever fallen in love at first sight?  You have?  Isn’t it wonderful!

I’ve been lucky – it’s happened to me several times; well, on four occasions which, naturally, I will never forget.

These lightning bolt moments stay with you forever.  Coup de foudre, the French call it: a flash of lightning or maybe even a thunderbolt.  

Usually it’s another person, when you fall head over heels for somebody.  But this story, which tells of my first love at first sight, is about a place.

It was when I stepped off the train from Bristol at Glasgow Central.  No, not love actually at that moment, me kneeling down, pope-like, to kiss the chewing-gummed tarmac of Platform 1.  But it did happen soon after.

It was a late afternoon in March.  I’d come for a job interview.  Gloomy skies overhead, but chin up!  I decided to walk.  I set off towards the river.  Above the Clyde, thousands of starlings wheeled in spectacular murmurations.  Thrilling and sinister at the same time.  Once over the water, I walked past a row of 24-storey blocks of flats.

From the windswept entrance to one of the high-rises, a young girl, no more than 12, stepped out.  She stared for a few seconds then threw a stone at me.  It missed – that particular thunderbolt wasn’t due to strike. 

Fuck off! she spat, and walked away.  Not the warmest of welcomes, but somehow I felt intrigued rather than threatened

Amidst the gloom, across the road and through the moving buses, I saw a tatty string of bright light bulbs, dangling from a large white canopy, cracked and rust-stained.  It stuck out from a dilapidated, flat-roofed, single storey building that looked like a run-down cash-and-carry.

On the canopy were black letters confirming that I’d arrived: CITIZENS THEATRE.

As I crossed Gorbals Street, dodging a bus as it groaned away from the stop, I could read the huge white poster, papered over the entire front of the building:

COUNTRY LIFE

by CARLO GOLDONI

and, emblazoned on a diagonal red flash across the top left-hand corner, the legend:

ALL SEATS 50P

I looked up, above the bashed low frontage to the imposing high-gabled brick building, which rose skywards to the roof of the theatre itself.  I pushed open the metal and glass doors and entered the place for the first time.  Beyond the dowdy entrance lobby – enlivened either side with huge black-and-white images from previous shows – I could see a garishly lit box of a foyer, painted from floor to ceiling in red, gold and black.

I went to a tiny window on the right of the lobby, the box office. A pleasant middle-aged woman asked if she could help and brightened further when I said I’d come to see the director.

She returned a moment later.  He says he’s so sorry but he’s going to be another quarter of an hour.  Would you like to go and wait in the foyer?  There are seats there.

I thanked her; it was no problem.  I was early anyway.  I climbed a few steps and pushed open another set of metal and glass doors into the foyer, with a huge mirror on the wall between two sets of gilt sprayed double doors.  What lay beyond them?

Sitting down meant a choice between a red carpeted box under the mirror or a couple of bentwood chairs, also sprayed gold.  But I couldn’t resist the lure of those doors.  I pushed one of the brass handles on the right-hand opening.

Inside it was pitch black.  Or so it seemed; as my eyes adjusted, they were drawn towards the stunning brightness of the stage. There was the most striking set, with high white walls, topped by a vast ceiling of skylights through which light blazed.

On the stage there were lots of people – some immobile wearing beautiful costumes: women in sweeping white dresses; others in black dresses and men in cream linen suits.  Other figures, in modern clothes – jeans and sweatshirts – scuttled about, carrying props, wielding chairs and moving screens.   

One of the working figures stopped and looked up at the dazzling skylights.  Christ, that’s bright! she said.  A strong Scottish accent.

A voice came out of the darkness in the stalls.  Yes, darling.  It’s midday, midsummer, in the middle of the Italian countryside.  Course it’s fucking bright!  Now can we go back to cue 5, please?

I ventured a bit further into the auditorium until I was just behind the back seats. I could make out two rows in the middle, topped by a huge console of switches.  Standing beside it were 3 figures, conferring as they watched the action on stage.

Between the seats and the stage, I could also see the proscenium arch, decked with even more red and gold than the foyer.  One of the 3 figures moved close to the stage and spoke to the actors and technicians before re-joining his two colleagues by the lighting controls.

The stage darkened to a state of twilight.  The actors reacted by moving to different parts of the stage or left it all together.  The technicians carried on a huge table, covered in a white cloth and candlesticks, glasses and plates.

The actors started speaking their lines.  One character was declaring his love to another while a third boasted about his house in Venice, mocked by a fourth.  Uninterrupted, the scene played out for fully ten minutes. 

It was such an intense atmosphere, full of contrasting elements: the brilliant scenery inside the dark, coloured proscenium; radiant then darkened lights; the constant movement of the lavish period costumes among the jeans and tee-shirts and the murmurs of directions and questions interspersed with elegant dialogue. I was familiar with technical rehearsals at uni, drama school and in other theatres, but here was an edge, a buzz and a fantastic spirit I hadn’t quite witnessed before.  

I was thrilled by its mess of energy, its other-worldliness mingling with the workmanlike purpose of detailed preparations.  This was hard work and glamour in equal measure, and I was captivated by it all.

I was so immersed in the scene I was watching that I didn’t immediately notice the figure who sidled up to me.  It was the pleasant woman from the box office.  She whispered: The director’s free now, so if you’d like to come through for your interview.

I’d seen enough to know how I felt about the place.  I loved it – here was something I longed to be part of.  I was hooked, lined and sunk.

But the story doesn’t quite end there.  That was just the start of it.  The place I fell in love with wasn’t only the theatre itself.  Though I didn’t know it then, there was a bigger, wider setting I was about to be entranced by.  Somewhere that would get even deeper under my skin.

For all its strange welcome – the gloomy skies, the startling birds and the glaring, swearing girl – maybe even because of it all, there was something deep, inviting and fascinating about the city in which I’d just landed.

My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.

I fell in love with Glasgow.

And, forty years on, I still am.

by Paul BassettGlasgow.

Three good books

I like simple things: books, being alone, or with somebody who understands – Daphne du Maurier

In these theatre-starved times, this normally stagecentric blog pauses for some personal reflections on books I’ve enjoyed reading recently.  Here are my lockdown-lit tips!

A Famished Heart by Nicola White

An episode in my first book reminded me of the hilarious Father Ted scene, where a pack of priests can’t find their way out of the lingerie section in a department store.  In A Famished Heart, Father Timoney, desperate to soothe his excruciating back, winds up in a massage parlour.

The priest, and the detective leading the investigation, DI Vincent Swan, plus Francesca MacNamara – the actress back from New York – are just three of the great characters in this new crime thriller, set in Dublin in 1982.

The story starts with the death by starvation, seemingly self-inflicted, of two middle-aged, devout sisters, in their decaying house.   Swan, unconvinced, is drawn into a web of deceit, terror and violence that remains unravelled till the very end.

I’m not a great fan of crime thrillers, though I know millions are, but this book feels different.  The author’s detachment from sheer plot allows her to explore other themes. 

The 1982 setting is ripe for the infallibility of Catholicism to start fraying at the edges.  I came to see sad, weak Father Timoney as a metaphor for the creed he starts to question.

The ugly church, his ageing flock and his sense of failure combine with the horrific deaths, the blind collusion of the faithful and senseless religious dictats, to show a dominion bound for decline.

Vincent Swan (who first appeared in White’s 2013 The Rosary Garden and is due to return in the trilogy, of which A Famished Heart is the first part) is a sensitive, intelligent cop among a bunch of corrupt time-servers.  About two-thirds of the way through, I was beginning to wonder if he was too pensive to solve the crime, but he gets there in the end, battered and bruised.

Francesca, sister to the dead women, has crossed the Atlantic to bury them, but she can’t meanwhile resist the offer of a part in a Dublin production of The Trojan Women.   She almost starts to act out the grieving next-of kin.  Yet, in the end, she struggles – as much as the priest and the cop – with her own role.  Does she stick with the narrow certainties of home, which bring mostly pain, or resume her precarious New York theatre life?

Now based in Scotland, Nicola White promises more offbeat spine-chillers to come.  I can’t wait!

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

My second book is a cracking page-turner, but great literature too, with a brave, independent female protagonist, Mary Yealand, just 23 years old.  She sees the world clearly, especially how unequal the struggle is for women compared to men. 

Written in 1935, but set in wild, wintry 1820’s Cornwall, the book combines a compelling, violent story with great insights into the times, places, atmospheres and values of its setting.

The weather – cold, windy and often hostile – is a major player from the start when Mary, having lost her poverty-stricken mother, travels across the Bodmin moors from south to north-coast Cornwall in a coach, on a dark December night.

With great Gothic touches, she is warned off her destination where her aunt, her only relative, lives.  This is the much-feared Jamaica Inn, where no traveller dare stop these days.  Mary discovers why in the first few chapters, as she gets to know her wicked giant of an uncle, Joss Merlyn.

The inn is the haunt of evil, foul-smelling bandits steeped in their crimes: smuggling and shipwrecks.  Desperados, they fight and kill to keep their ill-gotten gains.

It’s told, in the third person, almost entirely from Mary’s point-of-view.  It’s non-stop action as she strikes out on to the windswept, treacherous moorlands to meet people who, she hopes, will help her.

These include Joss’s brother, Jem, plus Francis Davey, a freak of nature – an albino vicar.  Neither of these turns out to be what they first seem and Mary’s actions drive the narrative forwards, to reveal their true intentions.

It’s remarkable, original and had me gripped from start to finish.  Brilliant! 

Du Maurier’s books have often been adapted for the screen, with varying levels of success.  The BBC 2014 version of Jamaica Inn was plagued by sound issues; thousands complained of the actors mumbling.  Clearly, nobody said: Ar-tic-u-la-tion, darling! 

The Hitchcock film version, 1939, starred Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.  Not that you’d know, from the trailer, that she was even in it!  Cinema’s sexism goes back a long way.  

Rebecca is familiar from the 1940 film, also directed by Hitchcock (he completed his Du Maurier trilogy with The Birds in 1963) with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.  I remember Emma Rice’s thrilling stage Rebecca for Kneehigh at the King’s, Glasgow in 2015. 

Now I’m keen to read more of Du Maurier’s 18 works of fiction.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My third lockdown-lit starts and ends at the National Theatre, London.  The first character, Amma, has her play opening there.  Black, lesbian and a rebel for years, she’s hit the big time, or joined the establishment, at last.

The relationships – mothers, daughters, friends and lovers – stravaig and loop across these separate personalities as Evaristo builds up vivid portraits and backstories of the 12, mostly black, women.

Some are close, some glance off each other.  I was drawn in, trying to piece the bits of the jigsaw together, as the unusual and unconventional characters merge and emerge.  Even the more buttoned-down figures – banker Carole, teachers Shirley and Penelope – have hidden depths.

It’s a satisfying read, a chain of short stories that become more than the sum of their parts.  The patchwork quilt weaves generations, times and continents. 

It’s made richer by what Evaristo calls her fusion fiction style.  Poetry mixed with prose; actual events – Brexit, the Trumpquake etc – with fanciful passages; facts and dreams; the mundane and the sublime.

I’m fascinated by a 13th character: Bernadine Evaristo herself, Woolwich Laureate and first black British writer to win the Booker Prize.  She’s had a fantastically full career, her own life story exemplary in breaking new ground.

Like Amma, she’s been slogging away in theatre and writing for 40 years.  Now Girl, Woman Other has been optioned for TV and the Booker triumph has multiplied her sales internationally.  I’d like to get into her other 7 books, including Mr Loverman, about a closet gay, Caribbean grandad coming out; she clearly has an appetite for the exceptional!  Based on reading Girl, Woman, Other, I’d say her success is richly deserved.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, April 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Brecht’s It

Wherever life has not died out, it staggers to its feet againMother Courage

Two huge, black-and-white posters dominated the wall of my room at Lancaster Uni in 1975.

One was a musician.  Born Seattle 1942, died London 1970.  Beethoven of the electric guitar.  Jimi Hendrix.

The other was a playwright.  Born Bavaria 1898, died Berlin 1956.  Bertolt Brecht.

Though prolific (43 plays to Shakespeare’s 37), playwright doesn’t do Brecht full justice.  Nor was it the main reason that he became one of my heroes.  His attraction was as originator of a different kind of drama: epic theatre.  We studied, and were heavily influenced by, Brecht’s verfremsdung – alienation – effect.

The old idea was that audiences identify, and empathise, with characters and situations.  But for Brecht, spectators aren’t fobbed off with an invitation to feel.  Instead, they’re enabled to see the why and how of what happens on stage.  He wanted people to think critically about the meaning, not suspend their disbelief, of what they were watching.

In practical terms on stage, this means techniques that break the fourth wall.  Performers talking straight to the audience; acting in the third person – presenting, not being, a character; interruptions – music, songs, narration and slogans.  And bright, non-atmospheric, lighting; symbolic scenery; grotesque masks; puppets and surreal costumes.

Things that have, by now, become commonplace in countless productions.

Brecht wanted a people’s theatre.  In terms of the continuing international popularity of his works, he got it.  At the Citizens’, Glasgow, Brecht meant box office: Jungle of the Cities, Happy End, St. Joan of the Stockyards, 7 Deadly Sins, Fears & Miseries of the 3rd Reich (not exactly a title to draw the crowds, but it did!), Caucasian Chalk Circle, Puntila and his man Matti, and Mother Courage, with Glenda Jackson – all had strong attendance figures.

The most recent Citz Brecht, produced with the Lyceum, Edinburgh, is Denise Mina’s adaptation of Puntila and her Man Matti (Bertolt would have loved the idea), with Elaine C Smith.  Sadly, due to the current crisis, it never got the chance to do well, as it had to be pulled after just a few performances.

Brecht’s rejection of Aristotle’s notion – that human nature doesn’t change – was rooted in politics. When I read Marx, he wrote, I understood my plays.  A communist who never joined the party, he was red hot keen to present capitalism, warts and all, on stage.  Brecht wanted theatre to change the world:

What is usual, let it astonish you!

What seems the rule, recognise it as abuse.

And where you’ve recognised abuse,

Put things right!  

BB’s theories were grounded in his practice as a writer, producer and director in 1920’s Germany.  He worked on every aspect of his early plays like Baal, Drums in the Night and A Man’s a Man (Peter Lorre starred in the Berlin version).

Brecht instinctively collaborated and constantly revised.  He was a magpie.  Nothing was a solo effort, nothing was ever finished and very little was original.  Anyone can be creative. Rewriting others’ work is the real challenge.

In 1928, Brecht and Kurt Weill staged The Threepenny OperaDespite chaotic rehearsals – hilariously captured in Morag Fullarton’s recent show, Mack the Knifeit became a huge hit in Berlin, Paris and New York.

As well as Mack the Knife, other classic songs from this time include Alabama Song, Pirate Jenny, Bilbao Song and Surabaya Johnny.

This fertile period came to an abrupt end with the rise of Hitler.  From 1933, Brecht moved to Switzerland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and, finally, the U.S. 

Though deprived of a theatre, he wrote some of his most enduring plays in exile: Puntila, Mother Courage, Arturo Ui, Good Person of Szechwan and Caucasian Chalk Circle.  He co-directed the Los Angeles production of Life of Galileo, with Charles Laughton as Galileo, in 1947.

An inveterate Bolshevik, Brecht tended to fall foul of the system.  He was called before the Un-American Activities Committee.  His testimony is a hoot – a catalogue of evasions and jokes.  Shifty but sly, he quibbled over translations of his work, claiming he didn’t write the words because his version was in German and more beautiful!

He returned to Europe: Zurich, then Berlin.  Though he kept his passport Austrian and his bank account Swiss, Brecht chose East, not West, Germany.  With his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, he set up the Berliner Ensemble. 

The new company was devoted to his works and adaptations of the classics.  He wrote few new plays, but kept cutting, rewriting, inventing new scenes and characters.  None of his past work was sacrosanct.  And he had a fresh theatre mill to refashion his output.

The company settled in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (= Shipbuilder’s bank, on the river Spree).  Its emblem, still displayed on the front curtain, is Picasso’s Dove of Peace.  The huge revolve runs on 32 wheels of a Russian tank, which Weigel procured from Soviet troops. 

The Berliner Ensemble tour to Paris, in the early fifties, with Mother Courage, Helene Weigel in the title role, was a great success.  After Brecht died, she carried on as the company’s director until her death in 1971.

In his final years, Brecht wrote mostly poetry.  He adapted to the strictures of the East German regime.  Like Galileo, Brecht, the chameleon, was keen to get on with his own ideas, paying lip-service to the powers-that-be.

The Solution was more explicit in his opposition to the GDR state.  The poem – unpublished then, obviously – is a timeless diatribe against authoritarian, top-down government.  I think of it every time a Tory minister talks down to Scotland.

The first verse says that the people, by uprising,  have forfeited the government’s confidence.  Then it ends:

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

 Back to student days.  For my finals in Theatre Studies, I directed The Life of Galileo.  It’s a long time ago and no record remains of the production.  Just as well.  Suffice to say that I chucked in everything but the Brechtian sink – a chorus, a narrator, musical interludes, announcements on slides, placards with dates, places and events.  Between every one of the fifteen scenes in the play. 

It was probably one of the most cumbersome, certainly one of the longest, versions of the piece.  Quite a few people, including my own tutor, left at the interval.

I think I achieved the wrong kind of alienation effect! 

by Paul BassettGlasgow, March 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

 

Love at First Sight – Part 4

This company is founded on the talents of every man and woman working in it, coming together to create something none of them could have conceived, let alone achieved, on his own. Chinchilla by Robert David Macdonald

My first year as manager of the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow was hard work, great fun and full of lessons. 

One of the first lessons was how good it feels to have a full house.  The two plays – Chinchilla and Goldoni’s The Good Humoured Ladies – we took to the Edinburgh Festival came home to the Gorbals.  They did well at the box office. But the next show, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, had them queuing round the block.

The foyer is going like a fair, the box office phones are ringing off the hook and you stand at the back of the stalls, the house crammed with people.  I’d never known anything like it and I’ve loved that feeling ever since.  In any theatre – from the Ancient Greeks to the most avant-garde playhouse today – you cannae beat it!

Our Pygmalion almost got stopped.  The play’s most famous line (retained in My Fair Lady) is when Eliza, dropping her poshness, yells: Not bloody likely! 

Giles Havergal, the play’s director, did his research.  He discovered the original manuscript, in the British Library.  That line – which caused a scandal when first uttered on stage in 1914 – had been crossed out by Shaw himself (red ink, tiny handwriting) and replaced with No bloody fear!  So that went into our version.

The Shaw estate, who controlled the rights, got wind of the change and insisted we cancel all future performances.  It was at the end of the run, so we ignored them.  Too bloody late! 

Pantos aside, Pygmalion was the second most popular show we ever did (in top spot: The Importance of Being Earnest). 

In fact, it brought the house down – almost.  And here was the next lesson: dealing with a crisis.

It was the time of the Troubles and mainland bombings.  Glasgow had more than its share of threats and explosions.  A Wednesday evening, just after the interval, we got an anonymous phone call, saying there was a bomb in the theatre.  The house was packed.  The police came.  They advised us to evacuate the theatre, but said the final decision was ours.

I conferred with the house manager.  The performance had just over half an hour to the end.  Could we get the audience out, search the building and then get everyone back in?

That’s what we did.  Persuading nearly 800 people to go out into the cold October night and stand in a muddy wasteland (generously known as the car park) wasn’t easy, but, somehow, everybody went with it.

The search part was the scariest.  I went going into the dingy bottle store, with a couple of the police officers.  A crate of old bottles fell off a rickety shelf with a mighty CRASH!  I keiched my breeks!

The whole operation took less than 30 minutes.  The audience waited patiently outside.  Though it was getting late, we decided to resume the show.  It ended in triumph – cheers, whoops of joy and a standing ovation!

You want a rousing reception from your audience?  Disrupt their evening, send them into the chilly darkness and make them miss the last bus home.  But, always make sure the show goes on.

Lesson number 3 is – like so many I learned at the Citz – about the relationship between money and art.  Pygmalion and that year’s pantomime, Puss in Boots, did such good business that we had extra funds to put into the final production in the spring.

This was a stage adaptation of Marcel Proust’s 7-volume literary epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  Reworking the budgets, we managed to find enough for 18 actors, the biggest cast we ever assembled.  Plus 18 non-speaking extras, many of them front-of-house staff.  Hence 36 people on stage, but a dearth of ushers in the stalls!

The stage was hoaching – and so, thankfully, was the auditorium.  For the initial run we sold out.  Rupert Everett was one of the extras.  So, we revived it, now with Rupert in a leading role.

I learned, though, that not everyone likes your hits.  The director of the Avignon Festival came to see our version of this French classic.  As he left, there was a distinct froideur.  Maybe cramming the marathon text into one evening, playing it backwards and calling it A Waste of Time was too sacrilegious!

It was also a lesson in sorting out a debacle.  Alan Rickman was to play a major role, Baron de Charlus, in the Proust.  At the last minute, he pulled out.  He felt he was playing too many clipped, urbane sophisticates or, as he put it, No more raised eyebrow parts! 

A flurry of casting changes ensued.  The rehearsal time for this large-scale piece was already tight.  But, no time to fuss.  The Citizens’ had, by now, been imbued with that great Glasgow motto, Just get on wi’ it!  In the end, Charlus was played by Giles Havergal.

We postponed the whole shebang for a week and inserted a visiting company show, TAG in Pinter’s The Birthday Party.

If increased ticket revenue meant we could lavish cash on A Waste of Time, the reverse process – money getting tighter – had to be made to work, as well.  Staying out of deficit was an article of faith at the Citizens’.  If box office income fell, cast sizes shrank. 

This – financial necessity as the mother of artistic invention – didn’t always work.  Sometimes it did.  Travels with my Aunt, which became an audience favourite, started as an answer to the question: What can we do with 3 actors?

And that’s the greatest lesson, which I continued to learn through all my time at the Citz.  With talented people, flexibility, cooperation and – rarest commodity of all – sufficient money, you can deliver artistically.  To a large audience.  And balance the books.

Back to the Proust.  Doing French at uni, I never got past reading Swann’s Way.  But Philip Prowse’s production of A Waste of Time was achingly beautiful.

The set was a series of huge, gilt picture frames, receding from the proscenium arch, embracing exquisitely costumed, lost souls in poignantly juxtaposed scenes, cut across with Beethoven’s plangent chords about fate – Must it be? It must be!  It made Proust tear at your eyes, your ears, your brain and your heart.

Apart from The Lion King, it’s the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

And, forty years on, it still is.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, March 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Is Shakespeare dying?

In 200 years, Shakespeare will be faintly visible, like Chaucer.  He’ll need translating. – Peter Hall (2003)

The 1960’s.  Looking forward to the white-hot technological future, whilst celebrating the glories of the past.   A second Elizabethan Age!  (Scotland, of course, never had a first one). 

Shakespeare’s plays had always been staged across the world, but the sixties were a new dawn for the old bard. 

He would speak to us afresh.  Shakespeare Our Contemporary.  Shakespeare – the living, modern playwright.  The Royal Shakespeare Company was set up in 1961.  Rooted in the notion of his relevance to us all, here and now.  Shakespeare’s plays have enjoyed an unbroken run in theatres ever since.

Will – the man – shuffled off this mortal coil in 1616, but you can still hear his heartbeat:

ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM.

Five feet, each with two beats, to the line.  Each foot has a soft beat, then a hard one.  The iambic pentameter.

Not only the beat of your heart, but the length of your breath.  Blood and air.  What could be more natural? 

Like the opening line of Twelfth Night:

if-MUS/ ic-BE/ the-FOOD/ of-LOVE/ play-ON

Or, the most famous one of all:

To-BE/ or-NOT/ to-BE/ that-IS/ the-QUESTION. 

OK, so that last foot has 3 beats, but don’t nitpick – it just shows his flexibility!

It’s all about stress.  And iambic contains the phrase I am.  Surely, he should still connect to our me generation!

Or could things be changing?  Great characters and plots, but what if the rhythm of the language doesn’t work anymore?  If the music dies, can the heart beat on?  Has death sucked the honey of the breath?

Young actors are no longer versed in Shakespeare, says the current RSC boss, Gregory Doran.  The company’s setting up a Shakespeare Gym, a sort of treadmill for the voice, so that everybody has iambic pentameter in their bloodstream.

If you train to be an actor, with an eye on Netflix and movies, do you need to be able to speak this kind of verse?  Def-i-nite-ly, opines Dame Judi.  Can drama schools, academies and conservatoires be expected to teach this peculiar language?

Giles Havergal, former director of the Citizens’, now teaches drama students and opera singers in Glasgow, London and San Francisco to speak Shakespeare.  His approach is to get the meaning right: The important thing is to know what you’re saying – then the rhythm can take care of itself.

Giles thinks the advantage of understanding Elizabethan verse goes beyond the bard (who, he adds, is still very popular with audiences).  Speak Shakespeare and you can do Pinter, Stoppard and, especially, Beckett.

Two friends, both theatregoers, hear the word Shakespeare and make the over-the-top-of-my-head gesture.  Thousands – based on school experience or visits to worthy, dull, remote productions – feel the same.

Is it all Greek to us?  If Shakespeare’s worth keeping, should we stop worrying so much about how the lines are spoken and find 21st century ways to bring the scripts to life?  Ditch the impenetrable words and use modern ones instead?

Perhaps the memorable Shakespeares are the ones that reinvent the plays, so that they get through to a broad audience.  If you’re a director or an actor, that’s the job: find ways of interpreting these 400-year-old scripts so that they come to life for people today.

The impossible-to-stage Taming of the Shrew (too misogynistic) was given a powerful turn-it-on-its-head production last year by the Tron, Glasgow and Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, thanks to Jo Clifford’s radical reworking of the script.

The Citizens’, in 2017, distilled the Scottish play down to just 2 actors in The Macbeths, intensifying the tragedy into a compelling studio version, adapted by Frances Poet.

Mark Rylance played Richard III at the Globe, London, in 2012.  I’ll never forget how his comic brilliance almost sent the character up, yet connected to the audience.  When a plane flew over this outdoor venue, he pointed up, in anachronistic wonder!

The Baz Luhrmann film of Romeo and Juliet, with Mafia Montagues and Camorra Capulets, grossed millions.  And every single line was the original text.

The imaginative, inventive and irreverent approach doesn’t stop with Shakespeare.

Hamilton, the most successful new musical this century, mashes up history using rap and hip-hop.  Having the founding fathers of America played by a non-white company only heightens its message.

Glasgow’s Blood of the Young company are touring to packed houses in Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol, Leeds and beyond with Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of).  It cares not a jot for authenticity, yet brings out the themes of the original stronger than ever.  I don’t recall Jane Austen having D’Arcy say Fuck Lady Catherine de Burgh! but it makes perfect sense in this version.

Less respect towards the bard’s words, in order to make his ideas survive?  Need 17th and 21st century language be strange bedfellows?

The technique, the music of verse, will always be a challenge.  But if we want to keep Will’s power, don’t productions need to go further? 

Usurp the bard to keep the bard alive.  Sounds almost Shakespearean!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, February 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Meet the Shelleys

Invention does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos. Mary Shelley

Mary

August 1822.  You’re 25.  Your husband has drowned, his corpse so putrid it has to be burned on the beach, in Viareggio, where it washed up.  You salvage his heart which you keep it in a box, for the rest of your life.

You lost 3 children before any of them reached the age of 3.  Your fourth child is now 2 years old and you’re plagued by fears of losing him as well.

Your first two names are the same as your mother – Mary Wollstonecraft.  She wrote the seminal work about women’s rights.  You never knew her; she died when you were 11 days old. 

Your father brought you up.  He’s a liberal philosopher.  His writings, and your mother’s, inspired you.  As a child, you read widely.  You were stirred by visits to Scotland and you wrote, always scribbling stories.

Your husband, Percy, was an advocate of free love.  He was married when you met and you were 16; you fell in love with each other.  Your early trysts took place at your mother’s grave, where you lost your virginity.

When you were 18, your half-sister killed herself and, two months later, Percy’s first wife did the same.

At least this meant you could get married.  Ostracised and often in debt, you, Percy and your other half-sister spent most of the time exiled in France, Switzerland and Italy, rarely settling anywhere for long.

In the midst of all this birth, death, love, grief and loss, you write the great Gothic novel.

Frankenstein.

Percy

July 1822.  You’re 29. You’re in Livorno, about to sail back to your present home in Lerici, further up the Italian coast.  The boat is your new toy, Percy’s perfect plaything for the summer.  It’s called Don Juan, a nod to your friend, Byron, who you’ve just been visiting to discuss another romantic poet, Keats. 

There’s a storm brewing in the gulf through which you, and your crew of 2, start your return journey.  You will never reach your destination.

Though you come from a wealthy, aristocratic family, you’ve been disowned by your father for your unsuitable love affairs.  You’re habitually penniless and exiled abroad for most of your adult life.

You eloped twice with 16-year-olds – once to Scotland with Harriet and, in 1814, with Mary to France.  Harriet killed herself two years later.  4 of your 7 children – by 3 different mothers – died in in infancy.

After Percy’s death, still shunned by his family, Mary returned to London where she wrote 7 more novels, stories and biographies.  She also edited, published and championed her late husband’s works, as well as her father’s.

Her father lived till he was 80 and her fourth child – also Percy – would make it to 70.  Mary herself died in 1851, aged 53, of brain cancer.

Frankenstein.  I read it in 2018, 200 years after its first publication.  Familiar with nuts-and-bolts lumbering monsters from movies, I was surprised how little Mary Shelley writes about the physical aspects of the creature (the word she uses more than monster). 

The book’s about ideas – the scientific, philosophical and moral elements behind the creation of life.  Victor Frankenstein, inventor of the creature, is obsessed with his experiments to generate a living being.  

Mary took a keen interest in scientific ideas, attending lectures.  In early 19th century science, revivification was all the rage. Erasmus Darwin (granddad of the more famous Charles) experimented with the regenerative processes of nature, making a bit of pasta move.  Luigi Galvani galvanised a dead frog, passing electricity through its legs.

Though hideously ugly, the nameless creature in Frankenstein is far from lumbering or dumb.  Mary gives part of the story directly to him, in the first person.  He becomes brainy and sophisticated, teaching himself to read Plutarch, Goethe and Milton. 

From Paradise Lost, he compares himself to Adam: He had come from the hands of God a perfect creature.  But I was wretched, helpless and alone.  He finds a fitter emblem: Satan.

As well as a scientific and moral fable, it’s also a cracking and tragic story, as the consequences of Victor’s blind ambition come home to roost.  The events unfold more chillingly than the blackest of Scandi-noir episodes, the worst imaginings of Black Mirror or the terrors of films like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs.

And it’s about sex – in the end what the creature really wants is a mate, though only after his attempts at human companionship have been cruelly spurned.

Shelley’s themes transcend her own times.  The idea of prolonging and creating life seems more pertinent than ever.  The techniques of the early 21st century – like cryogenics and Artificial Intelligence – are hugely different from those of the early 19th.

Yet the essence of Mary’s enduring novel fascinates us still because it expresses our deep need to explore what makes life happen.  Should we play god?  Or outplay nature? 

Frankenstein has undergone many regenerations, cinematic, literary, theatrical and musical.  It seems likely to continue its rebirths.  And the original remains in print.

Had she been alive today, her literary life would surely have involved appearances at book festivals and signings.  People would probably ask Mary the two queries which pursued her back then:  Is Frankenstein the creature or its creator? And: Did you really write the book yourself, or was it Percy Bysshe Shelley?

In fact, Mary gave her reply in her introduction to the 1831 edition: I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband.

People can be real monsters!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, January 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Public poetry

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings

An honest man’s the noble work of God

– Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

A night club in Glasgow.  A group of visitors to the city, at the bar.  A young Glaswegian comes up to one of the them

Where are you from? he asks.

We are from Russia. Moscow, comes the reply, a faltering accent.

But no need for English.  The Glasgow youth switches to competent Russian: Moscow.  Fantastic!  Pushkin was from Moscow!

Yes, he was, but…

Pushkin!  He’s my favourite poet, continues the local enthusiastically, still in Russian.  Without pause he begins to recite, in the original, verses, which the visitor recognises as Pushkin’s poetry.

Bright-eyed and animated, the young man talks about his love for Russia’s great poet, his works, all they mean to the world – and to him.

That never happened. 

But this did:  In 1992 I went, as part of a visit to look at post-communist arts training, to Moscow.  Boris Yeltsin was president.  Gangster capitalism.  It was wild.  Everywhere people were begging.  Some were desperately selling useless items: a mug with no handle, a single shoe.  Often, the only way to travel anywhere was to flag down a private car and hope for the best.

Though this was – in more ways than one – an educational trip, we somehow ended up, one evening, in a night club.  The place was full of heavy-set men, jackets bulging.  One glared at me.  Yes, it was a gun and no, he wasn’t pleased to see me.

We found a table and a young man came and sat with us, asking, in English, where we were from.  As soon as I replied, Scotland, he launched into a eulogy of Robert Burns, quoting verse after verse of the Bard’s works, some of which I’d never heard.  He told us how much he loved Burns’s poems and songs, how they spoke to Russia, here and now.

So Long, My Son is a 2019 Chinese film, an exquisitely sad story of two families whose lives are blighted by the accidental drowning of an 8-year-old son.  Set at a time when you were only allowed one child, it follows the parents through every stage of their unbearable loss. The one redeeming refrain throughout the film is Auld Lang Syne – they play it, sing it, and are comforted by it.

Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration – Bob Dylan

For a’ that, and a’ that,

It’s coming yet for a’ that,

That man to man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that

Those last lines of A Man’s a Man were the first Burns I heard.  I cried. 

What is it about Scotland’s bard that affects so many different people so deeply? Why does he remain a powerful voice, still able to move the soul?

Does Burns represent a kind of security, an expression of kinship and humanity that people, the world over, are desperate to hold on to?  Is he an enigma – feminist womaniser, rebel tax-collector, patriotic internationalist, cultivated peasant and traditional revolutionary – who can be all things to all men and women?

Is it the rhythmical verse, the lyrics?  The ideas, the humanity, the politics?

Or is it the music which gets to us?  A magpie for a good tune, Burns – I am a patriot for the music of my country – grew fascinated with folk melodies.  The words came second.  His starting point was often an anonymous song, handed down by oral tradition, known to farmers, working women and tradesmen.

Burns had an instinctive feel for the rhythms that touch us deeply.  He’s the original public poet, a tradition still extant in Scotland in the role of Makar.  Contemporary Makars like Jackie Kay, and before her, Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan, are out there, their work known and loved by lots of people. 

Jackie Kay’s work – poems, books and plays – invite you to share her experiences and feelings.  She has splendidly mythologised her own fascinating life, born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father (her reunion with him beautifully told in Red Dust Road) and adopted by a most generous and politically committed couple, Helen and John Kay.

Public ideas and feelings expressed in verse are also found beyond poets and poetry in Scotland.  The breathtaking painted ceiling of Oran Mor, a converted church, will surely stand as Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece alongside his novel, Lanark.

Amidst the sumptuous blues, golds and reds of the mural, the beams are picked out with lines like:

We are animals who want more than we need

Our seed returns to death’s republic

And the phrase that has – recently – acquired as much resonance as any of Burns’s:

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation

The Proclaimers are another example of popular shared lyrics.  Several of their songs are anthems at every sporting or large crowd event in Scotland.  Epics like Letter from America, Sunshine on Leith, I’m on My Way and I’m Gonna Be (500 miles).  They take on a greater meaning precisely because they are shared by large numbers of people, in the same place and at the same time. 

Though, perhaps, for Scotland right now, the most telling words are found in another Charlie & Craig song:

But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land,

Cap in hand.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, January 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

A Good Night Out

7:84 and Wildcat.  The 1970’s to the nineties was a golden age, and Scotland an ideal breeding ground, for these two theatre companies in particular. They stand beyond their own times, exemplars of theatre with a credo and a purpose. 

They’re in the pantheon of companies who – thanks to a philosophy, method and ambition beyond mere production and performance – have made a lasting difference to the development of theatre in the 20th century and beyond.

Other examples include Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, the early Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Ariana Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, Liverpool Everyman and the Citizens’, Glasgow.

The mid 1970’s – my last year at uni.  Major subject: French, minor: Theatre.  It could have been the other way round, so often was I in the theatre studio, producing, directing and performing.

Our tutor announced a visit from a theatre company, 7:84 who were coming to perform John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave Dances On, set amongst the recently ignited Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Afterwards there was to be a discussion.

Here was everything I held dear.  Left-wing.  Campaigning. Theatre.  Plus, a radical dose of anti-imperialism.  I was in socialist heaven.  Brecht was my champion, but he was dead.  John McGrath was a living hero.

Bright-eyed, with rapt attention, we listened to the discussions, as the 2 Johns wove ideas about the war across the water and taking militant plays to the workers.  Writer Arden told us: Northern Ireland is Britain’s Vietnam, while director McGrath talked about the significance of 7% of the population owning 84% of the wealth.  (Apocryphal maybe, but legend goes that when, in a petrol station, the attendant looked at the sticker on the back of John’s big, old Volvo, he said: Well, there’s no need to boast about it!)

I next met John McGrath 5 years later, in London, whilst researching my post-graduate dissertation (Trade Unions and the Arts – a riveting read!).  He and his wife, Liz MacLennan, were so shrewd in their analyses.  I’d just been appointed at the Citizens’, Glasgow.  From then on, our paths would coincide, often and we became friends.

When I arrived in Scotland, the first show I saw was 7:84’s Joe’s Drum, in Arbroath.  Just before the start, I noticed John handing extra bits of script to Billy Riddoch, who played Joe.  Billy seemed to take it in his stride!

The company was as radical as ever.  I went to all their shows and made them regular bookings to the Citz with a string of new, political shows that filled the house: Swings and Roundabouts; Blood Red Roses, The Catch.  John was brilliant at titles.  His book on popular theatre is called A Good Night Out.

7:84 had already packed the Citz some years before, with one of their most enduring titles: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.   Set for another revival in 2020, by the National Theatre of Scotland, Dundee Rep and Live Theatre, Newcastle, this legendary show – part-panto, part-ceilidh, all agitprop – remains a hard-hitting audience pleaser nearly 50 years after it was created.

Better yet, 7:84 begat Wildcat Stage Productions.  Liz’s brother, David MacLennan (John’s brother-in-arms, as well as in-law) and Dave Anderson wanted to do more musical productions.  Still contemporary politics, but with numbers. 

And what numbers.  Heart-rending compositions, intricate harmonies and smart, punchy lyrics by Anderson and David McNiven.  The new company was off to a flying start.  Such versatility: actors picking up different instruments with alacrity.  It’s great to see the Wildcat habit – multi-talented performers switching acting, music and other skills – returning to stages across Scotland.

Wildcat, too, became a welcome extension to the Citizens’ seasons, with audiences hungry for works like The Barmecide Feast (food poverty); Any Minute Now (nuclear arms); Harmony Row (poll tax); Dead Liberty (miners’ strike) and their greatest box-office hit, also just revived for the umpteenth time, The Steamie. 

The heart of these two companies, and fellow-travellers down south like Red Ladder and Belt & Braces, was politics.  To paraphrase Karl Marx, conventional theatre only interpreted the world, the point – for 7:84 and Wildcat – was to change it.  They jokingly referred to their doctrine as Marxist-MacLennanist.

Both companies spawned a plethora of Scottish talent: Billy Paterson, John Bett, Alec Norton, Elaine C Smith, Terry Neason, George Drennan, Sandy Nelson, Susan Nisbett, Katy Murphy and Peter Mullan, to name only a few.

In the early 1980’s, the relationship between 7:84 and the Citizens’ grew closer.  Their styles were very different, but the aim – distinctive work for a broader audience – was similar. As Robert David MacDonald, one of the Citz directors, put it:  We march to the beat of the same drum – in opposite directions!

The Citz’s creed of artistic originality rested on a ruthless zeal for technical excellence.  7:84 and Wildcat were more focussed on ideology, politics and the message.  John was a charming mixture of towering intellect and last-minute lash-up. 

Giles Havergal had actually worked with John on plays at Oxford University, 30 years earlier.  McGrath had always staged new plays but wanted 7:84 to revisit some vintage Clydebuilt plays.  He knew Citz versions of Sean O’Casey, Brecht and Shaw and asked Giles to direct a 1947 play by Ena Lamont Stewart.

The result was another landmark production, Men Should Weep.  A searing, funny tale of 1930’s poverty in the east end of Glasgow, it’s led by its female characters.  It played the Citizens’ more than once, to full houses.  It’s become yet another frequently revived piece from the 7:84/Wildcat repertoire.

And today?  Everything – funding priorities, touring opportunities and politics – has changed since the days of 7:84 and Wildcat.  It would be naïve to await the return of theatre companies like them.

And yet injustice and inequality have, if anything, got worse.  What precisely are the equivalents of 7% and 84% nowadays?

I was encouraged recently to see Fibres, toured by Stellar Quines and the Citizens’.  Billed a story of love, laughter and the untold legacy of Glasgow’s shipyards, it’s a campaigning piece.  It attacks the abuse of asbestos by industry and shows how it still affects not just the men who worked with it, but also the women who lived with them and handled their clothes.

There is no shortage of issues, nor of radical groups, especially women’s companies, determined to force long-overdue changes to the pale, male outlook of theatre. 

What, in 2020, is the role of political theatre?  If so, what forms is it taking – and where is it?  Please send your own responses!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, January 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

       

A Talent to Adapt?

Why am I always expected to wear a dressing gown, smoke cigarettes in a long holder and say: Darling, how wonderful?

 – Noel Coward

Ah, Noel.  So terribly, terribly talented!

The recent Old Vic production of Present Laughter, with a brilliant central performance by Andrew Hot Priest Scott, was a reminder that Coward’s plays – for all his image as a louche dandy – are anything but froth.

Noel Coward’s precocious, prodigious and prolific output first hit home when, just 24, he wrote, produced and directed The Vortex.  He played the lead, too.  As Coward put it: A whacking great part in it for myself.

A success in London then New York, it was ahead of its time.  Way ahead.  Frightfully risqué, my dear!

The story of Nicky Lancaster and his mother, it deals with bi-sexuality, cocaine addiction and cougar love.  It even has an Oedipal confrontation between the two, reminiscent of Hamlet and Gertrude (You cannot call it love/For at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame…).

Quite a debut.  Yet Coward had been at it a long time.  Born 2 weeks before the 20th century, he was practically raised onstage, an accomplished child actor by the age of 11.

He followed The Vortex with a string of highly original, hilarious yet serious, hits: Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living.

Design for Living.  Deliciously outré!  A scintillating, subversive script about a love triangle.  Written in 1932, it had to wait out censorship issues – a disgusting 3-sided erotic hotchpotch – for 7 years, before running in London for hundreds of performances.

Coward used his exquisitely crafted comedies to address controversial subjects.

It’s easy to see why some people find it hard to get beyond the clipped upper-class style.  Like listening to a bunch of narcissists, talking like Jacob Rees-Mogg.  Sheer torture, cherie!

Except, as soon as you see the plays (and revues, films and songs) you realise that – unlike that utter stinker Moggy – Coward has heart, brains, talent and an exceptional grasp of what makes things funny.

And no sense of entitlement.  A suburban middle-class boy, he applied his gifts assiduously.  A real grafter.  Listening to him describe how disciplined he was in learning lines – a postcard over each speech, an awful drudgery, but I’m always word perfect at the first rehearsal – is a lesson in hard work paying off.

This triggered a recall of a more recent, example of an actor struggling to learn his lines.  A priceless scene in Tarantino’s 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has Leonardo di Caprio’s character threaten to blow his own brains out if he doesn’t master the script!   

I digress.  Not all Coward’s early shows were hits.  Sirocco – extra-marital affair in Italy – was fiercely booed at its London first night in 1927.  Too, too frightful, darling!  It closed after 3 weeks.

But still his Champagne coupe ranneth over.  Coward bought a Rolls-Royce at 26 and a country house in Kent at 27 (Goldenhurst for the golden boy). 

There he wrote Cavalcade (1931), a huge cast Boer War/death of Queen Victoria/World War One family saga – the start of his interest in patriotic themes.  The Tories even claimed it helped them win the election, though Coward disowned that early bit of fake news.

Several of these lesser-known Coward pieces – Sirocco, Design for Living, Cavalcade – were staged by the Citizens’, Glasgow from the 1970’s onwards.  The Vortex, Rupert Everett as Nicky, played Glasgow in 1988 and London the following year.

Most strikingly unperformed was Semi-Monde.  Another huge cast.  Coward wrote it in 1926, but the first production – ever – was by the Citizens’ in 1977, a sumptuous version of a seething social panorama, set in the Paris Ritz.

Coward’s patriotism grew.  He won great acclaim for his film In Which We Serve.  Though he aspired to join the war effort via the diplomatic service – or even as a spy – the powers-that-be preferred him as an entertainer to the troops.

And what an entertainer he became, well beyond the war.  His smartly worded songs gave him a new cabaret career.  Brilliantly comic numbers like Mad Dogs and Englishman and Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.

Meanwhile in theatre – though still writing, acting and producing – he seemed intolerant of the new forms of drama in the 1950’s.  He railed against the angry young men and the grim patina of kitchen sinks and tramps.

Called out by John (Look Back in Anger) Osborne, Coward – far too smart to stay a curmudgeon for long – apologised for being vulgar and common.

But the enfant terrible risked turning into yesterday’s man.  He would never, except in revivals, enjoy the astounding highs of his early theatrical career.

We’re luckily left with his brilliant output of plays which, in terms of structure, dialogue and piercing humour, still astound.

Will Coward’s plays – a bit like Shakespeare’s – become infinitely adaptable to the mood of the times?  In the Old Vic Present Laughter, the original character Joanna becomes Joe, bringing bi-sexuality to the heart of the play.

As theatre in this century adopts greater gender (and racial) fluidity, with many actresses in once male roles and a much looser difference between the sexes, Coward’s legacy could turn out to be more than a talent to amuse.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, January 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Art is money. Money is art.

Poor Mozart.  Dead at 35.  Health and money problems meant he never played nor composed music for the sheer joy of it.

200 years later, there he (well, his portrait) was, on the 5000 Austrian schilling note.  A handful of these would have transformed his life – and art.

Take out the notes from your purse, wallet or pocket.  You’ll see Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Nan Shepherd, Jane Austen and JMW Turner.

So, some artists eventually make it to the money, but gey few, and they’re a’ deid.  Most living creatives today struggle financially.  Like Mozart.

The relationship between art and money remains a fascinating one.  Who creates? Who pays? Why?

And how to make the best of the money available to get the best art?  For the most people?

Apart from the audience paying for tickets out of their pockets, the main source of finance for culture comes from the state. 

This fundamental principle – that central and local governments should fund the arts – has long been established in most European countries.

It’s encouraging to look abroad, especially Scandinavia where there seem to be some refreshing changes. 

Finland has a new governing coalition led by women, all but one of them under 35.  The principle of male/female equality has been pioneered in Sweden, with many arts institutions having a strict 50-50 policy.  Compared with Scotland, both Denmark and Sweden pay better salaries to arts workers.

It’s also telling to see how much goes on direct artistic activity in proportion to administration.  Norway – population about the same as ours – has increased direct funding to musicians by 150% in 6 years.

In France the funding system allows for proper holiday and sick pay and a greater system of benefits for artists than in Scotland.

In the UK, state funding of the arts has a good track record as an effective investment.  It improves cities and communities, increases social mobility and makes the arts more democratic.  It’s also an efficient way to boost employment.  Much cheaper than, say, nuclear weapons.

A recent manifesto to Creative Scotland, the country’s arts funding body, comes from Scotland’s leading theatre critic and political commentator, Joyce McMillan.  She writes: Scotland’s artists and arts organisations are spending far too much time filling in forms, and too little time making good art.

The focus of cash support should turn to artists and their output, working with the creative process rather than staying aloof, fruitlessly gauging achievement with a snare of irrelevant measurements.

MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee have just published a report recommending that the funding system is reset.

They say: Public funding of Scotland’s arts and culture will only become sustainable if artists are at the centre of policy and paid the fair wage they deserve.  The current model is bureaucratic.

Like Joyce’s manifesto, the MSPs want Creative Scotland to take urgent, robust action.

I think we should go further.

The present set-up has never worked and it never can.

It’s facing the wrong way.  It can’t judge the arts because it can’t see them.  This is the experience of thousands who create and produce artistically. 

So, what’s to be done?

The temptation has been – wrongly, in my view – to go first for a structure, an administrative mechanism.

I don’t think the system matters nearly as much as ensuring that money is part of the creative process.  The application of cash should be as ingenious as the artistic endeavours it supports.

Art starts, works and succeeds with people and ideas.  Shouldn’t funding do likewise?

Let’s try 3 principles on which a new state funding set-up could be based.

First, those who create should determine, from the start, how money is allocated.  In my experience, nobody’s better at making resources stretch than the people producing artistic work.  Let the artists decide – and assess.  Peer group scrutiny should be the rock on which the allocation of funds rests.

Second, ensure that the creative work is well-known to those deciding on who, and how much, to support.  Simples.  Everyone involved should go and see the exhibitions, watch the shows, listen to the concerts and read the poetry.

Occasionally, the old ways are the best.  I did precisely that, in the late 80’s, as a member of the Drama Committee of the Scottish Arts Council.  It was time-consuming, but I saw a lot of theatre before helping to make decisions about who got what.

Third, nothing beats dialogue between funding deciders and practitioners – who in any case would tend to be the same kind of people, with a creative urge and a stake in the quality of the output.  Exchanges and encounters needn’t be cumbersome or bugged by fussy rules.  They can be informal, short and frequent.  People talking to each other.  A stimulating, enriching and dynamic process.

This blog is not in the business of drawing up a blueprint.  But, in advocating the creation of a new system to replace the existing failed one, it might help to offer some steps towards the next stage.

Joyce McMillan, in her manifesto, suggests a parliament for the arts.  A good starting point.  I’d suggest that assemblies of painters, sculptors, writers, performers, designers, musicians, producers, audiences and critics be convened.

A working group could be elected from these assemblies.  About 10, mostly practising artists and producers, plus a couple of audience/public representatives.  I’m confident that such a group, charged with creating a new structure to distribute state money could come up with something workable within a few months.

The only stipulation would be that they steer clear of consultants!  Of course, there’d have to be safeguards about self-interest, or not helping your pals, but these are fairly minor.

The new system would have to be democratic, open and accountable to artists, producers and audiences.  A minimum of forms and a maximum of discussion about creative production.

Whatever new structure was devised, it would have to be introduced underneath the present one, until it was ready.  

And, ultimately, Creative Scotland would have to go.

Fiona Hyslop – in her role as Secretary for Culture – must be weary of trying to improve things by endless tinkering and personnel changes. 

All the evidence shows it isn’t going to work.

Creative Scotland has become Westminster to artists’ Scotland.  There’s only one way forward.

Like Medea, in order to move on, you have to kill your offspring. Start again.  A new direction entirely.

The system is beyond repair.  We need to focus on the creation of a new one.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, December 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Love at First Sight – Part 3

Previously…

I fell in love with Glasgow.

And, forty years on, I still am.

And…

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

And, forty years on, it still is.

When I moved to Glasgow, the journey was epic.

I left Bristol for good.  Packed – into my old Morris Minor – my entire possessions.  Cream LP’s, Complete Works of Shakespeare, denim shirts, the lot.  Headed north.  No turning back. 

Friday 4 May 1979.  The day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

I felt I was fleeing a foreign country, a Tory country.  To a non-Tory one.  A sense of escaping the new political creed for somewhere different. 

When I got to Glasgow, not knowing which route to take, I followed the City Centre signs.  I fetched up in a busy area, a large ornate building at one end.  George Square.  Surrounded by moving vehicles, the poor Morris gave up the ghost.  The back axle snapped.  Perhaps the strain of being laden with all I owned in the world, perhaps rust.

Labour isn’t working, claimed the campaign posters.  Neither was my car. The AA towed it away – for good.  Somehow, I managed to cram everything into an obliging taxi and reached Queen’s Drive, where I’d arranged to rent a flat.

The owner of the flat turned up, twin-set and pearls, beaming: Isn’t it wonderful?  I assume you’re a Conservative, by the way?  Great!  I thought I’d landed in a non-Tory country.  But, the first person I met was a you-know-what.

I kept quiet.  I wanted this flat.

The following Monday, I caught the bus to my first day at the Citizens’.  It took me past the shops on Victoria Road.  There was a huge red-and-white ice cream, upright on the pavement, outside a brightly coloured café; piles of vegetables stacked in front of a greengrocer’s and a Day-Glo poster filling the window of a travel agent’s:  Fly direct to the sun from Glasgow – £25!

Over the months to come, I grew fond of the cheery shops on the south-side.  The Jewish deli and bakeries in Allison Street, cosy cafes and shops selling fish – fresh and fried.  I asked for strawberries in Henry Healy and was offered a tin.

Other parts of the city weren’t so cheery.  The walk from the theatre to the bank was brutal-ist.  Through Hutchesontown to Queen Elizabeth Square.  Past the Basil Spence-designed 20-storey blocks of flats.  They’d be demolished within 30 years of going up.

The poverty – people and materials – and the damp were made worse by the drab greys and browns of Alcatraz.

My girlfriend arrived from Bristol.  The Tory landlady was sufficiently liberal to let us choose a flatmate for the spare room.  This time, she didn’t check her tenant’s politics.  Just as well.  He was a college lecturer and, it turned out, a Trotskyist.

The 3 of us discovered south-side and Glasgow life.  The following spring, we managed to get tickets for the Celtic-Rangers cup final at Hampden, which ended with mounted police trying to quell a riot.  I learned a lot about Glasgow that day.

I was so lucky to arrive then.  The city was changing, opening up.  Soon, fresh strawberries?  No problem.

Thanks to my job, I saw the city opening up in other ways.

Part of my role at the Citz was to negotiate with the funders.  This meant regular meetings with the City of Glasgow District Council.

Local authority people – councillors and officials – tend to get a bad press.  But I found them diligent and open, keen to grasp how Scotland’s biggest city could embrace the future, not cling to the past.

Shipyards and railway works were long gone.  Those left were struggling.  Soon Linwood, Gartcosh, Ravenscraig.  No more.

Glasgow’s leaders began to seek new ways to let Glasgow flourish.  The early attempts may have seemed a bit forced (Glasgow Smiles Better), but proved surprisingly effective.  Remembered to this day.

It didn’t happen all at once, but through the 80’s councillors wanted to work with the arts, venues, companies and individuals.  They listened to our ideas.  The rest is history.  The Garden Festival and the greatest prize: European City of Culture 1990.  Confidence grew.  Results spoke for themselves.

Then the Tories kiboshed it all – again.  Michael Forsyth, Scottish Secretary, was hellbent on doing away with Strathclyde Regional Council.  For the Citizens’, their extra support meant we could open all-year-round.  Our local authority funding was slashed in half, overnight.

It was harder, in the 1990’s, to keep Glasgow’s new-found cultural prowess going. 

And yet, somehow, the city has continued to pull itself up by its bootlaces, with scant help from the UK government.

Now, 2019, Glasgow – still hoaching with ingenuity – has been named cultural and creative centre of the UK by the European Commission, ahead of London, Bristol, Brighton and Manchester.

Forced to reinvent ourselves, as Glasgow and other Scottish cities have – almost entirely through our own efforts – is it any wonder where that leads us?  Maybe we’d be better off doing everything ourselves.

As this vital election looms, maybe we are where we are because of the struggles to make the best of our city and our nation – through ideas, identity and artistic energy.

Culture has proven to be the mirror, even the midwife, of history.

When I came to Glasgow, Scotland was starting to be a different country.

And, forty years on, it nearly is.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Pantotime – Part 2

Izat a marra on yer barra, Clara? Stanley Baxter

How can you tell a pantomime from a Christmas show?

In recent years, Scottish theatres have switched between traditional and contemporary material for their seasonal productions.  What’s the distinction? 

Like chips in Edinburgh, the difference is the source.

Charles Perrault (French, 1628-1673) gives us Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots and Red Riding Hood

From the original Bee Gees – Brothers Grimm (19th century, Germany) – we get Snow White, Hansel & Gretel and Cinderella (again).

The roots – and routes – of these classic fairy tales-to-panto are as mixed up as the genre itself, but the repertoire usually keeps to the top 10: the 6 above, plus Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Babes in the Wood and Mother Goose.

The characters also tell you it’s a panto.

The dame (traditionally played by a man, in a dress – sure to get a laugh); principal boy (a woman), principal girl, the Buttons role, the father/king/baron, the good and bad fairies.  Stock roles which fit into the story and style of panto.

And, thanks to those fairies, morality. 

Can you beat good versus evil as a dramatic format?  From the very first scene – good fairy STAGE LEFT (like this blog!), bad on the right. With, of course, hoorays and boos.

The moral of the story in those Citizens’ pantos was just as clear.  Though it depended as much on solidarity (Children, will you ALL shout out together and help Cinders?) as goodness.

In my time at the Citz, the change from panto to Christmas show took a particular progression. 

As so often, financial necessity was the mother of artistic invention. 

When I started, the panto (Puss in Boots) was an established format with 9 principals, 7 chorus and 4 musicians in the pit.  20 performers for nearly 2 months?  Unthinkable nowadays!

We honed the numbers down in the early eighties, until Babes in the Wood (cast of 10, written by John Byrne, with Roger Allam, Robbie Coltrane, Pat Doyle and Gary Oldman as Daniel the Dog).

But panto became unsustainable.  So, we switched to a series of children’s tales – Merlin the Magnificent, The Snow Queen (if only we’d called it Frozen!), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

That last one was the most efficient and successful we ever did.  A cast of just 8.  The original’s 4 siblings were cut to 2: Lucy (lively, fearless Maureen Carr) and Edmund (gallus, lovable David McKay).  It wasn’t easy getting the rights from the C.S. Lewis estate.

The allegorical element of the story (Aslan = Christ etc.) definitely helped the box office.  All those Catholic schools!  It made 96% target.

After a few more Christmas shows – Pinocchio, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Jungle Book – we refound panto – Aladdin, Mother Goose – in a slightly reduced form.

So, a happy ending. 

Look at what’s on this December in Scotland.  Hoaching with pantos.

Straight-to-the-audience style, smart-but-silly gags, over-the-top costumes (I remember Stanley Baxter’s walk-down outfit – eat your heart out, Ru Paul!), music, songs, the heart of an exciting story and fabulous characters.

I love the closing moments of panto performances: the end of the singalong compermetition, shout-outs to the audience and the rhyming couplets at the curtain-call.

So, here goes for this blog post:

Well, ladles and jellyspoons, boys and girls, you were ALL the best! 

Now – reads – I want youse all to give a big cheer for James from Cranhill, who can’t be with us because he’s one-hundred and eleven today.  Hooray!  Oh no, sorry – checks paper – that should be because he’s ill today. 

Our Christmas blog is ended,

We hope you liked both parts.

Did you enjoy the story?

The jokes, the songs, the f…un?!

Pantomime is brilliant,

It makes you pure ecstatic

A party we all vote for,

‘Cos it’s so democratic!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Pantotime – Part 1

– Comfy?

– Govan!

It’s that time again.  Vote for Buttons! `

Did the coincidence of pantomime and general election occur to Boris? 

In Grimsby, apparently, it meant a clash between Aladdin and the votes being counted, in the same venue.  Aladdin won.   

Oh, yes, he did!

Well, folks – or should I say Hiya Pals? – we’re off!

I’ve always loved panto.  I loved it when I helped make it happen.  I still love it now, when all I do is watch, laugh, shout and sing along. 

Pantomime (all-round imitation) is a strange, mixed-up story, from a time long ago.

You could trace some strings of panto spaghetti to the Commedia dell’Arte, with its stock characters Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche, and Punch.  Some of these you’d probably recognise in a 2019 Christmas show in Scotland.

But the form has constantly changed, so that its origins seem almost immaterial.  Like your spell as PM, BoJo… it’s behind you!

Unlike Edmond in King Lear, panto is a bastard completely at ease with its motley parentage.  It’s adaptable, flexible and resilient, a hybrid of traditions, trends and tropes.

My own experience of working on panto comes mainly from the Citizens’, Glasgow.  The show ran for nearly 2 months, playing up to 12 performances a week.  It had to do well for 3 reasons. 

First, it was the best way of getting people to come to theatre who otherwise wouldn’t.  A major aim of a venue funded by, and for, the citizens of Glasgow. 

Second, it was the main source of earned income, helping to support the running of the theatre throughout the year.  Box office target – attendance and financial – was over 80% and we usually made it.

Third, it was fun!

It wasn’t just the figures that were taken seriously. 

The heart of the whole enterprise was the story.  If a character goes into the forest, there must be a reason and a follow-through.  Ends can’t be left loose.  Narrative thrust is all – what happens next, why and who finishes up how and with whom?

You can tell when a writer has treated the story meticulously.  The audience stays engaged. 

Same for the director and actors.  For all its sense of fun, this is not a flip, makeshift affair. 

Though rehearsal time was short (as little as 2 weeks), the shared aim was to make the production values – sets, costumes and performances – first-class. 

I’m amazed when pantos go on for nearly three hours.  Don’t they know about young (and old) bladders?  We honed the length to 2 hours, including interval.  Helped the swift turnarounds, too. 

Another maxim: always finish with the song sheet. 

Ah, what a great Scottish tradition, the audience yelling:  Bring Doon the Cloot!  I love the Oran Mor’s Panto Pie and a Pint version, for a pocket stage: Unwind the Blind!

You can’t beat – or follow – the audience singing along, at the top of their voices.  The walk-down, curtain-call and home.  Or the next performance.

Once the panto’s open, the logistics of keeping the venue going for several weeks call for military precision.  A welter of rotas, lists and schedules circulated from late October. 

Everything focussed on how to get hundreds of people into the correct seats, on time, out and back at the interval, ice-cream, drinks, and away quickly enough at the end to clean up and start all over again.  With a smile on your coupon.

The best in the business, ever, is universally acknowledged to be the late Mary Sweeney.  Queen of front-of-house at the Citz for 40 years, she worked every performance and kept everything, and everyone, as sharp as a pin.

Like invading Russia, a panto campaign might defeat the greatest strategist.  Not Mary.  If Napoleon had her in the ranks, she’d have marched, triumphant, into Moscow, glasses hooked into her brooch, handing out free programmes to bewildered Russian soldiers!

Back to bladders. 

Memory is prompted by smell.  For Proust, a Madeleine cake evoked his childhood.  For me, it’s the waft of urine.  Always recalls the 10am performance.

As Mary and her team seated cohorts of schoolkids, I used to think how apt the class groupings they called out: P1!  P2!  P3!

Mind you, we didn’t always help.  As well as peddling bottles of drink at half-time, some shows included diuretic frights. 

The most extreme was the wolf in Red Riding Hood.  His mask, exquisitely crafted by the design team – scarier than Michael Jackson’s in Thriller – with lit, red eyes piercing into the faces of petrified tinies. 

Soon, the foyer was full of children, shaking with fear, wet with tears – or worse.

Not a dry seat in the house!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Next, in Pantotime – Part 2… what’s the difference between a Christmas show and a pantomime?

Love at First Sight – Part 2

Previously…

My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.

I fell in love with Glasgow.

And, forty years on, I still am.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

The last – and first – time I’d seen the place, it looked like a run-down cash-and-carry.  Now its frontage and south side were covered in scaffolding.  As if on life support.

I saw this web of metal as I got off the bus, by the high-rise flats, on Gorbals Street.

I made my way round to the Stage Door.  I was greeted by a huge man with bushy sideburns.

You’ll be the new manager.  I’ll tell them you made it.  Was there some doubt? 

Giles, the director, came through the corridor and grasped my hand.  Hello! You made it! (not him as well – or was this the standard greeting?)  Welcome, welcome!

He led the way up dark stairs to the dressing rooms.  He opened a door into a narrow space, with mirrors and light bulbs along one side.  Dressing Room 4 – our office!

The Citizens’, for the third year running, was being done up.  Major works on the stage, south side and foyer.  Phase 3.

The dressing rooms were the only areas free for the few production and admin staff, who would keep the place going over the summer.

As well as the refurbishments, the company was preparing 2 shows – Chinchilla and The Good-Humoured Ladies – for Edinburgh International Festival in August, plus a full autumn season in the renovated Glasgow base.

I realised, in alarm, that I was to be the main contact with the contractors, to ensure they gave us back the building in time for our September opening.

That looked unlikely.  What a mess!  Peeled back to the stone, swathes of old plasterwork and ceilings hanging off, pipes and cables snaking everywhere, bare floors strewn with timber, tools and machinery.

Even more impossible, I felt, was my main job: keeping on top of the finances for the shows and staff.  There was a highly competent group of people setting up casting, rehearsals, set-building and costumes.  But responsibility for sticking to the budget was mine.

You’re going to be busy! said Giles, brightly, at the end of my first day.

Busy – and daunted.  I got the bus home, wracked with worry.  I was now in charge of all the Citizens’ money.  Everything and everybody from cleaners and front-of-house to directors and actors.  I’d only run a fringe co-operative in Bristol.  I didn’t even fully understand VAT!

Just another zero on the end! said Giles, still brightly, at the end of my second day.

I recall near-sleepless nights that first week.  Several times, I resolved to go in the next day and tell Giles I simply wasn’t up to the task.  I was the youngest theatre manager in the country.  Would I also be the one with the shortest tenure?

But, mercifully, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and taught me a lot in a short time.

Each time I drew near the Stage Door, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It receded over time, but never completely went away in all the years I worked at the Citizens’.  Maybe a theatre should always make you feel a bit on edge – keeps it exciting!

Rehearsals for Edinburgh started.  Chinchilla was a sort of Citizens’ emblem about why art matters, by Robert David Macdonald.  All about Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet. 

The other piece was an Italian comedy, by Carlo Goldoni.  The Citz loved him, and so did I.  Final rehearsals for Country Life had knocked me out, on my first Glasgow trip.

Two actors, David Hayman and Gerard Murphy, greeted me with open arms.

I also took heart walking round the theatre.  It was, even in disarray, a remarkable place.

The stage was clear to the rafters, roof vents opened.  They were installing a new flying system and needed daylight.  As I craned my head skywards, countless motes of dust spun through the slatted sunlight, like tiny dancers heading for the stage.

The solid outlines of the walls, bars, grid and beams were reassuring.  The place had been up since 1878.  It would surely survive this latest disruption.

The foyer, though stripped of its red, gold and black skin, was recognisable as the welcoming hub of the building.  The entrance, box office portholes, glass doors and carpetless stairway kept the front-of-house skeleton visible. 

Progress was slow.  But, as new panels, facades, and beadings were applied, the heart began to emerge as well.  Part of me couldn’t wait until the people showed up to bring it back to life.

Amidst the sea of messy improvement sat the auditorium.  It was due no improvements.  New seats, décor and carpet would have to wait till next year, money permitting.  Phase 4.

The gilt-sprayed double doors were screened by a loose plastic veil.  I pushed the brass handle on the right-hand opening.

Inside, subdued light.  Decked with even more red and gold than the foyer would be, it was an island of calm.  The bangs and clatter of the building works were dulled by the black-and-gold safety curtain. 

Yellowed dust sheets covered the seating rows.  I lifted the hem of one, to reveal a few seats off the centre aisle.

I sat.  Soothed.

I tried to see beyond the construction, the trials of playing Edinburgh and the efforts to re-open on time.  It wasn’t too hard to imagine these seats filled with people, busy and vital.

It was a vision that, once realised at the end of that long summer, would keep me going for years to come.

The Edinburgh shows went well and we did – just – get the place open on time.  The freshly painted foyer looked splendid, though the entrance was still run-down.

That facelift would come later.  Like most old theatres, the Citz seems in constant need of an upgrade.  Now, in 2019, a fresh round of improvements is underway.  Must be about Phase 20.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

And, forty years on, it still is.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Next:  It’s that time, again.  Oh, yes it is!

Shadowplay

Stoker: It’s called The Un-Dead

Irving: The Un-Read, more like!

Is posthumous success a tragedy? 

Imagine you created one of the 20th century’s greatest characters.  Your story sells millions of copies.  It’s translated into more than 40 languages and spawns over 200 films. 

After you died.

Bram Stoker struggled to make it as a writer.  When Dracula was published in 1897, it was a critical success, but sold few copies.  15 years later, Stoker died a poor man.

Had he lived another 10 years to see Nosferatu – the film which sparked the passion for Dracula – he might still have failed to share its success.  The filmmakers neither asked, nor paid, for permission to use his story.

Does J K Rowling or George R R Martin ever offer up a prayer of thanks to Florence Balcombe? 

She – Stoker’s widow – successfully sued Nosferatu’s German production company.

Like Beaumarchais (Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro), 150 years earlier with plays and theatre, Florence helped establish the principle of copyright. 

During Stoker’s life, Florence berated her husband for his carelessness of those who copied his work.  It’s as if he was so keen to get published, he wasn’t bothered about protecting his ideas.

Despite his literary efforts – he wrote 13 novels, short stories, reviews, articles and poems – Stoker’s life was most notable as manager for Sir Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre, London.

When I did theatre at university, Irving’s acting style, 70 years after his death, was still seen as something of a joke.  We studied The Bells, a melodrama that was his vehicle for over 30 years.

A fuller picture of Irving, and Stoker, emerges in Shadowplay, a novel (2019) by Joseph O’Connor.

It’s a cracking read, especially for its depiction of the excitement, ingenuity and dedication of running a theatre. 

It shows Irving in all his incongruity – a sacred monster.

His relationship with Stoker is kindled by vanity.  Bram writes a favourable review of Irving’s Hamlet, in Dublin.  The wizard of kind words, says the actor, luring him to run his London playhouse.

At times, he treats Stoker appallingly.  After all Bram’s help in making the Lyceum a success, Irving bawls him – and the backstage team – out, calling him a lukewarm clerk and surplus population.  Stoker resigns.  Irving writes an abject mea culpa, more love letter than apology.

His arrogance persists, even as his strength is failing: he plays Romeo, who is 14, and Lear, who is ancient, on the same tour, sometimes on the same night.

Amongst all the virtue-extolling mottos of the Victorian era, Irving’s is typically waspish: Sweet, a good friend’s failure.

And yet, he is the great actor-manager, leading every aspect of the Lyceum, filling houses year after year.  The first actor to be knighted, Irving’s productions are lavishly staged, critically praised and hugely popular.

His rumbustious acting is echoed by the audience’s exhilaration.  When they roar, he roars back.

He’s a pioneer, always keen to outdo rivals. 

Shadowplay has a fantastic scene with swords using crude – and dangerous – electricity.  Stoker’s idea, they spark as they touch.  In the fight scenes for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, crackling spurts of lightning draw cacophonous applause

Ever the showman, Irving shamelessly plays up the danger: The quickest way to frighten people is to tell them they’d be frightened. 

Like the Beatles, Irving made it big in America. The Lyceum company had several successful tours, organised by Stoker.  How did he do it?  I set up a few theatre trips abroad; the logistics can be hell on wheels.  But at least we had planes and phones.

Irving introduces the stellar actress Ellen Terry to the Lyceum (he doesn’t consult Stoker, given her price!).  She plays the female lead with him in several triumphant Shakespeare productions.

She’s the third, remote, part of the triangle in Shadowplay.  Worshipped on stage and in the street, she stays above the fray.  Her voice comments on what might have been. 

She refers Irving’s hot/cold character to a different Victorian horror story: Everyone has a Mr Hyde, another version of the self.  A direction not taken.  A shadowland.

O’Connor has them as lovers, discovered backstage between the sheets by an embarrassed Stoker.

Other celebrities make cameo appearances: George Bernard Shaw (Irving hates critics) and Oscar Wilde. 

At the height of his fame, Wilde comes backstage.  Champagne, a buffet and flowers are ordered for the great man to meet the company. 

He outwits Irving, who says of the Irish: We exported our language to you primitives.  Oscar whips back:  Indeed you did, darling.  Now we can say ‘starvation’ in English.

Wilde knew Florence and Bram before they knew each other.  Florence Balcombe was that rare thing: a girlfriend of Oscar Wilde’s.

Irving remains cruelly dismissive of Stoker’s writing.  Bram suggests staging Dracula.  An amateur potboiler, says Irving.   He refuses the title role, partly modelled on himself.

But Shadowplay is Stoker’s story.  A diligent manager of the Lyceum for 27 years, he turns to every task, however menial.  To Irving’s vortex, he brings calm.  To the company, he’ s Auntie.

But, when not running the theatre, Bram doesn’t go home to Florence and their son (first name: Irving!).  He retreats to a ghostly hidey-hole in the old building, typewriter under his arm, to clatter out his writings.

He risks family life to stay around the theatre.  Florence returns to Dublin with their son.

Shadowplay, shadowland.  Bram lives in the shadows.  He prowls London in the small hours, ignoring the threat of Jack the Ripper, seeking out clubs where men meet late at night for companionship.

Despite his friendship with Wilde and horror at Oscar’s conviction, he later campaigned for gay writers to be jailed.  A disappointingly familiar trope: the closet queen, suppressing his own nature by condemning others’.

He stayed in Irving’s shadow.  He came closest to the literary hit he craved with his Personal Reminisces of Henry Irving, published a year after the actor died.  

From then on, Stoker suffered poor health and shaky finances.

April 1912.  Even his death was overshadowed, newspaper obituaries eclipsed by reports of the sinking of the Titanic.  

Imagine Stoker haunting us now, seeing how his creation has grown.

Last month, his spirit might have been at the annual Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin, watching Abe’s Story, hanging out at Stokerland and dancing at Dracula’s Disco.

Or checking out bookshops, libraries, video stores, cinemas and theatres across the world for the myriad versions of his story, marvelling at the untold success of his invention.

Too late, Bram, too late.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Next time:  Back to my early days at the Citizens’ and in Glasgow – Love at First Sight, Part 2.