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.

Is it a film? Is it a play? (Part 2)

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

Cinema 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 recent 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

Last month, 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’s bound for London, as is 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 encore, repeat encore, replay 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 LiveCui 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

Now 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, November 2019.

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

Next time: Is posthumous success a tragedy?  The vampire strikes back! 

Is it a film? Is it a play? (Part 1)

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, as NT Live marks 10 years’ broadcasting theatre shows via satellite to hundreds of cinemas throughout the world, these reservations no longer apply.

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

Last June I saw – at Glasgow Film Theatre – Small Island, a National Theatre production which ran at the Olivier, London in summer 2019.

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.

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

You also get 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.  This 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 cinemas 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, 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.  Recently, 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?

Next time, in Part 2, I’ll try to answer that question.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, October 2019.

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

Nobody’s been everywhere

Cultiver notre jardin – Voltaire

We are, all of us – in these heydays of ‘me-time’ – supposed to have a catalogue of experiences we’d like to achieve before we die.

Places we crave to visit, things we yearn to ascend or descend.  Up a mountain in Peru, out of a plane over Strathallan. 

Take up pottery or play the ukulele.  Adventures we somehow missed earlier during our stay on earth.  Perhaps 10 – or more? – goals we’ll make a purposeful effort to complete in our autumns, having missed the boat in our springs. 

Before we’re too old to do anything but breathe – and then, finally, not even that.

A visit to Machu Picchu features regularly on such lists. 

It’s a perfect example: it seems an extraordinary place; it’s been there thousands of years; it’s a long way away and it’s high up, entailing a purifying hike to reach the top.

For most of us, it would also mean a costly and complicated journey from home to destination and back home again.  It even sounds exotic (though don’t get too excited: it just means old mountain, apparently).

And once conquered, what a sugar-rush of sweet achievement.  How much richer our dwindling number of days will be, not only from the experience of having made it, but also the satisfaction of knowing, thinking and being able to say to others: I’ve done it, I’ve ticked it off my bucket list!

Well, forgive me if I go against the grain, but I can honestly say that I’ve almost zero interest in bagging Munro Picchu.  Or many other things and places I’ve never ventured.

Now – I’d like to add – I’ve never been a stay-at-home-Harry. 

I’ve travelled to all sorts of places: the deserts of Venezuela, the heart of Afghanistan, the tropics of Australia and the vast, grey edifices of Moscow and St Petersburg.  I’ve composed bad poetry, gazing over the Taj Mahal. 

I’ve even lived on the seafront in Morecambe.  As Victoria Wood said: See Naples and die.  See Morecambe and wish you had.

Inevitably, that leaves a long list of places unvisited.  Just like everyone else.  However far – or near – they’ve pushed their horizons.  Nobody’s done everything.  Nobody’s been everywhere.

As I get older, my own horizons are less about going somewhere I’ve never been or doing something I’ve never done.  Rather, my burning ambitions – and I still have plenty – seem to fix on the people I know and love; places close to home I yearn to get to know better and things I want to improve.  Like writing this blog.

So, on your way, Machu Picchu. Auf Weidersehen, the Oberammergau Passion Play.  Sayonara, cherry blossoms of Japan.

You can keep the parachute folded, that bungee rope stays furled.  I won’t be troubling any guitar teachers soon, nor yet buying ‘Golf for Dummies’.

Instead of a Bucket List, I give you my Fuckit List:

  1. Spend as much time as possible with the ones I love.
  2. Visit as many places in Scotland as possible.
  3. Keep going to the theatre, watching films, visiting art galleries and concerts.
  4. Read, read, read.
  5. Write, write, write.
  6. Cultiver notre allotment.

I know, I know. That’s only 6.  Not even 10.  How bloody lackadaisical can you get?

by Paul BassettGlasgow, October 2019.

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

All Is Hard Work

Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington
Don’t put your daughter on the stage

 – Noel Coward

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.

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. 

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. 

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, October 2019.

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

Unfailingly Positive

If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all – Daphne Sandford

Kath was a tonic, a boost in times of need.  On nervous first nights, it was her reaction we sought out, knowing she’d always say something constructive.

Weren’t they marvellous? she would beam, eyes glistening with joy. All of them!

You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Somehow, Kath excluded anything unfavourable from her outlook.  She had the happiest disposition I’ve ever known.  She saw only good in everyone and everything.

Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative

Should we instead have gone to the sternest person in the audience, a sceptic or even a cynic?  After all, nothing’s perfect; judgement depends on selecting bad from good.

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between!

Kath’s enthusiasm had an infectious power.  At early, tender moments we need positivity to nourish, comfort and hearten us.                                                                                             

Smile and the world smiles with you. This homily was sorely tested when we visited Moscow to see our son, who was teaching there.

Dad, stop smiling, he urged. The Russians will think you’re a simpleton.

How right he was.  We saw not a single happy expression in the week we were there. 

It became clear why: there’s never been anything to smile about.  On the contrary, gloom has been the order of the day throughout the entire Tsarist, Soviet and present experience.

Experience, of course, is what really shapes our dispositions.  It would be daft to expect ecstasy, elation and euphoria from a people as downtrodden as the Russians.

But some, with less cruel but still harsh backgrounds, have achieved the alchemy of turning past dross into a golden, cheery present.  One such is our very own dear, green city.

The 1970’s.  Glasgow hadn’t just been through the mill.  It was beyond the mill, the workshop and the forge.  The fifties and sixties had not been kind.  Shipyards became graveyards, factories fields. 

Then came the post-industrial 1980’s.  Glasgow Smiles Better adorned shops, T-shirts, even – until Auld Reekie banned Mr Happy – Edinburgh buses.

What turned it around?  A corny graphic, an excruciating pun and a questionable assertion? 

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.  Somehow Glaswegians’ inner warmth found its way on to people’s outer appearance.  Against the odds, Glasgow really did smile better.

We blasted the stour off our facades and the scowls off our faces.

Within a few years we were garlanded with not just smiles, but a Garden Festival too.  Shedloads of season tickets sold in advance. 

And, by the end of the decade, we were European.  Capital.  Of Culture!  Tourists came; restaurants, galleries, shops and cafes too.

Now the slogan is People Make Glasgow.  What if the city had never lost its industrial glory and the slogan was Glasgow Makes Ships?  Would Glasgow have flourished anyway? 

We’ll never know. 

Don’t a place and its people need smiles, comfort and joy? 

Remember Orson Welles’s shameless insertion into Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man:

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!

It’s a crowd-pleaser of a line.  Though, right now, I think I might go for the five hundred years of democracy and peace.

Not many people are like Kath and, thankfully, the opposite type – cynics – are as few in number.   Most of us, I suspect, mess with Mister In-Between: we are sceptical but with a flexible disposition, meaning we could be happier if we tried.

Though moulded by our experience, we still have a fair degree of choice as to how exactly we tune our character and actions – grumpy or genial?

For a period, at work, I adopted a policy of being unfailingly positive.  It didn’t always come easy, zipping the mouth whenever a negative thought began its journey to my lips.  Laying on praise, encouragement and constructive comments.

I think – though you can’t measure these things – it worked.  Over time, people seemed to react more positively than if I hadn’t made the effort.

There were problems, like the colleague who behaved, regardless, unpleasantly.  All I can say is I managed to avoid rising to the bait. 

I hope it improved the working experience – for my workmates a bit, perhaps, but certainly for me.  It felt to be a helpful discipline, like going on a diet. 

I wonder if it also meant – maybe – a slight diminution of ego in favour of others?  If not alchemy, then a hint of altruism?

Does it follow that negatively inclined people are somehow selfish? 

You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment!

Most research suggests that happy people outlive gloomsters.  Maybe if you’re miserable, you don’t want to prolong the misery!

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith, or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

There’s one area where, I suggest, there should be no messing with Mr In-Between, no curbing positivity with judgemental restraint. 

For this particular activity – perhaps the most vital of human relations – I believe our natures should conquer Lady Macbeth’s fear and instead be full of the milk of human kindness.

The raising of children. 

If a parent can nourish, nurture, nurse, succour, sustain, strengthen, support, comfort, encourage, reassure, inspire, cherish, foster, treasure and love, then there’s not much time left for carping, censure and stricture. 

Praise your child, then praise them some more.  React positively, warmly and fondly to everything they do. 

Of course, this benign approach doesn’t always survive a Monday morning struggle to school, nor a Friday evening traipse round the supermarket.  But the drive to be as loving as possible is what counts; children respond to aspirations and can accept if they sometimes fall short.

Unstinting generosity of spirit is not the same as limitless liberalism, setting no boundaries at all.  Saying ‘No’, meaning it and sticking to it, while remaining comforting, friendly and non-punitive – well, that’s the hardest job of all.

This is only my point of view, the alternative to the old ‘spare the rod and spare the child’ I was brought up on.  But, in helping to raise our 4 children and now 2 young grandchildren, I’ve come to learn the advantages of positivity, the benefits of approval and the efficacy of praise.

Unfailingly positive.  Even though you might feel shite inside, give it a try. 

To illustrate this last remark: 

 Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do?
Just when everything looked so dark

Man they said we better accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative…

Altogether now…!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, September 2019.

Feedback welcome, via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Inequality

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible – except by getting off his back – Leo Tolstoy

The figure – hideously contorted, his pink face just recognisably human – lurched into the surgery waiting room.  A small woman seated opposite let out a cry at the shock of this huge, lumbering mess as he tried to sit himself down, spreading his lopsided frame over 3 plastic chairs.

Her cry was overtaken by a bout of vociferous coughing from the man, his body convulsing with the contradictory effort of venting pain while trying to suppress it.

Several minutes passed, with intermittent announcements from the speaker for patients to go to room number such-and-such.  The only other sound came from the twisted man wheezing so noisily that the name-calls were welcome interruptions to his terrible exhalations.

Though praying for her name to come up instantly, the small woman took advantage of her wait to inspect the dreadful creature who faced her.  He held a filthy scarf over his face to stifle his coughs; only a bulbous, purple-veined nose and two red, piggy eyes could be seen.  His body was wrapped in a dirty greatcoat, frayed at every edge – collar, sleeves and hem.

She surveyed his left hand: his fingernails were black and long, almost like talons, at the end of yellowing fingers, skin cracked with bloody scars which ran in reddened lines up to his swollen wrist.

He gave another violent cough, so fierce he almost fell off his seat.  His body writhed wildly and his arms flailed for support.

And that was when the woman noticed something so peculiar, she could hardly believe her eyes. As his left arm shot out, his right hand became visible, up to his sleeve. 

There sat the most beautiful wristwatch imaginable.  Behind its countless hands, dials and intricate workings, she could just make out the words: Patek Philippe.  The band was of a leather so opulent it seemed to caress his wrist.

Her startled gaze spread to the rest of his right hand.  What she saw was even more bizarre.  The nails were beautifully manicured, polished and trimmed to a perfect shape.  The fingers, free from blemish, were scrupulously clean and healthy-looking.  The skin on the back of the hand was soft and supple, without a trace of hairs, as if each one had been lovingly tweezered out.

On the smallest finger, not one but two rings.  The lower gold ring held an emerald of startling lustre – it must be worth a fortune.  But not as much as the thin band of platinum just above it.  Proud of the precious metal sat a glittering diamond, the size of a molar, polished, gleaming, flawless. The lights from the polystyrene-tiled ceiling glinted off its facets.

How could there be such a staggering disparity between the man’s two hands? And the rest of him? 

Any chance of further clues into this mystery was abruptly stopped.  The man whipped his arm back inside the folds of his rancid coat.

Suddenly a name was called that made the man rise clumsily from his chairs.  He careened towards the door, gripped its frame for support, swung his weight down the corridor and into one of the small surgery rooms.

As soon as she remembered who it was – she’d registered his name earlier that day from a quick scan of her patient list – the GP gave a sigh.  The effect of seeing – and smelling – him again in the flesh, swathed in his putrid clothes, filled her with a familiar dread.  How many times had she seen him in the past five years? 

He’d been a patient at the practice for even longer than that.  He kept attending, kept seeming to want treatment, but nothing ever changed.  In fact, his condition – despite all the drugs prescribed, advice proffered and correctives urged upon him – just got worse. 

The man ignored all instructions; he just didn’t seem interested in getting better.  She made the opening effort, because that was the protocol. 

So, how are you this time?  A pause and then his deep, faltering voice followed several rasping coughs:

No better, no worse.

She took the bull by the horns. 

But that’s just not true is it?  You’re certainly not getting better and so you’re getting worse.  You have to face up to it.  I’ve got the results of the tests the nurse did last week.  Your blood levels show cholesterol higher than ever, and given that you’ve got diabetes, your glucose result gave a blood sugar level that’s way too high.

Nothing to be done, he grunted in reply.

His indifference goaded the GP into going further, struggling to keep a calm tone.

Look, Mr Bass, things can’t go on like this.  Surely you can see how sick you are?  You whole body is twisted; your spine is hopelessly bent after both slipped discs that you refused further treatment for.  Look how your shoulders are misaligned.  And you’re limping worse than ever!

Silence.  She felt obliged to push on.

You do nothing to improve your diet – what you consume is ruining your system.  Yet, far from cutting down you appear to gorge more on all the fatty, sugary and salty foods we’ve told you a thousand times to avoid.  You never seem to do the slightest exercise.  You’re overweight.  Your heart simply won’t last the course if you carry on like this.

A cough, another grunt, but nothing spoken.  Now she went for the previously unmentioned. 

This is ridiculous!  My colleagues and I can’t fail to notice the care you take of your right hand, seemingly at the expense of the rest of your body.  None of us can understand it.  My god, if you can afford that watch and those rings, you could afford to have the most lavish health care in the world!  How on earth can you justify looking after one small part of your body so carefully, while you wilfully neglect everything else?

At this last salvo, the man become really agitated.  He shot to his feet, unevenly, and seemed to be shaking with rage that she had dared to refer to the disparity.

Piss off, you stupid cow! he spat.  He smashed his body at the door before reeling back and wrenching it open.  Mind your own fucking business!

And with that he thrust himself down the corridor, past the reception, still cursing loudly, and out of the main entrance.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, September 2019.

Feedback welcome, via e mail, to: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

What Phoebe Did Next

You’re 34.  You’ve had a sitcom on Channel 4 and a knockout comedy drama on BBC.  This gets you lead writer on a spy thriller – even more of a smash.  Everything you touch wins awards.  You co-write the new Bond film.  You voice a droid on a Star Wars movie.

What next?  You could have your pick of the best producers, directors and budgets.

And great actors.  Like Olivia Coleman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Bill Paterson and Andrew Scott (the hot priest), from Fleabag.  Or Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh, Fiona Shaw and Kim Bodnia (Killing Eve).   Or – No Time to Die – Naomie Harris, Rami Malek and Ralph Fiennes.

Nah! 

Go solo.  Back to where it all began.  Just you, alone.  Live on stage.

That’s what I saw at Glasgow Cineworld last Thursday, broadcast live from Wyndham’s Theatre, London. 

Packed crowds in hundreds of cinemas could hear the theatre audience as they buzzed excitedly into the full house.

Then, sans fanfare, she walked on, crew-neck sweater and a pair of jeans, and pamped herself on a high stool, centre-stage.

And she was off.  85 minutes about a self-centred, libidinous woman dodging a minefield of family, friends and sexual partners whilst she holds on to a failing guinea pig café. 

It’s the café that’s failing, not the guinea pig.  Well, not until it gets soundly kicked and might, like Fleabag’s best friend, shuffle off this mortal coil.  Many of the core ideas from the TV series are here (though no hot priest). 

This was the start of it all – a 2013 Fringe First one-woman play.  Though the credits list is now as long as a movie’s, it’s very simply staged, lit and shot.

Another smart move – Fleabag Unplugged.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, September 2019.

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

Scottish actors – pure dead brilliant …

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 Man, Try 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, September 2019.

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

Space is special

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’m too young to 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

Stephen Fry in Mythos: Gods

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The benefits of a classical education – Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), Die Hard   

I never really ‘got’ Greek mythology.  Though I knew odd stories and characters from classical plays and fables, it always remained a fog.

How to make sense of its epic chronicle of gods, humans, legends and symbolisms explaining the world and its creation?

How to get the full picture – enjoy it, even? 

Having listened – pleasurably, via Audible – through 30 hours of Stephen Fry reading his own version of the Greek myths – I’ve become familiar with the territory at least (Chaos, the Cosmos, Mount Olympus etc).

It’s the amazing stories and the figures, immortal and mortal, that open up this world, made daylight by Fry’s clever adaptation from a myriad of original sources.

That, and his regular detours decoding the language links between the Greek myths and our culture today, via the Greek derivations we still use.

This live theatre version has the man himself on stage throughout.  As he ambled on, suppressing ecstatic applause, somebody started a chorus of Happy Birthday, dear Stephen.   62 today!

The pleasure remains in the fantastic stories, told in his mellifluous tones.  The derivation of that word, by the way, is honey.  Fry includes the tale of Zeus, Melissa the bee and the nectar for the gods’ wedding as just one example of how the ancient Greek stories, ideas and language still connect to us so vividly today.

In the book and audio versions, he gives a continual flow of events, making connections between the characters and what they get up to. 

On stage, it’s more a selection of individual stories – cracking yarns with sex, bloodshed, torture, fantastical births, deaths and metamorphoses.

Uranos’s sperm spilling from his severed genitalia into the sea to give birth to Aphrodite; Kronos vomiting up his swallowed children; Zeus’s skull being axed open to give birth to Athena and the final image of an eagle flying towards us, ready to gouge out Prometheus’s liver.  These and other rich episodes told in all their gory.

The show I saw is just the first – Gods – of the trilogy.  He’s also touring Heroes and Men.  You might be able to catch some, or even all, of them over the next few weeks in Birmingham, London, Oxford and Gateshead. 

Me, I’ll wait for Men – the third part yet to be published, so I’ll have another 15 hours or so on the headphones.  A pleasure to come.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, September 2019.

Highbrow and Low-life

 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 posh, middle 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, August 2019.

Bridget Riley

Seen at the Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh

BR1

If you can, try and get to see this exhibition, a major retrospective.  It’s in Edinburgh till Sunday 22 September and then at the Hayward Gallery, London from October to January 2020.  It’ll cost you no more than £15 (£20 in London) and a couple of hours.  I enjoyed it, learned a lot and found it inspiring.

At nearly 90, Bridget Riley is still working, and as this show demonstrates, revisiting work she did back in the 1960’s.  Then she’d started her journey, entranced by the paintings of French artist Georges Seurat (as inthe Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George).  She was heavily influenced by his pointilliste landscapes.  His dots became her lines.

She never looked back, creating seemingly simple yet elaborate configurations of lines, lines and more lines.  At first these were in black-and-white then she introduced curves, colour and increasingly diverse geometrical shapes.  These are deliberately juxtaposed so that they play on your perception.

This is brought right home to you as you go around the exhibition.  Riley’s works are an embodiment of the phrase: It’s all in the eye of the beholder. The art work doesn’t finish with the completed painting; it continues to work with the participation of the viewer.  You literally get to feel something as you look at these paintings.  They seem to move.  They even seem to move you, to make you feel a little dizzy.  In the visitors’ book, someone had written My eyes are hurting!  I also overheard somebody say I’m a bit queasy.

But it’s far from unpleasant – deeply satisfying in fact, as you see more and more patterns emerge from mere lines and shapes.

She was a hit here and abroad, especially New York, and the list of galleries and collections submitting work to this major show is an impressive testament to her great output.

The stages of her fascinating development are organised, appropriately enough, in linear order over 10 rooms, though with a couple of surprises – well, to me at least.

In Room 7, entitled Studies, you see the science behind the art.  The measurements, proportions and layout are meticulously planned in breath-taking detail.  It’s like seeing Einstein’s or Leonardo da Vinci’s workings.  Though the results are artistic, nothing in their preparation is left to chance or impulse.  Assistants help her set up a cartoon, a model created thorough constant calculation and endless exploration.  For this reason, to call Bridget Riley an abstract painter like, say, Jackson Pollock, would be a bit misleading.

And it’s smart of the curators to leave Beginnings to the last room, displaying her early works while she was a student at Goldsmith’s College.  I thought I’d wandered into another exhibition, because they are so different – figurative representations of faces, places and things.  She could draw conventionally but soon moved on to the still exciting lines, shapes and colours which this highly pleasurable show makes the very most of.

I hope you get a chance to catch it.

Seen at the Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh

If you can, try and get to see this exhibition, a major retrospective.  It’s in Edinburgh till Sunday 22 September and then at the Hayward Gallery, London from October to January 2020.  It’ll cost you no more than £15 (£20 in London) and a couple of hours.  I enjoyed it, learned a lot and found it inspiring.

At nearly 90, Bridget Riley is still working, and as this show demonstrates, revisiting work she did back in the 1960’s.  Then she’d started her journey, entranced by the paintings of French artist Georges Seurat (as inthe Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George).  She was heavily influenced by his pointilliste landscapes.  His dots became her lines.

She never looked back, creating seemingly simple yet elaborate configurations of lines, lines and more lines.  At first these were in black-and-white then she introduced curves, colour and increasingly diverse geometrical shapes.  These are deliberately juxtaposed so that they play on your perception.

This is brought right home to you as you go around the exhibition.  Riley’s works are an embodiment of the phrase: It’s all in the eye of the beholder. The art work doesn’t finish with the completed painting; it continues to work with the participation of the viewer.  You literally get to feel something as you look at these paintings.  They seem to move.  They even seem to move you, to make you feel a little dizzy.  In the visitors’ book, someone had written My eyes are hurting!  I also overheard somebody say I’m a bit queasy.

But it’s far from unpleasant – deeply satisfying in fact, as you see more and more patterns emerge from mere lines and shapes.

She was a hit here and abroad, especially New York, and the list of galleries and collections submitting work to this major show is an impressive testament to her great output.

The stages of her fascinating development are organised, appropriately enough, in linear order over 10 rooms, though with a couple of surprises – well, to me at least.

In Room 7, entitled Studies, you see the science behind the art.  The measurements, proportions and layout are meticulously planned in breath-taking detail.  It’s like seeing Einstein’s or Leonardo da Vinci’s workings.  Though the results are artistic, nothing in their preparation is left to chance or impulse.  Assistants help her set up a cartoon, a model created thorough constant calculation and endless exploration.  For this reason, to call Bridget Riley an abstract painter like, say, Jackson Pollock, would be a bit misleading.

And it’s smart of the curators to leave Beginnings to the last room, displaying her early works while she was a student at Goldsmiths’ College.  I thought I’d wandered into another exhibition, because they are so different – figurative representations of faces, places and things.  She could draw conventionally but soon moved on to the still exciting lines, shapes and colours which this highly pleasurable show makes the very most of.

I hope you get a chance to catch it.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, August 2019.

Is naturalism on its way out?

Slide75

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 Caesar, Henry IV, The 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, has just done a production 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.

Last November, 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, August 2019.

images

Love at First Sight

  ‘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 Bassett, Glasgow, August 2019.