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Theatre review 2012: Scottish theatre showed itself to be a powerful force

TS Edinburgh International Festival 2012. 22/08/2012. Theatre du Soleil - Les Naufrages du Foi Espoir performed at the Lowland Hall, Ingliston.

TS Edinburgh International Festival 2012. 22/08/2012. Theatre du Soleil - Les Naufrages du Foi Espoir performed at the Lowland Hall, Ingliston.

  • by JOYCE MCMILLAN
 

FROM the scale and might of the Edinburgh festivals to an intimate show at Oran Mor. Here are the greatest moments from a memorable year.

28 April: Enquirer, Pacific Quay, Glasgow

THe Scottish theatre year always starts quietly, with a long hangover from the pantomime season. By the end of April, though, the spring season is at its height, and has brought us to this top floor of an empty office-block at Pacific Quay, Glasgow. Brilliant evening light slices through the building, as the sun sets; across the river stands the Finnieston Crane, once the scene of George Wyllie’s great Straw Locomotive memorial to Glasgow’s lost heavy industries.

This is the brilliantly chosen space where we gather to watch a fine National Theatre of Scotland ensemble – directed by co-creators Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany – mourn another dying industry: print journalism, and all that it has meant to public life in Britain, both positive and negative. It’s one of the most timely shows of the year, given the continuing Leveson Inquiry. It also turns out to be Vicky Featherstone’s last NTS production before she announces her departure, two weeks later: a poignant and brilliant example of the “theatre without walls” she has championed, during her eight years in Scotland.

2 June: Krapp’s Last Tape/Footfalls, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

It’s a quiet Saturday night, when I troop into the Citizens’ Theatre to watch this double bill of short plays by the mighty Samuel Beckett; but the show soon reveals itself as a five-star example of the change of mood that has swept through the Citizens’ since Dominic Hill arrived as artistic director last year, bringing his own quiet brilliance as a reinterpreter of classic texts. Here, Beckett’s disgruntled elderly hero Krapp – recording his regular birthday tape for posterity – is played with unerring genius by Gerard Murphy. To watch him wallow in Krapp’s incredulity at the pretentiousness of his younger self, pick up the word “viduity” from an earlier tape and roll it disdainfully round his mouth, is to watch the pure essence of human tragedy and comedy, distilled almost into a single breath.

4 July: Mies Julie, Rhodes Box Theatre, Grahamstown, South Africa

When I arrive in Grahamstown, I’ve been travelling for 28 hours without sleep; yet ten minutes into this radical, rewritten version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie – from the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, heading for the Edinburgh Fringe – I am wide awake and transfixed by some of the fiercest political drama I have ever seen, as writer and director Yael Farber transforms this familiar play into a terrifying essay on the politics of land, race and sex in 21st-century South Africa. Later in the year, Mies Julie plays to packed houses in Edinburgh, and becomes a huge hit in New York; but in that moment in Grahamstown, I’m at the very heart of the huge web of international connections spun by Edinburgh’s Festival and Fringe, so important to artists across the world, yet often taken for granted by those of us who live here, all year round.

23 August: Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores), Lowland Hall, Ingliston

It’s a great 2012 Festival in Edinburgh, with a mighty new Fringe venue at Summerhall, and many of the world’s greatest directors lined up in an outstanding Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme. The most memorable night of all, though, comes with the opening at Ingliston of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Paris-based Theatre Du Soleil in their amazing epic about war and peace, cinema and reality, art and life, nationalism, socialism and hope in 20th century Europe. The show not only occupies the great Ingliston stage for four hours, but transforms the whole building; and in the area where we can watch the cast at their dressing-tables, behind swathes of lace curtain, I turn and find myself looking into the eyes of Mnouchkine herself, now over 70, perhaps the finest woman director European theatre has ever produced. It’s a strange moment, full of the special pulse of history that comes when we brush against greatness; then Mnouchkine smiles and nods, and passes on.

25 September: The Guid Sisters, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Almost 25 years on from Michael Boyd’s first production of this great Scots version of Michel Tremblay’s 1960s Quebecois classic about a woman and her trading stamps, director Serge Denoncourt comes from Quebec to direct this new version for the NTS and the Royal Lyceum, and delivers a dazzling, surreal curtain-raiser to a Scottish autumn season dominated by all-female casts and woman-led productions. Tremblay’s play is a famous mix of motor-mouthed working-class comedy and fierce feminist protest; and there’s a chilling moment when Karen Dunbar steps forward to tell the story of a lifetime of marital rape, exposing for a moment some of the sheer human misery behind the laughter.

2 November: Glasgow Girls, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

It’s the press night of Glasgow Girls, Cora Bissett’s rip-roaring new musical about a bunch of real-life Drumchapel teenagers who campaigned, half a decade ago, against cruel immigration rules that were snatching their asylum-seeking schoolmates from their homes, and condemning them to imprisonment, or worse. Almost as striking as the upbeat energy of the show, though, is the audience; crowds of teenagers pouring into the Citizens’. Love it or hate it – and some have called it sentimental – Glasgow Girls stands in a long Scottish tradition of vivid agitprop theatre: not subtle, but full of the kind of direct appeal that can inspire whole generations, and change their view of what’s possible, in the place where they live.

12 November: Operation Phantom Fury, Oran Mor, Glasgow

It’s an ordinary Monday lunchtime, at the phenomenon that is David MacLennan’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre season. Earlier this year, it celebrated its 250th new play since 2004; and today we are watching a short double bill about the impact of Britain’s recent wars. As soon as the second play begins, though – a tiny cameo from Ken Loach scriptwriter Paul Laverty, about an Iraq veteran haunted by the American bombardment of Fallujah with uranium-tipped weapons – something in the performance, by actor Michael Nardone, stuns the audience into rapt silence, as he describes a life tormented by the images of the dreadfully deformed chldren who were born in the aftermath of the attack. And towards the end, Nardone stands and quietly sings the whole of the familiar song A Scottish Soldier, giving full weight to every word. Theatre can often be a showy art-form, large-scale, glitzy and spectacular. At heart, though, it comes down to this: the words, the human voice, the perfectly-focused performance; then the crystalline moment of silence from the audience, before they burst into a roar of recognition, and applause.

 

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