Theatre reviews: Arches Live! 2009/Clara

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IN THIS autumn of 2009, the Arches Live! festival is full of young people fiercely reclaiming their own stories, and the stories of their families. Sometimes they do it in anger, sometimes in love, sometimes with a terrific, yearning lyricism; and their work, in this annual celebration of cutting-edge Scottish performance, raises big questions about why this act of reclamation seems so necessary. Perhaps it's the natural response of a generation accustomed to seeing experiences instantly reinterpreted on screen, almost before the event. At any rate, the work tends to be imperfect in detail, but thrilling in its cumulative effect, a kind of seizing back of power from those big beasts of global culture who would rewrite history to suit themselves.

So last weekend, we saw Catriona Easton and Harry Wilson's Pictures Of Heaven, about remembered moments of joy, and Jess and Tim Thorpe's Chip, about their own father-daughter relationship in post-1980s Britain; as well as Kieran Hurley's Hitch, a brilliant retelling of his journey to join the demonstrators at this summer's G20 summit in Italy. This week, there's Lucy Gaizely's Eggshells, Sweetheart?, exploring her own experience of young motherhood, raising three small children in a society where autonomous individualism has become the norm; and John Cavanagh and Maria Gil's Pirate Radio, which involves a gentle reassessment of a 25-year career in the world of broadcast music and sound.

Gaizely's show is, in some ways, a typical piece of modern performance art, full of seriously strange images and deliberate non-sequiturs. She frequently stops to offer hugs to members of the audience; strips off five pairs of knickers with the words "Yes I Am Still Present" felt-tipped on them; sings a sharp satirical song about the invisibility of motherhood while applying an electric pump to one of her breasts; uses the resulting milk to make a cake mixture in a baby's bath, and ends the show miming the iconic image of Courtney Love's shambolic concert appearance shortly after the death of her husband, Kurt Cobain, one foot in the cake mix, the other in a boot, and lipstick smeared all over her face.

Some of this verges on the silly; but taken as a whole, the show speaks volumes about the difficulty of combining the rhythms of motherhood with those our sharp-edged society, which no longer knows how to accommodate the intense sense of intimacy and connectedness that comes with the mothering experience.

Pirate Radio, by contrast, is a low-key, slightly old-fashioned looking show, even if it is streamed live from the Arches onto Tony Currie's internet radio station, Radio Six International. John Cavanagh sits at a dimly-lit desk conducting a late-night radio show – complete with an ageing, whisky-toping special guest from a legendary Scottish crossover band, also played by Cavanagh – and reminiscing about his experiences as an antique shop owner turned broadcaster. Developed by Cavanagh and director Maria Gil with the creative advice of composer Neil Davidson, the show features some thoroughly weird and enjoyable music, ranging from Tibetan throat-music to the electronic sounds of radio itself, arranged into strange and poignant sequences that seem both contemporary, and somehow deeply nostalgic.

And then there's Post-Show, by a company called Liars, an angry, youthful breakout piece that abandons personal history for a brave attempt to explore the whole subject of creativity, power, rebellion and exploitation through the metaphor of a post-show discussion after a successful production of a new play.

Theatre about theatre is often both dull and annoying; but here, with the help of questions brilliantly planted among the audience, the cast of five – chairperson, director, actress, writer, and drunken actor – soon become locked into a hugely dramatic tale of what happens when capitulation to economic necessity is somehow re-framed as personal choice, and an act of free will. There's an element of facile director-bashing here; British theatre needs more directors with creative ideas, not fewer of them. Towards the end though, this 45-minute play goes very deep indeed, into questions about the whole idea of self-sacrifice for a collective purpose, and how easily that shades into sexual and economic exploitation; and it features five thrilling performances, from David Overend as the demon director and from Chris Hall, Shantha Roberts, Rob Drummond, and Lisa Gregan.

It's difficult to assess how much personal history is involved in this week's Play, Pie and Pint show at Oran Mor; but what is clear is that Wilma G Stark's monologue Clara describes a family situation so extreme that it makes difficult dramatic material. The speaker, Christopher, is a boy raised partly as a girl by his mad mother after she castrated her husband, and laid the blame for his death on her beautiful 12-year-old daughter, Clara, who is sent away never to be seen again.

Bullied, physically damaged and mentally destroyed in the aftermath of this horror, Christopher finally snaps, and descends into murderous violence himself; we meet him pinning up a few of his own fragmentary artworks in the institution where he is now serving out his life. David Walshe gives a brilliant, heart-stopping performances as this vulnerable, tormented and weirdly wise figure, fiercely sceptical about the reasons for his own fame, and for our presence as an audience.

The play itself, though, sometimes has a slightly hollow ring – not least because it adopts the high-risk strategy of presenting all these horrors to us through the eyes of a character who was, at the time, an innocent child. The actor is superb, but the voice of the text often seems contrived, and designed to maximise a sense of victimhood and horror without actually transforming the story into anything more than a horrifying curiosity.

&#149 Arches Live! 2009 at the Arches, Glasgow, and Clara at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both continue until Friday.