Friday, 19 September 2014

Five Performances for a Post-Referendum Scotland

Audience (Ontroerend Goed)
Many critics got upset because the company abused a plant in the crowd, missing the subsequent deconstruction of 'the manufacture of consent' and dismissing the Belgians as shock-tactic nihilists. The last half hour, however, demonstrates how easy mass manipulation can be, and the problems that 'doing the right thing' can bring to anyone who mistakes observation as passivity.

Bloody Mess (Forced Entertainment)
The show that will keep Forced Entertainment on the syllabus of University Theatre Studies until the subject is finally rolled up into the Faculty of Neo-Darwinian Analysis, Bloody Mess  is a glorious fusion of many themes and competing ideas. One especially powerful strand is the gradual revelation that apparent communication is, in fact, just the juxtaposition of individuals following their own journey and accidently bumping into each other. Plenty is said, but no dialogue ever emerges. 

Fall (Zinnie Harris)
Apparently, in the navy, when the tempest rages and men are swept
overboard or eaten by a giant squid, a wily old jack tar will mumble: 'never mind, worse things happen in a Zinnie Harris play.' Miserable dystopias are cheap in theatre, ever since Beckett got chuckles from Godot: it is Harris' attention to detail and broad poetic scope that lift her apocalypses above the mundane. Dominic Hill's direction often found the beauty in the brutality, and Fall's finale renders the end of the world... delicate.

Jesus, Queen of Heaven (Jo Clifford)
Remember how I bang on about the hermeneutical spiral? This is a good reminder of how the event (in this case, the claims for the incarnation of the Judeo-Christian God) is given meaning by the process of rereading and recontextualisation. Note: does not contain fundamentalism.

VSPRS (Les Ballets C de la B)
This rarely needs a reason to be included, but... like Bloody Mess, it has strands to spare and the way that the awkward, the physically unique and the other are capable of moving towards an ecstatic moment of unity probably make it the one of the most vivid and visceral expression of the holiness of all human life (at least in the tradition of European contemporary dance). Plus it had Iona Kewney in it, and a gypsy band playing psychedelic versions of Monteverdi.

How Criticism Changes The World

This article is nominally about the result of the referendum. It's really about theatre criticism, because that is all I understand.

The celebration - and theft from an essay by Rowan Williams -  of the hermeneutical spiral has always been a basic tenet of my radical subjectivity. Apart from having the kind of name that lends a patina of pretension to my theorising, the spiral encourages the inclusion of critical responses within the interpretation of a text, making my job as a critic both creative and integral to the performance event. When I really get going, it can justify statements like 'there is no play, only its readings,' 'the audience creates meaning in collaboration with the artists' and 'the criticism is the event'.

Usually, I like to use a theological example to explain the mighty spiral, but I am being topical. The result of the referendum will serve. 

My hypothesis is that nothing exists in isolation (uncontroversial, I think, and very Buddhist). The result (or the play - like Spoiling at The Traverse which I saw last night) is merely a manifestation of a particular moment, revealing something but, thanks to the wonder of human subjectivity, not everything about itself.

The referendum revealed that the majority of Scottish voters (defined through a civic rather than ethnic national identity) wished to retain the Union. There has been some response already - David Cameron had to get up all early - but the 'result' is seen as some kind of event in itself. I'm sure someone has called it an expression of the will of the people, or a travesty, or something. 

As a critic, the event in itself is meaningless to me: it is just a thing to be observed and reflected, and through the critical process, be transformed. I am sure that this cliche has been used: 'it's not the end, it's the beginning.'

The manifestation that is currently 'the result' is not yet fully revealed: it is now in a state of becoming, through interpretation... I saw Spoiling last night, a play that has had lots of reviews, won a Fringe First and is 'fixed' in its scripted form. As I was watching it, it spoke of a future in which Scotland was independent, and the foreign minister of the fledging state was up the duff off one of the rUK's negotiators.

Reflecting on it now, it is not the same play. The future it predicted cannot come to pass, there will be no opportunity for over the table nookie between the governments of rUk and Scotland. I am rereading it. Last night, it had a (slightly dark) hope for an independent nation. Today, it is a relic of a moment that never happened. It has changed.

More than ever, the critic is crucial. Shape the result: it only exists in collaboration with its audience. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Dr Laura Bissell: Opinions on Opinions...

I was delighted to read Dr Laura Bissell's thoughts on performance and politics over at The National Collective Website. Not only does it draw a nice distinction between Performance (the stuff on stage) and performance (Schechner's idea of all human behaviour being understood as a form of performance), it promotes Joseph Beuy's wonderful image of 'everyone an artist' in a positive, constructive vision.

Bissell concludes, after comparing the hilarious welcome given to the MPs arriving in Glasgow this week to the staid debate staged between Darling and Salmond, that artistry isn't the preserve of those who make things recognisable as 'traditional art,' but an application of a particular attention to an area. It is a beautiful thought, and one that is supported by the more creative political activities of the past few months - if not necessarily in 'the traditional arts'.

Bissell also notes that 'Professional Performance was slow to respond to the referendum.' That '
in the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe less than 10 of the 3000 shows addressed the independence debate' might say more about the composition of the Fringe than the lack of enthusiasm for the subject, but her recollection of Andy Field's complaint against EIF director Sir Jonathan Mills, who tried to place his festival above politics, suggests an anxiety within certain sectors of the arts that 'politics' is a demeaning association.

Fields mocked the pretension of apolitical art: 'Perhaps when he leaves Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills can try his hand at creating the world’s first food-less restaurant.'

Discussing a production at The Arches - an example of capital P Performance dealing with the Referendum - Bissell (along with director David Overend) worries about the image used for Wallace. The reasoning here is less coherent to me - there is concern about whether the image of William Wallace has been ruined by Mel Gibson, or whether the poster is playing into a stereotypical idea of Scottishness, I think. 

Where I do disagree - but that is probably more about emphasis than anything else -  is with the assertion that Performance has 'left it late' to come in on the conversation. There have been some explicitly Referendum based plays - Alan Bissett left little room for doubt in his Fringe entry, Yestival  was a Big P tour and David Hayman's Coming Storm was unambiguously about the relationship between the Labour party and Independence aspirations. Going back years, Turbofolk  was Bissett dealing with national identity - and the consequences of the Union; Dusinane an intelligent meditation on the history of two nations. I'm not sure that theatre has under-performed in this case (and if it has, there are always the works of Rachel Maclean for a touch of performative complexity...). 

I would say that a few NO plays might have rung the changes though... strange how nothing came out of that.

Arches Live Thoughts

No Emotions, Please: We're Actors

In an intriguing commentary on Ubu and The Truth Commission (Handspring, EIF 2014), Joyce McMillan champions Brecht's insistence on a theatre that plays to the mind, not the emotions. Recognising that Brecht overdoes it a bit (in theory, at least), she is suspicious of those performances at the Fringe that provoked tears - even worrying that emotionalism has become the gold standard of theatrical quality.

McMillan's manifesto is not about promoting cerebral theatre over the emotive: rather, she draws a contrast between those plays that seem to offer a personal, emotional catharsis and others which hint at the possibility of social change. While her analysis of Ubu emphasises the performance's use of alienation (the characters are too unpleasant to encourage identification), she allies the production to political theatre that suggests change is possible.

Of course. there is a context to this contrast: like the Pope and the Queen, McMillan is careful not to be explicit, but the Referendum (c) is lurking in everything these days. The preference for cerebral theatre is an appeal to reason as a higher virtue than emotion. That she ignores political plays that are emotive - or indeed, the dynamic emotionalism of Full Tilt ('Angie Darcy, as Janis, so brilliant and intense both musically and dramatically that it lifts the hairs on the back of the neck') which expertly captured the fury of Janis Joplin's rock rebellion - is not to decry their value, but state that theatre is a place for discussion and reflection. 

Brecht's ideals for 'epic' theatre were an designed antagonism to Aristotle's 'tragic' theatre - the previous gold standard (lasting around two and a half thousand years, through various interpretations). Aristotle is difficult to interpret clearly (first of all, he probably didn't write his Poetics, but they were notes made at his lectures by students), but his notion of katharsis  is all about 'purging' emotions. The odd bit of classical theatre criticism left, aside from Aristotle suggests audience did get worked up (the anonymous Life of Aeschylus says that women miscarried when the Furies came on in The Eumenides), and Brecht's resistance to sympathetic characters was an original approach.

As McMillan points out, Brecht failed, anyway: Mother Courage is often produced as a meditation on either the bravery of Courage's daughter (when she alerts a village to approaching troops at the cost of her own life) or Courage's indefatigable energy. 

Even if there is something austere about rejecting emotional responses - Presbyterian even  - McMillan's thesis does challenge models of theatre that reject the intellect in favour of easy targets...


Scotland’s newest all-male classical vocal group


Winter Gardens, Glasgow Green
Thursday 25 September 2014
6.00 - 8.00pm

Scozzesi is a brand new all-male vocal group from Scotland. This collective of eight, talented, classically trained singers and two dazzling pianists, will make their debut performance at the Winter Gardens, Glasgow Green on Thursday 25 September from 6.00 - 8.00pm.

The group takes its name from the Italian for “Scottish men” and the singers are from Angus, Ayrshire, Fife, Lothian and Glasgow. The group was the idea of Daisy Henderson of Classical Musicians Scotland. Daisy said, “I first heard these young men individually at auditions and was instantly struck by how beautifully they sang. I wanted to bring them together because I thought hearing the quality and tone of their voices in four part harmony would be a powerful musical experience.”

They offer a mix of opera, operetta, songs from the shows, traditional Scots songs, popular songs and a few comic surprises along the way, with new arrangements specially written for the group.

With a total of ten musicians, Scozzesi will normally perform as a quartet of singers plus pianist, but for the launch, all members will take the stage. 


Llyr Williams * Elias String Quartet * Peter Sheppard Skaerved City Halls, Glasgow 
25 – 28 September 2014

Beethoven’s Violinists – a musical lecture 
Peter Sheppard Skaerved (speaker/violin)
Beethoven began his working life as a professional string player, and nurtured close collaborations with some of the great violinists of his time throughout his career. This illustrated talk includes the UK premiere of a caprice by Franz Clement (to whom Beethoven dedicated his Violin Concerto), recently discovered in Norway by British violinist and Viotti Lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music, Peter Sheppard Skaerved.
Thursday 25 September, 7.30pm Recital Room, City Halls (unreserved seating)
Tickets: £5
Running time: 1hr

Early Beethoven - Sonatas & QuartetsLlyr Williams piano and Elias String Quartet
Beethoven: Sonatas Op.2 Nos.1–3
Beethoven: Quartets Op.18 Nos.2 & 3
All of the music in this concert was written by Beethoven in his twenties: a young man making his way in Vienna and learning from the masters, Haydn and Mozart, whose influences are apparent in these works. 

Llyr Williams opens his weekend of performances with the first three sonatas Beethoven published (and counterbalances them with the last three sonatas on Sunday). The Elias String Quartet offers a sharply contrasted pairing of Beethoven’s early string quartets.
Friday 26 September, 7.30pm
Grand Hall, City Halls
£15 (£13)
Running time: 2hrs 10 mins including interval

talk: Getting to the Heart of Beethoven’s First Three Sonatas
Join pianist Llyr Williams as he explores Beethoven’s first three sonatas from a pianist’s perspective, questioning what they tell us about Beethoven as a performer.
6.15pm - 7pm: Recital Room, City Halls (unreserved seating)
Free entry to ticket holders of the 7.30pm concert on first come, first served basis

Post-concert event: Beethoven in the Bar
Beethoven loved a drink and conversation in a tavern as much as the next man. Join the artists in the bar to discuss tonight’s music, the great composer and more.
9.45pm - 10.30pm: Candleriggs Bar, City Halls
Free entry to ticket holders of the 7.30pm concert on first come, first served basis

For just £50 enjoy an exclusive pass to see every concert in this special weekend. Please note that these are strictly limited so book now on 0141 353 8000!


Beethoven’s Circle Beethoven’s approach to composition was fundamentally collaborative. He noted in his diary: “Every day, share a meal with musicians, so that you can discuss instruments, and techniques and such”. 

This resulted in a dynamic interrelationship between his music and pieces written by his friends, including Anton Reicha, the Rombergs and the young Ferdinand Ries. Peter Sheppard Skaerved and friends introduce some of Beethoven’s contemporaries and play their music.
Peter Sheppard Skaerved violin/speaker
Neil Heyde cello
Aaron Shorr piano
Anton Reicha: Overture ‘Sappho’
Andreas & Bernhard Romberg: Variations ‘Se Vuol Ballare’
Beethoven: Variations ‘Se Vuol Ballare’
Ferdinand Ries: E flat Sonata
Beethoven: Kakadu Variations
Saturday 27 September, 4pm
Recital Room, City Halls
(unreserved seating)
£7.50, Running time: Ihr

Talk: Getting To The Heart of Beethoven’s Quartet, Op.59 No.1
The Quartet Op.59 No.1 shocked Beethoven’s contemporaries as he strode into new territory - it was even described as ‘unplayable’. Join the Elias Quartet to explore it from the inside out.
6.15pm – 7pm: Recital Room, City Halls (unreserved seating)
Free entry to ticket holders of the 7.30pm concert on first come, first served basis

Postlude featuring Elias String Quartet Beethoven: Quartet No.11, Op.95 (“Serioso”)
A quartet Beethoven considered fit “for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public”, Op.95 is an astounding work – Beethoven’s shortest quartet, and one of his most rewarding. A delightful close to the day.
9.45pm – 10.15pm: Grand Hall, City Halls
Free entry to ticket holders of the 7.30pm concert


An illustrated talk: Getting To The Heart of Beethoven’s Last Three Sonatas
A musical journey like no other, Beethoven’s last three sonatas were written concurrently between 1820 and 1822. There is plentiful evidence to suggest that he viewed them as a cycle – ideas pass from one to the other and create an immense musical canvas. In advance of his performances of all three sonatas in the evening, join Llyr Williams for his personal insights and perspectives.
Sunday 28 September, 3.30pm
Recital Room, City Halls (unreserved seating)
Free but ticketed
Running time: 45 mins

Beethoven - The Late Quartets Elias String Quartet
Beethoven: Quartet No.12 in E flat, Op.127
Beethoven: Quartet No.13 in B flat, Op.130

Beethoven wrote his late quartets to commission, and often their gestation and composition overlapped. This was far from uncommon with him, but when it comes to these works, both completed in 1825, the miracle is how utterly different they are.
Sunday 28 September, 4.30pm
Grand Hall, City Halls, (reserved seating)
£10 (£8)
Running time: 1hr 50 mins including interval

Beethoven - The Last Three Sonatas
Llyr Williams piano
Beethoven: Sonatas Op.109, 110 and 111
Beethoven’s last three sonatas over a towering climax to his cycle of 32. Each is a great work in its own right, but grows in stature when heard as part of this cycle of three. There is plenty of debate regarding whether or not Beethoven intended them to be performed together like this, but it is indisputable that they make an epic musical journey.
Sunday 28 September, 7.30pm
Grand Hall, City Halls (reserved seating)
£10 (£8)
Running time: 1hr 15 mins with 2 short pauses

Middle Beethoven -Sonatas & Quartets 1801-08 
Llyr Williams piano Elias String Quartet
Beethoven: Sonata No.12 in A flat, Op.26
Beethoven: Sonatas Op.27 No.1 (Moonlight) and No.2 (Quasi una fantasia)
Beethoven: Quartet No.7 in F, Op.59 No.1
The music of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ is dominated by maverick departures from the classical heritage of his youth. Unpredictable, ceaselessly inventive, this spirit of adventure and experiment manifests itself in innumerable ways, but most obviously in the freedom that he increasingly allows himself formally, harmonically and melodically. This concert offers a flavour of the sheer range of his output in just seven years, from 1801-1808.
Saturday 27 September, 7.30pm
Grand Hall, City Halls (reserved seating), £15 (£13)
Running time: 2hrs 10 mins including interval