Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Reflections on Arika, 85A

Three shows under consideration, each worthy of far more discussion and all having been previewed on The Vile Arts Radio Hour: 85a's masterful night of Svankmajer, an evening of ritual and psychogeography (both affiliated to the Glasgow Film Festival) and Episode 2 of Arika's exploration of "the experimental festival." They all share an interest in jumping across platforms (film meets visual art meets performance art, film meets music meets magick and music meets academia meets performance art meets nihilism respectively) and happened in a short time span (four days), thereby proving that Glasgow is still the Capital of Culture.

For Glasgow Film Festival 2012' "Crossing the line" program, 85A ecstatically present the work of genius Czech filmmaker, Jan Svankmajer, in all its demented glory! Each short film showcased this evening will be housed inside specially constructed theatres, coaxing his surreal imagery off the screen and into life before you!
Tailor-made installations, costumed performers, a cosy bar, all beckon you ‘down to the cellar’, and with the main cinema-space ultimately transforming into a thumping discothèque… a night at the megaplex, this is not! Přijít! Vidět! Slyšet!

85A are looking increasingly like the heirs to the great Glasgow Miracle - assuming that the anti-art law doesn't lead to a mass exodus of creatives to Berlin. A collective of talents based in the visual arts, 85A have been busy making films, building installations and events - including The Phantom Band's Christmas special at Stereo - and settled into The Glue Factory as a home. Svankmajer was a natural choice for them: surreal in his mixture of live action and animation, he gives personality and soul to inanimate objects without losing a dark, even sinister atmosphere. And while the film selections were imaginative and thrilling - his big hits like Alice were eschewed for a rounded retrospective - it was 85a's design of The Glue Factory that pulled away from the "night at the multiplex".

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Crackin' and Strippin'

One of my fondest hopes for the burlesque and cabaret revival was that it would rejuvenate contemporary theatre. When acts like Dusty Limits – and many of the striptease artists coming out of the amateur scene – consciously evoke the Weimar Republic, they recognised that vaudeville was more than mere entertainment, and that parody could have a political, sharp edge.

You see, what I am doing here is showing my working. This an interview I did with Peter Scott-Presland for the article I intend to write about striptease.

Scott-Presland was very generous with his answers, and it seems a shame to just take the tiny bit that interested me (it is the stuff about hen parties being dirty). But by editing it for online, this counts as research for my article.

I also reckon the tag “male strippers” ought to have fooled a few readers into coming onto the blog. But read on... it gets really filthy.

But I am going to start with the Press Release, for background...



Strip Search – a solo performance piece for male stripper, by Peter Scott-Presland.  SQUADDIE is stripping tonight, in a B-list gay bar; he is also stripping his soul, to the bone.  As he slips back and forth between his real-time strip routine and memories of borstal, of tours in Iraq, and of surviving on the streets post-discharge from the Army, we get a moving and angry picture of a man trying to better himself in a life which gave him no lucky breaks, with ironic contrasts between the real-life soldier and the military fantasy of his entertainment.  Fantasy and reality combine in a savage climax.  This is a heavily revised version of a script first presented in 2010.

Venue 36, Theatre 2, the Space on North Bridge, Carlton Hotel, EH1 1SD.

Previews: Fri – Sat, 5th – 6th August;  Main run: Mon 8th  - Sat 20th Aug 9.05pm

Titus Rowe was Boyz Magazine Stripper of the Year 2009, but has also a parallel career as an actor and singer, having appeared in parts as diverse as the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance” and Dionysus in “The Bacchae”.  It was this range of skills which prompted Peter Scott-Presland to write Strip Search for Titus.
Peter Scott-Presland has won Edinburgh Fringe Firsts for “Woody Shavings” and “Sir Herbert Macrae – A Tribute”, as well as being nominated for Best Musical in the “Plays and Players” Awards and in the Canadian DORAs, for Dorothy’s Travels.  His musical La Ronde is currently on the shortlist for the 2011 “Offies”. 
Homo Promos has mounted over 20 plays and musicals since its inception in 1988.  It is the oldest gay theatre company in the UK.  It aims to present LGBT themes in an entertaining way which is also accessible to a diverse audience.  Out of the ghetto and onto the stage!

First of all - why did you use striptease as a central part of this performance?

It's a long story!  I was directing a show with the Company from Hell, and the only person in the cast who was reliable, friendly and talented was Titus Rowe; he let slip he actually earned his money as a male stripper.  From then on his life was made hell by a couple of the cast, who said he couldn't be a "real" actor because of this.  Now, I've always thought a lot of skill went into creating a strip act, and he was Boyz Stripper of the Year, so I thought "You c---ts, I'll show you", and devised a show which combined his talents, and blew out of the water the notion that a stripper couldn't be a real actor.

There are three reasons why strip is essential to this show.  Firstly, the guy is baring his soul to the audience, his struggle to make up for a shitty life - I won't give away all the plot -and so the physical strip is a metaphor for his psychological strip, the journey of discovery for the character and the audience.  Secondly, one of my main complaints about one-person plays where characters tell their life stories is that there is so little conflict in them; where's the classic drama structure of conflict and resolution acted out?  Putting in a real strip gives an additional dramatic tension - "will he or won't he?" - to the story.  Finally, as a gay man I've always been very anti-military and not very patriotic either, and so I was intrigued by the way military images are so much part of the sexual fantasies of many gay men.  This show plays on the gap between the reality and fantasy, in that the character has been a soldier in real life, and is playing out a military fantasy at the same time.

The play jumps between "light entertainment" - the striptease fantasy - and something much harder - the past of the main character. how far is this show a serious play about issues, or something lighter and funnier?

I think I've answered that to some extent.  Don't worry, there are quite a few good jokes in the script, but it is a serious play, and quite shocking and harrowing in places.  When we did previews, there was an element in the audience of gay men who came along to see a spectacularly good-looking hunk get his kit off, but by the time we got to the nitty-gritty, they were so into the story and the character that they were looking at his face, not his dick.  And that's how it should be.

How do you feel about the revival of striptease as an acceptable form of entertainment, through the burlesque revival and so on?

You have to separate gay male experience from heterosexual or lesbian experience here.  Stripping is dying on the gay scene.  Twenty years ago there were a dozen strippers making a good living from touring a well-established pub circuit.  The availability of sex and porn on the internet has changed all that.  For lesbians, girl-for-girl strippers are a way of asserting sexuality which for so long was assumed not to exist.  If you know dykes today, they are revelling in the power and freedom to pull - they're just as slutty as the boyz have always been!  The heterosexual burlesque revival is something else again - it involves camp and glamour and is very knowing and post-modern.  But again I think you have to separate young women - a lot of them drama students or ex-drama students - doing burlesque to an essentially theatrical audience, from the Eastern European girls working the Soho strip joints and the so-called "gentlemen's clubs" in a much harsher environment and driven by economic necessity.

Is there a particular aesthetic or social context to male striptease for gay audiences that is not present in heterosexual striptease?

People who strip for gay audiences as well as for hen nights tell me that gay audiences are much better behaved.  The hens are merciless, and much dirtier!  I think this is partly because gay strip nights are a regular weekly thing - Monday Karaoke, Tuesday Quiz, Wednesday Stripper - whereas a hen night is usually something special, a one-off, and much more an excuse for letting your hair down and letting off steam.  For gay men who follow strip nights there's more of an aesthetic, plus there's the aspirational aspect: I could have a body like that, if only I could get my lardarse down to the gym.  Our most appreciative audiences have been women and gay men.  I think straight men find male strippers threatening, though I can assure them that they won't get ravished in the third row in this show!

Vanishing - but where's the Point?

After the National Theatre of Scotland, and possibly The Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and Pint programme, Vanishing Point might be the most important theatre company in Scotland. Certainly, they are the most consistently experimental group working on a large scale: that I don’t particularly enjoy this outing doesn’t mean that I am ignoring their reach and worth.

Interiors was self-consciously a chamber piece, concentrating on a family reunion. Saturday Night revisits this intimate territory, narrowing down to a brief sequence in a couple’s life. Time is condensed, a technique familiar from Greek tragedy which confused Aristotle into presenting “the unity of time” as a feature of drama, so that significant events – moving in together, the joy of unexpected pregnancy, the rather brutal birth and the decay of affection – are bundled into a single evening. If the finale suggests that the action comes from the memories of a mysterious older woman – she holds the same cuddly toy that the young woman brings into the new house – Saturday Night refuses to admit easy interpretation. The slow intrusion of the uncanny, which climaxes in the invasion of a group of chimpanzees, suggests a horror story about the decline of civilisation. The petty problems of house-keeping, such as a leaking roof, are given an occult, sinister, symbolism. Even the intrusive neighbours seem to be more surreal than naturalistic obstacles to domestic bliss.

The underlying tension between the realism of the couple’s activities and the cosmic implications of the distractions does undermine the play’s immediacy. Coupled with the stunning set – Kai Fisher has repeated his trick from Interiors, of encasing a house in glass, creating a literal fourth wall between the audience and players. The emotional distance between the audience and actors is never resolved. Even the nudity and toilet scenes are given a sterility, and director Andrew Lenton is moving far away from the fashion for immersive theatre, with all its immediacy and complicity.

Pamela Carter’s script has her distinctive, disorientating atmosphere. Scenes and themes merge uncomfortably: the drama of a positive pregnancy test fades into a comic bathroom privacy turn. The distressing birth – a woman alone on the toilet floor – is played out next to the father’s joyful stoner session. Carter’s skill, even shorn of words, is the awkward juxtaposition, of using actors like dancers, shifting from one scene to the next without causality, without progress. It is disjointed, consciously, and unsettling.
Yet Vanishing Point never disappear into raw, aggressive surrealism. The tone is measured, incongruously, and warm. Perhaps this prevents the presence of hostile primates becoming too disturbing, or leaves the periodic intrusions of commentary from the television toothless.

This distance from the performance prevents any real compassion, or engagement, with the character’s dilemmas: in doing so, it recalls the shock tactics of 1960s theatre, without the brutal impact. Artaud, a key influence on The Theatre of Cruelty, advocated a theatre that reminds humanity of those forces beyond Mankind that control it: he also rejected the written word for a theatre of screaming. Without the screaming, Vanishing Point’s theatre is undeniably cruel and pictures a world where the human is no longer in control. Saturday Night is a puzzle, a theatre of death and dream that refuses to shock or scare, but meditates on the absurdity of existence. 

The Boy Looked at Johnny

Johnny Woo repeatedly reminds the audience that he is “alt. Drag perf. Art”. Whether this means pairing a beard and killer heels – simultaneously undermining the drag queen perfection, or adding a spoonful of surrealism to routines that increasingly abandon the traditional drag skills of impersonation for something more oblique and cutting, Woo is unafraid to risk amiability in a show that moves towards absurdism.

Woo’s power is based on the tension between drag and live art. The highly strung persona – he screams “don’t touch me” before dragging one audience member into a routine closer to a stag show – transcends the casual cattiness of more, ahem, mainstream drag, heading into neurosis and disorientation. And when Woo adds a social commentary, as in the aggressive techno encore, which challenges homophobic abuse, or in a waking dream of retail work, Woo marries the glamour of drag and the immediacy of performance art.

Managing to reference drag iconography – like Priscilla’s trailing dress – and wandering into more distressing territory – the wild night out he promises frequently turns into chaos, Woo is confident and capable of integrating minor problems into his act. The failure to finish one tongue twister becomes like the juggler who deliberately drops a ball: it’s hard to tell when Woo is undercutting polished professionalism or dealing with genuine miscues from the music maestro. After ten years in the business, Woo is collating various routines, a snapshot of a decade at the line between entertainment and more serious concerns. It’s a deadly combination, and no-one can get more sensuality and emotion from a gorilla mask and long legs than Johnny Woo. 

More Martyrs...

A good two years after the fuss about “the cabaret revival” has died down, a selection of artists are thinking about taking it to the next stage. Even Des O’Connor, who could happily work out the rest of his life seeking cheeky songs to high class variety audiences, has started on a more serious piece – his Once Bitten is a work-in-progress that plays with his jolly MC persona to explore a mid-life romantic crisis. And while Dusty Limits has been toying with audiences for a while – his persona was always hinting at a dark past and a path of decadent rebellion, the polemics of object manipulator Mat Ricardo against X-Factor and the trivialisation of entertainment into a circus of social Darwinism suggest that cabaret is becoming home to the political malcontent.

The current tour of Apocalypse by the Occasional Cabaret has seen some of the old hands getting back into the game: Occasional Cabaret is the latest incarnation of Benchtours, who can recall the vitality of Edinburgh’s Cafe Graffiti. The short revival of Wildcat and 7:84 in 2011’s Mayfesto added novelist and young spark Alan Bissett to their line-up, while dusting off their more satirical numbers. The National Theatre of Scotland is yet to fall for the vaudeville virus, but Scottish Opera made a successful alliance with burlesque juggernaut Club Noir at the 2010 Fringe. Add to this the natural sympathy between Scottish live art institution Mischief La Bas, and Dance Base’s support of Blonde Ambition’s narrative length burlesques – again hosted by O’Connor and starring Gypsy Charms, the mother of Scottish burlesque – and the vision of Linden Tree, to have cabaret taken as seriously as theatre – is already healthy.

The Creative Martyrs, formerly masters of the knowing routine, are undoubtedly Glasgow’s brightest hope for an integrated cabaret theatre. Tales from a Cabaret, despite being stuck in Fingers Piano Bar, has gathered support over two Fringes, and their recent version at The Art Club demonstrated how far the duo have come since their early days as a cheeky turn at The Rio Cafe’s Spangled.  Based on The Martyrs' mythical history, it concentrates on the tale of two turns in a fictional nation where decadent enthusiasm slowly gives way to  state-controlled art.

If the genius of The Martyrs is their fusion of some very experimental mime techniques, sinister story-telling and sarcastic sing-alongs , the strength of Tales comes from its ability to merge the bureaucratic horrors of Eastern communism with the shifting strategies of modern technology to control the market. The List begins as a charming parody of Facebook’s enthusiasm for collecting information, before slipping into a more oppressive atmosphere.

 The heroes of Tales, a dancer of ambiguous sexuality and an escape artist dragged deeper into government approved circles, are caught up in forces beyond their comprehension: Jakob and Gustav Martyr never lose their sardonic glee, even as they celebrate the coming end of individuality.

Their finale may offer a glimmer of hope, but The Martyrs’ vision of a society under total control is frightening and contains more satirical punch than anything from a major Scottish theatre company. Without ever reducing themselves to lazy, left-wing sloganeering, The Martyrs are a reminder of how entertainment can retain a sharp edge. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Lord of the Flies

Sell A Door Theatre’s version of Lord of the Flies is quite clear in its intention: reducing Golding’s famous tale of the beast within children to a conflict between the values of Ralph (an old-fashioned British legalism) and Jack (a mixture of pagan savage and fascist control freak), it tells the story directly for a young adult audience. There is little attempt to interpret Golding’s vision of school kids gone wild, preferring to follow Golding’s value system and conclude with the arrival of the grown-ups as a sort of divine salvation.

The play’s script is at times unnecessarily full, but the company’s performances push through its more turgid interludes. Broad lighting cues capture the atmosphere of oppression heat on the novel’s island, while the simple set –featuring symbolic “fires” and “mountains”  - never transcends its low budget.  Sell A Door’s approach is simple, stressing the narrative and acting over theatrical potential, and relying on its talented young cast to guide the plot’s moral seriousness.

By emphasising the central battle of values, the script fails to individuate the supporting characters: Simon, the mystic and sacrificial victim of the novel, becomes a jabbering wreck, and Sam’n’Eric, inseparable twins, are merely close friends rather than Golding’s double headed entity. Only Piggy retains a strong voice: with his mellifluous accent, he becomes the moral centre for Ralph’s leadership.

This Lord of Flies is aimed at students who are familiar with the novel, bringing out the shades of Golding’s morality through the characters’ personalities and school parties from the classroom into the theatre. As outreach, it is dynamic. The decision to avoid more radical approaches to sound, set and atmosphere is disappointingly conservative. Even the mass ruckus between the boys is safe and realistic: a more dynamic interpretation could lead to a more engaging take on The Flies.

The novel itself is dated by Golding’s anxieties about primal instincts taking over, although his message that the Beast is Man remains resonant. Sell A Door make honest, no-nonsense theatre, connecting to the original text without complicating its meaning.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Once Bitten

Far too astute to fob his audiences off with some tears of a clown shtick, Des O’Connor has more to sing about than mischievous sex and grotesque adventures. Still in the face-paint that made him the poster-boy for neo-cabaret decadence, O’Connor perverts the predictable reveal of the comedian’s tragic truth by mapping a journey of emotional recovery.

Although clearly a work in progress, OnceBitten is the theatre that cabaret has been threatening to make since the neo-burlesque revival sneaked vaudeville in the back door. Better known for comic numbers about necrophilia or the joys of inexpensive alcohol, O’Connor uses his song-writing skills, and surprisingly adept poetic finesse, to grapple with the emotional challenges of the romantically distressed. With The Creative Martyrs as a backing band, alongside members of alternative Edinburgh rockers Broken Records, O’Connor revels in the opportunity to display a sensitive side: co-star Zoie Kennedy is the perfect foil to O’Connor contortions, sending up burlesque, echoing his dream of escape from fear and providing a feminine perspective on the travails of mature love.

The masks and costumes of performance are not merely used as props to signify deceit: Once Bitten mines the metaphor of artist as lover. The slow deconstruction of O’Connor’s verbal dexterity – the quality that has made him an in-demand compere – draws parallels between the actor’s role and the deceptions of social intercourse. O’Connor plays an absurd macho man, frightened of commitment but full of bravado – and he plays the traditional cabaret structure like a choreographer using ballet technique, as a foundation for a meditation on failure, love and insecurity.

The supporting cast, including visual artist and dancer Juliette Jeanclaude, are allowed space to establish their own identities: The Martyrs skulk, their inability to take anything seriously goes  to tragic lengths, Kennedy washes away O’Connor’s pretence with an artful yet authentic charisma. Just about retaining the classic format of a series of turns – a song, a dance, a funny walk and gentle audience invasion – O’Connor pokes at the magic of redemption behind the glamour of the mask. 

Dark Dancing Times

Since this year’s Big Lie is Financial Meltdown – notice how no-one can afford to pay their rent these days – it is unsurprising to see a revival of miserable theatre. Both Occasional Cabaret and David Hughes Dance are touring some bleak visions around Scotland – although only the OC are promising a free Apocalypse with every ticket.

Catching Hughes’ Last Orders at The Arches, following a grand fuss at The Fringe and a reworking that emphasises the Dance, was a surprisingly warm and witty pleasure. Of course, cannibalism and disco debauchery is not everyone’s delight, but the critical response to their Traverse run was hysterical. Somewhere between the calls for a funding cut – the National Theatre of Scotland had got behind this – and statements that made Last Orders sound like an updated version of The Rite of Spring, Al Seed’s retelling of the Sawney Bean legend tours BDSM, live art and disco duets with a sly irony.

There’s no grand narrative, more a series of vignettes of Bean, captured in his mundane monstrosity by Alex Rigg, and his family seducing and punishing each other. After an opening that shackles the glitch-physicality of  Seed’s distinctive insect contortions, the show follows Bean down the club and back to his dungeon, alluding to domestic violence and the horrible claustrophobia of the family that kills together, stays together.  

The shocks are gradual: Bean’s final rant, before he is led away either to justice or some more bondage play, is surreal and stoned; the erotic flirtations of the dance floor give way to more sinister choreography and the company revels in their diverse skills. BBoying, ballet and a splash of dry, precise technique that hints at Cunningham are seamlessly meshed, and Seed’s can of Beans suggests a horror that is hidden inside everyone’s carnal desires.

Apocalypse, meanwhile, is a cabaret that goes for the political throat. As the cabaret revival gets its own Scottish Festival, Occasional Cabaret recall leftist agit-prop theatre through turns that concentrate on moral evils rather than spiritual possibilities. There is a strong sense of good and evil throughout the evening, giving a secular reading of various religious virtues and, most directly, mocking the arrogance of a ruling class that wants to punish the ruled for their own profligacy.

If the Apocalypse never quite materialises, the two female performers sing and skit their way through all Four Horsemen easily, drawing loose connections between Third World poverty and First World Greed, racism and sin, middle-class guilt and millennial paranoia. The cabaret format is ideal for this kind of satire: ironically, the structure of song, on-stage banter and monologue could have done with a little more variety.

It is a sign, not of the end times but our latest turn of the economic cycle that there is a space for clearly political theatre like this. There’s a confidence in its targeting of military, economic and social evil that flows oddly within the fluid uncertainty of much neo-cabaret: recalling the 1980s, it struggles to connect with more contemporary understandings that implicate us all.

Nevertheless, these works are a quick snapshot of theatre in 2011: dark, anxious and immediate. DHD has a more modern sensibility – we are all Sawney Bean – but as long as the government keeps reminding us how poor we are going to be, the nights will be drawing in earlier.

The Big Lie, By Mr Criticulous

Okay, cards on the table time. I don’t believe in the Financial Crisis. Economic theory is like natural selection: I am sure it happens but I can’t explain it. I get my political information from the News In Briefs column in The Sun, and I am not going to trust Sam from Shoreditch, 25, when she tells that David Cameron’s understanding of the Big Society reminds her of Plato’s myth of Er.

I did do some Latin once upon a time and remember one phrase: cui bono? It’s the only question to ask and translates as – what bastard gains from this bullshit? The Financial Crisis seems to be plenty bueno for politicians who fancy making cuts to the arts and benefits, or privatising education. So forgive me my cynicism. The FC is BS.

The way that this Big Lie impacts on me is that theatre companies and visual artists are shitting their pants. Artistic types are prone to melodrama and holidays in other people’s misery: there’s plenty of otherwise creative, intelligent types who still think gritty is a synonym for realism.

Now, I love the arts, and I am prone to a spot of melodrama myself. I’ve dedicated the past five years to it, throwing away a promising career in boring school-children to make an eclectic radio show that celebrates music, dance and culture. But there have been moments – like that month of zero income and I hadn’t eaten for three days, and went to see a show that used hunger as a metaphor for social insecurity – when I want to eat the actor.

My gripe about artists aside, let’s get back to the pant-shitting. The catch-phrase of the artist is that the cuts we are seeing now in state funding are only the start. “Mark my words,” they say, and grimly rub their hands together. “This is only the start.” They are, at least, socially conscious enough to acknowledge that the parallel cuts in the Health Service are worse.

However, as a Platonist and a critic, I am fascinated by the power of illusion. If I wanted to convince the world that there was indeed a sudden shortage of money, I’d start off by cutting the funding of the arts, quickly followed by education. My cursory knowledge of Shelley dredges up something about artists as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, an idea that I have clung to as my career ship in criticism has sunk below the waves of debt. I reason that art is so important that the writer, in their role of companion, advocator and supportive critic, is part of a cycle that contributes to human development. The artists help to shape the world. In my fantasy, where I am trying to make the world believe that there is no money left for them after I bought my second house in the Scottish Highlands, I’d take all the money away from the artists and make them struggle. I know enough about artists to know their art reflects their life.

And so it works a treat. Plays are written about the economic downtown. Conceptualists grapple with intellectual poverty. Of course, it doesn’t translate into mass panic – too few people really engage with the arts – but the people who do fancy a nice night out at the theatre or an opening at The Market Gallery are plunged into the creative expression of financial despair. If these are the people who make TV shows, participate in democracy, hold together management structures: well, it’s enough to have them worry. They then pass that worry on, through their work, at their dinner parties.

Pretty soon, we’ll all start to believe it. But a democratic government would never deliberately do something like that, would it? Never slash state funding of the arts simply to ensure an intellectual pessimism that would be eloquently expressed by those who dedicate their lives to creativity and communication? And there aren’t loads of plays about how bad the world is, are there?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Blonde Ambition

There are three production companies who have been instrumental in the Caledonian Cabaret Comeback: in Edinburgh, The Itsy Collective had brought alternative cabaret beyond the Fringe, while Blonde Ambition have expanded into a national powerhouse. In Glasgow, Rhymes With Purple have tethered their theatrical enthusiasms to ongoing variety programmes - both The Not So Secret Society and Dr Sketchy have allowed kept the vaudeville rolling - and stand behind the upcoming Cabaret Festival.

The lack of rivalry between these companies sees Blonde Ambition wholeheartedly joining in the Cabaret Festival programme: their Fringe flagship, Vive Le Cabaret, is visiting the west coast. Vive became the toast of 2010's Fringe (The Year That Cabaret Broke, featuring a great flame war over burlesque aesthetics, the debate that encouraged the Fringe to award cabaret its own, dedicated section of the brochure and the proliferation of variety nights and solo sit  rooted firmly in the cabaret traditions). Its association with the Pleasance saw it take on one of the Courtyard's larger venues in 2011, and solidify its glamorous reputation.

Promoter Julie Ann Laidlaw consciously harked back to both the French tradition of showgirls and glitz - recruiting Edinburgh jazz troupe Hustle as part of the core cast and featuring Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure - and the diverse booking of the Old Time British Vaudeville. Des O'Connor, the hardest working ukulele strummer still at large, established himself as the perfect, cheeky MC, both surprised at his fortune in being surrounded by sexy men and women and confident in his ability to guide the crowd through a thoroughly mixed bill.

The secret ingredient of Vive is consistency: having worked with the Kitsch Kats, O'Connor, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer and object manipulator Mat Ricardo , Laidlaw ensures that Vive has a powerful core cast: from here the guests are a bonus. And by unashamedly aiming at the top end of the market, she is able to attract the big names, from Amanda Palmer to Camille, alongside up and coming stars and the occasional comedian.

Although it is supposedly impossible to review a constantly shifting variety show, Vive has a clear aesthetic: it's about glamour, it's mischievous, it is polished and the acts are skilled. That it has a clear identity, effectively preventing it from being interchangeable with other shows and undermining any possible sense of competition within the scene for audiences, Vive has targeted an audience and knows itself. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Scottish Ballet, Autumn 2011

Reaching the end of Ashley Page’s time as Artistic Director, Scottish Ballet are in a state of transition. Pulling the company out of a creative slump at the turn of the millennia, Page asserted a clear voice for contemporary ballet that neither abandoned its classical roots nor pandered to the past. A careful strategy of expanding the repertoire of established works – Britain’s iconic choreographers Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton are both represented – alongside new commissions from rising stars gave Scottish Ballet a fresh, innovative energy.

Page’s choices have not always been successful: Ashton’s Scenes des Ballets is an exercise in classical aesthetics and geometry that saw the company struggle even as it delighted more conservative audiences, and Page’s own Alice received a mixed critical reception. Yet Page's tenure has been consistently imaginative and bracing. Enticing English contemporary ballet celebrity Richard Alston north for a version of Carmen and adopting Trisha Brown’s challenging For MG gave a signal that Scotland was not willing to wither in a nostalgic twilight.

The Autumn Season offers a double bill that both signposts the company’s current status and suggests two readings of contemporary ballet. Jorma Elo illustrates Steve Reich and Mozart with a style that builds new movement onto the ballet basics, while Pennies From Heaven is Page’s attempt to graft a 1930s aesthetic onto a traditional technique. In radically different ways, they test ballet’s potential for evolution: Elo links it to the dynamic abstraction of Reich’s minimalism, Page adds a vintage glamour.

Pennies From Heaven is the more traditional: there is even a narrative hidden between the series of dances, and the romantic yearning so often present in the classics spills over into uncomfortable ménages. Aside from a few crowd-pleasing, humorous interludes, such as the cowboy fancy dress amble of Roll Along Covered Wagon, Pennies studies hidden passions behind comfortable desires. Perhaps thanks to its sentimental nostalgia, Pennies showcases the solo and duet skills of the company and comfortably charms the audience to an ovation.

Kings To Ends picks up on the baroque elegance of Mozart and the lineal precision of Reich, moulding the dancers into awkward, abstract shapes and relationships. A minimal set and subtle lighting frames the dancers, Elo giving away few clues about the emotions or story behind the choreography. The sense of playful exploration around the possibilities of a trained physique is hidden by a vigorous urgency, especially during Reich’s Double Sextet. When this intensity gives way to a more humorous set of interactions, Elo’s choreography steps back from the intensity and weaves baroque patterns around Mozart’s Violin Concerto. It’s a stunning exercise in mathematics as movement.

Unfortunately, there remains the weakness of Scottish Ballet: a ragged corps. Elo’s sprightly design is not always delivered tightly, and the absolute precision demanded by terse music and rapid shifts of style is only occasionally delivered. The ambition of Scottish Ballet, and their mission to become relevant and vibrant is admirable, yet the revolution will not be complete until they cleave to the discipline that transforms technical skill into a unified, focused machine.

The Creative Martyrs

It is rumoured that The Creative Martyrs are so dedicated to their art that they timed their weddings to avoid the festival season. While there is much mystery surrounding the true identity of Gustav and Jacob – even their trademark white face paint is the subject of much controversy – they have undoubtedly emerged from the nascent Glasgow cabaret scene to become a threat to dearly held theatrical values.

The Martyrs have the ability to defy definition. A career that has included stints in the Old Time British Music Hall and the cutting edge of the Weimar Republic’s decadent underground, they pull influences from both popular and decidedly unpopular culture. Whether they adopted the white face in tribute to European mime or the more caustic Eastern European theatre-makers like Derevo remains unknown: yet both their cabaret turns and extended show, Tales From a Cabaret, owe as much to the awkward squad of Russian drama as it does to the vaudeville that their musical interludes suggest.

Equally able to convert a wedding party into a mass choir celebrating the imminent end of times or distract a burlesque audience from the surplus of exposed beauty, The Martyrs flicker between genres, as mercurial as their accents and exploding the simplicity of the barbed lyric with a demonic and wry humour. Their subjects – the encroachment of the controlling state, the necessity of laughing in the face of terror, the ambiguity of decadence in the face of emerging horror – belie the ready humour, twisting cheerful cello and unctuous ukulele to a serious purpose.

The Glasgow Cabaret Festival will see them attack on all fronts: restaging the Fringe hit, hosting the Gatsby Club and sneaking inside Des O’Connor’s experimental new work. Often, the vaudeville revival boasts eclecticism through a variety of acts. The Martyrs are a one-stop-shop for silent satire, moving mime, poignant poetry, delicious deviousness, apocalyptic analysis, wrecked romanticism and knowledgeable nihilism.

Cabaret Festival... by way of introduction...

I came in late to the neo-burlesque revival. I tried to pretend that it was still happening when I picked up on the shows that were being led by the first generation of Scottish performers, but I knew it was already reaching the end of its first decade. By the time I saw some of the New York acts who had really been at the cutting edge – Fringe 2010, and the astonishing Wau Wau Sisters – the British scene was already retreating. The smart money was shifting emphasis away from stripping to the vaudeville revival. The transition of Blonde Ambition promotions from High Tease to Vive Le Cabaret symbolised the dramatic change. Des O’Connor, still a doyen of comperes, was introducing variety acts and less strippers. This year’s fringe was all about the high concept acts, like Dusty Limits. Neo-burlesque was healthy, but not part of the mainstream revolution that capitalised on the Fringe brochure’s dedicated cabaret section.

I have chatted about the rise of cabaret inThe Skinny, had guest appearances on the Radio Show from Frodo of the Glasgow Cabaret Festival and written about how Dusty Limits is well beyond conventional ideas about cabaret. There’s little to add here, except by way of cross reference. But the main theme of my cabaret criticism is that it is being moved forward not just by its own artists, but by theatre companies who have recognised its accessibility, satirical potential and humour. In a time when YouTube is defining the way that information is received – not by itself, but it will do as an example of the trend – it’s not surprising that cabaret is back. It’s short, sweet, direct and a bit sexy, sometimes.

Arches Live

The ethos behind The Arches programming is often translated as “the freedom to fail”. It’s an unfortunate phrase, suggesting that artists have a chance to take the piss, rather than explaining that a festival like Arches Live! allows  performers to take risks and step out of their own comfort zones. Since they have let me have a crack at developing Performance Criticism, and I was really out of my comfort zone there, I am positive about this credo, whatever way it gets expressed.

Since I spent most of Arches Live! in a black box, I only managed four shows out of the thirty odd. I’ll start with the usual caveat: AL! is best enjoyed as a block, not as individual pieces. There’s no real way to tell what will tickle your fancy from the short blurbs or even my magisterial previews. Even the audience has to take risks.

My evening of watching took in a gore-splattered pantomime (The Ratcatcher) anti-musical theatre (Gideon and the Woodentops) and an NTS supported journey into spiritualism (The Medium). Even if they had been all as shitty as The Ratcatcher’s shreddies, that’s still a better night than listening to Radio 3, alone, again.
As a quick survey of where Scotland’s young performers are at, AL! suggests that they are influenced by hip-hop, musique concrete, the bouffon (a sort of predatory clowning), discarded religion, radio plays, taut acoustic rock and the absurdity of actors’ lives.  If Ali Maloney, the Kielty Brothers and Ross MacKay stay true to their visions and become the future establishment, 2025 ought to see a Christmas show at the Lyceum that retells the story of medieval witch trials on a stage of dog-shit with a forty piece orchestra of metal pipes and acoustic guitars.

That’s a good thing, in my opinion.

Mahoney’s Ratcatcher kicks off, half an hour of grubby ranting and grotesque barbarism. A swipe at celebrity culture, it enjoys The Arches’ unique dungeon atmosphere, presenting two characters happily at home in the sewer. And while these apparitions are gap-toothed and obsequious, their self-abasement is torn  between a desire to entertain and be socially useful. Their limited ambitions may have prevented them from seeing themselves as anything more than a potential sweetmeat for their betters – and the baroque violence of the language mirrors the degradation of their situation- but Mahoney is working on a genuine punk rock pantomime. Ugly, politically astute and satirical, Ratcatcher is a note towards a contemporary revival of the grand guignol.  

Gideon and the Woodentops is a stunningly accomplished musical. Of course, the Kielty brothers pretend it is an “anti-musical comedy”, hoping to avoid the stigma of Broadway success and triviality: nevertheless, a cast proficient in both singing and acting and rocking out the acoustic guitars makes this scaled down, episode tale of religious persecution an easily accessible treat. An antidote to the sentimentality of much musical theatre and discussion of Scotland’s past  - the humour of a murderous Gideon turning actors into Bibles is founded in an anti-Puritan history lesson – it is not difficult to imagine this touring and wowing audiences across the country. That is, until they visit the Borders, where the incest jokes might lead to them sharing their characters’ sad fate.

Last stop is The Medium. Ross MacKay is a puppeteer – the most moving moment is when he uses his skills to animate a mail bag – striking out into an uneasy combination of historical and personal reflection. Spiritualism is given a quick debunking while MacKay considers his own religious past: deep in the narrative is his internal battle between secular compassion and the values from an immature Christianity. As a work in progress, The Medium maintains an unsatisfying tension between the personal and historical aspects, at times jarringly honest, sentimental or shallow.

The next day, I sat on a panel discussing the economic impact of the credit crunch on the arts. For a while, it turned to the role of the critic – thanks to my insistence that the critic is more important that the object of critique, most likely. I blathered about the need for a dialogue between artists and journalists, which I am now calling to avoid starring these shows.