Sunday, 9 November 2014

Perfect Timing: Fear and Remembrance in Doctor Who

[Warning: contains spoilers for those who have not yet seen the whole of Doctor Who season 8]

As you'd expect from a Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffatt has control over space-time. At least, over the timing of his carefully-spaced storylines.

Half way through Season 8, he chose the week of the Scottish referendum vote to unleash an episode which was in every sense exactly what audiences in Scotland - and ultimately, everywhere - needed to hear.

Because it was in the government's interests to preserve the status quo, in the run-up to the September vote people in Scotland and elsewhere had been deliberately manipulated to be afraid of the future, of change, of the unknown.  As its nickname suggested, the campaign for a No-vote had pointedly played on atavistic fears - of losing livelihoods, pensions, security - counselling retrenchment and withdrawal over courage and creativity.

Now, Moffatt is from Glasgow, but his opinions on the Scottish independence movement are his own. I don't know whether or not he embraced the beliefs of the Yes Alliance, but I'm pretty sure his work failed to endorse the tenets of 'Project Fear' that week.

Instead, he gave us 'Listen' - a dramatic and moving meditation on night terrors, bad dreams, childhood memories, adult ambitions and bogeymen under the bed. We learned why boys become soldiers.  We found out that not everything which happens or appears is meant to be explained away.  In the end, we even got to meet a version of the Doctor himself, small and scared and untried, cowering and weeping in his bedroom, utterly alone and afraid of the dark. And by means of one of the timey-wimey twists that make the Doctor's life and Moffatt's scripts so deliciously complicated, his future friend and companion was able to tell him:

"I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anybody ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger.... so listen. If you listen to nothing else, listen to this. You’re always going to be afraid even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion, always there. But that’s OK, because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home."

This week's season finale 'Death in Heaven' was scheduled to go out on the eve of Remembrance Sunday. So it hardly seems accidental that Moffatt's story arc should culminate with a long, hard look at the role and the purpose of soldiers, armies and wars.  

To cut a season's story short, we'd arrived at the traditional climax for all superhero adventures.  The evil genius (in this case the Doctor's nemesis the Master, cunningly transgendered as Missy) was ready for the final showdown.  Good versus evil, personified as an army of Cybermen ready to assimilate the world through reanimating - and weaponising - the dead.

The mythic resonances were many.  Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, clawing their way out of their graves in Gothic grandeur, an armour-suited, cyber-enabled Judgement Day on humanity. It wasn't so much Frankenstein's monster as a nightmare upgrade for amnesiac corpses, clanking around their graveyards awaiting the call to arms. For someone - anyone - to tell them what to do.  As Missy lost no time in pointing out, the dead outnumber the living.  The weight of history was set to come crashing down on our heads.

It was a nightmare very much of our times - the appropriation of the fallen by the heartless, by those without compassion, those intent on genocide.  We saw it in the 1920s and 30s in the Nazi appeal to Teutonic myth and legend, to the wounded pride of a defeated nation.  We see it now, in the cynical attempts of fascist organisations like 'Britain First' to use social media to appropriate the war dead, brand patriotism and politicise grief. We see it even in the social pressure to wear a poppy in public, with those who choose otherwise vilified and condemned in a mockery of the freedom soldiers have fought to protect. And which many of us seem to have forgotten.

But in the end, in stories as in life, all such evil geniuses must be foiled by an act of heroism. The human magic in Moffatt's drama was not contained in some grand international effort, some epic military action.  There was no cavalry to ride in and save the day, no big red button to push. No deus ex machina. In a nod to classic Who adventures, the military might of UNIT was invoked, and they optimistically put the Doctor in charge. But all attempts at that sort of thing failed, and failed badly.

"I am not a good man. And I'm not a bad man. I am not a hero. I'm definitely not a president and no, I'm not an officer. You know what I am? I am an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning. I don't need an army."

Instead the magic came from the sacrifice of one man, a dead soldier from the rank and file who awoke inside his suit of armour and wouldn't obey orders. His defiance came not from political will or the desire for conquest or revenge but from a memory of unconditional love, which infected the hive mind of the army of the dead and altered their purpose. Because Danny remembered he had loved Clara, the human race would be safe.  And because UNIT's late lamented Brigadier remembered he had loved his daughter, the Doctor finally turned and saluted his aluminium-clad remains. 

"We are the fallen and today we shall rise.  The army of the dead shall save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general, nor the whim of a lunatic.  This is a promise! The promise of a soldier! You will sleep safe tonight."

It was a powerful end to a story which placed its faith not in the reasons for war, but in the selflessness of love. It reclaimed remembrance not as a red badge of allegiance or a statement of patriotic belief, but as a simple human virtue. Because we loved, we will remember them. And this week of all weeks, it was perfect timing.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Human Darkness: West Side Story, Eden Court Inverness

Stephen Sondheim sent a good luck message to the cast of amateur Inverness company Starlight Musical Theatre in advance of their production of  West Side Story at Eden Court. Posted proudly on their company's website, it says: " Above all, have a good time.  If you do, the audience will too." 

Matilda Walker as Maria
That's really the crux of a production like this.  This isn't Britain's Got Talent.  Out here on the perimeter, we don't have access to thousands of eager hopefuls who will queue round the block for the chance to sing, to dance, to be be an extra in a big production.   Inverness is a small provincial city with a vast hinterland of underpopulated rural villages. So those who do come forward, the ones who are both talented enough and brave enough to try something as ambitious as this, might not always be what some might call ideal casting.

So it's undoubtedly true to say that several of the Jets look a bit long in the tooth to be "juvenile delinquent" street gang members, and that Lieutenant Schrank's accent veers wildly from Bronx to broad Scots.  And some of the cast - like James Twigg as Tony - have been cast against type because of their undeniable vocal talent.  It's worth remembering here that even the beloved 1961 film version of the show had to dub both of its young and pretty leads with the voices of less photogenic professional singers.  Bernstein's music is notoriously difficult to sing, and to play, and the brave little 21-piece orchestra sometimes stumbles over its more difficult passages.

James Twigg as Tony
But ultimately, none of this matters.  The cast do what Sondheim told them to do - they enjoy it.  And their sheer esprit nullifies any deficiencies in performance or casting, sweeps up the audience and involves them in a wave of enthusiasm.  It allows the very best performers in the company to shine.  Twigg's gorgeous voice combines perfectly with the lovely soprano of 18-year-old Matilda Walker as Maria, and their duets are a delight. The performances of gang leaders Riff (Liam Macaskill) and Bernardo (Garry Black) carry a real sense of threat. The vixenish Anita - played by company choreographer Nicola Gray- is superb both in the spectacle of the 'Dance at the Gym' and the intimate drama of  'A Boy Like That', and Roddy MacDonald as Baby John has the makings of a wonderful acrobatic dancer.

Nicola Grey as Anita with cast

The production is loyal to the book of the original Broadway show, eschewing the changes and cuts that were made for the film and embracing its moments of tragedy and horror. The fantasy sequence framed by 'There's A Place For Us' is magical, though arguably it holds up the action and takes the focus away from the beleaguered lovers out into a wider context - although perhaps that's not a bad thing in an age when so many young people's lives are being blighted by conflict.

The costumes, set and production design are impressive, despite a couple of problems with malfunctioning props and crackling radio mics.  The final curtain calls - static, posed, almost dreamlike - round off a great night in the theatre which was actually more involving because of its imperfections. These were real people, flaws and all, delving into the heart of a very human darkness. 

Photographs by David Darge - courtesy of Starlight Musical Theatre

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits VIII: Shakespeare For Breakfast

Shakespeare For Breakfast

C theatres

Venue: C theatre

We took our leave of Edinburgh on our last morning at the 2014 Fringe with Shakespeare For Breakfast, a truly hilarious but wholly affectionate skit on Shakespeare’s language, plots and characters.  C theatres mount a comedy production under this title every year at the Fringe, and this year’s was a riot.

Modern-day lighting tech Steph finds herself magically transported to an island disguised as a boy called Steve, where she meets a whole cast of warring characters, some of which are plotting to kill their maker. Prince William lookalike Henry V wanders on in a pair of Union Jack shorts; Hamlet is a moody teenager in a hoodie punching “To be or not to be #goodquestion” into his iPhone. 

There’s much punning humour (Ariel from The Tempest is “the font of all knowledge”), gender confusion and doubling up of roles from the small but endlessly energetic company, and of course it all turns out all right in the end with a double marriage.  And you get coffee and croissants as well!!

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits VII: The Bunker Trilogy - Macbeth

The Bunker Trilogy: Macbeth adapted by Jamie Wilkes

Jethro Compton Presents

Venue: C Nova

Macbeth is staged as part of The BunkerTrilogy, which also takes in versions of Greek myth Agamemnon and the Arthurian cycle story Morgana.  Just an hour or so long, it takes episodic elements of the Shakespeare tragedy and transplants them into the trenches of World War I. 

The real star here is the set – a smoky, brillianthly-realised dirt-floored bunker into which the audience squeezes to sit on low benches while the action takes place inches from their noses.  The effect of the drama at such close quarters is devastating, although those with bad backs or particularly long legs should probably give this one a miss.  

Sam Donnelly as Macbeth gives a a powerful performance, playing the tyrant as an bealeaguered officer torn apart by paranoid nightmares as mustard gas swirls and puttee-clad witches in gas masks deliver their prophecies.

At times the drama seems to want to escape the confines of its setting, and I wonder whether the Greek and Celtic myths might have adapted rather better to this treatment than the more structured plot of the Shakespeare play. So much is cut that the narrative barely makes sense, though the play is so well-known that this doesn’t matter as much as it might. This is a nightmare ghost of a play, a fever dream experienced in extremis.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits VI: Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia by Jason Hewitt

To the Moon in association with Theatre Bench

Venue: The Monkey House, Zoo

This unusual two-hander from first-time playwright Jason Hewitt is staged in an old church hall out on the fringe of the Fringe. Defiantly lo-tech, the production needs nothing more than a few lights and a rectangle marked out with tape on the floor. 

It’s particularly challenging to show a boring situation without becoming boring yourself, but Claustrophobia triumphs through careful pacing as we gradually get to know a pair of random strangers in a lift stalled between floors– one a neurotic girl (Jessica Macdonald) who lives alone with her cat, one an ex-soldier (Paul Tinto) who seems confident, friendly and calm.  

As the play progresses, neither character can stay in their box as histories emerge and we learn how profoundly damaged both have been.  Who are these people? Are they really stuck in an lift?  Or is the play a metaphor for the ways in which we imprison and enclose ourselves? 

Either way, To the Moon present a thoughtful piece which deserves a bigger audience and with its minimal production values, would be ideal for touring.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits V: Light

Light by George Mann

Theatre Ad Infinitum

Venue: Pleasance Dome

Some of the abundant opportunities for street theatre around Edinburgh during the Fringe are wholly unintentional, and the best place to experience it is in the queues.  Outside Pleasance Dome where Theatre Ad Infinitum are about to perform Light, we’re forced to listen to a booming preview from an unshaven fat man sporting a blue lycra top and denim shorts.   He believes the show’s nothing more than superficial spectacle designed to appeal to kids and clubbers.  It’s an interesting counterpoint to the shows’s upfront publicity -  “a dystopian future inspired by Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations”, although we’re left wondering why lycra man has wasted his money on something of which he plainly has such low expectations.

The performance takes place in pitch dark: we’re told to turn off our phones and raise our hands if we need to be conducted to an exit.  What follows is total immersion in a world of wordless light and shadow, accompanied by a brutal industrial soundscape punctuated by contrasting Beethoven symphonics.  The story’s a simple one; in a future where government has woken up to the power of digital devices as an instrument of control, we are all compelled to be “connected” to the web via implants in our brains, with severe penalties for illegal disconnection. It’s not an original idea; it has much in common with 1984 or Brave New World, and anyone who’s ever seen Star Trek is immediately reminded of the Borg hive mind where individuality is irrelevant and resistance is futile. 

But the point of ‘Light’ is not its script or its storyline; it’s all in the delivery. This London-based company aims to make drama for multi-cultural audiences that transcends language barriers, harnessing “the universal language of the body”. Intensely physical, the work is halfway between modern dance and a silent movie.  There is no dialogue; instead, any words we need to see are are flashed up in bright letters on a screen at the back of the stage .  There is no scenery either; the actors mime their emotions, twisting and writhing amid dramatic lighting effects and electronic props which create a sinister, hallucinogenic world of terror and control. 

As in ballet, the timing of the performers has to be spot on; there is nothing for them to react to but the lighting cues and the music.   This might not have been the most subtle storytelling, but I found ‘Light’ one of the most disturbing performances of the Festival with much to say about the increasingly sinister way we’re living our lives through light and black mirrors.  Hours later, I still couldn’t shake a genuine urge to stamp on my smartphone.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits IV: Altamont

Altamont  by John Stenhouse

Peppermint Muse

Venue: C Nova

There seem to be a lot of one-man shows at the Fringe this year, and the one we pick – Altamont – was written and performed by John Stenhouse for Peppermint Muse. It’s told from the first-person viewpoint of American music fan Joe, who gets caught up in the burgeoning horror as the last great hippy festival of the 60s turns murderous. 

It’s testament to the talent of middle-aged actor John Stenhouse that he manages to evoke all this purely through words and body language.  There’s little in the way of multimedia assistance beyond some simplistic lighting, a few costume changes and the odd snatch of music, and the script tells us nothing new – but every character comes vibrantly alive, from horrified innocent to drug casualty to vicious Hell’s Angel.  

Stenhouse is a well-built man of a certain age, but his brief impression of a young Mick Jagger, imprisoned on his own stage while the world falls apart around him, is physically accurate and uncannily moving. 

Perhaps allied to a second solo performance piece of a similar length (it lasts abut an hour), this would make a great touring production.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits III: Unfaithful

Unfaithful by Owen McCafferty

Traverse Theatre

Venue: Traverse Theatre

Owen McCafferty’s Unfaithful is having its world premiere at the Fringe this year.  It tells the tale of two couples; one middle-aged, one young, all four struggling to find value in the lives they’ve chosen.  

Weary fifty-something plumber Tom meets loudmouthed seductress Tara in a bar after work while his bored wife Joan cooks dinner at home. Will he succumb? 

Neither Tara or Joan are quite what they seem on the surface, and male prostitute Peter (or is he a failed actor?) is set to make life difficult for them all.   

It’s a complex dance – part bedroom farce, part tragedy of manners - and there are no easy answers to the problems of fidelity and loyalty in a world which gives no-one exactly what they want out of life. 

It’s not the most riproaring night to be spent in a theatre, but the writing is good, the performances -– particularly that of Benny Young (pictured) as the taciturn but deeply conflicted Tom - are strong, and the hi-tech revolving set could easily be replaced by something simpler were this Traverse Theatre  production to tour – a bed, a table and some chairs is really all the action needs.

Bleakly adult subject matter and some brief nudity make the production unsuitable for under-16s.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits II: Alice


Fourth Monkey Theatre Company

Venue: The Space On North Bridge

Queueing outside the cavernous Space on North Bridge at midnight, we’re lectured by a stern Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church and father of Alice, as he marches down the line in full academia regalia. “Pull your socks up, sir! “ he orders one punter in shorts and plimsolls.  As we reach the door, our hands are seized by girls in pink Victorian party frocks.  “Have you come to play with Alice?” they ask, relieving us of bags and jackets and settling us down on the carpet in Alice’s bedroom.

This Fourth Monkey Theatre Company drama is billed as a “dark and magical late night promenade adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, but that doesn’t quite do it justice.  What follows is an immersive, madcap two-hour chase over four floors of the old Victorian building – from room to room, floor to floor, in and out of the dark, driven by a skeletal puppet Cheshire cat and her handlers.  The Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse greet us in a high-ceilinged tea room; we eavesdrop on the cook’s peppery kitchen talk, take part in a frantic Caucus Race and encounter Alice’s terrifying mother – also the Red Queen - on the stairs. 

We, as the audience, don’t so much participate as become an integral part of the unfolding drama and its constantly changing moods.  We dance. We laugh out loud as we run up and down stairs; we allow men dressed as playing cards to decorate us with roses; we forget we’re watching a play and feel that we are dreaming.  There’s plenty of improvisation; it feels as though anything could happen. At one point, a sultry cat whispers into my 19 year old son’s ear: “Don’t worry, little boy.  You won’t be mad for ever.”

Too sinister to be a children’s show, this ‘promenade performance’  requires real physical and emotional energy from the audience – who wants to be left behind when the next scene is about to unfold? – and plenty of space to house its large cast,  elaborate set pieces and wild chases.  Central to the drama is the shifting, sometimes dark relationship between Alice and the White Rabbit – a stuttering Charles Dodgson, made dangerous by his own storytelling power, his imaginative transgressions as Lewis Carroll signified by a pair of white, fluffy ears.

After a devastating final courtroom scene which puts Dodgson in the dock, the Rabbit – and his story - unravels. Childhood has ended and we’re left in the dark, watching Alice crying in the arms of her grown-up sister.  When Alice cries, all the other girls in pink party dresses who’ve led us through the drama cry too.  Suddenly, we feel like voyeurs. And as the last wisp of the dream evaporates, Alice’s sensible sister tells us: “Leave now.  Would you just...go?”  And in silence, without a scrap of applause or acknowledgement, heads bowed, we rise as one and slip quietly out of the building into the sleeping city.

Edinburgh Fringe Benefits I: Big Brother Blitzkrieg

Big Brother Blitzkrieg by Max Elton

Newcastle University Theatre Society

Venue: Sweet
Big Brother Blitzkrieg

Max Elton’s Big Brother Blitzkrieg for the Newcastle University Theatre Society (NUTS) looks set to become one of this year’s student triumphs at the Edinburgh Fringe, attracting packed houses at Sweet and rave reviews.

Locked inside an alternative-universe Big Brother house where no-one recognises a swastika when they see one, five housemates gradually fall under the spell of the sixth – an oleaginous but thoroughly sinister cartoon Hitler, played with darkly humorous aplomb by Christian Cargill.   

Appealing to the vanity of each and playing on their weaknesses and shifting alliances, he uses each to get a little closer to his ultimate aim. Loudmouthed chav Rachel is swiftly evicted, but her boyfriend, strutting Mancunian rapper M-Cat, is given just enough power and influence to survive as long as he can be useful.  Adolf quickly uncovers and exploits the emotional vulnerability of failed entrepreneur Clive and beribboned alt-rock princess Camilla, but recognises a kindred spirit in the control freakery of WI stalwart Maude.   

Hilarious and disturbing by turns, the writing is tight, the performances on point and the climax genuinely chilling.