Sunday, 25 September 2016

Björk - Hammersmith Apollo. 24th September 2016. Live review

Björk - Hammersmith Apollo

Live review. 24th September 2016.

In recent years Björk has not played many live concerts outside of festivals, so when I found out that she was playing in London when I happened to be in town I jumped at the chance to get a ticket. This meant meeting up with a German punk with a 1980s British electronic pop obsession, who had flown from Berlin for the concert, and a woman who had flown in specifically from Spain to be here. Her next trip to Britain will be to see Korn and Limp Bizkit play in Glasgow. 

I know it's a song by a different Icelandic mob,
but it seemed an appropriate place for pre-gig drinks
It is fair to say that Björk has a diverse collection of admirers, as eclectic as her music has been over the years. After my German friend and I had traded stories of recent Adam Ant concerts we had been to we settled down to see what Iceland's pop pixie had dreamt up for us tonight. Sitting next to me was another guy from Glasgow. He was seeing Björk again for the first time since he saw her play the Barrowlands with The Sugarcubes in 1988. For me it was my first time, definitely one ticked off of my personal bucket list.

Björk at the Hammersmith Apollo, London 
As the lights darkened the string orchestra who would accompany her all night took their places. With an elaborate, lacey mask covering her face and dressed like a diaphanous, white jellyfish complete with dangling tendrils, she came on stage and launched into the songs from her recent Vulnicura album. When originally launched the album was co-produced by Arca and the Haxan Cloak. The lyrics told the story of the recent end of her marriage, her rising and falling voice crackling with emotion. A few months later a new version of the album was released, Vulnicura Strings; her voice, no percussion and a string section accompaniment. Seeing this live it had an almost Baroque quality to the sound. With just her voice and the Aurora chamber orchestra, here a 26-piece strings section, it's a sound that could have been made anytime in the past 450 years since the violin was invented, if anyone had ever imagined it before now. Despite it being 28 years since she sang at the Glasgow Barrowlands her distinctive voice and vocal style are undimmed. In fact I was blown away by the energy of her singing.

Björk and the Aurora Orchestra 
Her fluorescent costume flicked through various colours as she hovvered in front of the musicians, the biting History of Touches a stand out performance from the first half.

Björk at the Hammersmith Apollo 
After a quick break, and change of costume, in the second half she went through several older tracks, now given string arrangements. Dressed in red, this half had a different energy and pace, her voice the lead instrument, playing just off the rhythm of the orchestra throughout. With three songs from the 1997 album Homogenic, and The Anchor Song from her 1993 album Debut in her final encore, there was plenty for the fans that have been with her all the way to enjoy. Only at the end was I aware that I'd been grinning warmly all evening. 

Aloof, ethereal, weird, dramatic. If ever one person seems to encapsulate the place they come from, Björk seems to be Iceland, the land of ice, fire and elves, condensed into one human being. A work of art.

Holiday snaps from beautiful Iceland 

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus

The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus

I have previously written about how much I enjoy seeing the works of ancient Greece in our theatres when I wrote about the National Theatre of Scotland re-working The Oresteia by Aeschylus earlier this year at the Citizens Theatre. The resonances in the modern world of these works first performed 2500 years ago are crystal clear. Barely five months later and Aeschylus is soon to be back on the stage in Scotland with The Suppliant Women being performed at the Lyceum Theatre in October 2016.

"Aeschylus. Translation & Lexicon"
The old edition of Aeschylus translations which I have at home starts with a quote on the frontispiece from an earlier translator. In a preface to his 1824 translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, John Symmons, complaining about the challenges he faced wrote...
"The times, customs, religion and manners are changed; words which vibrated to the ear, and went straight to the heart, of an Athenian, causing a thrill through their crowded theatres, are known to us only by the dim light of lexicons, context, and glossaries; and even when understood, we search in vain for corresponding expressions in or own language."
Knowing that I was definitely planning to go and see the new version of The Suppliant Women at the Lyceum Theatre by David Greig I read through Aeschylus' words today. One thing that jumps off the page from the off is the fact that the "the times, customs, religions and manners" do not seem to have changed so much.

The Suppliants is the first, and only surviving part, of a tetralogy of plays telling the tale of the Danaides. These 50 women, the daughters of Danaus, leave their home near Syria and flee across the Mediterranean Sea in boats and land in Greece. They are being pursued by 50 sons of their uncle Aegyptus who wish to force them to marry. When they arrive in Greece they seek asylum in Argos. King Pelasgus is reluctant to take them in but puts it to his people who welcome them warmly. As a Herald from Aegyptus arrives to drag them away, King Pelasgus threatens the Herald and takes the women into his city.

The Supplicants by Aeschylus
The echoes in our world of today barely need spelled out, but let me do just that. There are many translations and editions of the story but I am quoting from the one that I have. This was a kind gift to my wife from an old family friend many years ago; a 19th century edition of 2500 year old plays, given to a 14 year old.

Unusually for a Greek play the chorus play a part as characters in the story, here made up of the 50 women fleeing their homeland. In the opening lines they tell of their journey.
"wafted here in ships having set sail from the mouths of the Nile.....having left the divine land bordering on Syria, we fled."
Refugees arriving in Lesbos
If this scenario is unsettling in its familiarity, the language that the chorus use to describe those whom they are fleeing is similarly disquieting in its modern echoes.
"...the male-abounding insolent swarm, sprung from Aegyptus..."
Whilst he was British Prime Minister, David Cameron was accused of dehumanising migrants by describing those trying to get to Britain to seek a new life as "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean". This type of language, relating to insects rather than people, was then quickly picked up and used again in subsequent days by Nigel Farage, and the Daily Mail and The Express newspapers. Comparisons were drawn between the way The Daily Mail described refugees coming to Britain today to the inflammatory and irresponsible way it described Jews fleeing Nazism as "pouring into" Britain from Germany in its pages in 1938.

Daily Mail newspaper articles in 2015 and 1938
The women hope that the local gods have been kind to them by allowing them calm waters to cross the sea and they humbly plea for help from Jove at his altar, suppliant, laying boughs here.
"...fearing my friends, if there is any one who cares about this flight of ours...But there is even to those who fly from war afflicted an altar, a defence..."
...a "surer defence than a tower" they hope. They invoke Apollo, a god who like them was "once exiled" from heaven. King Pelasgus arrives, suspicious of their foreign appearance.
"Of what country is this band that we address, not Grecian in its garb, delicately clothed in barbaric robes and many folds of are more like to Libyan women"
Syrian women arriving in Greece
When they make their case for help Pelasgus is torn between the possible consequences whichever way he acts; fearful of bringing danger upon his city or the shame of not welcoming strangers.
"...lest at any time the people shall say, if perchance any thing fall out not such as we desire to happen, honouring strangers you have destroyed the city."
When the women threaten to hang themselves from the temple walls, King Pelasgus puts it to the people of the city, who vote wholeheartedly to accept the women, and threaten exile for those that do not.

King Pelasgus asks them to leave their suppliant boughs at the temple "as a sign of their trouble." To me this phrase just made me think of the piles of (often useless) life-jackets lying on beaches in Lesbos, the modern sign of the troubles today's refugees have faced. Bound to people and clutched by people making perilous crossings, more in hope than expectation that they will bring some safety.

Life jackets on a beach in Lesbos, Greece
The Herald of Aegyptus' sons arrives to demand their return. In fear the women call out about the fate they fear awaits them in their homeland.
"There await us draggings, draggings and stabbings, bloody deadly cutting off of heads."
King Pelasgus dispatches the Herald sent from their pursuers, demanding he show respect for the gods and the will of his people. He offers the homes of his city to take in the women. They enter the city walls and safety, but know that they cannot tell what fate lies ahead for them. They are in the hands of the gods. Their father, Danaus, cautions them.
"But every one bears a ready evil tongue against a stranger, and to speak slander is an easy thing."
I was going to put a photograph of Nigel Farage here to illustrate the point, but instead an image of refugees trapped at a camp near the northern border of Greece. Here they face further hardship, suspicion and help seems in short supply. A modern chorus whose voices seem to be going unheard.

In last week's newspapers Scottish local authorities were being praised for welcoming their 1000th Syrian refugee to the country, a third of the total which the UK has accepted. However in Greece, a country struggling with a crippled economy, 856,723 refugees arrived in 2015, like The Suppliant Women, by sea. The attitudes and fears of the rulers and people of ancient Argos are playing out there on a daily basis. The scale of the situation is difficult to grasp.

In modern Greece the ancient, crumbling walls of Argos still sit atop a hill in the Peloponnese, but in the time of Aeschylus the audience would know them well, the city where the women sought help. Like the words of Aeschylus, these ruins still speak to us today, and his words speak with an alarming authority, a comment on recent events in the Mediterranean.

The walls of Ancient Argos, atop a hill in Greece today
The spectacle of Ancient Greek theatre is lost to us, as are many of the major works. Things go badly for the Danaides in the next stage of the story, but we will never know how Aeschylus told this part of their tale. 

Theatre of Dionysus, Athens, where Aeschylus' plays were often performed

With the original in mind, obviously the piece of theatre being created at the Lyceum Theatre will use this as a springboard for a novel work. Re-uniting writer David Greig, director Ramin Gray and composer John Browne who worked together to produce The Events, it would appear a nod to the music of Greek theatre is being planned. So it is with great anticipation that I aim to make a birthday trip to Edinburgh to see the work of Aeschylus on stage again.

Tickets are available at the Lyceum website (but do seem to be going fast).

Friday, 2 September 2016

Ela Orleans - Circles of Upper and Lower Hell

Ela Orleans - Circles of Upper and Lower Hell - Album launch. Stereo, Glasgow

Live gig review, Stereo Cafe Bar, Glasgow 1.9.2016

I can't say that I've ever before come away from a concert thinking "I really must make a point of reading that 14th century poem about Hell". However that was the situation I found myself in as I meandered back from Stereo in Renfield Lane last night, after watching Ela Orleans perform at the launch of her new album. It has obviously not been an easy process getting to the point where there was an album to be launched. An earlier incarnation of the album was released last year as Upper Hell, produced by Howie B. In the sadly familiar story of music industry machinations however, that led to the artist who made the work not getting paid and lawyers having to get involved. With that now behind her, and with the support of Night School Records, the music as envisaged by Ela herself has now seen the light of day. 

Ela Orleans album, Upper and Lower Circles of Hell
As the title of the album suggests it is inspired by Dante's Inferno, and many of the pieces on it play on Dante's journey down through Hell, led by ancient Roman poet Virgil. I have had it sitting on my wobbling pile of "to be read" books for a while, but after having the album playing for the past wee while in the house, my 16 year old son has picked it up and got right into it (he tells me that after the Inferno part, Purgatory and Paradise are a bit disappointing). Mixed in with the grand ideas of Dante, the music feels very personal and private. Ghostly vocals and echoes of other tunes bounce about in your head listening to it. There is the obvious spirit of the early electronic music of Daphne Oram and the sound collages of Delia Derbyshire here. Listening to the album I was also thinking back to one of my favourite LPs that I haven't listened to in years, The Eurythmics early nu-wave sound from In The Garden. 

Stephen Pastel, who features on Ela's album, was DJ-ing downstairs at Stereo throughout the evening. Head of Night School Records, Michael Kasparis (Apostille) started things off, with a fierce performance of his own one man industrial-electronic sound. John Lemke (Lost In Sounds) gave us a more soothing, cinematic set. If you judge a person by the company they keep, this augured well for the main event tonight.

DJ set from Stephen Pastel
Ela Orleans often uses the tagline "movies for ears" and the last two occasions that I have seen her perform she was accompanying the visuals of other artists. In 2014 she performed with Swedish artist, Maja Borg at Counterflows in Glasgow. Then earlier this year she provided a live score to the 1929 silent film Lucky Star at the Glasgow Film Festival. That performance was at the beautiful Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Queens Cross Church in Maryhill. It seemed fitting that for music that engages more than just the ears we were tonight again housed in a Mackintosh designed building. The former Daily Record printworks on Renfield Lane, now Stereo Cafe Bar, may not be one of his most celebrated buildings but if you pay attention there is a feast of elegant features built into the structure. I won't labour the metaphor too much, but I liked descending into the stripped and bare basement of this elegant building to hear the music of a descent into Hell.

Mackintosh's former Daily Record building after dark. Now home to Stereo
On stage against a kaleidoscope of images projected behind her, Ela layered her gauzy soundscape together. It is an atmospheric and immersive sound, but has occasional pop sensibilities and catchy riffs breaking through. The haunting vocals of track Circle One was what I was trying to sing to myself on the way home last night. The influences from a Catholic upbringing in Eastern Bloc Poland, to working with noise artists in New York, to life among her current world of the Glasgow independent music scene have created a unique sound all her own. I hope now that she has signed up to do a PhD at the University of Glasgow, Ela Orleans has been snared by our city for the foreseeable future. She creates so much beautiful work for us that we are all richer for having her here.

Now if my son would finish off Dante's Inferno I could finally make a start on it...

Buy the album here

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Edinburgh Festival 2016 - Edinburgh International Festival

Edinburgh International Festival 2016

I only realised a couple of years ago that the Edinburgh Festival is a whole pile of festivals all happening at the same time. The fringe, the art festival, the book festival, the gardening festival (I made one of those up). The main Edinburgh International Festival has a much more focused and normally highbrow atmosphere. This year the world of alternative popular music has elbowed its way into the International Festival with Mogwai, Young Fathers, Sigur Ros, God Speed You! Black Emperor and Karine Polwart in the programme alongside the likes of the Russian National Orchestra and Scottish Ballet. Several of these concerts it was impossible for me to get to from Glasgow and others were sold out very quickly. I made do with a couple of Edinburgh jaunts to wonder around the galleries, catch some fringe theatre and book readings. There is only so long I can join the Edinburgh festival-going crowd before I want to scream though. There is a particular demographic that fills the city in August, and it feels like a good proportion of them will all trudge to the Henley Regatta and Glyndbourne at other times of the year.

I did make it to two International Festival events at the Usher Hall. A concert by a Swedish Orchestra and one by a Senegalese superstar. 

Hello Edinburgh

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra - Usher Hall

Beethoven Piano concerto No. 1 in C major Op 15
Mahler Symphony No. 9

English conductor Daniel Harding, led the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall on Friday night. First up was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, which was actually the third piano concerto he had written, but the first to be published. Written by the 26 year old Beethoven he performed the piano himself on the first performances of the piece. As you would, he has written the best parts for himself and Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov took this role. His performance was mesmeric, without being overly showy and flamboyant. At times hunched over the keyboard with his face inches from his fingers I fear he has an old age filled with back pain ahead of him if he keeps that up, but his playing was fantastic.

After the interval the orchestra had to pause for a while until someone silenced an electronic alarm (getting a round of applause when they managed). Mahler's 9th Symphony is often described as a contemplation on death and the first movement was indeed very dramatic. I found the rest of the evening rather colourless after that and a bit disjointed. Beautiful crisp playing throughout, particularly the strings, but the music didn't sing out to me.

Summer in Scotland

Youssou N'Dour - Usher Hall

One of the greatest figures in African music, "Senegalese superstar" Youssou N'Dour was in the incongruous setting of the stuffy Usher Hall on Wednesday night. His appearance was like a slash of light and warmth in a cold, wet Scottish summer. His audience were a refreshing change from the majority of Edinburgh crowds that I've been sat amongst this week, with many black and younger people dressed up to the nines mixed up with the usial Edinburgh Festival white, middle class, elderly audience.

I have seen him play once before, but that was 26 years ago now, a brief set in a Wembley concert for Nelson Mandela, so I was greatly looking forward to seeing him here tonight with his band in full flow. The band were impressive, 10 musicians and an acrobatic dancer and two singers backing him. With four of them on percussion rhythm was to the fore.

Youssou N'Dour at the Usher Hall 

Youssou N'Dour himself is a slight figure, out front in his shiny white suit, with a voice that's uniquely his. A few songs in we were given a piece of impromptu Scottish cabaret as ushers tried (ineffectually) to usher an obstreperous man away from the front row, where he had planted himself. They needn't have bothered as Youssou soon had sections of the crowd on their feet and dancing at the front of the stage and in the aisles. He slowed things down for a bit with "7 Seconds" before whipping the crowd up again as the tumbling dancer started jumping over the head of the djembe player, who was now draped in a Senegal flag from the crowd.

A captivating performance. Would love to have seen him in a more relaxed venue. Maybe next time.

Look. Youssou even brightened up the Edinburgh weather 

Edinburgh Festival 2016 - Edinburgh Festival Fringe Theatre

Edinburgh Fringe 2016  - Theatre

I've come all the way to Edinburgh and the first two things that I saw were set in a Glasgow school and a Glasgow night club toilet. Quick reviews of a few of the theatre performances I saw at this years Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Glasgow Girls - Assembly Hall ****

Produced by National Theatre of Scotland Glasgow Girls, by David Greig and Cora Bissett, is based on the story of seven Glasgow school friends from Drumchapel who stood together in 2005 when their classmate and her family, seeking asylum in Scotland, were taken from their home to be forcefully deported. Based upon true events the song-filled play has been touring since 2012 but I have only now caught up with it. It is being shown in the Assembly Hall on the Mound at present, and the hall doesn't do it any great favours - a room filled with multiple restricted views and echoey acoustics, which made some of the speaking a bit difficult to discern.

Assembly Hall on The Mound, Edinburgh
The story is probably very familiar to most people now and is told with energy and enthusiasm. I am not a great fan of musicals I must admit, so would generally rather be shown things than told them through song. However when Terry Neason takes centre stage as Noreen, one of the women who organised look-outs for Home Office vans doing dawn raids, the whole story suddenly feels more real and visceral, largely due to her acting abilities and phenomenal voice.

First General Assembly, Edinburgh
 "Did he just say that the cheesemakers shall inherit the Earth?"
 An uplifting piece of theatre, which passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, still reaching a wide audience as it tours again. Later this month it will be returning to Glasgow at the Citizens Theatre.

Expensive Shit - Traverse Theatre *****

Written and directed by Glasgow based Adura OnashileExpensive Shit at the Traverse Theatre takes place in the women's toilet of a nightclub. If it hadn't already happened recently in the real world, you would think that the idea of having men getting kicks from staring through two-way mirrors into this private place was an over the top theatrical device. The Shimmy Club in Glasgow was shut down in 2013 after men were found to be paying to leer from behind the glass at women using their toilets. In the play we, the audience, sit in their place, voyeurs to a place people feel they can relax and be themselves.

If you have ever felt uncomfortable with unpaid, often African, toilet attendants in night clubs handing you paper towels, a skoosh of deoderant or a lollipop for tips, then you will recognise Tolu as that character. Nigerian toilet attendant Tolu, (Sabina Cameron) works in the toilet of a Glasgow nightclub, talking to the women and gets paid extra to encourage them to linger at the mirrors or leave the cubicle doors open. The story flits back and forwards between the present and the past where she lived at Fela Kuti's Kalkuta commune, hoping for a better life dancing at his  Afrika Shrine club.

Fela Kuti was an inspirational and controversial figure, married to umpteen of his dancers and singers.  The title of the play, an elegant word play for their stories, takes its name from a Fela Kuti album, an Afrobeat classic. The ideals of the commune, the freedom the women hoped to gain by coming to it, is questioned when the women have to face the reality of what they are being asked to do. The four Nigerian women rehearse, talk and argue in the sanctuary of the women's toilets there.

It is an arresting play, with excellent performances from Sabina Coleman in the lead role, Teri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary and Diana Yekinni. Their dance moves are slick and their arguments swing back and forth like the cubicle doors. The audience here in Edinburgh was very white and middle aged, complicit maybe in looking at the African woman in the corner of the room, but perhaps not noticing her.

Diary of a Madman - Traverse Theatre **

Gogol's novella, Dairy of a Madman, is transferred to modern Scotland by writer Al Smith and Gate Theatre. In the original a lowly civil servant driven mad by his unrequited love, eventually believes himself to be able to understand the language of dogs and that he is the next King of Spain. He gives a proper, early description of delusions and symptoms we would now recognise as schizophrenia. (Everyone knows that Gerry Britton, former Partick Thistle player and manager, now in charge of youth development, ins thee true King of Spain). I am a big fan of Russian literature and have been to visit Gogol's house in St Petersburg. So I was looking forward to this re-imagining of the story.

Visiting Gogol in St Petersburg
Instead of Arksenty Poprishchin we have actor Liam Brennan playing Pop Sheerin, a painter maintaining the family tradition, painting and repainting the Forth Rail Bridge. The first half hour is witty and quips pass back and forth between father, daughter Sophie and her mouthy pal. The arrival of English chemical engineer Matt White (boom, boom) as Pop's apprentice lays the foundation for Pop's future redundancy, at work and at home. Matt's burgeoning romance with Sophie upsets Pop's ideas of manliness. As he descends into madness the plot takes a strange turn, with wrong-headed ideas about Scottish nationalism and history shoehorned in. Pop Sheerin becomes increasingly unhinged in a cartoonish fashion, dressing as Mel Gibson's Braveheart to stand against the foreign, globalisation pressures of new-fangled American paint, Qatari share ownership and English nobility.

The portrayal of mental illness in the style of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the women's roles ("kingmakers" through sex with men or as passive wife, who inexplicably doesn't phone a CPN) and the ideas of manliness all felt clichéd, old fashioned and the political jibes were ill-informed. Matt's put down, that the Forth Rail Bridge is "no more Scottish than I am" because it's constituent parts come from elsewhere is so upside down and flawed as to be offensive. I'm quite embarrassed that this play is going on to be performed in England and give people the daft impression that people in Scotland think like the characters here. Surely it's widely accepted that once you're here, you're here and you are part of the country, whether you are a bridge or a dinner lady? Anyway, now I'm nit-picking. It started well, then went off in several strange directions.

Last Dream (On Earth) - Assembly Hall ****

Taking my kids to see Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin and rocket designer Sergei Korolev are two heroes of mine, which has led me to drag my kids to see the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow to pose under Yuri Gagarin, and drive to London to see an exhibition on the Cosmonauts. In this theatrical piece in Edinburgh Yuri sits on the launch pad, expecting death, but hoping to orbit the Earth. Our attention shifts to an African who has traveled with smugglers across the Sahara and stands on a beach in Morocco about to launch towards Europe.

These are the starting points for this performance/ sound installation designed by Kai Fischer and the National Theatre of Scotland. The five performers and musicians on stage are lined up in a row facing the audience, and we all don headphones to hear their amplified utterances, mixed with radio static and sound effects. Silences are exaggerated in this environment, as we fall below the waves of the Mediterranean or enter radio silence on the dark side of the Earth. The performers hold our gaze at the front, with excellent performances from Edward Nkom, Kimisha Lewis, Michelle Cornelius, and musicians Tyler Collins and Gameli Tordzro. The parallels are clear as we flit back and forth between those about to embark in a toy dinghy and our Cosmonaut about to launch into the darkness of space. The crackled back and forth between Vostok-1 and mission control contrast with the refugees' attempts to make re-assuring mobile phone calls home. The real transcripts used of Yuri Gagarin's communications with mission control are phenomenal. He is the epitome of calmness, reporting "mood buoyant" and "Let's go!" as the launch arrives. Both of our travellers are brave/ foolish pioneers. We only know that one of the trips will definitely end in glory.

Call Mr Robeson - Spotlites ***

Actor, singer, lawyer, campaigner Paul Robeson is the inspiration for Tayo Aluko's one man performance (with piano accompaniment), telling the story of the great man's life. Paul Robeson's booming bass voice was a familiar sound in my childhood home from an old album that my mother often played, a mixture of his singing, reading poetry or Othello's speeches from Shakespeare. He famously attended the Glasgow May Day parade in 1960, and in the play his dealings with striking Welsh miners featured prominently in the play.  

I knew a bit about the life of Paul Robeson, but learned a lot more, particularly about the extent of the hostility he faced from the American state. The tireless efforts made to deprive him of his passport, of his ability to work, even of his health, was remarkable. Tayo Aluko doesn't have the bone rattling quality to his voice that Robeson did (who does?) but his singing earned applause throughout and evoked the music that Robeson used to such powerful effect protesting against the injustice that he saw. Back home to dig out my mum's old Paul Robeson album that I've got in a box somewhere.

Milk - Traverse Theatre *****

Orla O'Loughlin of the Traverse Theatre Company directs Ross Dunsmore's first full length play, Milk. A trio of couples riff on a theme of nourishment and sustinence. Steph and Ash aged 14 (Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega), their teacher Danny Doig and his wife Nicole (Ryan Fletcher and Melody Grove) and elderly couple May and Cyril (played by Tam Dean Burn and Ann Louise Ross). Steph's body image fixation and self-confidence issues lead her to chase after her teacher. His pregnant wife feels crushed by her inability to breastfeed when the baby comes. The old couple play the most touching scenes, with their electricity cut off, ex-soldier Cyril is too fearful of the outside world to go out and buy food. Although all the ideas don't always gel, I found the later scenes incredibly moving. It made me think back to people I know who struggled to breastfeed and were given increasingly unhelpful advice from people who should have known better. I'll admit that I was a wee bit weepy in the final scene. It brought back a moment I'd completely forgotten, the most supportive thing I ever heard for a stressed parent. Dashing around a supermarket with a screaming baby when an old man leans over and instead of moaning, says "that's the most beautiful sound in the world, the cry of a baby". Try it next time you see someone looking stressed.

Anyway, really enjoyed the play. Nicely paced direction kept things flowing along. I finished up at the Traverse and ran across to Nandos for some grub. (It only got about 10 mentions).

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Edinburgh Festival 2016 - Edinburgh International Book Festival

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2016

Edinburgh Book Festival now runs for two weeks each August in Charlotte Square, and get 220,000 visitors in that time. Their bookshop is always worth a visit as it tends to be a bit different from the usual set up, and if you aren't coming to the ticketed events, the Square still makes a good place to eat your picnic on a sunny day during the festival. I saw three events during the festival this year (for £39 in total, before you buy the books). Here are some quick reviews of a couple of book festival events that I went to.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Alice Oswald ***

I enjoyed Alice Oswald's previous book, Memorial, an unusual invocation of Homer's Iliad. It starts with a list of the 200 soldiers who die during the Iliad, then recounts describes their fates, from Protesilaus to Hector. She read from her new collection Falling Awake, which features poems reflecting her education as a classicist to her observations on the minutiae of nature from her work as a gardener. For Alice Oswald poetry is a serious business and her reading was earnest and full of portent. The rhythms of her poems were clear in the rhythms of her reading, and death was an ever present part of life. She then revealed that she does have a lighter side, which her editor kept out of the latest book, reading Living Under the Digestive System. I hope that this brighter aspect of her poetry gets room to breathe in the future

James Kelman  *****

A full house awaited James Kelman, including Liz Lochead, Tam Dean Burn and other well kent faces, as he read from his exceptional new novel Dirt Road. He gave us a passage from early in the book, that told of 16 year old Murdo and his dad settling into a cheap motel for the night on their travels to meet American relatives, a break from their travails in Scotland. They are both recently bereaved and alone, after the death of Murdo's mother and sister. As Murdo heads out to the local shop to seek breakfast for them both he comes across Queen Mozee-ay, her music and the music of the south that will drive him and the story onwards. Like Alice Oswald it was good to hear the rhythm of Kelman's reading, the rhythm of the music that Murdo has a drive to make. There are clear echoes of Kelman himself in Murdo, the artist as a young man. I hadn't realised that as a 17 year old Kelman traveled with his family to America as they planned to emigrate there. Immigration/emigration and the mixed up origins of America and American music, from the Gaels to Mexicans feature as a background to the personal journey Murdo and his dad make in the book.

I have seen Kelman talk many times before and every time he gently shares his knowledge with the audience, on subjects as diverse as the Clearances, Russian literature, the co-operative movement, the Newport Folk Festival or the history of the Gaelic language. Whether you notice it or not you will always come away from one of his books or his talks having learnt an awful lot of stuff, mostly about people.

He also revealed a lot about his writing technique here, and talked about scenes he had written then cut out of the final book - a "director's cut" of a James Kelman book would clearly be a fascinating read. I hadn't noticed the name of the elderly Creole singer, Queen Monzee-ay, hints at her Menzies hinterland and in the book various tiers of Scottish immigration to America are apparent. When asked about his ending for this book he said that "the best type of ending takes me by surprise", then when he looks back at it there is not any alternative ending. It just fits.

Wi' the Haill Voice *****

As well as being renowned for his own works as a poet, Edwin Morgan was also a translator of the works of Mayakovsky, Racine and Pablo Neruda among others. Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky is a controversial and complicated figure. He lived through the Russian Revolution and worked as a playwright, poet, artist, propagandist and was a prominent Futurist. He committed suicide in 1930 aged 36. His poem "Talking With The Taxman About Poetry" gave its title of Billy Bragg's third album. I have read some of his works before, but like many poems in translation, you are never sure how much of the original sense and feeling you are getting reading it in English. The book I have has the Russian version on the page opposite the translation, and it was clear that there were rhythms and shapes, repeating sounds that you could see in the Russian, that weren't happening on the other side of the page that I could read. Edwin Morgan felt the power of the poems evaded him, translating them into English, so for his translation he brought them into the Scots language.

Try these couple of lines as an example and I think you can see that this was a good decision. In English the lines are rendered as...
Pineapple, pheasant's breast, 
stuff till you vomit, for that is your last feast
or as Edwin Morgan has it in his Scots translation...
Stick in, douce folk.-Pineaipple, feesant's breist: 
stuff till ye boke, for thon is your last feast.
Already you can hear the sounds and anger missing from the first version, and to me this feels more like an angry Russian revolutionary's voice. To celebrate the re-printing of Morgan's poems we had Tam Dean Burn and the improvisational musicians of Ferlie Leed (double bass, harp, electric guitar and keyboards) taking us through a selection or poems from the book. With an energy and enthusiasm they brought the words off of the page to be looked at in a new way. If this had been a standard poetry reading, somebody standing up and reading from the page, this would have had niche appeal to these fluent in Scots. I had read through the poems in the days before attending this, using the glossary in the book to get the sense of the poem then reading through the sounds and feelings on the page. As Edwin Morgan is no longer with us to read his own words, this performance was a great way to give them a novel force. Tam Dean Burn definitely read them wi' his haill voice, and with all of his body. I am very sure Edwin Morgan would have whole-heartedly approved.

Tam Dean Burn gie'ing it laldy

Edwin Morgan's beautiful book, now re-issued by Carcanet is well worth getting. I managed to find another piece of Edwin Morgan's poetry on show at the Edinburgh Festival. I made my first visit to the Scottish Poetry Library, just off the Royal Mile. They have a small exhibition of concrete poetry, including some of Edwin Morgan's concrete poems, alongside those of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Vaclav Havel. There's a nice wee shop and, of course, their lending library for all your poetry needs.

Scottish Poetry Library, just off the Royal Mile

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016. Moon Dogs.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016. Moon Dogs.

The annual Edinburgh International Film Festival is in full swing just now, celebrating its 70th edition. I have never before been to see anything at it, but had the chance this year to head along the M8 from Glasgow to attend the premiere of Moon Dogs, a Celtic road movie set between Shetland and Glasgow. 

I had a couple of family members involved in the film and also two of my wee nieces were meant to be in it as extras, bopping about at a club, so I have known about this film for a while. With a couple of my aunties and cousins we trundled east on Friday night to see if Keira and Issy's dancing made the final cut. 

I don't know anything about film-making but hearing second hand the lengths people have to go to, to secure funding and bring an idea to the screen it makes you wonder why people bother even trying. Beyond the world of superhero blockbusters it seems to be a very hand-to-mouth existence. Any screenings of films which involve a Q&A with the director or cast that I have been to, such as the Graeme Obree documentary film Battle Mountain, Sunset Song directed by Terence Davies and a recent award-winning Scottish film starring Kate Dickie and George MacKay, For Those In Peril, the same message is heard. We struggled to get funding, we had to cut these corners to stick to budget, we are now struggling to get any distribution, to make back any of the money put into it. Directors, writers, producers often appear to have to do much work unpaid in order get the film completed.

Moon Dogs is the first feature film from director Philip John who hails from Wales and has worked on Being Human, Downtown Abbey and Outlander for TV. In the film, after his girlfriend leaves Shetland for university in Glasgow, Michael (Jack Parry-Jones) and his step-brother Thor (Christy O'Donnell - who you may recognise as a handsome young busker from Buchanan Street) embark on a road-trip to the big city, aided and abetted by Caitlin (charismatic Irish singer and actress Tara Lee) who they meet on the way. The other major cast member is the Scottish scenery. From grey skies over Shetland and Orkney, through the green Highlands to Stirling and Glasgow (where I got to play "spot the location"). The three young lead actors, from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, are always entertaining whilst on screen and the different personalities of the characters create friction along the way. Naive young Michael gets all the best lines, whilst my teenage sons were rooting for Caitlin and your heart goes out to Thor's emo-introspection. You want to give him a big hug. 

Cast, crew and musician Anton Newcombe at the Moon Dogs premiere, Edinburgh
Music is an important part of the story and it was imaginative to avoid the easy heedrum-hodrum Scottish music option and choose American experimental/ psychedelic/ rock/ innovative musician Anton Newcombe (Brian Jonestown Massacre) to provide the soundtrack. Working on his first movie score he seems to have really thrown himself into it and his music was present during filming, as he explained at the screening, and is completely interwoven into the plot. I could happily sit and watch it with my eyes closed, but then I would miss the Scottish scenery. 

Other well-kent Scottish faces appear in the film (such as Denis Lawson and Tam Dean Burn, all eyebrows and attitude) and the step-parents (is that a word?) played by Jamie Sives and Claire Cage are warnly played. However the young leads in the film are the stars, full of personality and strong character. Gently rebelling. 

It was a really enjoyable night out in Edinburgh, lovely to hear from the cast and crew at the end and I can only wish the film well, as it makes Scotland look lovely. And yes, my nieces smiling faces did make it onto the screen, the true stars of the whole production, obviously.