Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: National Theatre of Scotland

Review | Beautiful Burnout by Bryony Lavery | Directed and Choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett | Additional Choreography by the Company, Frantic Assembly/National Theatre of Scotland | St. Ann’s Warehouse

Two boxers in a local club in Scotland run by the trainer Bobby Burgess take separate paths to the top.  Unfortunately the play fails to let us in on the obstacles either of them faces or how they overcome them with the result that this is one of the most boring plays I’ve ever sat through.

Bobby’s training approach is to set himself up as “God” and requires complete obedience from his boxers.  One of them, independent minded Ajay Chopra, breaks out of this petty autocracy and — off-stage and we have no clue as to how he does it — rises to become a champion.  Taqi Nazeer as Ajay is the only actor in the show with a strong stage presence and, among the men, the only one with the agility and muscular development to be convincing as an athlete.

Out of his remaining boxers, Bobby picks Cameron Burns to challenge Ajay, improbably since Ajay is already at the top and none of Bobby’s boxers is much beyond the wannabe stage.  And why Cameron?  We have no idea since they all seem equally lackluster, nor have we seen anything in Cameron’s personality, nor in any of the others, to engage our empathy.  (Dina, the one girl learning to box, is obviously out of the running.)  The only thing that sets Cameron off from the others is that his mother, a generic lower-class mother closely associated with a washing machine, is the only mother introduced as a character, which pretty well telegraphs the ending.

Parts of the Big Fight between Ajay and Cameron are choreographed effectively but other parts fall flat:  Bobby teaches his boxers not to fight the air but in the effort to keep the onstage fight going awhile without the actors beating one another up, many of their thrusts are air punches.  Dina’s only function is to strut around in a Wonder Woman metallic bikini during the championship fight.  The play, through its outcome, stresses the dangers of boxing, which may be virtuous but doesn’t make up for lack of dramatic strength.  The Music of Underworld has its own excitement and is the best aspect of the production.

In 2008, the National Theatre of Scotland brought a brilliant play, Black Watch, reviewed here, to St. Ann’s Warehouse:  that memory brought me to see Beautiful Burnout — but don’t look for similarity on any level.

Beautiful Burnout plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn, through March 27.

Review | Edinburgh Festival | King’s Theatre | Caledonia, Edinburgh | National Theatre of Scotland | August, 21-26, 2010

… Pageant of Failure …

“The Scots are fond of blaming others for their own misfortunes, especially the English.” This maxim is well known to sophisticated and travelled Scots and holds a grain of truth; it is, almost verbatim, one of the more severe of the many self-mocking lines in this intriguing mixture, a staging of the tragedy of the 1698 Darien expedition by Scotland to colonize the isthmus of Panama. The dramatization raises two interesting issues: (a) what aspect do you concentrate on (politics, greed, human folly, texture of life) and (b) what theatrical register do you adopt (music-theatre, pageant, satire, searing personal drama with well-painted main characters? Caledonia is worth seeing and informative, but ultimately fails because it answers these questions with “a little bit of everything.”

Principles of investment and return have been known since Old Testament times, but that great social invention, the Joint Stock Company was fairly new in 1698, so its limitations were poorly understood. Explorers’ fantastical belief in Eldorado was paralleled with merchants’ and investors’ belief in the ability of these new companies, fuelled by some particular idea wth familiar or common-sense aspects, to multiply wealth indefinitely out of almost nothing. William Paterson, who had successfully established the Bank of England some years before, had patriotic as well as mercantile motives. He persuaded the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation enabling a state-backed but private venture analogous to the East India Company, so that Scotland too could get in on the burgeoning colonial activities of the seaboard nations of Western Europe. Half of the meagre national wealth was subscribed.

The particular idea was a road between the Atlantic and Pacific, analogous to the Panama Canal: it’s only 6 days’ walk, said the indigenous tribes, and common sense makes this compare well with a 2-3 months’ sail, particularly one round Cape Horn. The scheme was blocked by England (which had shared a monarch of Scottish lineage for almost a century) both at the investment and trade embargo stages. The very little and misleading information reaching home about the progress or otherwise of the scheme came via French and Dutch boats. Leaving aside this disappointing English self-interest and the inhospitable climate and terrain, the idea that Spain would have tolerated any continuing colony by a small nation on territory assigned by the Pope to Spain at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1493, over 200 years before, was absurd from the start.

Given the successful Latin-American theme of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, the dismissal in a few lines of dialogue by Paterson of some expressed general doubts about risk with the demagogic assertion that Scots are undeniably hardy fighters seems an issue dodged not just by 1690s Scots, but by the author. Why was this not obvious, when the wealth and might of Spain were well-known and had a further century to run? After the inevitable failure (the US expedition of 1854 and the first attempt at the Panama Canal were not brilliant successes either), English guilt and intention to preclude further possibility of such ventures successful or otherwise, led to compensation of the main investors by England, and also to the loss of Scottish Independence (in 1707, when “Great Britain” became a reality.)  History shows that the lessons of prior history mostly go unlearned, and the collapse of the mainly English speculation known as the South Sea Bubble was only 2 decades later.

So with the main historical facts known, where does the dramatist begin? Even though the fiasco of Darien figures in outline standard Scottish histories, and is the subject of good recent books, audiences’ knowledge and concerns are parochial in time and space. Author Alistair Beaton adopts basically the pageant format, despite not having the resources (cruel parallel!) that the English National Theatre had for the successful and pageant-like Coram Boy, also with present-day temporary resonances (there’s child-abuse and sex-trafficking.)  Pageant can accommodate the other elements of music and satire but must inevitably sell short characterization and dramatic evolution. The unifying theme is the crowd unwillingness to evaluate the risks in get-rich-quick schemes. This opens up resonances between 1698 and 2008, particularly as the over-belief in the spreading of risk via a joint stock company has a close parallel in the over-belief in the spreading of risk via complex derivatives. Much of the slapstick and satire are well-executed and genuinely funny, as are the many jokes that exploit the financial resonances.

Resonances extend to jokes about trends in Scottish constitutional arrangements and the idea that votes of elected representative can be bought by providing a good meal, both topical. But this is all too obvious and laboured, being many versions of the same joke, leaving too little to the imagination. There is good acting, particularly by Paul Higgins as Paterson, but though some of Paddy Cunneen’s composition wittily combines the centuries, the singing is not good enough to swing it as musical theatre.

I found myself thinking at moments that the shades of Brecht and Weill were hovering in the wings and orchestra pit; but alienation was lacking, so I fear that this association could lead to more false expectations than ones that would be borne out for someone else. Regrettably, this is not another Black Watch.

A very pithy review by Brian Logan has to emphasize the financial resonances without the space for historical and  political context, and it does not comment on the musical aspect, but I agree with his 3 stars out of 5.

The lack of close or emotional treatment of bereaved families, ruined lives, and the lack of dramatic development are frustrating. The music-hall stereotype of the Presbyterian minister brings easy humor, but I missed any character embodying the counter-balancing moral virtues that Scots also have, and which enabled them from about 1750 to 1950 to be disproportionately making the British (ie mainly English) Empire work ? (see eg Niall Ferguson’s: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Penguin, 2003). Are we meant to see the current trend to Scottish Independence as a return to a golden age where English shackles are shed, or a return to dangers of parochial folly? Some say that the current Libyan controversy has stopped that trend anyway.

It will be interesting to see whether this play has any wider effect on Scots’ idea of themselves. It is ironical (in the correct sense of Greek tragedy) that the foundation of the long respected Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was one direct consequence of Darien and the Act of Union. Other Scottish Banks had over-reached themselves in the recent unravelling of unregulated Reaganomics, but none so spectacularly as RBS.

Walking out into the night from the King’s Theatre, the theatregoer passes acres of unlettable office space that was to have accommodated the continuing spectacular growth of financial services in Edinburgh.

This is indeed a time for some national re-appraisal.

Review | Black Watch by Gregory Burke | Directed by John Tiffany | National Theatre of Scotland | St. Ann’s Warehouse

Black Watch — What a title! The famous Black Watch regiment on its blackest watch:  Iraq.

The regiment’s proud history and the tragic trajectory of its assignment during the Iraq war melded by the acid of irony.

What’s astounding here is the union of naturalistic acting with choreographic flights of imagination.  The regimental crew is so totally believable as soldiers, simple Scottish guys turned military, that it’s hard to believe they’re actors, even from one foot away as I saw them from the first row.  After the play, I expected they’d head back to barracks.  Actually, I felt I’d been in the army.  These are actors?

Yes, brilliant and versatile–and energetic–actors, resolving hostilities in the group with dancing wrestling matches, miming their responses to letters from home–bitter or joyous–with sign language and mime.  Taking gunfire with shock and gallows humor.  Their claustrophobic living conditions and desert dry days are relieved by poignant porn photos, and a sensory overload of raucous, blaring firepower seen from the distance…until it closes in.  In  the individual, resistant breaths of bagpipes we hear men struggling to stay alive.

St. Ann’s theater is set up like a local high school stadium with the drama arena the playing field, and we cheer and fear for these soldiers we know as well as the kids in our class.  It keeps us in touch with their vulnerability.

This is the finest contemporary play I’ve seen since Stephen Adly Guirguis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.

Black Watch is written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, and presented by the National Theatre of Scotland.

St. Ann’s Warehouse is in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Their web site will tell you a lot of ways of getting there.  Go.

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