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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

Autumn Cultural Review

I’ve been fortunate the past two months to experience a wide range of cultural events. These days, engaging with museum exhibitions, watching theatre performances, and attending classical concerts is an expensive hobby to have. Many of us have to be a bit more picky with what we can watch as we try to figure out what we can or cannot afford that month. Then, when cultural institutions are churning out event after event, we have to try and sift through what we think will be value for money, and what will not. The arts are already running on a scarcity, and tend to lean into risk aversion, making it harder for audiences to find something new and exciting to engage with. I’m in the privileged position that, on occasion, I get complimentary tickets for theatre through work, and so I’m happy to spend a bit more money on other cultural productions. Many of them are brief, moving on elsewhere quickly or I catch them at the end of their run, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on the events I did make and maybe spark a little inspiration for you to find something out there worth treating yourself with.

Songs of Wars I have Seen by Heiner Goebbels, presented by RSNO and Dunedin Consort (Perth Concert Hall)

I’d rate this concert as one of the best things I saw this season. It is a hard performance to market and subsequently a hard one to describe. It is a very modern classical concert with disruptive music punctuating soothing motifs, it captured the flurries of war in its score and lulled you through the whole performance with a steady and deft hand. Goebbels has created a kind of classic music concert that I’ve not experienced before and has changed my mind on the possibilities of this genre/form. Presented by the RSNO and Dunedin Consort allowed it to be “vocalised” by a unique blend of baroque and modern instruments, creating a soundscape that could raise the hairs on your arms. And throughout the concert, the women of Dunedin spoke in untrained flat voices war-time vignettes written by Gertrude Stein, an American Jew living in Nazi occupied France. The fact that these were musicians delivering the lines, and not actors, allowed a naïve and unperformative portrayal of Gertrude’s experiences. Bracketed and underscored by the music, these words sung like golden thread, weaving together a rich tapestry of hope, sadness, despair, and homeliness. With an effective light and sound design present throughout, I was left in awe with what Goebbels was able to design and create with this blend of genres. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended and I’m glad that it was revived for us here in Scotland.

Farm Hall by Katherine Moar, presented by Jermyn Street Theatre (Perth Theatre)

This play was a pleasant surprise given its topic was something that I hadn’t a particular interest in. It was a slick and professional production that felt like solid theatre, the kind that reminds you of the steadfast capabilities of drama when presented in this classic form. It was a straight forward drama following six German physicists held by the British at Farm Hall as part of Operation Epsilon. The duration of the show highlights the inner workings of these six characters as they come to terms with their current fate, carry hope for what comes after, and the horror and scientific intrigue of America’s use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a refined performance with confident and skilled acting. As an audience, you felt carried safely throughout the play with a clear and tidy narrative that compelled you without bogging you down with information about topics you didn’t know or want to know. My one gripe would be that it was conventional to the extreme, and I would have liked something slightly… juicy to elevate it that slightly more. And I also wished the playwright had took a stance and actually had something worthwhile to say, rather than just presenting the text and relying on the age old “aren’t humans complicated” motif.

Mary Quant Fashion Revolutionary by V&A Exhibitions (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum)

As someone whose interest in fashion is very superficial and not really knowing who Mary Quant was other than some sixties designer, this exhibition wasn’t strictly on my radar. Despite that, this exhibition made me want to play dress up, it made me want to touch all the clothes, and feel nostalgic for a time before I was even born. It utterly transported me and sparked a new interest in the narratives that fashion can carry. The exhibition itself was sort of crammed down in the basement of the Kelvingrove, but it was the perfect size with the right amount of material to keep you browsing, experiencing, and thinking about. I wish there had been slightly more space because it was slightly crowded (something the cultural world might not be so used to following the pandemic), but it was nice to see the wide range of people visiting it. I left with a respect for Mary Quant and what she achieved, the style she created, and I was pleased to have seen material other than just dressed or clothes on mannequins. There wasn’t a whole lot to engage with in other ways than simply viewing, and I was actually quite disappointed with the gift shop (who’d have thought such a fashion icon could barely inspire a decent merchandise designer!?) but it made for a pleasant hour or so spent on a blustery day.

Dracula: Mina’s  Reckoning by Morna Pearson, presented by NTS and Aberdeen Performing Arts (Edinburgh Festival Theatre)

The latest large-scale production to come out of the National Theatre of Scotland was just fine. It wasn’t bad in any way, well, aside from one actress’ unfortunate Dutch-South African (??) accent. It just wasn’t something that left me excited or in awe of. In fact, it didn’t make me feel much at all. Retelling the Dracula story with a strong feminist and non-binary perspective, focusing on Mina and the (vague) inspiration of Bram Stoker from Aberdeen, this story had a lot of potential as a really creepy and socially challenging piece. The playwright made some interesting choices, but I think tried to fill the story with too much social commentary which meant that there was little time to create real tension and horror. To make up for that, cheap jump-scare tactics that just used loud noises and flashing lights were implemented to raise one’s heart rate. The acting was fine, although the Doric Scots in such a cavernous hall made it difficult to understand what was actually being said. I was surprised that, given her background, Sally Cookson’s direction was swallowed up by the beautiful set design making the acting fade into the background. With so many possibilities for interesting movement, action, and creative expression, Cookson seemed to sacrifice it all to rely on just basic direction. This meant we had a Dracula who quite literally moved across the stage with the stereotypical “I’ve come to suck your blood” walk, you know the one, like Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance.

Tally’s Blood by Ann Marie Di Mambro, presented by Perth Theatre, The Gaiety, and Cumbernauld Theatre (Perth Theatre)

Having not attended school in Scotland, I had never heard of Tally’s Blood before which is a play on the Scottish curriculum. It tells the story of an Italian family living in Scotland when World War Two breaks out. When Italy joins the side of the Germans, the Scottish public start trashing the businesses of Italian residents, and I guess some of the Italian men were shipped off to Canada for a bit? I wouldn’t say that this play gave much of a history lesson, in fact, it didn’t give much of anything. It was two different stories told in each (too long) half. Despite its length, the show breezed through some quite striking and dramatic moments which were soon forgotten making it hard to figure out what it was the playwright was trying to say. It was hard-hitting social commentary without the heart and body to actually make you feel it. Then suddenly, upon return from the interval, you are made to witness a farcical romance that seemed to hold anything in relation to the first half other than the characters. This was another production with a beautifully designed set, but the director ended up under-utilising it making it feel redundant. This was a safe production that I think relied too heavily on the story’s place on the curriculum. It could do with a dramaturg’s eye, a tighter focus, or otherwise direction that could elevate it to something new and emotionally present. A pet peeve of mine is the way adult actors portray children, and the two young leads of this production fell into the very same trappings, alas!

Plinth by Al Seed, presented by Al Seed Productions and Vanishing Point (Dundee Rep)

With a striking poster design combined with an evocative description, I was excited to catch this unique piece of physical theatre. The concept of this performance was to challenge the role of statues as war trophies and the forces at play upon a plinth. I haven’t seen a good work of physical theatre in a long while, and I can’t say that this satisfied my hunger. Throughout the fifty minutes I was imaginatively provoked by a brilliant lighting and sound design that kept me engaged with all aspects of the performance that weren’t the actual embodied performance itself. Al Seed left me wanting. I guess it makes me reflect on what I want from physical theatre: do I want movement at the level of a dancer or professional athletic mover? Or do I want an actor without the dancer’s rhythm or hold but the ability to evoke emotion and story with the face or the minutiae of movements? This performance seemed to fall in neither camp. The movement was subtle and earthy, but hardly physical enough to engage me. Al’s face was vacant, it felt as if there was nothing behind his eyes. I didn’t receive anything from it. At times the storytelling was too literal, at other times, the movement motifs weren’t imbued with narrative at all. As a dramaturg, I am deeply interested in the way dance dramaturgs create a lexicon of movements to tell neat tight stories or share broad provoking concepts. However, I think the dramaturg of this production is inexperienced. It seemed to me like this was the kind of dramaturgy that someone who works as a director otherwise feels that they are skilled enough to deliver without deeply engaging with the dramaturgical process of physical theatre making. I worry this is a current trend with dramaturgy in the UK.

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