Category Archives: National Theatre of Scotland

Theatre: Black Watch, SECC, Glasgow April 4, 2013

Black Watch 2013

Picture credit: NTS

It’s seven years since the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch made its debut in Edinburgh, and it’s still one of the best pieces of theatre you will ever see.

NTS - Black Watch

The story, based on writer Gregory Burke’s interviews with former soldiers from the Fife regiment who served in Iraq, is told with a brutal honesty.

The men were lured away from the boredom of Fife with the excitement of guns, the promise of admiration from girls who love a soldier, the prospect of playing footie with your mates on sunny foreign lands, and a steady job and income.

But if they were bored in Fife, they were equally bored in Iraq, but placed in a foreign land where all is unfamiliar, unpredictable and dangerous. With expletive-laden dialogue, there’s no glamour. War isn’t romanticized.

Stuart Martin, Richard Rankin, Alan McNamara - Picture Credit: NTS

Stuart Martin, Richard Rankin, Alan McNamara
Picture Credit: NTS

There’s a lot of hanging around, waiting in the searing dusty heat. They have time and they have questions. Ultimately it’s not the job they signed up for. To pass the boredom there’s in-fighting and chat about food they miss from home, as one soldier relays the mundane minutiae of his local Chinese takeaway menu.

It’s hard to imagine two more differing worlds, than that of Fife and Iraq and the stage continually transitioned seamlessly between the two. Every prop was used to great effect and there’s the most surprising and innovate uses for a pool table you will ever see. The dialogue is brutally funny, brash and vulgar. One of the most entertaining characters is the pompous and blustering Lord Elgin, and an excellent performance by Stephen McCole.

But cut through the swearing, bravado, and in-fighting boredom, and suddenly one scene sneaks up like a stealth bomber to assault your emotions. The soldiers receive letters from home – the dialogue is redundant. The brash words replaced by silence as each soldier conveys their words and emotions by gentle hand and arm movements. The well-placed music of Yann Tiersen heightens this already tender moment, which renders the audience silent and thoughtful.

Music is put to brilliant effect all during the play and also includes The Flowers of the Forest played live on bagpipes and music from Davey Anderson including the Gallant Forty Twa.

Scott Fletcher and Robert Jack Picture Credit: NTS

Scott Fletcher and Robert Jack
Picture Credit: NTS

Directed by John Tiffany, the play has won 22 awards and played to more than 212,000 people. The 12 strong cast of this production features outstanding performances, particularly from Scott Fletcher as Kenzie, Robert Jack as Sergeant and Stuart Martin as Cammy.

The choreography from Steven Hoggett is visually stunning, with a brilliant display of the proud regiment’s roots told through a series of cleverly orchestrated costume changes on stage.

And an interesting contrast was that of seemingly putting battle to ballet.
The subtleties of movement and dance were almost balletic in their approach, and they were used to dramatic effect to show macho aggressiveness and fighting.

By the final scene there was another battle, that of trying desperately to hold on, with a choreographed finale of tenderness, friendship, caring, as well as sheer exhaustion, futility and sadness.

With Davey Anderson’s Parade played to a swelling swirl of bagpipes, the soldiers proudly and resolutely march side by side. Then with increasing fervour, comes the fighting, the falling, the exhaustion, the picking up, the carrying on, the fighting, the falling …

It’s beautiful, balletic, and amazingly powerful. This scene will stay etched in your mind … and heart for a long time after.

The show is now touring at Norfolk and Norwich Festival before moving to Seattle and San Francisco.

For more information see: National Theatre of Scotland website

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Macbeth, Tramway, Glasgow, June 26, 2012

Alan Cumming is brilliant in National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Shakespeare’s murderous play. I sat through the whole 100 minutes mesmerized by his one-man Macbeth performance.

Alan Cumming as Macbeth. Picture credit Albert Watson

Alan Cumming as Macbeth. Picture credit Albert Watson

Set in a Victorian hospital, we are introduced to Cumming, a disheveled wreck of a man, as a male nurse (Ali Craig) and female doctor (Myra McFadyen), take his possessions, strip him, give him pyjamas and admit him to the ward. Then as they part, confined within the high green tiled walls, Cumming shouts in dismay the play’s opener “When shall we three meet again?”

It’s an engaging start and from therein Cumming commands the stage as every twist and turn, slight nuance, movement and intonation sees him shape shift on stage, sometimes in contortions, sometimes more subtly, seamlessly slipping out of one skin into another, through the key characters of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Banquo, Macduff and witches.

The effect is dramatic, dark and disturbing. Occasionally the doctor and nurse appear to administer drugs, mostly they watch from a window above. There are CCTV cameras and sometimes distorted noise.

As the play unfolded the air was deathly silent. The silence only broken by a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion, when Malcolm (played by a doll), took his rightful place on the throne.

As a concept, it worked. The setting of a psychiatric hospital fitted with Macbeth’s unhinged mind, (“full of scorpions”) and the descent into mental illness, which is also displayed by Lady Macbeth. Having Cumming play all the parts could also be seen to further emphasize mental illness through split personalities and having other people and voices occupying someone’s head.

However, a lot of questions were left hanging in the air and at the performance I attended, Cumming and director John Tiffany conducted a question and answer session chaired by journalist Janice Forsyth.

Cumming has been working out. He’s lean, fit and agile, sometimes arching and twisting with the sly, sleek, suppleness of a cat, especially during a scene where Lady Macbeth seduces her husband. He often appears with a bare torso, he strips off to get in a bath and he is often only wearing pants. It’s showing someone at their most vulnerable.

“It’s the most fun you’ll ever have watching someone wearing grey pants” jokes Cumming. But he admits it’s draining, not only physically (he has new bruises every day) but emotionally.

He admits he’s been in places before where he’s not managed to let some roles go at the end of the night and he’s struggled, but this time all the characters are left at the stage door.

The play is directed by John Tiffany, known for the Black Watch, and Andrew Goldberg. Tiffany has recently won a Tony award for Once, an adaptation of the film starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.

Tiffany was also reminded recently of an interview he gave to a newspaper years ago, when he claimed he would “never do Shakespeare.” On stage Tiffany laughed and explained that as a 14-year-old boy he didn’t understand the Bard’s writings. He felt too stupid for Shakespeare and the experience stayed with him.

There were a few school groups in the audience and perhaps the teenagers related to these sentiments. Some of them seemed quite awestruck at seeing Cumming, a Hollywood star who they’ve no doubt seen in films like Goldeneye and X2: X-Men United. They were eager to ask lots of insightful questions.

Tiffany also concluded that another advantage of their adaptation was that they could cut out the “boring parts” but still retain all the important text and plot, and some characters like Lennox and Scottish lords fell by the wayside.

The identity of the man in hospital caused debate. Initially he appeared as a victim but by the play’s conclusion he was the perpetrator of a heinous crime. Apparently during rehearsals he had the name of Fred.

And during rehearsals the characters seemed to take on their own identities. Tiffany said he would sometimes turn up on set and say “Lady Macbeth isn’t happy with her part.”

During discussions held with various medical professionals and psychiatrists it was revealed that Lady Macbeth is often looked at as an example for students studying OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

One of the interesting parts of the play which Cumming highlighted was the impact of how split decisions can alter your life. In Macbeth, the decision was made to murder, and the eventual and inevitable descent followed.

It seems Cumming is a bit of a workaholic, this was his “break” from his other job, where he stars as Eli Gold in the American legal drama series The Good Wife. Even during time off from Macbeth, Cumming has been giving interviews and appearing on television. And prior to rehearsals he recorded an audiobook of the play as well as Macbeth: A Novel by David Hewson and A J Hartley. Cumming seems to have a problem with sitting still, something which Tiffany joked about.

When asked who would play Cumming in a film, the answer was Cate Blanchett. It must be to do with her fabulous bone structure, something Cumming is also not short of.

Moving on to future work Cumming said he didn’t want other actors thinking – “oh that’s him – he’ll be wanting all the parts for himself.” He laughed “I will work with other actors. I’ve loved doing this but I don’t think I’ll be doing something like this again in a hurry.”

The play has finished its run in Glasgow and moves the Lincoln Center Festival in New York from July 5 – 14.

National Theatre of Scotland

Lincoln Center Festival

Alan Cumming Blog


Filed under National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre reviews, Tramway Glasgow