Mary Woodward Review

James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Fascinating and brilliantly-constructed”

What a show!  Rona Munro in collaboration with Raw Material, Capital Theatres and the National Theatre of Scotland have given us another magnificent instalment of the James Plays, following on from the amazing first three and bringing us up to the beginning of the sixteenth century: it leaves us on the edge of our seats desperate to find out what happens next…

I saw the first three James Plays some years ago, and was bowled over by their vitality and immediacy.  James IV – Queen of the Fight continues in the same vein: these people we meet are not ghosts, or memories, but flesh and blood who walked, and fought, and loved and hated just like you and me.  Aye, they’re deid now, but once they lived life to the hilt and faced just as many challenges – often the same ones – as we do today.

James IV centres round Ellen and Anne, two women of colour who unexpectedly find themselves at the Scottish court.  They were travelling to the English court of Henry VII from Moorish Spain when their ship encountered Scottish vessels which brought them to Scotland, where they, though apprehensive of their fate, are made most welcome. “All the world is welcome here”, they are told: the colour of their skin makes no difference, they will be found places at court.   Anne becomes the teenage Queen Margaret’s companion, with the unenviable task of responding and adapting to her unpredictable moods and demands.   Ellen has been Anne’s companion and servant, but there is no room for her too: she has to join the king’s entertainers and must, as well as learning yet another language, become a performer.  She ends up as ‘the Queen of the Fight’ in royal mock tournaments designed to show King James’ exceptional athletic and military prowess.

It’s a gripping story which vividly brings to life the challenges facing everyone at court.  The King, trying to get an heir on his English bride to maintain peace with England, is also dealing with the presence at court of Donald Dhu, the current Lord of the Isles and focus for Highland Scots who are seen as rebels against the crown.  Queen Margaret is a bratty adolscent who feels the world and her husband should revolve around her, and has terrible tantrums every time it becomes clear they don’t.  Makar William Dunbar is trying to get himself a permanent place [and income] at court, and the nobles are all vying for position and favour… [sound familiar at all?]

Add to this mix two young women who have yet again to try to make a life for themselves in new and strange surroundings, with an inhospitable climate, and without the support each has given the other up till now.  Does anyone here act unselfishly, I wonder?  Much is made of Scotland’s reputation for hospitality, but when the chips are down, each person in this drama is acting for their own ends, and willing to sacrifice the others if it means they themselves will survive – except at the end of the play, which I’m not going to reveal.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

In the main, there doesn’t seem to be obvious colour prejudice – Scots noblemen are perfectly willing to be candidates for Anne’s hand in marriage, seeing the advantage of the King’s favour and not seeming to take any exception to the colour of her skin.  However, the performance of a shocking poem by Makar Dunbar is a pivotal point in the play.  Of Ane Blak-Mor is largely made up of derogatory comments on the woman’s appearance, and was most probably written about one of the two historical figures on whom the characters of Anne and Ellen are based.  It’s a complaint against her prominent position in the King’s court – but is the objection to her physical person, or the heights to which she has been raised?  The third person of colour at court, Peter, is the leader of the group of entertainers, and there seems to be no obvious objection to his presence.

People of colour are not the only ‘different’ ones at court – there is also the Gaelic-speaking Donald Dhu, leader of the Highland clans who have tried to assert their right to lands taken from them by previous Stuart kings, and who is now James’s hostage.  Here’s another person who’s been removed from all that is familiar, while the language he has grown up with is not generally spoken or understood and his point of view is unrecognised.

There’s a strong contrast between ‘public’ and ‘private’ behaviour, especially where the king is concerned – he has to get an heir on his queen, but that doesn’t stop him having mistresses [and bastards] whom he probably loves better than her: he sees nothing wrong in flaunting the latest one in front of his wife.  In his defence, he doesn’t receive much – or any – love from her and, although he’s clearly able to see the political ramifications of his relationship with Margaret, he’s not necessarily so aware about the results of his more irregular liaisons.  The face Anne shows to the queen doesn’t reveal her true feelings; Ellen masks her feelings of isolation and hurt at Anne’s rejection of her; Dunbar’s inferred courtship of Ellen may only be in the hopes of securing a stable position at court; Donald Dhu’s co-operation in the courtly masque/fights is certainly unwilling; and the other courtiers are all looking out for number one.  Dame Phemy is the only person at court who will speak plainly – and be heard – when the King’s behaviour is such that he is losing the love of his subjects.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

I’m not sufficiently acquainted with the differences between Scots languages and dialects to make an informed comment, but a fellow-audience member pointed out to me that each of the Scottish characters had their own distinctive regional language.  Margaret has her very very English cut-glass accent and attitude and, while those at court may not have understood the Spanish which Ellen and Anne first speak, many were perfectly comfortable with French.  The King even seemed able to manage some Gaelic – evidence, perhaps, of a more cultured and Europe-centric attitude than one might have expected at this point in Scots history.

There are so many levels at which you can view this story – a surface ‘cracking good yarn with a lot of shouting and fighting’; a fascinating, brilliantly-constructed narrative based on tantalisingly few historical records; a meditation on the brutality of self-interest; a narrative showing the presence of unenslaved people of colour in Scotland long before the slave trade; a human drama of loss, displacement, estrangement and the effort required for survival in a potentially hostile environment; the willingness of Scots to welcome and embrace immigrants; and much, much more that will only become clearer on subsequent viewings. 

It’s a tale superbly told by a cast who virtually leap off-stage and grab you by the throat, forcing you to become engaged in the narrative, excluding any possibility of you remaining a disinterested spectator.  Daniel Cahill returns as James, older but possibly not a lot wiser; Danelle Jam [Ellen] and Laura Lovemore [Anne] are superb as the polyglot young women trying to make yet another new life in a foreign country.  Blythe Duff is a splendidly acerbic Dame Phemy, a solid figure who gets on and gets stuff done while the shifting currents at court whirl and swirl around her, while Sarita Gabony is so good as a sulky teenager I kept wanting to slap her…  Keith Fleming [Dunbar], Malcolm Cumming [Donald] and Thierry Mabonga [Peter] all have their own personal agenda but at the same time are puppets in the hands of the king and his whims.  Ewan Black [Turnbull] and Samuel Pashby [Douglas] make the most of their small moments in the spotlight and are major contributors to the superb ensemble playing.   

Acting, script, lights, staging, music, fights, scenery and scene-shifting ‘battles/ dances’ all blend together into the best possible type of drama which holds you spellbound until the final moments.  You may never have heard of these characters before, but you’ll not be able to forget them now.  James IV – Queen of the Fight is a magnificent addition to the James Plays – rock on James V !!

Raw Material & Capital Theatres in association with the National Theatre of Scotland present James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 8th October for tickets go to: James IV: Queen of the Fight (capitaltheatres.com)

The production will then tour Scotland until November 2022.

Mary Woodward Review

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

“excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast”

Four lads are making the most of open mic night in the Labour club in Prestonpans: they are enjoying themselves, and we are encouraged to join in, nearly raising the roof with 500 Miles.

There aren’t many other people around and the barmaid, Ellen, is clearly keen for the boys to shut up and go home.  She’s a feisty wee thing who’s obviously in control – but she relents and says “well, one last tune then”, and they launch into the raucous Ballad of Last night before bickering about their different political opinions which range from in Truss we trust to the system’s broken, it’s time for something completely different.

Suddenly a grey-haired man is in their midst: the lads are confused and afraid and Ellen is upset as he says we are volunteers; we didn’t fight for medals, we fought for our beliefs.  The lights go out and when they come back the man has disappeared but there’s a big old suitcase standing where he was.   Ellen opens it, and we are transported back to 1936, when a new Tory government was in power and people were starving, and Fascism was rearing its ugly head in Europe.

We follow four miners from the Pans – George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy Kempton and George Gilmour – who leave the pits and go to Spain to join the International Brigade and fight in the Spanish Civil War.  It’s not a pretty tale of grand heroics: it’s messy, unpleasant, brutal, and terrifying.  And the men aren’t all upheld by the righteousness of their cause.  Yes, George Watters is moved to go because someone has to try to stop the Fascists: he refuses to let history repeat itself.  Two of the men are carried along by the courage of George’s convictions, but the fourth decides to go simply to try to make some money to support his family. 

There’s no shying away from the horrors of the war, but there’s room for a lot of humour, not all of it black, and some fabulous songs – particularly the moving canon that the men sing as, headlamps alight, they emerge from the smoky darkness of the pit and look forward to the warmth and light of Spain.  It’s made clear that the members of the International Brigade had many different ideologies but were united in what they were fighting for.  It’s also made clear just how many men died fighting, and how some were scared and tried to run away, only to be captured and sent home as prisoners of war.

There’s a rousing speech as the last Scots leave for home, but it’s hard to go along with its rhetoric – was this fight folly, or was it a necessary response to the rise of tyranny and the oppression of the weak?  The parallels are clear with the current political climate, and we are asked is it better to do the little I can, or to stand back and watch the world disintegrate?  One of the young men of ‘today’ had clearly worked out where his path lay: he comes into the club sporting a large red rosette – it’s election night and he’s standing as the Labour candidate, saying “I’m just trying to do my bit”.

It’s an excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast – Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Rebekah Lumsden, Billy Mack, Cristian Ortega and Dylan Wood.  The music is both very good and very effective, the staging highly inventive, and the lighting brilliant.  549 Scots was created with the help of the people in Prestonpans: they were eager to share the memories their families had passed down to them, from which this extremely vivid and challenging play was written.  At its end, the audience in Musselburgh rose to their feet to applaud both the cast and the story they presented.

So, my friends: what would you do?  What will you do?

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run Ended by Scottish Tour continues until 5th for info go to: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War — Wonder Fools

Mary Woodward Review

The Maggie Wall, Studio Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Astonishing”

As Maggie herself would say: “Astonishing” – an astonishing tour de force by Blythe Jandoo who plays Maggie, a young woman accused and convicted of witchcraft and condemned to be burned to death.  

Alone in her tiny cell, and bearing the marks of the beatings, kicking by horses, and cuttings she has recently suffered, she tells us her story.  Living with her mother in a tiny village, marked out from her birth by being different, she is proud of her gifts, the songs that lie within her, waiting to be called forth in time of need.  She is beautiful, and gifted, and darker-skinned than anyone else: these differences mean that when she catches the eye of the laird’s son, recently returned from overseas, she is the obvious target for the ministers and people of the area: she doesn’t stand a chance.

Blythe Jandoo glows with an inner radiance that comes from the gift of song within Maggie.  She speaks directly to us, telling us of the father she never knew, who died when she was wee, and how she and her mother looked after and cared for each other.  Her mother kept her apart from everyone else, aware of the dangers lying in wait for someone so lovely: she is never allowed to go anywhere by herself – but one day her mother is sick, and Maggie must go by herself to the village for the messages.  She has already seen, and fallen for, the god-like Nicholas, and hopes that the world stood still for him, too, when they met for the first time: they meet again as she struggles home with the messages.  To her astonishment and delight he helps her with the messages and brings a doctor friend to attend her sick mother.  He enchants Maggie with promises of a wedding, loves her and leaves her: the next morning there is the thunderous knocking at the door…

It’s a gripping story, told by a master storyteller, and we are with Maggie every inch of the way.  We love her quiet pride and pleasure in her abilities, smile during the enchanting moments when she falls in love, are sickened by the torture she suffers at the hands of people who have know her since she was a wee bairn, and watch, horror-struck, her final moments.  Her narrative is full of joy, humour, a constant questioning of God and her neighbours: the harrowing conclusion which had the audience on their feet applauding this outstanding performance

Martin McCormick, inspired by a mysterious monument to a woman burnt as a witch in 17th century Perthshire, has produced a stunning piece of work which not only grips as a narrative, but prompts us to ask why violence against women continues, more than 500 years later.  Maggie’s final outburst, the question she wants to ask God if she meets him after her death, is one we would do well to ask ourselves – when will it all stop?

The Maggie Wall, Studio Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Runs until Thursday 29thSeptember for tickets go to: The Maggie Wall | Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Mary Woodward Review

National Youth Choir of Scotland Chamber Choir, Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh, Review:

**** (4 stars)

Lammermuir Festival

This was a very exciting first – the first public performance of the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s chamber choir, formed earlier this year – and they did themselves and their conductor Christopher Bell very proud indeed.  The chamber choir’s members, aged between 18 and 25, are selected from the NYCOS, entry to which is by audition.  Unlike many choirs, they don’t have weekly rehearsals, instead coming together for a residential course during which they learn their repertoire for the coming year: in this case a very challenging quartet of choral works, the earliest of which was written in 1943 and the newest less than ten years ago.

The programme opened with Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which I remember struggling to learn many years ago.  Using fragments from the longer poem Jubilate Agno [rejoice in the lamb] written in the later eighteenth century by Christopher Smart while he was incarcerated in St Luke’s Hospital, Bethnal Green and subject to the inhumane treatment which was then meted out to people with mental illnesses.  

The opening Rejoice in God, O ye tongues had strong, confident choral singing, underpinned by the organ, and a wonderfully hushed Hallelujah, which I remembered as one of the highlights of the piece.  For I will consider my cat, Jeoffrey / For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour and For the flowers are great blessings all featured excellent solos.  In For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour we could clearly hear Smart’s agony; and then relax and rejoice with the sections praising God.  For H is spirit and therefore he is God featured another excellent solo; again I remembered fun of singing For the instruments are by their rhimes.  The piece ended with the calming For at that time malignity ceases and its segue into a repeat of Hallalujah from the heart of God.

This piece alone would have been enough to command my respect for this new chamber choir, but then they presented me with three complex and brilliant works I’d not heard before – the way these were handled was extremely impressive, and bodes well for the future of this group of singers.

James MacMillan’s Culham Motets were written in 2010, and was ideally suited to the acoustic of Loretto’s chapel, where the sound could ring and soar and the silences blazed with light.  Sung a capella, the music seemed to me to be somehow much more credible and relevant, with a much cleaner sound.  There were more excellent solos and some fascinating aleatoric passages – the singers know the pitches they have to sing, but it’s up to each individual to decide exactly how long their particular notes will last.  [I’ve sung such a piece myself, and it’s both enormous fun and absolutely terrifying – full credit to the choir for making it seem unbelievably east and simply great fun!]  The final motet Your light will come, Jerusalem was full of edgy harmonies and striking silences which expanded out into the chapel like rays of light bursting through the clouds: not a comfortable light…

After the interval we heard Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow and Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year.  Caroline Shaw (b 1982) is an American singer, musician and composer and the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Music (2013).  And the swallow sets portions of Psalm 84, using the choir antiphonally, overlapping words and phrases to create a multi-layered web of sound from which individual phrases stand clear.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and virtually indescribable!

I first came across Jonathan Dove’s work when Scottish Opera staged his opera Flight, which deals with the plight of a stateless person who is, in effect, trapped in an airport, unable to leave because he has nowhere he can go.  Earlier this year I was enthralled by one of his choral works, Bless the Lord my soul, which soared above us in St Giles’ Cathedral and made my spirits soar.   The NYCOS chamber choir had worked on The Passing of the Year in May, but the words took on an extra significance in the light of the Queen’s death.  The work opens with the spring opening of buds, the glories of blossoming summer, the frantic skittering of bees around the bushes: it’s suffused with radiant joy.  Hot sun, cool fire contrasts shimmering heat with the coolness of black shade, the sound lush and voluptuous; Ah, Sun-flower is full of the chiming of bells, their glorious cacophony celebrating the fullness of autumn and then fading away.  Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss is quiet and sombre: a constant ground of have mercy on usunderpins a great crying- out – I am sick, I must die: death comes to us all, rich and poor alike.  The final movement Ring out, wild bells sets Tennyson’s poem: we have arrived at the turning of the year, not lamenting the death of the old but rejoicing in the birth of the new.   Apposite, indeed…

 As with the other three pieces, The Passing of the Year was greeted with a deeply appreciative silence which then became loud and prolonged applause as the audience saluted the impressive talent of the NYCOS chamber choir.  Soloists Emily Kemp, Olivia Mackenzie, Alexander Roland, Christopher Brighty, Lewis Gilchrist, Lorna Murray, Morven McIntyre and Jack Mowbray were all warmly applauded: all are singers to look out for in future.  Pianist and organist Michael Bawtree and conductor Christopher Bell also took their bows as we acknowledged the sterling contribution each had made to a memorable afternoon.

I’m sure I’m not the only person looking forward with great interest to the next outing of the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s chamber choir.  They are already fully-formed and raring to go – from here onwards, I trust they will only get better. 

National Youth Choir of Scotland Chamber Choir ,Run Ended.

Mary Woodward Review

Thérèse, Scottish Opera, St Mary’s Church, Haddington, Review

As part of the Lammermuir Festival

***** (5 stars) 

 A love triangle set during the French Revolution, Massenet’s Thérèse centres on the eponymous heroine, torn between her dutiful love for her husband, André, and the romantic love she felt for Armand, Comte de Clerval.  André and Armand grew up together on the Clerval estate near Versailles, the former being the steward’s son, the latter heir to the estate. 

Led by the Girondin faction, the revolutionaries have deposed and imprisoned the king, Louis XVI.  André, one of their leaders, has bought the Clerval estate, from which Armand fled when the revolution began, and now lives there with his wife, Thérèse, whom he has rescued from a life of poverty.  She rejoices in their rural seclusion but fears that the growing excesses of the revolution will one day turn against her husband.  He is drawn away from home by his duty to his country, but rests secure in the knowledge of her love.

Armand returns from exile and endeavours to re-ignite Thérèse’s love for him, but she refuses to weaken.  André finds them together and is delighted to welcome his old friend.  He offers him shelter in his home and, when revolutionary soldiers challenge his identity, declares that Armand is his brother, thus ensuring his safety.

Eight months later, the three are in Paris.  The king has been executed, and the more extreme Jacobins are gaining power over the more moderate Girondists. André urges Armand to leave – he has obtained a safe-conduct for him.  Thérèse begs Armand to leave France, but he refuses to leave without her.   She tries to resist the temptation but weakens and agrees to leave with Armand, only to learn that her husband has been arrested.  She tells Armand to flee, promising to join him, but when she sees her husband on the way to his execution, feels she must be with him.  “Vive le roi!” she shouts from the window – signing her own death warrant.

I find myself comparing Jules Massenet with Stephen Sondheim: both prolific and talented composers with a genius for coming up with totally different sound worlds for each of their compositions.  I love Sondheim’s Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Massenet’s Cendrillon, Werther, Chérubin – and now Thérèse.   The music constantly changes, evoking moods, expressing emotions, raising and releasing tension and vividly portraying the turbulent times in which the action takes place.  I particularly loved the nostalgic minuet against which Armand reminds Thérèse of their love.  Scottish Opera’s orchestra, under the baton of Alexandra Cravero, were simply magnificent – as they always are.

I last heard Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte in 2018, when she sang the part of the villainous Tigrana in Scottish Opera’s Edgar.  Tonight’s role was more complicated – I was never totally convinced by her remembered love for Armand, nor that more dutiful relationship with her husband: but that’s possibly the fault of composer and librettist, and the limitations of an opera lasting only seventy minutes.  Certainly the singing was superb, and I can’t wait to hear her Carmen later this season.  

Tenor Shengzhi Ren, one of Scottish Opera’s most recent Emerging Artists, sang Armand. I saw him in February at the start of the touring company’s spring tour, and was struck then by his rich voice, expressive face, and good comic timing.  I was less impressed last night – the sound was rich and round, but some of the top notes were swallowed, his voice didn’t have the ‘ping’ that both Justina Gringyte and Dingle Yandell had in abundance and at times was lost in the swelling orchestral sound.   Again, the brevity of the opera didn’t give him much opportunity to be anything much more than a typical tenor seducer, using every weapon he could find to wear down Thérèse’s resistance.

I first saw Dingle Yandell in Jonathan Dove’s Flight some years ago, and was impressed with his vocal quality in his brief appearance as the Immigration Officer.   He seems to have become a regular – for which, hoorah! – and his latest appearance as André confirmed the power, resonance and expressive nature of his voice.  Massenet gives André a constant stream of noble emotions to pour out – love for his wife, passion for his country, and heroically fraternal love for his boyhood friend who he knows also loved Thérèse.  Dingle Yandell gave us all these and much, much more in a glorious outpouring of sound that filled St Mary’s church and made the rafters ring.

The staging by Roxana Haines was simple but effective.  The action took place on a raised platform, meaning everyone could see – and prefiguring the steps to the scaffold that overshadow the final scene.  The cast were all in black and the action simple.  The chorus of revolutionaries added both to the menace and the sorrow for lives lost ‘for the cause’ as yet again a movement hoping for reform produces a terror-filled bloodbath.

Stuart Stratford, Scottish Opera’s music director, has a genius for finding little-known and rarely-performed operas, and with Thérèse he’s done it again.  Selfishly, I’m profoundly grateful that the performance wasn’t cancelled following the death of the Queen, whose passing we marked with a minute’s silence followed by the orchestra playing the national anthem.

Thérèse, Scottish Opera, St Mary’s Church, Haddington, Run Ended