Mary Woodward Review

Strange Tales Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Strange Tales ,Traverse Theatre, 

**** (4 stars)

This intriguing collection of stories was adapted for the stage by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, translated by Ewan Macdonald. Pu Songling wrote these tales around the time of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy after the English civil war, but their messages are as relevant today as they were when they were written, and easily cross the cultural divide between east and west.

When wind and snow fill the sky and the fire has grown cold, relight the coals, warm the wine and turn up the wick of the lamp. We enter these tales in the shadows of night, but hopefully emerge into daylight…

Master-storytellers Luna Dai, Robin Khor Yong Kuan and Pauline Lockhart present a fascinating Chinese, Malaysian Chinese and Scottish blend of wit, wisdom and experience as they tell us eight tales from Pu Songling’s collection. A dead young maiden seeks to escape from the demon that is forcing her to wreak a terrible vengeance on young men; a very refined young lady receives visits from two charming and amorous strangers who are not what they seem; a young man from Paisley who wants to learn a short cut to eternal wisdom gets what he deserves, and we learn to beware of sneezing and corrupt fortune tellers.

We are warned at the start – unless we approach these tales with an open mind and a brave heart, we may be taken over by them and never break free: and should we be feeling somewhat sceptical, we are given a graphic illustration of this very fate at the end of the show…

This co-production between Grid Iron and the Traverse is a visually splendid and delightfully engaging blend of storytelling, puppetry, martial arts and physical theatre, with fascinatingly diverse costumes, haunting music, cutting-edge digital technology and subtly terrifying sound effects. I loved the kimonos, was particularly impressed by the giant red demon, and will never feel quite the same again about eyes…

Fox spirits may not be familiar us in Scotland – but there are kelpies and selkies and other creatures which interact with humans in both loving and terrible ways, while demons and ghosts are part of both eastern and western tales, though they may assume different forms. What is interesting is the very different attitude towards death and ghosts, and the belief that it is possible for the dead to interact with the living and even be brought back to life.

Strange Tales is not for the faint-hearted, or those of a nervous disposition – there’s an age guide of 14+: but if you want to shiver with fear, laugh out loud, and cheer when evil is defeated, look no further than the Traverse this December!

Strange Tales, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends 21st December, for tickets go to:



Mary Woodward Review

Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert City Halls, Glasgow, Review:

Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert

***** (5 stars)

Earlier this year Scottish Opera’s conductor Stuart Stratford bounced on to the stage and enthusiastically introduced us to Mascagni’s Silvano: now, equally enthusiastically, he invited us to become acquainted with another rarely-performed work by the same composer. At Iris’ first performance in 1898 the opening choral and orchestral Hymn to the Sun was an immediate hit – and yesterday’s performance supported Stuart’s belief that it’s probably the best operatic sunrise there is, powerfully depicting the glory and life-affirming warmth of the sun.

Unlike previous concert performances by Scottish Opera Iris was not semi-staged, though the singers were in costume. Stuart explained that he and the cast had all been struck down with flu at various times in the rehearsal period – and, indeed, the original Iris had had to withdraw after that morning’s dress rehearsal, her place being taken at very short notice by a superb young Australian soprano, Kiandra Howarth, of whom we are surely going to hear much more in future.

The plot is fairly simple – Iris, a beautiful young girl, lives with and cares for her blind father. She is still of an age to play with dolls, and loves the birds and flowers in the garden that surrounds her little cottage. Her beauty attracts the attention of a young nobleman, Osaka. With the assistance of Kyoto, keeper of the local geisha house, and Dhia, one of his geishas, Iris is kidnapped and taken to the geisha house.

Osaka endeavours to seduce Iris, who simply doesn’t understand what he’s getting at. Osaka is quickly bored, and Kyoto decides to display his newest acquisition to the locals, who are astonished at her beauty. Iris’ blind father arrives and, believing his daughter to have deliberately abandoned him and chosen to enter the geisha house, curses her and spits at her. Iris, now completely bewildered and terrified, throws herself from the balcony into the open sewer below the geisha house.

Three days later, Iris’ body is discovered in the sewer by rag-pickers and scavengers, who scatter when they realise she is still alive. Delirious, she imagines she is visited by Osaka, Kyoto and her father, all of whom show no remorse as they bid her farewell. She feels the rays of the rising sun warming her, and sings the ecstatic hymn to the sun as she dies among a field of flowers which spring up around her.

It’s a shocking piece which is all too relevant today. I feel it could well be re-named Così fan tutti All men are thus – as it highlights the heartless treatment of women as sex toys, objects to be bought and sold, used, and abandoned without a thought. There is no point at which the men demonstrate any remorse for their behaviour, or the slightest understanding of their complicity in her death – Osaka says he’s going to look elsewhere now, Kyoto sees her as the victim of her own beauty, and her father berates her because now there’s no-one to see to his comfort. In the equivalent of a musical shrug all three sing Così la vita; addìo / vo [such is life; goodbye / I’m off ]…

The music is superb, with many original and unusual instrumental combinations and sonorities. I’m glad Stuart Stratford pointed out many things to listen out for – the most unusual being the leader of the orchestra’s positioning of a coffee cup on the body of his violin at the beginning of act three, producing a weird buzzing sound to lead us into the darkness of the sewer in which Iris’ broken body lies.

The singing was magnificent, with the greatest honours going to Kiandra Howarth whose radiant innocence and utter belief in the power of the sun god’s son Jor was in stark contrast to the duplicitous and self-absorbed Osaka of Ric Furman and Roland Wood’s corrupt and heartless Kyoto. Charlie Drummond’s Geisha was an aural delight, and I loved her fabulously embroidered rose-coloured kimono! James Creswell’s sonorous and powerful bass gave full weight to Iris’ blind father, while Aled Hall made the most of his few moments in the spotlight as he celebrated the moon’s light in act three. Arthur Bruce and Fraser Simpson sang their wee parts from among the chorus, who were major players in the drama, while above, around, and throughout the whole performance the brilliant Scottish Opera Orchestra created a unique and unforgettable sound world in which a heartbreaking but all too contemporary tragedy was played out.

Yet again Scottish Opera have brought a neglected masterpiece to vibrant life – we can but hope that there will be a repeat performance before too long.

Mascagni Iris: Scottish Opera in Concert, City Halls, Glasgow, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

Still No Idea, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Still No Idea by Lisa Hammond, Lee Simpson and Rachael Spence

***** (5 stars)

I can’t get that refrain out of my head – cheeky face, cheeky face – as I come out of the Traverse and head for home after an evening which challenged, moved, frustrated and angered me as Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence invited us to join them on an expedition to find the material for a new show, the results of which they presented to us in a mixture of styles and formats that had us both laughing and crying – crying not with laughter but with frustration that, despite anything anyone may think or say about how “it’s so much easier/ so much better/ things are more equal” for people with disabilities, the demoralising fact is that things are much, much worse than they were ten years ago…

The loudest laughs came from the audience members with mobility issues – laughing as they recognise the situations in which they so often find themselves, and the constant struggle to be seen as a person, not as a disability: to be taken seriously, given real parts to play in the world, not sidelined, patronised or spoken to in a special voice Wow! didn’t she do well…

So many of the suggestions made by members of the public when asked to suggest characters or plot lines arose from embarrassment and/or an inability to see Rachael and Lisa as two people of equal worth and importance, who might equally play a central character rather than an also-ran.  Cheeky face exquisitely highlighted the way people’s discomfort is expressed in a cheery bonhomie – you don’t know what to say to someone in a wheelchair and so try to wrap it in what is thought to be humour – here comes trouble! or my you’ve got a cheeky face: I bet you’re a barrel of laughs: i.e. don’t try to engage with a real live adult human being, treat them as you might an engaging puppy or a bouncy toddler.

And this in an age which prides itself on an equal society which doesn’t hide disabled people away… But what good is celebrating the successes of paralympians if it makes people think that every disabled person ‘ought’ to be able to do what they can?  What sort of society do we live in when people who are seen walking as they transfer themselves from one wheelchair to another are insulted and called scroungers and benefit cheats? What sort of government proposes policies based on kicking away their crutches will make them stronger??

Under all the humour there’s an anger and a despair that our current society is so hostile to people with disabilities that they are led to commit suicide rather than continue the struggle against unjustly reduced or discontinued benefits, and sometimes die of their medical condition before their appeal has been heard or dealt with.

What can be done?  Laugh rather than cry; try to see people as human beings rather than ‘conditions’; imagine the hero or heroine of your favourite novel, play, tv series or film as someone with a disability – see them as central to the action rather than as a bit player or moving wallpaper – in short, try to create the picture of a world in which there is equality of opportunity for everyone.

Still No Idea has toured extensively in England: the Traverse gig is the sole Scottish appearance. Don’t miss it – and be prepared to have a good laugh while having all your comfortable notions turned upside down.

Still No Idea by Lisa Hammond, Lee Simpson and Rachael Spence, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, run ends 9th November for tickets go to:


Mary Woodward Review

PRISM, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review


**** (4 stars)

homage to a genius of cinema

The curtain rises on something that looks like a film sound stage, whose sliding door’s upward passage is constantly interrupted by someone who won’t allow it simply to open but keeps commenting on the ratio of length to width of the slowly-increasing aperture beneath it. The legs we see beneath the door turn out to belong to an irascible older gentleman, an impatient younger man and a young woman who stands awkwardly in the background, taking no part in the argument.

The shutter finally slides upwards completely, allowing the three to enter the room, which turns out to be a garage: a convolutedly cyclic conversation ensues between the two men and tries to include the young woman – This is the garage: if it’s a garage, where’s the car? Outside the pub – mine’s a scotch and soda – no, she’s not the barmaid, and this isn’t the pub, it’s the garage: well, if it’s a garage, where’s the car? It’s a somewhat illogical conversation which alerts us to the fact that the older gentleman is suffering from dementia. The man who turns out to be his son tries constantly to bring his father into the here and now by demonstrating the absurdity of many of his remarks: the father is constantly sliding between alternate realities and making responses that could be utterly illogical, or completely sane wisecracks.

And so we enter the multi-layered world of Jack Cardiff, cinematographer and director, known as “the man who makes women look beautiful”, who knew better than almost anyone else how to use the Technicolor process to make films look gorgeous. The prism of the title is the one that sits inside the Technicolor camera and splits the light entering it into three separate colours, recorded on three separate strips of film and reunited after processing to produce a richness of colour previously unknown to cinematography.

Jack much of his time living in his memories – particularly of Katherine Hepburn and the filming of African Queen: his son, Mason, is trying desperately, and almost aggressively, to keep his father in the present to finish the autobiography he has begun. Jack’s wife Nicola is heartbroken that Jack no longer recognises her, but uncomplainingly takes Hepburn’s part in the conversations he continually holds with her while Lucy, who has been engaged as a care assistant for Jack, tries to put into practice the ‘correct’ ways of dealing with people who are dementing that she has learned in her all-too-brief training.

Robert Lindsay gives a magnificent performance as the man who was obsessed with light, the different ways in which it illuminates everything it touches, and the gorgeous emotional atmospheres it can create in films. Tara Fitzgerald is desolate and yet stoically pragmatic as she watches the man she loves slowly disintegrate – remembering the wonderful women he worked with in the past but failing to see the reality of the one who’s living with him now. I couldn’t quite decide whether Oliver Hembrough’s Mason was solely motivated by a desire to get his father’s autobiography completed and made into a film: was he desperately trying to complete the project as a way to come out from his father’s shadow and make a name for himself? Victoria Blunt’s Lucy was a curious mixture, too: what was the point of making her tragic backstory part of the play, and would Jack’s wife and son really engage a carer with so little knowledge and experience? Yes, she had compelling reasons to make a success of the job, but it felt almost as though her character had been invented to tick a number of boxes needed to make the plot work and to provide ‘dumb blonde’ responses for the audience to laugh at.

What is real? The lines blurred between Jack’s ‘present’ and the past he increasingly lived in. At one point we were transported to the African jungle, where Jack watched Bogie and Bacall and tried to persuade Kate to leave Spencer and accept his love instead; at another, a scene which had played out in the first act was repeated, but with different characters – Marilyn instead of Lucy, Arthur Miller replacing Mason, and, as ever, Katherine – which makes the motivation for the first scene instantly clear: Jack is living in his own world, and the other three become the players in it.

How true is it all? Terry Johnson says “I never intended to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. He’s combined an engaging narrative and homage to a genius of cinema with a moving portrayal of the effects of dementia not only on the sufferer but also on all the people around them to produce a piece which raised a lot of laughs and was greeted with appreciative applause both, I think, for the actors, and for the man who inspired the play – Jack Cardiff, cinematographer extraordinaire.

PRISM written and directed by Terry Johnson, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 2nd  November, then UK tour continues. for tickets go to:



Mary Woodward Review

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Review

Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland

**** (4 stars)

The last time I was ‘after hours’ in the National Museum, I was enjoying an evening mashup of an exhibition of Scottish pop culture with an eclectic mix of shows on offer at the Fringe – acrobats, circus performers, drag artistes and more – all received enthusiastically by a largely young and energetic audience.

Tonight the Museum’s audience was somewhat more subdued, but no less enthusiastic about an evening arranged by Scottish Opera in partnership with National Museums Scotland linking in with the current exhibition Wild and Majestic, which explores the way Scotland was seen as the epitome of nineteenth century Romanticism..

Visions of wild and rugged landscapes through which strode heroic figures wrapped in tartan accompanied by skirling bagpipes caught the imagination of artists and composers around the world. Tonight’s performance by three of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists presented major and lesser-known composers’ responses to this vision.  With Scottish Opera’s Head of Music, Derek Clark at the piano, Charlie Drummond, Arthur Bruce and Mark Nathan gave us an entertaining mix of famous and less well-kent pieces.

Robert Burns’ poems and Sir Walter Scott’s novels spoke to many composers. We heard Schumann’s setting of three very famous Burns poems and Beethoven’s setting of Highland Harry – the manuscript score of the latter’s setting of is a prominent feature of the exhibition.    Walter Scott’s novels inspired Bizet [The Fair Maid of Perth], Scotland’s Hamish MacCunn and Italy’s Federico Ricci [The Heart of Midlothian], and Donizetti [The Bride of Lammermoor]. The Bizet duet and the two subsequent solos were new to me: the Lucia duet is very familiar. To complete the programme we had Schubert’s three settings of Ossian poems, Verdi’s Macbeth’s final aria, and a piano solo – Brahms’ Ballade in D minor Op 10 no 1, inspired by an old Scottish ballad, Edward.

I’ve had the good fortune to see these three Emerging Artists several times recently, and each time I’m impressed by their talents – easy to see why Scottish Opera is supporting them, and fascinating to watch their future progress. This evening’s programme was full of lamenting, with fewer light-hearted moments.  Charlie Drummond sang superbly: she portrays heartbroken misery and plaintive nostalgia superbly, but I’m really glad I’ve also seen her fun side in the recent touring ‘opera highlights’ production.  Arthur Bruce had more opportunity to be a hopeful, ardent lover and also to smile, especially in the Federico Ricci piece, in which a smuggler gleefully celebrates his drinking habits: though he’s spent a life on the water, he’s never touched a drop of it!  Mark Nathan’s singing without a copy meant that he could engage smilingly with his audience as he sang Burns’ Niemand /Naebody.  Being a tall fellow with a commanding voice, he must often get cast as the baddie – here he hurled defiance in Macbeth’s final aria, and then put pressure on his sister Lucia to marry for his own political advantage, having led her to believe that her true love is false to her.  The voice is splendid and I hope that the maturity fully to engage with and express these weightier emotions will come with time.

The audience didn’t need the stimulus of some excellent wine to rouse them to applause: each item was greeted with warm applause, and the final stirring duet from Lucia was a fitting climax to what one must hope is only the first of many stimulating collaborations between Scottish Opera and the National Museums of Scotland.


Scottish Opera in collaboration with National Museums Scotland presents Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Run Ended


Mary Woodward Review

Puccini Tosca Scottish Opera Glasgow Theatre Royal, Review

Puccini Tosca, Scottish Opera

***** (5 stars)

The production may be nearly forty years old – it was first seen in 1980 – but the message it allows through, uncluttered by ‘concept’ or the desire for ‘relevance’, is clear for all to see, and the singers are allowed to sing without being asked to ride monocycles or paddle through pools of blood: such a relief after so many potentially excellent performances have been ruined by anachronistic ‘concepts’ that make a mockery of the plot, or sets and direction that make the singers perform ridiculous contortions that must interfere with their singing…

The plot of Tosca is quite simple: a jealous prima donna, Floria Tosca,  and her artist lover Cavaradossi become embroiled in political machinations when the latter assists the escape of a political prisoner, Angelotti  from the notorious Sant’ Angelo prison in Rome.  Scarpia, the amoral chief of police, lusts after Tosca and manipulates her first into betraying her lover and then agreeing to give herself to him to save Cavaradossi’s life. Scarpia arranges for what Tosca believes will be a mock execution: when he tries to embrace her she stabs him to death.  She joins Cavaradossi and tells him to play dead when the firing squad ‘shoot’ him – but the shots are real.  Scarpia’s corpse is discovered, and Tosca leaps to her death from the battlements of the Castel Sant’ Angelo.

The original opera was set during the Napoleonic era, when Rome was the battleground for struggles between republicans and royalists, and centres around real people and real events. This production updates it to the 1940s, when Mussolini controlled Italy but allowed the continued existence of a puppet king and queen: the struggle against tyranny thus becomes more instantly comprehensible to an audience who will remember World War Two but might be hazy about nineteenth-century Italian politics.

The set was a sheer delight – despite spending considerable amounts of time in storage, the realistic and very heavy-looking architectural structures showed no sign of their age, and provided a massive backdrop against which the tragedy played out. The singing was superb from everyone on stage, but special mention must be made of Dingle Yandell’s all-too-brief but magnificently sung Angelotti; Paul Carey Jones made much of the mildly humorous Sacristan, and Aled Hall was smilingly cherubic as Scarpia’s evil-minded henchman Spoletta.

Gwyn Hughes Jones poured out his love for Tosca and his ardent political ideals in powerfully thrilling tones; Roland Wood relished every sadistic moment of torture he could fashion, showing respect for no-one but his master, Mussolini; and Natalya Romaniw gloried in every turbulent emotion as she soared seemingly effortlessly above everyone else on stage. Stuart Bedford’s orchestra occasionally threatened to drown the singers but added their own rich colouring to Puccini’s multi-layered music.

There was magnificent spectacle, moments of intimacy, touches of humour, and thrillingly theatrical moments – above all the final spotlit statue of St Michael hinting at divine retribution for all those who’d been a part of Scarpia’s reign of terror. It’s not an opera that moves me emotionally, but it was so superbly done that I can’t withhold its fifth star. If you want to wallow in Italianate passion with a side order of sadistic malevolence, look no further…

Puccini Tosca, Scottish Opera Runs until Saturday 26th October then Scottish Tour Continues.

Mary Woodward Review

Opera Highlights: Scottish Opera on Tour Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

Opera Highlights: Scottish Opera on Tour

**** (4 stars)

Yet again Derek Clark, Head of Music at Scottish Opera, has done asuperb job of weaving together a kaleidoscopic array of arias, duets and ensembles from an eclectic mix of opera and operetta to produce an evening which, on the last night of an extended tour, kept the audience in the Brunton well-entertained and was deservedly greeted with loud applause.  It was good to see the four singers waiting for us as we left the theatre, so we could express in person our thanks and appreciation of their hard work.

Rather than simply present a randomly assorted mixed bag of music, the company has done an excellent job in constructing a story line that gave significance and context to each piece.  Four young people, each wielding a mobile phone and frustrated at the lack of mobile service, arrived for a party somewhere in the country: but where was their host, and why wasn’t everything ready?  Deciding that they would follow the list of instructions on a handily-placed clipboard, they set about getting things done, singing as they went.

They opened with a joyful quartet – but it soon became apparent that all was not well: the soprano had something she needed to tell the tenor and the mezzo was desperate to attract the notice of the [oblivious] baritone with whom she’d been in love since she was a child.  Misunderstandings, betrayals, heartbreak, disguise and all the usual operatic confusion wound through the first half of the show – but it was mostly all sorted out by the interval.  The plot was a little looser in the second half, but there were no desperate upsets, a lot of jollity, and a very happy ending…

There weren’t many ‘famous bits’, which I found okay but which rather confused my companion who was having her first taste of opera: she only recognised one piece in the whole evening, and the lack of light in the auditorium meant she couldn’t glean any enlightenment from the [excellent] programme.  I assured her afterwards that a ‘proper’ opera would be more coherent, and urged her to give it a try…

What we were united on was appreciation of mezzo Martha Jones who was outstanding: face, voice, and body language even when not singing, were all exceptionally expressive and she seemed equally at home in tragedy and comedy.  Her voice sounded superb in French [Connais-tu le pays? from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon] but she was equally at home in Italian and English, and even managed to keep me gripped in Lucretia’s Give him this orchid from Britten’s Rape of Lucretia – not my favourite composer…

Soprano Charlie Drummond and baritone Mark Nathan showed clearly why they are two of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists this year. Both shone in their duets – the Count and Susanna’s assignation-making meeting and Papageno’s joyful reunion with Papagena: I greatly enjoyed the added complication that in both Charlie was singing on behalf of Martha, who wanted to be the one Mark was making love to. I was less happy with Alex Bevan’s tortured account of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin, where I felt his agonised facial contortions disturbed the lyrical outpourings of a poet who remains an incurable romantic even in the face of death: I really appreciated his acting and comic timing, and his contributions to the second half of the programme, especially Dan Cupid hath a garden from Edward German’s Merrie England.

The second half of the programme began with a piece by this year’s Composer in Residence with Scottish Opera – O let the earth devour me quicke, which describes Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree to escape Phoebus Apollo. The music was fascinating, but I was less convinced by the stylised gestures which accompanied it.  Charlie Drummond’s delightful rendition of the Vilja-song from Lehár’s The Merry Widow was supported by two singers and a horse [!], while Martha Jones’s performance of Dame Hannah’s there grew a little flower from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore contained all the heartbreak and hope of past unrequited love hoping finally to find a happy ending. Alex Bevan and Mark Nathan gave a dashing performance as the two heroes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers [which I’m delighted to see is one of Scottish Opera’s offerings later this season!] and there was much more to enjoy as well.

The evening was a delightfully entertaining mix of drama, tragedy, pathos and comedy which all four singers engaged in with great energy and enthusiasm. Yet again Scottish Opera have showcased the best in young talent: I look forward to seeing all four singers again very soon.

Opera Highlights: Scottish Opera on Tour, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run Ended