Speech problems: Gabriel Quigley as Fiona, Scotland's new foreign minister in Spoiling, Traverse Theatre. Photo: Jeremy Abrahams
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Edinburgh Fringe plays tackle Scottish independence in irreverent, tub-thumping form

Because the theatrical profession generally attracts more radicals than reactionaries, these performances tend to be rallies for the Yes campaign.

While the official Edinburgh International Festival has approached the question of independence tangentially through Jacobite history (see page 50), the Fringe has dramatised Scotland’s most urgent concern more directly, with over two-dozen shows that turn in some way on the referendum.

Because the theatrical profession generally attracts more radicals than reactionaries, these performances tend to be rallies for the Yes campaign. David Hayman’s one-man play The Pitiless Storm (Assembly Rooms), written by Chris Dolan, features a veteran Labour trade unionist agonising over defection to the SNP position. Although it ultimately comes down tub-thumpingly on one side, the show – which will tour Scottish towns until the eve of the vote – electrifyingly dramatises the fight going on within the minds of the undecided.

The cheekiest contribution to the debate is Spoiling by John McCann (Traverse Theatre), which assumes a Yes vote on 18 September and imagines the day of the handover of power. Scotland’s foreign minister-elect, Fiona (Gabriel Quigley), is working on the speech that she will deliver alongside her UK opposite number, when a Scottish government official, Mark (Richard Clements), arrives, asking to check over the text. McCann entertainingly creates a scenario in which English dirty tricks are being played even after secession but attributes to Westminster a degree of Machiavellian preparation for post-independence that seems too pessimistic – although the assumption that a Yes vote might somehow be scuppered by London is revealing of the current level of distrust between the countries.

Independence dramas are trying to hit a moving target, resulting in plays that are inherently transitional and disposable. For this reason, the best work at the Traverse this year is Salmond-free, including Mark Thomas’s Cuckooed, the deserved recipient of a Fringe First Award. No doubt for economic reasons, the solo show has become Edinburgh’s default form but Thomas merges the best elements of drama and stand-up to re-enact his shocking betrayal by a fellow campaigner against the arms trade. Emma Callander’s imaginative staging includes video interviews on sliding trays pulled from filing cabinets. This intelligent morality tale starts a tour in Oxford in October, reaching London in December.

One of the few political plays looking south is Kingmaker (Pleasance Courtyard), which anticipates the resignation of David Cameron and a charismatic but shambolic London mayor’s bid to replace him as PM. One of the problems with Robert Khan’s and Tom Salinsky’s Whitehall farce is that the protagonist can’t be Boris Johnson for legal reasons – the plot involves behaviour that might shock even Bojo supporters – but any impact depends on the audience thinking constantly about Johnson.

The actor Alan Cox cleverly projects an essence of charming disaster-proneness without attempting a Boris impression but the play’s consideration of how a politician turns mistakes and scandals into proof of authenticity offers no insights that were not in Michael Cockerell’s devastating profile on BBC2 in 2013.

A strong American presence this year includes Title and Deed (Assembly Hall), a monologue by the US playwright Will Eno. The speaker in Title and Deed seems, from the rucksack with which he arrives onstage and his repeated use of phrases such as “I don’t know if you have that here”, to be some sort of tourist, although his increasing estrangement from reality suggests that he may be an alien in the extraterrestrial as well as the immigration department sense. Captivatingly played by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, this unnerving meditation on the conflicting human instincts of suspicion and sympathy finally feels like ET rewritten by Samuel Beckett.

Drawing large audiences because of the participation of the movie star Anne Archer, The Trial of Jane Fonda (Assembly Rooms) dramatises the occasion in 1988 when Fonda agreed to meet, at a Connecticut church, Vietnam veterans who were campaigning to stop her shooting a movie in their home town because of her visit to Hanoi during the war in apparent support of the enemy. Some exchanges animate the culture wars that exist in the US to this day but the conclusion – that the star and the soldiers showed different sorts of integrity – is dismayingly glib.

The oddest project is Blind Hamlet (Assembly Roxy), a production by the Actors Touring Company of a play by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour. As the lights go down, a stage manager switches on a voice recorder and places it under a microphone, which amplifies a recorded talk by Soleimanpour involving his thoughts on Shakespeare’s tragedy and tests for an eye condition that may cause blindness. His disembodied voice occasionally summons to the stage members of the audience, who are then instructed to play one of those corporate away-day games involving closing eyes and trusting others. There’s an expression about Hamlet without the prince but this is Hamlet without the Hamlet and the gimmick of an actorless play palls long before the hour is up. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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