Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Some of the best events of 2015…

Posted in Gig review, Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on January 1, 2016

Best gigs?

Ane Brun at Oran Mor in December was just fabulous. She’s grown from an obscure Norwegian folk singer into a sensation. She gathers a top notch band around her, most notably bassist Dan Berglund, of the tragically disbanded Esbjörn Svensson Trio; my pal Ian’s a fan of theirs and suspects most of the band may be Berglund’s new group. This is a band that can play anything with consummate ease.

Brun has been updating her catalogue over the last few years, so that even oldies like ‘To Let Myself Go’ sound totally fresh. Once more, there’s enough percussion onstage to rearrange kidneys, and it pounds out the foundations of what she does impeccably; as ever, ‘Worship’ and ‘Do You Remember’ are thumping highlights. The stuff from her new album ‘When I’m Free’ – which has garnered mixed reviews – is slick and expansive, though the whole doesn’t quite get me as excited as ‘It All Starts With One’, underlined by the brilliant and habitual finale, ‘Undertow’. However, there are real gems in there, especially for me the sensuously drum-driven ‘Directions’. She’s incapable of disappointing.

However, gig of the year goes to a half-Norwegian lass, Nadine Shah, at King Tut’s in April. An iceberg when she’s singing, she’s a hoot when she’s interacting with the audience, and takes no prisoners. After ‘Stealing Cars’, I can’t resist and burst out a ‘that’s just beautiful.’ She’s momentarily touched, and says ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Raymond,’ I reply. ‘Daft name’ she says, quite rightly. Brilliant musician, cool, cool woman.

I was very happy to see an old hero of mine, the legendary Bruce Cockburn in October; one brilliant guitarist with a beautiful voice and a line in songwriting that is fiercely passionate about justice and humanity. An activist for decades, anyone who advocates bringing down marauding Guatemalan government helicopters with a rocket launcher can’t be all that bad in my book…

Great to see my pal Jill Brown supporting at King Tut’s, and the headline act, Polly and the Billet Doux were a bit of a revelation; lead guitarist Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen may well be one of the best live guitarists I’ve seen since… like… ever.  Jill is headlining a sell-out Tut’s in January; it’s well deserved for someone who works so hard on her music.

And it was also good to see Pokey LaFarge again at The Art School. After the debacle of a horrendous audience in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, this was a riot, with a crowd that was into him and willing to give him the space to build a relationship, and everyone, including LaFarge, has a ball. Once more, the musicianship was incredible, especially from the genius of Ryan Koenig on harmonica.  Watch them here and marvel…

As for theatre – some good uns, including Benny Cummerbund as the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen. But cream of the crop was undoubtedly ‘Lanark’ at the Citz. It’s a novel I like and recognise the importance of in the Scottish canon, but I’m not the obsessive devotee I know some are. But this is astonishing and confirms David Greig as one of the world’s best playwrights. Sandy Grierson is immense in the title role (he has previous form with Greig, playing Malcolm in Dunsinane a couple of years back); self-absorbed, lost, manipulative and manipulated, he comes across as a true oddity. Direction and set design are amazing too. At over three hours, I wasn’t tempted to nod off once, which is a real feat on a work night these days. Stunning.


“Crime and Punishment”, Citizens Theatre, 13/9/13

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on September 14, 2013

Adam Best and George Costigan, “Crime and Punishment”

A mammoth, two-and-a-half hour adaptation of one of the most influential novels of all time (and one that I haven’t read!), this could have been an evening of dreary Russian speechifying but turns out to be a real gem.  Chris Hannan’s script is actually really pacey, and the action cracks on, giving it the distinctly modern feel of a crime movie.  With exceptional performances too, this is a great night out.

The play is obviously dominated by Raskolnikov’s existential debate with himself as he tries to place his pointless and motiveless murders in a wider cosmic context, a task he inevitably fails in as soon as love rears its redemptive head.  Adam Best is quite brilliant in the lead role, carrying the bulk of the script and the emotive drive of the play.  His physicality as he wrenches the ideas within him into some sort of shape is utterly convincing.  One of the performances of the year for me.

He’s helped by a generally terrific cast – Cate Haymer as Raskolnikov’s mother and George Costigan (Bob of “Rita, Sue…”) providing comic relief that sometimes borders on the sinister are especially effective.  Best of the support is Citizens’ intern Jessica Hardwick as Sonya; she captures her innate goodness and the desperation of her poverty -driven prostitution in a performance that is both sweet and erotic.  She shines, quite frankly, and yet may well be the least experienced member of the cast.

Setting is great too, the actors on-stage for the whole production (prior to the start and during the interval too), perhaps emphasising the seething humanity of St Petersburg.  An ensemble aesthetic is created (are they all in this together) that works well.  One staging gimmick that jars at the beginning but grows on me is the swishing of doors on and off stage to corral the action; another that doesn’t seem to have much purpose is the use of microphones at various points, actors vocalising Raskolnikov’s panicked breathing or the conversations of characters outside doors. But that’s a minor niggle.

There has obviously been a lot of compression of the book’s narrative, and that means that Raskolnikov’s relationships with his sister and his best friend aren’t really fully realised; as a result, Ameira Darwish and Obiama Ugoala, beautiful though they both are, don’t really engage; they feel like broad brush strokes.

Perhaps that compression is also responsible for the feeling that Raskolnikov’s final conversion to the side of morality and empathy seems a little pat.  Bursting out his confession to protect Sonya works well enough, but thereafter it feels like there are a few gaps in his journey.

That, though, is probably my fault.  At the end of a long, busy week and a long, busy Friday, I find my head swimming with exhaustion at times, and the script – intelligent, erudite and packed full of big, big ideas – loses my attention occasionally.  I enjoyed this immensely, but perhaps I need to see it again when I’m really on the ball to squeeze everything it has to offer from it.  A terrific play, a terrific production.

“The Seagull”, Citizens’ Theatre, 11/5/13

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on May 13, 2013

The Seagul

A little bit of Chekhov (I’m not going to do the “nuclear wessels” joke again), reimagined by John Donnelly and staged by Headlong Theatre / Nuffield and directed by Blanche McIntyre.   And I’m not quite sure what to make of it, frankly.

I like it.  I do.  It has some laugh out loud moments, and the cast is slick and, on the whole, convincing.  There are a couple of standout performances too. I particularly liked Jenny Rainsford in the relatively minor role of Masha, a fucked up dypsomaniac who is in love with the wrong man and who marries a different wrong man and who spends the entire play in a boozy dwam of spite; even as they take their curtain call, Rainsford looks pissed and furious.  Pearl Chanda appropriately lacks gravitas as the young and flighty Nina, but, after being shat upon from a great height by the odious Trigorin (Gyuri Sarossy) falls apart to Kostya in a final scene of real pathos.  Abigail Cruttenden is waspish as Arkadina, meaning the best performances of the night, for me, all come from women, other than one memorable soliloquy from Trigoron about the trials of being a writer (“You think this is easy?”).  The set is sparse and worked well by the cast, Donnelly’s rewriting is economical and punchy and the plot is never obtuse.  But…

It does retain that big Russian melodramatic feel with lots and lots of talking and talking and yada yada yada.  Consequently, I feel a bit weary at those times I’m meant to engage myself emotionally and I can’t help feeling distant from characters I want to feel more for.  And of course, it’s an ensemble piece:  I suppose we are meant to see Kostya as the centre of it all, yet it is Nina who is the seagull and Trigorin and Arkadina who are the catalysts for all that happens, and then Masha’s love for Kostya drives the subplot of her disastrous marriage to Medvedenko, and there’s the doctor’s affair with the estate manager’s wife going on and…  and by the time Kostya shoots himself, quite frankly, I don’t really care.  My patience has already been stretched by all these callow young and youngish things going on and on about theatre and new theatre and the torture and joy of writing when they’re not having pointless arguments about horses, and everyone at the drop of  a hat is a failed writer or a successful writer or wants to be a writer or knows a writer or has shagged or is shagging a writer and is being miserable about it.  Gimme peace, being a  writer is neither that important nor that glamorous.  The characters have all the sincerity and  zeal of the best East European Anti-Bourgeois Revolutionary Theatre, and it’s just so bloody, bloody tiresome.

So, a worthy and worthwhile play, but at the end of the day, as much as I’m glad I saw it and as much as I admire it – it leaves me a little colder than it should.   Russian drama aint really for me, it seems.

The incest tragedy? “King Lear”, Citizens’ Theatre, 27/4/12

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on April 29, 2012
Link to citizens' theatre

David Hayman, “King Lear”

My second King Lear in just over a year, after 2011’s fantastic Derek Jacobi version.  That was a very traditional take, all pagan standing stones and a venerable king thrown on the mercy of Dark Age gods.  This is something else.

It’s a sign of Hayman’s ambition as an actor that he felt ready to tackle a part most others shy away from until they are in their 70s.  Hayman is 64, ten years younger than Jacobi, and was therefore never going to be able to play Lear as the  petulant old man on the verge of dodderiness.  In keeping with Hayman’s oeuvre, this is a much more dangerous beast.  And that, I think, is the problem I have with this.

It’s a memorable production, a way of doing the play I’ve never seen before.  That’s the thing about Shakespeare: with stage directions that consist of “a heath” or “a tempest”, you can do much anything you want with it.  That has validated some absolute shite over the years that usually entails a company digging around in its military uniform box to come up with a mish-mash of all sorts of periods; the Citz’  “Macbeth” of a couple of decades ago which was set in a post-apocalyptic world complete with enormous wind machines blowing actors across the stage and a Lady Macbeth who ate Duncan’s heart springs to mind.  I’ve never seen Lear tackled this way, though, so off the straight and narrow.  Generally, it works, largely because of Hayman, and, though I’m not quite sure I loved it, I certainly applaud its verve and intelligence.

The problem is that Lear scares me.  This is a king who is a Glasgow gangster, a hard-drinking, fur-wearing, sexually abusive  ned who has been elevated to the crown because he is the badass of the country.  His treatment of Goneril (a voluptuous Kathryn Howden) is actually completely  repellent, and the revelation of his hundred knights as the drunkenly obnoxious, arrogant squad of utter yobs that would make you walk out of any pub they happened to be in (a decision, I feel, is a directorial error), means that, quite frankly, I actually have no sympathy for this guy.  His rantings against his daughters that, in any other production, are the tetchy ravings of a foolish old man 0n the verge of senility are here the explicit, chilly threats of a psychopath.  As such, I don’t care if he’s murdered by exposure on the heath or shot up the arse in a car outside an east end pub.  And what that does is it legitimises Regan’s and Goneril’s complaints against him and makes you wonder just what sexual abuse he has delivered on Cordelia that makes her so in thrall of him and what dark contracts he has made with Kent to earn his loyalty.

But there are big plusses.  Hayman is always fantastic and does what he does impeccably.  There are some great moments, and he is capable of making himself appear so much less than he is as madness descends; I have to say, though, I find his fractured, nasal delivery of many of those lines of madness curiously old-fashioned.  Paul Higgins as Kent is solid and generally convincing (though, again, his onstage suicide at the end is, I think, a mistake, pulling attention away from the death of Lear).  I liked Ewan Donald as Edgar (a great part for any actor) and Kieran Hill, while unconvincing as Edmund, is terrific as Poor Tom.

Shauna Macdonald as Regan is red hot sexy in a way that becomes outrageously vampish, the inappropriate fondlings of a child who has experienced crossed boundaries that befits the rampant sexuality of the whole production, and her death performance is something else.  As well as oodles of sex, there’s also buckets of blood, arterial spray soaking the stage; the blinding scene is torture porn aesthetic, Regan taking out Gloucester’s second eye with the heel of her stiletto shoe.  Lastly, the final image of Lear piled on top of all his dead daughters and wheeled out on a hospital bed is inspired: just what has this total bastard done to these girls to bring the whole family to this?  I’d never noticed before, but there is no mention of a mother in King Lear.  Where is his Queen?  And how did those girls replace her in this chilling man’s life?

I don’t quite warm to Lynn Kennedy as Cordelia, feeling she lacks the necessary gravitas to stand up to her father and sisters, but it was a stroke of genius to have her pregnant in the final act.  It occurred to me a full day after seeing the play.   Lear demands that he spend one month with Reagan and Goneril each.  The crisis comes before even a month has passed, since he has not had time to visit Reagan for the first time.  Given that France accepts Cordelia after Burgundy rejects her, and has therefore had only a few weeks with her, how then does she appear heavily pregnant?  Who is the father?  If it can’t be France (who we do not see again) – then who?

I’ve never read the play like this before.  Is it a sexual abuser’s tale?  Is this a take on Shakespeare in the mould of Tim Roth’s “The War Zone”?

This version of the play has disquieted me, and dammit that’s a good thing.  I’m not sure, though, if I can forgive it for not letting me weep at the awakening scene, or when Lear carries his hanged daughter onstage (here, he drags her like some piece of meat).  I’m not sure I want to notice just how self-centred all Lear’s madness is, how possessive he is of what he is to and has had with his daughters.  But, hell, do you know, maybe Hayman and artistic director Dominic Hill are just showing me what’s in the text.

And that is undoubtedly a good thing.  Shakespeare would surely have wanted that:  I’m just not sure I do.

ps  By the way, I have to say thanks to my lovely PGDE English class, who took me along on their night out.  In twelve years of working with student teachers, this is the first time that’s happened; sweeties every one, especially fetchingly floppy-haired Scott  who organised it all.  Thanks, guys, I had a lovely time.

“Dunsinane”, Citizens’ Theatre, 11/6/11

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on June 11, 2011
Jonny Phillips and Siobhan Redmond

With a vibrant new National Theatre and wonderful writers like David Greig, David Harrower, Gregory Burke, Liz Lochead and so many others, this is a Golden Age for Scottish theatre, and “Dunsinane” deserves a place at the very top of the tree.  It is stunning.

It tells the story of the aftermath of the overthrow of Macbeth; it borrows from the Shakespeare but aims for a fiction that is more grounded in historical fact.  Macbeth, for instance, is not killed in a duel with Macduff, but is run to ground like a wounded animal; Gruoch, his wife, hasn’t gone bananas and thrown herself off the battlements; it is Gruoch’s line that has claim to the throne, not Macbeth’s; and Malcolm finds himself imposed by the English on a Scotland that had been stable for fifteen years.

The human interest lies in Gruoch, the historical Lady Macbeth.  Now let’s get one thing straight; the programme notes pummel heavily the notion of the Shakespearean Lady M as a monster, and that’s a reading of the play that is almost universal.  I don’t see Lady Macbeth like that; I believe there is much textual evidence to suggest that Shakespeare saw her in a much softer light, subverting the Stuart interpretation in much the same way as he subverted the anti-semitic interpretation of Shylock.  In other words, Lady M is a sweetie, and that’s obvious right from the very first scene when those damnable witches foreground the theme of the whole play; fair is foul and foul is fair.

But that’s just me; if I’d marry Lady Macbeth, then hell mend me.  Greig’s Gruoch is what I believe Shakespeare might have wanted to portray her as; a political survivor, a mother with a son to protect and a queen with a country to govern.  Siobhan Redmond is brilliantly seductive in the part, svelte and spoiled and manipulative.  If her accent occasionally sounds a little too Welsh, it’s a minor fault in what is a great performance.

But the stage belongs to Jonny Phillips as Siward.  Phillips – possibly most famous for causing controversy by shooting passengers and then himself on Kate and Leo’s “Titanic” – is outstanding as the grizzled soldier who begins by trying to do his best and ends by doing the worst things imaginable, including the murder and quartering of a teenage boy.  He has the impeccable delivery of a man who has to choose his words carefully because he is surrounded by those who use them so much better and so much more fluidly, including Brian Ferguson’s venal Malcolm who gives him a lesson on the political power of the word “seems” that is both hilarious and chilling.

The character reminds me of another soldier caught out and dragged down by politics – Pizarro, in Peter Shaffer’s “Royal Hunt of the Sun”.  Indeed, there are many structural similarities, including an occupying force seeking treasure in a hostile land, a captive monarch with whom the soldier forms an unhealthily close relationship, a horrific regicide, and a young soldier / muse.

I have only one minor gripe.  I absolutely understand the change in Siward between Act 1 (when he reins in Malcolm’s murderous tendencies, and restrains his troops for the higher cause of peace) and Act 2  (in which he embarks on a bloody campaign of repression);   his queen has fled to the hills, and the love that he thought might save him has proven to be a betrayal.  However, happening as it does over the interval, it just seems a little too sudden, and the audience has to wait for Siward and Gruoch’s final confrontation in the snow to gain a full realisation of just how deeply she might have hurt him.  Other than that, it is an absolutely emotionally truthful script.

Of course, much of the play’s politics resonates in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the insanity of attempting to make sense of a cold, wet, argumentative and thrawn  Scotland brings a great deal of recognition – and laughs – for the audience.  At almost three hours, it’s a major work of art and undoubtedly a new Scottish classic.

Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes of Ian Dury, Citizens’ Theatre, 22/9/10

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on September 22, 2010
Ian Dury

Ian Dury

A boys’ night out.  Ian Dury is becoming a bit (more) of an icon, thanks to various articles, books and this year’s pretty damned good “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” biopic with the seriously intense Andy Serkis and the seriously beautiful and talented Naomie Harris.  So it’s not surprising that theatre gets on the bandwagon with this bio-musical-drama.

It’s a good & bad experience.  The negatives are quite clear.  First, the script, when compared with the sheer inventiveness and joy of Dury’s lyrics, seems flat and limp: none of the linguistic dexterity that was Dury’s trademark is reflected in the lines he speaks in the play.  There is no such thing as bad language, only language badly used, and I suspect the real Dury would have used “fuck” and “cunt” with the effectiveness of a sniper, while author Jeff Merrifield relies far too heavily on a blunderbuss approach that rarely hits the mark. 

Secondly, there’s also a problem with exactly what the dramatic structure of this play is: there’s a world in which interaction occurs between the characters, yet much of the play steps away from this, and the two characters speak directly to the audience, churning out biographical information which many fans will already know.  Because of that, dramatic tension is in short supply.

As far as the performances go,  Mark White plays up Dury as a genially leering dodgems carnie, when, in reality, Dury played himself down in the same role; consequently, there’s little of the depth and duplicity of the original.  Much is said of Dury’s viciously manipulative nature and overpowering ego, but we never actually see it, and the result of this is that the fictional  Dury shares the stage with sidekick “Spider” Rowe (Josh Darcy), when the real  Dury would never, ever be content to share a stage with anyone on an equal basis.  

The plus side is that it’s undeniable fun.  Darcy does a killer Janet Street Porter impression, and White does a rousing job of the songs, though there’s none of the beautiful ugliness of Dury in his performance.  Still, he has the audience singing along and, in the final bellow of “Hit Me…” has many of them on their feet.  

All in all, it’s a play I’m glad I saw, but it offers nothing more than a toe-tapping nod at Dury’s hugeness of character and the impeccable musicality of The Blockheads.

“The Tailor of Inverness”, Citizens’ Theatre, 18/9/10

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on September 19, 2010
Dogstar Theatre Company link

Matthew Zajac, "The Tailor of Inverness", Dogstar Theatre Company

Matthew Zajac worked on a script of mine a few years ago when he played the part of Neil in a BBC Education drama based on Robin Jenkins’ “The Cone-gatherers”.  He was excellent then, and he’s excellent still

His “The Tailor of Inverness” has rightly won a slew of awards for both his writing and his acting.  It’s a passionate and deeply personal exploration of his father’s background as a Polish immigrant to Scotland at the end of the War, and the secrets kept from his family about the life he lived before he was thrown half way across the world.

We share so many common threads I’m afraid he’s made my new novel redundant before it’s even finished.  His father was a Galician Pole, mine a deutsche volke Silesian, but the story of first marriages and unknown half-siblings is the same.  So too are many recognisable traits (a man who believes fatherhood is about providing for the family, the barely convincing justifications (“I couldn’t go back, I would be thrown into prison…”), the flashes of outward anger that are evidence of a decades-long inner battle) that made our fathers much, much more complex creatures than we ever believed. 

Zajac has advantages, though.  He obviously knows much about his extended family in Eastern Europe, which gives his drama a sense of a personal drama-documentary: with many of my trails having gone cold years ago, I’m relying on arms’ length fiction.  In addition, he’s brilliant at capturing those voices that need to be heard (how often I caught a nuance of my father’s accented English) and at immersing us in the whirlwind of the time.  He’s also totally comfortable in his father’s language, whereas my Polish goes no further than stumbling tourist and my German is non existent.  These give him an insight into his father that I am well aware I lack.

It’s a short, poignant, funny, surprising drama.  Zajac is expertly accompanied by solo violin and PowerPoint (a map which dizzyingly recreates the spaghetti journey of his father’s wanderings), and delivers a stunning performance.  I loved it.  If you get the chance, it’s a must-see.

Stewart Lee, Citizens’ Theatre, Magner’s Comedy Festival, 15/3/10

Posted in Comedy Review by raymondsoltysek on March 18, 2010
Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Stewart Lee does that’s so funny, but funny he is.  First, I think, is that he is a master at exploiting awkward moments: there’s nothing so uncomfortable in a  comedy routine as half a minute of silence, not even a titter to break the stare Lee aims at the audience.  Secondly, he shares with many comics the art of the surreal, free-fall tangent, especially during an extended imaginary phone call to an estate agent regarding the purchase of a home, one of the requirements of which is a view of otters frolicking at the bottom of the garden.  Thirdly, he is capable of winning world-weariness á la Jack Dee or barely concealed fury that has him shuffling in his jacket, all of which give his act a sense of emotional movement.

But probably it’s his delicious wickedness which is his forte.  There’s nothing more effective at getting an audience on your side than a complicity in a view so outrageous you just know you can’t possibly repeat it outside the theatre.  Chief among these moments is his assertion that Richard “The Hamster” Hammond (not even a real hamster) should have been decapitated in that car crash,  his head bouncing  along the track into a pool of blazing fuel, his brain stem conscious just long enough to register that things were getting a bit hot.  “I’m only joking,” he says, “just like Top Gear.  But, coincidentally…”

This is an added show, and half past five isn’t exactly the best time to to warm up a sober audience, but Lee works the stage – and the stalls and the dress circle – really well.    What’s noticeable is how he can be so in-your-face, and yet the swearing quotient is at a minimum.  I’ve no problem with anyone who uses “bad language”, whatever that is, but Lee shows that confrontation can be just effective when it’s cerebral rather than visceral. One of the better stand-ups around.