Review: Death of a Salesman – Dundee Rep

Death of a Salesman wasn’t a play that I was really familiar with up until Saturday night. After skipping my highers at secondary school to go straight to college (and then on to university) – I never did study Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer winning play. It’s something that’s I’ve always been eager to rectify, so when I heard it was coming to Dundee Rep, I just knew I had to see it.

Told using a combination of flashbacks, dreams and present tense action, Death of a Salesman is a heart-breaking tale of how the death of a dream can affect a man and his family. Starring the wonderful Billy Mack, the play is about a 63-year-old travelling salesman named Willy Loman who is struggling to make ends meet. Haunted by his dreams of making it big, he finds himself at the end of his career, broke and feeling redundant. But no matter how low he feels, Willy always holds on to the hope that he can turn things around. Too proud to consider any other kind of career, Willy believes that charm and hard work are all that you need in life to succeed.

With beautiful performances from Billy Mack, Irene MacDougall as Willy’s long suffering but loving wife Linda and Laurie Scott as his youngest son Happy, the production is just stunning to watch. But for me it was Ewan Donald’s tremendous performance as Biff, Willy’s eldest son, that made this show truly spellbinding. The scenes between Willy and Biff are just electrifying to watch, with the actors capturing the intensity of this complicated father and son relationship, just perfectly.

Death of a Salesman is directed by Joe Douglas and is showing at the Dundee Rep until Saturday the 11th of March. For further information and to book tickets, visit: www.dundeerep.co.uk

*Disclaimer – I was provided with a ticket for this showing of Death of a Salesman in exchange for this fair and honest review.

National Theatre Live – Saint Joan at Dundee Contemporary Arts

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see the National Theatre Live production of Saint Joan at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA). The production, starring Gemma Arterton, is an updated version of George Bernard Shaw’s classic 1920s play.

Set in France on a revolving boardroom filled with hedge fund managers, the play tells the story of Joan of Arc: daughter, farm girl, visionary, patriot, king-whisperer, soldier, leader, victor, icon, radical, witch, heretic, saint, martyr and woman.

The play opens with the shocking news that hens have stopped laying eggs, leading to a crash in the stock market. The hedge fund managers are understandably worried but then a local farm girl called Joan arrives, boasting about her ability to speak to dead Saints and Angels and tells the men that God is on her side. She asks them to let her take control of the army so that she can drive the English out of France. Of course, she’s immediately met with ridicule, but then she does something amazing – she asks the dead saints to help her get the hens laying eggs again. When it works – she’s suddenly someone to be reckoned with.

While Gemma Arterton’s performance is wonderful as the feminist farm girl turned visionary, the modern setting with all its technology and gadgets left me a little bit cold. Personally, I would have preferred a more faithful adaptation of this play, but I still enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Joan and her amazing strength and conviction.

My next visit to the DCA will be to see the celebrated play Hedda Gabler, written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Starring the amazing Ruth Wilson – it’s a National Theatre Live production, not to be missed!

For more information about National Theatre Live productions coming to Dundee and to book tickets, please visit: www.dca.org.uk

*Disclaimer – I was provided with a ticket for this showing of Saint Joan in exchange for this fair and honest review.

Review: Amadeus, National Theatre Live at DCA, Dundee

Having loved my first National Theatre Live experience, I was really looking forward to returning to Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) to watch the latest NT production Amadeus, last week. The stunning show, starring Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen, tells the story of Salieri, a celebrated composer who is thriving in the beautiful city of Vienna. But when musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comes to town, Salieri’s whole world is rocked to the core.

Envious of the attention that the young Mozart is receiving, Salieri gets to know the composer and is stunned by his extraordinary talent. Consumed by jealousy, Salieri starts to plot Mozart’s downfall, ensuring that he will never receive the recognition that he deserves during his short lifetime.

The cast, which included the wonderful Karla Crome as Mozart’s wife Constance, was absolutely magnificent and brought the whole piece to life. Written by the English playwright Peter Shaffer, Amadeus is filled with drama, suspense and outstanding music, provided by a live orchestra who were very much part of the production. The packed audience at the DCA, were all absolutely riveted and on the edge of their seats throughout.

For a second time, the magic of the National Theatre was absolutely transmitted through the screen, making it feel like you really were there! Being able to grab a drink from the lovely Jute Café Bar at half time, also really added to the whole theatre experience.

With more National Theatre Live events due to be screened soon, including the award winning plays Saint Joan and Hedda Gabler, I’m looking forward to returning to the DCA for my next dose of culture!

For more information about National Theatre Live productions coming to Dundee and to book tickets, please visit: www.dca.org.uk

*Disclaimer – I was provided with a ticket for this showing of Amadeus in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Interview with Shelley Day, author of The Confession of Stella Moon

One of my favourite novels from last year was The Confession of Stella Moon. It’s a gripping tale about a woman who has just been released from prison, after serving time for killing her own mother. Haunting and disturbing in equal turns, the book is a real page turner and one that I would highly recommend.  I caught up with its author, Shelley Day to ask her where she got the idea for her deliciously dark debut novel.

Where did the inspiration for The Confession of Stella Moon come from?

I didn’t have an idea for this book, or any book, when I started writing! It was the character, Stella, who first came; she appeared during a writing exercise. She arrived fully fledged, complete with baggage, I could see her and hear her and I knew that I knew her. She was as real as a real person, although she’s not based on anyone I know in real life. I’d been made redundant at work and I’d gone to Moniack Mhor near Inverness on an Arvon residential writing course because I wanted to learn to write fiction. The tutor was the novelist Patrick Gale. When he read my few paragraphs about Stella he said she was a great character and she should be in a novel. So all the way home on the train I was thinking novel, novel, he thinks I should write a novel … But I was taking on a lot of freelance academic work to earn some money, so it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got started on the novel. By then I’d signed up for some MA Creative Writing modules at Newcastle Uni, and Jackie Kay was the tutor who encouraged me to get down to some serious work on the book.

The Confession of Stella Moon is about Stella’s quest to come to terms with her own demons and her grizzly past after leaving prison. What inspired you to make your protagonist such a flawed character?

As I say, Stella came to me fully fledged, warts and all. I don’t feel that I manufactured her, or even chose her. She was just there, in that original writing exercise. And she was patient. She hung around all the while until I was ready to put her into the novel. I have a background in Psychology, and I think that must inform the way I think about people, and the way I create my characters. People are complex mixtures of different – often opposing! – traits and tendencies. We all drag copious amounts of baggage with us. A character who isn’t flawed, who didn’t have ambivalences and internal turmoil of some sort, wouldn’t be a very real character!

Did you have to do much research for writing the book?

The book is set in Newcastle and Northumberland in the 60s and 70s, and these are places and times that I know intimately, and so I didn’t have to research those; I just relied on what I knew, and I used memory of places as a jumping off board to imagine ‘what if?’ … Muriel – the mother in the story who dies at the beginning – she’s a taxidermist, and I did have to research that. I used the internet and also visited a taxidermist’s studio … Really interesting, that was! And the grandfather in the book is a herbalist who’s involved in some dodgy goings-on, so I did quite a bit of research to get a feel of that. The Wellcome Library in London is a brilliant place, for ancient tomes and old medical instruments … absolutely fascinating!

The novel is very dark and filled with secrets! Are you naturally drawn to dark subjects when you are writing?

I was definitely drawn into the Noir Zone when I was writing that novel! I’m really interested in Family Secrets, and how they can blight lives … And I used to lecture in Psychology in my former life, so I’ve long been interested in people’s deeper motivations and the darkness that dwells deep within us all … I remember reading a psychoanalyst, Nicolas Abraham, he was a contemporary of Freud’s, and he had this idea of the ‘Phantom’ which was a Family Secret that you might not know anything about but which nevertheless hovered over you like a ghost, exerting an influence over the course of your life … I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I wrote the book, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see how such a phantom must have been hovering over me as I bashed out words on the keyboard in the dead of night

Family, and the damage that families can do to each other, is a theme throughout the book. Can you tell me what made you write about those dynamics? And did your background in psychology have an impact?

I really don’t know what made me choose the themes of my novel – shame, and family secrets, and baggage, and memory, and ghosts of the past, and what it means to write a life … I didn’t consciously choose any of them, and they have only become apparent to me with the benefit of hindsight now the book is finished. It’s very hard to explain, because all I started off with was Stella, and I sat down to write her story, and all that happened, happened. I just wrote down the words that came into my head as Stella’s story unfolded. I didn’t know what the end was going to be until I got to the end. Then I thought Oh My God, I didn’t realize that was going to happen … But yes, I’m sure my background in Psychology has an influence, and my background in Law as well, and all my own memories of the place I grew up in, and all my experiences. And I think novelists too draw on great wells of childhood imaginations, dark monsters and horrible slimey things, too awful to contemplate, and feelings, anxious angry fearful feelings, too scary to allow to the surface – so they all get well buried, and they’ll usually stay buried, until you start writing fiction, and they come crawling back out …

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to being a writer?

I’ve always written, but in my formative years it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer or who was remotely interested in writing. I came from an ordinary working class family, left school at 16, got a job and didn’t go to uni till I was in my early 20s- the first in my family on both sides ever to go. I studied Psychology at Edinburgh, did a PhD at Cambridge, then studied Law in London – I’ve always been one with a massive hunger for learning new things. All the while I was writing, writing, writing, stuff for college, for my various jobs, for me, poetry (not actually worthy of the name, but you know what I mean), stories for the kids when they came along, diaries, I kept a diary from age 11 to my late 20s and only stopped when the whole lot were stolen, every single one … I can hardly bear to think about that. It was so traumatic and took a massive toll on me. It was a long long time before I could write anything again … Anyway. Skip forward 30 years, I’ve had two careers, and I’m made redundant, and YAY! I decide to study how to write fiction, to fulfill a lifelong dream.

The novel is a real page turner! How much planning did you have to do prior to writing, to create such a gripping novel?

 As I said, there was no planning. Only Stella. I told her story as she told it to me. Twice I had substantial editorial help. The first was after my first draft of the book won the Andrea Badenoch prize. The Literary Consultancy in London gave me a ‘manuscript appraisal’ as part of my prize. They loved my book, thought it had commercial potential, and helped me find my agent, Jenny Brown. Then when the book was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, Jenny arranged to get me some help with structure and pace from a crime writer, Russel McLean. Then it was copy-edited a bit when it went to the publisher. But no, there was no planning. And I should also say that much of the early stuff I wrote did not survive my own multiple revisions and re-writes that I did in the earliest stages of the book …

The Confession of Stella Moon is your debut novel. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re writing now?

I’ve been putting together a short story collection A Policy of Constant Improvement that I won some money for last year. That’s not quite finished yet. But it’s been good to have stories to work on because they don’t demand the same kind of prolonged and sustained attention that a novel does, and since Stella came out in July I’ve been taken up hugely with doing Book Festival and meet-the-author events, and so I haven’t actually had much time to get settled into any writing routine … But I’ve also been working on a sequel to the Stella book. I am not yet sure where it is going, because I have been concentrating on getting ‘the voice’ right … I’ve rewritten the first 15,000 words several times now, trying to get ‘the voice.’ Once I get that right … I’m also planning a prolonged trip to Norway in 2017 for writing purposes ….

Do you have a writing routine that you can tell us about?

Ha! That’s a joke! Hahaha ha! *falls over laughing*

What kind of books do you like to read and do you have any favourites you’d like to mention?

I’ll read anything, except I’m not very keen on Fantasy or SciFi. And I don’t like anything gimmicky. But apart for that, I read widely. I prefer literary fiction best of all I think. I’ve just read Ali Smith’s latest – Autumn. Brilliant. I have lots of favourite writers, alive and dead. Siri Hustvedt. Tove Jansson. Ali Smith. Jackie Kay. Patti Smith. Sebastian Barry. Orhan Pamuk. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Muriel Spark. Beryl Bainbridge, Jhumpa Lahiri. AL Kennedy. Bulgakov. Janice Galloway. These are just the favourites that immediately spring to mind. I read crime too, I love Val McDermid’s books, and Mari Hannah, and some Nordic Noir. And don’t even get me started on short story writers …. Too many, too many!

Shelley Day’s novel The Confession of Stella Moon is available in both paperback and ebook.

Review – No Man’s Land, National Theatre Live at DCA, Dundee

I have been desperate to see a National Theatre Live performance for years now, but it’s something I’ve never quite gotten round to it. The initiative, that broadcasts National Theatre productions live to cinema venues around the world, has been spreading theatre joy since 2009 and ensuring that those of who don’t live near a National Theatre, don’t have to miss out on their spectacular productions.

When I finally got a ticket to see Harold Pinter’s classic play No Man’s Land, which was being broadcast live from the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, I was so excited to see how it was all going to work. As I made my way into Dundee Contemporary Art’s (DCA) cinema I was struck by how much it felt like I was entering an actual theatre. With beautiful views of Wyndham’s Theatre on the screen and the sounds of the audience’s chatter filling the room – the DCA contained that amazing pre-performance buzz, which I’ve never experienced in a cinema before.   

When the performance began – with the theatre’s curtain going up, the DCA audience were exceptionally quiet, taking great care not to chat or rustle their popcorn – it was as if we too were worried about distracting the actors.

The play was every bit as spectacular as I dreamt it would be. Pinter’s No Man Land is as poetic as it is dark and deliciously funny. Starring Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst, the story begins when the two ageing writers return to Hirst’s stately home after meeting for the first time in a pub on Hampstead Heath. As the pair become increasingly drunk, their friendly but boastful banter changes into something more serious and when they are joined by two younger men, the evening takes a sinister turn.

The small cast, which also included Owen Teale and Damien Molony, were superb and had both the theatre and cinema audience laughing along and gasping in equal turns. When the performance came to an end, I couldn’t stop myself from clapping along – it just felt rude not to!

After the event we were treated to a live question and answer from the four strong cast along with the Director of the play, Sean Mathias, which gave both audiences fresh insight into Harold Pinter’s original play, 41 years on.

I left feeling richer for having seen my first National Theatre production and very much looking forward to seeing the next one live at the DCA.

National Theatre Live are broadcasting a number of theatre productions in 2017, including Saint Joan, Amadeus, Hedda Gabler and the Twelfth Night all of which will be shown at the DCA. For more information and to book tickets, visit: www.dca.org.uk

*Disclaimer – I was provided with a ticket for this showing of No Man’s Land in exchange for a fair and honest review.