My 8 years of Royal Lyceum Theatre bliss…


 

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Amy Manson in Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bliss?  Blessed more like.

I have had the extreme privilege of spending 8 years on the board of The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh and last night it came to a close.  Good governance rules said two terms of four years was my limit and so I’ve had to move on.

I have plenty of alternative pursuits to engage me but I wanted to publicly thank the staff and fellow board members of this venerable institution for making it eight years of sublime mental stimulation, a huge schoolroom, both artistically and professionally and the scene of more parties than anywhere else in my life.

It has been monumental.

Now, it would’t be me if I wasn’t to choose a few favourites and so my top ten from my period on the board are as follows…

Caucasian Chalk Circle: Mark Thomson (my all time favourite)

Waiting for Godot: Mark Thomson 

Educating Agnes: Tony Cownie

The Venetian Twins: Tony Cownie

Bondagers: Lu Kemp

Pressure: John Dove

The Crucible: John Dove

The Suppliant Women: Ramin Gray

Dunsinane: Roxana Silbert

Hidden (various directors for Lyceum Youth Theatre)

David Walsh at The Lyceum in Edinburgh


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David Walsh is nothing like the pompous, arrogant Sunday Times sportswriter that you might imagine sportswriters for aggressive newspaper groups in search of the scalp of the world’s greatest sports cheat, Lance Armstrong, might be.

David Walsh is a man whose son died in a cycling accident, coincidentally, aged 12 yet went on to be a great lover of cycling, and sport in general.

Tonight, in Britain’s most beautiful theatre (The Lyceum in Edinburgh) Walsh, acknowledging its humbling beauty, told the story of how he went out to get the lying cheat that is Lance Armstrong.  And won.

It was an epic tale presented without a single note and narrated for over an hour.

And it pressed every one of my “Why Lance Armstrong is unforgivable buttons.”

Walsh eloquently argued why Armstrong not only used his cancer as both “a shield and a sword” but that his use of Growth Hormones before his diagnosis probably accelerated its invasiveness.

He made reference to the many, many people that Armstrong inhumanely took out, completely ruthlessly, in pursuit of the self preservation of his entirely false achievements.

He defended Sky and Wiggins as doggedly as he vilified US Postal and Armstrong.

And he did it all calmly, reflectively, convincingly, powerfully.

Please God.  Tell me Walshy’s not on EPO.

Dunsinane by the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre of Scotland in association with The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.


The Godfather Two showed that sequels can better their original by walking the same path but more deftly, building on its foundations with style, wit and great, great writing.

Dunsinane, is technically a sequel but could hardly be described as usurping its predecessor (Macbeth) as David Grieg neatly finds a way of avoiding the direct comparison by writing it in something approaching the modern vernacular.

And so, Macbeth is merely a plot device to set up a thoroughly modern parable on the pursuit of power and the appetite that man (and woman because Lady Macbeth, Gruach, is the hub of all the conflict in this extraordinary play) has for eternal conflict.

“Peace is not the normal state, peace is like the days when the sea is flat calm, the prevailing condition is war.” says King Malcolm (I think, and I paraphrase) to the English commander, and star of the show, Siward played monumentally by Jonny Phillips.  And that’s what lies at the heart of this electrifying production; the fact that war is pretty much the need state of those in power, because war makes things happen. And I don’t mean war results in reshaping of civilisation, no, war turns the wheels of industry and is the dynamo for political momentum.  The second world war was what got the world’s major economies booming after all.  The Gulf War revitalised America’s sluggish economy.

Thatcher knew that when she blasted Argie to kingdom come.

Blair thought he did when he catapulted the UK into the single most futile decade of power-mongering.

However, where Thatcher sensed the mood of the nation and used the Falklands to reignite her popularity Blair just stuck his big bloody size tens in and created an absolute shambles around him.  It’s Blair’s approach that drives the narrative of this play because the Post Macbethian 12th Century Scotland is a photofit of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whilst the English may have assumed that Lady Macbeth (Gruach) left this mortal coil alongside her beloved husband, we soon find out that as the saying goes “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”  Oh no, Gruach is very much alive and well and, as Queen, she believes her offspring are heir to the throne and by God she’s gonna do her damnedest to give them the chance to take their rightful place – even if that means sleeping with the enemy.

And so, Gruach (a mesmerising, flame haired Siobhan Redmond) emerges as the key political figure in this drama; she calls all the shots and she delivers them in an often tense and powerful dialogue between herself and Siward.  Always on the front foot, driving the poor man crazy with both lust and frustration.

Meanwhile, the King of Scotland, Malcolm quietly (weakly?) surveys the scene with an air of weariness and a large degree of slightly camp cynicism, increasingly frustrated by Siward’s inability to strategically manage the conflict.  His performance (by Brian Ferguson) is initially hysterically funny but gradually turns colder and more focused as the drama unfolds.

Both the directing (by Roxana Silbert) and the writing by David Grieg are breathtaking.  Grieg doesn’t write a script so much as a wholesale political essay on the state of the nation that leaves you almost gasping at its vision and insight. Remember this play was written 18 months before Salmond swept to power in such a way that the state of the Union has never been more open to question in modern times.  Surely conflict is a potential outcome.

And it’s the sheer range of this play that impressed me most.  Starting out, frankly, like a Monty Python comedy (it really did stir up memories of Life of Brian) it moves gradually through a series of episodes to darker territory.  Barely a minute passed in Act One without a chuckle, and often a belly laugh.  Act Two starts as it left off, but only for moments before the real meat of the problem is tackled to almost preternatural effect.

Honestly this play reaches right inside of you.  It moves along like a runaway Express, charged as it goes by a brilliant folk rock trio that inject pace and punctuation that is echoed by a duet of Gaelic singing lassies.  And whilst the ending stutters just a little it’s a lean back moment as the curtain closes and one is transported back into the real world.

Or was what we were watching the real world?

This is Champions League stuff.

I’ve seen several immense performances on the Lyceum stage this year; Stanley Townsend, Peter Forbes and Frances Thorburn in particular, and there have been a number of incredible ensemble casts ; Age of Arousal and Earnest spring to mind.

But this has both.

And this has three, maybe four or five stellar performances; Siobhan Redmond of course, and Jonny Phillips, but so too Tom Gill as the boy soldier, Brian Ferguson as Malcolm and Alex Mann as the hilarious Egham.

Mark my words. They will be talking about this show in hushed tones many years from now.

Another “odd” show at The Lyceum.


Sorry guys, it's not a bodice ripper.

Just as Stanley Townsend playing Eddie Carbone frequently accused Rodolpho to be “not right, just not right” in the previous Lyceum production of A View From The Bridge, so a central plank of Muriel Romanes’ joint production with The Lyceum and Stellar Quines is the notion of homosexuality that cannot be said by it’s name; here Lesbian ladies are merely “odd”.  But it amounts to the same.

In “A View” Rodolpho’s homosexuality was imagined by Eddie as a construct with which to castigate his foe; here it is a celebration of the two lead characters, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot who despite being a generation apart in age are Victorian entrepreneurs with a taste for each other as more than just business partners.

This could have made for a truly shocking dramatic premise but it’s shrugged off as “odd”, perhaps, but really nothing to get one’s knickers in a twist about.

Although I said previously ‘Our two leads’ this is in actual fact as ensemble a show as one could imagine, they are backed by a chorus of gaggling Macbethian sisters played outstandingly by Alexandra Mathie (truly amazing) and Molly Innes as the older, hopeless spinsters and Hannah Donaldson as the “pretty” sibling with a chance.

“Overbred” by 500,000, out of a population of two million, Victorian Britain needed women to look good if they were to have any chance in a male buyers’ market and the only two women in our cast of six that would have any chance are “pretty” Monica Madden and committed Dyke, Roda Dunn.  The fact that they both fall for the same man makes for intriguing developments as the play unfolds, and surrounded by six women of exquisite talent Jamie Lee as Everard Barfoot has his work cut out to fly the flag for us blokes.  That he succeeds with panache, wit and charm is testimony to his excellent performance.

This is a play that is richly and deeply textured; interestingly realised with beautifully subtle sound, video and lighting design and costumes (designed in a third year project by Edinburgh School of Art Students) that for me were the best I’ve seen on the Lyceum stage in a long time.  Interestingly, my wife hated them.  I’m so much more in touch with my feminine side it would seem.

This is an absorbing two hours of entertainment with a feisty and often hilarious script that batters along holding you firmly in its thrall throughout.

It’s a gem.

And it’s a real thought piece too; at its centre is the debate over the role that “work” played in liberating women from the shackles of domesticity.  The arrival of the Remington typewriter to UK shores, and made centrepiece of this show, both physically and stylistically is a clear metaphor for women’s emancipation.  But is it all good?  Has it served its function.  After all, by the 1960’s the typewriter was the focus for feminist ire as it had created exactly the opposite effect that this late 19th century passport to freedom so obviously delivered.

Motherhood and child rearing is examined too, suggesting that perhaps domesticity is not so bad.  But in the play it’s wrapped up in sexuality and the power women (still) hold over hapless men who can’t see further than the end of that organ that so drives so many of us.

It’s complex indeed (just look at the number and variety of tags I’ve used in this post).  And I’m not sure you’ll get all the answers or unravel all the themes in one sitting  Certainly it’s more than worthy of second helpings.  So, go, indulge yourself and maybe you’ll be back for more.

Odd that!

A view from the Bridge. Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh


His finest hour?  In my experience, yes.

Life is about decorum, ritual, appropriate behaviour, pleasing one’s community and peers.  Not acting instinctively, ferally, as one sees it.  Because the community one lives within; the workplace, the neighbourhood, the church sets the standards and morals.  No matter how much it might be inappropriate or even wrong it’s the rule of the crowd that defines the behaviour of the one.

When Eddie Carbone decides he’s against this collective spirit; driven by jealousy, lust and rage, the rule of the crowd in Italian Brooklyn is jettisoned and Eddie Carbone becomes a lone ranger with disastrously selfish consequences.

It’s a big theme and a big play.  Probably Miller’s greatest, certainly the most thought-provoking I’ve had the privilege to experience.  And experience is the right word to describe John Dove’s “View”.

I kid you not, this was the most compelling and jaw dropping night I have spent in a theatre in my existence.  So powerful are the performances, most notably Stanley Townsend’s which held you in his thrall every moment he uttered a word, that theatre becomes a vehicle of transportation into another world.  Other stand out performances are Richard Conlon’s Marco (restrained but ultimately very scary) and the inimitable Kath Howden.  The whole is held beautifully together ( a la Greek Chorus) by Liam Brennan.

This is no ordinary play.  The subjects it brings out; jealousy, homosexuality, incest, faith, community, life long love, hope are at the very core of one’s being and it does so in a way that is hugely provocative and actually, with a performance of this standard, really quite humbling.

This is not just a five star show; it’s five star+.

The Importance of Being Earnest at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh


Mark Thomson is on fire.

His last six or so productions have not only been outstanding in my personal opinion, but also in that of the critics.

There are more stars kicking around the foyer of The Lyceum right now than in the Milky Way and that is because he, as artistic director, is mounting productions that are great.  Really great.

Earnest is no exception.  Although four acts long (usually three) it passes in the blink of an eye.  Rarely have I seen a show crack along at such a ferocious pace.  You really do need to keep your wits about you to catch all of the gags in this script.

Some commentators have chosen to point out its current day relevance (particularly centred on a gag about Unionists and Liberals) but actually I thought it was very much a period piece that captured the hilarious mannerisms and manners of upper class England in a bygone time.  Despite that, it is genuinely funny from start to finish, hilariously so in parts, and that is down to three things; Wilde’s astounding script, Thomson’s taught direction and the astonishing acting by the cast which consists of Kirsty Mackay, Will Featherstone, Cara Kelly, Steven McNicoll, Mark McDonnell, Alexandra Mathie, Ben Deery, Sean Murray, and Melody Grove.

The Autumn season used virtually the same casts in Romeo and Juliet and this show.  Did it work as a double header?  I’m not sure that I really saw the link but what I did see was two great shows.  And the stand out over the piece had to be Will Featherstone as Romeo and Algernon – his performance as Algernon was utterly hilarious.

Lady Bracknell, played to perfection by Alexandra Mathie, was probably the show stealer on the night but really it’s an ensemble performance with not a single weak link.

It still has over a week to run and there are tickets available so get along.  Trust me.  You’ll thank me.

The Beauty queen of Leenane at The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh


And so the rains came down.  In more ways than one.

Martin McDonagh’s black and brutal ‘rom-com’ opens on a rain-sodden Connemara on Ireland’s West Coast.

Another exquisitely designed Lyceum set (by designer Janet Bird) sits gloomily atop a hill in the midst of a broody squall.  We spy an elderly lady rocking back and forth in the chair that is her ‘den’, her place to scheme against the daughter that she wants to own and control till her dying day.

To say the Folans are a dysfunctional family would be something of an understatement.  Over the next two hours we see how each is out to upstage the other in acts of outrage, cruelty, both mental and physical, and sheer bloodymindedness.  Mother Mag (played exquisitely by native Irishwoman Nora Connolly) and daughter Maureen (another wonderful Irish invader, Cara Kelly) set about each other with a passion that defies description.  Which is most evil?  Which is most desperate?  It’s hard to tell at times as the story of their undoing unravels itself; inch by feckin’ inch.

McDonagh clearly had a way to go in the swearing stakes before he brought In Bruges to the world but he got himself into the zone here in this, his first award winning play.

It crackles with intensity and passion (not all of the romantic kind) as Mag attempts to woo her way out of her mother’s clutches with the almost virginal Pato Dooley, a manual worker from the village who has had to emigrate to Ingerland to find work.  His blossoming relationship with Maureen, who is most certainly a virgin, despite her 40 years, is the centerpiece of the play and Pato wins us over with his naive charm.  His younger, home based, workshy brother Ray provides many moments of comic genius, particularly when he spars with the equally workshy matriarch Maureen.

What differentiates McDonagh from many of his peers is the naturalism of his dialogue and the pace at which it zips along.  With a cast this good there is no chance of his subtle wordplays and verbal tricks missing the mark (even if, from the middle of the circle, the volume was on the low side).

This is a wonderful performance; quietly assured, darkly humorous, affecting and ultimately very moving.  It is a must see.

Confessions of a justified sinner at the Royal Lyceum theatre, edinburgh


A rather amusing “no animals were killed in the making of this smoke” type announcement preludes the opening of this play and then the curtain rises to reveal a dark, brooding, half-lit miasma that remains throughout.

And yes, it’s smoky.

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The darkness is entirely appropriate as this is a tale from the early 18th century when dark deeds were done, folk lived in smogs of half truth, rumour and mountains of religious guilt.  And we’re not even talking Catholisism here.  No, welcome to the dank, scary world of Calvinism.

YE WILL NOT HAVE FUN.  YE WILL NOT FORNICATE.  YE WILL NOT SMILE.  YE WILL NOT DAE ANYTHING THAT THE LORD WOULD FROWN UPON.

Because the Lord, back then, was all seeing, all telling, all rule making.

This was a land of ignorance and powerful religious figures.  The meenister was all.

Sound familiar?

Yep, it’s a fascinating allegory (or is it a metaphor) for our times today where religious extremism, east and west, is a licence for abhorrent and inexplicable sinning.

The early days Obama (Mc)Bin Laden of James Hogg’s novel is played at just the right side of lampoon by the truly terrifying Kern Falconer and he is the axis of evil that the play revolves around.  It’s into his house that the naive Robert Wringhim is brought, with his mother, to “enjoy” a life of strict religious instruction.  And enjoy it he does, to a point, until the Meenister sets out on a campaign to “justify” his pupil.  To make him immune to sin on earth and guarantee him a place in heaven, no matter what.  In time, the Damascan moment arrives and Wringhim is indeed (apparently) granted that place in heaven.

His ticket safely tucked away in his inside pocket the charming young Wringham is now granted the right to exact retribution on all wrongdoers that cross his path; and there are plenty of them.

The central premise of the play then unfolds around this – that if a place in the afterlife is guaranteed, rather than has to be earned, where does one draw the line?

If one can sin and not be called to task then surely sinning will follow.  And if this sinning is not actually considered a sin then the atrocities that might result are presumably acceptable.  Is this not exactly the point that appears to be brainwashed into suicide bombers the world over (because Wringham is essentially Calvinism’s suicide bomber).

Is he mad?  Is Gil-Martin his voice of conscience – or the devil?  There’s certainly a thin line between schitzophrenia and devotion in this play.

The “11th man” of this astonishing performance is the set. It rocks.  Built on a rotating platform the oblique monoliths that seemingly stretch to the sky are variously abstract tables, beds, tombstones and pulpits, but mainly they are dark foreboding skyscrapers of the future.  They are the metaphoric twin towers that I believe this play alludes to.

Ryan Fletcher is stunning.  He does not overplay his quite considerable hand.  Iain Robertson as Gil-Martin nails it.  Lewis Howden is a scream. and John Kielty plays his parts with restraint.  This is a blokes play.  Sure Rae Hendrie carries her part beautifully as the Mother but all the lines belong to the men.

Mark Thomson has to be lauded for both the writing and the direction of this very superior night of theatre.  And I’m certain he will be.

It’s brilliant.  It’s funny.  It’s electric.  It’s dark.  It is an absolute must see.

Lyceum Youth Theatre – success by Nick Drake


No, not that Nick Drake, the contemporary playwright.

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I took Ria to see the opening night of LYT’s contribution to The National Theatre’s New Connections festival of new youth drama.  And damned fine it was too.

A cast of 19 on a tiny Trav 2 stage put on a fine performance in a space that was frankly too small given their energy.  It’s a highly choreographed show drawing on pretty much every theatrical trick in the book and it works very well.

It’s not quite an ensemble piece because three principals stand out;  Nick (the devil?) played with aplomb by Steve McMahon to the point you would happily punch his city spiv character (how appropriate in these times) hard in the face and the two romantic leads Tom (an outstanding and likeable Hector Brown) and Lucy (the lovely Kim Donohoe).

The theme is about the pursuit of money ending in tears and is a morality tale for our times with real resonance.  Money indeed cannot buy you love it seems in Drake’s eyes.  It would have been easy for the script to cross the line into cliche and clunkiness but it avoids this at all turns and the performances of the ‘chorus’ hold the show together crisply and engagingly.

It’s the first LYT show I’ve seen and just goes to show that FCT (biased as I am) do not have a monopoly on brilliant young people’s theatre in Edinburgh.  Joking aside these are very different companies and LYT’s take is very much more adult in theme and tone.

You’ll be lucky to get a ticket, but if you can.  Do.

The Mystery of Irma Vep by the Lyceum Theatre Company and Horsecross


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Mark Thomson, The Lyceum’s Artistic Director, often talks before his shows of the need for theatre, and The Lyceum in particular, to entertain.

Now, entertainment comes in many forms.  I’d list The Shining, Apocalypse Now and Hunger among my favourite and most entertaining movies but they are not everyone’s cup of tea; nor are they uplifting.  My wife wouldn’t have described Hunger as entertaining, that’s for sure.  So the notion of entertainment is open to considerable interpretation.

But let’s get this straight from the off; Irma Vep is PURE entertainment.

I laughed until I broke out into a sweat.

I cried and howled with laughter.

I gasped with laughter.

This show is utter class from the first, and I mean the first, moment the curtain rises and we see Andy Gray as he walks onto stage sporting a fake wooden leg and the limitations that places on straightforward movement.  John Cleese would have applauded loudly.

This sets the scene for farce of epic proportions.  Not Pythonesque though.  It’s more in the tradition of Scots Panto.  There are many nods in the direction of Russel Hunter, Walter Carr, John Grieve (is he related to the director I wonder, indeed assume) Francie and Josie and, king of them all, Stanley Baxter.  Which is to heap a great deal of praise on the heads of the quite astonishing performances (in terms of characterisation, timing, energy and wit) of Andy Gray and Steven McNicoll.

Honestly, they will have you rolling in the aisles.

As I said, Panto, and slapstick, is the predominant genre here, although the show’s story is actually a pastiche of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with a bunch of Hammer House of Horror thrown in for good measure.

I cannot imagine what the script must have read like because it is SO Scottish, so ‘of the people’ and so personal to Gray and McNicoll that you wonder what was on the page.

Each of them plays about four parts but they interchange through very quick changes from scene to scene all night and at times it is breathless and, as a consequence, even more hilarious.

McNicoll’s Jane Twisden is possibly the dominant role (the evil maid in Rebecca) played like the tea lady in Father Ted at maximum volume throughout.  It’s so beautifully crafted and voiced that it leaves you gasping again and again.

Gray’s best moments are in his Lady Enid Hillcrest character which moulds Stanley Baxter and Mark Walliams into an unholy combination.

But seriously, there is not a single moment of weakness in any of the characters they play.

The direction by Ian Grieve is faultless and the wonderful set is a key part of the show with its myriad of doorways from where every character appearance and disappearance heralding yet another belly laugh each time they appear.  It’s ingenious.

I cannot praise this show highly enough.

OK it’s got an odd name but don’t let that put you off.  (It’s an anagram of I’m a Perv by the way!)

Go.  Go now.  No, now.  Don’t think about it.  Just go. No, do.   Do it. Do it now.   Go do it.  Go on.  Go on, go on, go on.  Now.  That’s it.  Get down there.  Now. Yes, now.  Go on now.

Something wicked this way comes by The national Theatre of Scotland and Catherine Wheels Theatre Company


I took my 14 year old daughter Ria to see this production at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh tonight and was hugely impressed.

It’s a highly complex story that lends itself more easily to celluloid than the stage but director Gill Robertson and designer Karen Tennent have done a quite remarkable job of staging the (possibly) unstageable.

The show involves incredible feats of lighting and video art (by Jonathan Charles – who I think I know as an ex FCT kid), great and atmospheric music, creepily accompanied by a pianist/accordionist – played in a most unusual manner – and Cellist (Robin Mason and David Paul Jones) and the highly unusual Aerial design as the dust witch flies across the stage .

The tale is interestingly morally and the performances are convincing across the boards; from a hard working and only eight strong cast. Although I have to say in a perfect world I’d much rather Will and Jim had actually been 14. Andrew Clark, as Mr Dark, steals the show as this typically grotesque type of role can, and often does.

Ray Bradbury’s story is quite affecting and deals with issues such as vanity, good versus evil and how we all deal with the ageing process.

The mostly young audience gasped, screamed, heckled and laughed.

Is that not what makes great theatre.

My daughter loved it. Result.

Macbeth by The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company (in conjunction with Nottingham Playhouse)


If you’ve been thinking of going to see this but haven’t quite got round to it you better get your finger out because it ends on Saturday.

And extracting the digit would be a very good idea.

I approached this with no real qualifications and indeed comment on it as a Shakespearean no mark.  I have not studied even a page of Shakespeare in my life.  I don’t understand the politics (and boy there’s plenty here) the language, the context or the history.  Apart from that I am scholarly.

So Joyce Macmillan’s two star review in The Scotsman alarmed me.  What was I letting myself in for?

I’ll tell you what.  A bloody good night’s entertainment (with the emphasis on bloody).

The staging was magnificent, the lighting, sound design and music; all terrific.

The acting was top notch.  Liam Brennan as Macbeth looks like he’s put his heart, soul and every ounce of his being into this role.  He looks and sounds exhausted, but that’s because his passion for the part and command of the stage and the role are quite remarkable.  Allison McKenzie, as his complicent wife (complicent in the lust for power that is) belies the fact that she has made her name in River City – a soap that I have thankfully managed to avoid totally, and Jimmy Chisholm in a number of roles is great; particularly in the one comedy scene as the drunken Porter in which he brought the house down.

It’s an intense and very involving theatrical experience and hugely rewarding.

In recalling MacMillan’s review the thing that stood out was her dismissal of the period setting (is modern necessarily good I ask myself?) and her strong criticism of the role of the witches which she, from memory, saw as overly indulgent, overpowering and ham fisted.  Me? I thought they were an imaginative and thrilling part of the whole.

Please see it if you have the chance.

It brought back memories of my one and only Shakespearean involvement, in the chorus of Verdi’s Macbeth by Edinburgh Grand Opera in the late 80’s.  Another superb production featuring one of opera’s least talented practitioners.  Moi.  But boy did I enjoy it.

So that’s two Macbeth’s and two stonkers.  I am lucky indeed.