Armour: A Herstory of the Scottish Bard

Book, Music & Lyrics: Shonagh Murray

Featuring works by Robert Burns

Girls sent away from their Fathers, widows sitting in the shadows of their husbands and a mistress hiding her adoration, knowing to reveal her history would ruin her – there is little wonder women fashion themselves an armour. Rabbie Burns, epitome of lyrical writing, was known to enjoy the odd lady or two. How much do you know of him outside of your school days? Better still, how much do you know about his wife Jean, and the time she sat with his Mistress Nancy for tea.

Taken from the account of Robert Burn’s granddaughter Sarah, Armour sheds light on the effects of his life after his passing. Shonagh Murray’s script captures a tremendously warming essence of Scottish history. The script adds an air of distinguished elegance to the piece while the musical numbers are poetic and memorable. There are no cop-outs with pastiche tunes, each one is originally engaging, capturing the tone of the production strikingly.

Placing trust in their sentimentality, without reliance in pander, the all-female production craft a beautifully poetic musical, underscoring a staunch feminist message. The impact of these women, crucial characters in the lives of talented men, is a story seldom told. The story of Jean Armour, the bards wife, a woman he would return to no matter the affairs, liaisons and letters to others, does not disappoint.

These roses, as delicate as their period dress may convey, are thorny in temperament. All of the cast carry their multiple parts to fruition, in particular Burn’s wife. Armour bares their flesh, opening up the soft, quivering underbelly of uncertainty and struggles of the times.

Instead of; behind every man, there is a great woman”, perhaps “behind every man, are a few tremendous women”. If that be the case, this production is a cauldron of potential, ringing of cultural splendour and hearth. Slip on your soft, dancing shoes and bask in the glory of these women, who loved, respected and tolerated ‘the bastard’ Burns.

Myra Dubois: Dead Funny – Underbelly Bristo Square

Myra DuBois – the quadruple threat star of film, television and stage – is dead. Thank god. The world just wasn’t ready for this talent, incapable of holding itself to the high calibre Myra would expect. And so, we gather in the presence of friends, fans and total strangers to pay our respects as DuBois conducts her own funeral. Who else could do her justice?

At any Fringe show you will hear one sentence above all else: ‘Fill from the front please‘. That’s the danger zone, especially for a drag act, but Dubois’ AdMyras scramble in for their masochistic fix. With dignity, cruelty, an ounce of contempt and a restraining order, Myra can handle her crowd.

Dubois’ control, timing, and snap judgements as to who will play along are exquisite. This is someone who knows their craft, understands precisely what they can and cannot pull off, and when to dial the level up a few notches. Returning to the Fringe, she may be inside a shipping container, but this is easily her most well-constructed show to date. Song, dance, wit and a few dark moments come together. It seems there is nothing this woman cannot do, except die gracefully, or hit every note…

Diana was the people’s Princess; well, Myra is the people’s Queen. Dubois, a triumphant example of British Drag, balances the old-school grit of the artform while injecting it with rejuvenated venom.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-fringe/theatre/myra-dubois-dead-funny

Photo Credit – Holly Revell

Tosca – The Festival Theatre

Opera created by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Revival Direction by Jonathan Cocker

Leader of The Orchestra of Scottish Opera – Anthony Moffat

Conducted by Stuart Stratford

Puccini’s melodramatic masterpiece Tosca has it all; corruption, lust, heartbreak and the bureaucracy of history. Shifting the timeframe into the 20th century, there is still a stringent root to Puccini’s origins in 1900. Practically flawless in execution, Tosca moves beyond a visual wonder with Stuart Stratford’s musical conduction and direction. Under the growing shadow of Benito Mussolini, Floria Tosca attempts to liberate her beloved from the clutches of fascist oppression, but as their grip tightens so too does the risk of the lives involved.

A leitmotif in composition, Puccini allows singers leeway in a way few other composers achieve which gives Tosca an edge of humour other Operas cannot obtain without embracing the genre of comedy to the full extent. It accentuates the melodramatic blood which thrusts our leads forward, embracing the grandeur of the production, while still connecting with an audience. The libretto has narrative focus, but this revival at the hands of Scottish Opera and Jonathon Cocker impacts immediately, not with its song, but with visuals.

Decadent, there’s astonishing detail in Peter Rice’s design that offers a framework of renaissance sculpture. Rarely, perhaps never, has a production been so befitting of the Festival Theatre’s stage. A trio of spectacles, which depths are plumbed to offer scale, serve a unique purpose, and is in stark contrast to Scottish Opera’s previous settings for likes of Rigoletto. Here there is no room for minimalism or symbolic structure, no, this is craftsmanship at it’s most architectural. Hallowed stones of alabaster-marble, to a looming figure atop the fortress and imposing fireplaces, Tosca has the skeleton to hold spectacle, now hopefully it packs the lungs to carry this off.

Let’s be frank. We both know the operatic skills of this evenings performers go without question. Nae, it would be insulting to suggest there are issues with vocals, as there are none. These are trained professionals in the height of their ability, not merely in scale but control, emotive connection and tonal changes. These are storytellers as much as they are singers. Even those outwith the three leads of Tosca, Cavaradossi or Scarpia provide spine-shivering evidence that despite having over a century under the belt, so long as Scottish Opera can unearth and maintain exceptional talents such as Aled Hall, Paul Carey Jones or Steven Faughey, then Tosca will survive and ignite audiences again, and again.

Puccini’s adoration for women almost exceeds that of music, evident in Tosca herself. Fiercely resilient, profound in her determination, Tosca, as one may imagine, is central to the motivations of men throughout the production. Far from a temptress or stereotype, Tosca captures the moral depravity men will slither to in pursuit of selfish ideals, yet also the redemptive capacities humanity is capable of. Natalya Romaniw’s masterful voice ebbs away at the audience, for a brief moment, we are numb to the world around us as she recites her solo aria Vissi d’arte over her love for Cavaradossi.

“Ecco un artista!” and what an actor indeed, Gwyn Hugh Jones’ role as the painter, lover and revolutionary concealer Cavaradossi goes beyond mere vocal performance. Scottish Opera has an embedded appreciation of the medium, beyond its impression of solitary arias, breathing life into their productions. While his swansong moments in Act 3 etch into the minds of the audience, it is Hugh Jones’ oratorio moments within the house of God which stands out amidst borderline cinematic scenery. It also places him in stark contrast to the antagonistic Scarpia, the sycophantic leather-clad worshipper of one Benito Mussolini.

Eagerly revelling in our jeers and boos, Hall and Roland Wood match their vile villainy not only in presence but their mastery of vocals equally. A thick, pulsing vein of corruption runs at the heart of Puccini’s opera, a political bureaucracy at the core of Europe. Sly, vindictive and repugnant in approach, Wood’s Scarpia is a monstrous reminder of Italian fascism. Yet, even beauty turns its face towards evil, as Wood’s baritone’s tremble the marble adorning his office, the flames themselves shuddering at his presence, as his rising malice is snuffed out by Tosca’s kiss, the night hushes into new daybreak.

Dawn breaks, as does a brief respite from the dramatic tension of the previous act’s climax. Here especially, soak in Cocker’s respect for the orchestra, as the aria holds itself in reverence of the musicians. As the soldiers await their duty, the atmosphere lingers with glints of cigarillo sparks. Lead by Anthony Moffat, the composition of the piece is exquisite in richness, perfectly pacing itself to a building crescendo to reflect the upcoming finale. Particularly for the string portion’s, the orchestra stands toe-toe with those of the vocals, concocting a symphony of artistry, which ties together each element of Scottish Opera’s Tosca, finishing up a comprehensive production.

Perhaps a reflective comment but there’s a concern that Tosca may not be 100% accessible for non-devotees. This is, without question, meticulously crafted with undeniable talent, there’s an air of reverence for the production that those unfamiliar with Tosca will perhaps not comprehend. Still, Scottish Opera’s Tosca is a definitive incarnation, standing the test of a centuries history, art and revivals. It is a testament to the companies merit, talent and ability and a precise way to close their 2019 season alongside Iris‘ one-off performance at City Halls, Glasgow.  

Scottish Opera’s Tosca runs until Saturday 23rd of November. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/tosca

Photo Credit – James Glossop