Drama Reviews

CALLY PHILLIPS 

Chasing Waves 2004 (Amazon) and (epub) 

Two men. One box. The possibilities are endless.

In Chasing Waves, two characters who may[or may not] be a philosopher and a physicist probe the nature of life,language and the universe. Faced with what appears to be an ordinary cardboard box, they embark on an extraordinary journey in search of understanding which leads them to ask: Who are we? Where do we start? What is language? What’s in the box? And most importantly What is the box? As they play with words and challenge the boundaries between audience and drama in a style reminiscent of Stoppard, Pirandello, Crimp and Beckett, the two men ask us to forget everything we’ve learned and embark instead on a journey of understanding.

Reviews:

When I was a drama student, the stage event that hit me hardest between the eyes was Waiting for Godot. It has been described as the play in which nothing happens, twice, but for me it was the most happening thing I’d ever seen. The change from day to night was achieved with stunning simplicity by a projected circle of light (the moon) rising from nowhere up the white back wall of the theatre auditorium. It was magic, and left me with an enduring love and fascination. Just because not much seems to happen, doesn’t mean it’s not a powerhouse of ideas and emotions.

Later, I was hit by the motormouth jokiness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and found their high speed demonstrations of meaning and reality and humour equally fascinating (although it’s not one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, like Godot). Pirandello also grabbed me along the same lines, although the productions I saw never achieved the humour that I’ve always cherished as a theatre goer.

All of which explains some of my reactions to Chasing Waves. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, but its muscular intellectualism and humour is reminiscent of those three plays, all of which, incidentally, are referenced in the text and action. The power of the writing is enough to make one feel one is in a theatre, and visualising this bizarre debate between two philosophers and a box that may or not contain a cat, which may or not be dead (or indeed alive) is no problem at all. The argument is stimulated by bits of action, which, while necessarily small, are extremely funny.

The philosophers are Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and from the start they are moreaware than an audience is perhaps normally expected to be that they are, in fact, not. Schrodinger and Wittgenstein, that is. They are two actors – probably. One of them, at least, begins to doubt very seriously if he can be an actor, for what, after all, does an actor consist of? Likewise the writer, who may be a he, or indeed a she. How can they know, because they are in the play, not of it. Although have both met her (or him), although not as characters, but as actors. Even the audience becomes an area of doubt, as the characters/actors/philosophers mingle with them to try to pin down a reality. Reality?  Forget it.

The point is, though, there is action, and interaction. The philosophers become characters(ie interesting human beings), and the confines of the stage also suggest a boundless world. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent, erudite, probing, ‘deep’. On stage I’m willing to bet it would be extremely funny, too.

At the end, in the wonderful and brave new world of ebooks, there is room for much much more, as well. Discussion, staging notes, director’s opinions, author’s opinion. (For Cally Phillips does exist, of course, whatever her philosopher/actors might think, and she is, of course, a she.) Which makes the whole package extremely stimulating and thought-provoking. For the intellectual reader a genuine feast, for someone who just wants to read a beautifully engaging play, a palpable hit. You see, you can’t get away from other writers, can you?

Reviewed by Jan Needle for Indie Ebook Review

This book consists of two relatively short plays, ChasingWaves and Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break and the author’s notes on each. In those notes, she suggests that the latter investigates areas that she refined and developed in the former, so it seems logical to approach them from that perspective. They both belong very clearly to the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement that people tend to date back to the middle of the last century (or even earlier) but which persists today.

Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break (which, from now on I’ll call 4B) is ambitious. The action switches between the present, Italy in the 1920s, Italy and Paris in the mid-late 19th century, and 14th century Genoa, but these disparate periods are tightly linked through the characters. Joe Green (a name which, except for one vowel, translates into Italian as Giuseppe Verdi) is a student researching the operas of the real Verdi, who wrote an opera about Simone Boccanegra, Il Doge de Genova. And the fourth main character is the fictional  Benito Boccanegra of the title, a circus ringmaster who’s beaten to his goal of establishing fascism in Italy by another Benito – Il Duce.

In the words of the author, these characters in their separate time periods and their separate ways, explore ‘the relationships between fiction and reality, tragedy, history and heroism, audience and character’. Each of them is seeking to understand something about himself, to explain some aspect of his dilemma. It’s entertaining but challenging. The scenes and the action move quickly and the overall dramatic pace never drops. It’s an experimental play but one which is built on firm stage conventions.

I enjoyed reading it but, having read Chasing Waves first, I felt that the complexities of the personalities and their different involvements in 4B were so absorbing in themselves that the underlying ‘message’ didn’t come through as clearly as it had in the other play. Perhaps, since 4B was written ten years earlier then Chasing Waves, that might suggest that either the writer’s thinking or her dramatic techniques had evolved but that’s pure speculation and tends, unfairly, to imply that 4B is a lesser play as a result. It isn’t. It’s just different.

Chasing Waves has only two characters, but they’re called Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, so we know what to expect right from the start. Except that, while it’s a play about thought, knowledge, understanding and meaning (in short, philosophy), it’s also funny, thought-provoking, involving and entertaining. It has clear echoes of Waiting for Godot, both in the repetitious and questioning nature of some of the exchanges and in their frequent, direct acknowledgements of the presence of an audience. It also references the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Their only props are a black or white board, 2 photographs of the ‘real’ Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and a box – the famous box, of course, which contained (or didn’t contain) a cat, which was alive or dead or both. But the theatrical dynamic is in the single debate they pursue through the play, the scientist stressing the importance of knowledge, the philosopher insisting that the goal is understanding. This is making it sound dry and academic – it isn’t. Ideas, especially about the fundamentals of how we perceive things and the consequent nature of the ‘reality’ we construct from those perceptions and observations are stimulating and even fun. The two actors who call themselves Wittgenstein and Schrodinger share the slow desperation of Vladimir and Estragon and sometimes become frustrated at the apparent lack of progress or the occasional stalemate. They discuss levels of ‘truth’, the need to make choices and the ‘evidence’ we need to make such choices.

And the members of the audience are also participants in the debate. They watch the action expecting to ‘learn’ something, to ‘know’ something as a result, but Wittgenstein rejects knowledge as unreliable and, instead, seeks understanding. Knowing what someone means isn’t the same as understanding them. ‘Mind invests meaning in language’ says Wittgenstein and, of course, the unreliability of language is one of the basic themes always exploited by Absurdist drama.

A recurring question is ‘What’s in the box?’, and it’s used cleverly for both philosophical and dramatic effect. At the philosophical level, it’s not just the contents but the nature of the box itself that’s questioned and its theatrical impact comes from its use as a running gag and an excuse for some good and bad miming from the actors. They talk of starts and endings, insist on the importance of ‘now’ and recognise that all we ever have is the moment.

The author, in her notes, suggests that the audience must have ‘open, enquiring minds’. Well, yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean a po-faced notion of the elevated nature of philosophical discourse. There are light touches of wit and humour that make this much more than a ‘thought-play’. On top of that, the author’s ‘Extras’, i.e. notes on the production and for the enlightenment of her actors, offers the clearest exposition of quantum theory I’ve ever read (and as I write that, it’s important to know that, as a non-scientist, I’ve read countless books which claim to ‘popularise’ science and which have left me as ignorant as when I began).

Altogether, this was an entertaining but also an instructive read. I not only ‘know’ what physicists ‘mean’ when they talk of such things, for the moment at least, I ‘understand’ them.

Reviewed by Bill Kirton for Booksquawk

 CATHERINE CZERKAWSKA

 The Secret Commonwealth

There can be few stories stranger than that of Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle in late seventeenth century Scotland. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, which supposedly gave him powers to communicate with the supernatural world. He wrote his treatise about that other world and the creatures we know as fairies in 1691, and called it The Secret Commonwealth. Only 100 copies were made and it was lost until 1815 at which time that inveterate antiquarian, and hunter after lost treasures, Sir Walter Scott, found it and had it printed.

Kirk had lived through the years when strict Presbyterianism was in the process of criminalising the observance of various folk customs and beliefs – labelling them as the work of the devil – a process which would continue more or less until the present day. He was a fine scholar and an exponent of the Gaelic language and had been engaged in the task of translating the metrical psalms into Gaelic, as well as going to London to help supervise the printing of the first Gaelic bible. But when he became minister at Aberfoyle, Kirk took to walking on the ‘fairy hill’ (a numinous place, even today), and was found dead there in 1692. Rumours swiftly followed that he had disappeared, had been taken by the fairy folk for betraying their secrets, and that the body in the tomb was a ‘co-walker’ and not a real human corpse at all.

This play, about Robert Kirk, by award winning playwright Catherine Czerkawska was written for and staged at the Oran Mor in Glasgow in February 2010.

Reviews:

THE STORY OF ROBERT KIRK, the troubled minister of Aberfoyle, is not a new one in Scottish theatre. In the mid-1980’s, Theatre Alba discovered and produced Netta Blair Reid’s two-act play The Shepherd Beguiled, about the strange story of the 17th century man of God so fascinated by old tales of the “good people” – the big, powerful faery folk said to live beneath the hills of his home country – that when Kirk disappeared one night among those hills, he was thought to have been taken by them, his restless spirit doomed to roam for ever in search of a way home.

Whatever the history of this strange story, though, Catherine Czerkawska’s new monologue makes a powerful job of retelling it, and marks a fine opening to this spring’s Play, Pie and Pint season of lunchtime plays. Using the voice of the lost minister himself – played by Liam Brennan with a terrific combination of emotional commitment and sheer technical command – Czerkawska transforms the story into a lyrical yet driven 50-minute lament over Scotland’s failure to integrate its dour Presbyterian faith and dogged Enlightenment rationalism with the wilder, more beautiful and more sensual aspects of its Gaelic heritage, represented by the eerily amplified voice of singer Deirdre Graham, crooning soft old songs.

Kirk, who was a fine scholar, might have been remembered as the first man to translate the Psalms into Gaelic. Instead, he seems to have been driven close to madness by the fierce binary oppositions – rationalism or crazy superstition, respectability or sensual fulfilment – that dogged our national culture at the height of the Reformation, and still influence our thinking today. And between them, Czerkawska and Brennan come close to making him a real hero for our times, desperately struggling for ways to move on from an arid, over-rationalised modernism, without sinking back into the darkness of mindless superstition.

JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 4.2.10

Burns on the Solway 2006

Burns on the Solway is a one act poetic drama by award winning Scottish playwright, Catherine Czerkawska. It imagines the last few weeks in the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns, down on the Solway Coast in beautiful Dumfries and Galloway. It is an exploration of the enduring relationship between Rab and his wife Jean, a play about love and friendship, about sensuality and violence, about betrayal and – perhaps most of all – a play about endings. It was first produced in February 2006, at Glasgow’s Oran Mor, as part of the spring A Play, A Pie and a Pint lunchtime drama season of that year, and played to packed houses,
It was directed by Michael Emans, with Donald Pirie as an uncannily authentic Robert, Clare Waugh as a wonderful, passionate Jean Armour and Celine Donoghue as the musician, playing a variety of instruments including folk fiddle.

Reviews: 

‘Oran Mor announced their latest A Play, A Pie and a Pint season of lunchtime theatre too late for Catherine Czerkawska’s new play to be included in the Herald’s recent pre Burns Night appreciation of the bard onstage. If it had made it, this impressionistic burl through the roving poet’s on-off romance with Jean Armour would have provided a neat counterbalance to Joe Corrie’s more thrusting depiction of his life and times.

For here is a Burns who’s such a seed-scattering shagabout that if he were around today the Child Support Agency would be seriously on his case.

The play begins with both parties in pain, Jean with a mixture of heartache and pregnancy, Burns with the impending death that would put paid to his late domestic bloom. We’re then lead on a romp through the couple’s back pages with Burns’s guileless misogyny a prototype for the literate new lads of today.

Michael Emans’s bright, lively production makes the most of Czerkawska’s poetic text with the eye-catching addition of fiddler Celine Donoghue, who makes for a slinky siren as her live score liltingly punctuates the action. Picking up her lead, Donald Pirie is a mercurial and unhinged Burns, all puppy-dog eyes and impulsive gestures. Clare Waugh, meanwhile, invests Jean with feistiness and passion, her face aflame with devotion as Rab is led by his crotch to other women’s beds. If you wonder why she puts up with such treatment, it’s a question many women hooked on charm and charisma are still asking today.

‘Michael Emans’s bright, lively production makes the most of Czerkawska’s poetic text. Donald Pirie is a mercurial and unhinged Burns, all puppydog eyes and impulsive gestures. Clare Waugh, meanwhile, invests Jean with feistiness and passion, her face aflame with devotion as Rab is led by his crotch to other women’s beds. If you wonder why she puts up with such treatment, it’s a question many women hooked on charm and charisma are still asking today.’ Neil Cooper, The Herald, February 2006

Quartz  2000

Michael is a young man, living in contented isolation on a West of Scotland beach and making artworks with the pebbles and shells, the flotsam and jetsam he finds there. He is perfectly happy, but the people around him find his isolation disturbing, and when he comes upon an object washed ashore that may or may not be man-made, the world outside threatens to invade his solitude, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Quartz was first performed at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre on Friday 4th February 2000, with Liam Brennan as Michael, Maggie McCarthy as Teresa, Alice Bree as Claire and Paul Nivison as Father Sweeney. The production was directed by Roxana Silbert.

‘The story of a man living in serene, solitary communion with the sea and its shoreline, his idyll threatened only by the outside world’s refusal to leave him alone, could easily lead to all manner of quasi-mystical woolliness. Instead, Catherine Czerkawska’s new play offers a moving, poetic and quietly provocative meditation on contrasting values and belief systems, and on the destructive potential of love, while keeping its feet firmly on the ground in terms of attention to plot, character and dialogue.
Sue Wilson, The Independent, February 2000.

‘THE central icon in Catherine Czerkawska’s new play is a lump of flotsam. Standing upright, it has the look of a woman’s body. It is rough-hewn and uneven, but in certain lights quite beautiful. This is much the same as the play itself. Set on a West Coast beach, it’s about Michael, a young man earnestly seeking solace and solitude among the elements as he works the precious stones the tide brings him. His mother, a devout Irish Catholic, has other ideas, not least when she decides his latest driftwood find is prime shrine material. In the character of Michael, Czerkawska has hit upon a fascinating conundrum: what is it about our herd instinct that makes us so distressed by other people’s isolation?’
Mark Fisher, The Herald, February 2000

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