John McLellan: Human spirit conquers all

Sister Marie performs religious music stretching back over 1400 years. Picture: comp
Sister Marie performs religious music stretching back over 1400 years. Picture: comp
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At a time when violent conflict in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine dominates every news bulletin, we are living in troubled times.

With Gaza adding to the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic caliphate across Syria and Iraq, the Middle East is the most violent place on earth. But we rarely hear about Mexico, where thousands of people are being killed in the war against drug cartels.

But research from the likes of the Human Security Report and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo show that fewer people are being killed around the world as a result of war than at any time in the past 100 years.

Last year there were no wars between states, but the perception is that destruction is all around us and that tolerance is in short supply.

Here we are fortunate that, so far, the extremes of our referendum campaign have been limited to abusive messages and bricks have not gone through windows.

But we have had the unedifying sight of Fringe shows by Israeli companies being scrapped because of pro-Palestine demonstrations and Edinburgh council was wise not to follow Glasgow in displaying support for one side of what is a hideously complex situation.

In an International Festival dedicated to aspects of conflict, the aim of director Jonathan Mills was to show how artists not only document and express the experience but are guardians of the human spirit in the most dreadful times.

Nowhere was the human spirit more on display this week than at The Lyceum with the superb Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a production by the Australian company Back to Back Theatre with a cast made up largely of actors with learning difficulties. Under different circumstances some of the actors would not have been able to achieve their potential but all played pivotal roles in a brilliantly entertaining show which challenged liberal presumptions of human capabilities.

The relevance of a Lebanese nun singing Middle Eastern Christian music might not be immediately apparent, but the music of Sister Marie Keyrouz and her seven-strong Ensemble de la Paix performed at Greyfriars this week was a very important inclusion in this year’s programme.

It’s admittedly at the more esoteric end of the spectrum and the audience age profile made a Conservative Party conference look like T in the Park, but what Sister Marie is achieving deserves a wider hearing.

Her work symbolises both what can happen when there is tolerance for differing cultures and traditions, but also what is being destroyed by intolerance right now.

Sister Marie has preserved religious music stretching back over 1400 years, to the period just after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the emergence of Islam. Listen to some of her chants and you are listening to the same sounds heard in the churches of Byzantium before Mohammed was alive.

It’s no wonder the earlier pieces in her repertoire sound like Muslim calls to prayer because the devotional music of the Orient in the years up to the birth of Islam would have 
provided some of the backdrop for the new religion, given the importance of Jesus as a prophet was recognised.

How has the worship been preserved, given Christian influence in the Middle East was finally extinguished when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453? The answer is simple; despite the brutality of the times the Ottoman Empire was broadly tolerant and as long as minorities paid their taxes and posed no threat they could worship who and how they wanted.

So the Copts of Egypt, the Syriacs and Maronites were able to carry out their rites untroubled by a largely tolerant Islamic regime; Turkey’s Greek cities and communities were only destroyed after the Greek invasion at the end of the First World War.

If only the Catholic and Reformed churches of the 16th and 17th centuries had behaved in the same way. It’s not that long ago we were burning witches because of their religious beliefs and in the very place Sister Marie was performing.

It is only now, after the botched division of the Middle East since the defeat of the Ottomans in 1918, the even more botched intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent chaos of the Arab Spring revolutions that new militant Islam threatens the destruction of religious minorities which have survived since biblical times.

So Sister Marie is maintaining a vital cultural link with traditions which stretch back to within 
touching distance of biblical times. She is a living Ark. For her, singing the ancient chants and songs is not just a performance but a devotion, an act of worship in itself which connects her to the birth of the Catholic Church in late Roman times.

There was no ceremony, no dialogue whatsoever; her gaze was always upwards and her only communication with the audience was a whispered thank you at the end of the recital. Sung entirely unaccompanied, the deep harmonies soared up into the rafters of the old church, at nearly 500 years old just under 1000 years younger than some of the music it hosted. For Sister Marie the music went much further than the roof.


They are the shows all Festival goers are talking about; practically everyone you speak to is going, or has been, to see at least one of the James Plays at the Festival Theatre.

Such has been the coverage of the plays that few people will need reminding they explore the lives of 15th century Scottish monarchs King James I (pictured), II and III, exploring themes like the use and abuse of power and Scotland’s relationship with England.

Even if the Glesga street-patois of many of the characters means it’s not exactly Shakespeare, but as high-quality, accessible drama it’s hard to beat. Sure, in over seven hours some parts don’t work as well as others and the general view is that James II is not as strong as the other two. But it’s still not bad, even if you don’t like puppets.

Sniffy critics have dismissed much of the script as being an out-of-date take on Scotland, with tired gags playing for easy laughs, but if laughter coming easily means a packed audience enjoys a night at the theatre and has thoughts provoked at the same time, then I’d say that’s a job well done.

But the NTS has been here before, when people with a political axe to grind hated their 2010 show about the Darien scheme, Caledonia. It’s also strange how some of the Connolly-esque banter in James is less acceptable to some than the industrial language in Black Watch.

By contrast, another premiere, The War by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, has stunned critics with its invention creativity and symbolism. While aspects of it were unquestionably brilliant, I think I can safely say that many people who thoroughly enjoy the James plays would have been left cold by The War. Well over two hours of variations on the Illiad in Russian without a break won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Some of the James Plays’ dialogue does get perilously close to Rab C Nesbitt in chain mail, but there is no questioning the entertainment value or the brilliance of the acting, in particular James McArdle as James I, Sophie Grabol as Queen Margaret and Gordon Kennedy as three different Scots nobles in all three shows.

If you need a symbol of modern Scotland putting on a big show which can take on the best in the South then here it is, because when the Festival run ends the whole National Theatre of Scotland circus moves to the South Bank for its UK National Theatre run through till the end of October.

For now, they get to do all three in a day again both tomorrow and Sunday and the last show is a week today. Don’t miss out.

Biting satire

Scripts can be adjusted right up till the last minute and James II was no exception. In fact the script last Sunday was adjusted in the middle of the show, much to the production company’s surprise. Given Columbus didn’t set off for the Americas till 1492, it’s unlikely there were any Uruguayan footballers at the court of James II, yet in a scene involving a football game, James, played by Andrew Rothney complains that someone had bitten him.

That was news to writer Rona Munro.