Bruce Mclean - A CUT A SCRATCH A SCORE: a comic opera in three parts

October 2011

Publication: The Times

Bruce McLean’s career has been stellar ever since  the early ‘sixties when his daring, idiosyncratic performance works challenged audiences with their combination of theatre, painting, sculpture, music and spectacle. Here, the Glasgow-born artist returns to home turf with a masterwork involving a cast,  if not of thousands, then of scores of collaborators, colleagues, helpers and participants. Although the initial, one-off performance took place last week, the exhibition – a little like a series of relics  with its props, cut-out figures, a stage and film clips – remains as a fascinating spectacle in itself.



 A CUT  is based loosely on characters – and characteristics – derived from Dundee’s traditional industries of jam, jute and journalism. In Mclean’s vision, which he developed with digital scenographer David Barnett and artist Sam Belinfante, these manifestations of Dundee’s industrial past and present, have been reinvented as food, clothing and media. These qualities, in turn, suggest the opera’s cast of a fat man (Desperate Dan?) , a “very rich woman with a large dress woman” (played by Mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg),  a friendly giant and a band of mischief makers.


McLean organised a series of preliminary performances and workshops throughout the city, including the main square and the botanic garden. The dancer Adeline Bourret performed impromptu in front of the Caird Hall. 


Material from these venues in the form of video and sound was incorporated into a final performance in which McLean loomed large – in a role resembling the Polish theatre director, Tadeusz Kantor. McLean was both observer and participator, orchestrator and audience. Periodically his shouts of encouragement and instruction punctuated the hour-long performance, honed in concept and rehearsal over an eight-month period.


McLean’s performances – if that is indeed the appropriate dramaturgical terminology – are so content rich, so full of visual and conceptual tropes that one is left at a loss to fully describe and catalogue their complexity. It is all one can do to let the eye and ear move, synaesthetically, over conflicting or harmonious imagery and sounds; to let the visual and aural cacophony and melody intertwine.


Although there there is no conventional linear plot, the opera addresses contemporary political and social issues  such as consumerism, immigration and greed. A long, thin strip of red forms a stage, the back drop of which is a musical score, vastly magnified. A series of film projections flicker across this surface: singers from the botanical garden event; a whirring fan; the fat man, digitally enhanced, bending and moving; live video from the performance itself.  It’s like a hall of mirrors, a cave of endlessly reflecting reflections. Ideas bounce and collide like the characters, shapes, sounds and images on the stage. At the conceptual centre is McLean, an impatient, witty bullet of creativity and intellect.


The etymology of ‘orchestra’ is based on the idea of rising and surging . It’s good to bear this in mind when pondering such a complex event. For days, weeks, months these images and ideas will surely well to the fore of one’s mind, resurfacing, demanding attention and understanding.