Daily Archives: August 17, 2007

AUDIENCE WITH ADRIENNE, STONEWALL

THEATRE
An Audience With Adrienne
4 stars ****
Traverse 5, Medical School, Teviot Place (Venue 295)
Stonewall
3 stars  ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

BRITISH THEATRE HAS A LONG tradition of celebrating men in frocks, as comedians, figures of fun, or panto-season safety-valves for the pent-up tensions of a straight society.  When Adrian Howells was a little boy – long before he emerged as the gorgeous Adrienne, to whose laid-back living-room party we’re invited each evening of this Festival – he even drew a picture of Danny La Rue at school, as an image of “what I want to be when I grow up”.  The other boys were drawing train-drivers and spacemen, but little Adrian didn’t care.

Now, though – after more than a generation of vigorous campaigning for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual rights – the whole scene is shifting subtly.  Audiences can still be induced to cheer or giggle like an end-of-the-pier crowd at the sight of a drag queen sashaying across the stage; but this year in Edinburgh, in shows from the NTS’s Bacchae to these two brave productions, we’re being asked tougher questions about how this emerging androgynous strand in our society can be truly integrated into social and civic life.

In An Audience With Adrienne, Howells pushes this process forward with a gentle, almost motherly insistence.  Entertaining his guests in a cosy mock-up of a suburban living-room, in a couple of  affectionately English drag outfits, he offers us a series of stories about his life – the precise agenda chosen by us, from a menu – and invites us to watch videos of him interacting affectionately  with his very straight family.

Howells is a fine performer, who pulls off the rare trick of drawing deeply on his personal experience without seeming hopelessly self-absorbed.  His interest in the other people’s stories – which the audience are invited to contribute, if they want to – is intense.  And by the end of the show, when he strips off his drag, and vanishes to the pub as a quiet, embarrassed Adrian, there’s a powerful sense of having been put in a place where the image of the drag queen moves decisively beyond showbiz, into a series of real questions about how we live our everyday lives, and how far, even now, our society can easily accaommodate people who fit neither one gender stereotype, nor the other.

At the Pleasance, meanwhile, Team Angelica’s Stonewall – a bold staging of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s successful 1995 film script of the same name – asks these same questions in a much more upfront, politicised way.  Set in New York in the late 1960’s, in the run-up to the Stonewall Riot which marked the beginning of a real rebellion against routine police bullying, Beadle-Blair’s script offers a fairly substantial history of the gay politics of the period.  We see the tension between the suit-wearing gay rights campaigners and the live-fast-die-young drag queens, and how they eventually unite in the same struggle.  We see the pain and complexity of their relationships, as they struggle not to use and abuse one another in uniquely stressful situations; and we see how the idea of freedom and equality, as enshrined in the American constitution, inspired yet another excluded group to start an organised campaign for freedom and respect.

In the end, the show betrays its own dramatic seriousness by relying too much on showbiz-and-sparkle camp to attract an audience, although the mimed pop-songs of the era are fun; and some of the acting is rocky.  But for those prepared to listen to the dialogue, rather than just whoop at the drag numbers, this is a rewarding play about how gay and transexual people began their long march back into the heart of our civic life; and often a moving one.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24, 27 August
p.173, 227

ENDS ENDS

SMILE OFF YOUR FACE

THEATRE
The Smile Off Your Face
4 stars ****
C soco, Chambers Street (Venue 348)

IN THE LITTLE WAITING-ROOM at the entrance, where people wait to be taken, one by one, into the experience that is The Smile Off Your Face, there is a visitors’ book where people can write their comments on the show; and I can’t recall ever seeing one so full of ecstatic capital letters, blobby tearstains, and the word “amazing”, repeated again and again.  Brought to  Edinburgh by the gifted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, The Smile Off Your Face is like a little 30-minute journey through the fundamentals of life itself, given added intensity by the fact that each audience member begins the journey sitting in a wheelchair like a helpless child, eyes blindfolded, and hands lightly bound together; any idea of controlling your own fate has to be forgotten, for a while, to be replaced by a child-like absorption in the moment.

First, there are sounds – rushing water, arguing voices – and feeling of being moved around.  Later – and always in an atmosphere of great gentleness, with lots of requests for permission – there are closer encounters with the actors, as they lead you into a dance, or somehow persuade to confess your deepest feelings about life and love.  And finally, with the blindfold off, there is the most beautiful moment of revelation, as you see the whole experience laid out behind you, like a lifetime flashing before your eyes.

Some of the images revealed at this moment are slightly stronger than others; and of course, this is not a show for those who like to stay in control at all times.  But as an essay in intimacy, human warmth, and real emotional attention – and a reflection on the shocking lack of it, in many busy modern lives – The Smile Off Your Face is an unforgettable experience.  As I waited, I saw one woman leaving in floods of tears.  “But don’t worry,” she smiled, “these are good tears.  Sometimes, it’s great to cry.”

Joyce McMillan
Until 18 August
p.224

ENDS ENDS

HANGMAN

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Hangman
4 stars ****
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street (Venue 8)

IMAGINE A MID-20TH-CENTURY WORLD OF GANGSTERS and gansters’ molls, of men who gamble with their own lives and  those of others, and of a brutal judicial system heavily influenced by the pounding presses of the popular media.   This is the world of Hangman, the latest show from the wonderful Do Theatre, once of St. Petersburg, now based in Germany.  And although the setting is familiar – think of the musical Chicago, reimagined through the sinister mechanics of a children’s game, and touched with the mood of Brecht’s Mahagonny – it provides Evgeny Kozlov and his inspired company with material for an outstandingly beautiful and thought-provoking show, even by their own high standards.

On the soaring dark stage of the main Aurora Nova auditorium, stunningly lit by company member Alexander Bondarev, the four familiar bowler-hatted figures create unforgettable image after image in retelling their story of crime and punishment.  Sometimes their style is Chaplinesque, sometimes touched by film noir.  There are gangsters’ molls physically trapped in the embrace of the big “suits” who own them, lawyers grandstanding in court, and always, under the swinging lights of the night-clubs and gambling-tables, the rattle of a typewriter, and images of a civllisation trapped in the words it chooses to print about itself.

There is the odd awkward moment, and some of the dance sequences spin out for too long after their point is made.  But the quality of the movement is often breathtaking.  And the whole show represents a magnificent masterclass for Festival-goers in what theatre is and can be – a feast of light, beauty and movement for all of the senses, turning theatrical space into a magical field of ideas and dreams, and creating a whole world so successfully that when the company take their bow, after  70 minutes, it’s almost impossible to believe that only five performers have done so much, and carried us so far.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.113
ENDS ENDS

LEITMOTIF

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Leitmotif
3 stars ***
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street  (Venue 8)

IF THERE’S ONE motto Fringe performers should tattoo on their hearts, it’s “never go back”.  A couple of years ago, the English mime and movement artist Andrew Dawson scored a success on the Fringe with a show about the death of his father, Absence, Presence.  Now, he tries to conjure a similar sense of meaning out of the death of his mother, which took place much earlier in his life; but all that emerges is an ordinary tale, refracted through a strange mixture of slightly self-indulgent-looking performance techniques, from film and dance to straight solo narrative, animated sequences, and shadow-play with little stick-figures.

Dawson is a charming performer, and some of the effects he produces are beautiful.  But overall, there’s a sense of a show trying to say something portentous, without really having anything to say at all.  All that lives must die, as Hamlet’s mother tells him; and unless the death can be shown to have some special resonance, it’s perhaps not the best subject for art.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.114

ENDS ENDS

LACRIMOSA

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Lacrimosa
3 stars ***
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street  (Venue 8)

THREE YEARS AGO, the Song Of The Goat company from Poland made a huge impression in Edinburgh with Chronicles – A Lamentation; now, they bring another show in the same cycle, on themes of sacrifice and offering.  Lacrimosa is based on the story of a horrific act of scapegoating that took place at the French town of Arras in 1485, when a young Jewish woman was destroyed as vengeance following a terrible plague; and with music based on Mozart’s Requiem, it offers the company a chance to bring their trademark combination of magnificent choral singing and powerfully choreographed group movement to bear on a story of real significance.

This time around, though something in the aesthetic style of their work seems to have gone awry.  In a show which runs for a bare 35 minutes, there is a magnificent performance from the actress playing the victimised girl.  But her voice, and that of her community, seems strangely muted, in a production full of liturgical cadences, and the swishing movement of men in monkish robes.  If this is an indictment of the church’s cruelty and hypocrisy, it seems strangely obsessed with what it seeks to condemn; and at times, the quality of the movement carries strange echoes of the age of Isadora Duncan, when aristocratic house-parties used to enjoy afternoons of free-form dance, largely for their own amusement.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.114

ENDS ENDS