Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13 and 14

Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13, and 14
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

IT BEGAN, two-and-a-half weeks ago, with just a couple of dozen new writing fans eating rolls and drinking coffee in the small space of Traverse 2.  Now, it’s packing 300-strong audiences into the Traverse main auditorium every morning, and the breakfast operation has expanded to the point where it puts a severe strain on bacon supplies around Lothian Road.  Ravenhill For Breakfast, in other words, has become one of the surprise smash-hits of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, charging less than the price of a mediocre stand-up show for breakfast plus a 25-minute script-in-hand reading, by top actors from around the Festival  and Fringe, of a new play each day by one of Britain’s leading playwrights; and what Ravenhill and Paines Plough, the producing company has done may, in time, begin to change the face of Edinburgh Fringe theatre for ever.

In the first place, and most importantly, he has written a superb piece of contemporary drama in the form of 17 daily instalments, like a new Charles Dickens for our times.   His theme is perhaps the most important on this year’s Fringe; the question of how the powerful and affluent of our planet relate to those less fortunate.  And his cast of characters are simply unforgettable, from the three affluent “Women of Troy” of the first play, babbling about their juicing machines and organic food preferences, through the headless soldier who reappears in script after script as image or nightmare, to the hungry people of starving cities patronised by well-meaning aid workers, and the roaring, keening mothers of the dead.

Secondly, he has made the Traverse each morning a magnificent crossroads for all the theatrical talent that converges on Edinburgh in August.  The season has involved dozens of actors, from Brian Ferguson of Black Watch to the fabulous Dolya Gavanski, star of the David Greig hit Damascus; and directors from Vicky Featherstone of the National Theatre of Scotland and Mark Thomson of the Royal Lyceum to Paines Plough’s own Roxana Silbert.

And finally, he has raised once again the key question of what 21st century audiences want from live theatre.  Do they want to see big sets, actors in costume, perfectly-rehearsed reproductions of some aspect of life?  Or do they prefer the immediacy and authenticity of a script-in-hand performance hot off the press, as infinitely preferable to the highly-edited version of the world inflicted on them by most of the broadcast media?  There are no easy answers, of course.  But Ravenhill For Breakfast has opened up a brand new range of possible responses, in work that has often been of heart-stopping quality.  On Thursday morning, the superb Scottish actress Kathryn Howden, directed by Sulayman Al Bassan of the United Arab Emirates, quietly described the long emotional death-by-inches that is her own western life, while a starving woman died unnoticed in her arms; as an image of the tragedy of our times, I have never seen a stronger one, anywhere.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 218



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