JOYCE MCMILLAN on A FESTIVAL OF THEATRE TO REMEMBER: WAR AND PEACE, MYTHS AND ANDROGYNY, THEATRE AND MUSIC – for The Scotsman, 31.8.07
FIRST, LET’S GET ONE TRUTH out of the way. At the Edinburgh Festival of 2007, there was no single, overwhelming, five-star theatrical hit on the scale of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, which straddled the 2006 event like a colossus. In every other way, though, Edinburgh this year produced a Festival to remember, in terms of theatre. It’s true that Fringe audiences shifted and rearranged themselves in unexpected ways. A thirst for fun and spectacle drove them to big shows like Fuerza Bruta at Ocean Terminal, to burlesque nights at the Spegelgarden, and to the award-winning, super-witty Eurobeat at the Pleasance Grand; the balance of cutting-edge artistic power on the Fringe shifted decidedly away from the old Assembly empire in the New Town, and towards the younger Southside venues – the Underbelly, the Zoo, and the ever-self-rejuvenating Pleasance. And everyone who expects audiences to pay for Fringe tickets – and that performers should be paid for doing their job – was both intrigued and alarmed by the booming new phenomenon of the Free Fringe, where carefree young artists living on thin air perform happily to tiny audiences or packed ones, without the words “box office” ever entering their heads.
What none of this means, though, is that serious drama in Edinburgh in August is dead; on the contrary, it seems to be renewing itself at speed, withh whole clusters of brand new artists lining up to receive awards and five-star reviews, alongside the more familiar faces. This year’s official Festival drama programme – now all but over – was a runaway success, offering terrific value for money compared with some top-dollar Fringe shows. On one hand, it offered a breathtaking new 21st century response to four major ancient myths and one founding classic of the modern era, Ibsen’s Doll’s House; it also allowed us to watch open-mouthed as one man single-handedly restored to life one of the neglected foundation-stones of north European narrative, the legend of Beowulf.
For sheer theatrical nerve, coherence and brilliance, Lee Breuer’s magnificent deconstruction of The Doll’s House for his Mabou Mines company of New York probably has to take the prize, in this year’s official Festival. But from Barrie Kosky’s dazzlingly effectived reworking of Monteverdi’s Poppea – with songs by Cole Porter – through the Wooster Group’s brilliant use of a 1960’s science-fiction B-movie to add a simmering background tension to Cavalli’s La Didone, to Rinde Eckert’s intriguing vision of Orpheus as an ageing modern rock-star, all six shows spoke volumes about a culture reaching back beyond the rigid monotheistic religions of the last 2000 years, to a different spiritual world in which the gods were seen not as one, but as many, and often as lustful, vengeful, capricious and cruel as humanity at its worst.
These shows also smashed down the Festival barriers between theatre and opera, perhaps for good. Every one of them – including Mabou Mines Dollhouse, in its astonishing final sequence – included powerful operatic song, sometimes with no spoken dialogue at all. And if the National Theatre of Scotland’s Bacchae never looked like rivalling Black Watch for coherence and theatrical power – and failed to stretch its multi-talented star, Alan Cumming, to the terrifying grandeur he could have achieved – it still raised some powerful questions about the relationship between ancient Greek drama and modern popular forms; and about the re-emergence of androgyny and female sexuality as real forces in our culture, now demanding a new recognition and respect.
Out on the Fringe, meanwhile, a stunning final Festival programme from outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard and his team focussed brilliantly on what emerged as the dominant theme of the whole Festival: the relationship between the wealthy west, and the rest of the planet which it has for so long colonised, dominated and patronised. From David Greig’s Damascus in the main Traverse Theatre, through Tim Crouch’s England presented at the Fruitmarket Gallery, to the magnificent Ravenhill For Breakfast sequence staged to ever-growing crowds each morning at the Traverse, this programme savaged the west for its greed, ignorance, self-absorption and arrogance, and for the self-serving shallowness of its humanitarian sympathies, while at the same time remaining fiercely theatrical, and often very funny. In Glasgow-based Vanishing Point’s new show Subway, staged at Traverse 3 in the Drill Hall, there was a powerful twist of post-global-warming apocalyptic imagery, brought right home to Leith, and backed by a ferocious seven-piece band from Kosovo; in Ek Performance’s Game Theory, co-written by Pamela Carter and Selma Dimitrijevic, there was a searching investigation of the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation after conflict.
And all of these themes were echoed and developed across the Fringe, from the powerful South African show Truth In Translation at the Assembly Hall, through Dai (Enough) at the Pleasance and the Amnesty-award-winning The Container at the E4 Udderbelly, to dozens of other tales of war and peace, forgiveness and vengeance. The theme of translation and mistranslation recurred endlessly, in comic and tragic forms, as people were seen struggling to hear and understand one another across cultural and emotional divides. In between, there was plenty of fine theatre about the ordinary sadnesses of life, about love gone wrong, the agony of betrayal, the sadness of growing older, the shock of bereavement. Once again, the big truth became clear; that while theatre is not good at offering solutions to the agonies of the world, it is an arena without parallel when it comes to naming those agonies, and allowing us to share our awareness of them. And it’s particularly powerful when it comes together – as it does in Edinburgh, every August – in a rare mixture of programmed brilliance and unprogrammed chaos; to plug us into the pulse of our times, and to create space where we can begin to feel that rhythm, together.
ENDS ENDS ENDS