Daily Archives: August 11, 2008

Eight

THEATRE
Eight
4 stars ****
Bedlam Theatre (Venue 49)

AT THE DOOR of the Bedlam Theatre, you’re presented with a voting slip, and a brisk verbal thumbnail sketch of eight characters aged between 15 and 30, all living in Britain now.  You vote for the four characters you want to hear from, and proceed into the theatre, while the company count the votes; then, in a superbly simple, slick and effective performance, you’re blown away by four terrific fifteen-minute monologues that succeed, in less than an hour, in saying far more about the mood of modern Britain, on the streets, than some of the nation’s leading playwrights can apparently manage in a two-hour drama.

This is Eight, the latest Festival show from Edinburgh University Theatre Company, written and directed by Ella Hickson, who has based her work on a survey of British twentysomethings which asked them what qualities or experiences define their generation.   On the day I saw the show, we heard from Jude, a teenage boy desperately in love with middle-aged woman.  We heard from Bobby, a single mum trying to make Christmas OK for her kids, and from Andre, a gay man on the visual arts scene whose lover has just committed suicide.  And above all, we heard from Miles, a 7/7 bombing survivor whose monologue seemed to me one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve yet heard about the aftermath of that terrible day.

All four pieces are stunningly well performed, by student actors whose skill and commitment puts many of their professional colleagues to shame; and the subtle touch of reality-show cruelty and arbitrariness in the choice of characters we hear from adds a brilliant contemporary twist.    Frankly, I could have done without the easy Tracey Emin jokes in art-dealer Andre’s monologue; any fool can mock Tracey.  But that tiny reservation apart, this is a truly impressive and exciting hour of theatre; and Ella Hickson is clearly not only a huge writing talent, but a pretty mean director, too.

Joyce McMillan
Until 23 August
p. 197

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The Tell-Tale Heart

EIF THEATRE
The Tell-Tale Heart
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTOR-MUSICIAN BARRIE KOSKY  made a huge impression on Festival-goers in 2007 with his  lusciously post-modern version of Monteverdi’s Poppea, with songs by Cole Porter.  And now – in a satisfying festival companion-piece to TR Warszawa’s The Dybbuk – he sets his subversive musical and theatrical imagination to work on The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story of a haunted young murderer, driven to betray himself by his conviction that he can still hear the heart of his victim beating beneath the floorboards.

The Tell-Tale Heart is a briefer, slighter show than Poppea, and it’s difficult to argue that it adds much to the sum of human wisdom on the subject of guilt and conscience.  But as performed by the magnificent singer/actor Martin Niedermair, with Kosky himself on piano, this intense exercise in style and performance continues Kosky’s fascinating exploration of the interface between thrillingly different genres of music, of the borderlands where theatre meets opera, and of the wilder  possibilities of the human voice.  And the design and lighting – around that single human figure perched on a dizzyingly steep, narrow staircase that soars into the darkness above the stage – is fascinating to watch, and a small revelation in itself.

Until 11 August
EIF p.10

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The Dybbuk

EIF THEATRE
The Dybbuk
4 stars ****
King’s Theatre

THE IDEA OF THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED – the haunting of the living by all that has been denied, hidden or lied about in the past –  is one of the great themes of drama; and it is the driving force in both of the shows which opened the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme over the weekend.   In Szymon Anski’s great Jewish classic The Dybbuk – first seen in Warsaw in 1920 – the spirit of a dead lover, a young student of the kabbala rejected in his quest for the hand of the girl to whom he was promised as a child, possesses the body of his lost bride during her wedding to another man.  The story speaks not only of the evil of loveless marriage, and of parental faithlessness and ambition, but also of the raging forces unleashed when powerful bonds of faith and love are denied.

In TR Warszawa’s brilliantly intense and thoughtful response to Anski’s drama, though, we not only see the traditional story filtered through a 21st century sensibility, but also – over a compelling two-and-quarter-hours – watch it collide with a new story, by Hanna Krall, about a modern secular Jew, living in America, whose body is haunted by the spirit of his half-brother, killed as a little boy during the holocaust.  The show begins – as Anski’s original research for his play did –  with a quiet telling of old Polish-Jewish folk stories.  Then, on a perspex-screened stage designed to look like the side-rooms of a simple modern synagogue – but backed by a wonderful, sinister and exotic moving wall-painting of mystical imagery from the kabbala, drawn from the traditional decor of Poland’s old wooden synagogues – the wonderful Magdalene Cielecka, as the bride Leah, leads the cast through the story of the Dybbuk.

And finally the play morphs quietly but powerfully into the compelling story of Adam S., the haunted modern Jew – magnificently played by Andrzej Chyra – who studies those old, long-destroyed wooden synagogues as his academic specialism.   Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production (of his own adaptation) is intense, slow-burning, drenched in the language of theology and mysticism, but ultimately immensely rich and rewarding.  It features superb acting from a 13-strong cast, ground-breaking design and lighting by Malgorzata Szczesniak and Felice Ross, and a truly memorable soundscape by Pawel Mykietyn, obviously influenced in places – like Magdalena Cielecka’s chilling  performance as the possessed Leah – by the dark, soul-threatening tone of 21st century horror films.  In the end, we find ourselves confronting two stories of people too bound to the past, by love, guilt or sorrow, to be able to let it go, and live on; and we’re left with a deep sense that it’s in that eternal, agonising bondage to past wrongs, both personal and political, that we find the very essence of tragedy, and of horror.

Joyce McMillan
Until 11 August
EIF p. 8

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Supper

THEATRE
Supper
2 stars **
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)

IN THE CROWDED Balcony Bar at the Assembly Rooms, an audience sits around on sofas, wearing large headphones; in front of them, four volunteers from the audience eat lunch at a small table, talking, laughing, drinking wine.  And through the headphones, the audience – at their own choice – hear the thoughts either of a man or a woman, each of them members of this apparently happy lunch party, each undergoing private agonies of pain, loss or uncertainty.

And that’s the first of the many things wrong with this failed good idea of a show by Edinburgh’s Puppet Lab; that in order to experience the whole work – male and female voices – you have to visit twice, spending £15 for less than 50 minutes of heavyweight headphone poetry from writers Judith Adams and John Harvey, solemn, self-absorbed, and far too abstract for the context.  Add the fact that the place is completely wrong for the evening seaside meal mentioned in the text, that the woman’s story obviously contains far more characters than the intimate four we can see in front of us, and that the headphone actors –  Deborah Arnott and Sandy Grierson – seem to have been directed to sound as whiny and tedious as possible, and a combination of confusion and boredom reigns.  There is theatrical potential glimmering here, in the slight dissonance between the group we see and the voices we hear; but in this show, at least, that potential remains unfulfilled.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24 August
p. 234.

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Free Outgoing, Plastic, In A Thousand Pieces

THEATRE
Free Outgoing
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Plastic
3 stars ***
Pleasance Courtyard  (Venue 33)
In A Thousand Pieces
4 stars ****
Gilded Balloon Teviot   (Venue 14)

IN THE WESTERN WORLD, the idea of patriarchy has gone out of fashion.  Serious newspapers publish stories suggesting that women are now the dominant sex; but the Fringe tells a different story, not only about societies where law and customs still blatantly discriminate against women and gay men, but about the seedy sexual underside of our own culture.

Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing – playing at the Traverse in a production from the Royal Court Theatre’s Genesis Project – is a brilliantly intense and fast-moving family drama, set in an apartment-block in 21st century Chenai, about the catastrophe that overtakes a hardworking middle-class widow Malini – magnificently played by Lolita Chakrabarti –  and her teenage son and daughter, when images of the daughter making love to her boyfriend are filmed on his mobile phone, and circulated across the globe via the internet.

Chandrasekhar makes a superb job of sketching the nightmare escalation of the family crisis, from a brief suspension from school, to expulsion for both children, the loss of Malini’s job, and eviction from their flat, besieged by crowds of angry protesters.  Caught helplessly between the post-modern world that made this crisis possible, and a traditional – almost Victorian – culture which does not hesitate to visit collective punishment on the families of errant girls, Malini and her children find themselves outcasts, with no man to speak for them.  And it finally becomes clear that the hated media, which helped to destroy them, represent the only alternative power in the land that might also be able to save them.

Chandrasekhar’s play ends abruptly at this crisis-point, as if she can hardly bear to imagine how much worse Malini’s fate might become; and some of the acting is a little rough-edged here and there.  But the story itself, and Chakrabarti’s heroic performance, serve as a sharp reminder of the savage cruelty of the sexual double standard to which some in Britain now seem eager to return; and of a world in which a family headed by a woman is seen, by many, as no family at all.

Down in the cellars of the Pleasance Undergrand, meanwhile, the London-based Iranian company 30 Bird present Plastic, an abstract  installation and meditation on Teheran’s booming reputation as a centre for plastic surgery, and particularly for sex-change operations.  The show consists of a series of tableaux linked by passages of film projected onto the rough walls, and by occasional brief monologues, live or recorded; and the themes involve wounding and bandaging, shifting gender identities, the removal and pickling of unwanted sexual organs, and the sense of some lost, flowery garden of sexual delight, hurt, damaged or hidden.

The single most theatrical gesture in the whole show lies in the separation of male and female audience members, who follow slightly different paths through the experience; this alone is enough to provoke thought about how sharply gender-divided societies accentuate difference, and perhaps heighten desire.  But elsewhere, and despite occasional moments of superb dance and movement, the show seems a little slight and  unfocussed, particularly in its aimless film sequences; and at a bare 40 minutes, it leaves the audience wanting much more.

It’s the young Paper Birds company from Leeds, though, who bring the whole issue of sex and gender back home this year, with a sharp, compassionate 50-minute show about the fate of women trafficked into Britain for sex.   It’s not a new theme, and it’s one that was particularly heavily explored on last year’s Fringe.  But following intensive research, and an opportunity to work with the Polish-based group Teatr Piesn Kozla, the Paper Birds have produced a deeply-felt show that uses voice, movement, recorded sound and the occasional  video image to trace the path of these raped and abused women through our cities, and – most interestingly – to expose the shocking mixture of indifference, hostility, and blithering ignorance with which most British people seem to regard them.   And where are all the men who buy these women’s services?  I guess some of them must be sitting amongst the audiences at this year’s Fringe; laughing at jokes about how feminism has gone too far, and how a man who wants a decently submissive woman nowadays has no option but to buy one, from a culture where the second sex still know their place.

Joyce McMillan
Free Outgoing and Plastic until 24 August, In A Thousand Pieces untl 25 August
pp. 201, 224, 206.

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