Three Weeks On The Cutting Edge – EIF Theatre 2008

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on EIF THEATRE PROGRAMME 2008 for Scotsman Review, 29.8.08
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LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, I took an evening off from my theatre reviewing schedule, and headed for the King’s Theatre to see Matthew Bourne’s new dance version of the story of Dorian Gray.   It’s a great show, witty, timely, beautifully designed, sometimes chilling, hugely entertaining; and well worth the four-star reviews bestowed on it by many critics, including The Scotsman’s own Kelly Apter.

But as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking how straightforward, how easy to understand, how conventional a piece of storytelling it was, compared with anything that I had seen and reviewed in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme.  Whatever the critical response to it – and it was generally favourable – Dorian Gray is clearly a piece of popular theatre, easy to sell to any audience not offended by its strong homoerotic storyline.  Whereas this year’s theatre programme, by contrast, from the start, has presented fans of the art-form with a relentless, arduous, and deeply demanding course of theatrical brain-gym, with every show  pushing and thrusting at the  boundaries of the art-form, challenging the very idea of coherent narrative, spilling over into the realms of music and installation art, and presenting even familiar stories in profoundly fragmented and reworked forms.

The Festival theatre season opened, after all, with TR Warszawa’s beautiful, profound but intensely dark and demanding version of The Dybbuk, structured round a deliberate collision between two matching narratives, and difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the old Jewish legend on which the story is based.  It continued with a fascinatingly fragmented and visually thrilling take on Edgar Allan Poe’s surreal psycho-drama, The Telltale Heart.  The National Theatre of Palestine’s Jidariyya was a complex, dream-like staging of the words of Mahmoud Darwish’s great epic poem about the moment of death, and the intensity of memory.  TR Warszawa bowed out with a magnificent version of Sarah Kane’s haunting suicidal tone-poem 4:48 Psychosis, the most abstract of all recent British theatre texts

Haris Pasovic’s Class Enemy, from Sarajevo, played havoc with Nigel Williams’s original 1978 text, and subjected audiences to a hundred-minute crash-course in the fury, alienation, sexual self-abuse and sheer violence of rejected young people in postwar Bosnia; a large contingent of the audience walked out after ten minutes, affirming that they would rather get back to drinking champagne.  Ruhe, from Muziektheater Transparant of Ghent, used Schubert lieder and monologues by Nazi collaborators to force a tough contemplation of the enduring – perhaps terminal – damage done to European culture during the Nazi era.  And as I write, Edinburgh is preparing for the world premiere of Heiner Goebbels’s latest music-theatre piece I Went To The House But Did Not Enter, from which audiences can expect much thrilling imagery and sound, but little resembling a plot.

And then there was the most controversial and hotly-anticipated  show of them all, in the shape of the National Theatre of Scotland’s 365, at the Playhouse.  What director Vicky Featherstone and her team produced was a bold, if not wholly successful, attempt to tell the story of young people emerging from care not through conventional narrative, but through dream-like sequences of stunning large-scale design, haunting music, and brief, telling fragments of monologue and dialogue; but the show was dismissed by many critics, some arguing that since it had no story worth the name, it was inevitably dull and uninvolving.   “Playwrights today should be prepared to explode realism, and to recognise that in some situations there is no narrative,” said 365’s writer David Harrower in one interview.   “But they don’t do that any more.  It’s almost as if Beckett had never happened.”  And Harrower’s feeling that theatrical tastes and assumptions remain fairly conservative, half a century on from the first performances of Waiting For Godot, seems to have been borne out by at least some of the reaction to his show.

So as the Festival approaches its final weekend, it’s perhaps worth asking what is going on here, when audiences for classical music and dance are offered a rich mix of the cutting-edge, the popular contemporary, and the traditional, while theatre is used as a kind of battering-ram for exploring the outer limits of performing art, and forcing audiences to face up to the toughest of subject-matter, including the catastrophe of genocide, the disintegration of the mind, and the experience of death itself.  For ardent enthusiasts of theatre, and at least some professional critics, it’s all exhilarating, challenging, mind-expanding stuff; and  of course, it would be a disaster if the Festival director, Jonathan Mills, were to abandon the sheer intellectual and creative force of this year’s theatre programme for a diet of stuffy popular classics, or routine issue-based contemporary plays.

But in order to survive, any art-form needs a heartland, as well as a cutting edge.  This year in Edinburgh, I felt almost as if theatre had no credible heartland any more; as if it had become a kind of experimental fringe to the more popular elements of the International Festival, a laboratory in which other art-forms can test themselves to destruction against the possiblities of the spoken word.  And I began to wonder whether I was watching the idea of theatre being reborn; or whether I was seeing it finally disappear into that great gulf between outworn traditional forms on one hand, and self-conscious modernist experimentalism on the other, that first appeared in our culture more than a century ago.   For it’s a gulf that still, in theatre, too often remains unbridged; save by the occasional, brilliant, once-in-a-decade show that blows all these old categories apart, and offers us a brief glimpse of how to reinvent a whole art-form, for a new age.

I Went To The House But Did Not Enter at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and Dorian Gray at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until tomorrow, 30 August.   Class Enemy on tour to the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 2 September, and Cumbernauld Theatre, 4 September.   365 at the Lyric Theatre,  Hammersmith, 8-27 September.

ENDS ENDS

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