Daily Archives: August 9, 2010

Beautiful Burnout

Beautiful Burnout
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****

IF THERE’S ONE SUBJECT about which our culture seems thoroughly confused, it’s the idea of male aggression and violence.  On one hand, it’s widely framed and discussed as a social problem, to be dealt with or suppressed.  Yet on the other, the image of macho violence is constantly promoted and admired, both by the entertainment industry and in our popular culture; and it’s into this mess of mixed messages that the National Theatre of Scotland boldly wades with its new show Beautiful Burnout, about the world of boxing, and the men who try to channel the aggression of teenage boys into something more controlled, and perhaps more beautiful.

Written by the leading feminist playwright Bryony Lavery, and directed by Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham of the show’s co-producers, London-based physical theatre group Frantic Assembly, Beautiful Burnout is set around a Glasgow gym run by Bobby Burgess, an old-school trainer who believes in iron discipline, hard work, and the occasional stroke of luck. At the beginning of the play, he strikes it lucky three times, with gifted young boxers Ajay, Cameron and Neil; and the play traces their careers over the next few years, as Ajay(“a wee brown boy fae Paisley”) breaks away into fame and fortune, and the other two face a very different fate.

What’s striking about Beautiful Burnout, though, is not its familiar boxing story, but the world of possibilities opened up by its staging, on a double-revolve boxing-ring set, backed by a wall of video-screens, that allows us to pause and restart the action, and to look at it from angle after angle, exploring the poetry, the horror, the beauty and the sheer danger of beautiful young bodies in motion.  There are aspects of this 90-minute show that seem underdeveloped, notably the story of the raging young female would-be boxer Dana; and although the opening gym-training sequence is powerful and perfect, some of the set-piece dance numbers seem superfluous.

At its best, though, Beautiful Burnout is spectacular, lyrical and thought-provoking, in its exploration both of physical energy itself, and of the interaction between text and movement.  And it features a series of performances so eloquent, and so blazingly committed, that they sometimes leave the audience gasping; from Taqi Nazeer, Ryan Fletcher, Eddie Kay, Henry Pettigrew and Vicki Manderson as the young boxers, from Ewan Stewart as a powerfully restrained Bobby Burgess, and from Lorraine M McIntosh as Cameron’s mum, left holding the baby, when his star finally burns out.

Until 29 August, and on tour until November;  p.229.


While You Lie, The Author, Emma Thompson presents Fair Trade, Winner By Submission, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, My Romantic History

While You Lie
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
The Author
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)  5 stars *****
Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
3 stars ***
Winner By Submission
C (Venue 34)
3 stars ***
The Girl In The Yellow Dress
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
My Romantic History
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
5 stars *****

THERE’S A GIRL called Ana, from somewhere in eastern Europe, living in a British city that could be Edinburgh.  There’s a man called Chris, her boss, who accepts Ana’s desperate offer of sex in return for promotion; their relationship swiftly deteriorates into an abusive nightmare of sadism and aggression.  Then there’s Chris’s pregnant wife Helen, very content, until suspicion about the change in her husband drives her into an increasingly surreal world where hate becomes a self-mutilating desire for physical perfection.  And there’s Ike, a mysterious man who sells cosmetic surgery services, and exploits and abuses them all, while posing as the head of a charity for those mutilated in war.

This is Sam Holcroft’s While You Lie, the centrepiece of the Traverse’s 2010 festival programme; and to say that it’s not an easy play to watch is an understatement.   Its view of male-female relationships is devastatingly ugly, and its theatrecraft is patchy at best.  Leo Wringer, as Ike, is cast as a peculiar kind of devil-figure whose dialogue is oddly tedious; and the final crisis reaches heights of surreal sadism that veer towards comedy, as Ike slices out Helen’s baby with a kitchen knife on a garden table, and Chris climbs aboard for some post-natal copulation.

If the play is a bit of a mess, though, it features five undeniably strong performances, notably from Steven McNicoll as Chris, Pauline Knowles as Helen, and Claire Lams as Ana.  And in Zinnie Harris’s slick and heartfelt production, it sets out the stall for what’s clearly one of the key themes of this year’s Fringe; the decline of our so-called sexual culture into a sleazy, violent  mess of sadistic porn, driven partly by the extreme material widely available on the internet.

Tim Crouch’s controversial but inforgettable show The Author – first seen in London last year, and now at the Traverse – goes straight to the heart of the matter, in Fringe terms, by exploring the increasingly fraught relationship between that wider pornographic culture and what goes on in our theatres.  More famous for its form than for its content, The Author famously places the four actors among the audience, removes the stage, and offers long pauses in the action where music plays, and we’re all invited just to chat with each other.

In essence, though, this is a tightly-scripted show for four actors which tells the story of a theatre production that went badly wrong.  The fictional play was an in-your-face drama that dealt with sexual abuse in a frighteningly explicit way; what Tim Crouch is brave enough to explore is why we, or some of us “get off on” theatre of that kind, and what that does to our sexual imaginations and our mental wellbeing.  The writing is subtly brilliant, the sense of moral responsibility and exploratio even greater.  And because of its strange, unusual form, it doesn’t let the audience off the hook, either.

All of which casts a searching light on all the other plays exploring these themes, across the Fringe.  At the Pleasance Dome, Fair Trade – presented with the backing of Emma Thompson – is a decent piece of theatre about young women trafficked into Britain, based on real-life stories, and illuminated by a beautiful performance from Anna Holbek as the Albanian girl, Elena; but it’s difficult to feel that it’s telling us anything we don’t already know, about a problem that is widely recognised, but apparently beyond solution.  For raw realism  about the whole issue of the abuse of women in our mediated culture, you might as well see Winner By Submission at C Venue, by the American student group Red Chair Players West.  In this production of William Mastrosimone’s recent short play, the kids themselves can express how they feel about the world of abusive images – some of them home-made – that are now available at the click of a key, and they do it with memorable passion, and some skill.

And it’s a relief, finally, to return to the Traverse for two plays that use strong, traditional theatrical forms to try to find a path through the dark places of modern sexual culture.  Craig Higginson’s The Girl In The Yellow Dress – co-produced by the Market Theatre, Johannesburg and the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow – is a two-handed drawing-room drama in five acts, set in the Paris apartment of Celia, a troubled English woman in her thirties or so who is teaching English to a black student, Pierre.

Their increasingly intense interaction – marked out through the tenses and moods of their grammar lessons – exposes some painfully ugly truths about race and class, wealth and victimhood, and how the power-relationships they generate creat pain, damage and sexual misery even in the most privileged places.  As drama, it’s a little mechanical, a little neat.  But it’s written and directed with great skill, and beautifully performed by Marianne Oldham and Nat  Ramabulana; and its offer of redemption through sexual love, when it finally comes, seems hard-won, and almost believable.

As for D. C. Jackson’s My Romantic History, presented by the Bush Theatre and Sheffield Crucible at the Traverse – well, this latest play by one of Scotland’s finest young writers is simply a gem of post-modern romantic comedy, flicking effortlessly through monologue, dialogue, projected images and dramatic multi-tasking, as it tells the story of the none-too-idyllic office romance between commitment-phobic thirtysomething Tom, and 33-year-old Amy, whose biological clock is ticking a bit.  The genius of this play is that it acknowledges the ambivalence of post-modern sexual lives – the lack of commitment, the coldness, the sense that reality never quite measures up to some plastic ideal – while simultaneously overcoming all that with the wit, the humanity, the ability to laugh, learn, and move on, that is the real redeeming quality of our species.  After so much pessimism, Jackson’s clear-eyed but brilliant comic invention is a joy, as is his inimitable way with words; see this show, and know that hope never dies, even if, in dark times, it sometimes seems to flicker and fail.

While You Lie until 29 August,  p.304
The Author until 29 August   p.228
Emma Thompson presents: Fair Trade until 30 August, p.248
Winner By Submission  until 14 August  p. 305
The Girl In The Yellow Dress until 29 August  p.256
My Romantic History  until 29 August  p. 273