JOYCE MCMILLAN on LEO, CIRCLE OF ELEVEN AND REMARKABLE ARTS AT FRINGE 2011, for The Scotsman 14.7.11
THERE’S A BUZZ OF EXCITEMENT around the courtyard of the Hackescher Hofe in Berlin, and it’s not only because of the successful cabaret-circus-burlesque show – Wunderkammer, by the Australian group Circa – that’s playing nightly in the theatre on the first floor. Restored over the last 15 years from a notorious state of dereliction, this beautiful old courtyard in what was once Berlin’s Jewish quarter has now become the home to the Circle Of Eleven, a commercially-based yet artistically-driven international theatre production company which runs the Chamaeleon Theatre at the Hackescher Hofe, and aims to make enough money from hugely popular circus and entertainment shows – like their recent global bathtime hit Soap – to enable artists to continue with the work they want to do.
And at this time of year, what many Berlin-based artists want to do is to prepare a show for Edinburgh, a Festival which they still see as a major gateway to wider international fame. So upstairs in the theatre, acrobat and actor Tobias Wegner is preparing to give a first, tentative Sunday-afternoon preview of his new show Leo, which will premiere this August at Remarkable Arts at St. George’s West. As Wegner explains after the performance, it’s a show – directed by Daniel Briere, and produced by Montreal-based physical theatre guru Gregg Parks – that uses an old trick, familiar from the early days of film when stars like Fred Astaire would seem to dance up the walls and across the ceiling.
Over 60 minutes, though, it mounts a much more intense in-depth exploration of the position of Leo, a man locked in a cube-like room – one red wall, one dark, blue, one light blue – where the force of gravity operates horizontally, rather than vertically; meanwhile, a live screen on the other half of the stage shows us Leo, as it were, the right way up, to mind-dazzling and poignant effect.
“I love this show,” says Circle Of Eleven member Wolfgang Hoffman, “because it’s funny and entertaining and completely physical, yet it deals in very subtle emotions about pride, and power, and vulnerability.” Well known to Edinburgh Fringe audiences as the dancer, director and producer from former East Germany who ran the mighty Aurora Nova venue at St. Stephen’s Church from 2001 to 2007, bringing some of the finest physical theatre in the world to Edinburgh, Hoffmann now works with Circle Of Eleven, developing the company’s international network of artists, promoters and venues; and this year, he’s pleased to be co-operating in Edinburgh with the fast-expanding Remarkable Arts operation at St. George’s West and Hill Street Theatre. Remarkable Arts, launched last year, is run by Tim Hawkins, the former manager of Komedia in Brighton, and the man who stepped in as caretaker director of the Edinburgh Fringe after the great box office disaster of 2008; and Hoffmann is delighted that Remarkable Arts has emerged as a Fringe venue where he can not only present Leo, but also create opportunities for a range of other international shows which he thinks deserve Edinburgh exposure.
So across the table, at the Hackesche Hofe, sits Alessija Lause, a German-Croation actress, accomplished acrobat, and film stunt-woman – she acted as body-double for Cate Blanchett in the recent film Hanna – who, two years ago, fell in love with the text of John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 American two-hander Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, and, together with her Hungarian-Romanian-German stage partner Nikolaus Szentmiklosi, has developed a production which has had an electrifying impact on audiences in Berlin. Hoffmann is also giving a helping hand to Now And At The Hour Of Our Time, a Brazilian physical theatre piece about the violent deaths of street childre in Rio; and to White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a solo piece from Volcano of Canada which explores the plight of a young Iranian forbidden to leave his country, and which has to be read cold, every night, by a different actor, who has never seen the text before.
“So do I think that Remarkable Arts is taking up where Aurora Nova left off?” says Hoffmann. “Well, not exactly. Tim Hawkins and his assistant, Dani Rae, have a very mixed programme, with plenty of Scottish and UK shows, and a whole range of spaces to fill, across two venues. What they have, though, is the same ethos of focussing on artistic excellence, and spreading the risks across a wide range of companies. I think that’s a great model for an Edinburgh operation, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been copied more often.”
Back in Edinburgh, Tim Hawkins agrees. “Our aim is to create a venue where artists can perform their work in the very best circumstances, and not constantly have to be cutting corners, as often happens on the Fringe. So we provide a very high standard of technical support, and this year we’re also doing a major conversion of the main space at St. George’s West to turn it into a really effective theatre space. And of course, to pay for all this – a total cost of about £200,000 – we do have to sell a lot of tickets. But I have faith in the Edinburgh audience, and I have to believe that if our programme is strong enough – and I think it is – then we will meet all our targets, and maybe even have something left over for next year.”
And Wolfgang Hoffmann is optimistic too, despite the bruising experience of having to end the Aurora Nova operation at the point where the combination of professional, financial and artistic pressures became impossible to reconcile. “The Edinburgh Fringe?” he says. “I think it’s just a force of nature; it has its own energy, so that when one creative venture ends, another emerges, and it just keeps on growing. It’s 12 years since I first came to Edinburgh from Potsdam, with a Do Theatre show called Hopeless Games. Yet even now, I still love to be there. And I love saying to people – I’ll see you in Edinburgh, in August.”
Leo, Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Now And At The Hour Of Our Turn, and 40 other shows, are at Remarkable Arts, St. George’s West and Hill Street Theatre, 5-29 August.