Daily Archives: August 11, 2011

2401 Objects, What Remains

2401 Objects
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****
What Remains
Traverse@University Of Edinburgh Medical School (Venue 132)
3 stars ***

ONCE, THE APPLIANCE of science was the keystone of our culture, the rational endeavour that powered western civilisation to its dominant position across the globe. Now, though, our comprehensive loss of trust in science seems like a symptom of decline; and if you want to see the reasons for that loss of confidence dramatised with great sensitivity, or with wild theatrical energy, then you could do worse than head along to these two new shows by leading Fringe companies.

Analogue Theatre’s 2401 Objects, at the Pleasance, is a short, beautifully-sculpted 55-minute show, based on the true story of a man known as “Patient HM”, who – back in 1953, at the age of 27 – was subected to radical brain surgery in the United States in an effort to treat his severe epilepsy. As a result of the operation, HM lost almost all of his memory, spending the rest of his long life in an institution; and in 2009, after his death, his brain was sliced into 2401 thin pieces by another medical team, in order to analyse what it could tell us about memory and recollection.

Written by Lewis Hetherington, directed by Liam Jarvis and Hannah Barker, and performed with superb energy and restraint by a four-strong company led by Sebastien Lawson as young Henry and Melody Grove as the women in his life, 2401 Objects is an understated and outstandingly gentle piece of theatre. Yet in less than an hour, it succeeds – through a quietly inventive combination of live action, amplified narrative, and simple but powerful visual imagery – in creating a memorable portrait not only of a kind and lovely man bereft by overweening science of one of the key elements of a meaningful human life; but also of the whole middle-class 1950’s society that surrounded him, at the turning-point of his life – its joys, its silences, and its intense, aspirational respectability, now so long gone, beyond the horizon of history.

David Paul Jones’s What Remains – staged by Grid Iron and the Traverse at Edinburgh University‘s historic Medical School – is a wildly extravagant and uneven show by comparison, a sustained hour of bravura performance in which Jones, with designer Ali Maclaurin, sets about deconstructing and undermining the fierce patriarchal structures of authority through which learning was traditionally imparted, not least here in Edinburgh.

Jones’s point – expressed in a rich series of musical interludes and haunting physical installations, set around two floors of the Medical School – is that in the end, sadistic authoritarianism destroys the spirit of learning and enlightenment, whether in the fictional music academy of the show, or in the building that surrounds us. He expresses it, though, through such a wild and playful mix of tragic poetry, feeble comedy, horror-film spoofery, and theatrical self-indulgence, that he often undermines the force of his own ideas; and lets the audience off the emotional hook, as if they had seen nothing but a lightweight horror-movie, sending itself up for a laugh.

Joyce McMillan
Both shows until 28 August
pp. 307, 310



Robert Burns: Not In My Name

Robert Burns: Not In My Name
National Library of Scotland (Venue 147)
3 stars ***

IF OUR SOCIETY has reached a crisis-point in the long struggle between an economic system that values people only for the wealth they own or the profit they can generate, and a social system that tries to place an intrinsic value on each human being, then this seems like a fine moment for a fresh encounter with the work of Robert Burns. For the man best known as Scotland’s national bard, and adopted as a mascot by a thousand rotary clubs and biscuit-tin manufactureres, was in fact one of the first writers in these islands fully to embrace the ideas of the enlightenment, to read and understand Thomas Paine’s great manifesto The Rights Of Man, and to speak up for the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity that informed both the American and the French revolutions.

It’s therefore something of a thrill to hear one of Scotland’s contemporary radical poets – Kevin Williamson, founder of the Rebel Inc imprint – giving us his own performance, from memory, of some of Burns’s most radical poetry, accompanied by beautiful short video films by Alistair Cook, and sound by Luca Nasciuti. As theatre, Williamson’s show is a little slow in pace and unvarying in mood, intense, and full of righteous anger. As a reminder of the sweet, soaring spirit of Burns, though – and of how fiercely his yearning for political and sexual freedom connects with the continuing battles of our time – the show is intensely moving; and well worth seeing, for any radical spirits who ever imagined that Burns was a poet of the establishment, with nothing to say to them.

Until 12, then 24-28 August
p. 293


Mission Drift

Mission Drift
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
5 stars *****

YOU DON’T NEED TO BE MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS OLD to remember a time when the idea of America – “the world’s only superpower” – still bestrode the world like a colossus; but now, it seems the colossus is toppling, or at least crumbling at the foundations.

So this is the perfect moment to welcome back to Edinburgh the young TEAM company of New York, with their mighty new show Mission Drift. The company’s name stands for Theatre Of The Emerging American Moment; the trademark of their work is a fierce, endlessly creative willingness to try to understand the stories and the meaning of their own country. And their approach to theatre makes no concessions to any traditional idea of what this art-form should look like. Their narratives roam the centuries and interweave at breakneck speed, and the stage looks as if it’s been set for an ambitious music gig; there’s a white piano, an on-stage two-piece band, and a ferociously kittenish cabaret singer-cum-pianist who also plays a key part in the drama.

As for the story – well, this is the tale of the young United States itself, embodied at one end of its history by Joris and Catalina Rapalje, two 14-year-old Dutch migrants who arrive in New Amsterdam 1624, and proceed, while mysteriously never growing any older, to colonise, people and exploit across the whole mighty continent, for almost 400 years; and at the other by Joan, a casino waitress in Las Vegas, who has just lost her job in the 2008 financial crash, and is in danger of also losing her home. There’s craziness, invention and poetry in the telling of how Joris and Catalina’s healthy pioneer spirit morphs into the madness of unbridled 21st century capitalism, until it finally reaches its shuddering moment of confrontation with reality, in what is now one of the epicentres of America’s property crisis; and the show is driven along by a magnificent, hard-edged cycle of songs, by pianist, singer and composer Heather Christian.

And there is, too, a passionate love for the landscape, the wildness, the beauty of the great continent Joris and Catalina came to conquer. It’s best embodied in a beautiful performance from Amber Gray, as the cocktail waitress who just loves the city Las Vegas once was; but brilliantly sustained by this whole eight-strong company of performers and creators, and cheered to the echo by an audience who know that America’s physical frontier has gone, but who can recognise the thrilling frontier of 21st century theatre, when they see it.

Joyce McMillan
Until 14 August
p. 281


(g)Host City

(g) Host City
A Location Of Your Choice,
3 stars ***

SO I AM WALKING along Cumberland Street, with a woman’s voice ringing in my ears. The woman is the writer Hannah McGill, but the voice belongs also to the character at the centre of her short story Ragwort, about a woman returning to Edinburgh during Festival time, staying in a flat in Cumberland Street, and trying to deal with the messy ending of a relationship, played out in that street. I’ve already walked Drummond Place and Great King Street, listening to Jim Colquhoun’s vividly explicit accounts of encounters with Edinburgh prostitutes, in the voice of a latterday Thomas De Quincey; and in half an hour, I’ll be at the canal basin in Fountainbridge, listening to the story of an old, frustrated wartime love played out against a city landscape radically changed by new urban development, yet still just recognisable, to those who once danced in the shuttered and decaying palais next to the bar called Cargo.

This is the experience of (g)Host city, an album of about twenty short audio stories or experiences curated by Edinburgh-based theatre artist Laura Cameron Lewis, available for download from a website called virtualfestival.org, and then yours to play in the locations suggested by your writers, or anywhere else you choose. It’s in the nature of a multi-authored project like this one that the quality of the contributions, often voiced by their own authors, tend to vary.

Yet at its best – in McGill’s hard-edged Cumberland Street story, Kirstin Innes’s Fountainbridge journey, Momus’s surreal reimaginings of the destinations of famous Edinburgh bus routes, Kieran Hurley’s fine piece fo St. Anthony’s Chapel in Holyrood Park, or some of Christopher Collier’s wordless soundscapes, dotted around the city – (g)Host city offers a remarkable experience, available to you on your phone or i-pod at any time, as you criss-cross the Festival city. The range of young Scottish writers involved is impressive, the sense of place and history is palpable. Go to the top of Calton Hill, listen to Jenny Lindsay’s short poem Edinburgh – “Atop a hill, you burn the flame of new religion, old superstition….” – and you’ll catch the sense of a generation of writers who, wherever they’re going, now have the deepest understanding of one of the cities from which they come.

Joyce McMillan
Until 4 September
p. 265