Category Archives: Edinburgh 2007

A Festival To Remember – Edinburgh 2007

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A FESTIVAL OF THEATRE TO REMEMBER: WAR AND PEACE, MYTHS AND ANDROGYNY, THEATRE AND MUSIC – for The Scotsman, 31.8.07
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FIRST, LET’S GET ONE TRUTH out of the way. At the Edinburgh Festival of 2007, there was no single, overwhelming, five-star theatrical hit on the scale of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, which straddled the 2006 event like a colossus. In every other way, though, Edinburgh this year produced a Festival to remember, in terms of theatre. It’s true that Fringe audiences shifted and rearranged themselves in unexpected ways. A thirst for fun and spectacle drove them to big shows like Fuerza Bruta at Ocean Terminal, to burlesque nights at the Spegelgarden, and to the award-winning, super-witty Eurobeat at the Pleasance Grand; the balance of cutting-edge artistic power on the Fringe shifted decidedly away from the old Assembly empire in the New Town, and towards the younger Southside venues – the Underbelly, the Zoo, and the ever-self-rejuvenating Pleasance. And everyone who expects audiences to pay for Fringe tickets – and that performers should be paid for doing their job – was both intrigued and alarmed by the booming new phenomenon of the Free Fringe, where carefree young artists living on thin air perform happily to tiny audiences or packed ones, without the words “box office” ever entering their heads.

What none of this means, though, is that serious drama in Edinburgh in August is dead; on the contrary, it seems to be renewing itself at speed, withh whole clusters of brand new artists lining up to receive awards and five-star reviews, alongside the more familiar faces. This year’s official Festival drama programme – now all but over – was a runaway success, offering terrific value for money compared with some top-dollar Fringe shows. On one hand, it offered a breathtaking new 21st century response to four major ancient myths and one founding classic of the modern era, Ibsen’s Doll’s House; it also allowed us to watch open-mouthed as one man single-handedly restored to life one of the neglected foundation-stones of north European narrative, the legend of Beowulf.

For sheer theatrical nerve, coherence and brilliance, Lee Breuer’s magnificent deconstruction of The Doll’s House for his Mabou Mines company of New York probably has to take the prize, in this year’s official Festival. But from Barrie Kosky’s dazzlingly effectived reworking of Monteverdi’s Poppea – with songs by Cole Porter – through the Wooster Group’s brilliant use of a 1960’s science-fiction B-movie to add a simmering background tension to Cavalli’s La Didone, to Rinde Eckert’s intriguing vision of Orpheus as an ageing modern rock-star, all six shows spoke volumes about a culture reaching back beyond the rigid monotheistic religions of the last 2000 years, to a different spiritual world in which the gods were seen not as one, but as many, and often as lustful, vengeful, capricious and cruel as humanity at its worst.

These shows also smashed down the Festival barriers between theatre and opera, perhaps for good. Every one of them – including Mabou Mines Dollhouse, in its astonishing final sequence – included powerful operatic song, sometimes with no spoken dialogue at all. And if the National Theatre of Scotland’s Bacchae never looked like rivalling Black Watch for coherence and theatrical power – and failed to stretch its multi-talented star, Alan Cumming, to the terrifying grandeur he could have achieved – it still raised some powerful questions about the relationship between ancient Greek drama and modern popular forms; and about the re-emergence of androgyny and female sexuality as real forces in our culture, now demanding a new recognition and respect.

Out on the Fringe, meanwhile, a stunning final Festival programme from outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard and his team focussed brilliantly on what emerged as the dominant theme of the whole Festival: the relationship between the wealthy west, and the rest of the planet which it has for so long colonised, dominated and patronised. From David Greig’s Damascus in the main Traverse Theatre, through Tim Crouch’s England presented at the Fruitmarket Gallery, to the magnificent Ravenhill For Breakfast sequence staged to ever-growing crowds each morning at the Traverse, this programme savaged the west for its greed, ignorance, self-absorption and arrogance, and for the self-serving shallowness of its humanitarian sympathies, while at the same time remaining fiercely theatrical, and often very funny. In Glasgow-based Vanishing Point’s new show Subway, staged at Traverse 3 in the Drill Hall, there was a powerful twist of post-global-warming apocalyptic imagery, brought right home to Leith, and backed by a ferocious seven-piece band from Kosovo; in Ek Performance’s Game Theory, co-written by Pamela Carter and Selma Dimitrijevic, there was a searching investigation of the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation after conflict.

And all of these themes were echoed and developed across the Fringe, from the powerful South African show Truth In Translation at the Assembly Hall, through Dai (Enough) at the Pleasance and the Amnesty-award-winning The Container at the E4 Udderbelly, to dozens of other tales of war and peace, forgiveness and vengeance. The theme of translation and mistranslation recurred endlessly, in comic and tragic forms, as people were seen struggling to hear and understand one another across cultural and emotional divides. In between, there was plenty of fine theatre about the ordinary sadnesses of life, about love gone wrong, the agony of betrayal, the sadness of growing older, the shock of bereavement. Once again, the big truth became clear; that while theatre is not good at offering solutions to the agonies of the world, it is an arena without parallel when it comes to naming those agonies, and allowing us to share our awareness of them. And it’s particularly powerful when it comes together – as it does in Edinburgh, every August – in a rare mixture of programmed brilliance and unprogrammed chaos; to plug us into the pulse of our times, and to create space where we can begin to feel that rhythm, together.

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Orpheus X

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Orpheus X
3 stars ***
Royal Lyceum Theatre

THERE’S NO DENYING THE strength of the idea at the heart of Rinde Eckert’s Orpheus X, a fierce 21st century version of the myth of Orpheus in the underworld, staged for the American Repertory Theatre as a 95-minute modern opera for three singers and a four-piece onstage band.  In making the central character a mighty rock star, still revered by millions after a long career, Eckert evokes the most powerful and persuasive male hero-figure left in post-modern western culture; the man with the courage to unleash all the anarchic, erotic and Dionysian energy our civilisation spent centuries trying to repress, and yet with the artistry and discipline to make of it something shapely, enduring, even beautiful.  And Eckert’s Orpheus – played by himself as a bald, wrecked but charismatic middle-aged rocker – looks the part to perfection; as does the stage on which we find him, a steely New York warehouse-cum-apartment, whose beams and pillars reflect strange shifting images of blood, honey, and  Eurydice’s retreating form.

The difficulty is, though, that all for all the power of this central concept, Eckert and his director, Robert Woodruff, don’t yet quite seem to have found the dramatic, musical and visual means to do it justice.  They have a fabulous Eurydice in Suzan Hanson, a beautiful bluestocking poet killed one night by Orpheus’s taxi as she steps off a kerb.  Yet the nature of Orpheus’s posthumous  obsession with her seems obscure, as if he was motivated not by the pure love that gives the Orpheus myth its grandeur, but by some strange sense of intellectual inferiority; and the music only rarely achieves the huge power that a genuine fusion between rock and modern opera could unleash.

The climactic moment of the score – when Orpheus, goaded by John Kelly’s sinister Persephone, roars out his song to coerce the underworld into releasing Eurydice – is tremendous, a sound like the birth of the universe colliding with the end of a glam-rock concert; but elsewhere, the strands of music seem to wander separately through the badlands of routine modern opera and fragmentary rock sound.  This remains a hugely charismatic and interesting show, and it raises powerful questions about the modern meaning of the Orpheus myth.  But there’s something unclear, and not quite fully expressed, in its dramatic structure and musical language; and for all its memorable intensity, it still seems like a work in progress.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
EIF p. 24

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Mabou Mines Dollhouse

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Mabou Mines Dollhouse
4 stars ****
King’s Theatre

TAKE A FEW IMAGES that you might always have associated with the idea of Ibsen’s Doll’s House, the story of Nora Helmer and the dramatic end of her bourgeois 19th century marriage, which she suddenly sees to have been a humilating sham.  Then cut, slice and splice those ideas through the imagination of a director obsessed with fierce variations of theatrical form and voice; and there you have Mabou Mines Dollhouse, as mind-blowing a version of Ibsen’s great play as Edinburgh is ever likely to see.

Set on a stage surrounded by chocolate-box layer upon layer of red plush, on a set like the cramped upper slice of a doll’s house, the play is accompanied from the start by the kind of sentimental live piano score associated both with Victorian melodrama and with early silent movies.   It also contains wild, disturbing elements of toy-box imagery and Punch-and-Judy puppet theatre, nightmare Nordic images borrowed from the Ibsen of Peer Gynt, and a famous twist of theatre of the grotesque, in that all the men are played by very short, child-sized people, as if made small and absurd by their false presumption of superiority.  And at the end, when the veil of romantic illusion is torn from Nora’s eyes, the show tranforms in a disturbing coup-de-theatre from puppet-play into opera, as if questioning whether any art-form born of the age of red-plush theatre can survive the harsh light of modern reality.

Just how interesting this compulsive investigation of theatrical form can be to a general audience is hard to say; and the actors’ cod-Norwegian accents seemed to me like a bit of a cheap shot.  What’s clear, though, is that Lee Breuer and his remarkable company take one of the great, dusty monuments of European drama, and turn it into as continuously astonishing a piece of theatre as I’ve ever seen on the Festival stage.  And Breuer’s partner and co-adapter, Maude Mitchell, gives a performance as Nora of breathtaking boldness, invention  and courage.  In her transformation from pouting domestic doll to naked, hairless woman facing the world utterly alone, she is never less than fascinating; and in the end, her metamorphosis is as moving as it is strange.

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Macbeth – Who Is That Bloodied Man?

THEATRE
Macbeth: Whio Is That Bloodied Man?
3 stars ***
Old College Quad (Venue 192)

NOTHING MUCH HAS CHANGED, in the aesthetic style of the fabulous Polish group Biuro Podrozy, since they first astonished  Edinburgh audiences a decade ago with their Carmen Funebre, inspired by their horror at the war in former Yugoslavia.   It’s stil the same mind-blowing combination of fire, music, and huge, sinister stilt-walkers looming from the darkness; and this year they bring it to bear on a brief 75-minute version of Macbeth, played out in the superb setting of Old College Quad, with its grand, looming walls of dark stone.

As versions of Macbeth go, this one often seems more confused than illuminating.  There’s a Banquo but no Macduff, a coronation scene but no banquet; and Macbeth finally dies not in battle – although there is a memorable evocation of a battle engine rattling with the skulls of his slain enemies – but by locking himself up in his fortress and setting it on fire, after discovering Lady Macbeth hanged by her own hand.  The text is largely reduced to the odd scrap of booming voiceover, and the First World War-style battlefield motorbikes used to transport the cast around splutter and skid on the deep gravel surface.

In the end, though, the show has two memorable assets.  There’s a fabulous score, sung live by a soprano perched high on a windy ladder; and there is that visual imagery, mad, wild and beautiful.   The image of eight great stilt-walkers in single file suddenly emerging onto the stage, touched by an eerie blue light, and representing all the generations of kings descended from Banquo, is almost worth the ticket price in itself; and helps to confirm Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s status as one of those inimitable companies whose work, once seen, is never to be forgotten.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 218

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Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13 and 14

THEATRE
Ravenhill For Breakfast Nos. 5, 8, 11, 13, and 14
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

IT BEGAN, two-and-a-half weeks ago, with just a couple of dozen new writing fans eating rolls and drinking coffee in the small space of Traverse 2.  Now, it’s packing 300-strong audiences into the Traverse main auditorium every morning, and the breakfast operation has expanded to the point where it puts a severe strain on bacon supplies around Lothian Road.  Ravenhill For Breakfast, in other words, has become one of the surprise smash-hits of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, charging less than the price of a mediocre stand-up show for breakfast plus a 25-minute script-in-hand reading, by top actors from around the Festival  and Fringe, of a new play each day by one of Britain’s leading playwrights; and what Ravenhill and Paines Plough, the producing company has done may, in time, begin to change the face of Edinburgh Fringe theatre for ever.

In the first place, and most importantly, he has written a superb piece of contemporary drama in the form of 17 daily instalments, like a new Charles Dickens for our times.   His theme is perhaps the most important on this year’s Fringe; the question of how the powerful and affluent of our planet relate to those less fortunate.  And his cast of characters are simply unforgettable, from the three affluent “Women of Troy” of the first play, babbling about their juicing machines and organic food preferences, through the headless soldier who reappears in script after script as image or nightmare, to the hungry people of starving cities patronised by well-meaning aid workers, and the roaring, keening mothers of the dead.

Secondly, he has made the Traverse each morning a magnificent crossroads for all the theatrical talent that converges on Edinburgh in August.  The season has involved dozens of actors, from Brian Ferguson of Black Watch to the fabulous Dolya Gavanski, star of the David Greig hit Damascus; and directors from Vicky Featherstone of the National Theatre of Scotland and Mark Thomson of the Royal Lyceum to Paines Plough’s own Roxana Silbert.

And finally, he has raised once again the key question of what 21st century audiences want from live theatre.  Do they want to see big sets, actors in costume, perfectly-rehearsed reproductions of some aspect of life?  Or do they prefer the immediacy and authenticity of a script-in-hand performance hot off the press, as infinitely preferable to the highly-edited version of the world inflicted on them by most of the broadcast media?  There are no easy answers, of course.  But Ravenhill For Breakfast has opened up a brand new range of possible responses, in work that has often been of heart-stopping quality.  On Thursday morning, the superb Scottish actress Kathryn Howden, directed by Sulayman Al Bassan of the United Arab Emirates, quietly described the long emotional death-by-inches that is her own western life, while a starving woman died unnoticed in her arms; as an image of the tragedy of our times, I have never seen a stronger one, anywhere.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 218

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Romeo And Juliet (Aquila)

THEATRE
Romeo And Juliet
3 stars ***
Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3)

AT THE BEGINNING of Aquila Theatre’s version of Romeo And Juliet, fresh from New York, there’s a moment of live drama like no other.  The cast line up on stage, each carrying a little velvet sack containing the names of the major characters of the play; then they pass among the audience asking them to draw lots, with each actor fated, that day, to play the character whose name is first out of his or her bag.  Thus it was that on the day when I saw the show, Juliet was played by a chunky, bald, middle-aged bloke, while Romeo was played by a beautiful blonde girl; the effect was occasionally comic, of course, but not so much so as to obscure the beautiful basic shape and poetry of the play, presented in a sharply-cut two-hour version.

The difficulty is, though, that once the shock of the reallocation of parts is over, this really amounts to nothing more than a decent, middle-range Rome and Juliet, presented with minimal set and props.  The fight scenes are outstandingly exciting and well-choreographed, the acting is variable but always spirited, and the inevitable gender-bending invites the odd deep thought about the absence of female actors in Shakespeare’s day.  But to experience the full effect of this experiment, audiences would have to return day after day, until they had seen the parts played by every possible combination of actors; and in Edinburgh in August – well, very few people have time for that.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 217

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The Ethics Of Progress

THEATRE
The Ethics Of Progress
4 stars ****
Underbelly (Venue 61)

IT’S  ALMOST 50 years since C.P. Snow described how the “two cultures” – science and the arts – were becoming ever more separate; and the massive conceptual advances in science since then have only widened the gap.  Now, though, a whole generation of scientific writers and artists are seeking to heal the breach; and Unlimited Theatre of Leeds is one of the leading companies in this field, a group whose most personal and lyrical work has often featured a spooky backbeat of quantum physics.

Their latest show, The Ethics Of Progress, is a straightforward solo lecture-cum-stage-show, scripted for young and adult audiences by the regular Unlimited team of writer Chris Thorpe, director Clare Duffy and actor/artistic director Jon Spooner.  Over a brief hour or so, Spooner seeks to explain the meaning of three major concepts in quantum particle theory (superposition, entanglement, teleportation), and to outline what developments based on them might mean in practical and ethical terms.

This is mind-blowing stuff, well if hastily presented with the aid of clever visual images by Mic Pool.   The show really hits its stride, though, in the final sequence, where Spooner begins to talk about the experiences, memories and privacies that make us human, and to question what would become of those in a world – say – of regular teleportation, in which our physical composition could constantly be unmade and remade.

There are no answers here,  of course.  But there is a powerful clarion call for all of us non-scientists, young and old, to drop our foolish mental block about scientific concepts and arguments; and to engage with the astounding developments on which scientists are now working, if we want to have any hope of a democratic debate on how these technologies may be used and abused, as they begin to transform the nature of human life on earth, and beyond it.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
p. 189

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