Category Archives: Edinburgh 2007

Best Western

THEATRE
Best Western
3 stars ***
Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3)

IF AMBITION WERE all it took to create a great playwright, then the stand-up comedian Rich Hall would already be up there with the stars.  Last year, he launched his play-writing career with a crazy but bold show called Levelland; this year, he tries again with Best Western, a big play for seven characters that strains against the limitations of an 80-minute Fringe slot.

Once again, Hall sets up a situation full of potential; the scene is a run-down Montana motel about to be bulldozed for a new highway, the atmosphere a cross betwen Sam Shepard and Joe Orton.  The cast of characters involves the grizzled female motel-owner Delvita, her heavily pregnant teenage daughter Ryvita, the transport agency bureaucrat, Ed, who is strangely drawn to Ryvita, and a mysterious old geezer holed up in one of the bedrooms, who keeps shooting his  television dead.

The plot advances intriguingly for a while, but then stutters to a halt, as if Hall, like the rest of us, had no time to work out what to make of it all.  But there are some strong performances, notably from a fabulously laconic Dagmar Doring as Ryvita.  And if Rich Hall can keep this up for another couple of years, I suspect he may finally crack the playwriting business; and produce a big, absurdist critique of American society today that will make the whole theatre world sit up and take notice.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.189

ENDS ENDS

Beowulf

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Beowulf
4 stars ****
The Hub

THE LIGHTS DIM, candles glow on either side of the small stage, and a stocky man in a dark tunic appears, holding a little six-string harp specially made to reflect all that is known about the the instruments used by the bards of northern Europe more than a thousand years ago.  The man strikes a chord, and begins to speak, his voice sometimes soaring into song, and sometimes – with a pause in the music – reverting to the everyday rhythm of bar-room chat.  His story is the great surviving epic of Anglo-Saxon England, the tale of the terrible, flesh-devouring monster Grendel, and his epic battle with the hero Beowulf.  And he tells the tale not in modern English, but in the original Anglo-Saxon with Engish surtitles, striving to the best of his profound knowledge and instinct to give us the text as it would have been performed by the bard who first created it, against a background of strummed rhythms that help reflect and support subtle shifts of mood in the verse.

This is Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf; and it’s superficially tempting to dismiss it as a meticulous, beautifully crafted curiosity of an event, of interest only to specialists.  Yet the truth is that Bagby’s performance repays close attention with such a rich series of echoes and resonances that it’s impossible, by the end of the evening, to avoid the feeling that this is a vital, if ancient, piece of popular entertainment, rich in everyday wisdom, thrilling acts of violence, sensational narrative power, and the kind of flexible, shifting relationship between words and music associated today with genres like rap and hip-hop.

There’s certainly something about the highly formal, classical-concert atmosphere of the main hall at The Hub that does not flatter Bagby’s performance.  As a popular epic, Beowulf perhaps needs a rougher atmosphere, and a simpler, more informal way of letting audiences hear the old language, while making its meaning accessible.  In the end, though, there’s no escaping the sense that this great poem is one of the historic cornerstones of our culture, as rich as any of the other great myths in this year’s Festival programme in its sense of humankind struggling for survival in a capricious or indifferent universe.  And Bagby’s performance is not only a technical tour-de-force, but a shining labour of love for the great story it tells, and for the original, inimitable sound of its telling.

Joyce McMillan
Until 22 August
EIF p. 26

ENDS ENDS

LA DIDONE

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
La Didone
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

EVERY STAR-TREK fan knows that space is the final frontier; and it’s often said that for the people of the Renaissance, the ancient adventure-stories of the Odyssey and the Aeneid – with their distant worlds full of gods and monsters – played the same role in the public imagination as fictional space-travel did in the mid 20th century.  But simple though this basic idea may be, you will never see another show that gives such bold and brilliant expression to it as the Wooster Group’s La Didone, playing in Edinburgh until Wednesday.

Set on a stage full of modernist glass walls and shadowy moving machinery – like a still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with a splash of post-modern colour flickering from video screens –  the show represents a head-on collision between Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera version of the story of the doomed love-affair between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the fleeing Trojan hero Aeneas; and the 1960’s cult Italian B-movie Planet Of The Vampires.  The two stories are played out simultaneously, on the same stage, with two parallel sets of surtitles; and in theory, the combination could – perhaps should – be chaotic and silly.

In reality, though, the effect is startling, revealing, and often beautiful, as the silvery aesthetic of baroque masque meshes with the supernatural adventures of a space-crew stranded on an alien planet, to create a weird but persuasive ironic meditation on courage, adventure, love, and human minds possessed by cosmic forces beyond their  control.  It’s not that the show never tilts towards the absurd.  Wooster Group icon Kate Valk, as space-girl Sanya, enjoys swanning about in her silver suit far too much, sometimes injecting a note of pure send-up that seems out of place; and some of the costumes inflicted on the minor male characters invite nothing but ridicule.

In the end, though, the show storms to a decisive success, thanks to three key elements.  It features a series of superb vocal and dramatic performances, notably from the glorious, poised and poignant Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido.  The quality of the singing and acting is matched by a magnificent reinterpretation of Cavalli’s score, for a four-piece band which includes an electric guitar briliantly used to bridge the gap between two different worlds of western music.

And above all, the show is staged by Elizabeth Le Compte with a perfect, minutely-detailed sense of pace that keeps Cavalli’s music moving steadily and beautifully through the whole experience, while every other aspect of the show is precisely pitched so as not to disrupt that rhythm, but to provide a strange and intense dramatic backdrop to it.  Opera fans, in other words, will hear this beautiful baroque score sung with a beauty, intelligence and sense of focus rarely found in more conventional productions.  And fans of theatre in all its forms will experience a mind-blowing vision inspired by the moment when opera itself was the most strange and experimental of cutting-edge art-forms, filtered through the wit, intelligence, and sheer cross-cultural genius of one of the great experimental companies of our time.

Joyce McMillan
Until 22 August
EIF p. 21

ENDS ENDS

GAME THEORY, SUBWAY

THEATRE
Game Theory
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Subway
4 stars ****
Traverse 3 Drill Hall (Venue 358)

TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION; the question of how to achieve it is everywhere on this year’s Fringe.  No show is likely to look in more searing detail at the heart of the matter, though, than the latest production from Ek Performance of Glasgow,  an intense three-handed drama, co-written by director Pamela Carter with writer Selma Dimitrijevic, which opened at the Traverse earlier this week.

Like a slow-moving sonata in three movements, Game Theory asks its audience, over 100 minutes or so, to circle round a series of images of the aftermath of a conflict, all staged on a single set that looks like a war-damaged schoolroom.  In the first sequence, we see three peace negotiators barely able even to begin to draft a statement about the fact that they are meeting.  In the second, two brothers and a sister revisit their dead parents’ home, and become drawn into an ever-more intense re-enactment of the moment before a massacre.  And in the third, a woman indirectly responsible for a series of shocking human rights violations, and the man who was her main victim, move steadily towards the moment when they will be asked to confront one another, in anger or forgiveness.

Pamela Carter’s production is sometimes so achingly slow and detailed that it tests the audience’s patience; there are moments when it completely loses the kinetic energy, however low-key, that’s essential to stage drama.  In its final closing scene, though, Game Theory packs the kind of dramatic punch that makes the whole experience richly worthwhile.  And although John Paul Connolly and Alexis Rodney turn in immaculate performances as the victim and counsellor, it’s Meg Fraser’s stunning performance as the perpetrator that transforms this bleak, grey show, in its final moments, to something like pure gold.

Vanishing Point’s Subway – the latest production from Matthew Lenton’s gifted Glasgow-based group – is also a show about reconciliation, although of a more familiar and personal kind.  Written by the company with playwright Nicola McCartney, Subway is a “musical adventure” that picks up where the last scene of Trainspotting leaves off, as a young guy born and brought up in Leith returns home to Scotland on a mission to find his old dad, and to have just one meaningful conversation with him before it’s too late.  The twist is that this is not today’s Leith, but the Leith of 2030 or so, where the rising waters of the Forth lap round the lower stories of the shoreline tower-blocks, the cityscape is dominated by a massive new private hospital, and ordinary guys like our hero are constantly supervised by spookily well-informed and bossy security cameras and vending machines.

All of this dystopian detail is blissfully funny and well-observed, and Matthew Lenton brings his usual barrage of theatrical briliance to the telling of the tale, which involves a seven-strong on-stage Kosovan band, a simple but telling design by Kai Fischer, and a typically brilliant central performance from Vanishing Point’s favourite star actor, Sandy Grierson.  The story loses impetus in the end, dissolving into a sentimental joke about the smoking ban that doesn’t quite measure up to the earlier intensity of the tale; and at the performance I saw, the sound-balance was appalling, with the music swamping many of the monologues it accompanies.  But Subway has barrowloads of style, haunting futuristic imagery, and a fine anarchic spirit; and if it fails to continue Vanishing Point’s huge success in making theatre that effortlessly attracts younger audiences, then my name’s Irvine Welsh.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
pp. 193, 227

ENDS ENDS

GEORGIAN GIFT SEASON – THE DRESS

THEATRE
Georgian Gift Season – The Dress
4 stars ****
Assembly @ St. George’s West (Venue 157)

IF EVER A FLOWER was born to blush unseen on the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s this year’s Georgian GIFT Season, presented at St. George’s West.  Finalised too late to appear in the Fringe programme, languishing in the freeze-dried gloom of the Candlish Hall, and featuring three shows with vanishingly short runs, the season seems doomed to obscurity; which is a pity, since the richness and beauty of the Georgian theatre tradition shines through the work of the company, drawn mainly from the Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio of Tbilisi.

This second of three shows, The Dress, is a new monologue by Tamara Bartaia, in which fabulous young actress Tamara Bziava plays a simple French dress, a little black number with silver threads bought from a shop window in Moscow 20 years ago by a girl from the south, and fated to accompany her, and her daughter, through a rough and often unglamorous two decades, towards a sudden and moving moment of unexpected fulfilment.

It’s a slightly awkward idea for a play, and sometimes the effect -delivered in a simplified English translation – is a little cloying.  It’s a privilege, though, to see how Tamara Bziava and her director, Hilary Wood, conjure this little story into 45 minutes of genuinely moving theatre, performed with terrific presence and skill.  The final effect is of a rich, elegiac study of a life lived from youth to old age, of womanhood under stress, of late-teenage fun shading into sad single motherhood, of survival in a time of war; and of the lovely things, sometimes hidden in the wardrobe for years, that help to give everyday life a touch of grace and beauty, even in terrible times.

Joyce McMillan
The Dress until 19 August; season until 27 August.
Assembly/Pleasance brochure,  p.31

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AUDIENCE WITH ADRIENNE, STONEWALL

THEATRE
An Audience With Adrienne
4 stars ****
Traverse 5, Medical School, Teviot Place (Venue 295)
Stonewall
3 stars  ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

BRITISH THEATRE HAS A LONG tradition of celebrating men in frocks, as comedians, figures of fun, or panto-season safety-valves for the pent-up tensions of a straight society.  When Adrian Howells was a little boy – long before he emerged as the gorgeous Adrienne, to whose laid-back living-room party we’re invited each evening of this Festival – he even drew a picture of Danny La Rue at school, as an image of “what I want to be when I grow up”.  The other boys were drawing train-drivers and spacemen, but little Adrian didn’t care.

Now, though – after more than a generation of vigorous campaigning for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual rights – the whole scene is shifting subtly.  Audiences can still be induced to cheer or giggle like an end-of-the-pier crowd at the sight of a drag queen sashaying across the stage; but this year in Edinburgh, in shows from the NTS’s Bacchae to these two brave productions, we’re being asked tougher questions about how this emerging androgynous strand in our society can be truly integrated into social and civic life.

In An Audience With Adrienne, Howells pushes this process forward with a gentle, almost motherly insistence.  Entertaining his guests in a cosy mock-up of a suburban living-room, in a couple of  affectionately English drag outfits, he offers us a series of stories about his life – the precise agenda chosen by us, from a menu – and invites us to watch videos of him interacting affectionately  with his very straight family.

Howells is a fine performer, who pulls off the rare trick of drawing deeply on his personal experience without seeming hopelessly self-absorbed.  His interest in the other people’s stories – which the audience are invited to contribute, if they want to – is intense.  And by the end of the show, when he strips off his drag, and vanishes to the pub as a quiet, embarrassed Adrian, there’s a powerful sense of having been put in a place where the image of the drag queen moves decisively beyond showbiz, into a series of real questions about how we live our everyday lives, and how far, even now, our society can easily accaommodate people who fit neither one gender stereotype, nor the other.

At the Pleasance, meanwhile, Team Angelica’s Stonewall – a bold staging of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s successful 1995 film script of the same name – asks these same questions in a much more upfront, politicised way.  Set in New York in the late 1960’s, in the run-up to the Stonewall Riot which marked the beginning of a real rebellion against routine police bullying, Beadle-Blair’s script offers a fairly substantial history of the gay politics of the period.  We see the tension between the suit-wearing gay rights campaigners and the live-fast-die-young drag queens, and how they eventually unite in the same struggle.  We see the pain and complexity of their relationships, as they struggle not to use and abuse one another in uniquely stressful situations; and we see how the idea of freedom and equality, as enshrined in the American constitution, inspired yet another excluded group to start an organised campaign for freedom and respect.

In the end, the show betrays its own dramatic seriousness by relying too much on showbiz-and-sparkle camp to attract an audience, although the mimed pop-songs of the era are fun; and some of the acting is rocky.  But for those prepared to listen to the dialogue, rather than just whoop at the drag numbers, this is a rewarding play about how gay and transexual people began their long march back into the heart of our civic life; and often a moving one.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24, 27 August
p.173, 227

ENDS ENDS

SMILE OFF YOUR FACE

THEATRE
The Smile Off Your Face
4 stars ****
C soco, Chambers Street (Venue 348)

IN THE LITTLE WAITING-ROOM at the entrance, where people wait to be taken, one by one, into the experience that is The Smile Off Your Face, there is a visitors’ book where people can write their comments on the show; and I can’t recall ever seeing one so full of ecstatic capital letters, blobby tearstains, and the word “amazing”, repeated again and again.  Brought to  Edinburgh by the gifted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, The Smile Off Your Face is like a little 30-minute journey through the fundamentals of life itself, given added intensity by the fact that each audience member begins the journey sitting in a wheelchair like a helpless child, eyes blindfolded, and hands lightly bound together; any idea of controlling your own fate has to be forgotten, for a while, to be replaced by a child-like absorption in the moment.

First, there are sounds – rushing water, arguing voices – and feeling of being moved around.  Later – and always in an atmosphere of great gentleness, with lots of requests for permission – there are closer encounters with the actors, as they lead you into a dance, or somehow persuade to confess your deepest feelings about life and love.  And finally, with the blindfold off, there is the most beautiful moment of revelation, as you see the whole experience laid out behind you, like a lifetime flashing before your eyes.

Some of the images revealed at this moment are slightly stronger than others; and of course, this is not a show for those who like to stay in control at all times.  But as an essay in intimacy, human warmth, and real emotional attention – and a reflection on the shocking lack of it, in many busy modern lives – The Smile Off Your Face is an unforgettable experience.  As I waited, I saw one woman leaving in floods of tears.  “But don’t worry,” she smiled, “these are good tears.  Sometimes, it’s great to cry.”

Joyce McMillan
Until 18 August
p.224

ENDS ENDS

HANGMAN

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Hangman
4 stars ****
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street (Venue 8)

IMAGINE A MID-20TH-CENTURY WORLD OF GANGSTERS and gansters’ molls, of men who gamble with their own lives and  those of others, and of a brutal judicial system heavily influenced by the pounding presses of the popular media.   This is the world of Hangman, the latest show from the wonderful Do Theatre, once of St. Petersburg, now based in Germany.  And although the setting is familiar – think of the musical Chicago, reimagined through the sinister mechanics of a children’s game, and touched with the mood of Brecht’s Mahagonny – it provides Evgeny Kozlov and his inspired company with material for an outstandingly beautiful and thought-provoking show, even by their own high standards.

On the soaring dark stage of the main Aurora Nova auditorium, stunningly lit by company member Alexander Bondarev, the four familiar bowler-hatted figures create unforgettable image after image in retelling their story of crime and punishment.  Sometimes their style is Chaplinesque, sometimes touched by film noir.  There are gangsters’ molls physically trapped in the embrace of the big “suits” who own them, lawyers grandstanding in court, and always, under the swinging lights of the night-clubs and gambling-tables, the rattle of a typewriter, and images of a civllisation trapped in the words it chooses to print about itself.

There is the odd awkward moment, and some of the dance sequences spin out for too long after their point is made.  But the quality of the movement is often breathtaking.  And the whole show represents a magnificent masterclass for Festival-goers in what theatre is and can be – a feast of light, beauty and movement for all of the senses, turning theatrical space into a magical field of ideas and dreams, and creating a whole world so successfully that when the company take their bow, after  70 minutes, it’s almost impossible to believe that only five performers have done so much, and carried us so far.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.113
ENDS ENDS

LEITMOTIF

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Leitmotif
3 stars ***
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street  (Venue 8)

IF THERE’S ONE motto Fringe performers should tattoo on their hearts, it’s “never go back”.  A couple of years ago, the English mime and movement artist Andrew Dawson scored a success on the Fringe with a show about the death of his father, Absence, Presence.  Now, he tries to conjure a similar sense of meaning out of the death of his mother, which took place much earlier in his life; but all that emerges is an ordinary tale, refracted through a strange mixture of slightly self-indulgent-looking performance techniques, from film and dance to straight solo narrative, animated sequences, and shadow-play with little stick-figures.

Dawson is a charming performer, and some of the effects he produces are beautiful.  But overall, there’s a sense of a show trying to say something portentous, without really having anything to say at all.  All that lives must die, as Hamlet’s mother tells him; and unless the death can be shown to have some special resonance, it’s perhaps not the best subject for art.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.114

ENDS ENDS

LACRIMOSA

DANCE & PHYSICAL
Lacrimosa
3 stars ***
Assembly Aurora Nova, St. Stephen’s Street  (Venue 8)

THREE YEARS AGO, the Song Of The Goat company from Poland made a huge impression in Edinburgh with Chronicles – A Lamentation; now, they bring another show in the same cycle, on themes of sacrifice and offering.  Lacrimosa is based on the story of a horrific act of scapegoating that took place at the French town of Arras in 1485, when a young Jewish woman was destroyed as vengeance following a terrible plague; and with music based on Mozart’s Requiem, it offers the company a chance to bring their trademark combination of magnificent choral singing and powerfully choreographed group movement to bear on a story of real significance.

This time around, though something in the aesthetic style of their work seems to have gone awry.  In a show which runs for a bare 35 minutes, there is a magnificent performance from the actress playing the victimised girl.  But her voice, and that of her community, seems strangely muted, in a production full of liturgical cadences, and the swishing movement of men in monkish robes.  If this is an indictment of the church’s cruelty and hypocrisy, it seems strangely obsessed with what it seeks to condemn; and at times, the quality of the movement carries strange echoes of the age of Isadora Duncan, when aristocratic house-parties used to enjoy afternoons of free-form dance, largely for their own amusement.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.114

ENDS ENDS