Category Archives: Edinburgh 2009

Peter And Wendy

THEATRE
Peter and Wendy
Royal Lyceum Theatre
5 stars *****

AS A CLASSIC Scottish lad o’ pairts, setting off from humble origins to find fame and fortune in London, J.M. Barrie of Kirriemuir was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment.  But the darkness that struck him in childhood, when his adored older brother David was killed in a strange skating accident, seemed to freeze his heart into a lifetime of yearning for the careless joy of early childhood, and of grief over its transience.  And that in turn made Barrie a great writer about what has emerged as the other great theme of this year’s theatre Festival programme: the power of imagination and memory to creative alternative and sweeter realities, which break our hearts when they slip beyond our grasp.

So it’s both fitting and thrilling that one of the final productions of this year’s Festival programme should be Mabou Mines of New York’s magnificent and haunting stage version of Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter And Wendy, an extended prose version of the earlier Peter Pan play.  Driven throughout by a beautiful, pensive score created by the late Scottish traditional musician Johnny Cunningham, the show features a seven-piece live band including singer Susan McKeown, and cast of nine including eight puppeteers.   There’s also a wonderful design by Julie Archer, built around piles of nursery linen and pale-coloured hints of dolls’ houses, all animated in an instant by superb  lighting and wild projected images to create all the pirates-and mermaids magic of Neverland.

At heart, though, this Peter And Wendy is a brilliantly elaborated solo show, in which the astonishing narrator Karen Kandel – playing the voices of all the characters, but also personally embodying the figure of Wendy as the archetypal child-mother who must grow up – makes a compelling and heart-searching dramatic journey through the magic of childhood, into to the long letting-go of dreams and alternative possibilities that is adult life.  There’s nothing perfect about Breuer’s show, which has been in development for 13 years, and may not be finished yet.   But it trembles with raw theatrical and imaginative life, as Kandel re-imagines the story infront of our eyes; and in its very transience, it embodies the essence of the great tale it tells.

Joyce McMillan
Until 5 September
EIF p. 28

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Afterplay

THEATRE
Afterplay
King’s Theatre
3 stars ***

MOVE TWENTY YEARS ON from the time when the action of Chekhov’s great plays takes place, and you find a Russia plunged in revolution, a Moscow seething with political activism, strife, and danger.   There’s no echo of that, though, in Brian Friel’s strange little 2002 piece Afterplay, in which he imagines a meeting in a Moscow tea-room, two decades on, between two much-loved Chekhov characters, the patient Sonia from Uncle Vanya, and the feeble brother Andrey, from Three Sisters.

However debatable the idea behind the play, though, there’s no doubt that Friel uses it to create a moving meditation on how we use imagination to create worlds which are more exciting, or more bearable, than the humdrum realities we actually live; and then succeed, or fail, in making those dreams come true.  Andrey endearingly constructs a version of himself more acceptable than the sad truth of his middle-aged life, and then watches his fiction fall apart under Sonia’s steady gaze.  Sonia actively chooses to continue to live in the dream of her unfulfilled love for the visionary doctor, Astrov, rather than move towards a real relationship with this new friend.

And if Garry Hynes’s production provides a slightly subdued coda to the Gate Theare’s tribute to Friel at 80, it nonetheless features two fine, old-fashioned star performances from the wonderful Frances Barber as an earthy Sonia; and from Niall Buggy as a perfect embodiment of how Andrey might have been in his Fifties – amiable, loving, unfailingly courteous, and absolutely lost.

Joyce McMillan
Until 5 September
EIF p. 25

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The Testament Of Cresseid

THEATRE
The Testament of Cresseid
The Hub
4 stars ****

ON A STAGE lit only by a wintry backdrop of a bare tree in a snowy landscape, an elderly man with a grey beard sits musing, in an old wooden wheelchair.  He is the narrator of Robert Henryson’s great late-mediaeval Scottish ballad The Testament Of Cresseid; and perhaps the ghost of the poet himself, riven with regrets for lost youth, and with a grief for lost love that contains tinges of guilt and rage, and of rebellion against the cruel ways of patriarchal gods.

Henryson’s Cresseid is openly based on the work of his English predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer; but it looks not so much at the story of the famous love-affair between Cresseid and the Trojan prince Troilus, as at Cresseid’s savage fate after she betrays Troilus with the Greek general Diomede.  Director David Levin’s decision to play some of the speeches of Cresseid, Cupid and Saturn as recorded voice-overs is a mixed blessing, although it powerfully captures the way fictional characters take on a life of their own; the voice of Cresseid is just not womanly enough to carry the weight of the story.   But In Jimmy Yuill’s brave and troubling  central performance as the poet, Levin has found a real gem; and an actor capable of embodying the rebellious, humane and passionate spirit of the European Renaissance in which Henryson played his part, and without which the Enlightenment of the 18th century would never have taken place.

Joyce McMillan
Until 5 September
EIF p. 27

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The Yalta Game

THEATRE
The Yalta Game
King’s Theatre
4 stars ****

WHAT IS the Yalta game?  According to Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, the 40-year-old hero of Chekhov’s exquisite short story, it is the game of imagining the truth of other people’s lives, while watching them promenade through the squares and cafes of a Black Sea resort well known for its affairs and intrigues.

But in Brian Friel’s near-perfect 50-minute theatrical miniature – first seen in Dublin in 2001, and now in Edinburgh as part of the Dublin Gate Theatre’s magnificent tribute to Friel at 80 – the deeper undercurrents of Chekhov’s poignant and playful tale move to the surface, as Ireland’s finest living playwright mounts a brief but devastatingly powerful exploration of the nature of yearning itself.

In a cafe in Yalta, then, this smooth-talking Dmitry – a married man with many affairs behind him – meets Anna, a young married woman holidaying briefly away from her husband.  She is, almost literally, the woman of his dreams; the two have a brief affair, and separate, but both continue to live more in the world of memory and imagination created by that brief encounter, than in the humdrum stuff of everyday reality.

So do they ever meet again?  Did they ever really meet at all? Will they ever be together, in the clear light of day?  By the end of the play, Friel leaves us knowing that we will never know.  What’s clear, though, is that Patrick Mason’s scrupulously simple production, set on beautifully-lit stage furnished only with a cluster of plain wooden chairs, gives this story a huge, unforgettable theatrical weight and presence.  Risteard Cooper is a superbly theatrical Gurov, absolutely in tune with the romantic-comedy lightness of touch with which Chekhov and Friel first draw us into their tale of love’s dreams and deceptions.  And Rebecca O’Mara matches him as a perfect love-object of an Anna; strong, fragile, capricious, beautiful, and finally – like love itself – almost too sweet to be true.

Joyce McMillan
Until 5 September
EIF p. 25

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Choose Life: Why Population Doom-Mongers Remind Me Of Those Who Want To Shrink The Festival Fringe – Column 29.8.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.8.09
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BACK AT the turn of the last century, there lived and thrived a minor poet quaintly named Sir Walter Raleigh, after the great English hero of the 16th century.  Sir Walter is remembered, nowadays, for one verse only, the one in which he wrote “I wish I loved the human race, I wish I loved its silly face”; and I was reminded of poor Sir Walter’s misanthropic masterpiece this week, when the announcement that the population of the United Kingdom has now risen to more than 61 million people was greeted, across politics and the media, with the usual litany of complaint and despair.   There were dire predictions of strain on public services from the Tory front bench; and unpleasant hints, from various quarters, that the wrong sort of parents – too many migrants, too many teenagers, too many benefit claimants – were responsible for last year’s minor baby boom.

When it comes to population and demographics, of course, there is no pleasing some people.   When birth rates are low – as they were in Scotland, throughout most of the last two decades – the doom-mongers moan about the perils of an ageing population.   When birth rates are high, they can hardly contain their visceral horror at the thought of the feckless and the foreign  outbreeding the people they regard as “normal”.

And when population rises because of inward migration – well, that’s the worst of all.  “The country is full up”, chirp the phone-in callers and bar-room politicians, as they drive their white vans around on ever more crowded roads; and the idea that additional people actually generate wealth, pay taxes, staff our public services, set up new businesses, create a more dynamic and youthful society, and use services relatively little, since they tend to be young and strong, never seems to enter their grumpy heads.

For if human history carries one clear lesson on the matter of population, it is that those who fixate on population issues, and on the need to control, manipulate and interfere with other people’s fertility, can never produce a progressive and workable solution to any real social problem.   Making contraception freely available is one thing, a necessary condition of the education and empowerment of women that invariably reduces fertility levels, wherever it is achieved.

But societies which try to control population by draconian top-down methods – enforcing one-child policies, withdrawing financial support from families with children, or drastically limiting the freedom of movement of people trying to make a better life for themselves – tend to inflict such severe social and moral damage on themselves that the problems they create far outweigh those they solve.

This is not to say, of course, that global population – or the population of the UK – can keep on growing indefinitely, while patterns of consumption remain as they are.   But it seems obvious that it is far more useful and decent to concentrate on empowering women to limit their own families, and on enabling human beings to live fulfilling lives without consuming mountains of resources, than it is to sit in some ivory tower grumbling about what Dickens’s Scrooge called “the excess population”, and inviting it to “make haste and die.”

For the truth about population panic – as Dickens so shrewdly observed – is that its presumptions are fundamentally misanthropic, illiberal and inhumane.  There may be a few people of scrupulous moral intelligence around, who are capable of believing that the world or the country is hopelessly overcrowded, while still being perfectly civil to everyone present.  But for most people, the idea that we are suffering from overpopulation simply opens the door to the idea that some should survive or remain, while others are expendable; and therefore to every type of licensed bigotry and  prejudice.  Back at the turn of the last century, eugenics was the very height of intellectual fashion, and dissuading genetically “inferior” people from reproducing was considered a reasonable aim of policy; but we are supposed to have learned, in the horror of the holocaust, exactly where that kind of thinking can lead, and how easily it can deteriorate into an authoritarian and politically-driven pseudo-science, racist, murderous, and deeply inhumane.

What seems to be true, in other words, is that societies thrive best when people view their fellow-citizens as assets, rather than liabilities.  Of course, as global population rises, we face a massive resource crunch over the coming decades.   But if we try to meet that challenge by constantly whining – like Hardy’s Jude The Obscure – that “we are too many”, we do nothing but present ourselves with an intolerable choice between helpess impotence on one hand, and fascist authoritarianism on the other.

If the human race is to build a future worth having, in other words, we have to believe in ourselves, our creativity, our inventiveness, and our ability to live rich, beautiful and fruitful lives without surrounding ourselves with the piles of material tat that have brought us to our current crisis.  At the end of yet another stunning, surprising and gorgeous Edinburgh Fringe, I don’t find it remotely difficult to believe in the possibility of that kind of future; or to see an analogy between the Edinburgh Fringe – in all its glorious, unprogrammed anarchy – and human life itself.

Because for every life-force, it seems, there is always a counter-blast of miserabilist voices saying that it’s all too much; and that some jackboot should descend from  somewhere to squash it, tame it, shrink it.  But life is a gift to be celebrated, not a problem to complain of.   And the possibility of progress lies in the hands  of those who love human life and want to work with the grain of it; rather than with those who view it with hostility, and who – in begrudging a welcome to the creative power and potential of every new life – only succeed, in the end, in demeaning and endangering their own.

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Words Of Honour

THEATRE
Words Of Honour
Assembly@Assembly Hall (Venue 35)
2 stars **

THE STORY OF MAFIA power in Italy, and of the civic struggle against it, is one of the great political themes of the last half-century; and one that is too often ignored, outside the world of Hollywood movies.  Sadly, though, this ambitious two-handed show – by Marco Gambino and Attilio Bolzoni of Jermyn Street Theatre, and performed by Gambino with Patrizia Bollini – chooses a dramatic form so fragmented, and so confusing in its approach to the subject, that even some powerful visual images fail to save the show; and the audience is left, after an hour, feeling as though the story has barely begun.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31 August
p. 240

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The Other Side

THEATRE
The Other Side
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
3 stars ***

BACK IN 200, an Israeli woman picked up the phone to call a friend, and accidentally dialled a wrong number.   The voice that answered belonged to a Palestininian refugee, someone on the “other side” of the Israel-Palestine conflict; and so began an extraordinary peacemaking initiative, in which people on both sides were simply encouraged to talk to one another on the telephone, to meet as friends if that ever seemed possible, and to start to build the kind of personal knowledge and links that make conflict less likely, and peace more possible.

This gentle show by the Scene Company of Wokingham tells the story of this growing peace movement, which has already been the subject of a memorable BBC radio drama.   It can’t be said that The Other Side makes a thrilling piece of theatre.  In the effort to create a stage version of the tale, Gavin Robertson and his company move simple costume-rails around the stage for ages between scenes, as if they had commissioned too much incidental music, and had to find something to do while it plays; and the acting – by a company of three who have to double and treble their roles – sometimes has a slightly desperate, hat-changing look about it.  But the strength of the story comes through, nonetheless; along with the simple truth that people are people, and that however narcissistic and vicious we become about our small differences, when it comes to the great emotions of life – love, loss, anger, endurance, and pleasure in the beauty of things – we are all brothers and sisters, under the skin.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31 August
p. 218

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