University of Edinburgh Drill Hall (Venue 358)
4 stars ****
The 14th Tale
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****
University of Edinburgh Medical School (Venue 295)
4 stars ****
THERE’S A WIDESPREAD feeling, in comtemporary theatre, that the relationship between performance and audience is changing, perhaps for good. Audiences, so the argument goes, are no longer happy just to sit in the dark, watching actors do their stuff; they want theatre “with”, rather than theatre “for”, and some kind of interactive experience.
And if there’s one young production company in British theatre that seems bent on exploring the full range of possibilities in the audience-performnace relatgionship, it’s Fuel Theatre of London, who present a powerful and fascinating programme of six shows on this year’s Fringe. Their flagship Fringe production Kursk, for example, is in may ways a tightly-written conventional drama – created by Sound & Fury with the playwright Bryony Lavery, and already much admired in London – about a group of submariners patrolling the Arctic seas at the time of the Kursk disasater of 2000, when a state-of-the-art Russian nuclear submarine sank to the seabed, leaving more than 50 crew members trapped and doomed.
The show is transformed into an unforgettable piece of total theatre, though, by the simple device of limiting the audience to a few dozen people, and allowing us to promenade around what seems like the control-room of the submarine, while the actors run and jostle past us. The design, by John Bausor, is tremendous, expertly evoking the ultimate confined space in which the whole structure is built around the key functions of a mighty naval machine. Like all good drama about war and weapons, Kursk tends towards the obvious conclusion that fighting men have more in common with each other than with the commanders who send them out to risk their lives; but it achieves its effect with an understated power, and a feast of fine ensemble acting, that leaves an indelible impression.
Inua Ellam’s 14th Tale, by contrast, is a straightforward monologue, conventionally delivered in a tiny temporary studio at the Pleasance Garden; and it deals with what is, in outline, the familiar subject of a painful transition from boyhood into manhood. But for all its formal simplicity, the 14th Tale comes as a sharp reminder of the power of language and rhythm in theatre, and of how dramatic poetry can create whole worlds through the voice of a single performer.
Tracing a fictional version of Ellam’s fraught childhood in Nigeria, Britain, Ireland, and back in London, the text uses elements of rhyme, rap and visionary lyrical poetry to convey a sense of how a boy born into a culture of mindless rebellion against all forms of authority gradually begins to learn how to take his elders – and particularly his father – more seriously. There’s something uniquely 21st century about Ellam’s poetic voice, which somehow absorbs the whole experience of colonialism without being totally defined by it; and which swoops across continents, without ever losing touch with the intimate grass roots of human experience.
Melanie Wilson is also a monologue artist; but she presents her latest and already much-praised work Iris Brunette to an audience ranged on simple chairs around a dark, intimate space in the Medical School, and picked out one by one, in pools of light, as the interactive object of her interest, and perhaps of her obsession.
The story she tells, over 60 minutes, is of a woman pursuing a man through a city on the edge of disintegration; her magnificent sound design echoes with music, and ghosts of normal city sound, and deep, shuddering noises of collapse, like the long reverberating fall of the Twin Towers. At the core of this piece lies one of the key themes of this Fringe, in the shape of the desperate search for redemption through the magic of a one-to-one relationship, while the world seems to cave in around us. And although Wilson’s show is quiet in tone, she emerges as a remarkable poet in word and sound, going straight to the heart of that longing for a last, precious touch of intimacy before dying that is one of the key emotions of our time.
Kursk and The 14th Tale until 29 August
Iris Brunette until 30 August
pp. 205, 196, 202