Category Archives: Edinburgh 2010

Others

THEATRE
Others
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****

THE LEEDS-BASED Paper Birds company are a remarkable bunch.  In 2008, this three-woman collective created In A Thousand Pieces, one of the first shows to look directly at British attitudes to the 21st-century sex-trafficking that goes on in their midst; and this year, they’ve come to Edinburgh with a new show, equally focussed on women’s lives, that takes an exciting if still tentative look at the huge differences in experience that may – or may not – create barriers to real female solidarity.

The show was created through a project which involved writing to a range of women who seemed to have very different lives from the Paper Birds team.   One is an Iranian woman, another a prisoner serving a sentence for an unnamed crime; and then there are the celebrities, divided from us by the apparently glittering prizes of wealth and fame.

With Scottish-based actress Maryam Hamidi added to the cast, the Paper Birds explore their material in their usual complex style, which is finely choreographed, but often looks casual and improvised to the point of whimsy.  They argue with Shane, the only man around, who is in charge of the music.  They cluster around an armchair to stare at the audience and tell us their impressions; and most strikingly, they move like a female human tide through and round and across a set full of small, isolated domestic details – framed pictures, a cupboard, a television set.  In the end, they seem to become absorbed by their dialogue with celebrity, to the exclusion of the other issues they raise.  For a show still in the early stages of development, though, Others is a memorably complex and interesting experience; and completely, forcefully female, from start to finish.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p.276

ENDS ENDS

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Hot Mess

THEATRE
Hot Mess
Hawke + Hunter (Venue 347)
4 stars ****

IT’S TWO YEARS since Ella Hickson first exploded onto the festival scene with her magnificent monologue show Eight; and during that time, she has become recognised as one of Britain’s leading young playwrights.  Her latest Fringe project – staged in a basement club in Picardy Place – reflects familiar themes of twentysomething love and sex; but it’s presented with great skill and poise, in a beautifully-paced production that never flags, over a taut 90 minutes.

The story of Hot Mess concerns a crisis in the relationship between a brother and sister who struggle to let one another go, not least because the brother is a strange, celibate figure who finds physical relationships almost impossible.  She has stayed in the small island town where they grew up, he has been away in London; but when he returns to find her locked in a passionate love-affair with a good-looking summer visitor, he is filled with resentment and anger.  And then there is a fourth character, a cheerfully promiscuous island girl for whom sex is literally just play, a late-night, post-club form of recreation.

What’s most interesting about the play is its exploration – more hinted at than fully developed – of how the experience of sex can range from the completely meaningless to the dangerously overcharged, and the impossibly threatening.  The in-the-round staging is deft and atmospheric, and there are some wistful songs sung by Gwendolen Chatfield, in a thoughtful performance as the girl at the centre of the story.  In the end, though, the content of this play seems a little less satisfying than its form, and the story’s ending a shade out of time; even though the detail of the writing is often powerful, and sometimes downright memorable.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p.259.

ENDS ENDS

The Meeting

THEATRE
The Meeting
Quaker Meeting House (Venue 40)
3 stars ***

THE NEW SALISBURY UNIVERSITY PLAYERS have come all the way from Maryland to present this thoughtful one-hour drama on the Fringe; and although it’s not a new work, its theme remains both significant and timely.   First written 20 years ago, Jeff Stetson’s play is set the mid-1960’s, and imagines a meeting which never actually took place, between the famously non-violent civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the more militant black Muslim campaigner, Malcolm X.

In an anonymous hotel room, the two circle and spar with one another, under the scowling gaze of Malcolm X’s sceptical minder.  Sometimes, their verbal dispute reaches a climax in a sudden bout of physical arm-wrestling, as they strive for dominance in the leadership of black America; yet at other times, they seem bound together by a profound sense of brotherhood, despite their differences, and their simmering mutual accusations of treachery.

The pace of Tom Anderson’s production in stately, and the whole experience tends to lack dramatic tension; there is nothing specific at stake in the conversation, despite its fascinating subject.  It’s impressive, though, to see two young black actors – Terron T. Quailes and Cedric X Hardnett – bringing such a careful and meticulous intensity to their portrayal of these two great figures in recent US history.  And for those with an interest in the politics of the American century through which we have just lived, this show offers a worthwhile and thought-provoking experience.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
p. 271

ENDS ENDS

Jack The Knife

THEATRE
Jack The Knife
Assembly@George Street (Venue 3)
3 stars ***

WHAT IS THE BRILLIANT Fringe veteran Jack Klaff up to, in his latest solo show?  At one level, he seems to be telling us a story about his life in showbusiness, and the bullying and abuse of power he has sometimes encountered in his own profession.  Yet at another, he seems to be giving us a 60-minute monologue about energy itself – about the dark energy of those who abuse and hate, and the positive energy of those who seek to walk to a different rhythm, perhaps including storytellers like himself, the people who, in order to tell a good tale, have to be both “selfless” and “disobedient.”

At any rate, this range of thematic concerns allows the remarkable Jack – still a powerhouse of charisma and good looks  at 60, with a shock of white hair – to explore not only his experience of theatre, but elements of his South African family history, of contemporary micro-politics, and of cutting-edge scientific theory.  The style is sometimes free-form to the point of being difficult to follow; the text could perhaps use a slightly stronger thematic or narrative backbone.  Yet as an account of the ways in which our control-freak culture tries – and fails – to crush free spirits, this is a show well worth seeing; and may become more so, as Klaff processes his voluminous audience feedback, and moves on.

Joyce McMillan
Unilt 30 August
p. 262

Jacobite Country

THEATRE
Jacobite Country
Udderbelly’s Pasture (Venue 300)
3 stars ***

AS THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND is about to learn, Edinburgh in August is not the most sympathetic environment in which to explore the wilder reaches of the Scottish national psyche.  Half of the audience don’t care, and the other half are often seeking a holiday from the arduous business of Scottishness; which makes it all the bolder of Matthew Zajac’s Dogstar Company, of Inverness, to choose one of the trendiest venues on the Fringe for the launch of Henry Adam’s Jacobite Country.

Set in Adam’s version of post-modern Caithness – a nightmare country that combines the rural trauma of an early Sam Shepard play with the grotesquery of a northern Little Britain – Jacobite Country tells the tale of one Haggis McSporran, who aspires to be a successful stand-up comic despite being confined in the local mental hospital.  The rest of the cast involves a hatchet-faced nurse who morphs into a London comedy promoter, Haggis’s hard-drinking associate Eddy, and his decrepit Uncle Angus, a wheelchair-bound figure wrapped from top to toe in white bandages, who nonetheless plays a rousing lament or two on the bagpipes, and seems to represent the living corpse of true Scottish nationalism.

The story leads us ever further into the fevered dreams and imaginings of Haggis, as delusion melts into reality and vice versa; there are reels and laments and garish stand-up comedy sequences.  And every one of the characters is played by a woman, with Sarah Howarth giving it best as Haggis himself.  The result is a memorable shambles of a show that throbs with life even when it seems to be falling apart, and actually has things to say about the death of national identity and the rise of an insane celebrity culture.  And it will be more than interesting to see what audiences across Scotland make of it, as it sets off on a five-week tour that will take it from Peebles in the south to Kirkwall in the north, and to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 263

Vieux Carre

EIF THEATRE
Vieux Carre
Royal Lyceum Theatre
4 stars ****

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A RELAXED night at the theatre, don’t go to see the Wooster Group’s astonishing version of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre, a show that demands almost as much of its audience as it does of its extraordinary six-strong cast.  Written in 1939, when Williams was living in a battered rooming house in the old quarter of New Orleans, Vieux Carre is one of his earliest works, an apparently shapeless impressionistic drama about the strange cast of characters who live in the house. They range from  lost New Yorker Jane Sparks, through the rapacious transvestite dying of tuberculosis next door, to our hero himself, a young, troubled gay writer working towards the point where he can capture the life of the building in words, battered out on his keyboard.

The Wooster Group’s version, directed by Elizabeth Le Compte, strips the material of picturesque period detail, setting it on a dark stage with a few bed-like platforms, and expressing the drama through a post-modern visual symphony of live action, framed video imagery on multiple small screens, and superb  sound, both live and recorded.  At the centre of the show is Ari Fliakos’s memorably quiet and subtle performance as the writer.  And although the other characters constantly move through his space – providing scope for an outstanding performance from Kate Valk as Jane – we are left with a sense of having spent two arduous hours inside the writer’s complex, troubled and transforming mind; and also with an image of a society where people live on the very edge of destitution and death, and sometimes simply vanish, into the dark.

Joyce McMiilan
Until 24 August
EIF p. 25

ENDS ENDS

The Gospel At Colonus

THEATRE
The Gospel At Colonus
The Edinburgh Playhouse
4 stars ****

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to understand the concept behind Lee Breuer and Jim Telson’s mighty Gospel At Colonus.  On one hand, there’s the grandeur of Sophocles’s last Theban play, which shows an aged, blind and broken Oedipus arriving with his daughters in the village of Colonus, and recognising it as the place where he will die, provided he can first make peace with the gods.

On the other hand, there’s the magnificent, ecstatic tradition of gospel worship in the black churches of the southern United States, with its similar traditions of choral singing and response, and similar themes of release and redemption.  Then there’s the theatrical imagination of Breuer and Tilson, who decided 30 years ago to bring these old-world and new-world traditions together; and who have been developing and expanding the idea ever since a studio version of the show first appeared in Edinburgh in 1982.

What’s more difficult to absorb, though, is the sheer force, colour and complexity of the spectacle that unfolds on the huge stage of the Playhouse.  Part church service, part classical drama, part rousing gospel jam session, the 2010 version of the show is a spectacular business, staged against a ruined amphitheatre wall that flickers with images of gods and angels, and featuring a cast of more than 40, led by the legendary singers, The Blind Boys Of Alabama.  It’s also deeply counter-cultural, in that many of the performers are now old and slow-moving, and none of the fabulous women on stage are slim.

Yet the force of the music and singing is often staggering, adding a whole new dimension of inventive freedom, hard-lived experience and sheer soul to the range of Festival sounds.  I’m not sure whether the collision with the gospel tradition finally reveals much that is new about the story of Oedipus.   I’m certain, though, that the collision with Oedipus reveals a great deal about the gospel tradition; about its vocal and musical complexity, and its profound moral wisdom, in raising people up from their suffering, and setting them free at last.

Joyce McMillan
Until 23 August
EIF p.26