Category Archives: Edinburgh 2011

Zanzibar Cats

THEATRE
Zanzibar Cats
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
3 stars ***

IT’S NOT SO MUCH A SHOW as a straightforward poetry recital, this performance by Roy Hutchins of poems by the famous and eccentric British counter-culture genius, Heathcote Williams. As performance poetry goes, though, this is classy stuff, ranging fluently across Williams’s key obsessions with absurdity and alienation in our rampant consumer society, and with the irreparable damage we do to the environment in our determination to grab the latest material goods.

The title therefore comes from a poem in which Williams attacks intercontinental air travel, and charges us not to fly all the way to Zanzibar just so we can count the cats there; there’s another sequence in which Williams repeatedly refuses to travel to the United States, by plane, ship, or any other means. The writing is often blazingly powerful, and Hutchins’s performance is unfailingly elegant, with a fine steely radicalism that reminds us of how much our world now needs the words and presence of this bold generation, who once had the courage to dream of a whole new world beyond materialism and war, and whose vision now begins to look like our last chance of a possible future.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 315

ENDS ENDS

The Cherry Orchard

THEATRE
The Cherry Orchard
Duddingston Kirk Manse Garden (Venue 121)
4 stars ****

THE EDINBURGH FRINGE is not a particularly friendly setting for a good, strong, conventional-looking production of one of the most familiar classics in the whole theatre canon.  Yet all the same, it’s hard not to be seduced by the special charm of Theatre Alba’s beautiful new version of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, with a new text by leading Scottish playwright Jo Clifford, fine live music from a three-piece band led by Richard Cherns, and a gloriously appropriate setting, for this of all plays,  in the kirk garden that slopes down to Duddingston Loch, just behind Arthur’s Seat.

Trimming the text slightly to fit a two-and-a-half-hour time slot, Charles Nowosielski moves deftly through the four acts of Chekhov’s mighty drama, using just a few simple pieces of furniture – moved and resettled on the lawn above the loch, between acts – to conjure up the house and garden where the glamorous, ageing Madame Ranevskaya, and her brother Leonid, comprehensively fail to face up to the economic realities of modern estate management, and are finally forced to sell their beloved estate to the former serf and rising man of business, Lopakhin. 

There are plenty of decent performances in Nowosielski’s production, with Helen Cuinn in fine form as Ranevskaya’s young daughter Anya, and Suzanne Dance impressive as Charlotta, the eccentric governess.  In the end, though, it’s Corinne Harris’s beautiful, perfectly pitched performance as Ranevskaya that holds the production together, to its beautiful, lamplit end; the middle-aged  woman who comes “home” to find that home is dissolving around her, and that she finally has no option but to return to the insecure, love-bruised life she has made for herself, in Paris and beyond.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August, and at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 3 September.
p. 249

ENDS ENDS      

Viewless

THEATRE
Viewless
Hill Street Theatre (Venue 41)
4 stars ****

IT’S WELL OVER a century now, since the forces of modernism, absurdism and abstraction first began to make themselves felt in European theatre; and it’s an open question whether those forms that were avant-garde two or three generations ago have had their day, or still have something to offer, in a world struggling to make sense of itself. Ed Robson of Cumbernauld Theatre, though, is in no doubt that those forms are still worth pursuing; and he comes close to proving his point in this brief, intriguing and sometimes hilarious surreal drama, in which two junior bueaucrats involved in providing new identities for witnesses who have turned state evidence lose a vital file, and are forced to venture into the badlands of a section of their building where time seems to melt away, and lost personalities are found wandering in search of themselves.

It’s not clear, in the end, exactly what has inspired Robson to create this show at this time; its mood seems to relate more to an age of overmighty states and unchallenged bureacracies, rather than to our current experience of failing structures and social fragmentation. With the help of a fine score by Bal Cooke, though, Robson sustains the Kafkaesque mood of his story with terrific flair, and some real meditative pathos. And whatever else we make of it, this intriguing fragment of new Scottish theatre features three superb performances, from Robbie Jack and Finn Den Hertog as the two office-slaves, and from Richard Addison as the lost man they find wandering in the mysterious “Section B”, haunted by memories of a life that is no longer his own, and by mistakes that he cannot atone for, since, in a sense, he no longer exists.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p.309

ENDS ENDS

How To Catch A Rabbit

THEATRE
How To Catch A Rabbit
theSpaces on the Mile (Venue 39b)
3 stars ***

THERE’S A TERRIFIC poetic talent somewhere behind this intense one-hour play, presented by the new Revolving Shed student company from the LSE. Seizing on the vital subject of the fate of traveller communities in our increasingly claustrophobic and conformist society, Alex Rodin’s powerful text uses a series of short, alternating scenes and songs, each one titled like a poem, to evoke the life of a community on the edge, and constantly under threat of dispersal and destruction, but still bursting with a kind of sassy erotic energy and resilience that settled folk can only envy.

The scene is a council campsite somewhere in east London, where a few traveller families live on sufferance, while locals leer at them, project all kinds of misdemeanours onto them, and plot to get rid of them. Crammed into a tiny space at the Radisson, Rodin’s production – for a cast of six plus a violinist, playing a terrific live score – seems short of space and long on overpitched, shouty performance; there’s just too much sound and fury here, some needlessly showy acting, and not enough willingness to let the poetry speak for itself. Still, this is a debut production ablaze with talent; and a new play full of creative potential, on a subject that tells us more about the society we live in than it’s altogether comfortable to know.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 270

ENDS ENDS

Elegy

THEATRE
Elegy
Whitespace (Venue 116)
3 stars ***

THERE’S NO DOUBTING the powerful good intentions behind this one-hour monologue, presented by the Folkestone-based company Transport at Whitespace in Gayfield Square. Inspired by the plight of gay men in Iraq, it takes the form of an almost dream-like monologue performed by co-creator of the show Jamie Bradley, in the character of a young man who has fled from his country, and from the friend he loves, after witnessing a scene of public violence so horrific that he has almost suppressed it from his memory.

The show’s setting, in the empty Whitespace gallery, is memorably atmospheric, as Bradley rouses himself from sleep on what looks like a pile of discarded clothes and rucksacks, and tells his story of forced migration, of uneasy residence in strange cities, of the memories that force themselves on him, and of long, terrible journeys in the backs of vans and trucks towards some unknowable destination. In the end, neither the writing nor the performance really measure up to the subject in hand; they smack more of vivid, sometimes awkward attempts to imagine the unimaginable, than of real, lived experience.

Yet Bradley and his director and co-creator, Douglas Rintoul, appoach an important subject with real passion; and if their show ends up saying something fairly obvious about the routine oppression of gay people in a country where they have no rights, it does so with commitment and grace, and a final moving coup-de-theatre, as the great gallery door slides open, and Bradley disappears into the gathering Edinburgh darkness.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
p. 259

ENDS ENDS

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler

THEATRE
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler
Hill Street Theatre (Venue 41)
3 stars ***

IT’S HARD to say what I was expecting from Palindrome Theatre of Austin, Texas, and their 90 minute version of one of Ibsen’s finest plays; a post-modern mash-up, maybe, in which Hedda would encounter Lady Gaga on a walk in the garden, and consider the possibilities of self-reinvention.

What I got, though, in the end, was a short, well-cut, and deftly-translated modern-dress version of the original play by the company member Nigel O’Hearn, and a sharp reminder of just what a brilliant drama Ibsen shapes, in his story of the restless, clever daughter of General Gabler, now trapped in a suffocating marriage to the tedious Tesman, and in thrall to her neighbour Judge Brack, a powerful man who knows too much both about Hedda’s past, and about the events which unfold during the play.

The story of Hedda’s frustrated creative and erotic energy – brought to a crisis by an encounter with her former admirer, the poet Eilert Lovborg, and Lovborg’s new love Thea Elvsted – is told with real intensity and professionalism in this short and memorable show; and if the acting is sometimes a little uneven, and the imagery not quite what the text implies, it’s still an enjoyable account of a great play, delivered with absolute respect, and a genuine creative spark.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 270

ENDS ENDS

Jawbone Of An Ass

THEATRE
Jawbone Of An Ass
Hill Street Theatre (Venue 41)
3 stars ***

IF THERE is a phenomenon in 21st century society that needs a thorough satirising send-up, it is the sanctimonious posturing of America’s Christian right, with its famous unwillingness to accept those biblical strictures on rich men, camels, and the eyes of needles.  So it’s good to see Mortimer Olive productions of Los Angeles visit Edinburgh with their production of this new play by Nan Schmid, in which a woman who belongs to a fundamentalist Christian community somewhere in smalltown America seems strangely unconcerned at the disappearance of her famously unfaithful husband, unperturbed by the strange emotive comments of her neighbour, and easily distracted by the presence of a charismatic visiting preacher.

In the end, this short one-hour drama suffers from a slightly exaggerated comic style.  It’s part pantomime send-up and part serious social satire, with a touch of Monty Python grotesquery thrown in; and the writer’s all-round contempt for the pious and badly-dressed – “we are saved to serve” they all chorus, to the recorded sound of baa-ing sheep – is obvious from scene one.  Still, there’s plenty of enjoyable lunacy and vigorous pastiche in this jolly LA comedy; combined with an uneasy feeling that however absurd these characters are, real life currently offers them some serious competition.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 272

ENDS ENDS
        

Medea’s Children

THEATRE
Medea’s Children
St. George’s West (Venue 157)
4 stars ****

ON THIS FRINGE, debate about the Medea story – one of the great founding myths of the west – has been dominated by the huge success of Zecora Ura’s eight-hour Hotel Medea at Summerhall.  Those who care about this mighty story, though – with its primal battle of the sexes, and two children doomed to become victims of it in the most shocking sense – should not miss this powerful alternative version of the tale by Swedish writers Suzanne Osten and Per Lysander, translated into English by Crister Dahl, and directed by Osten herself for Lung Ha’s, Scotland’s company dedicated to work with adults with learning difficulties.

As pure theatre, the show undoubtedly has its weaknesses, and its awkward moments; some of the casting seems decidedly strange, as Stephen Tait’s supposedly five-year-old  Jason Junior looms over his father Jason, in bulk and force of personality.  Yet Osten and Lysander’s script is so powerful, and Nicola Tuxworth’s performance as the older of the two children, Little Medea, so bold and poignant, that it’s difficult to forget this fierce, knotty and haunting version of the story, or to shake off its atmosphere of gathering terror and gloom.

Since the story is told by Little Medea, we have to believe in an alternative happy ending that she outlines, involving amiable divorce, and trips to burger restaurants on Sunday afternoons.  We’re haunted, though, by her dream or premonition of another ending, involving oceans of blood, and a mother finally driven by betrayal to the most terrible violence of all; and it’s the essence of this fascinating version of Medea – powered by a fine score composed and performed live by John Kielty – that it leaves us poised between these two possible endings, in that emotional no-man’s land between common sense and primal passion now  inhabited by so many broken families, across the western world.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 279

ENDS ENDS     

The Pleasure Of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding

THEATRE
The Pleasure Of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding
The Point Hotel (Venue 109)
4 stars ****

AT THE TOP of this review, you’ll see a four-star rating: it reflects the poise and elegant design of the event I attended, and the conceptual boldness involved in planning and executing it. In truth, though, Adrian Howells’s second artwork of the festival – companion piece to his wedding show May I Have The Pleasure? – marks the point where one-on-one theatre merges into pure personal encounter, and into completely new territory. There’s no artifice here, no narrative unless you – the solo audience – want to supply one, no script, no invention of character. There’s just a hotel room, a bath filled with warm bubbly water and rose petals, and a 30 minute chance, under Adrian’s famously gentle touch, to relive the experience of being washed, wrapped in a fluffy towel, patted dry, and then lovingly cradled, and fed a few pieces of delicious fruit and chocolate.

For some, this experience seems to unleash oceans of pain, a suppressed longing for lost or broken family relationships that a lifetime of busy living has failed to heal; for me, it was more like pure pleasure and relaxation in the middle of a hectic day, a happy reminder of parents who loved me, and a family that worked. It does, though, provoke the deepest thought about the many different ways in which we buy intimacy, in a world where we are often too busy to get our personal relationships right; the soothing chat of hairdressers and barbers, manicurists, massage experts, physios, and all the other professionals – not excluding those involved in the oldest professional of all – whom people pay to give them the solace of what at least seems like a caring human touch. Now, it seems we can have that brief experience of intimacy for the price of a Fringe theatre ticket; and Adrian Howells is certainly a practitioner to be trusted with the raw material of anyone’s life. Yet the doubt remains: the questions about why we need this, why life itself now so often fails to offer us these basic pleasures of being, and how we can get ourselves back to a place where we have this kind of time, both for others, and for ourselves.

Joyce McMillan
Untl 28 August
p. ? Can’t find in fringe programme.

ENDS ENDS

Fit For Purpose

THEATRE
Fit For Purpose
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
3 stars ***

THERE’S NO DOUBTING the good intentions of Catherine O’Shea’s 2010 play, presented jointly on the Fringe by the Pleasance and the End Child Detention Now campaign. Set in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, it tells the story of two detainees from Somalia, driven out of their country by tribal wars and by shocking abuse within their own family, and then further abused by a detention system manned by stupid, inhumane staff sunk in a culture of casual racism and institutionalised disbelief.

It goes without saying that there is an unceasing obligation to keep raising public awareness of the suffering of those caught up in a system which the British government could transform tomorrow, if it had the political courage to do so. As theatre, though, Fit for Purpose is almost as dull and obvious as it is worthy. Only people previously unaware of this issue could possibly gain much new insight or information from it, despite two beautiful central performances from Anna Maria Nabirye and Zeni Sekabanja; and although it has an obvious educational value, it misses out on the key role of art, which is not only to describe a situation which needs changing, but to be, in itself, part of that imaginative change.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 262

ENDS ENDS