Category Archives: Edinburgh 2013

First Love

EIF THEATRE

First Love
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

After the fierce vaudeville comedy and dark poetry of Barry McGovern’s I’ll Go On, the great English actor Peter Egan steps onto the same stage, as part of the same Beckett season, and demonstrates that a softer, more ruminative approach to Beckett’s powerful prose can also pay dividends. In the 1946 short story First Love, a man who lives rough recalls a time in his mid-20’s when – one evening, on a canal-side bench – he met a woman called Lulu, or maybe Anna, with whom he struck up a relationship; only to abandon her and walk away, as she gave birth to his child.

In a sense, First Love is a more clearly purposeful piece of work than most of Beckett’s prose. It offers a searing critical portrait of a young man incapable of intimacy or love; his attitude to Lulu is tainted with a cruel misogynistic disgust. Yet the story blazes with a painful truthfulness about men’s fear of women, along with the inimitable snap of Beckett’s wit, and – sometimes – a stunning bleak lyricism. “I did not know, then, how tender the earth can be, to those who have only her,” says the speaker, of his life on the road. And if Peter Egan sometimes seems slightly uncomfortable with the wicked bite of Beckett’s humour, he captures that lonely lyricism with a force as moving as it is memorable.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31
EIF p.32

ENDS ENDS

I’ll Go On

THEATRE

I’ll Go On
5 stars *****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

IT’S A STRANGE fact about Samuel Beckett that although he gazes more relentlessly at death than any other writer in the canon, he is also memorably and hilariously funny about life and mortality. His best-known play, Waiting For Godot, is famously inspired by some of the music-hall double-acts he saw as a young man. And now the magnificent Barry McGovern returns to the Royal Lyceum with his superb solo adaptation of Beckett’s three novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, presented with a dark comic flair, and a pure joy in Beckett’s wicked way with language, that often has the audience shouting with laughter, and bursting into spontaneous applause.

There’s more than humour, of course, to the long arc of Beckett’s trilogy, which begins with the sheer absurdity of the life of the peg-legged Molloy, on an ill-starred journey around Dublin, and ends with a brief, bare-chested near-death monologue based on The Unnamable. It’s a measure of Beckett’s greatness, though, that he drew so much of the strength of his writing from the gritty stuff of popular entertainment, its dark humour and instinctive theatricality; and McGovern is a great actor who might have been born to make that greatness visible to us, in a performance to be celebrated, cherished, and cheered to the echo.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31
EIF p.31

ENDS ENDS

All That Fall

THEATRE

All That Fall
4 stars ****
The Hub

THE SKULL reappears, in Pan Pan of Dublin’s second EIF staging of a Samuel Beckett text originally written for radio; but now, it appears only as a subdued motif on the cushions of the rocking chairs on which the audience sits, in the darkened great hall at The Hub. All That Fall is an earlier and perhaps less perfect play than its companion piece Embers, the story of a very fat elderly woman, Mrs Rooney, who sets out for the local station in a small Irish town, to meet her husband; and then returns again with him, amid all the comedy, self-disgust and utter tragedy of advancing old age.

The aim of Gavin Quinn’s production is to turn this recorded text into an experience of collective listening, as we gather under an array of hanging bulbs that turn the whole space into a great installation, in front of a wall of lights that conjures up oncoming life and death. In fact, though, we spend so much time in darkness that the rest of the audience is often invisible; and it takes time to grow accustomed to the abstract, fragmentary quality of the soundscape. Like Embers, though, All That Fall features two stunning vocal performances from Aine Ni Mhuiri and Andrew Bennett. And when the two finally break into wild laughter at the idea, from Psalm 145, that God will help and lift up all that fall, we hear again how Samuel Beckett is the playwright who spoke definitively for the 20th century; who cast a cold eye on life and death, and refused the comfort of faith.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26
EIF p.33

ENDS ENDS

Embers/Eh Joe

THEATRE

Embers
5 stars *****
King’s Theatre
Eh Joe
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

ON THE GREAT, darkened stage at the King’s Theatre – all raked with shingle, and hung with glittering strands of silver and stone like old-fashioned hanging microphones – a huge skull sits and stares out towards us. It is far higher than a man, like a great coastal rock; and in its implacable stillness and horror, it captures something of the man, Henry, who speaks in Samuel Beckett’s great 1959 radio play Embers, now staged by Pan Pan Theatre of Dublin as part of this year’s EIF Samuel Beckett season.

In transferring this powerful poem for voice and sound to the stage, Pan Pan’s director Gavin Quinn – with sculptor Andrew Clancy, lighting designer Aedin Cosgrove and sound designer Jimmy Eadie – has not sought to dramatise the tale in any conventional sense. The two actors playing Henry and his long-dead wife Ada remain caught throughout within the great skull, their faces barely glimpsed as they tell the story of a man haunted and paralysed by the apparent suicide of his father, who one day sat looking at the sea on this coast, and then walked into it, never to return.

The drama of the piece though, comes not only from the superb vocal performances by Andrew Bennett and Aine Ni Mhuiri, but from the stunning, ever-shifting washes of light and sound across the strange, stark surfaces of the skull. Samuel Beckett can always be relied on to push our ideas about theatre to their limit; and in responding to his genius, Pan Pan have created a marriage of theatre and installation that seems to capture the hard, loving and implacable soul of the work, while giving it a new theatrical life.

Beckett’s 1965 play Eh Joe, by contrast, is his first-ever piece for television, a brief 28-minute journey into the mind of an ageing man in a bleak bedroom, haunted, like Henry, by the voice of the woman who was once his wife. In approaching television as a form, Beckett simply divides the voice from the image, so that we hear the voice of the woman – strong, affectionate, reproachful – but see the face of the man, reacting to what may be a final judgment on all he has been and done. Atom Egoyan’s legendary 2006 stage production, with a magnificent recording of the monologue by Penelope Wilton, shows us not only the huge close-up image of Joe’s face, projected on a gauze, but also the live actor, the great Michael Gambon, sitting on the edge of the bed in his dressing-gown, listening, reflecting, suffering; and if a matching live performance of the monologue would have made this show absolutely perfect, It is still a breathtaking performance, worth travelling across continents to see.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25, 31
EIF pp. 32, 31.

Tejas Verdes

THEATRE

Tejas Verdes
3 stars ***
Just Festival at St. John’s (Venue 127)

There’s an admirable intensity and complexity about Firmin Cabal’s monologue Tejas Verdes, which takes its title from a notorious military base near the Chilean capital Santiago where left-wing suspects were held and tortured following the military coup in 1973. Over an hour, in front of a screen showing subtle images of the building, the single speaker takes on a series of identies, all looking back at the act of torture from different angles. There’s the disappeared woman, her friend, a military doctor, a gravedigger, an informer, a lawyer defending the torturers, and a soul in torment, waiting for release; and as we begin to realise that the friend and the informer are the same person, the sheer horror of torture, and way it destroys morality and personality, becomes ever clearer to us.

In truth, though, this is a story that has often been told, 40 years on. And although Madeleine Potter gives it a heartfelt and highly emotional performance, at the Just Festival at St. John’s, I was left with a slight feeling that emotion is no longer enough; and that somewhere in this text there is a snap and drive of political and psychological analysis that needs a rawer voice, and a tougher, less yielding performance style.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26
p. 328

ENDS ENDS

Voices Made Night

THEATRE

Voices Made Night
2 stars **
Assembly Hall (Venue 35)

Rarely in the history of the Fringe can so many fine actors have worked so hard, to so little effect, as in this impressive-looking but misconceived show staged by Assembly with Magnet Theatre, and the Baxter Theatre of Cape Town. Based on two books of short stories by the acclaimed Mozambican writer Mia Couto, Voices Made Night adopts an insistently magic-realist style – all feast-of-the-dead face-paint, and bodies draped across the aisle – to tell a series of five or six tales about people poised between life and death, living out their days with varying degrees of madness and eccentricity.

That there is plenty of potential in Couto’s stories seems clear, and the eight-strong South African cast contains at least four truly brilliant performers. In the end, though, Mark Fleishmann’s production seems to misunderstand the nature of magic realism, which is not about the grotesque and the weird, but about the asolutely human and normal, just slightly twisted towards magic. In Fleishmann’s production, the style becomes tiresome, the stories ever less easy to grasp; and there’s a sense of important material being lost, in an overwrought production that will not let the words speak for themselves, through recognisable human voices.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26
p. 334.

ENDS ENDS

Parkin’son

DANCE & PHYSICAL

Parkin’son
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

On a bare stage, backed by a large screen, a father and son stand side by side, listening to the recorded sound of their own voices. They are the 33-year old dancer and choreographer Giulio D’Anna, and his father Stefano, an actor and performer who is 64, and has Parkinson’s disease.

What follows is a rich and memorable exploration of a changing father-son relationship, as the two tell their life-stories, evoke the limitations of Parkinsonism by shuffling around with their trousers round their ankles, perform a breathtaking pas-de-deux about the love between father and son – for how often do we see two grown men in a full, loving, cradling embrace, with no sexual content? – and then begin to explore the aggression between them, the way Giulio, as a solo dancer, understands his father’s illness, and some beautiful final images of father and son together, from the days when Giulio was a child or a newborn baby, and Stefano was a glorious young man in his prime.

In the end, the quality of the movement is too uneven to give this show the weight its subject deserves. But Stefano is a performer of terrific beauty and presence, despite his slight physical fragility; and his interaction with his son touches the heart, as well as providing substantial food for thought about one of the most common afflictions of old age, and our attitudes to it.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 176

ENDS ENDS

Sid And Valerie

THEATRE

Sid And Valerie
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

In my bag, there’s a packet of Werther’s originals, handed out as a parting gift to every member of the audience at this new show by Sue Maclaine and Emma Kilbey; and it’s a strangely appropriate gift, from a show that offers a skewed and distrbing sideways glance at mid-20th-century British life, and its ever-cheerful showbiz culture. As veteran entertainer Sid and his fortysomething daughter take the stage, it’s clear from Valerie’s boundlessly expressive face, in Kilbey’s terrific performance, that everything in the garden is not lovely. She hates the old man with the deep, hurt hatred of an unloved daughter who was never the child the old man wanted; he thinks she is useless, both as a daughter and as a performer, and never hesitates to make his feelings clear.

Like a miniature version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, in other words, this is a show that sets out to reveal the shser cruelty that lurks behind the smile of the much-loved public entertainer; in an age of searing revelations about what went on behind closed doors in British showbiz circles in the 1960’s and 70’s, it comes as a timely reminder that emotional abuse can do at least as much damage. And it’s all enlivened by a little tap-dancing from the eerily genial Sid, as well as some passionate Shirley Bassey songs from the unhappy Valerie; and by those Werther’s Originals, of course, little packages of dependable pleasure, in an otherwise bleak world.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 321

ENDS ENDS

Pirates And Mermaids

THEATRE

Pirates And Mermaids
3 stars ***
Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30)

IN THE garden at the back of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a handsome young man dressed in a smart kilt and jacket is opening his heart to a tiny audience of six other souls, gathered around him on a bench. The scene is supposed to be Central Park in New York; and in this new show by Poorboy Productions, Cameron – played with terrific, insistent charm by Jeremiah Reynolds – is telling us the story of his love for a Scottish girl called Eilidh, his childhood friend and sweetheart, who wants to stay in Scotland, while he needs to be in New York.

This is Pirates And Mermaids, the latest show by Scotland’s award-winning Poorboy company; and over a slightly over-long 90 minutes, Cameron leads us through all the twists and turns of the long-distance relationship, to an ending so inconclusive that the audience is invited to sign up for email updates, so that we can catch the next instalment. In terms of its apparatus, style and engaging approach to the audience, in other words, Pirates And Mermaids is a show to remember. Sadly, though, its content and story are fatally weak, from the original premise that Scots are temperamentally either “pirates” or “mermaids” – oh really? – to its weird and dodgy essentialist presumption that Eilidh is feisty, direct and outgoing because she is – well – Scottish.

For all I know, Americans in Central Park, and tourists visiting Edinburgh, may lap up this kind of stuff, which casts Scotland as a sweet little nation of quaintly lovable types. For myself, though, I think it has nothing to do with the future of Scotland, or of serious theatre made in Scotland; and not all Jeremiah Reynolds’s charm can redeem one of the weakest shows ever presented by a company which can usually be relied on to dig deep into the texture of life, and to come up with something much more rich and strange than this.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 311

ENDS ENDS

The GB Project

THEATRE

The GB Project
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

THE TITLE carries a deliberate double meaning. On one hand, Kate Craddock’s rich and interesting new solo show tells the astonishing story of the life of Gertrude Bell, a remarkable Victorian woman, born in Co. Durham in 1868, who rose to become a senior diplomat, spy and kingmaker across the Middle East. And on the other, it also offers an undercurrent of reflection on Great Britain’s imperial history, and the role in it of a woman who broke all the rules – both positive and negative – about women’s supposed conduct and attitudes.

There are moments when Craddock seems like something of a fashion-victim of contemporary performance, surrounding herself with every available current cliche, from the obligatory reflections on her own family history, to the tea in china cups handed out to the audience. Despite all this self-conscious detail, though, the sheer strength of the story Craddock has to tell – and of its implication for contemporary global politics, since it was Gertrude Bell who actually drew the borders of modern Iraq – helps propel this show to a higher level of narrative intensity and political questioning; both about the arrogance of imperial Britain in its pomp, and about what exceptional women like Gertrude mean to the development of feminism, given their dangerous determination to prove that they can be as tough as any man.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 283.

ENDS ENDS