Category Archives: Edinburgh 2013

How To Occupy An Oil Rig

THEATRE

How To Occupy An Oil Rig
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s

At the beginning of this latest show by poet and performer Daniel Bye, coproduced by ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, we in the audience are invited to fashion a little plasticine version of ourselves about an inch and a half high, and then to place it in a little tabletop demonstration that’s taking place on stage, with a tiny placard in hand, bearing the message of our choice. And as it turns out, it’s an opening that speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of the whole show, which is timely and interesting in its proccupation with protest and activism on one hand, and yet strangely over-dependent on a certain hand-knitted charm on the other.

So over a genial 70 minutes, Bye and his co-performer Kathryn Beaumont tell a winning tale of a couple who first meet on an environmental protest, and who greadually become closer as they find themselvews meeting again and again, on ever more serious actions against overweening energy giants and oil companies. There’s some attractive music and fun chacterisation, but not nearly enough politics; and by the end, when the two are conducting a little puppet-sized occupation of a North Sea oil rig, it’s difficult not to feel that an opportunity has been wasted to say something harder-edged, and more seriously entertaining, about one of the key themes of this year’s Fringe – riot, protest, and rebellion.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 290.

ENDS ENDS

I Guess If The Stage Exploded

THEATRE

I Guess If The Stage Exploded
2 stars **
Summerhall (Venue 26)

Sylvia Rimat is a performer with a gift for off-the-wall stand-up comedy, who somehow finds herself trapped in the infinitely pretentious and self-obsessed world of post-graduate creative performance. In I Guess If The Stage Exploded, her main aim – expressed with a pleasing air of laid-back irony – is to explore the human power of memory, and to offer up various mental tricks that might make us remember her show.

In fact, there’s not much chance of forgetting two key visual elements of it, the large dark-red lampshade under which Sylvia spends most of her time, and the beautiful eagle owl which she brings on stage, as a symbol of memory and wisdom. But if she is really keen to create a show worth remembering, she could try this; she could remove her gaze from her own creative navel, distance herself from all those young creatives hanging around Tempelhof airfield in Berlin recording videos of each other, and try telling a story that matters, with a degree of craft and artistry that might make people want to listen.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 291

ENDS ENDS

Newton

THEATRE

Newton
2 stars **
Summerhall (Venue 26)

In this 80-minute lecture-style performance, the award-winning writer and actor Jack Klaff tells the story of the life and character of Sir Isaac Newton, the great founder of modern physics and cosmology, who sought to understand the inner workings of the universe. The problem is that Klaff seeks to tell this tale by taking on the roles of at least a dozen different historical and scientific characters, from the astronomer royal John Flamsteed to Sir Winston Churchill, each one with an accent more mannered and bizarre than the last; and alas, science has yet to investigate – never mind comprehend – the intergalactic black hole of compulsive over-acting into which Klaff’s performance disappears, never to return.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 305

ENDS ENDS

The Secret Agent

THEATRE

The Secret Agent
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

LIKE MANY other shows in this year’s Traverse programme, Theatre O’s version of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent, first published in 1907, reflects on an act of violence, its causes and its aftermath. Set in Edwardian London, and staged in a version of the satirical Victorian Gothic style that briefly swept through English theatre a few years ago, the show tells the story of an ordinary early-20th-century everyman called Verloc, who finds himself being asked to infiltrate a group of anarchists who are allegedly planning violent incidents on the streets of London. The echoes of the more recent “wars against terrorism” are obvious; and in the final half-hour, when the story darkens into a real tragedy involving Verloc’s troubled wife (brilliantly played by Carolina Valdes) and her vulnerable child-like brother, it develops a dark dramatic energy that gives a fine ironic edge to its use of Edwardian music-hall trickery, and sweet popular love-songs of the period.

Up to that point, though, the show spends a long 75 minutes making a wordy, overwritten meal of the development of the story, slowed down even further by the company’s compulsion to turn every character and incident into a heavily-stylised vaudeville turn. There’s no point in strongly visual forms of theatre that only repeat in imagery and movement what’s already been said in the text; and if ever a production needed a sharp red pencil, more self-discipline, and a tighter focus on the narrative in hand, this ambitious but flawed version of a great novel is that show.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 318

ENDS ENDS

Brand New Ancients

THEATRE

Brand New Ancients
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

ON A DARK stage crossed by shafts of dusty golden light, in front of a powerful four-piece band, a young woman poet stands at a microphone, and delivers.  What she is doing, in her 80-minute epic poem, is not exactly new; she is giving the street life of contemporary London the quality and grandeur of Greek myth, as Steven Berkoff sought to do 30 years ago, and as Scotland’s Paddy Cunneen has done more recently, for the streets of Glasgow.  

What she achieves, though – in her story of a London boy called Tom, the people around him, the mother who bore him, the man he knew as his father, the man who really begot him, the violent boys he meets at school, and the girlfriend who loves him – is a  torrent of poetry so brilliant that the words often seem to glow and smoke with intensity, as the narrative unfolds, the detail grows richer, and the backbeat of thought and reflection takes on new shapes and forms, reflected in the superb accompanying music written by the band with Neil Catchpole.

For if Tempest is treading a known path here, she does it in an  inimitable style, marked not only by a huge storytelling energy and a great and powerful lyrical gift, but by a huge depth of human compassion; Tempest writes with skill and brilliance, but above all with  overwhelming love, so much so that it’s difficult not to fear for her, in a world where love is so scarce.  Nor does she content herself with the clear, strong narrative arc of her main story; she disturbs the form a little, adding a strange, unexpected coda that provokes real thought.  Is she a genius?  Possibly; there are certainly times in this show when Tempest herself seems like a young, jeans-wearing goddess of  passion and compassion.  What’s clear, though, is that her superb show is one of the must-see events of this year’s Fringe; be there, or miss a performance of heart-shifting power.               

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 264.

ENDS ENDS

Gym Party/Holes

THEATRE

Gym Party
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)
Holes
3 stars ***
Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

IT ‘S often obvious, on this year’s Fringe, that many people who have grown up in Britain since the 1980’s share a very negative view of human nature. People are greedy, cruel, selfish and shallow, runs the theory, and anyone who pretends otherwise is a hypocrite; and it’s surprising how much of the so-called comic drama around the Fringe seems to exist only to reiterate this skewed vision of humanity, as shrilly as possible.

So it’s good to report that Gym Party, the latest show from the inventive London-based group Made In China, dares to push this theory of human nature to absurd extremes, the better to deconstruct and destroy it. The scene is a school gym, where three slight and youthful performers – Jess Latowicki, Christopher Brett Bailey and Jenna Watt – line up in shorts and t-shirts, topped by lurid blue and orange wigs, to take part in a High School competition. For a slightly tedious 45 minutes, they play competitive games, often involving invidious popularity polls in which the audience take part; the joke is that while they all keep announcing an ethic in which competition is good, in fact they are visibly seething with loathing and resentment.

Towards the end, though, this initially sarcastic and whimsical show gathers itself into something more powerful, as we see the actors lose the plot completely, and begin to inflict serious torture on each other. The point seems to be that if we accept without question a culture of rampant individualism and competition, we end up robbed of both empathy and morality; and if this vivid show spends too much time reifying the culture it finally begins to challenge, it still raises the right questions in the end, with some energy and style.

Tom Basden’s Holes, by contrast, is a much more elaborate production that ends up affirming every right-wing cliche in the book about human nature and its limitations. The audience boards a bus at George Square, and is taken to a not-very-secret location, where we walk by the sea for a bit, before settling down to 80 minutes of conventional four-handed drama, presented on a high circular stage covered with sand, in a large municipal hall. The scene is a contemporary desert island, where two men and two women find themselves stranded as the lone survivors of a plane crash. The joke, if it is a joke, is that even in the presence of mass death and a possible global catastrophe, the three young executive types among the surviviors just keep bitching and rowing in the same old office style; until one of the men eventually emerges as the dominant male, rapes the 16-year-old girl who has also survived, and sets out to found a new civilisation based on his ideas and genes.

It’s a repulsive story about repulsive people, competently acted, and briskly directed by Phillip Breen. As an insight into ordinary human nature, though, it’s useless to the point of tedium. And the only interesting thing about it is the loud laughter it attracts, from those so heavily invested in this dark view of humanity that they would apparently laugh at anything, provided it supports the idea that only fools would attempt to create a world any kinder or better than the miserable one portrayed here.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25, 25.
pp. 286, 289.

ENDS ENDS

Cape Wrath

THEATRE

Cape Wrath
4 stars ****
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

OUTSIDE St. Stephen’s, parked close to the building, there’s a white minibus with the words Third Angel painted on the side; and if you buy a ticket for Alexander Kelly’s new monologue Cape Wrath, you’ll find yourself packed into it for an hour with nine or ten other travellers, although the bus goes nowhere, except across a landscape of memory. For like dozens of other writer-performers on this year’s Fringe, Kelly is meditating on family history, trying to come to term with what he has inherited from his parents and grandparents, and what he might pass on; and so it soon emerges that this “slightly haggard-looking 40-year-old Midlander” actually had a much-loved Scottish grandad, who used – in his retirement – to go on solo coach trips to the north of Scotland, once famously reaching Cape Wrath, one of the most windswept northerly points of the British mainland.

There’s plenty of charm in Kelly’s show, as he shares the odd family postcard, passes round a glass of whisky (which he drinks inmemory of the old man even though he doesn’t like it), reads his grandfather’s diary of his travels, and invites us to unfold huge maps of Caithness and Sutherland; most of the time he is simply himself, the baffled almost-middle-aged offpsring of people whose lives he struggles to imagine, sometimes he almost becomes the cheerful driver of the little Caithness post-bus.

There’s something more than charm, though, in the sharp narrative arc of Kelly’s story, as he tries to retrace his grandfather’s steps to Durness and beyond. There’s a recognition of the complexity of Britain, and of the huge range of lives and landscapes and connections that make up this small island, that adds something real, heartfelt and significant to the current debate about the future of the union; and a sense, too, of the importance of love – binding people to the places they came from, helping them build new lives elsewhere – in easing the passage from past to future, and from the place where we once lived, to where we are now.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 266

ENDS ENDS

Scotsman Fringe First Winners 2013

__________________________

SCOTSMAN FRINGE FIRST WINNERS 2013
__________________________

Week 1

CIARA     Traverse Theatre and Datum Point at the Traverse
THE EVENTS    ATC, Young Vic, Brageteatret and Schauspielhaus Vienna  etc.   at the Traverse
FERAL     Tortoise In A Nutshell at Summerhall
FIONNUALA    Donal O’Kelly at Hill Street
GROUNDED    Gate Theatre at the Traverse
KISS ME HONEY, HONEY!     Gilded Balloon @ Gilded Balloon
NIRBHAYA      Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan at the Assembly Hall
QUIETLY     Abbey Theatre, Dublin at the Traverse

Week 2

DARK VANILLA JUNGLE    Supporting Wall at Pleasance Courtyard
DUMBSTRUCK      Fine Chisel at Zoo Pleasance
FLEABAG       DryWrite  at the Underbelly
A MARK OF WATER (WATER STAIN)   Armazem Theatre Company at EICC
THEATRE UNCUT    Traverse Theatre
THESE HALCYON DAYS      Landmark Productions at the Assembly Hall.

Week 3

CHOOSE YOUR OWN DOCUMENTARY     Nathan Penlington/CYOD at the Gilded Balloon      
CREDIBLE LIKEABLE SUPERSTAR ROLEMODEL     Bryony Kimmings/Escalator East To Edinburgh at Pleasance Dome
FOR THEIR OWN GOOD     Untied Artists at Summerhall   
FREEZE!     Nick Steur/ Big In Belgium etc   at Summerhall
GARDENING, FOR THE UNFULFILLED AND ALIENATED    Undeb Theatre at Pleasance Courtyard
MERCY KILLERS    Harold Clurman Lab Theatre at Assembly Hall.

ENDS ENDS  
  

The Chicago Sun Times And The Edinburgh Fringe: Too Late For Dialogue With Neo-Conservatives Who Mistake Basic Social Goods For “Socialist” Tyranny – Column 23.8.13.

_______________________________________

JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.8.13
_______________________________________

IN A TINY studio theatre under the roof of the Assembly Hall, an actor from the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theatre in New York is performing a monologue called Mercy Killers, about an ordinary American, running his own small car repair business, whose life falls apart when his beloved wife is diagnosed with breast cancer. For those of us who live in the imperfect but kindly embrace of the NHS, it’s almost impossible to imagine the cruelty of this; that people faced with all the agony and anxiety of a life-threatening diagnosis should also have to fear bankruptcy and homelessness, and medical insurance companies that deploy every trick in the book to avoid liability for seriously ill patients.

Yet “middle-class” Americans – people on ordinary salaries, with no reserves of wealth – live with this fear, year in and year out. And although I often have a high resistance to shows that are so clearly polemical in intention, this time, when writer/performer Michael Milligan finishes his story, and opens his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that says “Health Care Is A Human Right”, I’m tempted to join in the standing ovation around me; not least because of recent surveys which suggest that as many as half of personal bankruptcies in America are now associated with a serious medical diagnosis.

It’s this kind of show, though, that has earned the Edinburgh Festival – and Scotland in general – the undying scorn of Chicaco Sun Times columnist Mona Charen, who visited our festival city for a few days this week, and left in high dudgeon, apparently deeply disappointed that the culture on show had little to do with “the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” Ms Charen’s objections to Scotland seem to be threefold. One – with which I might partly agree, from a feminist perspective – has to do with the sheer porn-driven filth of some Fringe shows; although “filth on the Fringe” has been a common Edinburgh complaint ever since the founding of the Traverse Theatre, back in 1963.

The second concerns the “leftist tripe” of many shows on the Fringe; Ms Charen dislikes shows like the National Theatre of Wales’s Radicalisation Of Bradley Manning – which speculates on the role of homophobic bullying in shaping the character of the army intelligence specialist who leaked thousands of US security documents to Wikileaks – and Clancy Productions’ The Extremists, in which a right-wing American securocrat goes nuts on a television chat show. And her third objection concerns the Scottish Government, which she seems to associate with all this lamentable leftist decadence, not least because it favours self-evident evils like free university education, nuclear disarmament, progressive taxation, and the eradication of poverty. The place, she says, is “deep in socialism”, not to mention knee jerk anti-Americanism; and she left feeling alienated and insulted.

Now at one level, this response to Edinburgh and its festival is just silly, not least because not a single one of the shows mentioned actually originated in Scotland, and one of them, The Extremists, comes straight from New York. In truth, it’s hardly surprising that when people gather for an event like the Edinburgh Fringe, the neoliberal and neoconservative ideology embraced by Ms Charen, which has dominated western politics for the last generation, should receive a damned good kicking from the young, the angry, and the dissident of all nations. The idea that the Scottish Government and its policies are in any way responsible for this festival of dissent is simply bizarre, based on a profound misunderstanding of what the Fringe is, and always has been; and the notion that there is anything unhealthy about it suggests, at best, an odd definition of freedom.

Even more serious, though, is the growing new right presumption, reflected here, that they in some sense represent America, whereas the liberal voices of America do not. If the mighty text of the US constitution means anything at all, it means that there is nothing un-American about questioning US policy in Iraq, or exposing bullying and misconduct in the military, or mocking the growing power of the US security establishment. And American right-wingers who feel insulted as Americans by shows which raise these issues, have surely in some ways lost touch with the idea of America itself, a nation which has traditionally drawn its strength not from a totalitarian uniformity of ideological belief, backed by unquestioning patriotism, but from diversity, plurality, and complete freedom of thought and speech, guaranteed by the constitution.

And then finally, there is the familiar attitude to the small measure of social democracy that still survives and thrives in countries like Scotland, for their defence of which Scottish voters have been condemned as dinosaurs and dependency junkies by successive generations of neoliberal commentators. For myself, I would like to see a more radical and serious debate about the kind of society we live in here in Scotland, about its frequent preference for top-down state-sponsored solutions over real grassroots initiatives, its mediocre bureaucracies, and the timid and passive quality of much of our public discussion.

What I will not do, though – and I reckon at least 75% of Scots would agree with me – is to hold that discussion with a bunch of discredited free market fundamentalists so out of touch with reality that they dismiss basic public goods as evidence of socialist tyranny. In that sense, the cash-driven persistence of this failed belief-system, and its constant intrusion into debates about everything from banking reform to healthcare, now represents a profound obstacle to serious reform of government and society, in Scotland and elsewhere. To put it simply, the word “reform” has been annexed for too long by those whose main interest lies in breaking up public goods for private profit. And until those forces are driven from the scene by new political forces and alliances as yet unborn, those of us who have managed – with apologies to the Chicago Sun Times – to preserve some features of a just and compassionate society will be right to dig in our heels; and to resist calls for change from those who, so far as the vast majority are concerned, are interested only in change for the worse – change that leaves us poorer, less secure, more frightened, and finally less free.

ENDS ENDS

Hello 100 Dollar Bucks!

THEATRE

Hello 100 Dollar Bucks!
4 stars ****
New Town Theatre (Venue 7)

SINCE IT PREMIERED in Georgia last year, it’s been acclaimed as an outstanding new play from a theatre culture better known for its productions of classics, seen and admired in New York, Paris, and Athens. At the New Town Theatre, though – thanks to a series of administrative disasters – this fine play by Inga Garuchava and Piotr Khotsianovsky is playing to an audience of five people and a dog; except that even the dog has failed to turn up.

Which is a pity; because like their terrific production of Ionesco’s Bald Soprano, which played last week, this show features a masterclass in beautiful, mature ensemble acting, possibly the finest in Edinburgh this year. The play focusses on one of the major themes of this year’s Fringe, the care of the elderly and infirm. Its heroine is a cheerful, lovely Georgian woman in her forties who has come to America for a year to make money – 100 dollars a day – working as a carer for an elderly millionairess called Mary, who suffers from both paralysis and dementia; she is counting the days until she can return home to her husband, daughter and grandchild.

In America, though, she has encountered another Georgian, a violinist called Ben, who loves her, and comes round to play the Guarneri violin that Mary owns as a investment. The plot finally takes a fantastical turn, and loses some of its force, when Mary bangs her head, makes a miraculous recovery, and begins to speak Georgian. The quality of the acting, though – from Nineli Chankvetadze, Nanan Pachuashvili, and Ramaz Ioseliani – is simply dazzling, rich, human, full of a rare sense of compassion for Mary in her dotage, and buoyed up on a tide of excellent music, from bursts of Mozart to great American love songs. “Life is an interesting thing – you have to live its every day” says the lovely Caterina to Mary, in the broken English of the surtitles, when the old lady despairs. And unlike many western treatments of this vital subject, this show makes the audience feel that life-force – the interest, the unpredictability, the possibility of love, and the need to live it out, right to the end.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
No fringe brochure entry, NTT brochure p.6

ENDS ENDS