Category Archives: Edinburgh 2014

Delusion Of The Fury

EIF
Delusion Of The Fury
4 stars ****
King’s Theatre

THE STAGE has an extraordinary look, part set-up for a reunion of some ageing rock super-group, part installation sculpture, part archetypal mountain landscape, in Arizona or New Mexico; a river runs through it, rippling down to a pool centre stage, which is not something that can be said of many shows.

Yet Klaus Grunberg’s design provides a perfect setting for Heiner Goebbels’s remarkable staging, with the great Ensemble musikFabrik of Cologne, of this ground-breaking piece of music theatre created in the mid-1960’s by Harry Partch, the mighty if unsung musical pioneer who, after an early career as a hobo living rough across the southern United States, set out on a one-man project to reinvent every aspect of western music, drawing on global and historical sources to create a completely new tonal system, and inventing and building a dazzling range of new instruments, lovingly recreated here.  There are huge systems of glass bells, bellows and melodeons, unique forms of percussion and keyboard; yet as Goebbels’s 22-strong band come on stage and begin to play – dressed at first like hobos and construction workers, later in a range of fantastical improvised hats and costumes – it’s clear that Delusion Of The Fury is much more than an animated display of the tools for a new music.

So in an oratorio-like structure, Partch’s work evolves over two acts, the first inspired by a Japanese legend of a son in search of his lost warrior father, the second by an African folk-tale about a dispute between a tramp and an old woman over a lost goat; and although the effect is often startling and sometimes absurd – the company wander the stage like kids who have been at the dressing-up box, creating myth and legend from the scraps of civilisation – the driving rhythm and invention of the music never pauses or fails, leading us forward through a sequence of thirteen scenes, opening with an Exordium, and divided half-way by a Sanctus.  It’s characteristic of Goebbels’s work that if the meaning is often inscrutable, the event is perfectly-shaped, full of wit and purpose, and completely enthralling.  And what emerges is wild, beautiful, baffling, and musically unforgettable; like a 75 minute reflection on all the hopes, dreams, grandeurs and absurdities of human history, told round a flickering campfire by a bunch of hobos – or maybe by a group of middle-aged rock musicians, coming together for one last supremely eclectic jam, before the end of time.

Joyce McMillan
Untl 30 (run ended)
p.30

ENDS ENDS

Ubu And The Truth Commission

EIF THEATRE
Ubu And The Truth Commission
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum

IT MAY BE A MASTERPIECE of absurdist drama; but Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, first seen in Paris in 1896, is never an easy show to present.  Its central image – of the relentlessly boorish tyrant Ubu, and his grasping wife Ma Ubu – is essential and striking, yet its detail often seems shouty and repetitive.  And when you try to graft the story of Ubu’s casual savagery and relentless self-interest onto one of the great political narratives of our time – the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the nation’s 1990’s struggle to come to terms with its horrific history of racial violence – you add whole layers of complexity, challenge and seriousness to a story that already combines absurdity and horror in a uniquely dangerous way.

So it’s a measure of the huge achievement of William Kentridge and the Handspring Theatre Puppet Company, in their great 1997 show Ubu And The Truth Commission, that they succeed in welding these two narratives into a brilliant, complex and troubling show, which leaves the audience facing tough questions about the choice the new South Africa made, when it decided in 1996 to launch its Truth And Reconciliation Commission, and to offer amnesty to those who committed crimes against humanity under apartheid, in return for a full and honest account of their actions.

Over a brisk 90 minutes, Kentridge’s show – scripted by Jane Taylor, and featuring puppets by the great Adrian Kohler – uses every theatrical means available to dramatise the extreme and often distorted moral landscape through which Dawid Minnaar’s powerful Ubu moves, in his role as a secret policeman paid to murder activists and dissidents.  There are sharp animations of man-turned-killing-machine, along with songs, shadow-play, haunting archive footage of confrontations between police and demonstrators; and above all, there are the puppets, including the three attack-dogs of Ubu’s police team, and – most unforgettably – the dignified, sorrowful small puppets who represent the families of Ubu’s victims, giving evidence to the Commission. There are moments when all of this looks almost like a ragbag of poor-theatre techniques from the 1980’s, and when its distancing, thought-provoking Brechtian style seems to clash with the more emotion-seeking ethos of today.  Yet it also offers moments of great horror, stillness, and significance, woven into a fast-moving small-scale spectacle.

In the end, of course, this Ubu remains undefeated, as in Jarry’s play.  He and his capacious, sensual, and violence-loving Ma Ubu – brilliantly played by Busi Zokufa – are seen sailing off to corrupt fresh lands, as the new South Africa trades the long-term pursuit  of justice for the imperfect and insincere version of the truth Ubu has offered. In this great reflection on political evil in our time, in other words, humanity’s corruption remains unpunished and unrepentant; while the best of what humanity might be is sculpted into the grieving faces of small puppets, beings uncorrupted by the flesh, and by the lust for power and wealth that makes monsters not only of Ma and Pa Ubu, but of countless other power-holders and power-seekers, across our 21st century world.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30
p. 20

ENDS ENDS

Helen Lawrence

EIF THEATRE
Helen Lawrence
3 stars ***
King’s Theatre

THERE’S NOTHING like 1940’s film noir; the genre has style, class, intelligence, hard-won cynicism and lingering romance, all delivered in a form that’s instantly recognisable yet infinitely flexible.  Stan Douglas’s Helen Lawrence, created by the Canadian Stage company of Toronto, is a 95-minute screen thriller set in postwar Vancouver, created live on stage as a kind of installation.  Lit in thick golden light, the actors move around behind a gauze screen, followed by cameras which project their moving images onto the screen in classic black and white; and when the screen action appears, it’s also accompanied by background monochrome images of the streets, alleyways, foyers and rooms where the action takes place – images inspired by the work of the 1940’s Vancouver photo-journalists Raymond Munro and Art Jones, and recreated with tremendous care and style.

The problem with Douglas’s show, though, is that the simmering potential of the format never seems fully realised.  In terms of form, the show is overwhelmingly a screen experience.  The live actors are dimly visible, but the huge screen images command almost all the audience’s attention; and only in one brief final moment are the live actors allowed to speak directly, in the kind of challenge to the all-powerful screen image that could have been used more often, and more interestingly.

As for the story, by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock – well, the narrative starts well enough, with the classic mystery blonde, the rampant police corruption, the black gangster brothers vying for control of their semi-legal booze and betting business; but despite some enjoyable attempts to foreground the stories of the women caught up in the narrative, it loses focus on its mysterious heroine, and never quite achieves the full political and social resonance of a truly great film noir.

For all that, though, Douglas’s 12-strong ensemble produce some magnificent acting, exploring and revelling in  the sheer theatricality of the film noir style.  Lisa Ryder is a superbly glamorous and life-worn Helen Lawrence, Crystal Balint is  magnificent as the strong and elegant girlfriend of Allan Louis’s subtle and impressive leading gangster, Haley McGee is irresistible as the little hotel desk-clerk who would rather be a boy.  And although Helen Lawrence is a show that never quite delivers on its promise, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour or two in the theatre – or is it the cinema? – towards the end of a long Festival.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26
p. 18

ENDS ENDS

Front

EIF THEATRE
Front
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

WHAT ARE THEY staring at, the 11-strong cast of Luk Perceval’s great two-hour meditation on the horror of the First World War?  Ranged along the front of stage, empty eyes fixed on the audience, each holding a microphone and an old-fashioned desk-lamp that casts an eerie glow upward onto the face, they nonetheless seem to be looking far beyond us – out over the battlefield, perhaps, or more likely into the void, the great  darkness that waits for them, as they go to towards their deaths.

Staged by Thalia Theater of Hamburg as part of this year’s 1914 centenary, Perceval’s latest work is a formidably static piece, by normal theatrical standards.  Essentially, it presents a collage of texts about the First World War, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, and other contemporary sources.  And although the performers each develop strong individual characters, and sometimes leave their posts at the front of the stage to strip off their greatcoats, to whirl like dervishes caught up in some maelstrom of horror, or to climb angel-like up ladders and assist musician-composer Ferdinand Forsch in creating a thundering, singing hell of noise from the great vibrating metal sheets that form part of the set, they always return, in the end, to that horror-struck contemplation of the dark, and to the texts – murmured or shouted – that give us some sense of that nightmare battlefield.

What distinguishes Perceval’s evocation of the war, though, is not only its vivid sense of horror, and the unforgettable maturity, integrity and intensity of his company’s performance, but the rich layers of cultural resonance built into its fierce intermingling of language and sound, movement and visual images.  Performed in German, French, Flemish and English, this show without borders captures what another writer described as the wild jazz of the noise that filled the trenches; the breaking of sounds, the wailing  distortion of the voice, and the fragmenting and shattering of ideas of the human body, that was to change European culture for ever, and utterly transform the language of contemporary art and music.  For as this essential piece of theatre makes clear, the impact of this war lay not only in the loss of the four million who died; but in the fact that the survivors had to live on with that image of hell in their minds, into a 20th century reshaped by a knowledge of chaos and horror which, once gained, could never be unlearned.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26
p. 16

ENDS ENDS

The 56

THEATRE
The 56
2 stars **
Underbelly, Bristo Square (Venue 300)

IN A STRIKINGLY subdued and intense style, this brief show from FYSA Theatre of South Yorkshire commemorates the Valley Parade fire disaster of 1985, when the stadium at Bradford City’s football ground burned down, and 56 fans lost their lives.  To say that the show’s approach is untheatrical is to understatte the case.  The three characters simply sit on terrace-like benches recounting their experience of the day, drawn from verbatim testimony, in voices sometimes so soft as to be barely audible.

There are some tremendously vivid stories here, though; and also some interesting reflections on the legacy of such a disaster, both in whole lifetimes of pain and grief, and in genuine improvements, not only in safety at football grounds, but also in the life of a community which, in the aftermath of such a disaster, can sometimes learn to know its own unity, and strength.

Joyce McMillan
until 25
p. 304

ENDS ENDS

The Quant

THEATRE
The Quant
3 stars ***
Hill Street Solo Theatre (Venue 41)

CONSIDERING the extent of the 2008 crash and its consequences, there has been surprisingly little Fringe drama about the sheer hysteria of life in the City of London during the boom years.  This fine monologue by Jamie Griffiths, though, in a shining exception; a solo show in the form of a power-point presentation by a young ex-banker who begins his talk with that shimmering veneer of arrogance that marks out young men gilded with huge financial rewards, but ends looking somehow empty and broken.

The slick voice in which Griffiths presents his lecture on risk management also alternates with the much richer and more grounded tones of the Welsh identity he has quickly striven to lose, in order to blend with the culture of his company; and which offers a faint glimpse of the multiple tiny tragedies of unspoken snobbery, cultural impoverishment and acquired rootlessness that accompany the extremes of modern corporate culture.  There’s something about the ending of the show hat seems too low-key as a response to the slow-motion disaster of over-reaching, and greed which it describes; our hero simply accepts his role as a humble trainer, once his trading-floor career crashes and burns.  It’s a formidable performance, though, on an important subject; and one that deserves more attention, on a Fringe that often seems obsessed with the personal and sexual, and largely indifferent to the political and financial infrastructure that shapes the world we live in.

Joyce McMillan
until 24
p. 343

ENDS ENDS

Beats North

THEATRE
Beats North
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

IS IT A MAN’S WORLD?  Not sure, is the answer that comes from this tentative but hugely enjoyable show about growing up in Teesside, co-written by Luke Barnes and Ishy Din, and performed by young actors from Company TSU.  To a briliantly complex, sliding-and-rewinding soundtrack created live by d-j Mariam Rezael, the show tells the stories of two teenage boys at the same Tees-side school.  There’s Jack, still mourning his Mum’s decision to run off with a another man, and desperately, comically attached to his beloved rag-doll Jessica; and there’s Al, a talented would-be musician struggling under the burden of his Dad’s fury and disappointment, after his beloved elder brother ends up in prison.

The two monologues are barely linked, except by the exceptional use of sound and movement in Amy Golding’s production.  The use of music to articulate the boys’ emotional lives is fascinating and ground-breaking, though, in a hugely inventive piece of youth theatre built around a passionate performance from Assad Saman as Al, and a truly beguiling one from Tom Booth as Jack, his dancing as fluent as his words are tongue-tied, and his beloved Jessica always on hand, to offer a word of sharp and motherly advice.

Joyce McMillan
until 25
p. 286

ENDS ENDS