Category Archives: Edinburgh 2015

The Year Of The Solo Show – Edinburgh 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 2015 – THE YEAR OF THE SOLO SHOW for the Scotsman Magazine, 5.9.15.
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IT WASN’T obvious to me at the time: but when Simon McBurney of Complicite opened the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme, four weeks ago tonight, with his superb audio-driven monodrama The Encounter, he was signalling a Festival and Fringe more dominated by solo performance than any I can remember. In the international festival, McBurney’s show was followed in short order by Robert Lepage’s 887, a beautiful and absorbing solo account of a childhood shaped by the reviving Quebec nationalism of the 1960’s, and by Untitled Projects’ Paul Bright’s Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, a bravura solo lecture-performance by actor George Anton.

And meanwhile, out on the Fringe, there were moments when it seemed as though the show witth more than one performer was becoming an endangered species. There were plenty of big shows, of course, in the musical and entertainment sections of the programme; also among student companies, and among companies based in Edinburgh, who can avoid soaring festival accommodation costs.

In the part of the Fringe programme where the Scotsman Fringe First awards operate, though – seeking out high-quality new work brought to the Edinburgh Fringe from all over the world – the solo show now dominates the field. In recent years, the proportion of solo shows among our Fringe First award winners has been hovering just below the 50% mark. This year, though, almost two-thirds of our winners were solo performers. Show after show that promised – and often delivered – big drama on big themes turned out to feature only one actor; and the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award chose an outstanding, Fringe-First winning solo show – the wonderful A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, unforgettably performed by Aoife Duffin – as its winner.

So what is going on here? The obvious answer lies in the high cost of staging a Fringe production in Edinburgh, particularly when cast accommodation costs are taken into account. Theatre-makers have observed the huge success of the Fringe’s leading comedy stars, and have realised that if the quality of the show is high enough, audiences are willing to pay as much to see one performer as they are to see six, or even 20.

There’s no doubt, though, that however brillliant many solo performances are, there’s something wrong with a cost structure that increasingly limits the range of theatre available, particularly where new and more high-risk work is involved; and those who have successfully launched other initiatives to support companies on the Fringe – such as the Made In Scotland initaitive – should perhaps be thinking about how to help ambitious companies bring shows with the full cast size the work demands.

Even if thoses practical issues were resolved, though, it seems to me that there’s something about the mood of our time that seeks out the solo show, regardless of cost. Indeed the presence of those three huge solo theatre pieces on the Edinburgh International Festival programme, where resources are relatively plentiful, shows that the decision to perform alone is not only a practical one, but one that reflects a profound shift in the aesthetic of 21st century theatre.

It’s perhaps partly a question of theatre carving out a distinctive “live” role, in an age when multi-character drama is increasingly defined by television and film; audiences seem to have an increasingly low tolerance for live theatre in which no-one speaks to them directly, as solo performers always do.

In the end, though, I think there’s also a shift that goes even deeper than that. And I suspect that even if a special stream of funding to support larger casts appeared tomorrow, many writers and producers would still choose the solo show; because at some level, this is the voice of our time, the theatre of the age of the “selfie” – telling stories, playing with perceptions, and dismantling and reassembling the self, as it’s reflected back to us not only by other people, but also by the live electronic screens, large and small, that increasingly dominate our lives.

ENDS ENDS               

  

        

Murmel Murmel

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MURMEL MURMEL, Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 31.8.15.
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4 stars ****

THEY SAY that it’s the lexical richness of our language that makes us human, and sets us apart from other species; the sheer quantity and range of the thousands of words we can put together, using the basic sounds of the alphabet. 
 
Anyone who has seen Herbert Fritsch’s astonishing Berlin Volksbuhne production of Murmel Murmel, though, might well be tempted to disagree.  This 176-page text by the Swiss-born avant-garde artist and experimentalist Dieter Roth consists only of the single word “murmel” – the German eqivalent of the “rhubarb “ used by English-speaking actors to create a general hubbub of voices – repeated thousands of times, and has generally been regarded as unstageable, or as “the most boring play in the German language.”

Yet over an inspired 80 minutes, Fritsch takes this impossible piece of work, and transforms it into an extraordinary essay in human communication and self-recognition.  The secret of the show’s success lies in at least four areas.  There are the twelve magnificent, intensely physical actors who make up Fritsch’s company: performers of all sizes and shapes, every age and various sexes, who sing, talk, leap, yodel, fall into the orchestra pit, or murmel their way through operatic arias.

There’s the pinpoint precision of their vocal performance, both spoken and sung, solo and choral, as conducted from the orchestra pit by a harassed-looking figure in uniform.  There’s Fritsch’s own dazzling stage design of huge multi-coloured sliding screens that, as the show continues, almost become an extra character in the play.  And there’s the sheer style of the production which, at its height, achieves a hilarious and liberating collision between avant-garde Dadaism and absurdism at its most extreme, and the kind of retro-suburban Harry-Worth-like comedy that effortlessly links the absurd to pure popular entertainment and slapstick.

Some sequences – particularly the brilliant opening half hour – are perhaps more successful than others; I found less interest in the section where the cast appear as romping primary-coloured teletubbies, in whole-body leotards.  At a point in the Festival where many people in Edinburgh are scarcely able to do more than mutter “murmel murmel” themselves, though, Fritsch’s brilliantly-staged show – which has been acclaimed across Europe – was cheered to the echo at the King’s: for its imaginative wildness, its artistry, its joie-de-vivre, and its astonishing virtuoso curtain-call, which almost  amounts to an entire new production in itself.

Run completed.

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A Reason To Talk

THEATRE
A Reason To Talk 
4 stars ****  
Summerhall (Venue 26) 

WITH RELATIONS between Iran and the west undergoing a gradual thaw, there’s never been a more vital moment to try to learn and understand more about this beautiful, troubled and hugely creative powerhouse nation at the centre of most of the great conflicts that divide the world today.  And if the revolution of 1979 forms the starting-point for many stories of modern Iran, It also marked a crisis in the life of Sachli Ghjolamalizad, a Belgian theatre-maker whose Iranian parents were forced to flee the country with their two young children, and to begin a new life in Belgium.

Ghjolamalizad’s approach to this story is a harsh, almost barbed one, as she sits at her laptop with her back to the audience, offering us only some live projected typescript, the image of her beautiful, rebellious face as picked up by her laptop’s internal camera, and a showing of a long, relentless and frequently hostile filmed interview she conducted with her own mother, followed by a short coda with her grandmother.  

Ghjolamalizad herself raises the question of whether her show is really about the strain of being brought up across cultures, or simply represents the story of all mothers and daughters.  But the filmed face and presence of her mother, which in a sense dominates the show, clearly carries within it all the scars of a shocking transition from rootedness to life as a stranger in a strange land, from wealth to poverty, from happy marriage to a prolonged initial period as a single parent.  Her strategy for survival is to suppress the grief, to insist on being happy, to get on with things; her daughter interprets this as a life of lies, coldness, and a complete failure of emotional openness.

A Reason To Talk is a painful and searching show, in other words, as courageous as it is austerely inventive.  And in the end, it forces us to begin to understand that even when refugees find a place to settle, their story of suffering is not over; and that the dislocation and damage often roll on down the generations, breaking hearts and twisting lives as they go.          

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 361
 
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Smash It Up and E15

DANCE & PHYSICAL and THEATRE
Smash It Up  
4 stars ****  
Summerhall (Venue 26)
E15
3 stars ***
Gilded Balloon (Venue 14)

LET’S SAY IT, loud and clear. Britain’s apparently never-ending property boom, supported by endless tax breaks and help schemes, is driving waves of aggressive gentrification through our cities, and putting residential property in city centres far beyond the reach of people on benefits, or on ordinary working-class incomes.

The situation is most acute in London, but is also transforming “desirable” city-centre areas from Edinburgh to Liverpool and Cardiff; and in their powerful new show Smash It Up, at Summerhall, the South Wales based company Mr. And Mrs. Clark focus, as their starting-point, on a notorious incident in Newport, where developers eager – with the support of the local council – to convert an old shopping centre into a tightly-patrolled indoor mall, simply smashed up and destroyed a mural portraying Newport’s Chartist Movement of the 19th century, and that powerful popular campaign for citizenship and democracy.

Incensed by this non-consensual trashing of the town’s shared history, the three-strong company therefore begin to interrogate their own attitude to destruction as a creative force, and to the history of destruction in art; as they make clear in their publicity, Smash It Up is, after a fashion, an exhibition, a performance- lecture, and a dance theatre show with documentary and short film. It never becomes so distracted by the theory of radical destruction, though, as to confuse it with the deliberate trashing of public space by the forces of commercial exploitation. Last year in Wales, one observer described the show as “a beautifully convulsive mixture of contempt, anger, opinion, passion and hope”; and he certainly wasn’t wrong.

E 15, presented by young Sheffield company FYSA, represents a much more direct and straightforward attempt to get to grips with issues of gentrification and social cleansing, with a vivid, heartfelt and slightly messy dramatisation of the 2013 rebellion against evictions in the London borough of Newham, where a hostel full of young single mothers got together to prevent the council from selling off the prime site on which the building stood, and sending them all to live in different cities, hundreds of miles from home.

The play benefits from a couple of terrific performances in the leading roles of the two young mothers who started the campaign. And although other characters are sketchy and half-written to the point of stereotype – and the narrative finally dwindles into some uninspired on-stage campaigning – the play still has a huge charge of energy, and the guts to point out that though community campaigners may win the odd battle, there is absolutely no sign, yet, that they have any chance of winning the increasingly intense low-level war over the ownership of Britain’s urban space.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 29, 31
pp. 199, 319
 
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Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture

THEATRE
Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture
4 stars ****
Just Festival at St. John’s  (Venue 127)

IN A DEPARTMENT store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, Christmas is coming; but not for the shopworkers, who – in 21st century post-crash Ireland – find themselves steadily losing the employment rights their parents and grandparents fought for, and won.  Bridie, enjoying her last day at work before retirement, can remember some of those struggles; her granddaughter Gemma, eight months pregnant and still at work in soft furnishings, belongs to a generation so desperate for work that they barely stop to read the details, before signing up to the ruthless new zero-hours contracts the management has prepared for them.

It comes with a strong political pedigree, this light-touch and beautifully-written solo show by Fringe newcomer Katie O’Kelly; her father, who also directs Counter Culture, is the campaigning Fringe First winner Donal O’Kelly, appearing this year in Little Thing Big Thing  at Assembly George Square.

Yet despite its slightly sentimental upbeat conclusion, with the workers all marching out to demonstrate under the statue of the great Irish labour leader James Larkin, there’s plenty of charm, subtlety and poetry in O’Kelly’s story, as she gently locates her characters in the bigger landscape of the city, and links them to Ireland’s radical past.  Undeterred by the deafening roar of  eveing fireworks from the Castle, O’ Kelly uses just a few simple props to create a life-affirming and hugely promising hour of theatre; and to conjure up a cast of at least a dozen characters, from the monosyllabic owner of the shop, through his hard-faced manager Simon, to Gemma herself and her new baby – born on the furniture department’s top luxury display bed, as if to herald a whole new age of radical defiance, and of decent human priorities, reasserted at last.         

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 340
 
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The Year Of The Hare

THEATRE
The Year Of The Hare
3 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)

THE PARTNERSHIP between the Helsinki-based Rhymateatteri and a group of Scottish artists led by playwright Catherine Grosvenor is now well-established feature of the Fringe; and this year’s offering, written by Grosvenor from an original text by Esa Leskinen, Sami Keski-Vahala and Kristian Smeds, has plenty of charm, as well an appealing 21st century theme.

Its hero, played with some flair by David McKay, is an ordinary, middle-aged middle-manager working under huge pressure, in his job with a big global timber company. One day, though, after a moment of rebellious madness at an awayday management workshop, he finds himself driving recklessly north, into a strange encounter with a lovely human hare who is injured when he drives his car off the road; and from there on, this play-with-songs veers into the surreal and the symbolic, as our hero and the hare plunge back towards the wilderness, in search of new life, and new joy.

In the end, the tone of Aleksis Meaney’s production is a touch too playful to capture all the serious resonances of this 21st century journey; for all their surreal adventures, the human characters in this play are adults, and their story amounts to more than an extended joke with lyrical interludes. The quality of the writing is fascinating, though, and there are some fine video images by Ville Salmisalo and Ville Vierikko, suggesting the changing relationship with nature implicit the story; and if this staging has a slightly provisional look, it’s not difficult to imagine the play returning to haunt and delight us, in future productions.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 31
p. 387
 
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The Communist Threat

THEATRE
The Communist Threat
3 stars ****
Zoo Southside (Venue 82)

THE YEAR is 1950, and in a hotel room in Vienna, two men confront one another. Both work for Britain’s secret servive, M16; but Kip is a classic product of public school and Oxbridge, while Albert has a working-class accent, and is at first dismissed by his colleague as some kind of junior employee, the kind of chap who might have made sergeant during the war, with a bit of luck.

The tables are soon turned, though, in David Holmes and Kieran O’Rourke’s brisk and clever short drama for the Rusted Dust company, when it turns out that the Oxbridge chap is the one under suspicion as to his loyalties, while his colleague is acting on behalf of top M16 management. The conversation gradually becomes dominated by a third, absent figure, Kip’s homosexual lover, a clever chap with communist leanings who has been caught passing secrets to the Soviets.

It’s this third man’s recklessness – or need to act on his political beliefs – that leaves Kip in a dangerous impasse between love for his partner, and love for his country. And although the play only touches very lightly on the enduring questions about patriotism and nationhood it claims to explore, it makes a fine job of capturing the class and Cold War politics of a particular time, long gone; a time when love between two men still hardly dared to speak its name, and was enough to send thousands into exile, from their country, from their families and communities, or from themselves.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 31
p. 309
 
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