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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Edinburgh International Festival theatre round-up

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Edinburgh International Festival theatre round-up

IN THIS year's Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills set out to shift our cultural centre of gravity. By drawing on the art of the Americas and Australasia, he aimed to give the event an unfamiliar Pacific flavour. In the dance, opera and music line-up, I imagine this was the case, whether it was in the South Pacific dances of Lemi Ponifasio or the early South American music in the Treasures And Traditions series. By contrast, the theatre programme was primarily an Atlantic experience.

In particular, it offered a substantial helping of work from the well established New York avant-garde. The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, Lee Breuer and Meredith Monk, all major Big Apple names, dominated the programme. Nothing wrong with this, of course, except that North America often seems more familiar to us than, say, eastern Europe and were it not for the presence of Teatro Cinema and Teatro en el Blanco, both from Chile, the theatre programme would have had little sense of the seismic shifts Mills imposed elsewhere.

In the case of Teatro Cinema, the feeling of otherness was less to do with the company's experience of life under the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet - although that unquestionably influenced the brooding trauma of Sin Sangre and the escapist liberation of The Man Who Fed Butterflies - and more to do with director Juan Carlos Zagal's extraordinary fusion of film and live performance.

Brilliantly executed though it was, the technique of placing the actors in the middle of a cinematic landscape tended to obscure the serious purpose of these two plays. Sin Sangre was about finding a way to accommodate a cruel past, while The Man Who Fed Butterflies was about believing in a brighter future. Both are deeply relevant themes for a country with a brutal political history, but you were often more conscious of form than content.

That meant it was down to Teatro en el Blanco's Diciembre, the final theatre opening of the programme, to give the clearest articulation of a South American experience. Set in 2014, Guillermo Calderón's play drew on a century of conflict to imagine a territorial war between Chile, Peru and Bolivia, with all the xenophobia, abuse and intolerance that such a battle would entail.

From behind the funny conversational absurdities of a Christmas reunion between three siblings - a soldier on home leave and his apparently pregnant twin sisters - emerged details of a dispute over a patch of land on the Pacific, constant references to the colour of people's skin and a grim acceptance of rape, mutilation and detention as instruments of control. From my point of view, it seemed odd for a play to protest against injustices that have not yet happened; it is certain that from Calderón's perspective, such abuses feel closer to home.

The idea that the Americas are a land of opportunity was a motivating factor in the Darien Scheme, Scotland's late 17th-century colonialist folly in what is now the Isthmus of Panama. This was the story dramatised by Alistair Beaton in Caledonia, in a National Theatre of Scotland production that was either an entertaining satirical romp or a dire rehash of history depending on which newspaper you read. On balance, it was a mixture of both - and the play had more to say about Scotland and the Scottish psyche (however crudely caricatured) than it did about the New World.

So what kind of America emerged from the remaining plays? In the case of Meredith Monk's Songs Of Ascension, there was nothing specific. This was a mesmerising piece of music theatre (more music than theatre) that counterpointed angular, jarring, animalistic vocal patterns with lush choral harmonies, building into a piece of beguiling power. In terms of its provenance, it reminded you that, as well as being the land of McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Hollywood, the USA has room enough for the eccentric and the unorthodox.

And how else to explain the Wooster Group except in terms of the eccentric and the unorthodox? Elizabeth LeCompte's company has been confounding mainstream taste for over 30 years and, although Vieux Carré did not seem as weird as the productions that visited Glasgow back in 1990, it had a wilful disregard for audience expectations. Kate Valk performed her opening scene with her back to the audience, Ellen Mills was frequently hidden from view and Ari Fliakos mumbled his lines in dreamy detachment.

The image of the USA it conjured was just as idiosyncratic. This was not the place of clean-living optimism the country likes to project. Whether it was in the 1930s doss house of Tennessee Williams' play or in the 1960s experimental films running in parallel, this was a vision of decadence, dissolution and poverty, sexually free and emotionally unresolved.

In his work with Mabou Mines, director Lee Breuer has done more than most to marry the adventurousness of the avant-garde with the accessibility of the mainstream. This was certainly the case in The Gospel At Colonus, created 30 years ago with composer Bob Telson, in which he drew on the vibrancy of gospel music to fashion a distinctively American - and highly popular - interpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus At Colonus.

The fusion was sometimes revelatory, sometimes obscure, but above all it projected an image of African-American society enriched by a sense of community and joyous celebration. In this, it was an antidote to the dereliction of Vieux Carré and to the directionless hedonism of the American expats roaming Europe in The Sun Also Rises, the Hemingway novel brought exhaustively to the stage by Elevator Repair Service. All this means that, even if the theatre programme was not as wide-ranging as the "oceans apart" theme promised, it did reveal an exoticism in the familiar.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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