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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Blog Archive

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Guid Sisters, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum
Five stars

Kathryn Howden in The Guid Sisters
CANDADIAN playwright Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Sœurs, translated here as The Guid Sisters, is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, remarkable on many levels. Fifteen women are on stage, all cramming into the working-class Montreal kitchen of Germaine Lauzon, who has won a million Green Shield stamps in a competition – and needs help sticking them in to the books. Tremblay shows great skill in orchestrating such a number, keeping their characters distinct, their banter hilarious, and their private tragedies true.

The play, premiered in 1968, was revolutionary in its use of joual, the Quebec working-class dialect that's been turned into pungent Glaswegian by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay. Even if the use of joual isn't so controversial now, the play retains its political clout. On the one hand, the women are restrained by their Catholic faith; on the other, they are teased by capitalism's get-rich-quick promises. To compensate for the drudgery and repression, they have the dream of a win on the bingo.

Throwing in images of the last supper and a crucified Christ in a superb production for the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland, director Serge Denoncourt grasps not only the play's social context, but also Tremblay's instinct for theatrical poetry. Whether performing a choral rap on the subject of housework, or taking the spotlight for a heartbreaking interior monologue, the women step beyond domestic realism into a more complex dimension.

Leading an exemplary ensemble, Kath Howden plays Germaine like a queen bee, too delighted with herself to see the envy she is arousing, too immersed in her own small victory to see herself as what she is: a victim of a system that cultivates impossible dreams. A closing round of A Man's a Man for a' That, by Burns, reminds us of the hollowness of the consumerist promise.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (photo: Richard Campbell)

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Random Accomplice at the Tron
Three stars

WE don't normally regard slipping into the background as an attribute, but 15-year-old Sam McTannan thinks being a wallflower is his greatest gift. He likes not being noticed, he enjoys escaping attention and is unsurprised when Violet Morgana, the girl of his dreams, still does not recognise him after three years of school together.

As a Superman obsessive, he treats this cloak of invisibility as a superpower and, in Johnny McKnight's teen-friendly play for Random Accomplice, he is naturally distressed when his ability suddenly fades. The moment his parents die in a car crash (like many a comic-book adventure, this tale has tragic origins), he becomes the centre of attention. See-through no more, he is the boy noticed by everyone – from earnest home-economics teacher to fussing relative and jealous school bully. Losing his parents is bad enough, but this is an introverted teenager's worst nightmare.

Persuasively played by James Young, Sam has not only the stumbling inarticulacy of your typical teenage boy, but a rich interior life defined by his love of superheroes and the memory of his parents. One of the strengths of the script, with its mix of direct audience address and regular dialogue, is its sensitivity to Sam's many faces: gawky adolescent, vivid fantasist, best mate, lover-in-waiting. When he mumbles incoherently in front of the teacher, the audience understand the complexity of what he would like to say.

In his own production, McKnight offsets the serious themes with the multi-role-playing fun of Julie Brown and James Mackenzie (particularly terrifying as love-rival Chunk) and the running commentary of Jamie Macdonald's black-and-white animations. Despite the playwright's way with a one-liner, however, the production is not as funny as you might expect, partly because the coming-of-age story is more familiar than subversive, but it does build to a touching and surprisingly tragic conclusion.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cone Gatherers, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

His Majesty's Theatre
Four stars
YOU can imagine a stage adaptation of Robin Jenkins's sublime 1955 novel turning out like Of Mice and Men. Set during the second world war on a remote Highland estate, it's about two brothers hired to gather pinecones for seed before the forest is felled. Like Steinbeck's Lennie, Callum is a child-like innocent with a love of nature who, arousing suspicion and ridicule, relies on the protection of a more worldly man – in this case, his brother Neil.

But here playwright Peter Arnott shifts the focus on to the gamekeeper, Duror, who, like Steinbeck's Curley, is threatened by the newcomers, for his own reasons. Played by Tom McGovern, blunt and self-justifying, he is a man under severe mental stress who shows signs of paranoid schizophrenia. He stands for something bigger than himself, however. The image of Adolf Hitler flickers onto a newsreel, just as Duror is giving a delusional speech about the evil in society. It harks back to Arnott's opening line: "This story happens in the world and the forest." At a time of global persecution of minorities, Duror's campaign has a wider resonance.

Arnott is also alive to the novel's vision of a ruling class no longer able to sustain its sense of superiority. John Kielty's Neil is an angry egalitarian, refusing to take orders from Jennifer Black's Lady Runcie-Campbell, a decent woman who is ill-equipped to deal with a changing social order.

While designer Hayden Griffin creates an illusion of the forest's enveloping darkness by projecting images on to rows of vertical ropes, director Kenny Ireland builds enough tension for the tragic ending to draw audible gasps.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (picture Donald Stewart)
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She Town/The Mill Lavvies, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Dundee Rep
Three stars
IT'S all go in Sharman Macdonald's She Town. The Dundee mill-workers are angry because their wages are being cut; the choir is auditioning to accompany Paul Robeson, the singer and civil rights activist, at his concert in the city's Caird Hall; and the politically committed are preparing to go and fight the fascists in the Spanish civil war.

With a background of child mortality, teenage pregnancy and squalid living conditions, the play identifies a potentially revolutionary period in Dundee's history, not least since a major part of the workforce was female. Appropriately, director Jemima Levick has brought together 44 women in this professional/community collaboration and with striking results: they move about the stage in the shadow of Alex Lowde's towering tenement set, creating the impression of a city teeming with life.

A shame, then, that it comes across as so joyless a play. The women are always bickering (about what, it's often hard to say); but worse, they are downtrodden rather than fervent, their anger too easily cowed by reactionary ideology. When the mill-owner's wife accuses them of "politics borne of envy", adding, "that's no politics at all", they are oddly quick to agree. With so many people on stage and with such polemical material, you would expect something celebratory and defiant. This seems muted and humourless.

That's not a charge you could level at Chris Rattray's The Mill Lavvies, which has no political ambitions but offers much jolly banter as it follows the working day in a cloth factory from the perspective of the gents' loos. Set 30 years after She Town, when it's the Beatles who'll be playing the Caird Hall, it's a minor comedy made special by the songs of Michael Marra, given spirited performances by the six actors in Andrew Panton's good-hearted production.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Why has Creative Scotland been under sustained fire during 2012?

Published in The List
THE appearance of Creative Scotland’s chief executive Andrew Dixon in front of the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee on Tuesday 18 September reflects the arts community’s deep concern about the competence of the national funding body. 

Creative Scotland, which replaced the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen in 2010, has been under sustained fire for some time; in particular, since the publication of its review of flexibly funded organisations in May. The attacks have come from many directions, but at their heart is the alarm caused by a change in the way Creative Scotland plans to fund many arts organisations.

As of 2013, the funding body will receive £2m less from the Scottish government, but will have more money at its disposal from the National Lottery. The problem is that lottery funds can be used only for one-off projects. Creative Scotland’s solution is to switch its support of 49 arts organisations from the relative security of two or three-year funding to the insecurity of project grants.

It’s a change that raises several questions. The first is technical. The National Lottery Act of 2006 specifies that lottery money should not be used to replace existing government funding. Even if Creative Scotland can demonstrate it is not using lottery money in this way, it will have a harder job to persuade people it is operating in the spirit of a law designed to protect charities from the vagaries of scratch-card sales.

A more pressing question is to do with the uncertainty the changes have introduced. Companies of the international stature of Vanishing Point, Grid Iron and Stellar Quines need to maintain a year-round artistic team and will not function for long if funded only on a show-by-show basis. All of them fear for their future, not least because they cannot apply for the same lottery funding twice. It is not clear how Creative Scotland plans to support these organisations a year or two down the line.

Artists are also worried the shift puts too much control in the hands of the funding body. An organisation funded for two years is free to follow its artistic instincts; an organisation funded a project at a time can do only what its paymasters allow. It’s a system that could turn Creative Scotland into the country’s de facto artistic director. That’s why culture secretary Fiona Hyslop recently gave warning that ‘it is not for administrators, bureaucrats or governments to tell artists what to do’.

Many more questions are being asked of Creative Scotland, including how it is making decisions without artform advisory panels and whether it will change its policies in the light of the unprecedented level of criticism.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Monday, September 17, 2012

My Shrinking Life, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

NTS, three stars

Alison Peebles is one of Scottish theatre's most striking figures. With high cheekbones, feline eyes and a confident swagger, she has a winning combination of wit, intelligence and glamour. As it happens, she describes herself in similar terms in My Shrinking Life – except in this National Theatre of Scotland production, it's in the past tense. It comes out as a eulogy.

The distancing is deliberate. In 2001, Peebles was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, although she has maintained a steady workload as performer and director in the intervening decade, she knows it is only a matter of time before she'll need more than crutches to get around. The wheelchair that sits at the back of the stage is an ominous portent.

Directed by Lies Pauwels, the show is a collage of the actor's responses to disability and a reflection on what it means to play a part in which she was unwillingly cast. As Peebles says, it's "not really dramatic, but adventurous"; a non-linear series of scenes that juxtapose her stumbling, asymmetrical walk with the leaps and pirouettes of three beautiful young dancers, while presenting her as a latter-day Arkadina from Chekhov's The Seagull, a supposedly famous actor finding it impossible to square the romance of the stage with the reality of disability.

Peebles is on excellent form through all this, ranging from dry and ironic to belligerent and angry, and always too proud to ask for our sympathy. She'd rather the challenge of crossing the stage in high heels than admit defeat and, if there's something unresolved about this patchwork production, it is very like the uncertainty of a woman not yet ready to make the transition from the spotlight to whatever lies off stage.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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A Beginning, a Middle and an End, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

You couldn't accuse Sylvia Dow of being over-hasty. After a lifetime in arts administration, she has waited until her 70s to make her playwriting debut. There is nothing antiquated, however, about her writing: A Beginning, a Middle and an End has a spareness and sense of fluid theatricality from which many a youngster could learn.

She does, though, share some of the wisdom of her years. This sweet-natured 70-minute three-hander, produced by Greyscale in association with Stellar Quines, is a metaphor for the stages of life. It starts with an air of expectancy – and a nod to Waiting for Godot – in a garden of Eden, where a latter-day Adam and Eve (their names are Ade and Evelyn) prepare to begin a life together.

They fill their house with the bric-a-brac of everyday life – records, deck chairs, endless avocado plants – and measure out their lives in the repeating patterns of games of Scrabble. Soon they're lamenting the ephemerality of youth, folding away the paper memory of a child as if it was Peter Pan's lost shadow. Before you know it, Ade is on his own, evoking the lonely minor-key ending of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

This could be glum, but Dow's more forceful metaphor is to do with the renewal of the seasons and life's endless replenishment. "Patience, water, soil and sun" is too fertile a recipe to be held back by the changes and regrets caused by the passage of time. Whatever happens, life goes on.

Some of the writing is too elliptical for its own good, and the pace sometimes crosses the line separating the dreamlike from the lethargic, but there's a playful charm to Selma Dimitrijevic's production. With empathetic performances from Jon Foster and Emilie Patry, plus Andrew Gourlay as their semi-estranged son, it is an auspicious, if tardy, debut.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Wonderland, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Vanishing Point, three stars

The play by Arthur Miller that became Death of a Salesman was originally called The Inside of His Head, but the title could apply equally to Vanishing Point's nightmarish contribution to the final week of the Edinburgh international festival. The head in question belongs to a "normal and healthy" middle-class father, played by Paul Thomas Hickey, whose exterior reality – cosy nights in watching The X Factor – contrasts with his predilection for sadistic chatroom porn.

Towering over his sleeping wife is a huge projection of Tania, 24, a Brazilian model played by a hardbitten Flávia Gusmão, who is willing to indulge some, if not all, of his sexual fantasies. Her looming presence in the living room is a visual metaphor for the internet's intrusion into his life. The further he goes, room by room, into this virtual wonderland, the greater the schism between the inside and outside of his head.

His 18-year-old daughter, meanwhile, is playing little-girl-lost as she makes her own forays into online sex, changing her name from Alice to Heidi and stepping through the looking glass to star in what look increasingly like snuff movies. Played by Jenny Hulse, she is not the victim she seems, but neither is she fully in control.
Matthew Lenton's production excels in its impressionistic visions of people caught in a pornographic arms race as they seek ever greater levels of degradation, but at the cost of making the audience wallow in the same miserable material.

Rather like the depressingly nihilist Morning by Simon Stephens, part of the Traverse's fringe season, Wonderland offers no psychological insight and no possibility of redemption. The pervasiveness of pornography in the private and public spheres is an important subject for dramatic exploration, but the extreme violence depicted here is so obviously a bad thing that there's no room for ambiguity or debate – just a disempowering feeling of despair.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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The 39 Steps, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, four stars

SINCE director Richard Baron staged The 39 Steps at Perth Theatre in 1998, the adaptation has been on a journey as long and involved as that of Richard Hannay when he stumbles across an international spy conspiracy in John Buchan's thriller. Baron took a script by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corbie, which had been on a small-scale tour of village halls, and gave it a gag-laden production that got much mileage out of the ludicrous impossibility of staging Hannay's epic journey across Britain with only four actors.

It was this tongue-in-cheek adaptation, rooted in Hitchcock's movie as much as the book, that the National Theatre of Brent's Patrick Barlow used as the basis for his award-winning adaptation, which, a couple of directors later, is still running in the West End. Now things have come full circle at Pitlochry, where Baron and his original designer, Ken Harrison, return to the show in the Barlow version.

Dougal Lee plays the part of the unflappable Hannay, who flees to Scotland after the glamorous spy he has befriended is murdered in his London apartment. The joke is twofold: we laugh at theatre's inability to create realistic impressions of a steam train, a Highland landscape and the Forth bridge; and we laugh, too, at the playfulness of a production that persists in the attempt regardless.

It means we're watching two stories at once. There is Buchan's ripping yarn, which somehow survives the irreverent treatment, and there is the story of four actors earnestly trying to tell the tale. With Kathryn Ritchie playing some (but not all) of the female roles, and George Docherty and David Delve running through their repertoire of comedy double-acts, it's a witty, high-energy show that suits the breezy holiday spirit of Pitlochry down to the ground.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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The Static, theatre review

Published in Northings

WHEN babies are born, they assume they are at the centre of the universe. It’s only as we mature that we realise ours may not be the only perspective.

Even as late as adolescence, we don’t always have an understanding of cause and effect. We observe something happening and assume we must have played a part in it. The power of the ego makes it hard for us to grasp that events can take place without us, whether they be minor incidents such as friends going off in a sulk, major break-ups such as parents divorcing, or global catastrophes such as aeroplanes dropping out of the sky.

This is the challenge facing Sparky and Siouxsie in Davey Anderson’s teen-friendly play for the ThickSkin company. Played by Brian Vernel and Samantha Foley, these two troublesome and troubled standard-grade pupils have convinced themselves of their ability to influence the world around them, whether through witchcraft or telekinesis. The spells Siouxsie writes in her secret black book have a habit of coming true, while Sparky seems to redirect his ADHD energy into moving objects beyond his physical reach.

The playwright keeps us believing they really might have these gifts, which takes Neil Bettles’ production onto a metaphysical plain, as objects take flight of their own accord and people are mysteriously injured. Doing a similar job are the filmed projections that turn the set – consisting of two banks of school lockers – into all manner of locations, from teen-goth bedroom to precipitous rooftop. For the teenage audience that’s attracted to the show, it must make school seem altogether more exotic than the humdrum place they’re used to.

Indeed, The Static seems to hit the spot with this young audience for its lively 65 minutes. With Pauline Lockhart and Nick Rhys playing the sympathetic and vulnerable figures of authority, Anderson uses the direct-address storytelling technique perfected by David Greig in plays such as Yellow Moon, which keeps the action fluid and theatrical.

Yet for all the fantasy and fun, there’s still something earthbound about this coming-of-age romance. Like a TV script, the story is full of incident but covers relatively little emotional ground, meaning the happy ending is sweet and satisfying but not especially moving.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Guid Sisters, theatre preview

Published in the Scotsman

If you’re thinking about casting any Scottish women in a show this season, you may want to think again. You’re likely to find them in short supply. Just look at the statistics. Opening this week at Dundee Rep is Sharman Macdonald’s She Town with an all-female cast of 44, nine of them professional. Meanwhile, at Perth Theatre, artistic director Rachel O’Riordan is in rehearsal with six women (and two token men) in a gender-reversed production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple opening at the end of the month. 

And a further 15 women are getting gainful employment in Edinburgh as the National Theatre of Scotland joins forces with the Royal Lyceum for a major revival of The Guid Sisters. Kath Howden and Karen Dunbar are among the stars of this working-class Montreal comedy and they know from experience there is something special about working with an all-female ensemble. 

For one thing, the banter is different. “The Guid Sisters is phenomenally written for women,” says Dunbar over breakfast in a Glasgow diner. “I’m reading it and I’m hearing my mother –”

“It’s written by somebody who’s been around women, it’s got the rhythms,” chips in Howden, realising that in interrupting Dunbar she is proving her own point. “When you get women together – we’re just doing this now – they’ll finish sentences, they’ll start before the other one’s finished … and I don’t think a group of men do that as much. It’s acceptable with women because –”

“– there’s so much conversation to be had,” continues Dunbar. “There’s so much affection and connection in the play. To butt in on somebody, to finish and interject, is a positive stroke –”

“– absolutely,” says Howden.

“– see, there we’re doing it,” laughs Dunbar. “That’s it just happening au naturel.”

Michel Tremblay’s play kicks off when Germaine Lauzon, played here by Howden, wins a million Green Shield stamps, the 1960s and 1970s equivalent of today’s Nectar points. Every time you made a purchase, you’d be given stamps with your change. These you would stick into books, which in turn, you could trade in for consumer products. Having won a million of them, Germaine has a lot of licking to do, which is why she invites round her extended female family (the French title, Les Belles-sœurs, translates as “the 
sisters-in-law”) for a book-filling party.

“It was a joy acting in a cast of six women,” says Howden, remembering her time in Sue Glover’s all-female Bondagers, as well as Des Dillon’s mainly female Six Black Candles. “I found we compromised much more. If you’re in a play where it is mostly men, you’ve got to try and get in there. You don’t want to take up the time because the boys think it’s their thing, so you play these games that I hate doing, but you find you have to do them. 

“Women naturally compromise, so if you disagree with a woman, you say, ‘Oh right, I see your point’. It’s an easier way of getting there, rather than going, ‘I’ll go right round there in order to get there because of his ego’. With women, you argue the same – it’s not like it’s all nice – but I just think you’re able to see other people’s point of view and there’s not a big thing of saying you’re wrong. It’s different egos.”

It isn’t only the performers who notice the difference with an all-female cast. Audiences, too, respond to the particular energy generated by 15 women on stage. It’s part of the reason the play has proved so phenomenally successful and, on its debut, even incendiary. When it opened in Montreal in 1968, it caused a sensation. The conservative, male-centred, Catholic society of the day was not accustomed to seeing the lives of working-class women dramatised in this way. 

Neither were people prepared for the language Tremblay used. Instead of the polite and very artificial French that was standard in film and theatre at the time, the playwright drew on Montreal’s joual dialect, something richer, rougher and more real. It proved tremendously controversial – one critic called his choice of dialogue “simply disgusting” – but also revolutionary. French-Canadian theatre would never be the same again.

Two decades later, the play was a sensation for a second time when it was translated by Martin Bowman and the late Bill Findlay into Scots. 
Unlike previous translators, who had used a bland and generic North American English, they realised Tremblay’s joual would find its match in the 
tenement patois of Glasgow. Turning Les Belles-sœurs into The Guid Sisters, they found themselves with a runaway hit when Michael Boyd directed it for Glasgow’s Tron in 1989. So successful was this production that it toured to Toronto and Montreal where English-speaking Canadians suddenly under-stood what they’d been missing.
It set in motion a love affair between Scotland and Tremblay, consummated in acclaimed productions including The House Among the Stars, Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer, and If Only – all translated by Bowman and Findlay.

What these plays share is not only a vibrant linguistic energy, but a tremendous sense of theatricality. “It’s not that I don’t like realistic theatre,” says Tremblay, now 70. “It’s OK when I see a very good American play. But what I don’t like about theatre is people who are trying to make you believe that what you see is true. To avoid that, there is something in most of my plays that is telling you all the way through that you are looking at a show. In Les Belles-sœurs it’s the choruses and the monologues. If you close your eyes, what you hear is realistic, but if you look at the stage, it’s not.”

Ill health means he now rarely sees productions of his own work, but he knows the NTS/Royal Lyceum production is in safe hands, with his compatriot Serge Denoncourt as director. 

“He loves the play very much,” says Tremblay. “It’s his fourth production. I saw two; one in Quebec City and one in Montreal. His last production in 2003, the play’s 35th anniversary, was amazing. He’s wonderful.”

• The Guid Sisters is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 21 September until 13 October; and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 23–27 October.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Fringe and Festival reviews: Spine/Blink/Monkey Bars/Born To Run/Flâneurs/Othello: The Remix/Songs Of Lear/The Rape Of Lucrece/Les Naufragés Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)

Published in Scotland on Sunday

EVERYONE’S always looking for the Fringe’s next big thing, but no one’s ever too sure where to find it.

The festival has a way of catching you off your guard. So apologies for my ­obscurantism, but I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the great performances of the Fringe was not in a well drilled and fully funded production, but in an early-morning reading that had just an hour’s rehearsal.

The actor was Rosie Wyatt, the play was Spine by Clara Brennan, and it had just two airings in the Theatre Uncut series of politically minded shorts at the Traverse. I happened to see both, and on each occasion I found myself welling up.

Brennan sets up a simple scenario: a young woman gets to know an elderly widow ­after thinking about renting a room from her. The room stays vacant, but the relationship blossoms over a mutual love of the old lady’s haul of rescued library books. What emerges is a deeply humane celebration of community, tradition and the imagination.

Wyatt performs it with a keen understanding of character and a wide-eyed openness to the world, qualities she also brings to Blink, one of a first-rate run of shows in the Traverse’s studio space. Phil Porter’s two-hander is about a couple of bereaved misfits whose relationship is build on an oddly innocent form of ­voyeurism. It’s not substantial enough to justify its length, but the performances by ­Wyatt and Harry McEntire, in this production by Joe Murphy for Soho Theatre and Nabokov, are delightful.

In the same space, Monkey Bars has a similarly delightful air, but there’s something more subtle going on. The half-dozen actors on a playschool set of glowing cubes behave as adults, but their ­dialogue is taken word for word from interviews with children. Under Chris Goode’s direction, the scenarios evoke political broadcasts, cocktail party chit-chat and job interviews, even though the ­perspective is that of eight-year-olds.

The effect is something like that of Creature Comforts, the Nick Park animations in which clay animals mouth the words of real people. It makes you hear the voices afresh in a way that is variously funny, touching and revealing.

Other shows to look out for at the Traverse include the newly opened Born To Run by Gary McNair and it’s an astonishingly athletic performance by Shauna Macdonald, who manages to muse on the subjects of illness and escape while running on a treadmill for over an hour. There’s an “are we nearly there yet?” quality to the script, which tells of one woman’s attempt to run a 110-mile desert race, but there is also an engaging discussion about how an extreme sport can become like meditation, a way of putting life in perspective and realising you can run towards something as well as away.

One of the great sources of energy on this year’s Fringe has been Summerhall, the multi-space venue in the old Dick Vet that’s hosting an ambitious programme of Scottish and European theatre, music and art. Highlights include Flâneurs, a show at once sweet-natured and tough talking by Jenna Watt, who juxtaposes her romantic love of aimless walks through the streets of Edinburgh with a fierce desire to resist the “bystander effect”, the phenomenon of witnesses to violent crime feeling powerless to intervene and help the victim. Like Clara Brennan, Watt offers a positive vision of civic life, infused with personal anecdotes and ideas about psychogeography, in a performance that is as gentle as it is certain in purpose. It is ­quietly revolutionary.

Where Watt seduces us with her softly-softly approach, the five gifted performers of Chicago’s Q Brothers go for the jugular in Othello: The Remix at the Pleasance. Working on the principle that Shakespeare’s love of language made him the Eminem of his day, the company has crafted a wholly original telling of the Iago/Othello story in a breathless barrage of beats, breaks and raps. They set Iago’s jealous plotting in a world of high-flying music-industry stars where the brotherly camaraderie of the streets all too easily turns poisonous. It sounds like a ghastly gimmick, but it works. What you lose in Shakespearean subtlety, you gain in urgency, pace and high-precision performances.

Back at Summerhall, Poland’s Song of the Goat is also taking inspiration from Shakespeare in a song cycle of exquisite beauty. More recital than play, Songs Of Lear takes the story of the king who becomes estranged from his daughters and his own sanity, and uses it as a jumping off point for a set of multi-harmony vocal workouts, ranging from the lonely solo of Cordelia’s lament to the screeching catharsis of the full company at the tragic denouement. Only the odd fragment of badly acted Shakespeare lets it down.

More Shakespeare reworking in the Edinburgh International Festival where Camille O’Sull­ivan is providing my highlight of the whole August line-up in The Rape Of Lucrece. Where the Q Brothers use urban poetry and Song of the Goat uses Coptic chanting, O’Sullivan teases out Shakespeare’s deep emotional currents with a piano-based cabaret score – played live by co-composer Feargal Murray – that turns a 1594 poem set in the days of the Roman re­public into a mesmerising, raw and immediate piece of theatre.

In androgynous black uniform, hair slicked down, O’Sullivan plays the role of storyteller, looking us in the eye and leading us imperceptibly into the world of the innocent Lucrece who, in her husband’s absence, welcomes the King of the Tarquins into her home without suspecting his wicked intentions. In passages of greatest tension she switches into song, showing the same phenomenal vocal range that has made her such a hit on the Fringe.

This draws out the heart-wrenching tragedy of the poem. Whether singing or not, O’Sullivan treats it as if it were a piece of music, one that can withstand everything from a whisper to a scream, delivering it with such lucidity, soul and emotional truth that we are left transfixed. It is a stunning achievement that I could watch over and over.

All through August, it has been the EIF that has set the pace and, in the festival’s best theatre programme for years, the hits just keep on coming. Opening on Thursday night, Les Naufragés Du Fol Espoir (Aurores) is a beguiling four-hour celebration of community, both in the tale it tells of a shipload of European exiles imagining they can establish a Utopian society in some foreign land, and in the astonishing exertions of Ariane Mnouchkine’s 35-strong company who seem to dream up the epic journey before our eyes. 

It is a masterpiece of stagecraft, rich in human life, gripping in the politics of colonialism and socialism, and utterly assured in Mnouchkine’s control of space and time. Everyone should see it. 

Theatre Uncut, Traverse, run ended; Blink, Traverse, ends today; Monkey Bars, Traverse, ends today; Born to Run, Traverse, ends today; Flâneurs, Summerhall, ends today; Othello: The Remix, Pleasance Courtyard, ends tomorrow; Songs of Lear, Summerhall, run ended; The Rape of Lucrece, Royal Lyceum, ends today; Les Naufragés Du Fol Espoir (Aurores), Royal Highland Centre, until Tuesday.;

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Ma Biche et Mon Lapin, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman

WHO knows what shenanigans the knick-knacks on your sideboard get up to when your back is turned. The porcelain rabbit, the lace doilies, the whisky miniature, the decorative napkin holder, the reproduction Alpine chalet … they all look innocuous enough but, according to Collectif Aïe Aïe Aïe, they’re secretly at it like – well, like porcelain rabbits

In this short and sweet 
two-hander, performed on a table top for a tiny audience as if by special request, puppeteers Charlotte Blin and Julien Mellano tell a tale of sex and romance using the kind of objects we associate with kitsch living-room decoration.

The biche and lapin (doe and rabbit) of the title could be the pottery figurines that take pride of place on your grandmother’s mantelpiece. Your grandmother, however, is unlikely to have imagined them getting off with each other or seductively sharing the dish of pâté contained in their hollow insides.

Neither is she likely to have wired them for sound (the music is one of the show’s strong points), and even in her most depraved moments, she will not have seen an image of sexual congress in a napkin penetrating a napkin ring, or a lusty bottle of spirits emptying itself into a virgin glass.

Oddly, none of this strikes one as rude or salacious. It’s as innocent as the doilies that fall as snow across the miniature landscape, blanketing the cottage where two neighbours are busy making the bed squeak. For all the innuendo, this is an essentially romantic vision, a view of sexual attraction that is simple, mutual and conflict-free.

At just 30 minutes long, this wordless show is not going to change your life, but it’s the kind of quirky discovery that makes the Fringe special.

Star rating: * * * *

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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I Heart Peterborough, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman

AS PLAYWRIGHT and director Joel Horwood sees it, Peterborough is a place of 
cul-de-sacs, racism and modest ambition, with more past than present. 

As the years tick by in this lively two-hander, he makes reference to significant news events that are happening in London, Northern Ireland …anywhere but here. Quite what there is to love about it, he never makes clear.

Neither does he make clear where the heart of the play lies. It begins as a coming-of-age story about Michael (Milo Twomey), from first gay crush to first disappointed girlfriend, then fast-forwards abruptly to his relationship, 15 years later, with the son he has inadvertently fathered (played by Jay Taylor, who also keeps busy on the keyboard). The switch in focus makes the first half of the play seem like an extended preamble for the second, lessening the emotional impact of the father-son tensions that develop.

There’s so much narrative detail, it’s hard to see what the author’s intentions are. That’s a shame, because there’s much to enjoy in the two performances, the wit of the staging and the energy of Horwood’s language.

Star rating: * * *

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Edinburgh by Rupert Thomson, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman

NOT content with running an ambitious international programme in the former Dick Vet, Summerhall’s artistic director Rupert Thomson is paying homage to the city he made his home 13 years ago in a delicate and beguiling one-man show that’s somewhere between walking tour and art installation.

A tall man in a suit, he meets us in the foyer and launches into the performance without introduction. He was born in Manchester, he explains but, like so many of us, it was the Scottish capital to which he gravitated and fell in love with.

He takes us upstairs to a series of rooms – one decked out as kitchen, one as artist’s garret, the third a gloomy loft. Each space represents a stage in his engagement with Edinburgh itself. The kitchen signifies the home, a place to share food, stories and word games. The garret stands for the imagination, somewhere for daydreams and creative leaps. And the loft is a metaphor for the unconscious, a mysterious room of brief erotic visions. 

As we travel, Thomson offers a mixture of personal anecdotes and philosophical musings. He considers the architectural allure of Edinburgh and the psychogeography of the towering Old Town, the streets of Leith and the Waverley trains that cut straight into the city’s heart. This is a city where he felt immediately at home, even as a six-year-old visitor, yet he also sees it as a place of loss, a home that conceals a terrifying abyss.

Lest this sound too heady, he roots his monologue in stories of romance and community, asking us to share our own visions of this beguiling capital. Those people who ask why Edinburgh of all cities should have become home to the world’s largest arts festival may well find the answer in this subtle and warming show.

Star rating: * * * *

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Fringe and Festival reviews: Mies Julie | Speed Of Light | Macbeth | Waiting For Orestes: Electra

Published in Scotland on Sunday

IF THE Edinburgh festivals are the Olympics of the arts world, when are they going to start testing for performance-enhancing drugs? Surely any sporting adjudicator watching Mies Julie, the sensational hit from the Baxter Theatre Centre and South African State Theatre, would wonder whether it was humanly possible to build a show of such violence and eroticism without chemical aid. 

But, of course, the stunning performances in Yael Farber’s production are all the actors’ own. Just as much as any ­athletic triumph, their achievement is one of breathtaking control and prowess. Hilda Cronje in the title role and Bongile Mantsai as her servant John are actors prepared to take their conflicting impulses of sexual desire and political repulsion to the limit. Moment by moment, we’ve no idea whether they’ll tear each other apart or submit to each other in a frenzy of sexual ­ecstasy.

Such intensity has been made possible by Farber’s brilliant re-imagining of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Where the original ­exposed the tensions in the class system in its story of the upper-class Julie seducing her man-servant Jean, this radical version switches the setting to a post-apartheid kitchen where the characters carry the weight of not just class but the whole sad legacy of South ­African racial oppression. Their attraction is primal, but with it comes the terrible knowledge that they are not meeting as equals.

Farber ups the stakes further by turning the third character of Christine from John’s fiancée into his mother. Played by Thokozile Ntshinga, she has tended to Julie since she was a newborn baby, showing her as much love as she does her own son. Yet this close domestic bond only seems to amplify the cultural differences between the two and to bring home the tragic impossibility of their union. The result is bloody, brutal and riven with a vicious ­passion.

The production, part of ­Assembly’s impressive eight-show South African season, is the closest this year’s Fringe has to a runaway hit. There are plenty of fine shows elsewhere, of course, but this is the one animating audiences in a way that only an electrifying Fringe show can do. It demonstrates the Edinburgh International Festival is not the only player in town when it comes to world-class work from abroad.

It seems a long time ago now, but when Jonathan Mills programmed his first Edinburgh International Festival in 2007, he gave his audience a challenge. Noting the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the birth of modern opera, he wanted us to think about the boundaries between music and theatre. By scheduling shows such as the Wooster Group’s La ­Didone and Barrie Kosky’s Poppea, which owed as much to experimental theatre as they did to opera, he made us question the definitions we impose on art.

If a director fancied blending a 1965 sci-fi B-movie with a 17th-century opera by Francesco Cavalli, as the Wooster Group’s Elizabeth LeCompte did, then it only went to show what a broad church theatre could be.

In a different way, Mills seems to be making a similar point with his bumper theatre line-up in 2012. Unlike in previous years, he has made no thematic connection between the shows, but by presenting so many of them in quick succession, he reminds us just how elastic the definition of theatre has become.
In less than a week, I have partaken in a night-time ­ramble, seen Shakespeare ­given a hi-tech relocation to the ­Middle East, enjoyed an ­eccentric music-theatre ­response to My Fair Lady, been seduced by an acting technique developed in a Japanese mountain village 600m above sea level, and been captivated by a one-man piece of Irish storytelling.

All of these experiences are classified as theatre – with the exception of NVA’s Speed Of Light, a piece of environmental art in a category of its own – yet you’d struggle to connect them in terms of their mood, purpose, form or audience relationship. Politically, aesthetically and artistically, they have little in common. What they do share, however, is a sense of adventure, boldness and artistic vision. As a result, they have provided some of the most enjoyable and stimulating hours of the festivals so far.

As is routinely the case with EIF shows, such boldness comes at a price. If you choose, like Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, to situate Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a world defined by the Hollywood action film (with the odd David Lynch-ism thrown in), you have to accept that something will be lost in the process. For all its many strengths, 2008: Macbeth will not be remembered for the felicity of its verse, for example. The up-side is the tremendous urgency Jarzyna brings to the story, thanks to his visceral vision of modern-day military manoeuvres, complete with carousing soldiers, deafening aircraft and earth-shattering explosions.

Performed until yesterday on an imposing stage evoking the stark concrete and shaded interiors of a military hotspot in the Middle East, it maintains the shape of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but in detail it is every bit a play for today. Cezary Kosinski’s Macbeth looks like a war criminal even before he gets his first promotion and needs to be goaded by Aleksandra Konieczna’s Lady Macbeth only in uncharacteristic moments of doubt. For the most part, he treats her with the contempt of a man making a bid for despotic control.

The mood at the other end of the Royal Highland Centre couldn’t be more different. Here, in Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor, Christoph Marthaler makes a music-theatre response to My Fair Lady. The relationship to the original ranges from the tangential to the obscure. There’s a theme about translation and correct pronunciation, plus the occasional melody from the musical and the odd echo of the key characters. But in this gloriously batty production, it pays not to ask too many questions. 

After all, there can surely be no rational explanation for the scene in which Professor Higgins, wearing tight-fitting man-made fabrics, engages in a food fight with a frumpy, middle-aged Eliza Doolittle as they tuck into airline meals while sitting in a language lab. That’s before they comfort the Frankenstein’s monster who’s sitting at the electric organ. All this is accompanied by the rest of the cast at the piano singing about a trip to a far-away star. The musical selection, from Wagner to George Michael, is no less eccentric, but it is ­frequently performed with great beauty and sensitivity. It means you laugh at the oddball clowning, the retro ­stylings and the ironic comedy of manners without ever quite letting go of the possibility that there is a serious undertow to the whole thing.

In contrast to the exuberance at Ingliston, the two plays that ran at the start of the week in town were ­exquisite jewels. In Samuel Beckett’s Watt, a comic study of nothingness, Barry McGovern gave a masterclass in the art of storytelling. His voice sonorous, his poise still, he delivered his own edited version of the novel with such precision that we relished every perfectly chosen word. And Waiting For Orestes: Electra offered a second masterclass in precision as ­director Tadashi Suzuki invested the Ancient Greek classic with a mesmerising level of tension. The longer Yoo-Jeong Byun held her silent pose as Electra, the more powerful you knew her retribution on her murderous mother would be. It was a thrill to watch. 

• Mies Julie, Assembly Hall, until 27 August (not 20); Speed Of Light, Arthur’s Seat, until 1 Sep (not 13, 14, 20, 21, 28); 2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, run ended; Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor, Royal Highland Centre, until today; Watt, Royal Lyceum, run ended; Waiting For Orestes: Electra, King’s Theatre, run ended.;

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Waiting for Orestes (Electra), theatre review

Published in the Scotsman

NOT for the first time this year have we seen a classic drama played out in a psychiatric hospital. Like Alan Cumming’s recent Macbeth, Tadashi Suzuki’s mesmerising treatment of the Euripides play is set among white aprons and wheelchairs.  

In the belief that “all the world’s a hospital”, Suzuki has returned to this idea repeatedly in his work. In an institutional setting, he can observe characters who have direct access to their most intense feelings. But the aspect that hits you most powerfully in this 60-minute, espresso-shot of a production is less the setting than the exacting control the director yields over the performers of the Suzuki Company of Toga. It’s as if every breath, every pulse, every gesture and syllable has been choreographed to yield maximum tension.

You feel at any moment something will snap and the deep, dangerous psychological forces that keep this ancient Greek tragedy alive will be unleashed.

Above all is the compelling figure of Yoo-Jeong Byun as Electra, furious at her mother’s murder of her father and waiting for her brother Orestes to enact revenge. Stock still, centre stage, she is frighteningly composed. Arms jutting like wings, one leg up as if ready to propel her out of the wheelchair, she has the concentration of a bird of prey, alert, silent and ready to pounce.

She is a central presence almost from the start, yet the show is half-way through before we hear her voice. The ferociousness of her internal monologue, relayed by the chorus of topless male patients, becomes too great to keep in: “Orestes will return.”

With Chieko Naito as her mother, Clytemnestra, a towering giant of amoral self-justification, and Midori Takada performing live percussion with the same precision and elemental restraint as the actors, the production is a vital masterclass in theatrical control.
Rating: ****

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Fringe reviews: Mess | The List | Thread | Hand Over Fist | Juana In A Million

Published in Scotland on Sunday

IF THIS were my real review of Caroline Horton’s Mess, I’d start off in a teasing way, giving the impression the show was just a bit of a giggle.  

I’d talk about the songs performed to the live accompaniment of Seiriol Davies which are too quirky to be part of the real show, when they do it in front of a real audience, but are great fun here at the Traverse. And I’d string you along for a while about the hilariously strained expression Horton holds as she tries to maintain control over her unpredictable world, and about the well-meaning attempts of her cross-dressing stooge, Hannah Boyde, to help out.

In my real review, I’d keep that up for a paragraph or two before letting slip that, funny though it is, Mess is a whole lot more serious than it makes out. When they do the real show in the real theatre, they’ll have a job pitching the marketing right. That’s because, under the guise of the micro-managing Josephine, Horton is telling the true story of her own struggle with ­anorexia nervosa.

The control she seeks to exert over the show – which is obviously not perfect enough to be the real show – is the same neurotic control she ­attempted to hold over her teenage world. If the cosmos were beyond her influence, she could at least harness her food intake and keep an ounce-by-ounce eye on her weight. Perfect.

With the consequent strained relationships, interrupted studies and spell in a specialist hospital, Mess shouldn’t be a bundle of laughs and often it is not; in time, Horton gives due weight to the seriousness of her story. She offers a touching insight into the cruel grip of an eating disorder and a sense of the near impossibility of curing it in anything but the most patient and painstaking way. That she also makes it so enjoyable means it’s one show about anorexia you could recommend to anyone. And you don’t need to wait until they put on the real thing.

Another woman seeking to control her environment is played with characteristic compassion and authority by Maureen Beattie in The List. In Jennifer Tremblay’s play, staged by Stellar Quines in one of the vertiginous lecture theatres in Summerhall, she has escaped the city in the mistaken belief she would have more authority – over husband, children and daily routine – if she were living in the countryside. 

Her compulsion to make lists, while keeping her house in squeaky-clean order, seems to stop short of OCD but, like Horton’s character, she shows all the symptoms of a woman struggling to keep a grip. The grim irony is that when tragedy really does strike, the meticulously kept lists prove no help at all. Under Muriel Romanes’ direction, with a literally striking set by John Byrne, Beattie builds a vivid and affecting portrait.

There are yet more affecting portraits of women losing control in Hand Over Fist by Dave Florez at the Pleasance and Thread by Jules Horne for Edinburgh’s Nutshell company at Assembly St Mark’s. In both cases, the subject is Alzheimer’s disease and both do a convincing, as well as tender, job of dramatising the decline of a degenerating brain.

In Hand Over Fist, Joanna Bending gives a superb performance as Emily, a woman for whom past, present and future have become one and the same. As she makes repeated attempts to tell an anecdote about a youthful romance, her character, indeed her very physical presence, changes dramatically by the line. At each attempt, the tangents become more surreal, the narrative less reliable, the definition of who she is less and less secure.

So it is with Claire Dargo’s Joan in Thread, a three-hander that starts delightfully as a church-hall beetle drive and develops into a sweet-natured memory play about two childhood friends and the man one of them marries. Memories, however, are what the 78-year-old Joan finds increasingly hard to hold on to, and 
Dargo carefully charts the stages from mystification to anger to confusion as the play itself darts backwards and forwards through time. It’s a lovely show, only a little spoiled by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conclusion (I think I blinked).

Over at the Pleasance Dome, a woman who needs extra reserves of control is the young Mexican immigrant in Juana In A Million who arrives in London without a work permit, hoping she can escape a life blighted by poverty, murder and extortion rackets. She discovers a city where friendship is shallow and shortlived, where employers are cynical and opportunistic, and where a cheery disposition can soon be beaten down.

Writer/performer Vicky ­Araico Casas gives an unsentimental insight into the vulnerability of an illegal immigrant, but adds extra depth by setting her story in the context of many centuries of economic exploitation going right back to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. In a performance laced with quiet humour and graced with dexterous physicality – not to mention a fine live musical accompaniment – it gives Juana In A Million a political edge that makes it more than just a pity-me story.

A quick mention of two other worthy shows. At the Bedlam, Scotland’s Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting Grit, a poignant study of children ­living in war zones. It’s a beautiful show, full of rich object-theatre invention, demonstrating what you can achieve with little more than an overhead projector and a lot of cardboard. 

Equally simple in presentation, rich in detail and clear in political intention is NOLA, a piece of verbatim theatre at the Underbelly by Look Left Look Right that captures the voices of those affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Brilliantly mimicking everyday speech, it brings home the human cost of this man-made disaster as well as reminding us of the environmental effects both of the spill itself and the clean-up operation.

As the Fringe gets into its stride, the Edinburgh International Festival has arrived in luminous style all over Arthur’s Seat in NVA’s majestic Speed Of Light. We’d all heard about Angus Farquhar’s London 2012-funded event in which a phalanx of volunteer runners would criss-cross the slopes of the city’s iconic peak wearing suits of lights ­powered by their own kinetic energy. But it is only when 
you climb the hill, in parties staggered at 15-minute intervals, all of you carrying 
your own glowing walking stick, that you appreciate what a mesmerising thing it is.

Surprisingly, it is not the athletic prowess of the performers you notice – although there is something pleasing about the human scale of their endeavour – as much as the abstract patterns they create, defining the contours of the after-hours landscape to a backdrop of stars and city lights. As you climb to the summit in a two-and-a-half hour trek, you look down to see silver starbursts, ­pulsing red blood cells and ice-blue butterflies. One minute, they are a Miro line, the next, a Jackson Pollock splatter. 

Eventually, these images are accompanied by high-altitude harmonies, adding to the otherworldly loss of perspective in one of the city’s most familiar places.
If the rest of the EIF programme is half as good, 2012 will be a year to remember.

Mess, Traverse, until 26 August; The List, Summerhall, until 25 August; Thread, Assembly St Mark’s, until 26 August; Hand Over Fist, Pleasance, until 27 August; Juana In A Million, Pleasance Dome, until 26 August; Grit, Bedlam, until 25 August; NOLA, Underbelly, until 26 August; Speed of Light, Arthur’s Seat, until 1 September.,

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Interview with director Donnacadh O’Briain

YOU put on your dirty grey raincoat and walk furtively through the city crowds until you reach a dodgy-looking building topped by a flickering neon sign. Handing over your ticket, you enter a private booth, take a seat and lean forward. Keeping your smutty thoughts to yourself, you leer through a slot in the wall little bigger than a letterbox and observe the non-stop erotic action inside.

The sex show begins – but, this being the Edinburgh Fringe, all is not what it seems. You are not hanging around the city’s notorious “pubic triangle”, but enjoying a rather more high-minded show called Peep in the Pleasance Courtyard.

“It comes from a genuine desire to have a dedicated space where sex is the key agenda,” says theatre director Donnacadh O’Briain. “It’s something which is so important in our daily lives, and has huge repercussions on what we do and how we behave and relate to each other.”

With that in mind, he has constructed his own peepshow theatre, a cube three metres on each side, lined with a strip of two-way mirrors and surrounded by 12 individual booths for the audience. It’s built so the spectators can’t see each other. Because they’re wearing headphones, relaying a mixture of live speech and pre-recorded music, they can’t hear each other, either. 

“They know each other is there, but they have no evidence,” O’Briain says. “The presence of the audience is a thought-provoking fact; your separation makes them more present in your imagination, particularly because we’re placing them in a context where traditionally people are alone in their own sexual activity.”

What they will see, however, is not pole dancing or tassel twirling, but one of three specially commissioned plays on the subject of sex. The authors are Pamela Carter, familiar to Scottish audiences through her work with Stewart Laing and the Traverse; Leo Butler, a Royal Court regular; and Kefi Chadwick, whose Mathematics of the Heart won Best New Play at last year’s Brighton Festival.

Carter’s Meat is about a relationship that runs into trouble when a woman looks at her partner’s internet browser history; Butler’s 69 is a stream-of-consciousness collage of characters – not all of them human – talking about sex, the body and the “sexual psyche”, and Chadwick’s SexLife plays with the idea of intimacy, exploitation and post-baby sex. 

At only 20 minutes long, they will be repeated much like a real peepshow in which performers turn in the same routine several times on each shift. “It allows writers to write a short, stand-alone piece,” says O’Briain. “Great short work, like a short novella, does need that space, and Peep provides that.” 

Having been intrigued by a newspaper article that claimed the British cannot put sex on stage without making it silly, O’Briain wondered if it would be possible to tackle the subject seriously. 

“I did specifically go and get writers in their late thirties, early forties and have a good bit of life experience behind them,” he says. “I wanted sophisticated responses and sophisticated ideas to challenge people. There are things in all the pieces that I had never discussed in private in the way they are discussed in the plays.”

His brief to the writers was simple: the work should play to the strengths of this particular space, it would have a maximum cast size of four and the broad theme would be sex. Inspired by The Early Bird, a play by Butler that O’Briain staged in a Perspex box, he wanted to bring the intimate experience of sex into the public realm while retaining a sense of privacy. 

“Rather than presenting the sexual body, we are representing the sexual mind,” he says. “There is nudity in it, but it’s a complex thing. In Kefi Chadwick’s piece, you have an empathetic experience with the characters, but it also makes you think about your own situation, being so close to a woman who is now naked and is taking a step which should never be witnessed by anyone.”

Also involved in the project are composer Nick Powell, known for his work in Scotland with Suspect Culture; Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, who has provided the sound system; and leading lighting designer Ben Ormerod, who recently worked on King Lear for Glasgow’s Citizens and The Tempest for Dundee Rep.

“The funny thing is, I went to Ben for advice,” says O’Briain. “I wanted to chat to him about it aesthetically, but he said he’d really like to do it. We don’t have the money for Ben Ormerod, but he liked the sound of it. It’s wonderfully warming when you get that, and that’s happened all the way along the line, with the writers as well.”

• Peep, Pleasance Courtyard, until 
27 August, hourly from 11am until 7pm.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Fringe reviews: Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes | Fat

Published in Scotland on Sunday

OVER the next few Edinburgh weeks, a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time looking at other people. In turn, those people will spend a lot of time pretending to be people they are not. 

So it is fitting that my Fringe kicked off with a show about both things: looking and pretending.

Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes is inspired by the true story of a convent-educated life model who, in the 1950s, served as a muse for Lucian Freud and Francis ­Bacon. Constantly on the move, she spent the 60s on the ­itinerant hippy trail, taking a lot of LSD and falling into petty crime. On her death in 1999, ­after an intimate relationship with the artist Maggi Hambling, one ­obituary put her profession down as “bohemian”.

Actor and writer Sue ­MacLaine relates Moraes’ life like a hazy poetic dream. We can’t quite work out how she switches from Soho beauty to addict to mother to drop-out, much as Moraes herself is quite uncertain about who she actually is.
“Steal my soul and show it back to me,” she says, a sentiment that carries extra weight here in the White­space Gallery where we, the audience, have been equipped with drawing boards, pencils and paper and told to treat the show like a life-drawing class. Repeatedly, MacLaine takes off her dressing gown, tells us she is about to hold a pose for a few minutes and leaves us to it. 

I won’t be exhibiting my own efforts any time soon, but it’s a novel way to watch a show; one of those ­only-on-the-Fringe experiences that makes you look at theatre – or look at looking at theatre – in a completely ­different way.
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s too integral for that. At one point, MacLaine steps down from the stage to inspect our various drawings. It’s as if we have been caught out in the voyeuristic act of being an audience. Do our sketches contain her essence? Have we stolen her soul? Do we know her better than she knows herself?

Indeed, these are questions that can be asked all over the Fringe. Who, for example, is Pete Edwards, performing his own play Fat at the Pleasance? Like MacLaine, he spends much of his one-man show in a state of undress, while the story he tells has an even greater dreamlike quality. It’s an after-hours tale of a walk along the Thames that slips from innocuous descriptions of the rippling water and the empty walkways into sequences of wild invention. His comic surrealism is worthy of Vic and Bob, right down to the operatic ode to blood-covered spam discovered in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

From the midst of this free association emerges Edwards’ deepest sexual fantasy: to share a romantic night in with pasta, Coca-Cola and a fat male lover. While the fat man cooks Italian on the projected video, Edwards rolls naked in front of us over plates of spaghetti in tomato sauce.

As he revels in his delight, Edwards confronts us with an idea that should be obvious but feels radical. It is that all of us, however we define ourselves, are creatures of ­desire and imagination. For Edwards, who happens to be severely disabled, to give voice to his longings – and such a creative voice at that – is a political act.

Many identities, but not much politics in Maxwell Golden’s CountryBoy’s Struggle – in fact, that’s part of the joke. This hip-hop coming-of-age story is about a fan of rap music who escapes his backwater upbringing in Bude, Cornwall, for the bright lights of London. 

Golden has fun with the idea that such an inner-city artform should appeal to a teenager whose greatest deprivation is killing time in an off-season amusement arcade. But he understands too that, whatever your background, artistic fulfilment and personal maturity go hand in hand. 

As journeys go, CountryBoy’s Struggle is short on drama, but Golden is a charming and supple performer whose physical skills match his gifts for vivid characterisation and razor-sharp rhymes, creating an easy show to like. 

Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes, Whitespace, until 27 August (not 7, 14, 21); Fat, Pleasance Courtyard, until 26 August (selected days); CountryBoy’s Struggle, Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 August (not 13)

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Interview with playwright Dave Florez

Published in the Scotsman

ONE of the surprise hits of last year’s Fringe was a one-man show with the colourful name of Somewhere Beneath it All, a Small Fire Burns Still. It starred stand-up Phil Nichol as a man we assumed to be a misogynistic misfit until, midway through, he appeared to have an onstage breakdown before revealing his character was actually a paraplegic man desperately craving affection. It was as bold as it was unsettling, and The Scotsman duly awarded it a Fringe First.

The author was Dave Florez, known on the London playwriting scene as a name to watch and this year we have two chances to see what else he is capable of. First, he is working once more with Hannah Eidinow – director of five Fringe First-winning shows – on Hand Over Fist, which explores the troubling subject of Alzheimer’s disease. He is also reunited with Nichol and the Comedians Theatre company to take a comic look at the subject of alcohol addiction in The Intervention.

Hand Over Fist is “a brilliant piece of writing”, says Eidinow. “It’s incredibly upsetting as you get to the end, which creeps up on you. Why do I spend every year in one particular rehearsal room, in tears?”

Nichol is equally enthusiastic about The Intervention. “This play is a really good sign to anyone in the industry that, not only can he write the monologue you saw last year, which was a piece of postmodern, visceral drama, but he is also able to write rock-solid dialogue. It’s a very modern piece, but it’s also timeless. He’s an incredibly sophisticated writer and his attention to detail is better than anything I’ve seen.”

It is through the Comedians Theatre Company that Florez developed The Intervention. He wrote the part of Zac, an alcoholic with skeletons, with Nichol in mind and is full of praise for his lead actor: “Phil has got a wonderful watchable quality and an energy you can’t buy or learn in drama schools.” Waen Shepherd (The Inbetweeners) and Jan Ravens (Dead Ringers) are also in the seven-strong cast.

The Intervention is black comedy about an attempt by Zac’s friends and family to redeem him before it’s too late. The play, has its roots in his own less-than-successful attempt to help out a friend, whose addictive behaviour had led to a bust-up with his family. 

“He was kicked out of his father’s house and was living on the streets,” says Florez. “I tried to do a one-man intervention on him and on his father. It didn’t work as well as it might. I was young and inexperienced. His father would not listen to me or give him the benefit of the doubt and, to be fair, he had his reasons. That got me thinking about how these things could play out.”

Nichol is famed for his reserves of his energy and is no stranger to the excesses of the Edinburgh Fringe, but has managed to avoid the dark addictions of his character. “As much as I have had a career of carousing, I’ve never felt I was in a situation where I was addicted to anything – other than a lust for life,” he says. 

“On the other hand, I’ve got friends who have fallen by the wayside, so I know how destructive it can be. I’ve had long weekends and benders and I know what it’s like to wake up with a hangover, but I don’t think I’d put myself in the same category as this character who has suffered at the hands of his father through the cycle of abuse that is handed down through generations.”

Performed on a single set in real time, The Intervention is designed to give the whole ensemble a turn in the spotlight. It is custom-built for the company’s character comedians. Florez says he relishes the chance to write with stand-ups in mind: “You’ve got comedians who have never had any acting training, but it’s just innately in them. 

“Obviously, the crossover is massive with stand-up and storytelling, and how storytelling is brought into acting – it’s all connected. Also comedians take risks in their everyday life, getting up on stage and being very vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers every night and dealing with heckles. That must come to the fore when being emotionally vulnerable with the character.”

Meanwhile, Hand Over Fist is the second part of a trilogy about mental and physical disability that began with Somewhere Beneath it All…. Here, Florez dramatises the impact of dementia by casting relatively young actor, Joanna Bending, as Emily, an 80-year-old woman conscious that her memory is slipping away. 

“Alzheimer’s is something that’s happened in my family, but I wanted to make it relevant to the youth of today,” says the 32-year-old. “A lot of people who would usually come and see my work would probably get turned off at the idea: Alzheimer’s is boring, it’s an old-people’s concern. It would be interesting to get the kind of people who normally see my work thinking about that sort of thing and seeing if it engages them, because it’s something that could happen to any of us.”

By putting Emily’s younger self on stage, he aims to give the story extra poignancy. “You get a wonderful defamiliarisation,” he says. “It’s a late-twenties/early-thirties version of herself, telling her life story, her love story, over and over again until she gets it right, because the memory is fading and she can’t quite grasp on to it for long enough.”

• The Intervention, The Assembly Rooms, until 26 August; Hand Over Fist, Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 August.