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 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. edfringe.co; eif.co.uk
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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