FRINGE VIEWS 2014.
After its earnest early years, and swelling into a market-place for careers, the Edinburgh Fringe maintains both those elements but with a significant theme of artistic exploration.
It’s impossible to separate the elements. Edinburgh at Fringe time each August is too big not to be a market-place. What matters is that material on offer should come from the imaginations of performers, not the equivalent of focus-grouped, agent-propelled conformity.
And there is plenty of imagination about, at different stages of development. As a selection made in terms of venues and companies which have an individual identity and sense of venture, here goes…
A BELLYFUL OF THEATRE
The various Underbelly venues have mushroomed, here and in London, in recent years. But the core site, a stone tower-block accessed from the vibrantly noisy Cowgate at the bottom or the more sedate Victoria Street and George IV Bridge at the top, retains its cavern-like feel in the spaces where things happen.
A little way away, though, there’s the related Udderbelly, with its bovine theming and huge tent where family shows rule late morning. Though miked-up musicals and jolly energy rarely produce the best young people’s theatre, two companies at least have the knack of presenting something more than mere energy – Tall Stories and Scamp Theatre.
Scamp’s show this year, Pirate Gran isn’t its strongest, because the picture-book source whose familiarity is important in selling tickets, doesn’t allow the narrative development of other shows. Still, Geraldine Durrant’s character is faithfully played, a lovable Scottish granny who just happens to be a pirate, with a naughty, naughty crew of three. Fun with a kind of pirate Olympics and versatile changes of scene, songs and proficient performances should keep this walking the touring plank for months and be enjoyed by 6+.
More thoughtful, for older youngsters, a few steps away at Udderbelly’s MacEwan Hall space, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful is told as a one-man story in Simon Reade’s skilled adaptation. It’s a kind of animal-free War Horse as Peaceful leaves his farm, dons a military helmet and ends up shot for refusal to follow a suicidal order.
Told by its protagonist over his last night, with a kind of Dr Faustus count-down using a watch which came his way in a manner explained by the end, it’s a story of a man having to accept he’s caught in a machine. The cell’s bed becomes a trench as he tells his story, and the final dignity is significantly what Peaceful preserves.
Back at Underbelly itself, a tale from Wales in Hiraeth. Two people tell the story, one of whom says she is not an actor, the other declaring he is, and looking for work, so likely to try out a number of performance styles during the story of one young woman’s attempts to escape the close-girt pattern of farmhouses linked by family connections. It has a sense of reality and bringing to life lives not often featured directly onstage.
Even rain, laid on as if specially for the start of the Festival, couldn’t dampen enthusiasm back at the MacEwan, come 7pm, for Circa’s circus-like show Beyond. It’s an hour of incredible acrobatics. Whole studies of biology and physics could surely be written to explain how human knees and shoulders can bear and balance three-storey columns of performers, or have one fulcrum for bodies spread at all angles.
Skimming up and down poles, leaping from one to another, jumping from one person’s back to another and landing perfectly without a single spine seeming scrunched, it’s a voyage of non-stop skill. It has to be seen to be believed, and it should be seen.
Also in the Bristo Square complex housing Udderbelly sits the Gilded Balloon, where yet another piece called The Collector saw the light of day (on top of John Fowles’ novel and Harold Pinter’s TV play, that is). Henry Naylor’s hour-long play is up-to-the-minute, considering the treatment of prisoners in the Middle East conflict.
How a liberal-based nation should approach obtaining possibly life-saving information from tough enemies prepared to die rather than give it up, isn’t addressed. Some of the outcomes of techniques used, whether or not on people who have the information, is considered as several voices give their angle on matters.
It’s a pity each performer had to leave and re-enter for what were often short sections of speech; lining them up, ready to take over would have allowed for smoother progression through events.
Lighter by far, but by no means superficial, in the same space is recently-formed children’s theatre company Story Pocket Theatre whose Arabian Nights mixes a lot of humour with some puppetry, pacy storytelling and a final seriousness which takes the frame of the 1,001 Nights seriously, and especially the character of Scheherazade (it will be seen at Bristol’s Brewery Theatre 28 October-2 November, and doubtless many other places subsequently).
NORTH FROM NEWCASTLE.
Actually, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Northern Stage (long a regional phenomenon in the nation’s theatre) has had to shift a few miles south this year, with their regular New Town venue Stephen’s unavailable. They’re now out at another ecclesiastical venue, King’s Hall in South Clerk Street, bringing as usual a programme of work from northern England’s varied theatre scene.
Last year’s one-man success Captain Amazing will be staging a return – it’s still touring – meanwhile a sampling of five shows produced a couple of interest, a thudding dud and a couple of outright successes. Selina Thompson makes a show of herself, popping the balloons encircling her as she ticks-off the various issues, and synonyms for ‘fat’ this show about her size won’t be concerned with in Chewing the Fat.
Good-natured and cheerful, her manner doesn’t disguise the reason why the armed forces might refer to a canteen as a mess. Daubing herself in goo, finding ways to simulate the intake of food, stuffing it down her clothing, she also creates an emblem of self-disgust in allowing an audience-member to pelt her with rice pudding at will.
And we’re made complicit, offered Kit Kats or fresh orange-juice during the show. Quirky, certainly, and more as collection of images and sequences than a satisfying dramatic meal overall, it shows Thompson as a performer with something to say and an imaginative approach to articulating it.
Geddes Loom describe their Prelude to a Number as a music gig trying to justify an entry in the theatre programme. The music is the thing, and the attempts to relate it to arithmetical concepts show two things: (i) I can’t understand arithmetical processes, and (ii) it’s easy to spot when a concept isn’t integral to the material. Still, it’s a fair try and the music-making skilled.
It’s possibly unfair that Northern Stage’s direct contribution at King’s Hall is the embarrassingly bad, and totally unexperimental I Promise You Sex and Violence. A clumsy (attempted) farce written as if Joe Orton was the latest thing, and by somebody without Orton’s style or wit, it wastes a fine director and strong actors. A veil is tactfully drawn.
Unlike with Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin’s Confirmation. With the form as much of a lecture-demonstration as performance, Thorpe describes his encounter with one of the Extreme Right’s intelligentsia, and how the meeting disrupted the tendency people have to assimilate information in ways that confirm their personal viewpoint.
Ironically, his assumptions are challenged in meeting someone from a sector not known widely for flexibility of thinking. But the person concerned is, Thorpe says in conclusion, standing for Parliament – and for a party he doesn’t identify. Like so much of Thorpe’s work, this is a fascinating look at matters of significance, using theatre to argue several viewpoints, as much through manner of speaking as the words said.
How many times would it be necessary to see A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts to have seen the whole series? There are at least nine performers, and each night it’s decided by audience-controlled lot whose story will be told.
There’s a list of scenes taped to the wall, so presumably each person’s story stays within a structure. How similar or different they are within that requires several visits – and the luck of the draw each time. The sense of a challenge the title implies runs throughout, with an obstacle course recurring under different circumstances – the protagonist left to themselves, surrounded by encouraging calls, or given practical help.
A lovely playing of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene shows how the truth of affection matters more than conventional elegance in speech, while there were bouts of close-up fighting where situation and performers’ responses came simultaneously to light. You can’t love such theatre without liking its performers, and this was a lovely, entertaining experience.
ENJOY YOUR SUMMERHALL
Edinburgh University’s former Dick vet (the veterinary studies school), as the south east end of the Meadows, has been reborn as Summerhall, its former identity highly evident in long corridors and performing spaces made from lecture rooms and labs.
Two shows stood out as Fringe occasions there. Badac Theatre’s The Flood summed-up the horror and personal costs of the Great War in an hour, performed not so much in a room as under a staircase. A soldier and a nurse, clearly lovers, both contribute dutifully to the death machine. Humanity is reduced to strips of meat, handled in buckets. He throws the meat scraps at a metal sheet, where they ring-out and slide messily into a bucket.
Periodically he moves these to the Nurse who pronounces some dead, slices some with a ‘blighty’ to send them wounded home, and sutures others for immediate return to the slaughter.
The repeated patterning is key to the unstoppable experiences. Occasionally they face each other across the narrow strip of table separating them for a letter home, or met when he’s on leave. But the machine soon resumes, as she bangs a metal pole and blows a whistle – as much part of the war as any officer, and he insistently urges men forward even as he apologises to them.
Very different is the Pieter De Buysser, a Belgian performing his own Landscape with Skiproads. Apparently nervous, clumsy and forgetful, always smiling ingratiatingly, De Buysser carries a box. What, if anything, it contains is unknown, but it has passed though the hands of 20th-century revolutionaries and artists, most recently Guy Debord. Around are a number of objects which have a place in the story which gradually unfolds.
Debord developed the idea of modern society as a deliberate picture, or spectacle, disguised by those in control as reality, but separate from he experiences of most people. Behind this is the “spectacle” 1970s British drama often wanted to disrupt, and which still remains strongly represented in most media. It’s no accident that Adam Smith is a reference-point in the story which fascinatingly develops.
Like The Flood, this is the kind of show – individual, committed, imaginative and taking no hostages from expectations – which makes Edinburgh’s Fringe continuingly fascinating. There are other good things, if they seem more ordinary in this context. From Manchester’s Royal Exchange comes the prize-winning Britannia Waves the Rules about a young man’s escape from Blackpool into the new prison of the army. Writer Gareth Farr is acute on family and soldierly relations.
That’s in a new in-the-round mini-theatre Paines Plough theatre company will be suing for future tours. Meanwhile, for no particular reason it was the location for a pleasant, well-performed anecdote about contacting the dead, Dead to Me, which doesn’t go beyond its specific situation to make any wider pint about reason and superstition.
Elsewhere on the campus, Susanna Hislop’s How Does A Snake Shed Its Skin? considers Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher and Virginia Wolf – as well as herself. The trouble is, two of her subjects are instantly recognisable and known-about. The earlier, less media-present Woolf less so. But it turns out to be mainly about the performer, amiably and capably presented.
The Fringe is also a good time to catch-up with shows missed during the year. Dogstar Theatre in Hamish MacDonald’s Factor 9 take-up the struggle of people damaged by infected blood products Factor 8 and Factor 9, provided in treatment. Two strong, focused performances from Stewart Porter and Matthew Zajac give maximum impact in Ben Harrison’s production. Contrasted physically and in temperament, both actors mix force and vulnerability throughout.
WORD OF MOUTH AND POWER OF ADVERTISING
It was a remark overheard in a queue, that The Letter Room was a company formed from a previous Northern Stage associated, and the arrival of a company member at King’s Hall with flyers for their late-night show Bonenkai that drew me back to Underbelly Cowgate.
A ‘bonenkai’ is apparently a Japanese drinking-session aimed at driving away negative vibes for the time to come. Here it becomes a restrictive member night-club, an alternative to unbearable reality – somewhere between Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club, and Peer Gynt’s troll land of the mountain-king.
Seven inventive young performers create an apt atmosphere, part superior rejection of the world outside, part fear-cresting bravado. The music is varied and, again, inventive especially in its varied use of soft percussive sounds. Well done, Northern Stage for developing such work, and well done Letter Room for your impressive addition to the vocabulary of Edinburgh theatre.
Details of show times, venues and dates from the Edinburgh Fringe Brochure or www.edfringe.com. Shows have varied dates. The Fringe overall continues until 25 August..