EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL: DRAMA PROGRAMME.
With its most extensive and exciting theatre programme for a number of years, the Edinburgh International Festival has contributed to 2012’s Shakespeare focus, brought several well-received shows on different scales – and one smash-hit from a company too rarely (indeed, hardly ever) seen in Britain.
SHAKESPEARE: BIG WARS
As both the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s Globe in London have shown, there’s a lot of the Bard about world-wide. And one excitement about foreign companies bringing Shakespeare to this island is the chance to discover how his work has inter-acted with different histories, traditions, societies and politics.
The major element though is language. We don’t hear Racine or Schiller in the English equivalent of the 17th or early 18th century, but in modern translations. Shakespeare abroad is often heard in translations that could have come from any point in the centuries since he wrote – French Shakespeare by Victor Hugo, for example.
As there’s a strong argument to say Shakespeare’s main strength is the various types of poetry (in verse or prose) by which his characters express themselves, a different linguistic flavour can immediately produce a different emphasis.
Nor do the plays come with the same performance traditions handed down in Britain (though some of those would seem quite wacky nowadays). That’s clear from the two stagings originating outside Britain to visit Edinburgh this year. TR Warsawa’s Macbeth 2008 was one of a pair of Festival presentations that used the Lowland Hall, part of the Royal Highland Centre out by the airport at Ingliston.
A vast area normally used for agricultural shows, it allowed an auditorium which gave space for a sizeable audience to watch the extensive staging of Grezgorz Jarzyna’s loud, assertively modernised Shakespeare. The setting might have started with the idea of a castle, but looked more like a battleship or control tower, on three levels.
No room here for refinements. No question of a pleasant seat or temple-haunting martlets. No sign of good anywhere. This is a warzone. Probably in the Middle East, given the fleeting appearance of burkhas and style of (silent) prayer glimpsed in the flow of events.
And flow they do, around and across levels, with helicopters landing or machine-guns roaring, with flashing lights reflecting the confusion of events while adding to the sense of urgency.
What’s violent and vicious gets emphasised, with none of the quiet or suggestion of a moral combat. From passionate clinch to maddened end, Lady Macbeth lives at a high pitch. Macbeth talks of the multitudinous seas encarnadined, “making the green one red”. His wife ends in the fortress laundry, opening washing machines to spilling rivers of blood.
It feels apt for this age, but it also feels like Shakespeare adapted to the headlines rather than to deeply-felt experience. And it doesn’t avoid the suspicion that, in latching on to modern barbarity it comes close to sensationalising the play while emptying it of vital moral, and dramatic, variety.
SHAKESPEARE: SMALL WARS
It was a contentious point the later C S Lewis made (and later reconsidered) that the maximum amount of pain which could exist is the worst felt by any one person. In the kind of battles TR Warsawa’s Macbeth imply thousands suffer brutality. In The Rape of Lucrece it’s one person, but the agony, guilt, confusion and sense of life fallen apart is no less.
Having adapted Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis with puppets a few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company instinctively, and successfully, present Camille O’Sullivan’s performance, part-spoken, part-sung to music by onstage pianist Feargal Murray.
Speaking quietly, with a head-mike to give intimate audibility, Irish singer O’Sullivan wanders the stage in her long coat, moving easily between speech and bluesily reflective song, telling how royal scion of ancient Rome, Tarquin, journeys from the army camp to demand accommodation from General Collatine’s wife Lucrece, then rapes her.
For the second half of the poem, O’Sullivan removes the coat, wearing gentler, lighter clothes as Shakespeare focuses on the distraught Lucrece and her suicidal feelings.
If that seems obvious, it fits with the scale of the piece; simple theatrical gestures are what’s needed for a singer performing a poem (though the shower of blood-red petals are a shade too obvious), while the atmosphere of a sad cabaret is created with the sense of intimacy. O’Sullivan introduces herself and the story almost modestly, like a singer announcing her best-known number as “here’s a little tune some of you may know”.
The sense of a connection continues once she’s into the story, while the amplification allows her quiet manner to continue through the seamless flow between speech and a musical score which often recreates speech rhythms, then quietly shifts to more deliberate melodic patterns for significant moments.
It would be an interesting test to put an audience in a bare room for this show and see how much – or little – ‘staging’ it needs. Certainly the idea of the format was inspired, as was the choice of performers.
SHAKESPEARE: PARTY TIME
Western cinema during the Soviet era didn’t enhance the idea of Russia as a nation with a sense of humour. But this show demonstrates, once they decide to have a laugh there’s no letting up.
It’s highly inventive. And, I hope, kind to animals. Because one star of this show is Venya, a Jack Russell who enters looking terrified while balancing on a giant log carried over their shoulders by a contingent of Dmitri Krymov’s company from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival.
There’s a neat piece of revenge here. Having seen the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain spend so much time on Chekhov, here’s a company from Anton’s homeland with a show involving not one, but two, Shakespearean comedies.
Not that As You Like It gets a look-in, while Krymov only loves the Dream for its amateurs. For the trunk-bearers turn out to be the Rude Mechanicals, and after they’ve returned through the auditorium piled high with water-containers, which continuously spill water over the audience (we’re helpfully offered a towel to dry-off – somewhat unnecessarily in view of the weather around the city), they’re followed by a stately procession of onstage audience who proceed to take stage-side seats or fill the boxes at the King’s.
There’s plenty of comedy to be had from this audience, with their fussy ways, ability to demolish parts of the premises and eccentric comments during the show – Krymov and company clearly know their audience in more ways than one, and have picked-up on plenty of stalls talk, with its expressions of irritation and comments coming from goodness-knows-where.
Though the logs and water-vessels are immediately transported from the theatre and never seen again, not in any scene, the Mechanicals have their way for the most part, nervously grouping together and deciding who should talk. Peter Quince has a lovely variation on the reverse-meaning prologue Shakespeare gave him (copying an idea from Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, the ‘first English comedy’).
Shakespeare comes in useful, not only for characters and plot, but with Dream dialogue on occasions. Not that Krymov’s ever going to let that get in the way of a good laugh. But he catches the spirit of the whole thing. Like many an amateur before and since, Shakespeare’s Mechanicals become wound-up in props and effects before starting serious work on the script – and a lot of effort’s been put into that tree-trunk and piling high the water-containers.
And of course the full Shakespeare’s still there. It’s hard, though, to imagine memories of this glorious fun won’t return to the mind when seeing Oberon and copmany in full.
NOT ALL GREEK – GERMAN AND JAPANESE TOO.
It’s not all Shakespeare, of course. There’s been Greek Tragedy at Edinburgh this year, if transposed to the madhouse in Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki’s Waiting for Orestes: Electra. The Godot reference seems no accident; a male Chorus, in wheelchairs, sport bowler hats, recalling Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, though this is also Greek Tragedy on wheels.
They circle the stage in their chairs, emitting rhythmic calls, creating a mix of tragic depth fronted by comic foreground which recalls Waiting for Godot, before leaving the stage and becoming involved in a clashing crash.
If their lives are bounded by the close-term obsessions of asylum patients, attended by a female Chorus of nurses, the main characters in a piece derived from Sophocles by way of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1903 adaptation, are no less obsessive.
Electra awaits the return of her brother Orestes to revenge their father’s death by assassinating his murderers: their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus (this bring Greek Tragedy, matters go more complex than that). Clytemnestra is a statuesque figure, also in a wheelchair. Electra moves freely but is bound by her obsession, body folding in paroxysms as her rage accumulates.
While the mother emits sounds which would make an average Kabuki play seem low-key realism, Electra is often convulsed into silence. Only the less obsessed sister, Chrysothemis, is balanced enough to look for an independent life; the others cannot, it seems, imagine a world outside the walls of the hospital, or their preoccupation.
The intensity of voices and concentration of movement are matched by Midori Takada’s percussion, situated in an upstage corner. His sounds, slight or mighty, resound across the action, echoing and expressing the inner torments, spoken or inferred, of the characters.
GLORIOUS SUN WRECK
British actors sometimes perform near-miracles on a few weeks’ rehearsal. But their work often deepens as a run of performances progress. So those companies that can find a way to work for months, or years, on a production, including keeping it in their repertory over several years can, if they are not merely replicating what they did last time, produce something remarkable.
That’s the way it is with Ariane Mnouchkine’s Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil. One sign of how remarkable it is comes in the length – just over 4 hours with interval. But the achievement lies in the energy and detail which make the time pass, for audiences, like a brief yet glorious dream. In the invention and involvement, the flow between scenes, the ease of transitions between a café, South America (very south, and snow-bound) and other wide-spaced locations as a film-within-the-play is rehearsed and shot.
The imagination’s astounding, the originality – in an age when physical and visual invention runs wild through much theatre – is astonishing. And it starts, like a number of vast, shaggy-dog theatre adventures, in an unassuming way. Just before the First World War a café proprietor allows an upstairs room to be used to film an (of course silent) feature.
Soleil’s title Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores), is reflected in the film, and both are based on an unfinished Jules Verne novel, The Shipwrecked of the Jonathan. In Soleil’s piece the ‘Mad Hope’ starts out amid a time of expectation in French left-wing circles that socialist politician Jean Jaurès will successfully campaign against war.
As the filming runs on, there’s occasional news from the street, including Jaurès’ assassination, which provokes the characters to rush off and find out more. But as hope drains away in life, the film-making determinedly continues, with the adventures of early cinema apparent as the camera-operator finds physically awkward angles to catch the most impressive shots, and the flapping coats of travellers crossing a snowy waster are eventually found to be operated by assistants manipulating wires sewn into the actors’ coats.
Once revealed, that trick recurs until it goes ‘wrong’, the wire connection preventing an actor climbing aboard ship. And, despite the artifice (heightened from the start as we enter through a passage where the company is visibly donning costumes and cosmetics), Aurores moves towards different false and looked-for dawns as it adventures forth with Verne-wide scope.
As in the silents, music often blasts behind the action, thematically enriching it. A ship runs aground to stormy Shostakovich, and the tension between an idealised community and gold-prospecting is backed by the opening of Wagner’s Ring cycle, where the operas’ catastrophic journey begins with the theft of gold.
It’s an immeasurably rich show, and you could say a once-in-a-lifetime experience, except you can only end up hoping to have another chance to see this, or another production from the company.
Alone, it would have made this Edinburgh Festival memorable; in the context of the rest of the 2012 drama programme it puts Scotland’s three weeks of August culture firmly on the world theatre map.
WAITING FOR ORESTES: ELECTRA
after Euripides and Hugo von Hofmannsthal Korean translation by Hye-Jeong Lee.
Electra: Yoo-Jeong Byun.
Orestes: Yoichi Takemori.
Clytemnestra: Chieko Naito.
Chrysothemis: Aki Sato-Johnson.
Doctor: Michitomo Shiohara.
Wheelchair Men: Sung-Won Lee, Masaharu Kato, Daisuke Ueta, Yasuhiro Fujimoto, Haruo Ishikawa.
Nurses: Natsuko Ota, Aya Takano, Haruka Kiyama, Sayaka Nakamura, Risa Kito, Toshimi Mitsuda.
Director/Designer: Tadashi Suzuki.
Music/Percussion: Midori Takada.
Costume: Orie Horiuchi.
Assistant director: Kameron Steele.
Suzuki Company of Toga at the King’s Theatre 11-13 August. 1hr 15min.
THE RAPE OF LUCRECE
by William Shakespeare adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray, Camille O’Sullivan.
Performer: Camille O’Sullivan.
Piano: Feargal Murray.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Designer: Lily Arnold.
Lighting: Vince Herbert.
Sound: Ed Borgnis.
Composers: Camille O’Sullivan, Feargal Murray.
Text/Voice work: Cicely Berry.
Dramaturg: Jeanie O’Hare.
Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Lyceum Theatre 22-26 August. 1hr 20min No interval.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (AS YOU LIKE IT)
after William Shakespeare.
Cast: Liya Akhedzhakova, Valery Garkalion, Natalia Gorchakova, Maria Gulik, Vadim Dubrovin, Alexey Kokhanov, Andrey Loshkin, Maxim Maminov, Sergey Melkonan, Boris Opletaev, Anna Sinyakina, Mikhail Umanets, Anatoliy Shustov, Vladimir Shustov, Pavel Balbukh, Ivan Barakin, Valery Guriyanov, Sergey Nazarov, Anton Telkov, Venya.
Director: Dmitry Krymov.
Designer/Costume: Vera Martynova.
Lighting: Ivan Vinogradov.
Sound: Andrey Zachesov.
Music: Kuzma Bodrov.
Puppets: Victor Platonov.
Chekhov International Theatre Festival, Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory School of Dramatic Art Theatre at the King’s Theatre 24-26 August Runs 1hr 45min No interval.
LES NAUFRAGÉS DU FOL ESPOIR (AURORES)
by Hélène Cixous from an idea by Ariane Mnouchkine and loosely based on Jules Verne.
Mr Félix Courage: Eve Doe-Bruce.
Madam Gabrielle (Madam Paoli/Indian Mother): Juliana Carneiro da Cunha.
Miss Mary Danaher (Maria Vetsera/Queen Victoria/Emelyne Jones): Astrid Grant.
Miss Marguerite (Marguerite’s Granddaughter/La Rachel/Sister Augustine): Olivia Corsini.
Anita (Amalia Paoli/Herrera): Paula Giusti.
Suzanne (Harbourside Nurse/Segarra): Alice Milléquant.
Miss Adèle (Anna/Sister Magnanime): Dominique Jambert.
Miss Marthe (Marthe’s Granddaughter/Gervaise/Rodrigo/Anju): Pauline Poignand.
Miss Flora: Marjolaine Larranaga y Ausin.
Miss Rosalia (Louise Ceyrac): Ana Amelia Dosse.
Miss Eszther (Nurse to La Rachel): Judit Jancso.
Miss Fernanda (Sailor): Aline Borsari.
Miss Victoire: Fredérique Voruz.
Voice: Shaghayegh Beheshti.
Mr Camille Bérard: Jean-Jacques Lemêtre.
Mr Jean LaPalette(Emile Gautrain): Maurice Durozier.
Mr Tommaso (Josef/Ship’s Doctor/Sir Charles Darwin/Marat Razine): Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini.
Mr Louis (Archduke Johann Salvator/Lord Salisbury/Governor of Patagonia): Serge Nicolaï.
Mr Ernest Choubert (Austrian Secret Service Agent/Simon Gautrain/Armando Paoli/Octavio MacLennan): Sébastien Brottet-Michel.
Mr Alix Bellmans (Austrian Secret Service Agent/Antoine/Professor John Jones/Lieutenant Laurence/Lusconi): Sylvain Jailloux.
Josef (Archduke Rudolf of Austria/Father Matthew/Ian O’Brian/Sikh Guard/Lobo): Andreas Simma.
Bonheur (Young Austrian Assassin/Young Sailor/Yuras): Seear Kohi.
Mr Vassili (Toni/Miss Blossom): Armand Saribekyan.
Ravisharanarayanan (Ship’s Captain/Sikh Guard/Jenkins): Vijayan Parikkaveettil.
Farouk (Henchman/Mr Paoli/Windsor Castle Butler/Galley-slave): Samir Abdul Jabbar Saed.
Ulysse (Patrick O’Leary/Pierre Ceyrac): Vincent Mangado.
Jeannot (Young Austrian Assassin/Billy): Sébastiem Bonneau.
Jérôme (Henchman/Manuel): Maixence Bauduin.
Mr Dauphin (Bellboy/Winston Churchill/Galley-slave): Jean-Sébastien Merle.
Akira (Huang Huang Huang): Seietsu Onochi.
Director: Ariane Mnouchkine with Everest Canto de Montserrat.
Designer: Serge Nicolaï.
Lighting: Elsa Revol.
Sound: Yann Lemêtre.
Hair/Wigs: Jean-Sébastien Merle.
Assistant directors: Charles-Henri Bradier, Lucile Cocito.
Assistant designers: Sébastien Brottet-Michel, Elena Antsiferova, Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini, Andreas Simma, Maixence Bauduin/the company.
Théâtre du Soleil at the Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre 23-25;27, 28 August Runs 4hr 20min One interval.