A distinctive church prominently displayed at the foot of Edinburgh’s New Town, St Stephen’s was for several years annual Fringes home to programmes of East European physical theatre. More recently, its grand staircase has remained closed while a side entrance leads to a couple of variously-sized studio spaces, where Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Northern Stage has presented a programme by individuals and companies from northern England.
Many from last year’s programme went on to tour (some are still on the road), so it’s a good place to concentrate on northern work which will spread throughout the country in months to come.
ON THE GB TRAIL.
From the large slice of shows I saw, there’s a lot to look forward to. Such as the individualism of Kate Craddock’s The GB Project in the smaller Studio 2. It’s one of the pieces here to exemplify a basic discovery about ‘fringe’ work (in Edinburgh, London or elsewhere), identified back in the 1960s by Cindy Oswin; that whereas ‘traditional’ theatre required the actor to be lost within the role, on the fringe the actor’s personality and experience was often part of the dramatic world.
Certainly, Craddock explains her own background and how she became interested in Gertrude Bell, much-ignored traveller from north-east England, who in one slide is glimpsed in a line-up of camel riders between TE Lawrence (of Arabia) and Winston Churchill.
The portrait of Bell that emerges through Craddock’s research isn’t straightforward. The wide-ranging traveller who involved herself in setting-up the state of Iraq, before taking her own life in her late fifties, was also an opponent of women’s suffrage.
At one point Craddock offers her audience tea and biscuits; it’s a moment of refreshment recalling Daniel Bye’s 2012 show in the same space, but also reflecting the daily rituals that underlay Bell’s period, and offsetting the other GB with a project here; Britain’s political meddling in other parts of the world which has contributed to the explosive situation in and around Iraq today.
Craddock has a calm, informal manner that might be a talk (rather than lecture) if it weren’t for the theatrical devices – microphones and accents used for other characters words. It’s a vivid account of her explorations into Bell’s explorations and their complicating political factors.
BYE IS BACK.
Daniel Bye returns with a magnified presence, moving to the larger space in a company of three, though still adopting the lecture/demonstration of last year’s The Price of Everything.
How to Occupy an Oil Rig starts small, inviting the audience to create tiny plasticine figures and write mini-placards for them to carry about the oil industry. Building on audience experience of protest marches, he moves first to a kind of cuddly eco-action, cleaning birds covered in spilled oil.
A couple of audience names, transferred to his co-actors, are used and Bye develops a dry comic tone while seriously going through the cleansing process.
From there it’s on to tougher stuff, climaxing in techniques for reaching a rig and dealing with various security responses. It can seem amiable and everyday in manner, but it clearly isn’t and the show, for all the humour, makes clear such interventionist action is both called-for and serious in intent. And no child’s-play either.
STORM IN A BEACH-HUT.
Among all the St Stephens companies, withWings, in If Room Enough is both the largest (nine performers) and among the newest. That’s reflected in the freshness of their Tempest-derived piece and in its shortcomings.
Like many young companies, these people make their mark with visual invention. Whether or not there’s a pun in Ariel emerging from a washing-machine – one presumably powered from electricity generated on the island by characters riding the static bike nearby – there’s ingenuity in the way lovers and others chase each other through drawers, suddenly replacing vertical with horizontal appearances in places where there’s barely room enough for a person.
There’s a strong musicality too, that’s entirely right for the mood and for the play. Which itself become not so much the elephant in the beach-hut setting as the tusks left over. The script is reduced severely, and austerely, sometimes to telegrammatic brevity. As a method it needs to be more integrated into the movement. And the quality of speaking the verse, or its fragments, varies greatly.
Speech, and verse particularly, is a frequent Achilles’ heel among the visually inventive young companies drama schools and departments – or indeed, a visually sophisticated media – produce nowadays. Which is not to shrug withWings away. Their overall approach to the work justifies the St Stephens slot.
THERE IS A PROBABLE SUCCESS.
At the other end of things (though in the same space) is There Has Possibly Been an Incident, with three performers skilled in speech. They have to be; talking (usually into a microphone) is about all they do. Each sits with documents to read, recording events involving acts of violence. The calm reporting, perhaps most closely related to the Tribunal documentaries staged at London’s Tricycle and occasionally elsewhere, contrasts the events described. Extraordinary things are done by ordinary people most of the time, and both qualities are reflected here.
Director Sam Pritchard and the three impervious performers, Gemma Brockis, Nigel Barrett and Yusra Warsama, maintain the appropriate tone throughout Manchester writer Chris Thorpe’s piece (due at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio 4-21 September, Monday-Friday 7.30pm; matinees Saturday 3.30pm and 12, 19 September 2.30pm – 0845 450 4808; www.royalexchange.co.uk/bookonline).
At times two of the performers step forward from their microphones and address each other, not in conversation but statement, reversing the idea of heroism in a justification of an extreme act of violence.
Somehow, the script, in its structure and tone, scrupulously interpreted by a production that never seeks to add comment or enforce sensation, both grips and enlightens, even if not in a way easily expressed in words. Even the title helps, its calm institutional voiceover wording suggesting officialdom fighting hysteria.
LIVES ON STAGE AT DIFFERENT STAGES
Another piece where the shape of the thing expresses its point comes with The Paper Birds and On the One Hand. This Leeds-based company show five ages of women, from Hannah Lambsdown’s hopeful Teen, through Kylie Walsh as Thirty, Tracey-Anne Liles as Forty and, at Fifty, Sarah Berger, with Ilona Linthwaite as the less precise Sixty & Elderly, in Jemma McDonnell’s production.
The skill lies in combining freedom for each stage of life within a sense of unity. That’s partly created by Fiammetta Horvat’s set, which frames a household of common furnishings as a wall of hanging objects, with cast members clambering into chair or bath. All human life – or the mass-market domestic furniture amongst which it’s commonly lived – is there.
From the start – before the birth, as it were, of the stage-show – a voice delineates the gradual growth of physical characteristics in a foetus. And, as the set binds lives together, so a hand keeps chalking-up how many more minutes’ life the performance has, before quickly wiping the figure away as time relentlessly proceeds – its duration is roughly one minute for every year of the current 79.5 life expectancy in Britain.
It could be said such imagery is quite common currency among devised work, but it’s handled here with sensitivity to human detail, to the sense of life as challenges followed by the consequences of decisions made. There’s strength too in each performance, which instantly make each moment recounted recognisably present and significant. If not all, then a lot of human experience is captured, quirky details forming part of a whole with more recognisable experiences. A warm-glow of humanity suffuses both bright and sadder moments.
Come nightfall, more or less, the tiny Studio 2 is occupied by Captain Amazing, from Northern Stage’s Newcastle-upon-Tyne neighbours Live Theatre. For somewhat under an hour, the Captain takes us though his super-hero life, seeing off Batman (always the justice League of America’s oddity in having no super power, and here, it seems, trying to operate out of a clapped-out Batmobile).
Not that the Captain should boast. He’s less trail-blazing than cape-trailing as he comes miserably on, his brain full of cartoon moments. Mark, as performer Mark Weinman’s character is named in Alistair McDowall’s script, is someone you would see by day without noticing. He’s the one who directs you to the appropriate place to find what you want in a DIY warehouse.
Unlike Superman, whose diffident Clark Kent guise is deliberately put-on, Mark does the insignificant by nature, and Weinman gives him a suitable ground-down, hang-dog manner, with a comic put-on bravado in imagined accounts of his death-defying combats with Evil.
But there is more to him, and it emerges when he acquires a young daughter Emily. Any parent might need super-powers to satisfy the serial ‘Why’s of a young child, and the patience Mark shows, the clear love for the daughter he protects, and clearly loves, is a deep reality going far beyond the cartoon depictions.
And it made a fine surprise at the end of a rewarding Edinburgh day with Northern Stage and its protégées.