POLSKA they’re calling the programme of events from Poland in both Fringe and International Festivals this year.
TR Warszawa’s contemporary 2008: Macbeth kicks-off the 2012 International Festival’s programme at the Royal Highland Centre, while Teatr Biuro Podrozy brings Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? to the Old College Quad by South Bridge (EH8 9YL).
Just an hour long, and performed in a large open space at10.30pm (to 13 August), it’s clearly going to miss out on detail and subtlety. This is theatre as big statement, headline spectacular drama, with flames atop poles and news or death delivered by motorcycle-riders, with the Weird Sisters marching on stilts, heads veiled by a kind of reverse nun’s headgear, all driven by loudly amplified music resonating across the quad.
It’s reminiscent of the same company, and director, in their famed masterpiece Carmen Funebre (given a charity performance for Amnesty at 10.30pm on 14 August). Their style excited audiences in Britain a generation back when such companies came to the Fringe (often hosted by gallery-owner Richard Demarco – and it’s unsurprising the remarkable Demarco is giving a talk as part of Polska).
But art’s an ungrateful business, and given the widened physical and site-specific vocabulary of today’s British theatre-makers, this piece now seems sadly clumsy, despite some striking moments – the deposed Thane of Cawdor seen naked in a tiny cage – the piece lacks freshness.
Much of the imagery harks back to the Second World War or its aftermath, and it might be said Poland has every right to be concerned with the period. But the dispatch-riders, the two-tier structure that eventually comes to resemble the burning remains of a city housing-block, make this seem full of sound and fury, but signifying not very much for today.
Summerhall(EH9 1QH) is a centre for Polska. The venue’s named after the street it’s in (just where Causewayside and Sciennes divide the road south, behind and beyond the Queen’s Hall). Among other shows, there’s We Are Chechens! from the National Film School in Lodz (7.15pm, to 13 August). It’s hard to say this isn’t relevant for today.
Indeed, it’s hard for a non-Polish speaker to say much in detail about the piece, despite occasional passages spoken in (for the most part) heavily-accented English in an unsympathetic acoustic (the usually disclaimer here: their English outstrips my Polish entirely). Even the visuals are muffled by projection at an angle onto a surface of ruffled cloth. Perhaps that’s the point.
Seen clearly, the survivors amid bomb-ruined streets, the main street scenes that seem a Henry Ford paradise (lots of cars passing, all of them black), could soon become emotional overload. The distancing provided by the unevenness adds force to the sequences.
And there’s plenty more in the dozen or so performances from young actors, whether showing images of violence, open fighting and stylised killing, or attempts to carry on with life, maintaining traditional rituals for mating or marriage. It’s less sound and fury (though there’s plenty of both) than energy and exuberance.
FROM SCOTLAND WITH LOVE.
But the most memorable of my sampling was an associated event, from Scotland’s Theatre Objectiv, who are presenting Wojtek the Bear by Raymond Raszkowski Ross, a beautifully written piece – spare, taut, emotionally powerful through its restraint – in what must be a definitive production by Corinne Harris.
The story’s so strange it has to be true. There was a Syrian Brown Bear, sold by an Iranian lad to Polish soldiers during World War II. Young enough to learn from them, it took part in the battle of Monte Cassino, shifting ammunition.
Army bureaucracy couldn’t accommodate a bear, so his soldier-friends gave him a uniform, registering him as Private Wojtek (‘happy soldier’), and brought him with them to Scotland, where he survived (despite picking-up the troops’ fondness for beer and fags) to the age of 21.
Some of these facts are in Ross’s play. But his focus is on the bond between Wojtek, given a voice by James Sutherland, and Peter, his friend and minder (John McColl).
They start at opposite ends of Hill Street Theatre’s (EH2 3JP) small auditorium, where the 80-minute show plays at 4.30pm to 26 August, (no performance 14 August), coming together tentatively, Henry assuring Wojtek that, whatever the bear’s seen, or has in his collective ursine consciousness, he’s not being captured for a lifetime of being tortured and teased into dancing for people’s entertainment.
When Henry finally has to betray the friend he’s brought up, as the mother substitute Wojtek calls “mama”, he leaves him in Edinburgh zoo, as the least-worst alternative. It might be the late scenes of regret, where necessarily the action and tonal variety of earlier scenes, are absent, could be a little compacter. But it scarcely matters, given the quality of both writing and performances.
McColl shows the developing relationship, and the human sadness when he knows a parting is coming, while Sutherland’s Wojtek has a loose, happy innocence, into which the actor relapses each time he’s played a cameo as officer or other interloper.
The relationship between man and bear has playful, even awkward moments (Wojtek’s not above raiding army stores for food). But it stands too for the intimate bond of mutual, if different affection, that can develop between anyone who needs care and anyone who cares.
Both lighting and Sue Muir’s violin score help establish and differentiate moods in this Fringe jewel.