THE TRAVERSE AT EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 2012.
Snapshots from parts of a busy programme.
Each Edinburgh Fringe brings its selection of major venues, but only one – the Traverse Theatre in Cambridge Street – can claim to be an all-year Edinburgh theatre, focusing on new work from Scotland, and mixing its own productions with a wide band of visiting companies from the UK, presenting drama, dance and comedy. Even they don’t have the rotating programme of several shows daily all year round, but being a regular theatre means levels of comfort for audiences and technical support for performers is high, even in a busy Festival repertoire.
As a producing company, the Traverse is quite reticent this year. It can claim to be a major influence on the developing careers of Scotland’s leading mid-generation dramatists David Greig and David Harrower. They’re combined in a double-bill, with neither play new. Buried as The Letter of Last Resort originally was within the two-part compilation on ‘The Bomb’ at London’s Tricycle in February this year, it stood out for many reviewers. Seen without its context, it’s like an over-extended episode of Yes, Prime Minister with fewer than usual laughs.
A new PM is told by an old-hand civil servant that she has the duty of all new leaders to write instructions to the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarines on how to respond if the country is devastated by a nuclear attack: something signalled, among other things, by the absence of BBC Radio 4 (no Archers means no country). Should the commander launch a nuclear response, being undoubtedly aware of where the initial attack originated? Or refrain from retaliation?
One means increased mayhem on Earth; the other, if even suspected, could make Britain more vulnerable. The third choice is leaving the decision to the commander, but that’s hardly what political leadership is about.
Serious as the matter is, this remains a conversation, tricked out with some neat details (the official interrupts the PM as she’s writing a letter of individual condolence, for which she declines the easy use of a template) but has made its point well within its time-span. Harrower’s Good With People, dating from a couple of years ago, when it was presented by Paines Plough and Glasgow’s lunchtime Oran Mor programme, is slow-burning, but holds attention by its development of the present relationship and past history of a young man and more mature hotel receptionist he meets years after the events defining their knowledge of each other.
All’s well on the surface, but Helen soon recognises in him the bully who used to make her son’s life miserable. Current attraction and resentment from the past, the continuity of that past in someone who’s outgrown it, and the wider violence that’s arrived since Helen’s town, Helensburgh, has found itself neighbour to a nuclear base combine.
So nuclear-linked explosions either side the interval, though the first half points up how skilfully economic a 30-minute sitcom can be, while the second shows how concentrated the drama of personal relationships can be made. Thereby showing the purpose of lunchtime theatre, and the double-bill.
VISITING THE TRAVERSE
Among productions hosted by the Traverse is Blink, considered under Escalator East to Edinburgh. A mention though for And No More Shall We Part, Tom Holloway’s Australian drama, looking in sympathetic and penetrating detail at the love and anguish of a wife whose illness leads to suicide, while her husband’s torn between helping her and the dread of losing her. Dearbhla Molloy balances practicality with the sense of shared years reaching a close, while Bill Paterson finds maximum emotional impact in a minimal range of expression – or what would seem so without the force he creates. (I didn’t see this at the Traverse but was deeply impressed when I saw it in London. The theatre there didn’t want reviews so I’m glad to have an opportunity now.)
Then there’s Ronan O’Donnell’s hour-long monologue Angels, in which security guard Nick Prentice – Iain Robertson, finding every tone in the varied script – reports from a police-cell, the story of a shop-lifter Gary Glover, who flung himself from high up in a multi-storey car-park, with a smile on his face. The audience takes less convincing than do the police that Prentice didn’t do it, but his situation places a guilt-inducing stress on the law-keeper in the face of the demise of a lawbreaker.
The guilt links to Prentice’s inner thoughts and feelings, which harp on a female film-star. Shame and gilt become muddled while, in Graeme Maley’s bare-stage production, Robertson seems to blame himself in his tone of voice, whether explaining, asserting or excusing.
Expanding the vocabulary of theatre is Alexander Devriendt, Joeri Smet and Koba Ryckewaert’s All That Is Wrong, directed by Devriendt, performed by Ryckewaert, assisted by Zach Hatch. This Belgian piece creates its set as it proceeds, the floor becoming covered with a maze of statements through an hour or so. It’s a maze with ambitions to become a flow-chart, attempting to link together and give some pattern, and thereby sense, to personal experience and the presence of a coldly chaotic wider world around. Then it finishes, and audience members are handed a photocopy of the floor, its elements hardly cohering yet marking-out the attempt to have a joined-up understanding of modern life from one embarking upon it.
Each year the Traverse tends to occupy some other Edinburgh space at Festival time. This year it’s at the Scottish Book Centre, down one of the Wynds reaching to the north of the Old Town’s High Street. Leading Scottish producers of theatre for young people Shona Reppe and Catheine Wheels are there, the latter with The Ballad of Pondlife McGurk, 55-minutes of superb storytelling jointly created by writer Rob Evans, director Gill Robertson (who created Wheels and established its significant place in young people’s theatre), and Andy Manley, whose calm, pacy and non-patronising telling of the school story is ideal
We’re all on the carpet as Manley walks around recreating the events around the summer when Simon McGurk and immigrant from Birmingham, Martin are in P6 then P7 at school. Yet he never talks down to us, as the parade of characters, including the ‘neanderthals’, lead by two formidable female pupils, torment the new boy. Simon, an artistic loner, uses his wit to save his new friend, even taking the punishment for an action of Martin’s that leads to him being given his titular nickname.
Framing events with a look back from adult times encourages young audiences to look forward to the consequences, as well as the changes from childhood. Without any fuss or fury Pondlife takes the imagination to matters of trust, betrayal, failure and mutability in a way that resonates with the experiences of just about all its 9+ audiences experience – and of the adults with them.
Glasgow’s lunchtime A Play, A Pie and A Pint operation should be called Òran Mór and More, as the format and an increasing number of the plays themselves appear elsewhere. One was expanded in London over thesummer as An Incident at the Border, while Gary McNair’s account of Jane, setting out on a 110 cross-desert run as a way of taking control and warding off the epilepsy which sometimes seizes her, reaches Traverse One.
As prompts of her progress become more surreal and sself-reflective in her mind, the counter-advice by which Jane acts also develops. Having rejected rest as the most frequently recommended way to prevent attacks, she now has to decide whether to go with modern medicine and a risky cure-or-damage brain operation, or to continue on her present track.
It’s an unusual drama at the Traverse, being not a playwright’s ironic observation of life or society, but a tribute to someone whose determination and courage are matched by physical stamina. That’s a quality performer (and athlete) Shauna Macdonald brings to the solo show – it’s just her, the treadmill, a gauze and some projections. Somehow, you feel, it could make an impact, if it had to, with three of those missing.
The Letter of Last Resort:
She: Belinda Lang.
He: Simon Chandler.
Director: Nicolas Kent.
Designer: Polly Sullivan.
Lighting: Renny Robertson.
Sound: Tom Lishman.
Video: Douglas O’Connell.
Dramaturg: Jack Bradley.
Assistant director: Tara Robinson.
Associate costume: Sydney Florence.
Good With People:
Helen: Blythe Duff.
Evan: Richard Rankin.
Director: George Perrin.
Designer: Ben Stones.
Lighting: Oliver Fenwick.
Sound/Composer: Scott Twynholm.
Assistant director: Mark Maugham.