Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Edinburgh Reviews 1

Notes on Edinburgh

Whilst in Edinburgh I took notes after each performance, or sometimes after several, I had a very busy schedule so often notes were kept to a bare minimum. Also remember that many shows in Edinburgh do not produce a programme, and if they do it will invariably just be a list of names on a scrap of paper (except for the International Festival and many play at the Traverse where full programmes are sold). As I’ve seen well over 40 shows I’m planning to write a brief review of most of them (some much longer than others), interspersed with notes and observations about the festivals and the city. I won’t be researching every company, playwright or actor in detail (as I might do for a review in less crowded times), so you may have to bear with me if the information is not as full as usual.

Please do not read on if spelling mistakes offend you. These reviews will be written by me in haste, and I won’t have time to proof read them (and I have clumsy typing fingers to boot). If you can’t understand what I’m saying, or wish to point out a particular mistake, then do email me!

Dai (Enough), Pleasance Courtyard.

American actor Iris Bahr has written and performs Dai (meaning enough in Hebrew), a very powerful piece of theatre indeed. The last moments of several disparate visitors to a Tel Aviv café are told by Bahr, culminating in the suicide bombing of the café by a Palestinian terrorist. Bahr is able to inhabit her characters perfectly, she uses a slightly exaggerated physical style to represent a variety of people in very different ways. She is the elderly Kibbutz veteran, an opportunist Russian prostitute, a guilt free young German, an American volunteer for the Israeli Army, and several more besides. Each one tell us about their lives, why they are in this café, their normal lives are intersecting, circumstance bringing this group together for their terrible fate. Just as we are getting familiar with one subject, a sickening explosion shatters the air and the light is cut, we hear the screams of the dying and injured for a second or two, before Bahr pops up and goes into the next character, only for this event to be repeated each time. The explosions made me flinch every time, even though it was expected, the horror of the situation was upsetting (though it is not sensationalist or emotionalistic). Crucially the play delivers several versions of life in Israel, with the notion of identity and belonging being subtly explored by each story. At the end of the play I did have the feeling that the piece veered towards an overly sympathetic view of the Israeli position (but then plays are not objective things usually), with the Israeli’s humanised, and the Palestinian perspective not dealt with or represented. An elderly Palestinian professor is shown at the end of the play waiting for her son, and it is he who (it is strongly implied) is the suicide bomber. So now Palestinian’s are not just killers, but would blow up their own mothers? But of course it is Palestinians who act as suicide bombers, and the mindset of the minority of Palestinians who carry out these abhorrent acts can be rightly be called into question. The play made me think about our relationship with history; one character has it as the foundation stone of her life (a religious zealot), others are living in the present and forgetting the past (like the non Jewish German sick of hearing about the Holocaust), others only have their eye on future betterment (the Russian prostitute, who posed a Jew to start a more lucrative life in Israel), an American volunteer for the army wants to discover a family in the Jewish state, wants a place to belong. Behr’s acting is phenomenal, a real tour de force, captivating her audience, making us smile and think before shocking us again and again. A sobering, sad and shocking start to the festival for me.

Hugh Hughes: The Story of Rabbit. Pleasance Courtyard.

Shon Dale-Jones’s alter ego Hugh Hughes rubs me up the wrong way I’m afraid. The wide eyed 37 year old ‘emerging artist from Wales’, with a beaming face and pally attitude becomes annoying after several minutes of mild amusement. His story telling (this is a play where Hughes tells us a story, not an acted out piece, although confusingly Hughes is a character and not the reality of the performer), is pure whimsy, and annoyingly plodding. He tells us two tales (both real, from Dale-Jones’s life apparently), alternating between finding a rabbit he is looking after for a neighbour dead in his shed, to the death of his father in 2001. I don’t really want to traduce a heartfelt personal story, but it really didn’t move me very much at all (more than any peaceful death in old age would, which sounds slightly callous). I also thought that showing pictures of the exact spot where his father died was, well, not something I would do, and of very little help to the story. By the end of this self indulgent show, I was very pleased to see the back of the eager Hughes.

An Evening with Adrienne. The Medical School.

Adrian Howells greets us as Adrienne, a glamorous drag queen, in his sitting room hidden inside the Victorian Medical School building (which is fascinating in itself, including a huge skeleton of an elephant in their museum). This is undoubtedly the most comfortably (physically anyway) show on the fringe, with real sofas set in the chintzy 1970’s decorated room. It is an intimate show (with only 8 other people present when I attended, and perhaps space for one more), and felt like a strange group therapy session at times. We get a free ice lolly and sit down to be regaled by stories chosen by us from a picture menu. These stories were funny and sweet tales of Adrian’s penchant for dressing up as a girl when he was a young boy, early forays into transvestisism. The second half of the show (after a sandcastle building competition, where my team came third), was much more serious, but equally engaging and interesting. Adrienne showed us short video clips of him, his family and friends discussing issues ranging from acceptance to being bullied at school, he sang to us, and he told us more stories of his younger self. I criticised Hugh Hughes for showing a picture of the place where his father died, I called him self indulgent. But Adrienne is never that, he is emotionally honest and raw, which in these intimate circumstances was very moving. Adrian’s childhood family relationships had been hard, but I was cheered by the fact that his small c conservative parents were now accepting of him, and that his brother in particular had helped him during times of crisis. Adrienne led a group discussion on bullying (though it was strictly voluntary to speak, with no pressure), which was surprisingly open and emotional. At the end of our wonderful 100 minutes together Adrienne strips of the glam drag queen persona, removes the layers of make up, and shows himself as plain old Adrian. It was a real transformation; he had become a more vulnerable figure without the costumes. He left us alone in the room to watch a short slide show of his life, before the audience drifted out separate ways. A great show, but you may need therapy afterwards.

England. Fruitmarket Gallery.

Along with Adrienne’s show Tim Crouch’s excellent new play England, is presented under the banner of the august Traverse Theatre. The work is subtitled ‘a play for galleries’, and on this its world premier, the Fruitmarket Gallery (next to Waverly Station, from which you can hear nondescript announcements over the tannoy) is the venue. Currently the gallery has an exhibition of contemporary artist Alex Hartley’s works, ranging from small instillations to photographs, filling the clean white space of the gallery, his works look at structures and physical space (and is well worth a look). Crouch’s play makes specific references to the gallery and artist, but these could be changed to suit any galley and artist. Crouch’s last play ‘An Oak Tree’, had a fresh actor playing opposite the author every night, the actor would be totally new to the play and would follow Crouch’s instructions. This was an interesting and rewarding piece of theatre, but England is even better in my view. Crouch again performs his own work, this time with the help of Hannah Ringham (of Shunt), a beguiling and intriguing story about a woman living in Southwark. Both of the actors speak as the woman, (and later represent another character) sometimes repeating or echoing what the other has said or continuing a sentence. The delivery is almost neutral, it’s not animated as you might expect (but it does rise and fall to emotion occasionally). The first 30 minutes of the 60 minute piece are performed in the upstairs part of the gallery, with most people standing around, following the actors as they move around the light and airy room. The actors seem very open open, they are not alienated from us with high drama or on a distant stage, but standing with us in an equally lit space, with no spotlights or curtains. The world of the woman was set before us; where she lived, about her Dutch/American art dealer boyfriend, how she loved London, describing what a comfortable and privileged life she leads. The words were spare, sometimes emphasised, but simple and effective, we didn’t know exactly where the play would take us, but it become more and more interesting and intriguing as the time went on. The meaning and value of art was discussed, the benefits that wealth can buy obvious (mostly from her boyfriend’s money). She was the kind of woman you might meet at any contemporary art gallery, happily experiencing what she can in moneyed comfort; she is a nice person, a person who values culture, a person you might very well like.

The second part of the play moved to the downstairs gallery, where we all sat down facing the two performers. It had become clear in the last minutes upstairs that the woman was gravely ill, with a heart defect, and her death was expected. That is perhaps why she had been examining her life, thinking about what she loves and enjoyed in a time of crisis. The second part plunged us into confusion, the woman was alive and well, talking to a foreign woman, whose husband’s heart the woman now had beating insider her. It was painful to watch this unidentified woman (actually represented by an interpreter, so never directly represented in the room), speak about the loss of her husband and the longing to be close to him. The woman says that her husband was effectively killed to give the English woman his heart, a transaction arranged by the rich boyfriend and his father. This shocks and dismays the other woman, but she soon accepts the situation and denies the other woman’s husband had died for her, he would have died anyway she tells her, naturally her own life is paramount. This is quite hard to listen too, and very moving indeed. It is a fact that the lives of those in the west, or those with money are worth vastly more than the poor and wretched of the third world. But the play is not a simple parable, but an interesting meditation on values and worth, both cultural and financial. I sympathised with both women in the end, but also felt guilty at our own corpulent excesses in England (Scotland or wherever). England is an evocative, intelligent piece which I very much hope to see again in London soon.

Over 40 more reviews to come I hope!

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