Edinburgh Fringe Reviews: Experiments at Summerhall

Summerhall’s reputation as the hub of genre defying, experimental theatre remains unshaken this year, as the site showcases a clutch of pieces cleverly blending confrontational theatre, educational style and performance art techniques. The entire building confronts easy assumptions and challenges the status quo.

At the heart of the programme is ABACUS (★★★★☆), described as “a baroque presentation delivered by Japanese cult-icon Paul Abacus”, but truly a near indescribable theatrical event. Part TED talk, part science lesson, part multimedia barrage, part one man show, Early Morning Opera’s piece defies easy categorisation. Which is suitable, given it’s subject matter is the dissolution of national boundaries. Or is it more about information and persuasion?

The man professing to be Abacus – whose fictitious nature was revealed during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – appears unassuming as he walks onto the stage. The Main Hall seems to dwarf him. However, as the screens looming behind him fill with technicolor graphics and distorted images of his own face, captured live from the two circling camera operators, the scene takes on new levels of spectacle. Indeed, the constantly shifting screens and ever-heightening passion of the speaker seems to be too great for even this scale of space, as the human action bursts from the room to pace hidden corridors behind the scenes, all the while streamed back to the audience in monochrome close up.

ABACUS is an assault on the senses. Figures, time periods and graphs are hurled at the audience amongst a whirlwind of rhetoric. Are these facts? ‘Paul’ makes them sound convincing. It is an exhilarating piece and an ambitious one. It manages to cleverly leave you both stunned and suspicious; how much can we trust what we hear?

Suspicion is also at the heart of The Litvinenko Project [★★★☆☆]. Here the narrative is not told through high-tech multimedia graphics, but through the medium of tea. The audience are arranged in a circle, in what is, by day, Summerhall’s café. Green tea is poured for them from kitsch floral teapots into kitsch teacups.

However, this is not some twee Lewis Carroll-esque tea party, but a political investigation. The familiar, defiantly low-tech welcome is a cleverly masked way in to the still unresolved murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Devised in 2013, and performed in café spaces throughout the UK since, 2 Magpies Theatre are attempting to keep Litvinenko’s poisoning firmly on the table. In an absurdist performance, featuring raw chicken, boiler suits and a mop (most pulled from a quintessentially English picnic hamper), the two young men recreate Litvinenko’s final day. The facts of the case are laid out, each cup of tea mapped and noted. Which was the fatal cup?

The illusion of a cosy teatime chat may seem like a gimmicky approach to this international murder mystery, perhaps even inappropriate. In some sense the feeling of gimmick is fair – the focus on the tea ritual is clearly a way in to the larger enigma. But it is also a clever strategy for making a story that has no clear narrative arc or through line a gripping piece of theatricality. The company are making a political statement: keeping the case circulating around café table conversations, in the everyday environment rather than the special space of the stage, requires continued confrontation with the continuing lack of resolution.

The political and the theatrical are blurred once again in Smash It Up [★★★☆☆]. As both The Litvinenko Project and ABACUS mimic the performance lecture style, so too Smash It Up opens with a history lesson, on the destruction of culture by fanatics and institutions alike. In the Red Lecture Theatre this opening feels all-too appropriate; Summerhall’s spaces are perfectly suited to this kind of experimental devised piece, here concerned with the act of creation itself.

The set is reminiscent of an Orwellian Ministry, with perfectly non-descript, ‘official’ uniforms to match. These are costumes that are not just for this stage – the three performers are also activists, who have taken to the streets on numerous occasions in acts of theatrical resistance. In well constructed pieces of video art the audience is shown snapshots of these ‘happenings’. In one notable section the trio utterly destroy a large sign proclaiming ‘THIS IS PUBLIC’, before sweeping the remaining dust into swag bags. The ‘Smash It Up Colective’ are the real deal.

This is not a glossy production and can feel at times a little too episodic – even if the section when an audience member is encouraged to destroy the valuable belongings of the performers is waywardly enjoyable. However, the lack of gloss is apt in a piece that is clearly deeply personal and rightly drawn from anger. Along with a keen sense of performance art history, the piece has strong elements of the punk movement. Like ABACUS this production is too substantial for the stage, but its overspill is less directorial stunt than uncontrollable oppositional rage. It may be physical objects that are destroyed on stage, but the collective’s real aim is clearly to smash the system.

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