Edinburgh Fringe Review: A Man Standing @ Summerhall

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4 STARS

Like Thomas McCrudden in Doubting Thomas, the former convict at the heart of A Man Standing also portrays his younger self as a lost boy, trying to run with the tough guys and getting utterly overwhelmed. In this piece, the violence is more psychological. Prison beatings and suicide are again prominent features, but what strikes the audience most is the savagery that solitude wreaks on the mind.

Sent to prison at age 17 for the inadvertent manslaughter of a policeman, Jean-Marc Mahy faced the full wrath of the justice system. He was locked away for 20 years, three of which were in total solitary confinement. White tape makes a box centre stage; a single stool stands inside. This is Mahy’s cage, where, for over an hour, actor Stephane Pirard will recall young Jean-Marc’s ordeal. All the while watched over by the older Jean-Marc’s hauntingly direct eyes.

Indeed it is Jean-Marc’s unrelenting stare that gives the piece its power. Knowing that Pirard is acting makes it difficult not to analyse his contortions within the cell as melodramatic, over the top, all too ‘acted’. Yet, Jean-Marc’s gaze jolts you back into the knowledge that this is not mere dramatic exercise. His eyes pierce all the action – all description of the torment of confinement are contained in his eyes. His eyes truly appear to have been to hell and back.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Love, Lies and Taxidermy @ Summerhall Roundabout

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5 STARS

Boy meets girl at a medical testing centre. Their first date is in Tesco café. It is hardly the stuff of movies. Richard Curtis hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to choose Merthyr Tydfil as the perfect rom-com setting, and it is doubtful that Notting Hill would be the Christmas classic it is if, rather than centring on a glamorous Hollywood star, its plot revolved around a talk on taxidermy, a debt-ridden ice cream van and an amateur porn shoot in a dodgy hotel room.

Love, Lies and Taxidermy (5 stars, Roundabout @ Summerhall) is more Wes Anderson than Richard Curtis; it is much more quirky and offbeat than a romantic airport chase scene. Though, Rhys Ifans in his underwear just might fit in amongst Jakub, the Polish bird-stuffer who attends the local Conservative Club’s events (yes, “there really are Conservatives in Merthyr”), Mr Tutti-Frutti, the desperate ice cream seller (since the new Tesco people are eating ice cream at home, “in front of Netflix”), and Maxie Doyle the desperate wannabe film maker, who is only going to make “soapy porn” until he has enough money to escape to the bright lights of Newport. Oh, and Valentine and Ashley, who are the star-crossed lovers of the piece, the teenagers caught in the crosswinds of their parents mistakes, longings and worrying hobbies. There is also a brief cameo moment from Ron Burgundy.

No description of the tangled plot, the fast-paced, achingly funny language, or the first-class characters will do this piece justice. It is sweet, strange, endearing, uplifting and bursting with energy. The three actors never seem to stop. They dart around the stage, switching accents and body postures to contort themselves into the various idiosyncratic characters; they make cheeky glances and winks at the audience; they never leave the stage for a second. Awkward kisses, awkward parents and run-of-the-mill adolescent awkwardness are given an energy that elevates the central teenage love affair to that of the greats. In this case, life in Merthyr is more magical than the movies.

(originally forCrows Nest Zine )

Edinburgh Fringe Review: Solo Date @ Assembly George Square Studios

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4 STARS

If you could bring your dead lover back to life, would you? Surely that’s an offer no one could refuse. But what if it was a version of your lover, an almost-exact replica, but not quite the real deal? What if you could bring them back using artificial intelligence? What then?

Solo Date takes this thought experiment and runs with it, into compelling, humorous and unexpected places. Ho-Nien, after learning his boyfriend has died in a plane crash, orders an AI personal assistant crammed to the brim with his late partner’s voice, image, memories and personality traits. But what of the secrets between the couple? The grieving attempt to reconstruct his lover leads Ho-Nien down into a spiral of information and emotion, at the heart of which are two resounding questions: how much can we ever know the one’s we love, and what is love anyway? Full understanding of the story, and of the show’s ambitious scope regarding its central themes, are only revealed in the final moments, as a clever twist shifts the plot into new, unforeseen territory.

As the audience enters, Ho-Nien (Tsai Pao-Chang) sits blindfolded centre stage, apparently contained within a box of gauze. This gauze is where much of the action takes place – it becomes a shimmering screen, across which projections glide. Each new scene is introduced by name in bright white, floating text, giving the impression of a graphic novel come to life on stage.

In many shows, attempts to combine live action with multimedia feel forced. All too often the media seems uneasily tacked on; intended to add flare to a performance, it frequently instead distracts or actively detracts from the piece. This is certainly not the case in Solo Date. Here the projections not only flow seamlessly, shifting from iridescent electronic rain effects to gay internet chat-rooms without any uncomfortable jolt, but are integral to the piece. The interaction between Ho-Nien inside his box and the huge faces looming over him on the screen is no gimmick, but an ingenious and necessary technique to communicate this near-future world. Appearing small and fragile in comparison to the all-knowing AI holograms, Ho-Nien seems trapped – a pet inside a cage he himself has built. Visually stunning, intellectually and emotionally challenging, and funny; this piece cuts to the heart of contemporary concerns, and provides a radically new dimension to the timeless theme of love

Edinburgh Fringe Review: Doubting Thomas @ Summerhall

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5 STARS

The story of redemption is an old one. The blood-soaked man who sees the light, changes his ways, repents. It is a familiar, even fairly comfortable narrative arc. Yet nothing feels remotely comfortable in this outstanding work of theatre. For Doubting Thomas is not a dramatic exercise in catharsis, dreamt up by playwrights who fancy themselves as contemporary heirs of Greek theatre. Doubting Thomas is not a simple progression from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, because what real human life can be reduced to such black and white terms? And this is, crucially, the story of a real human life. ‘Doubting Thomas’ is Thomas McCrudden, Glasgow gangster, turned prisoner, turned performer, who now stands on stage before the audience’s eyes. As the story of a real blood-soaked man, told from his flesh and blood lips, it is more powerful and compelling than any imaginary transformation tale.

This is award-winning director Jeremy Weller’s forte – taking remarkable lives and devising remarkable pieces of theatre, to reveal the drama that constantly surrounds us. He specialises in immersive, inclusive theatre, that puts individuals centre stage. It is theatre of both the personal and the grand scale. In this sense he is a true contemporary heir of Greek tragedy, as his pieces reveal the intense power and pathos of supposedly ‘ordinary’ modern lives. It surely speaks volumes that Sarah Kane said that seeing his work changed her life.

While life-changes are clearly central to Weller’s work, the fact two of his major proponents are Kane and Lars von Trier gives some suggestion that these transformations are far from tame. There is no avoiding the brutality of  Doubting Thomas; violence seethes throughout this piece. As Thomas himself admits, he has committed almost every act of violence imaginable – beatings, stabbings, slashings, you name it, he’s probably done it. Domestic abuse, prison brawls and suicide are all held up unflinchingly. How did a man so addicted to violence his peers likened him to a fighting street dog get to be standing under the glare of stage lights? Well, as Thomas suggests, it is more of a natural progression than may first meet the eye. For, in his words, he has been acting his whole life, putting on masks and filling roles “none of which was me!”

It is this idea that provides much of the poignancy and emotional impact of the piece. It is an intricate study of how those who society most fears are often the ones most filled with fear themselves. It is a story of worthlessness and desperation. Reared in poverty, never shown love, relegated to society’s fringes – is it really surprising that gang violence seems to offer glamour and the allure of power? It is a story of lost boys desperately playing the part of hard man. It is an old story, but here it feels viscerally raw and necessary.

(originally for Crows Nest Zine )

Fringe Review: Us / Them @ Summerhall

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5 STARS

It is difficult to tell the story of a disaster. All too often the storytelling slips into sensationalism or well-worn stereotype – the human disaster smothered by our shared Hollywood understandings of catastrophe. Perhaps this is to be expected; perhaps reframing real-life horror within the conventions of cinema acts as a coping mechanism, a way to distance ourselves from stark, shocking truths.

And what could be more shocking – what could shake us and make us want to close our eyes and pretend nothing happened – than a terror attack on children. The siege on a school in Beslan in 2004, which saw over 1000 people taken hostage in a stifling school gymnasium and left 334 people dead, 186 of which were children under 10, is an event that is tremendously hard, if not impossible to process.

It is difficult therefore to underplay the challenge which Belgium-based company BRONKS has set itself in choosing to stage the Beslan hostage drama. It is a high stakes game; are these events simply too horrific to be handled artistically? Maybe in the hands of a less bold, skilled and inventive company. In those of performers Roman van Houtven and Gytha Parmentier however, the tragedy is carried with such virtuoso lightness of touch the audience cannot once even be tempted to close their eyes or look away. For, in a genius twist on catastrophe narratives, this story is not told by the adults – the ones with the preconceived notions and political biases. Us / Them is told through the eyes of children – the ones at the heart of this drama, whose viewpoints and voices are too easily overlooked. Thus, the floorplan of the school is scrawled over the stage in chalk; the teroorists’ bombs are black balloons; the trip wires that laced the gymnasium are string, hung like a cat’s cradle to be hopped over and flung under, like a make-believe game of spies and robbers.

Parmentier and van Houtven are utterly outstanding. They at once entirely inhabit the bodies and minds of young children, and also launch themselves around the stage in movements of such controlled, graceful energy the piece never seems to settle for an instant. Far from slipping into sensationalism, this retelling manages to be simultaneously playful and deeply moving. In a way perhaps only children can be, it is both silly and profound.

For what is really at the heart of this story, as the title suggests, is the process of othering. Of the lines we draw in the sand between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. The Beslan siege seems to provide a clear cut instance of innocence versus evil – for what could be more plainly evil than the imprisonment and slaughter of the young? And yet, through the eyes of innocence, the audience is shown how very juvenile all our understandings of ourselves and others are. The tales the children tell – of all those over the border being moustached women and paedophiles – are clearly reductive, divisive errors, but where do these stories come from if not overheard from parental conversation? The power and beauty of this piece – it’s subtle handed genius – lies in the way it challenges our conventional renditions of tragedy. The exaggerated tales and dreams of the children reveal the constructed, simplified reality we create for ourselves. In the face of horror, we are all children playing make believe; we close our eyes and hope for heroes to come and save us. In a time when divisions seem to be sharpening, and lines in the sand are being drawn at an alarming pace this piece not only communicates this single event in an outstandingly original way, it speaks to all of us and our apparent need for easy narratives. The innocent, questioning gaze of children is remarkably piercing.

(Originally for Crows Nest Zine )

The Weir

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It is nearly twenty years since Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’ was first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and in that time the Irish pub based drama has been performed across the world, appearing on Broadway, in Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles and, naturally, Dublin. It has become, as the Lyceum production’s programme proclaims, “a modern classic”. The apparent contradiction in that label – the somewhat uneasy pairing of classic and contemporary – is in fact an apt way to understand McPherson’s piece. ‘The Weir’ has a timeless quality, or, more accurately, conveys a sense of having momentarily fallen out of the modern world. The play presents the power of the past, and how it can invade and disturb the present.

Set entirely within a romantically rudimentary pub (the Guinness tap is broken, leaving only bottles, for which garage owner Jack is repeatedly mocked for drinking, and the only wine has been lingering in the house for over five years), the play presents a vision of rural isolation. The characters propping up publican Brendan’s bar are, like him, single men, for whom the pub promises more than a series of “small” drams of whisky; it breaks the loneliness of their situation and satisfies the deep human need for connection.

The play is entirely talk – a jumble of stories, all ghostly in nature, told by each character in turn. If that sounds formulaic or forced, it never strikes as such. The exactly accurate rhythms of Irish speech, the idioms, the competition between the men, and the pure acting talent on display create an entirely believable world. Gary Lydon, in his guise as shabby, but quick-witted Jack, is especially mesmerising. His final monologue, revealing how his character remains haunted by a long lost love, is beautifully poignant. In one line, the play’s themes of memory, personal tragedy and moving on are perfectly encapsulated: “there isn’t a morning I wake up and her name isn’t in the room”.

For a play first staged in 1997, two years after the debut of Sarah Kane’s ‘Blasted’, ‘The Weir’ is remarkably old-fashioned. Even with the contemporary costume, it could be easily mistaken for a modernised rendering of naturalist theatre. Within the walls of the isolated rural pub, the effects of new media and digitisation have no foothold; this is a play of pure storytelling. It is this quality that spurred Lyceum Artistic Director Mark Thomson to produce the play, highlighting how The Weir’s “faith in storytelling between human beings demonstrates eloquently that sharing our experiences, both actual and emotional, can be compelling and even necessary.” It is a drama that, despite its supernatural tales, emphasises a deeply felt humanity.

 

(originally for The Skinny)

Brooklyn

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When Ryan Gosling presented Saoirse Ronan with a Hollywood Film Award for Brooklyn, he pointed out that when he was 13 his performance experience was limited: “I was a back up dancer for my Elvis impersonating uncle”. Ronan, on the other hand, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Oscars rumour mill is abuzz with the inkling that, for this film, she may be nominated again.

There are not many actors around who can hold their own against the silver screen allure of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Romola Garai, let alone when barely out of childhood. Yet, Ronan’s understated steeliness in Atonement left the acting royalty alongside her in her wake. Critics roundly declared her to have stolen the show. Again in The Lovely Bones, and in Hanna (where her martial arts skills put Eric Bana’s in the shade) her obvious talent shone. It is not uncommon to hear her described as ‘otherworldly’, with a ‘soul older than her years’.

In Brooklyn once again there is something at once glaring obvious and yet intangible about Ronan’s talent. She is the glow at the centre of this film – her captivating blend of fragility and resilience stopping what could be an overly sentimental picture from slipping into the maudlin. Imperceptibly she is able to perfectly capture the changing emotions of a nervous girl coming into independence and adulthood.

Ronan has commented on how her own life and the life of her character, Eilis Lacey, coincide. The story of a young Irish émigré, leaving her beloved sister and mother for a life alone in the urban rush of New York, the narrative of Brooklyn (based on the 2009 novel by Colm Toibin) chimed with Ronan’s family history: her parents were economic immigrants to New York in the 1980s. Her own experiences of shuttling between Ireland’s Enniscorthy and Hollywood also surely came to bear on her portrayal of Eilis’ poignant sense of two conflicting potential lives.

Yet, it would be disparaging, and false, to pin Ronan’s stunning performance solely on familiarity with the storyline. The film without her would be visually alluring – Mad Men style contrasted with vistas of Irish sea – and emotionally affecting. The other actors also give strong performances. But, with much of it closely focused on the minutest movements of her eyes, this is Ronan’s film. Under these eyes, set pieces that could strike as unoriginal, or schmaltzy, are tender. Once again, even alongside Domnhall Gleeson, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, Ronan leaves others in her wake.

Martyr

There is no doubt that Marius von Mayenburg’s new play touches on a sensitive contemporary nerve. It is about extremism and tolerance, religious fanaticism and political correctness. It is about how far fundamentalism can be accepted, ignored or written off as youthful angst. Mayenburg has penned the conversation that society is eager to dodge.

This is a production that does not dodge. Daniel O’Keefe, who plays teenage protagonist and Christian fundamentalist Benjamin, seems to burst from the set. Exploding with fiery scripture, strutting naked and forcibly upending the wooden palettes making up the floor, he pitches his performance at uncontrollable. His war on depravity is fierce, beginning by targeting bikini-clad classmates and escalating to anti-Semitic plots of violence against his Biology teacher (Natalie Radmall-Quirke).

This vision of youthful extremism is pervaded by burgeoning sexuality, misogyny and growing-pains rage at powerlessness. Turning a blind eye is shown to fuel the flames, as the school’s ‘hands-off’ attitude merely allows bullying, sexism and to burn with zeal. A supposedly ‘liberal’ laissez faire attitude is revealed as dangerously close to the evil of inaction. The oft repeated thought, famously espoused by Albert Einstein, that “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” is the ideological core of the play.

At times the fervency misses the mark, as some performances strike as falsely over-ardent. However, the boldness with which it deals with these ideas is commendable, and the absurdist closing tableaux reverberates with energy. A passive reaction is impossible.

(originally for The Skinny)

Topsy Turvy

Standing at the top of the stairs, I tentatively, by minuscule measurements, reach one foot towards the edge, feeling for the place where the ground gives way to nothingness. My hand drifts in the air next to me, searching for the bannister I know must be somewhere near my fingertips. The urge to open my eyes is almost unbearable. This is definitely different from how I’ve experienced shows at the Fruitmarket Gallery before.

Perhaps I should explain more fully. I am not wavering about on a gallery’s stairs as part of my own individual performance art piece, I am being guided – one hand in mine, one on the small of my back – by someone who has their eyes entirely open (someone who, ten minutes previously, I made take the blind top-of-the-stairs plunge), and this is all part of a Fruitmarket workshop. Around the whole gallery pairs are negotiating corners and narrow pathways, all as part of Topsy Turvy, an intensive weekend workshop of movement and contact improvisation, as a response to Phyllida Barlow’s ‘SET’, Fruitmarket’s current exhibition. The entire point of the weekend is to make you see the artwork in a new way – not being able to see it at all is just the starting point.

Bringing together visual art and movement is not new, but it doesn’t happen all that often. It especially doesn’t happen often for people outside either the art or dance worlds – usually the only people able to throw themselves around near valuable artworks are seasoned professionals. So Fruitmarket gathering a group of twelve young people, for whom the only requirement is interest, for free, is a pretty incredible thing. Allowed into the gallery when closed to the public, given time to study the pieces and taught the principles of contact improvisation in the Dance Base studio space, with professional dancer and choreographer Rosalind Masson leading the weekend’s movement, Goat Media filming the workshop’s process and developments and the gallery laying on coffee and refreshments the entire weekend feels like a fantastic, sneaky privilege.

As well as being an enjoyably different way to experience Fruitmarket’s space, it is also an extremely clever enterprise, for Barlow’s works do indeed seem to call for a physical response to them. Built with hidden spaces, cul-de-sac entryways and jutting slabs there is an intrinsic desire to crawl into, climb on and clamber over the pieces. They seem to only really come into their own with human activity around them. Works of large size but very careful balance, relying on the support of other pieces, Barlow’s SET manages to seem both planned and spontaneous, solid and fragile. Contact improvisation, which relies on bodyweight support, balance and, of course, close contact with others, is a perfect fit.

I saw Barlow’s show when it opened in late July. I liked it, but I must admit, I wasn’t blown away. I thought the giant sculptures that engulf the gallery were impressive, that the layered textures were appealing, that some of the shapes were interesting, but it wasn’t a love-at-first-sight moment. But, if you can carry blind date metaphors into the art world, I am immensely glad the lack of immediate spark didn’t stop me returning. It turns out signing up for a full weekend getting close and personal with the pieces kindled the slow burn; even halfway through the first day I felt my relationship to the artworks changing and intensifying. Both the individual pieces downstairs and the enormous structure filling the upstairs gallery seemed cleverer, yet also more playful. Watching others moving amongst the sculptures gave them a new depth and animation; the gallery seemed to come alive. Perhaps all art shows would benefit from an injection of active reaction.

Everest

Everyone knows that Everest is dangerous, sometimes even fatally so. Yet, this doesn’t stop adventurers, adrenaline junkies and fantasists from dreaming of reaching the world’s highest summit. Despite knowing the danger – or perhaps more often, because of the sense of danger – the peak of Everest draws desiring mountaineers like moths to a flame. We humans can be an ambitious, determined and deeply foolish bunch.

Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest reflects this almost entirely. The very form of the film echoes the irrational pull of the mountain. We all know the adventure / disaster / survival movie formula – and Everest follows it nearly to the letter – and yet, it remains awe-inspiring, moving and genuinely nerve-wracking. It somehow pulls you in. It also showcases the utterly human blend of bravery and bravado it takes to attempt such a feat.

It is here that it somewhat departs from the predictable, straight-forward action-adventure flick, as it refuses to entirely hold up the protagonists as either heroes or fools. This is a disaster-survival movie with streaks of triumph, but also resounding desolation.

Some critics have seen this as indecisive, viewing the mix of classic action-adventure movie with something more mournful as narrative uncertainty on the part of the director. However, it seems more self-aware than this criticism implies; the bleakness displayed is what rescues the movie from hackneyed cliché.

Certainly, the set up suggests the audience will be graced with the standard generic stereotypes. Expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) fills the kind-hearted alpha role, as his heavily-pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) tearfully waits behind. There is a swaggering Texan, Buck (played impeccably by Josh Brolin) and a mother-hen in Emily Watson’s Helen Wilton, basecamp go-to woman. There is even a villain character, in the rival South African expedition leader, dressed in flashy North Face gear and an arrogant attitude. However, for every ascent there is a descent, and out of this apparently conventional opening emerges a more nuanced reflection on the challenge of Everest, and of ego.

The swaggering Texan is revealed to have unexpected levels of sorrow, vulnerability and courage. While his early characterisation as spoilt, stubborn, wealthy-white-man does not entirely disappear – it does after all cost up to 65,000 dollars for amateurs to be guided up the mountain – it is ultimately shown as too simplistic a caricature.

But then, these are real people we are dealing with. They are not wholly dreamed up by movie studios, keen for a thrilling action picture, but actual humans, some of whom never made it back to everyday reality. And while the film may slip too easily into cliché, as weeping women wait for their macho menfolk to return, it also reveals the base truth to the stereotype. Wealthy Westerners, dissatisfied with easy, sedentary lives that have failed to live up to youthful dreams, will pay thousands to jolt themselves out of their comfort zone, in the most extreme way possible. They want to prove that they can be heroes. And sometimes they can be, as Everest shows in its triumphant ascent scenes, but often at a dreadful price, and always with others waiting behind.

What may in pure blockbuster be written off as sentimental is here genuinely affecting and poignant. It may sound corny when Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) pronounces “the last word always belongs to the mountain”, but by the film’s second act this notion of humanity’s absolute powerlessness resonates acutely.