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)

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)

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.

Edinburgh Fringe Review: T-Dance

Unfortunately, T-Dance [★★☆☆☆], another production presented by The Place at Summerhall this year, seems to lack the self-awareness of Lost Dog’s work. Indeed, the piece appears to fall into the very creative traps examined by Duke; the final product does not live up to the conception. It is a disappointment.

The dance explores touch and connectivity. It is a theme that dance should be ideally suited to – a study of tactility seems to call for bodies to be used as instruments. The idea of connection over distance is a notion that in the globalised, digital age is increasingly significant, and, in the hands of Vera Tussing – graduate of London Contemporary Dance School, choreographer throughout Europe and artist highly interested in the structure and performance of the senses – one would have high expectations the idea would be treated with fresh insight. Yet, what is felt most is a sense of the unfulfilled.

There are some visually striking episodes. The quartet open with sticks between their shoulders, moving gradually across the space. They pivot around each other alternately, carefully spinning while not letting the sticks fall. Later the stage will fall to darkness, aside form a single strip of light above the dancers heads and the sticks will be whirled, causing the sound of wind to rise and the light bar to be chopped and distorted by hidden batons.

However, despite these striking conceits and the often beautiful motion of the dancers, the piece feels disjointed. Each episode, worked out through improvisation, drags on for too long. The gentle study is too gentle, too slow. The powerful soundtrack, which includes David Bowie and Jeff Buckley, seems to overshadow the movements on stage. The whole piece is too much like a glimpse into a rehearsal room, where the quartet are playing bonding games. In a piece about connectivity, the audience instead feel distanced.

However, while being flawed, even TDance proves that dance theatre is certainly the realm for artistic experimentation. That The Place has presented such different pieces – pieces that are far from orthodox in their use of movement – proves that the contemporary dance world is taking risks. In Paradise Lost these risks pay off extraordinarily.

Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Review: Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

A man hangs from a gym rope as the Star Wars theme blares from speakers. He slides slowly to the ground, eyes locked on the audience in an expression of knowingly ironic self-importance. This is Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost [★★★★★], and this is The Beginning. And thus, Ben Duke cleverly and comically transforms God into a schoolboy, precariously balanced and easily able to fall.

The Almighty is, in this re-imagining of Milton’s epic, a vision of clumsy incompetence. Duke creates a graceless God, with beautifully human foibles and inadequacies. From the start, when Duke fumbles through the pages of Milton’s classic while riffing on the experience of seeing a respected stage actor misplace a bookmark at a reading, unexpectedly revealing his fallible humanity and causing the audience to empathetically root for him, the project is intent on puncturing the unimaginably grand with prosaic reality. The cosmic battle between Lucifer’s band of rebels and God’s holy angels is rendered through a showering of chickpeas, sporadically hitting the ground, to be trampled under Duke’s bare feet, as paper cut out angels flutter around him. This, like the gym rope episode, may sound ridiculous. Yet, while being comic, it is in fact beautifully poignant, and entirely appropriate. Duke’s struggle to play God is witty and inventive and highly self-deprecating.

This is a creation myth more concerned with creative disappointments, with creations that don’t quite follow the initial creative impulse. Duke ingeniously blends the Biblical narrative with his own artistic anxieties and parental doubts. God is a modern day father, harrying his children to school before the morning commute, a parent whose patience is tried, a parent who loses his cool and snaps at his offspring. Adam’s birth is relayed to the audience through a description of a awe-inspiring dance piece – one that is only ever imagined as Duke scurries from side to side, teasing the audience with flashes of dance movement, recounting what could have been had his plans not gone awry.

This is one of the strongest aspects of Duke’s terrific work – the way his dance training is only allowed to shine through occasionally. In a piece presented by The Place, this may be an unexpected virtue, and, of course, the set pieces showcase Duke’s talent to an astounding degree (the creation as a dance of juddering, quivering experiment is remarkable), yet the restraint is somehow more powerful. The heroic figure contorting in front of the audience is always quickly reduced back to a shambolic character. Desire, wrath, failure and infinite guilt are showcased, in an intensely familiar manner. Duke reduces the epic to small scale – gives it flaws and unfulfillment – and reveals something touchingly noble. Lost Dog’s hopeless God, rain-soaked and disillusioned, is ultimately the source for tentative hope and definite awe. Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), as a brilliant dissection of creativity, is itself a near impeccable creation.