May I firstly apologise to anyone who was distressed by my misuse of the word 'foment' in the previous instalment? I lost a little sleep over it too. The Controlling Thompson shares your pain.
Things here continue to oscillate between cool and sucky at approximately 850 Hz and the resulting motion blur seems to be gradually forming itself into the phrase "Maybe it's me". While the jury's out, please disregard the grossest of the self-pity in my last post. It has been a hard year. That's neither here nor there. Hardly a day passes up here -- I mean up here in Edinburgh but also up here on this critical rotisserie -- without an encounter with one or more reasons to be cheerful.
It's just sometimes you have to wait a while... There are times when I feel like I've spent half my adult life on the benches at St Stephens watching a bunch of goggle-eyed physical theatre callipyges disport themselves strenuously on or around a table. Sometimes they are lamenting something. Sometimes I am lamenting something. But not too many laments this year as I finally caught up with the not-far-off-legendary Russian company Do Theatre, whose celebrated Hopeless Games I missed but whose Hangman this year drew me into the orbit of its exertions. This is what I meanly call the Theatre of the Scenic Route: the fundamental tenet of which is that if I have to pick up an object (most likely a book, a briefcase or a goldfish bowl) and give it to someone else on stage, I should not take it directly to them, but rather trace an elaborate double arc terminating eventually in ever decreasing curlicues. Or what my late paternal grandmother would have called "going all round Will's mother's". The common factor in the various threads of dance and theatre that Hangman comprises is exactly this exhaustive lyricism, and on the whole I find it leaves me pretty cool. Perhaps not quite so much in Do Theatre, on this evidence, as in Derevo, say, because there's a stronger influence here (I would guess) of classic silent film comedy and early Hollywood musicals, which is a more attractive and obviously less ascetic tendency: the downside of which is a certain amount of mugging and over-overemphasis which, let us be clear, was never pleasant in the context of a teeth-and-nubbins Corona Stage School sequence in the Rod Hull Pink Windmill Show, and doesn't suddenly ascend to the status of art just because the gurniste is some hyper-gamine bald chick from Russia. Most sequences are overextended and the plain dance is not all that. But the visual world is pretty stunning, the immersive and detailed use of sound is a great bonus, and all else is quickly forgiven in the light of the jaw-dropping final image: as perfect a stage picture as I think I've ever seen. So, all in all: not quite my cup of tea, but you do get an awesome slice of cake with it.
It seems extraordinary that it should have taken me eleven fringes to get around to seeing something with Tam Dean Burn in it. He's long been one of Scotland's most loved and respected actors and also one of its most daring and uncompromising: not the kind of constellation of adjectives you'd expect to hear applied to one and the same person in the country to our south, where national treasure status is only ever really afforded to the thespian equivalents of anaglypta (at least, until you hit eighty, and then you can have been responsible for genocide and avantgardism and nobody seems to mind any more).
Odd, for the first few moments, then, when Burn emerged at the start of Venus as a Boy: genial, unassuming, lowkey. Not on fire. Well, good. And I was so glad that he began by saying hello and introducing the piece: I wish more actors, particularly in solo work, would do this -- it establishes a much more potent theatrical relationship with the audience from the off. It gave him more latitude as a performer and us more freedom as an audience, and he was able to recoup that investment quite magically at the very end of the show, when the simple (or not-so-simple) act of making eye-contact with us carried more meaning and more movement than almost the rest of the piece put together.
A second surprise was the on-stage presence of Luke Sutherland, the author of the novel from which this adaptation had been developed, and a fine musician whose work with the brilliant post-rock band Long Fin Killie I really admired. Sutherland, like Burn, has loads of backstairs charisma, a slow-burning ardour that reminded me -- if it's not unutterably stupid of me to say this -- of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The music with which Sutherland underscores the production is mostly created out of looping and layering simple diatonic motifs: it's effective, unobtrusive. Perhaps I'd have liked it to obtrude more, to set an agenda or articulate a more disruptive argument.
Which is I suppose a micro-indication of how the piece in general feels to me. Because the whole thing has retained the narrative style and voice of the original novel, the prevailing mood is of after-the-event even while Burn is deftly creating the events. I guess I'm complaining about a lack of dramatic tension, which is not the kind of thing I normally find myself doing; mind you, we're not necessarily talking about a solution any more retrograde than translating the narrative into present tense, as people usually do in pub storytelling. At any rate I found that while I somewhat admired each of the individual elements -- the finesse of Burn's storytelling performance and the lo-fi workshop theatricality; Sutherland's music; (to some extent) the novel's goodhearted magic realist tendencies -- these forces didn't much galvanise each other. Only in the last twenty minutes or so, with Burn's donning of his golden drag, does the piece come alive as a more distinctively realised theatrical experience, fully emerged from the pages of its source text. That last moment of eye-contact between Burn and his audience is genuinely exciting and moving and only made me more regretful that the journey of the narrator in the book had been mapped onto a performative movement that carried Burn to this culminating brink, rather than starting there; it seemed to me that had the piece begun with that level of vulnerability and vividness, it could have gone on to take us somewhere quite extraordinary.
Thompson's Second Law of Fringe Dynamics states that between sixty and eighty per cent of the shows you want to see in any one year will clash with your own. So what you go and see on your day(s) off -- I get two -- during that precious time slot is a matter for delicate and rigorous consideration. In that regard, I find it difficult to say quite what I was doing giving over my first free afternoon to Trumptonshire Tales. Worshipping a little at the presence of Brian Cant (hallowed be his name), I suppose. But there wasn't much to it. A bit of stilted chat, lots of video clips, a curious stretch of audience participation, a singalong, a Q&A. Not quite sure what I wanted. A Marxist reading of Chigley? Actually a little lighthearted attempt at an analysis of the enduring, actually rather gripping, appeal of the world of Trumptonshire -- which was, as Brian C. said, pretty old-fashioned even when it was made -- might have been worthwhile. But it wasn't that kind of get-together, and I didn't really get much out of it except a rather poignant insight of my own: that actually, huge fan though I am of Brian Cant and important though he plainly was on programmes such as Play School and Play Away -- and a pretty terrific actor, one way and another -- I don't think he was crucial to the success of the three Trumpton series. Gordon Murray's puppets and scenarios, and especially Freddie Phillips's music, are where the real and curious magic resides. I'm not sure that Trumptonshire Tales was a missed opportunity, I'm not sure that it was any kind of opportunity first or last. Phill Jupitus (of whom I am vaguely fond), as MC, was a bit pissed, pretty haphazard, and generally past caring.
Mile End, in the same 2.30 slot but drawing incredible audience numbers instead to Kingdome, is the debut show by a new company called Analogue, whose prime movers are Liam Jarvis (co-founder of the brilliant Theatre Trash and co-director of my 2004 show Nine Days Crazy) and actor Hannah Barker. It's an incredibly detailed, cleverly turned piece of work, restlessly inventive -- almost to a fault, perhaps: it's so captivated by the theatrical playground it's created that sometimes the human drama it's trying to animate becomes slightly occluded. I imagine their future work might be a wee bit calmer. But the sophistication of their integration of the different modes and languages they're working in is sensitive and intelligent and their following-through of loops and repeats and correspondences into the minutiae of the stage action is smart and hugely confident. I'd have been interested in a slightly loftier tone to the script from the excellent Dan Rebellato, but I don't suppose anybody else would, and that's ok. Obviously they're a young company and for the moment they're wearing their influences on their sleeve -- whether it's a Lepageian bird's-eye-view (fantastically executed) or a Complicite book-bird alighting in a wastebin -- but they're the rignt influences and the company's facility with them suggests that new dialects and new directions will soon emerge. It's a great hour in the theatre, radiant with promise.
Nothing I've seen so far is more exquisitely realised than Melanie Wilson's Simple Girl, which I finally caught up with at Underbelly having repeatedly missed it on the London circuit for what seems like years. Simple Girl is a textbook example of the small but perfectly formed, a melange of gradually unravelling stories of romance and espionage set in far-flung, nebulously imagined cities, and piqued by wonderful music and effects triggered on a sampler by the elegant pointy finger of Wilson herself. The poise and the physical detail of the piece is quietly astonishing, the writing is delicious, and the thin ice on which Wilson figure-skates her way through the fifty minutes of the show is both chic and precarious. The word 'quirky' should be outlawed, or at least have a season that doesn't include August, but there's a lightly-worn and immensely appealing eccentricity to Wilson's performing persona that touches on a whole chorus line of unexpected femmes fatales, from Joyce Grenfell to Gertrude Lawrence to Michelle Of The Resistance to the young Janet Ellis. Or am I off the scent now? If you're in Edinburgh at any time over the next two weeks, I promise you, you have time to see Simple Girl. It's beautiful, funny and poignant, and it sits in the hinterland between mainstream entertainment and cutting-edge performance with terrific assurance and a naughty twinkle in its eye.
Apollo/Dionysus, at C3, was for its first half hour potentially the most significant and exciting piece I've seen in a theatre for ages. I'm not going to rehearse here my continuing nagging fixation on the notion of post-liminal theatre -- the development (such as it is) of most of those ideas can be traced back through this blog over the past year or more, if you're interested -- but this was one of the first pieces I've seen (along with Rabbit's Gathering and Apocryphal Theatre's The Jesus Guy) that seems to be asking similar questions. In fact it asks them outright, quite openly. Disguised as an intellectual potboiler in which a child asks moral and existential questions of Apollo and Dionysus, in fact the play is itself experiencing something close to incorporative self-awareness. There is a white space, to which the boy refers right at the start; the two young actors playing Apollo and Dionysus are naked throughout, and again the boy questions this early on, voicing the audience's own tacit reactions and assumptions. Theatre, in other words, is here worrying away at itself, at its most basic tenets. What is meant by presence in this context? Does it begin in the body? How does play relate to the experience of time, and how do we learn from it? Can the complex cultural significations of nakedness (and eroticism) be reconciled with the constancy and primacy of the civic connotations of the body? ...and so on.
This kind of self-examination may seem likely to be an arid or tedious basis for a theatrical experience, and it may be (though this is a depressing thought) that it's of real interest only to other theatre-makers who recognize the questions. Perhaps that's the reason for couching it all in the mythology of Dionysus and Apollo: though to me, I'd have to say, that all felt a little bit like the carapace of classical antiquity that helped van Gloeden or the old fifties Physique Pictorial mags justify their depictions of male nudity. On the other hand, the pleasure / propriety dialectic is an interesting and engaging one and probably as good a route as any to the fundamental concerns of the piece.
So far, so promising, and though there's a lot that, for me at least, needed to be overlooked -- some cliched movement stuff, some equally regrettable choric speaking, and quite a lot of dreary swoony New Age-y music of no fixed abode -- there's also much to admire: in the spare, robust, witty text (despite occasional lapses into portentousness, almost inevitable in the circumstances); the smart design and dynamic lighting; the thoughtful connection with and implication of the audience; a couple of really beautifully visualised and perfectly placed images; and above all the daring conception and the rigorously organised execution of a wonderfully unfashionable idea.
Sadly, the piece makes two unforced errors. (Three if you count the overlong running time: the piece would work much better at an hour, not least because of the late night slot and the hot cramped uncomfortable venue.) Most importantly: about half way through, a fourth stage presence is introduced -- I won't say who as there's a certain coup de theatre intended; but it's an unnecessary move which destroys the triangulation from which the piece has derived its formal power up to then, and makes for muddied dynamics and a cluttered stage picture thereafter. (No offence intended to the actor concerned, who is perfectly fine in a difficult and slightly indistinct role). And then ultimately the piece seems to lose its thread altogether: perhaps this is the intended realisation of the order/chaos dialectic that the second half of the play initiates, but it is not only unsatisfactory in itself (especially in its capitulation to the myth narratives which are the least interesting and suggestive element in the piece) but also disserves the excellent first half. I think perhaps the writer/director underestimates our identification with the child: it is his story, his perspective, that most compels our attention and empathy, and the end of that arc is unclear and kind of evasive.
So in the end, the experience of the piece is like that amazingly brilliant and lucid wine-propelled conversation you have with friends at two in the morning, that just for a precious half-hour is truly exciting and inspiring, and then slips heartbreakingly away as everyone gets too drunk to concentrate any more and becomes distracted by anecdotes and trivia.
Nonetheless, what I was most thinking as I walked home (a beautifully peaceful, drizzly stroll down Johnston Terrace back into town -- the streets were absolutely deserted), was that this is the first piece I've seen in Edinburgh since I left Camden People's Theatre in 2004 that made me wish I was still programming a venue. I'd have invited Apollo/Dionysus in like a shot; I don't know if they've had, or are planning, a London run, but they certainly deserve a further life and audience for this piece and the opportunity perhaps to develop it some more. It's very nearly a very important piece of work, one that I think will stay with me for some time. And if there's a more ravishing performance anywhere on the Fringe this year than Jonny Liron's Dionysus -- well, could somebody tell me about it?
I haven't really started getting into the art festival yet -- though I did walk out to the National Gallery of Modern Art the other day: but only for lunch. (Their beetroot salad is fantastic and the whole package comes highly recommended if you've got three hours to while away and are prepared to spend two and a half of them queueing.) I'll certainly go back for the Richard Long show, and hopefully get out to Inverleith House for the William Eggleston (though again that's as much about the stroll). And if I'm at a sufficiently loose end I dare say the Naked Portraits at the NPG pass the time. Not sure about the big Warhol but it's getting strong enough raves to allay perhaps my misgivings.
In the meantime, I'd recommend a drop-in at Stills on Cockburn Street for their John Stezaker show. He creates simple but often eerily effective two-picture photomontages: for example, the most disturbing series in the exhibition has landscape postcards being (manually) pasted onto portrait photographs, so that caves and rock formations and such seem to be eating away at or suggesting the interior topography of heads and faces. The most effective of them are really uncanny. Elsewhere, children and cats morph into each other; actorly mugshots collide. The best of these pictures are savage and revealing; at worst they're moderately clever. There's nothing awfully new here but I rather like what's old about them: not least that the only digital intervention here is the fingers that grip Stezaker's scissors.