I’m currently based in Edinburgh. The world’s biggest arts festival happens to be here. Here’re some part reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre. Part 1 (featuring Freefall, Penelope, The Author, and much Forest Fringe) was here.
Three theatre-makers I love greatly collaborating on project about boxing: like a dream. When a project brings in heavyweights you expect it to pack a punch – how does that expectation frame your experiences? It largely depends on the individual, I suppose: those I went with were mostly mildly confused and disappointed: I was delighted, enchanted. The play was deeply experiential, deeply in the present, in its music and video, in its movement, in its speeches: everything was about what is happening right now. Memories of the past were treated with scorn, hopes for the future drove only immediate action. Jab. Cut. Punch. Yes, to go into the issues and feelings in more depth would have been more recognisably satisfying – but I licked the way this grazed huge moral conundrums, vast emotional chasms, and then rapidly moved on. Like most of life, like most people’s lives.
Sometimes it can be fun to see a production so awful that by its depths it serves as a warning, reminds you what to avoid in making theatre. The metre was ignored, voice weakly squeaked emotion, bodies were floppy and unresponsive, the cuts were nonsensical, the characters ciphers – oh my, it was so very bad. But they were trying to hard! It breaks my heart to see a group who clearly cares about theatre, who clearly wants to make good theatre, do so many things so obviously wrong.
Simon Callow / Jonathan Bate: The Man from Stratford @ Assembly
A biographical lecture in theatrical form. Surprisingly not as pompous as I thought it would be, actually rather tender at points – though too often it is a vehicle for Callow to plum his way through his favourite snippets of verse in his hammy way. I didn’t learn much, but I did get to thinking how the cipher of Shakespeare’s life allows authors and actors to fill him up with their own lives and desires – so though we know nothing of how Shakespeare made it into theatre, Callow tells a story of gradual working upwards through roles that is remarkably similar to his own. But I suppose that’s part of the fun, in the plays and the person.
A startlingly beautiful deathbed play, in which four actors take on a dizzying array of roles comic and tragic, playing out an ordinary Irishman’s life for him in his final moments. Only occasionally mawkish and frequently hilarious, it touched me rather deeply. And yet. The narrative was wonderful, but what do I remember the next day? What ideas it had were trite – it was only an emotional storyline which carried me through. So beautiful, but not so substantial. Another note: the protagonist seems quite the most blameless man in theatrical history, having seemingly said only one misanthropic thing in his life, for which he immediately apologised.
(Pro-feminist pedantry: yet another play in which all female characters are defined solely by their relationship to a man, and in which an elusive Mother and a longed-for-to-protect Maiden are the driving forces. Sigh.)
Well gosh. It feels like a play that could have been written 50 years ago, very consciously in the shadow of Beckett and Ireland’s great male dramatic blarneyists (Farquahr, Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett . . .) Four awful men compete at the bottom of a decaying swimming pool for Penelope’s affection; they are lover, soldier, justice, pantalone, and death. They meditate on life, masculinity, love, porridge. There is a dazzling and brutal quick change act. While it sometimes mistakes verbosity for erudition, and while we really do not need yet another play about maleness in which the female role is a purely mythic ideal, it is conscious of these flaws and brilliant despite them. I was quite breathless. From laughter as much as from action and thought. It lasts.
At the forefront of contemporary cabaret, singing songs from throughout the 20th Century, performing everything from an astonishing impression of Tom Waits to a gorgeous reimagining of Jacques Brel. I’ve heard her music before, but now her promoters are seriously trying to make her a moneyspinner – she’s the most advertised show in Edinburgh, as far as I can see. It hasn’t done her enormous harm, but there is this strange thing that happens to musicians as they grow in scale: they get excited by the possibilities of new money, start hiring more musicians, expand the effects of the show. And, of course, the best ones discover that they were better off minimal all along. I preferred her when she just had a piano and a coupla horns, when her theatricality and persona weren’t dwarfed by the staging, tighter, crazier, sexier.
An odd thing happened at the show: a couple booed her country rock cover of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (a fantastic stomping feminist reappropriation of the mellow anthem). I’ve never heard a boo at a music show before! Only for comedians, or for performers being genuinely offensive. What would move someone to do that? It really threw her: she said a couple of angry things, and then dissolved into tears, apologising for being mean, saying nothing like that had ever happened before. I wouldn’t apologise for telling asses to piss off – but she was that sweet. And vulnerable. A theme for this festival: the vulnerability of performers, the uncertainty of being on stage in front of people, the necessary critical self-consciousness of performance. Dangerous, intoxicating, enthralling.