Thursday, September 8, 2005

Notes from the Edinburgh Fringe: overlong and overdue, part 2

What I seemed to spend most of my four days in Edinburgh doing was buzzing between plays. I only caught six shows in the end, but that seemed more than enough. I know enough thespy Cambridge types that I could only see about half my friends’ shows – and I kept bumping into student theatre friends on the street … mostly while they were passing out promotional flyers to tourists.

So, highlights. Best Cambridge shows would have been a marvellous production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” in the sweltering sauna that is the C Too venue; and an astonishingly physical production of “Macbeth”, cut to a bare one-hour script.

“Macbeth – The Hour” was competing in a fierce field of Scottish play productions: it’s something people seem compelled to stage at the Fringe. Still, this was different. It had a junk yard staging, with all walls, fences, tables, beds, etc being provided by a series of planks held with handles by cast members allowing lightning-fast scene changes.

To give one small sample of the physical staging: I’ve always found the witch’s cauldron scene pretty camp. Not here. Three half-naked men, kneeling, hands joined behind their backs represented the cauldron. As the witches recited their foul list of ingredients they mimed (very effectively) force-feeding the human cauldron’s three mouths, the actors gagging and choking all the while. Nasty, but surprisingly creative in a play where it’s easy to think you’ve seen it all before.

Of the new theatre I saw, “The Guardians” and “Angry Young Man” were easily the best. “The Guardians” is a dark comedy about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal; and the faked photos run in British tabloids of similar atrocities supposedly perpetrated by UK soldiers. Two talking heads, a female US soldier (clearly based on Private Lynndie England) and a sleazy, erudite, sadomasochistic, Oxford-educated tabloid journalist. The England character came off relatively sympathetically, and despite the nameless journalist being a bit of a stereotype, the American writer’s ear for English idiom was flawless. Worth seeing if it tours other places.

“Angry young man” was a straightforward farce about a dodgy doctor from an ex-Soviet republic fleeing to England to avoid being struck off. Following a misunderstanding with a minicab driver, he loses his identity documents and is mistaken for a people-smuggled refugee by a clueless upper-class would-be do-gooder. Following adventures with ducks, skinheads, predatory girlfriends and the English countryside a happy ending ensues. The clever bit was that the entire thing was acted by four men in identical suits, taking turns to play various roles (each has a go at the central character) and narrate the action.

Best line? Approaching the bar in an illegal club occupying a disused air-raid shelter, we have the following exchange:

Doctor: “It was, how you say? A typical English pub.”

Barman: “G’day, mate.”

The Fringe is simply an unconquerable cliff-face of theatre. But with a little research and some local advice I was pretty pleased with what I saw.

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