Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews: Sunday Herald, Aug 12, 2012

Fringe Theatre

 

Mr Carmen

Assembly Roxy

Until August 27

 

Mephisto Waltz

Assembly Roxy

Until August 27

 

Continuous Growth

Pleasance Dome

Until August 27

 

The Intervention

Assembly Rooms

Until August 26

 

Morning

Traverse

Until August 19

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

If there is a fine line between artistic genius and complete insanity, Russian independent theatre makers AKHE reside permanently upon it. In their latest Edinburgh Fringe offering, Mr Carmen, they unfold before the audience an extraordinary, surreal world of magical mechanics and elemental imagery.

Two men, played by AKHE founding members Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko, appear to us, otherworldly in their huge beards and painted faces. They set up their stage, surrounded on four sides by a rotating string line upon which two little figures (one male, one female) revolve. The ensuing performance is constructed of images, objects, sounds and music which are equally exquisite in their own right, and which combine (under the company’s typically subtle and responsive lighting) to create a gorgeous, extremely funny and sometimes unsettling hallucination.  

The work’s relationship to Prosper Mérimée’s novella (which inspired Bizet’s opera) is, as one would expect of AKHE, obscure. Those in search of a faithful narrative (or, indeed, any discernible narrative at all) should look elsewhere.

Carmen herself is largely absent. Instead José (or Mr Carmen, as he would seem to have it) sets himself at the centre of events. A love-hate tussle between him and his alter-ego unfolds as the words “José” and “Carmen” appear in all sorts of places; be it inside a bottle or spelled in liquid and light as, hilariously and ludicrously, one of the men spits the contents of a bottle through the glow from a stage lamp.

The scene in which the two men collude in attempting to destroy an archetypal image of a heart, using both a knife and saw, is simultaneously funny and touching; such is the ferocity of José/Mr Carmen’s apparent desire for the end of love and for death itself. When, in the end, one of the men writes a letter and seals it with a single red rose, while the other finds himself caught in strings at the back of the stage, there is something undeniably poignant in the collision of images.

The Fringe is blessed to be, once again, hosting the highly distinctive, brilliantly accomplished theatre of AKHE. Perhaps best considered as a kind of theatrical freeform jazz, infused with the visual sensibilities of Russian avant-garde art, Mr Carmen reasserts theatre’s continued capacity to create beautiful and unique images.

Where AKHE take Mérimée and Bizet as their oblique inspirations, their compatriots, acclaimed physical theatre specialists Derevo, turn to Goethe’s Faust. In Mephisto Waltz, the inner conflict (emotional and psychological) of Goethe’s titular doctor is reflected as the universal human condition.

The result is a series of farcical, funny and frightening dreams. Bizarre animal-human creatures, reminiscent of the creations of the great Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, cavort to the cacophonous strains of Holst’s Planets. A scarecrow (which appears, at first, like the crucified Christ) meets a brilliantly conceived, living snowman.

Throughout this excellent piece, reassuring images manage, somehow, to disquiet. Likewise, images of conflict and torment have a curious ability to amuse. Such dichotomies are the very stuff of human existence, but rarely do we see them so wonderfully visualised.

In one notable scene, a group of reverential and terrified human/monkey-type figures assault a male protagonist who appears to hold the globe in his hands. However, the violence is so absurd that we laugh, rather than recoil. In the end, it transpires that the apparent globe is, in fact, a water melon, and, as the stage becomes a mess of discarded fruit and other detritus, the central figure sits, a piece of broken melon upon his head, more like a clown than a god.

In the midst of this chaos, Derevo create moments of tremendous beauty, affection and sensuality. The combination of impressive contemporary dance and grotesque, punk ballet is testament to the company’s extraordinary physical abilities. The deeply memorable worlds of Mephisto Waltz are testament to the endurance of their astonishing visual imaginations.

From Russia to Finland, by way of Scotland, as, once again, Finnish theatre producers Ryhmateatteri and Ace Production collaborate with a Scottish writer and cast to bring a satirical comedy to the Fringe. Following the success of last year’s production of Gogol’s superb satire The Overcoat, fine Scottish actor Billy Mack and his colleagues present the contemporary political comedy Continuous Growth.

Written by Finnish authors Esa Leskinenand Sami Keski-Vähälä, and adapted to current Scottish economic and political conditions by Catherine Grosvenor, the play follows the fortunes of inventive engineer Andy Axlegrinder (Mack) as he pits himself against the global capitalist crisis. There is a certain amount of hubris in this attempt to create a 21st-century play in a style which is so similar to Gogol’s. The proof of the pudding, however, is that, in its Scottish incarnation at least, the play would not be embarrassed by comparison with the works of the great Ukrainian writer.

Dreaming of moving from much-maligned Dennistoun, in Glasgow’s East End, to the leafy suburb of Bearsden, Andy invents the “Harbor Harvester”, a machine which can massively increase the throughput of dock companies without requiring a single extra worker. So successful is his invention that his company sells up to Asian investors, plunging our hero into unemployment and penury.

With his father’s words (“no-one is smarter than an engineer”) ringing in his ears, Andy sets out to defy the gloom mongers and make himself a successful recession entrepreneur. Cue a twisting, turning journey in which we find Andy at a ludicrous, government-sponsored seminar on “creating inner and outer wealth”, launching a business making the “100% Scottish oak Garden Cabin” (patriotically supported by Alex Salmond and Sean Connery), and, in a moment of despair, on his knees in a chapel with a working-class, tobacco smoking, reggae-loving Jesus who has come down from the cross for a chat.

It’s all fabulously silly, satirically sharp stuff, presented to near perfection in director Aleksis Meaney’s modestly designed, but beautifully paced production. Mack gives another brilliantly measured comic performance, with tremendous assistance from a supporting cast who change rapidly between a succession of hilariously cartoonish characters.

If the Finnish-Scottish show is a great platform for comic actors, The Intervention, the flagship theatre show of the substantially refurbished Assembly Rooms, is a sorry indictment of comedians who think they’re actors. Presented by the Comedians Theatre Company, Dave Florez’s play about a disastrous attempt to save a rich, but distressed, middle-aged man from alcoholism comes off the rails as quickly as its protagonist falls off the wagon.

Fringe-goers looking forward to seeing the advertised Arabella ‘Fast Show’ Weir and Mike ‘Whose Line’ McShane on stage will be disappointed, as neither of them is in the show. Their apparent late withdrawal from the project might go some way to explaining the horribly wooden delivery which blights the production. There is rarely anything in the show which approximates to a conversation; instead the cast (which includes Jan ‘Dead Ringers’ Ravens and Michael Malarkey) seem to be lining up for their turn to speak.

In fairness, Phil Nichol gives a reasonable performance as the intelligent and angry alcoholic, Zac, but neither his fellow actors, nor Florez’s heavy-handed script (think Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams rewritten, in a hurry, by John Godber) can save this dreadful production from itself.

I left The Intervention certain that I wouldn’t see a worse show on the Fringe this year. I hadn’t reckoned, however, with Morning, the latest play from the pen of Simon Stephens, author of the accomplished 2008 Fringe drama Pornography. The play, which elicited deserved cries of “rubbish” from the audience following Tuesday’s performance, is probably the worst play I have ever seen on the Traverse stage (and I saw Martin J Taylor’s risible East Coast Chicken Supper).

Middle-class teenage stereotypes Stephanie and Cat, catalysed by the former’s impending departure to university and the fatal illness of the latter’s mother, take us on a dreary journey full of terrible, faux-poetic nihilism and predictable violence. Stephens, who impressed many (myself included) with Pornography, has descended into the worst possible parody of the writer who sets out, very consciously, to shock the audience into thinking he is the new Sarah Kane.

Little blame attaches to the young cast, who are being asked to make gold from garbage; but Lyric Hammersmith artistic director Sean Holmes deserves to be pilloried for allowing this puerile drama anywhere near a paying audience.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 12, 2012

© Mark Brown

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