Edinburgh International Festival theatre reviews: Sunday Herald, Aug 19, 2012

International Festival Theatre

Gulliver’s Travels,

King’s Theatre,

Ends tomorrow

2008: Macbeth

Lowland Hall, Ingliston,

Run ended

Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor,

Lowland Hall, Ingliston,

Ends today

Reviewed by Mark Brown

As Edinburgh International Festival audiences discovered in 2009, when he brought his immense interpretation of Faust to Scotland, Romanian theatre master Silviu Purcărete is an artist of extraordinary visual imagination. His latest Festival offering, a brilliant re-visioning of Jonathan Swift’s great satire Gulliver’s Travels,can only further enhance the reputation of the director and his company, the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu.

In Swift, Purcărete has alighted upon an author whose visual imagination is as vivid as his own. Consequently, the director has assembled a superb series of tableaux vivant drawing upon, not only Gulliver’s Travels, but also other writings by Swift.

The opening scene, in which we encounter the horses which save Gulliver after he is abandoned by the mutineers, is a bold and beautiful taste of what is to come. The chief horse is played by a real, and wonderfully quiescent, animal, whilst the rest of the herd are represented by actresses in simple-yet-effective costume, using small stilts for front legs. Purcărete reflects, with tremendous humour, upon Gulliver’s wonder at the horses’ ability to communicate with each other.

There is comedy of a much darker kind in the brilliantly realised, and truly macabre, scene in which poor women sell their babies, only for a cook to select an infant, kill it and cook and eat one of its organs. Inspired by Swift’s darkly satirical essay A Modest Proposal (For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden on their parents or country… ), and performed with a kind of Pythonesque alacrity, it is a genuinely shocking testament to the continued power of Swift’s social insight.

As the production shifts from one living picture to another, one is struck, not only by the creativity of Purcărete’s imagination, but also by his brilliant proficiency in an array of theatrical methods. In Brobdingnag, for example, the giants are represented by way of an ingenious, and hilarious, shadow theatre.

Assisted by fine music and sound (including live organ music) and carefully considered lighting, Radu Stanca’s excellent 18-strong cast rises to every physical and vocal challenge, creating an exquisite spectacle which reflects imaginatively upon Swift’s themes.

If Purcărete’s piece is faithful to the author’s subjects, Polish director/adapter Grzegorz Jarzyna’s 2008: Macbeth, for his TR Warszawa company, is both impressive and faltering in its attempts to adapt Shakespeare’s tragedy to the appalling realities of the occupation of Iraq. Jarzyna’s fascination with cinema, and his belief in its adaptability to live theatre, have led him to create his Macbeth on a scale which is too big for a conventional stage; originally presented in a disused munitions factory in Poland, then reconstructed under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, this Edinburgh presentation is staged in the cavernous and versatile Lowland Hall at Ingliston.

Indeed, Stephanie Nelson and Agnieszka Zawadowska’s stunning set (a brutalist, three level military building in concrete and tiles) is the undoubted star of the show. The set is built to incorporate Jarzyna’s many video projections, which provide a powerful reminder of the technological gap between the combatants in warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the costumes and props (including rifles mounted with infrared lights) are unerringly contemporary.

However, if the piece looks fantastic, Jarzyna’s adaptation of the text is a frustratingly uneven confection. If the translation provided in the English supertitles is to be believed, the director has intercut Shakespeare’s poetry with banal, sometimes absurd, abridgements of his own. It often feels as if the director is trying to shoehorn the Bard’s play into places it does not want to go; for instance, when Aleksandra Konieczna’s decadent Lady M toasts “the whole table” in an empty room, it appears, not like a pre-dinner rehearsal or a premonition of madness, but merely as an incongruity.

It would be unfair to divulge details of how Cezary Kosiński’s almost robotic Macbeth meets his death; suffice it to say that, by consciously repeating a moment from earlier in the production, Jarzyna turns a moment of great power into one of comical bemusement.

If one is bemused at times during TR Warszawa’s production, bemusement quickly becomes the default setting as famous Swiss dramatist Christoph Marthaler unfolds his Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor (My Fair Lady – A Language Laboratory). On account of its large set (a language lab reminiscent of the 1970s), Theater Basel’s piece plays in a wide space in the Lowland Hall, adjacent to Jarzyna’s production.

Suggestions as to a narrative are virtually superfluous as Lerner and Loewe’s musical collides with classical pieces and Last Christmas by Wham. Accompanied by a foppish pianist and a Hammond organ player who looks like a cross between Frankenstein’s Monster and Lurch from the Addams Family, Professor Karpathy and his students perform a pseudo-operatic, postmodern sitcom.

From the slapstick of a woman with a broken arm trying to go downstairs using the shadow of the banister, to the faux-sincerity of a duet of Bryan Adams’s execrable (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, the show might become a textbook example of the ironic, detached theatre which was an inevitable consequence of the dubious notion of postmodernity. Although well performed and occasionally funny, Meine Faire Dame is, like so much postmodern theatre, exasperatingly hollow.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 19, 2012

© Mark Brown

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