Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe
by Mark Brown
Playing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
The Tragedy Of Coriolanus
Preen Back Yer Lugs!
When he was a young man, Harold Pinter, to whom Samuel Beckett was friend and mentor, wrote of the great, Irish writer: “He leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.” There is in this a profound grasp of the deep, resonating paradoxes in Beckett’s writing.
Pinter’s words came to my mind on watching, for the second time, Michael Gambon’s exceptional performance of Beckett’s 1966 television play Eh Joe. I first saw this production, which is directed by the superb Armenian-Canadian stage and film director Atom Egoyan, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in 2006, the year of its premiere. Few theatre works I have seen, either before or since, have lived with me so vividly and so continuously.
In the play, which is staged at the Lyceum as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, we see Gambon sitting on a bed in a dingy, dark bedsit, his carefully illuminated face projected in huge magnification onto a thin screen which is drawn across the stage. This is Joe, an elderly man, alone in the world. He does not speak. We hear the internal monologue which is playing in his head. It is the voice of a woman (spoken beautifully by Penelope Wilton), a past lover, one of many he betrayed in a life in which, it seems, his charm camouflaged a propensity for neglect, abandonment and, possibly, worse.
As the voice unfolds suppressed memories in what it calls the “penny farthing hell” of Joe’s mind, Gambon gives deeply affecting, wordless expression to the old man’s emotions. At times, his lips tremble, as if about to respond to an admonishment or an especially distressing enquiry.
“Anyone living love you now, Joe?”, the voice asks. “Anyone living sorry for you now?” Beckett’s bleak poetry – simultaneously painful, relentless and, yet, always humane – finds its perfect accompaniment in the extraordinary physical articulacy of Gambon’s face. As the great Anglo-Irish actor expresses, by the subtlest of turns, self-hatred, self-pity, guilt, regret and an ambivalent relationship with death, the piece insinuates itself, slowly and steadily, into one’s soul.
Both Beckett’s writing and Gambon’s performance carry the stamp of genius. However, every element of Egoyan’s production – from the immense technical accomplishment of the live film and projection, to James McConnell’s impeccable lighting and Eileen Diss’s unforgiving set – works in profoundly moving harmony to create a beautiful, anguished, unforgettable 30 minutes of theatre.
Egoyan’s production, which is the first of five Becketts to be staged by the International Festival this year, goes some way towards saving a 2013 theatre programme which has, thus far, tended to disappoint. An abundant case in point is the much-trailed production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of Coriolanus by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre.
Imagine a professional Shakespeare presentation gatecrashed by a Chinese-style, heavy metal battle of the bands and crossed with large scale amateur dramatics, and you might just be able to picture something of the utter shambles that is Lin Zhaohua and Yi Liming’s production. From the outset, when a large chorus of, mainly young, embarrassingly incapable actors jump around in mock enthusiasm (in an attempt to embody the support of the Roman masses for the titular warrior nobleman) one fears that a long three hours is in store.
So it proves as the aforementioned heavy metal bands – named, appropriately enough, Miserable Faith and Suffocated – play a succession of entirely pointless interludes and accompaniments while Pu Cunxin (an acceptably arrogant and strutting Coriolanus) and his actor colleagues attempt to force the Bard’s drama onto the stage. That’s no easy task as stagehands try to manoeuvre the rock bands around on a pair of preposterously cumbersome wheeled floats.
Even if this production were liberated from its nonsense rock music and terrible chorus, one suspects it would still struggle to pass muster. The actors battle to be heard above the mechanical raising and lowering of a front stage platform. Meanwhile, the audience strains to understand why the character of Aufidius (Coriolanus’s Volscian rival) is dressed like an end-of-career Elvis at Las Vegas. It is truly a tragedy, in all senses but the one Shakespeare intended.
If the Chinese Coriolanus is unintentionally ludicrous, Preen Back Yer Lugs!, the latest Fringe production by the Finnish-Scottish collaborators behind The Overcoat (2011) and Continuous Growth (2012), is a wonderfully daft antidote. Adapted (by Paul F. Matthews) from Andres Slotte’s Finnish play Swedish Uprising, the piece cleverly transposes a comedy about the large Swedish-speaking minority in Finland into a futuristic Anglo-Scottish farce.
Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and ecological catastrophe. Only one nation has survived – Scotland. Saved by the many wind farms erected by its great, curiously familiar, moustachioed leader Alex Almond (which blew the nuclear fallout away from the long since independent Caledonia), Scotia has seen its politics take a sinister turn.
The comedy which ensues – involving the imposition of the Scots tongue and the oppression of the English minority by a genetically modified dictator – is deliciously absurd. As the English engage in a form of resistance which is more Groucho than Karl Marx, director Aleksis Meaney’s production bristles with lovely comic touches, from The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme tune) played on the bagpipes to the singing of There’s A Moose Loose Aboot This Hoose to the tune of Tomorrow Belongs To Me (the Nazi anthem from Cabaret).
Brought to Edinburgh by Finnish company Ace-Production and the Svenska Teatern of Helsinki, and acted with uproarious brilliance by its Scottish cast, this rough diamond of a show is the third successive hit from this collaborative team. The National Theatre of Scotland might do well to get in on their delightfully satirical act.
Finally, for this year’s Fringe, back to the wonderful Summerhall venue. If Jonathan Mills, who takes his leave as director of the International Festival next year, deserved his recently conferred knighthood for his services, one struggles to imagine what award would be appropriate for Summerhall’s artistic director, Rupert Thomson. In my opinion, the young director and producer has, in two short years, done more to reinvigorate the Fringe than anyone in my quarter century of attending the world’s biggest arts festival.
Parkin’Son, a startling piece of dance theatre by Italian choreographer Giulio D’Anna, is – in its uniqueness, bravery and aesthetic quality – typical of Thomson’s intelligently and passionately curated programme. Featuring D’Anna (who is aged 33) and his father, Stefano (who is 63 years old, and suffering from the degenerative condition Parkinson’s Disease), the work interweaves recorded, carefully translated, often darkly humorous speech with movement which conveys an amazing array of meanings, about not only this father-son relationship, but also universal elements, of competition, suspicion, antagonism, disappointment, pride, respect, affection and love between fathers and sons.
As the men engage in rituals of mutual resistance, co-dependency and shifting roles, in which each carries the other, a raw, beautiful truth emerges. Indeed, so honest is the piece that it succeeds, with great sensitivity and intelligence, in dispelling cynicism and earning for itself the right to the touching sentiment of its conclusion.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 25, 2013
© Mark Brown