Edinburgh Festival Reviews: Once… etc.

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE

From Russia with love, Once… again

 

Once…

ASSEMBLY GEORGE SQUARE

Until August 29

 

Measure For Measure

LYCEUM

Run ended

 

Adler & Gibb

SUMMERHALL

Until August 27

 

Diary Of A Madman

TRAVERSE

Until August 28

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Once… by Derevo. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

In a festival that often seems to be dominated by a hectic search for the “new”, we can too easily forget the gems of Edinburgh Fringes past. Yet there is much to be said for the revival of a classic festival show, something that stops us in our tracks and forces us to reflect on the resilience of quality.

Once… by Russian visual theatre masters Derevo is the perfect Fringe revival. The piece premiered in Edinburgh back in 1998 to enthusiastic audience and critical acclaim. It has lost none of its capacity to charm in the intervening 18 years.

Here we are very much in the realm of fairytale and myth. From the moment two angels wring rain from sponge-like clouds we are drawn into a gorgeously handmade, timeless world.

This wonderland is very different from the saccharine, smoothed-out fantasias of Disney films. Here things do not go according to plan, and the quirks of human nature alter the course of characters’ lives.

Cupid, for instance, is a reluctant matchmaker with a broken bow. The fairytale beauty is wooed by a tuxedo-wearing charmer, while her greatest admirer (a lowly, red-nosed caretaker) fantasises, comically, about strangling his suited-and-booted nemesis.

Such bleak humour is typical of a production that looks like it could have been designed by the wildly imaginative dream team of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch and gothic filmmaker Tim Burton.

A painting of a seascape comes to life. The princess and her beau become Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Nosferatu the vampire makes an appearance.

All of which is performed with the excellent physical movement that is Derevo’s trademark. Add to that tremendous costumes, sets and puppets, and you have an utterly enthralling, enduringly beautiful work of theatrical imagination.

If the Russians are impressing on the Fringe, they are also doing so in the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, co-produced by Declan Donnellan’s world famous company Cheek By Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre of Moscow, is the highlight (thus far) of the EIF’s 2016 theatre programme.

Performed in modern dress on a pared-back, minimalist set that is dominated by three huge, red cubes, Donnellan’s production drags the Bard’s tale of moral hypocrisy into the 21st century. With its cynical marriage between political power and religious authority, the piece could refer to many countries in the modern world. However, this Russian-language production evokes nothing so much as the mutually-beneficial arrangement between the government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Andrei Kuzichev’s brilliantly observed, sharp-suited Angelo (the publicly pious, but privately lascivious and villainous judge who has been made caretaker governor of Vienna) could be one of the many morally conservative, avowedly Christian politicians who currently wield power in Russia. Indeed, as Donnellan’s chorus of archetypes (from pimp to Duke) swirls around the stage, we might be watching a modern adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s great, Russian satire The Government Inspector.

As Anna Khalilulina’s young nun Isabella pleads for the life of her brother Claudio (outrageously sentenced to death by Angelo), the often sardonically comic piece achieves a perfect sense of pace and tension. Uniformly superb performances, excellent choreography and tremendous music are supported, in the latter stages, by outstanding visual images (grotesque tableaux vivants presented inside the rotating red cubes).

The final scene, in which Alexander Arsentyev’s undercover Duke reveals himself, like a grand political redeemer, is a remarkable imagining of a public political event. Unlike many attempts to translate Shakespeare to the modern day, it carries a resonating credibility.

To say that Donnellan’s production has “credibility” is not to say that it has “authenticity” or that it is “realistic”. Our society’s problematic obsession with the latter two notions is the subject of renowned English dramatist Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb.

First staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2014, the play is being restaged in a substantially revised form at Summerhall during the Fringe. With a new cast and new design, the latest version of Crouch’s work about the making of a biographical movie involves (typically of the creator of such Fringe hit shows as My Arm and England) a fascinating interplay between form and content.

On a set designed only to offer up such props as are required, the show appears like a radio play created for a live audience by the unlikely duo of Bertolt Brecht and Salvador Dali.

A student (Jillian Pullara) presents an informative paper about the late (and fictional) American conceptual artist Janet Adler. Meanwhile Louise (Cath Whitefield), the actress set to play Adler in a forthcoming Hollywood biopic, and Sam (Mark Edel-Hunt), a member of the movie’s production staff, break-in to what they think is the uninhabited house Adler shared with partner in life and art, Margaret Gibb. The problem is, Gibb (Gina Moxley) still lives there.

What ensues is a fascinating and engrossing consideration of the cinematic “realism” of biographical movies; or, to put it another way, the appropriation of a life by a fiction that is sold as a definitive truth.

Ingeniously, the play is the polar opposite of the yet-to-be-made film that is its subject. Which is to say that its increasingly disquieting action is evoked mainly through performed language, rather than “realistic” images. We, the audience, are left to paint the pictures in our heads.

As with Brecht, realistic costumes and props are used only when absolutely required by the narrative. As with Dali, however, even these certainties are unreliable, as a young girl (who is receiving instructions through a headset) mischievously substitutes naturalistic objects for surreal ones (an iconic lobster for a shotgun, for example).

The shifting accents of the fine actors add to the sense of inconstancy of a piece that delves memorably into the ethics representation. Once again, Crouch has created a work of startling and thought provoking playfulness.

There is reworking of a very different kind in Al Smith’s new version of Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman. Produced by London’s Gate Theatre and currently receiving its world premiere at the Traverse, Smith’s play alights upon the psychological implications of Scotland’s fast-changing political landscape.

The titular “madman” is Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan), the latest in a long line of Sheerans whose job it has been to continuously paint the famous rail bridge over the Firth of Forth. However, Pop’s already fragile mental health is challenged by the arrival on his bridge, and under his roof, of comically named assistant painter Matt White (Guy Clark), a young Englishman on a break from studies at Edinburgh University.

Smith’s script is a curious beast. It sets out as a fairly conventional, witty domestic drama. in which Pop casts a wary eye over relations between his teenage daughter and young Matt). Yet, precisely at the moment that its protagonist goes into mental meltdown, it loses all its mirth.

The sudden shift in tone, although a clever reflection of Pop’s psychological state, almost cuts the piece into two different plays. The first is needlessly naturalistic, the second needlessly humourless.

That said, Brennan (who is, surely, one of Scotland’s finest actors) digs deep in his portrayal of Pop, creating a powerful and affecting picture of distress and delusion.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 21, 2016

© Mark Brown

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