Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Edinburgh: The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley at the Pleasance Courtyard

Chris Goode’s solo show takes a familiar shape. It’s a comforting, coming-of-age narrative in which a young boy meets an outsider who helps him find his way in the world; it’s Stig of the Dump with jokes about Radiohead; it’s just lovely on very many levels.

Fourteen year old Shirley carries around a lot of baggage. For one thing, his parents’ have seen fit to give him a girl’s name – that doesn’t help; he’s besotted with the captain of his school’s cross-country running team, the stick-on plastic stars on his bedroom ceiling have never deigned to glow in the dark, and then there’s the case he keeps under his bed: a boxed promise, dwindling despite his best efforts to look after it, to keep it safe.

Things begin to look up for Shirley when he meets Wound Man, a ‘freelance social interventionist’ or, to put it more succinctly, a super hero. Wound Man is a walking version of one of those medical illustrations from the Middle Ages showing the various damages a body can receive in battle. Weaponry of all forms sprouts from his limbs: spears, maces, arrowheads, clubs; one hand dangles by a sinewy thread and he has a tendency to clank when he walks. He’s a human Swiss army knife in snazzy silver pants. His pain is external, overt, and people find they start to feel better merely by being in his presence.

Wound Man shows Shirley how to be brave, to grow, to cope with his grief and his sexuality but also to be open to the possibility of happiness and love in his life. It is an incredibly warm piece of storytelling, gentle in delivery, and surprisingly funny in places.

This is a smaller scale version of a show originally commissioned for the 2009 Queer Up North festival. The animation sequences described in previous outings are absent but the simple set still evokes the world of an adolescent boy via an apt fanning of X-Men comics, a Rubik’s cube, a handful of Asimov novels and some discarded socks.

Goode delivers the piece in true Jackanory fashion. He deepens his voice slightly when delivering Wound Man’s lines, but otherwise he tells his audience who said what rather than acting out the narrative. He’s an affable and engaging performer who manages to convey the story’s emotional shifts in an elegant, economical way, so that when he does let loose, when his delivery quickens, the audience are picked up and swept along with him. A central fantasy sequence which tells of a vast menagerie spilling through suburban streets is a prime an example of this. Goode becomes more excitable as the music picks up and the descriptions of the animals become sillier and surreal.

The piece, as a whole, is incredibly disarming and the manner of delivery is at times deceptive. Goode doesn’t appear to be doing all that much and yet the story exerts a considerable emotional hold: as a piece of writing it’s full of subtlety and unforced pathos, never straying into overt sentiment; as a piece of theatre, it’s also very effective, the kind of thing that makes people who don’t know each other exchange little smiles of wet-eyed delight as they collect their bags and jackets at the end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Edinburgh: Opposition at Zoo Southside

“Are you happy being Ed Milliband?” This is not a question with which I ever anticipated having to grapple; fortunately the process of ‘being Ed Milliband’, for the purposes of this show by the spoken word artist Hannah Silva, involved nothing more traumatic than the wearing of a name badge and the reading of a slogan at a chosen moment.

Silva’s ‘Little Political Speech Opera’ takes the form of a collage, a collection of slogans, stock phrases and spin. Through a process of cutting and splicing, looping and repetition, any residual meaning these words may have held soon seeps away, creating a semantic vacuum where everything is better, bigger, and bolder.

Silva, grey-suited and neck-tied, is already spouting words as we sit, a steady drip-drip of sound delivered with a forced smile: “spend, borrow, spend, borrow, tax, tax.” This act of deconstruction and morpheme-extraction ends up creating a Dadaist stream of banalities and absurdities – something akin to verbal bird-song – which Silva then takes one step further via the use of a loop pedal. Through a process of sonic layering, this lexical minestrone forms a backdrop over which she then recites poetry or plays the flute.

The piece fuses the words of Thatcher, Obama, Reagan, Churchill and Cameron with a dash of the BBC weather report. Any distinction between them, any dividing line, is soon blotted and lost. At one point she leads her audience in an extended episode of call-and-response. We bat slogans back and forth, again and again, until they are just noise, a vapida cappella chorus.

It’s all part of an increasingly dense thicket of words in which it seems that the more people speak, the less they have to say: the chirp and babble of Twitter, with its constant prompt of: ‘what’s happening?; the streaming of status updates; the stern remonstrations of the Sat-Nav: “U-turn, you-turn”. Silva’s not the first to pick and chip at political speechifying, the hollowness of spin, but rarely has it been done with such vigour. Her performance is also physically intricate: she jerks and twitches, grins and grimaces; at times it’s like watching a kind of Tourettian body-popper at work.

Though there’s a – perhaps inevitable, given the nature of the piece – slack patch in the middle of things, Silva succeeds in both creating an inventive and arresting piece of performance and in making the audience actively think about language, its uses and misuses, the potency of words.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh: Watch Me Fall at Summerhall

Chuck Yeager, the test pilot and American aviation legend who first broke the sound barrier, is encapsulated in the final pages of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff as a flaming figure dropping from the sky, a human comet with a tail of silk, suckered by gravity. Ejected from a jet travelling at twice the speed of sound, his parachute became entangled in his ejector seat and his face started to melt as he fell. Wolfe’s ‘master of the sky’ had been brought down to earth, but he survived to fly again and one of the book’s abiding images is of this molten man striding across the sand, unvanquished.

Men like Yeager, and daredevil stuntman Evel Knieval, provide the inspiration behind Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall. The company are interested in what it is to strive, to rise, to fail, to fall; to launch oneself into the unknown, come through the other side, broken, bloody, scarred, and then do it all over again. A black track has been etched in the floor of the Summerhall Dissecting Room and on this track James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin prepare to recreate Knievel’s Caesar Palace fountain jump with just a child’s bike, a crash helmet and a plentiful supply of Coca-Cola. The stunt itself is almost an afterthought; the piece exists in the hype, the build, the whoop and roar of the crowd. She wears a star-spangled dress, he’s clad in a red T-shirt and jeans; together they work the audience, charging them up, stoking the sense of anticipation, that we are about to witness An Event.

A number of audience members have already been given disposable cameras by this point, with which to record proceedings and the room is filled with the intermittent click and flare of their bulbs, paparazzi starbursts, pin-pricks of white light. Stenhouse begins by setting his helmet on fire before batting the air with his hands to whip up the crowd. He holds aloft two bottles of Coca-Cola, like plastic trophies, or a pair of liquid dumbbells, his arm muscles taught in a show of strength. He then proceeds to pour the contents down Paintin’s throat, the wet stuff spilling down her front, staining her dress, gagging her, stinging her eyes. It rapidly ceases to be funny, becomes sickly and unsettling, a reminder that where there is an almost foolhardy level of courage and bravado there is also often a corresponding selfishness and disregard; in this way the piece chimes with that other memorable scene from Wolfe’s book, the opening tableau of waiting wives, flinching at every phone-call, every knock at the door; these are the women left to lip-bite on the sidelines as their husbands hurl themselves into the sky, again and again and again.

It’s this impulse, this compulsion, to keep taking leaps that Action Hero is exploring. That and the messy edges of spectacle, the hollow echo beneath the buzz of the crowd; if the whole thing fizzles slightly before its 50 minutes is up, it’s kind of apt.

Finally Stenhouse takes up his tiny bike and rides, hits the ramp, tips, tumbles, sprawls. It’s abrupt, clumsy: over. And while he doesn’t soar, nor does he melt.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh: Skittles at the Pleasance Courtyard

Richard Marsh’s solo show is a very funny falling-in-and-out-of-love-story that’s more sweet than it is bitter, though it’s a fair bit of both. Marsh tells the story of ‘Richard’, a man who looks a lot like him, and who falls hopelessly in love and want and need with a girl called Siobhan, who has the two vital attributes he looks for in a woman, being someone who is both beautiful and who also finds him funny.

The piece charts the path of their relationship; they begin by sharing first Silk Cuts then Skittles on the chilly steps outside the office where they both work. Eventually he builds up the confidence to make a move and very soon they are moving in together, camping out on the floor of a cramped unfurnished flat. They dash towards marriage with almost unseemly haste and all too quickly find themselves in the midst of a cinematic American honeymoon, facing the open road together with a second-hand car rainbow-armoured with the titular sweet. But as they light out for the Grand Canyon, Thelma-and-Louising across vast American plains, reality intrudes on their Hollywood moment.

It turns out the US is a pretty big place and that long hours in a hot car will test any relationship, especially one where the couple have yet to fully discover each other’s faults and kinks and tickles. No vibrating roadside motel bed can halt the fall. The way Marsh evokes the gradual erosion of their bliss is deftly handled, the subtle shifts, the slow hardening. The piece becomes a break up story, a verbal essay in the unfolding of hope. Love does not find a way, it ebbs away, evaporates into the hot desert night.

Marsh’s story is told in a poetic stream, his rhymes are rapid and punchy though often economical; he doesn’t luxuriate in lexical possibility, rather the rhythm is the thing, the zing of the delivery, the ding-ding-ding that drives the piece along. The writing is witty – you find yourself laughing both at and with ‘Richard’ – but it’s also often touching and raw, increasingly so as the piece progresses and the Skittles start to moulder and rot.

The ending is an exercise in understated poignancy, a gentle act of looking forward and an acknowledgement that most hurt fades with time. Marsh is a genial performer, comfortable with an audience and confident in his delivery, but the writing is at times lacking in textural variety, the quick, snippy rhythm could stand to be broken up. But his grasp of narrative compensates for this, the story holds tightly onto its audience at the end. And there are free sweets. Free sweets salve all.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Edinburgh: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In Haruki Murikami’s fiction a sense of menace often pervades the mundane and the most familiar things have the capacity to disturb and unsettle, to scratch like a cat. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Okada is searching. Both his wife and his moggy have vanished from his life; his days are spent hazily, folding laundry in his flat, waiting.

Many of Murikami’s novels contain a detective element, a puzzle to be solved. But just as in the work of Raymond Chandler, the thing being searched for is often secondary, and the process of investigation and exploration takes precedence. Toru is a reluctant protagonist in the classic Chandleresque tradition, stumbling through his own story, encountering sinister figures and truanting schoolgirls, malevolent dream police, half-seen shadows, and a trace of the woman he thought his wife was.

Film producer Stephen Earnhart’s adaptation has taken seven years to bring to the stage; he even spent time living in Japan, but still it struggles – perhaps unavoidably – to condense this hefty, 600+ page novel, to evoke its many layers. The production is foggy and tangled with an episodic choppiness, and it feels too obviously like a thing abridged, reduced. That is not to say it is without beauty or power but the piece is permeated by a sense of disconnect. In some ways this is fitting – syncing with the often dream-like, distant quality of the novel – but it’s too pervasive; the constant shifting in tone becomes tiring and the technical elements of the production never seem entirely integrated.

Performed both in English and Japanese, with surtitles on screens at the side of the stage, this should be the very essence of this year’s EIF, an exercise in cross-cultural conversation and exploration, and yet it contrives to strand itself in between two worlds. The production at times feels like a grab-bag of Japanese cultural markers – bunraku puppetry, butoh-inspired modes of movement, shrill, garish television shows in which people are humiliated, an unsubtle nod to the Ringu films – everything heaped in together.

The tentative friendship between Toru and May Kasahara, the smart schoolgirl with a sly, witty tongue, suffers most. In Earnhart’s version she is brattish and stroppy and it’s hard to fathom why James Yaegashi’s amiable Toru puts up with her. There’s no obligation for a stage adaptation to be slavish to its source, but this curtailed version of the text doesn’t fully satisfy on theatrical terms either. There are individual moments that dazzle, flashes of Lynchian nightmare and unexpected sparks of comedy, but they stand apart from one another. Despite the stacking of scenes, signs, silhouettes, the piece as a whole is often lacking in atmosphere; all the technical elements are in place, but everything remains rather flat and I was left wondering what you’d make of it if you had no prior knowledge of the novel.

The one aspect of the production that does penetrate, that does pierce, is the music, performed live by Bora Yoon in a striking black-feathered headdress. She creates a hypnotic soundscape, all lapping waves and metallic clangs, the filigree drip of water being poured into a bowl, and it is this music that provides the pulse that rest of the production so often sadly lacks.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 22, 2011

Edinburgh: Whistle at Zoo

This solo show by poet Martin Figura is astonishing. It’s astonishing not because of its staging, which is very still and simple, but by virtue of the story Figura tells – when he was just nine years old, his father killed his mother – and the way he chooses to tell it.

Whistle is a collection of poems, performed in a matter-of-fact style, about Figura’s family and childhood. This awful shadow of his mother’s death is the heart of the piece and yet at the same time it is part of a broader story. Figura’s father came from Silesia to the UK following the Second World War, having served for a short time in the German army. In this country he met and married Figura’s mother, young and besotted, always immaculately dresses, a wearer of white gloves. They were happy for some time but his father became increasingly ill and paranoid, suspicious of everything and everyone.

The piece is full of details, picked out by a poet’s eye: the marble-barrelled pens bought to fill school pencil-cases, the Cliff Richard quiffs of his boyhood, the smell of pickled cabbage and Polish sausage, the women in black who flocked round him like birds on a visit to his father’s homeland. The writing also marks itself out by the things omitted. Figura steers purposefully away from extremes of emotion; he shares his story but leaves things unsaid, untold. The poems are left to do their work, a boy’s world vanishes. We glimpse Figura and his sister floating ‘equidistant, not just from the walls, but the floor and ceiling too’, orbited by relatives and the inevitable priest. We glimpse a car pulling, peeling away from the pavement, a childhood being left behind.

An old Box Brownie camera sits on a table one side of the stage and a series of still images are projected on the other: toothy, gleaming family photographs, a Man from UNCLE membership card and, of course, the newspaper headlines, his father’s face stark in black and white. All that is left of the smiling time is celluloid, sepia, coiled in a film canister: the fireplace his father built, the easy chair, a gloved hand on a shoulder.

Figura would later be abandoned once more by relatives and brought up within the care system. But this is not a piece about blame, nor is it one conceived in anger – though there are inevitable traces of pain. It’s an elegant account of a family’s history, the stories behind the snapshots, the shadows that shape a life, painted in words and frozen images, memory given voice.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Edinburgh: Translunar Paradise at the Pleasance Dome

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s incredibly touching piece of mime theatre is an exercise in delicacy. It wordlessly journeys through the lives of two people, through all the stages of their marriage, from young love to loss in old age.

The piece is beautifully executed, full of precise and well-judged visual detail. There’s elegance in the piece’s economy, in the way it uses gesture and repeated motifs to convey the story of a whole life lived. The performers hold masks to their faces when playing the older versions of their characters; they waltz with these masks, putting them on and removing them again, as if in a tangle of memories, the past bleeding into the present – the poignancy of one man looking back.

The wordless nature of the piece means that only extremes of emotion are easily conveyed, the highs and the lows, while the muddy middle ground of marriage tends to get ignored. Instead they present a collage of moments of great joy mixed with moments of anguish and trauma: the loss of a child, the departure of the husband to war. The performances are wonderful to watch, full of subtly and warmth. George Mann (who also directs) and Deborah Pugh are both superb, both in the precise, slightly stylised nature of their movements and in the way they convey real affection and connection between the couple. The look of the piece, with the masks and the minimal colour palette, is one of European animation – it has a stop motion quality. Kim Heron’s music, making uses of both vocals and accordion, give the play its pulse, a drifting, time shifting grace.

The production is at times a little too obvious, tugging on the heart-strings with more force than is perhaps necessary, but it’s also full of genuinely moving moments: the old man frozen in mourning, facing life alone after all these years. The production has an elegant, dream-like quality that is almost hypnotic; the repetitions of the piece, the recurring steps, become soothing, familiar – it’s as if you are entering a half-way world where this couple are forever engaged in the act of parting. Needless to say there was quite a lot of quiet sobbing in the audience by the time the piece came to an end.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Edinburgh: 2401 Objects at the Pleasance Courtyard

Analogue’s latest production invites its audience to think about memory, about how and what we remember, the complex process of sifting and retrieval that takes places, and what happens when the brain fails to function as it should. 2401 Objects tells the story of Patient HM, one of the most famous case studies in neurology. HM’s brain has been sliced ad preserved for research purposes; it survives as a series of slices and has furthered the understanding of the relationship between the physical structure of the brain and the way we store memories.

Just as Rebecca Skloot’s recent book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, told the human story behind the HeLa cell line, Analogue tell the story of Henry Molaison, a young American man whose epilepsy led him to undergo experimental brain surgery. The production begins with the recorded voice of Dr Jacopo Annese, a neuroscientist at the Brain Observatory. Following this brief introduction, we are introduced to two Molaisons. Firstly we see him as an old man, institutionalised, capable of completing crosswords, but completely unable to recall a conversation he had five minutes earlier; later we see him as a younger man, shyly engaging in conversation with his neighbour’s daughter.

The young Molaison suffered from several severe seizures a day and his debilitating epilepsy prevented him from holding down a job or moving out of the family home. In 1953 he underwent radical brain surgery, with an ambitious surgeon removing his hippocampi (which are strikingly described as resembling two sea horses). While the surgery did succeed in ridding him of his epilepsy, it also prevented him from forming new memories – and though it didn’t affect his procedural memory, it meant he was essentially trapped in the past. The reality of his situation is poignantly evoked through scenes in which the elderly Molaison, engagingly played by Pieter Lawman, interacts with his patient young nurse. He repeatedly recalls an event from his youth and she listens, each time responding as if hearing it afresh. Molaison does not think of himself as old, and is baffled by his reflection; he also has no recollection of his mother’s death and each time he realises his loss, he is distressed.

Analogue’s use of multimedia techniques, merging video and live performance, is more successful here than in their previous show, Beachy Head. Images are projected on a raised transparent screen and the cast are able to stand both behind and in front of these projections; there is also a fabric strip at the bottom of this screen, under which the performers frequently duck and tumble, vanishing into the black. The piece is nicely played, particularly by Lawman but also by Sebastien Lawson as both Dr Annese and the young Henry, and Melody Grove as both Molaison’s nurse and mother. While it ends a little abruptly, the production succeeds in making its audience pause to consider their internal workings, the mechanics of memory, and to appreciate Molaison’s unique contribution to medical research.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 08, 2011

Edinburgh: Kalagora at Zoo Roxy

Kalagora is a hymn to cities, to their richness, their colour, their noise, sprawl and energy, and to the process of cultural merging, mixing and melting that categorises the urban experience.

Poet Siddhartha Bose has lived in three of the biggest, most distinctive cities in the world. Born in Mumbai, he spent several years in New York before moving to London. His show is a jazz-inflected poetic monologue exploring this journey, his words fused with music and images. In the city of that size you can lose yourself, find yourself, be someone else if you so wish. Bose’s show captures that heady urban experience, the taxi drivers and the rough sleepers, the shifting skies and the glitter of glass.

Kalagora is a Hindi word meaning black man/white man and Bose (or, at least, his onstage persona) explores how his urban existence has shaped him, how his identity is defined as much by the places in which he’s lived as by his race or religion. His story takes in charged encounters with airport officials, a boisterous millennium eve party in Manhattan, and what it means to be an illegal immigrant, paperless and under suspicion.

The audio-visual elements of the production enrich what could otherwise be a static experience. Pankaj Awasthi’s music is paired with filmed images of all three metropolises, a striking string of faces and places, the cinema of the city life, the traffic, the neon, the hum. Nor is Bose a stiff, still performer, a reciter, instead he makes the words come alive. His voice is resonant and versatile, switching between accents with ease; he’s also an engaging performer, confident and capable of conveying subtle shifts in emotion.

He has also published a book of poems on the same theme under the same title but this is not a straight-forward reading of those lines. Thought has been given to bringing out the theatrical aspect of the material, to make it work in a performance context: as Bose describes the chaos and clamour of Bombay, he draws a circle in vermilion sand on the floor; later, having landed in Manhattan, he inks a similar circle around his eye. Striking as the language often is there is a sense that still more could be done with this material, to lift and link these words, to sync the visual with the verbal, to condense the modern megapolis into a black box.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh: Mission Drift at the Traverse

This is the fourth time that TEAM (the Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) have appeared on the Fringe. Their last show, Architecting, was a gloriously layered piece of theatre which stretched in many directions; ostensibly about the process of social repair following Hurricane Katrina, it used Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind as a window through which to explore American identity in the south, post-Civil War reconstruction and the emotional significance people attached to the built world.

This new piece sees them switch their gaze to the American west. Inspired by the story of Catalina and Joris Rapalje, a pair of Dutch teenage newly-weds who travelled on one of the first ship to take workers to what was then New Netherland. The real Joris became a successful Brooklyn magistrate and the father of eleven children; their descendants are now estimated at around a million and they have been labelled the Dutch American Adam and Eve – which is apt as here they become characters in a myth of origins, the parents of American capitalism. In TEAM’s version of their story the couple head out west, occasionally changing their names, but never aging, remaining eternal teenagers. Finally they end up in the desert, in the arid outlands of America, where they help raise a city from the sand.

The epic sweep of the piece is counter-balanced with a more intimate narrative. Joan is a cocktail waitress whose family have lived in Vegas for three generations. She loves the city; she is tied to it materially and emotionally and volunteers at the Neon Boneyard, the place where old Vegas signs are taken when they are no longer needed, a three acre collection of dead bulbs: ten-foot lettering, garish wedding chapel signage and a Cinderella slipper the size of a small house. But things are changing. The city, this “desert experiment” was, until recently, the fastest growing in the US, but this growth has tailed off in the current economic climate and Joan has just been laid off. She needs to get to grips with this new Vegas, toxic city, a place she wants to “kill in the face”; she needs to confront Catalina and Joris and make them face up to what they have made.

Music forms a huge part of the piece. Heather Christian’s Miss Atomic acts, as compere and narrator; she has an astonishingly rich voice, sometimes throaty and Joplin-esque, sometimes honey-coated and heavenly. Her songs drive the production; they stud it like mushroom clouds: “We’ll make millions here,” she drawls. Nick Vaughan’s scrappy set is a Douglas Coupland-esque landscape of lawn chairs, cocktails, fairy lights, tinsel-fringed trees and atomic glare – all that’s missing is the drained swimming pool. The band sits at the back of the stage besides Christian’s white baby grand.

The TEAM did on-the-ground research in Las Vegas and their collaborative process involved “bartering and argument”. The resulting production is tangled and thick with Vegas lore: Elvis, Frank, Sammy and The Sands (though there are some odd omissions; the Mafia don’t rate a mention). It’s more than a little chaotic in places, hyperactive and fidgety, but always compelling. At two hours without a break this is a long ride, but it’s one worth taking.

Reviewed for Exeunt