Fringe Activities in the Athens of the North – by Calum Campbell

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Theatre Thoughts Blog is pleased to bring you the report of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe from our intrepid Scottish correspondent, Mr Calum Campbell:

Calum Campbell - Edinburgh Reporter

Fringe Activities in the Athens of the North

Semioticians would have a field day with Edinburgh. The grey buildings of Scotland’s capital city, lacking the warmth of the red sandstones of Glasgow, allied to the endless chill breezes from the North Sea, suggest a cold and unfeeling city.  Symbols of power and control rise high above. The seat of Calvinistic authority, the Assembly building of the Church of Scotland, is only upstaged by the majesty and threat of Edinburgh’s Castle dominating the inhabitants below.  From atop its 120 metre doleritic pillar and plinth the castle acts as a threatening reminder to conform whilst also warning off visitors.

And this is how Edinburgh is often viewed, austere and conformist, where only high art and control are acceptable, but for three weeks beginning in August each year, this reading is proved false.  Scotland’s elderly aunt, spinster of the parish, upright and severe, a pillar of the community full of restraint and sobriety, discards her straight lace revealing colourful lingerie, suspenders and stockings and shouts to the world that there is a party at her place!

When listening to holiday reminiscences I’ve often heard people say “you have to be there to understand what it is like” but for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe it is more than that, it is a vibrant, amorphous mass, constantly changing and interfering with the accepted laws of time and physics.  No one day, second or instance is the same.

Formed as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival and its high art values, the Fringe lives and breathes an equality and opportunity for all: if you can find a space, you can put it on.  It is this ethic that has resulted in the Fringe becoming the world’s largest arts festival, far outgrowing its International counterpart. With this year’s figures still awaited it is worth noting that in 2009 there were around 34,265 official performances of all types, comedy, music, dance and physical theatre, music theatre, opera, children’s shows, events and exhibitions, with box office sales of over £1.8 million.

The Fringe never fails to amaze me. The best advice is to leave your preconceptions, likes and dislikes behind and just experience. This is where the good, the bad, and the outrageous are celebrated. Be proud to say that you have attended something that you have found awful, and laugh, because there will be so many other shows to visit that night! The abject failure is as valued as the artistic triumph and a culture of support for the arts has developed, where making an attempt or taking a risk is applauded allowing for continuing development and creativity.

Production, out with the rich and highly sponsored companies, provides exceptional challenges. The limitations of venues (from cupboards to church halls, courtyards to toilet cubicles), finances and limited time slots mean that performances are stripped back to the bare minimum encouraging acting skills and audience/performer relationships to be to the fore.  Theatre is exposed, extracted from its flim-flammery, padding and camouflage and for me it becomes more engaging and meaningful.

The Fringe, as its name suggests, has an edge and the festival’s encouragement of experimentation sets the stage for challenges to societal and artistic norms. Controversy this year was certainly found with Martin Creed’s Ballet Work No. 1020, encouraging a variety of responses from the ‘disgusted walk’ out to uproarious laughter.  The audience viewed dancers limited to 5 repetitively used positions, listened to music and songs from a post punk band, and watched as a stylistically uncomfortable Creed narrated while films including defection and vomiting were projected behind.  Challenging? Yes.  Uncomfortable? Yes.  Entertaining? Yes.  Shocking? Yes.  Amusing? Yes.  Did everyone agree whether it was good or bad? No.   I find this ability to shock and encourage discussion invigorating and a true element of art.

Don’t begin to think that the Fringe is all shock and ‘horrific’: it is not..  Quality abounds and in quantity such as the site-specific Threshold by 19;29 where the audience explores the story, gathering clues from performance and experiences in under-explored places in the city.  Threshold is emotional, poetic, imbued with meaning, and with the responsiveness and quality of its actors creating believability within the interactivity of the process.

The classically trained Bala Brothers from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, who challenged the restrictions of the apartheid era to follow their dreams of becoming trained singers, through their mix of classical, jazz, r ’n’ b, traditional African (backed by members of the Soweto Gospel Choir) and flawless performance created an anthem of freedom of expression and the beauty of life to which the Fringe allies itself.

An air of ‘festival’ abounds with food, drink and entertainment encouraging those who would not normally choose to attend traditional theatrical events to experience the atmosphere and be exposed to the performing arts.  ‘Happenings’ suddenly appear before you in the streets, full shows, excerpts, publicity, show selling sales pitches and stunts to rival any ‘quack doctors’’ claims for efficacious remedies.  This subtle educational snaring is a springboard to future and continued engagement, whilst stimulating interest, and encouraging new sources of performers and audience.

Watching the watchers in this colourful explosion of street theatre becomes a pursuit in itself.  There is realisation that boundaries between performer and audience are so reduced that the interaction is more than symbiotic, it is almost as if there is a truly common goal and experience and they are merging to become a single entity.  The Holy Grail of theatrical communication?  Not completely but there is an apparent absorption of the unsuspecting observers into performers themselves.   By attending the Fringe you don’t even have to see a show… you are part of one.

An Elderly Couple, an Orator and Dozens of Chairs – Review of The Chairs by Ionesco, Ustinov Theatre, Bath

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Ciaran McIntyre and Janet Amsden

I’m studying Ionesco this year at college, I thought I should use the Ustinov theatre in Bath’s production as an excuse to see one of his plays, while spending the day out and about in one of my favourite cities.

The Ustinov is a wonderful studio theatre in Bath and puts on a great line up of new plays and revivals of work such as The Chairs.

Martin Crimp’s translation was the one used and Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played the parts of the Old Woman and Old Man respectively. It’s a play that puts huge demands on the actors as they have to imagine the entire rest of the ensemble apart from The Orator, who was played by Geoff Nursey, and most of his part is when the couple have left the stage. Janet Amsden and Ciaran McIntyre played their parts with panache.

I enjoyed this play, but for me something was missing. Having recently read it for college, I have to say I think the Donald Watson translation I read was better. I felt that Martin Crimp had tried to modernise the dialogue too much. I’m going to get a copy of the play in French and read it myself to see which of the two are nearer Ionesco’s. I also felt that the designers by not following Ionesco’s own stage notes created a piece that wasn’t quite as dynamic. The key part of Ionesco’s set I feel are the 9 doors that the old man and woman are repeatedly going in and out of to collect the chairs. The inherent humor of going in one door and out of another door, was not really present in this production and I feel suffered for it.

I also felt The Orators costume was also wrong, this production had him in a military uniform as opposed to how Ionesco describes him; “He looks like the typical painter or poet of the last century, a wide-brimmed felt hat, a loosely tied cravat, an artists jacket, moustache and goatee beard.” The military uniform they gave The Orator, seemed to be taking and inferring things Ionesco never put in the play about The Orator.

I also want to check the original language of the play as in this translation The Emperor was repeatedly referred to as the “King of Kings”, which to me was giving too much attention to a Christology that isn’t in the Donald Watson translation and perhaps not the original.

I also felt that the arranging of the chairs and some of the physical humor didn’t go far enough, the pace wasn’t quite “firing on all cylinders” I thought. The programme tells me that there were three Directors (a director Maria Aberg, assistant, Ailin Conant and movement director, Ayse Tashkiran), perhaps this accounts for why I felt the play didn’t quite reach the punch, I got from reading it. As it did feel a bit muddled rather than having a clear directorial focus, which I feel this play needs.

Don’t let my criticisms put you off though, I did enjoy it, and this play is seldom put on, so it’s worth going to see it as you never know when it’ll be on next. I just wish they’d stuck a bit closer to what Ionesco had written.

Closer – The Archway Theatre Company – Review

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This was my first visit to the Archway Theatre in Horley, to see Closer by Patrick Marber. I found out about this theatre via the Little Theatre Guild and I’m please that I did. Closer is a play we’re recommended reading/seeing for my Postwar British and Irish module and I’ll certainly be returning to this pleasant theatre. It’s called The Archway Theatre for an obvious reason:

It’s literally built under the arches. What a superb space though, there’s a great bar area, for a pre-show and interval tipple and the theatre is modern and plush. Even I at five foot six had to duck as we enter the theatre itself but the arch is suitably padded and the steward warned us with plenty of time to “watch your heads”.

So the theatre gets thumbs up, what about the play???

I saw the revival of Marber’s Dealers Choice when it was on in the West End in 2007. I really enjoyed it and Marber’s excellent use of comical and gritty dialogue with a great sense of rhythm. Closer certainly has these hallmarks as Marber explores the issues surrounding relationships, communication, sex and identity. Originally written back in 1997, it still feels contemporary and the issues are still pertinent.

The small cast of four gave us an insight into the complicated lives of their characters, I’m sure people do make their lives this complicated, but I’m glad mine isn’t! Beth Easton played the role of Alice, with a subtlety and sadness that was moving. I really felt the mystery and dilemma of her existence came to the fore. Olee Bass gave a commendable performance as the failed writer Dan. Kevin Day gave a top performance as Larry, the Dr who to me I empathized with and other times wanted to give a good slap too for being such a pig! Mandy Humphrey gave a perceptive touch to the character of Anna, that again was very moving.

It’s a play with many challenges from a technical side, there are 12 scenes all in different locations ranging from an Accident and Emergency unit to strip club to an aquarium. This was cleverly done and the use of music throughout the play and scene changes really helped set the scene. Rather than going for complex sets, the simplicity and use of the stage area were just right and kept the pace of the play moving which was great.

Director Bradley Barlow in the programme writes about his passion for this play, he originally saw the film and then dashed out to the uni library to get the script just before the library closed for the night. He then spent the evening repeatedly reading it. His enthusiasm for this play certainly came through in the production.

I congratulate the cast for taking this play on and giving such a sterling performance of it. I hope that they put on another of Marber’s plays in the near future. I’m glad I’ve seen it, Marber certainly is a quality contemporary playwright, Dealer’s Choice and now Closer are certainly up there with my favourite of modern plays. Marber hasn’t written one for a while, I look forward to his next, and trust it’s a question of quality not quantity with his plays.

Small is Beautiful

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As you can see from my previous posts, and reviews I visit theatres of all shapes and sizes. However there is something about intimate/small theatres that for me is very special.

Theatre is about the relationship between what’s happening on stage and the audience member. In smaller theatres this can really be intensified and make for theatre that is profoundly effective.

In the UK we have a thing called the Little Theatre Guild http://www.littletheatreguild.org.uk , which I only heard of due to being involved in a theatre which is part of it, the Miller Theatre in Caterham www.millercentretheatre.org . I’m off to another theatre that’s a member of this guild next week, The Archway Theatre in Horley  http://www.archwaytheatre.co.uk to see Patrick Marber’s play Closer, which is one of the plays linked with my college module this year.  It’s worth finding out if there’s a guild member theatre near you, it’s impressive what these small theatres are doing and the vast range of plays that are being put on across the country.

Members of the Little Guild are all amateur theatres (which in no way is to denigrate their work, some amateur productions I’ve seen are better than “professional” ones). I’ve performed and seen productions in two small professional London theatres, namely The Barons’s Court Theatre and Jermyn Street theatre, these seat 50 and 70 people respectively and are wonderful little venues. I saw Timon of Athens at the Baron’s Court theatre last year and the cast of  11 literally filled the stage.

Too often we get caught in the trappings of “bigger is better” while missing the fact that theatre can be equally effective in smaller and less lavish settings. When I was a street performer, playing the larger crowds was a real buzz, but so was performing for a small group of 10 – 20 people, whose faces and names I got to know.

I’m currently reading lots of plays for college, we’re encouraged to imagine these as they would be put on and I’ve been challenging myself to read and imagine them in different settings to the standard 19th Century proscenium arch theatre.

Theatre Royal, Brighton. By http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo/

“Each show is the size of the theatre it is played in: if the space changes , the size of the show also changes.” – Augusto Boal

Earlier this year I was in an “in the round” production at the Miller Theatre, personally I prefer performing in the round, as that’s what I’m used to with my background as a street performer and magician. I also find it easier to connect with the audience when they’re all around me.

The actor standing in the centre surrounded by the audience looking into the whites of their eyes is a powerful and vulnerable place to be.

Welcome to Thebes – Review

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Lots of plays when you hear about them, I go “ohh that sounds like a good/clever idea”, then you go and see it and it’s a huge let down.

Welcome to Thebes, sounded like a great idea, a Greek play transposed to the 21st Century and a worn torn African state. So as I sat down in the National looking at Tim Hatley’s splendid set, would this be an Athenian thumbs up or down for me?

Moira Buffini I feel not only managed to make this work, but exceeded my expectations. Apart from the Greek names of the characters this was a play very much of the 21st Century and ideally situated in a civil war-torn African state, desperately seeking to get out of the mess and brutality it had descended into. I’ve yet to do my module in Greek Theatre, but had a taste of it at the last study weekend and thoroughly enjoyed this modern take on the classic myths.

I was particularly struck by the amount of comedy Buffini brought to the play, some witty deliberate nods to Greek mythology, others just comedic in themselves. I thought the “turn off your mobile phones” at the beginning was a great way of starting the play.

For a Greek play the body count was surprising low,  I thought it was better that the violence at Thebes was mainly alluded to rather than graphically displayed on stage.

The large cast was superb, special mention must go to Kedar Williams-Stirling who played the child soldier and gave us a brief glimpse into the brutality and fear they face. Buffini cleverly recreated the Greek Chorus too which was a superb.

The politics are just as relevant now as then and Moira Buffini gave it a pertinence with the USA’s foreign policy being mirrored in the Athenian “First Citizen” Theseus.

I did feel the First Act dragged a little, but it certainly upped the pace after the interval and in many ways Buffini had to take her time to set the scene in the First Act in order to let it rip along in the Second Act.

There was lots of clever and profound dialogue, alas I can’t remember it word for word, I look forward to getting the script and reading it and noting down the poignant lines.

So if you fancy going Greek, or seeing a good modern play, cleverly based on the ancient, I highly recommend this.

In Yer Face ?

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Read an absolutely awful play yesterday ; Philip Ridley’s Mercury / Fur.

It’s one of the set text’s for my college module and it’ll be interesting to see what the tutor thinks and why they’ve suggested we read it when I get the module in the next few days.

I don’t agree with the Sunday Times comment on the back of the play that this is “the ultimate 9/11 play“. To me it came across as someone wanting to write like Sarah Kane but without the subtlety or skill. Yes I found it disturbing which I’m sure is his aim, but I’m more disturbed someone writes a play like this and that it appears to have been so highly regarded, than what it’s about.

It does have it’s moments though, the character of Elliot, is well written and I felt for his character, having intelligence yet being trapped in this hell. For me though it never really went anywhere and the ending was weak. I don’t think a play has to be nicely rounded off with a “happily ever after”, but for me this just seemed to have no reason.

Again (as with Jerusalem, mentioned on an earlier post), perhaps I don’t get it, I flicked to the introduction in the book of plays, hoping to gain some insight or explanation and all that is there are some weird ramblings. (a polite way to describe it).

I suppose I’m being spoiled with the great plays I get to study, and so the duds stand out more obviously. I read some of Pinter’s work this week, his plays are dark/disturbing, but for me hit the spot and didn’t descend to the grossness that Mercury / Fur did.

In Yer Face theatre? Perhaps, but without the wit and subtlety of Kane/Ravenhill/Marber/Penhall, that’s for sure.