SIT OR stand anywhere in Edinburgh and you will hear the sound of bagpipes. In the streets, especially in the old town, you will constantly bump into artists performing as a prelude to their show or perhaps hoping to be spotted.
It’s August in Edinburgh and everything is about art and performers. It feels as if everyone is off to see a show. The talk on the street is all about their next show or the one they’ve just seen.
For people like me who are passionate about the arts, it feels like you’ve just dropped into paradise. Trying to see as many shows as possible, and that’s quite a feat in this city of players if you haven’t planned, here’s a glimpse of what is out there in the wide world when talking performance.
One of the things that struck me at Grahamstown last month was the youthfulness of some of the theatre which was such a positive thing because it means these shows will appeal to young audiences.
It was gratifying to find a similar tendency in Edinburgh with Lungs written by Duncan MacMillan, a great example of script and performance making this one fly.
Playing theatre in the round, it was great to see two actors make good use of the space and even if the woman was white and the man black, it didn’t play any part in the story, which was also refreshing. It was all about a couple who love one another but battle through all the normal relationship ups and downs to make it work or at least last.
It was hectic but brilliantly written and as always, the importance of script was obvious.
Similarly with Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities, it was interesting to hear what was on the minds of UK men and again the writing was exhilarating. The performance was almost like stand-up theatre and the way the play, almost 90 minutes long, was constructed was so well thought through that he held his audience from beginning to end.
It’s rare to have both the writing and performance skills, but when they come together, it’s often a killer combination. Part of the poignancy and power of the piece also had to do with the places he was willing to go.
Perhaps not for those of us not living here, but Brits would have battled to get their heads around his arguments about the two men killing a soldier on the street with a scythe and and then being asked to consider another point of view.
Artists have to be out there and not just reflect our states of mind but make that leap and if necessary drag us along. He did that with astonishing dexterity and piercing sensibility.
Light was recommended in one of the major newspapers and I was intrigued. The company, Theatre Ad Infinitum, was described as inspired, and so they were.
But this time the script let them down and even if you have all the tricks up your sleeve, you can’t get away without a good story. Two young girls on the way out captured it best when they said that once they had seen the magical methods applied and the mastery of the performance, the story let them down and they were bored. Ditto!
Nevertheless someone will tell them and they will fix it, hopefully. And there’s then the potential of the techniques, which are powerful, to flourish. The audience arrive in the dark and are pretty much kept that way all the time while the futuristic action on stage is all achieved with lighting – strobes, torches, headlights and other lighting devices.
It was all extremely smart but all the gimmicks in the world cannot hide a defective text which wins hands down any day.
One of the first shows I saw was Simon Callow’s Juvenalia. One of the UK’s master stage actors, he was reprising this work, a huge success early in his career. The writer Juvenal, born circa AD 55, wrote 16 satires attacking the decadence of Rome in its heyday and his text was adapted. This particular text was modified to circle the moral decline still relevant today.
There’s a melancholy when one of your heroes struggles, which Callow was doing on the day. It had been playing for a week so his fluffing of lines was unforgiveable. Think of our veteran actors like John Kani, Sandra Prinsloo and the like, they seem to work harder, not relying on past glories.
Callow has an amazing voice and he can throw his weight around both literally and figuratively, but audiences weren’t going to allow this faltering banter. Throughout the performance probably a dozen people walked out. You are only as good as your last performance and that was evident.
Brazouka, produced by Pamela Stephenson Connolly, isn’t the kind of show I would normally go to at this kind of festival simply because theatre is my thing.
But because they’re coming to South Africa in a few months’ time, the Joburg Theatre asked me to see this debut run.
The thing that was interesting at this festival was the Brazil dance presence. It seems to be the zeitgeist and the producers have smartly caught this one early. Without giving too much away, and the spectacle was diminished because of space restrictions which won’t be the case at the Mandela Theatre, this is going to be the new rage. It’s sexy, cheeky and vibrant, the dancers beautiful but also brilliant.
Think lambada and you’ve got it. So book those tickets, it will have you dancing in the aisles and more importantly, you haven’t seen this before.
Brett Bailey was also in town and in typical fashion, wherever he goes, he was the talk of the town for all the right reasons – Exhibit B.
It was the show most often pointed to when I asked about performances not to miss. And I had a Jamaican poet in tears just telling her about the premise. Different from the Grahamstown run a few years back that had the exhibits in different rooms, this one was staged in the large hall of a magnificent old library which had all the pomp and ceremony of times past and which played splendidly into these curiosity cabinets.
Walking up the large stately stairs to get to the exhibition, one could easily slip into the headspace of colonial times.
It is a magnificent piece of work in all its horror and in the magnified world of atrocities we find ourselves in currently with ordinary people constantly in the line of fire because of the whims of the powerful, it grows in relevance day by day.
Every time we witness the way human beings treat those they don’t value, the magnitude of what people are capable of is overwhelming.
The show is the kind of confrontation we should embrace.
Land of Smiles was an intriguing choice because of the topic; the trafficking of women in Thailand. Not the traditional subject around which to centre a musical, I would have thought.
The story follows some women at an NGO who are trying to save these trapped young girls. It’s done with the best intentions as these things always are, but the expected results don’t follow.
The staging was all about the music, with a group of musicians at the back and the action happening on a largely empty stage.
It felt a little like this was a try out to determine audience response which is another function of the festival.
The music was pure Western musical and perhaps that and the familiar staging was the problem. If you’re going to opt for this hardcore story, you’d better push the envelope on all levels. The music should have been a little more left field to carry the harsh story. The idea is there, but they will have to rework the execution.
Black Grace is exactly what I thought South African dancers would have done in the SA/UK co-production Inala.
A New Zealand company with an artistic director/choreographer, Neil Leremia, who has South Pacific roots, put his dancers through a series of short works to showcase a repertoire of his work. All the while, he kept the audience informed as he introduced the different dances to enhance the audience’s understanding.
With a strong cultural flavour, they might have missed some of the nuances, but his guidance gave the performance depth. Everything about this group of dancers was exquisite, from their costumes to their sparkling performances.
It was a perfect festival piece and an enticing introduction to this innovative company.
As the title suggests, Sister is exactly that. Amy and Rosana Cade are siblings sharing their story. But what you’re about to witness will stretch your mind in ways unimaginable.
Amy, a sex worker in Berlin (“because it’s legal and, I thought, safer”), and the shaven-headed lesbian Rosana explore their differing sexual lives in a performance that dissects feminism and choice in ways that will leave you in wonderment.
The show starts with both of them scantily dressed but this is all off before the audience has quite settled in. But what follows is quite unexpected and extraordinary. It’s one of the most physically explicit shows I’ve ever seen, but because of the emotional revelations and the way these two women unravelled and unpacked their lives, their bodies became almost invisible.
In the background, old home movies of the two girls as toddlers remind you of their happy and loving background.
It’s a performance that completely strips their minds while in the process pulling and expanding yours.
The SA/UK co-production, Inala, one of the flagship productions of the Edinburgh season and on the grand International Festival (one of three South African productions with Exhibit B and Ubu and the Truth Commission the others) combined the live music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the choreography of Mark Baldwin and dancers from his Rambert company and the Royal Ballet.
It had all the desired effect with the international audiences because of the beauty of the mesmerising music and the delicate dance.
For South Africans though it was an opportunity missed, simply because: How can you have someone from the UK interpreting South African music when you can have the real thing with extraordinary choreographers like a Gregory Maqoma or a Dada Masilo and their dancers? It would have brought another dimension and that was missing on the night.
The programme was entertaining enough, but it lacked the emotional depth our own dancers would have brought to the party in spades.
I understand the glory of co-productions, but then perhaps this one would have been better served if left in South African hands.
I heard someone speaking about a show they could see every day and discovered it was a children’s production called Huff.
Created by Shona Reppe, who is a set designer and has performed in many of her own kids’ plays, this is a departure. Apart from the absolute delight to see this 20-minute show it is a light-bulb-moment concept which is simply magnificent.
You see it in groups of three (“because there are three little pigs!”) and you are guided through a number of rooms in what is presumably their house where you spend time with a gentle-voiced narrator who leads you through this adventure.
The detail is delicious and the different levels which you can tap into quite delightful, but it is the way this takes you on a romp that totally steals you heart. It powerfully lit up the playfulness so inherent in the arts and was the perfect way to end a festival – with the biggest of smiles.