Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Welcome to Edinburgh, Fringe Fans

It may just be wilful patriotism, yet I am tempted to make my annual Edinburgh Fringe Preview an all Scottish spectacular. I’m not ignoring international performance – if it says Belgian or Czech on the label, I’m first in the queue– but I’d like to remind the hoards of London-based performers and agents and PRs and promoters that wee Caledonia can do quite nicely without their annual invasion.

My inbox currently receives around twenty emails an hour, each containing dreams of success, arrogant claims about the future of theatre, promises of sex, alongside appeals for reviews. I haven’t been this popular since I logged into an adult chat site as “22-36-22DirtyBabe”.  I do love the Fringe – it is a rare chance to indulge my joy in unpopular, awkward theatre, and catch up with the latest excuses for on-stage nudity. However, there is something unsettling in the sheer amount of performance, most of which will end up seen by two men, a student critic and a bored technician. The only way to be successful in the Fringe is either to be an established comedian or own real estate.

That said, my nationalist inclinations allow me to concentrate on shows that I feel confident to support. The Tron showcased A Slow Air as part of Mayfesto, Cryptic’s Orlando got its premiere at Glasgay!, in the same week as Fish and Game heralded a new use for the iPad through Alma Mater. Even these three demonstrate how Scottish performance has diversified beyond the simple script as template: A Slow Air is a reassuringly intimate two-hander by Glasgow’s master of linguistic detail, David Harrower; Orlando follows Cryptic’s distinctive passion for music and technological experiment; Alma Mater is am ambiguous reflection on education and childhood that uses film to evoke ghostly presence. All of these shows share a fascination with the possibilities of self-conscious performance, tapping away at the inherent unreality of theatre.

Harrower deliberately disconnects his two actors, letting them describe their mutual love and hate directly to the audience. Although the two characters, a brother and sister, seem to be dwelling on a family argument, Harrower subtly weaves larger themes – the split between generations, the rivalry between East and West coasts, the mixed blessings of personal history, the redemption power of absurd conflicts – into their homely, defensive chatter. Without making huge statements, and capturing the nuance of sibling compassion, Harrower champions the traditional script as the blue-print for a moving, intimate performance.

Orlando is a far more expansive work, even if it is a solo for one actor. Originally staged with live music, it mixes Virginia Woolf’s magic realist story of an immortal transsexual, cutting edge computer graphics and an electronica soundtrack to remystify the text, revealing fragments of passion, beauty and insight within the century spanning narrative. It is exceptionally hi-tech for the Fringe, intensely serious and blinding in its neon beauty: Cryptic are as fascinated by the image as the word as the music, and while Orlando is familiar from the superb Sally Potter film, this version’s transformative, hallucinatory rhythms cuts to a mystical heart.

Fish and Game are “Scotland’s Live Art supergroup”: Alma Mater, ironically, is a video performance. Originally a site-specific “guide” to Glasgow’s Scotland Street school museum, it has been displaced to Remarkable Arts’ Edinburgh church venue. Refusing to fall for either clichés about the greatest days of your life, or school as bullying hell, Alma Mater is beautifully balanced between celebration and critique and uses the iPad as a tool to layer reality with a supernatural resonance.

 Witty and moving, it is a reminder that experimental theatre can bypass theatrical artifice for an immediate, compassionate, emotional hit.

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