Saturday, 1 September 2012

Arches Theatre Festival 2008


It is always best to take the Arches Theatre Festival as a bundle: visiting the odd piece runs the risk of missing something crucial, or ending up seeing all bad shows. The range of genres, and the admirably scatter-shot selection, is inclusive - although it demands a serious fortnight of underground attendance.

The two plays that won this year’s Arches Award for Directors are a gentle start. Both are script orientated, capable of transfer to Edinburgh and best respected as works in progress. Both feel like sketches: Bring Me The Head of Comrade Bukhari is in thrall to Clockwork Orange, with its juvenile delinquents and absurdist dialogue, while Sixteen falls between realism and allegory. Neither piece fully convinces, lacking powerful words or startling stage-craft: they are solid, respectable experiments from young talents.

Sixteen’s script is especially disappointing, despite three strong performances. Playing for laughs with Alzheimer’s, impotence and a comedy foreigner, it nevers grapples with the implications of its - frankly unlikely- sexual scenario. In the final third, the dissipated themes combine to create a few moments of hyper-real intensity, as mother, daughter, husband and lover exchange roles in a bizarre battle.

Bring Me The Head of Comrade Bukhari is performed equally well, with a script that delights in sharp exchanges and a cast who bounce between menace and wit. It doesn't really have much to say - the lack of detail about the characters is annoyingly vague rather than ambiguous, and prevents any real sympathy, while the moral dilemma at the heart of the play is barely considered. Bukhari suggests a possible connection between absurdism and a more socially engaged theatre. It is better praised for intentions rather than delivery.

If these two can be judged by conventional standards, both An Oak Tree and Dias De Las Noches cast off into difficult waters. An Oak Tree is Tim Crouch’s serious attempt to integrate live direction into the performance - he is joined on stage every night by a performer who has never seen the script. Dias De Las Noches is pure physical theatre - the acting equivalent of free jazz where an apparently random series of threats, tricks, dancing, nudity, skeletons, clowns and gun-shots combine to create an event that is mystifying and - depending on taste - unforgettable.

An Oak Tree explores the aftermath of a child’s death in a road accident. Crouch is both director on-stage and the awkward hypnotist-cum-child killer, who is confronted by the child’s father, who is also the victim of his hypnotic act. Once the hypnotist’s performance has collapsed, Crouch homes in on the devastation caused by the death, undercut by sudden shifts into directorial sessions. Surprisingly, this does not destroy the tension or pathos, but allows Crouch’s charming personality to redeem his grinning hypnotist. Initially he seems to be a slick showman, all naff asides and false bonhomie. He is gradually revealed as devastated, confused: the father looks to him for help, not revenge.

Teatr Novogo Fronto are in their own league: there is a vague story behind the mayhem concerning a comedy double act and a South American revolution, but this is less interesting than the sheer levels of absurd confusion they rapidly cause. Four actors take on multiple identities and chase each other around the stage in pursuit of love or death. A sense of menace pervades even the lightest moments and the frenetic pace is sustained to the explosive finale. Regret, frustration, and insecurity are all played out, evoked in the audience and flung to one side: through sheer pace and volume Dias De Las Noches attempts to by-pass rational thought. It fails to make any coherent statements: it is, however, glorious hysteria.

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