My choice cuts from Edinburgh Fringe

Just back from Edinburgh, where I saw 20 shows in 5 days. OK, 19. We were 2 minutes late for one, and missed out. Two of the shows were at the Book Festival, one at the International Festival, and the rest on the Fringe. I also gave a reading at the Fruitmarket Gallery with some friends.

This was the view from our B&B.

Yep, that’s Arthur’s Seat, which we summarily failed to climb despite plans for a 7am ascent.

I’ve been coming to Edinburgh every August for about six years (including one year to produce a play) and it’s always thrilling to experience the organised mayhem of the festivals. The city throngs with tourists from all over the world, students flyering for shows with increasingly desperate promises of “five star reviews” and “it’s actually quite funny”, producers and arts types with their fancy lanyards, performers in various stages of costuming rushing from sweaty basement venues. I love it.

This year Sarah and I sat through over 24 hours of theatre and as ever it was a real hotchpotch of the good, the great, the inspiring and the ill-conceived. We enjoyed plays about growing old and aerial displays that captured the fragility and absurdity of human experience. We experienced total darkness as well as total tedium. Political theatre seems to be having something of a resurgence: from police brutality to an independent East Anglia; from tax evasion to the Quebec liberation movement. Each piece made its own way through these, and other ideas, and the best were those able to create a personal, visceral experience that felt embodied in the space of the theatre. The least effective plays were those that presented a doctrinal attitude, rather than being open-ended, complicated or deliciously ambiguous.

Anyway, here are my top five shows (listed in alphabetical order):

887 by Robert Lepage (Ex Machina)

Edinburgh International Festival

The Beanfield (Breach)

theSpace on the Mile

Confirmation by Chris Thorpe

Summerhall

Tomorrow (Vanishing Point)

Traverse

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan by Luke Wright*

Summerhall

* I declare a bias here: I am Luke’s editor and will be publishing this play in Feb. Still, it’s bloody good.

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Exeunt

It slipped my mind to mention this, but over the last year or so I have written a number of reviews for the excellent online theatre magazine Exeunt.

So far I have covered classical experiments, perambulatory music, spoken word and poetry-inspired theatre…

Click here to read the latest, my take on a Spitalfields Festival walking tour, Flow Forms, or check all my reviews here.

Underneath the shimmering steel and glass of Spitalfields Market, East London, two metres below surface level, a small group of urban explorers is gathered in the ruins of a medieval charnel house: a repository for bones that was once attached to the great Priory of St Mary Spital. This subterranean space – intimate enough to be a shrine – is surrounded by thick sandstone walls and the stumps of decorated columns. There is a strong smell of smoke or, maybe, of incense. Fine pebbles underfoot give it the impression of a beach, somewhere that might just vanish on the next tide. You could squeeze a volleyball court in here, I think.

Cillian Murphy in Misterman

Cillian Murphy

On Sunday, Mrs Yogic and I went to see Misterman by Irish playwright Enda Walsh at the National Theatre. Performed by just one man in the cavernous space of the Lyttleton, this is the most sublimely affecting theatre I’ve seen in years. Cillian Murphy is an astonishing actor and the star of two of my favourite films of the last fifteen years: Disco Pigs and 28 Days Later. He is at his best in this brilliant play about faith, imagination and memory set in smalltown Ireland.

His character, Thomas Magill, flits between mania and vulnerability, evangelical passion and childish nervousnes as he reconstructs one day in his life in Inishfree through a series of dialogues, some spoken by Murphy (who’s an excellent ventriloguist) and some recorded onto numerous reel to reel players dotted around the huge industrial-style set. This workshop-cum-prison, which might be interpreted as a physical representation of the unstable mind of Magill, is brought to life by some of the best lighting and sound design I’ve witnessed. I’m not usually brought to tears at the theatre, or compelled to give a standing ovation, but Misterman produced both. This play will haunt me for a long time.

Edinburgh Fringe

I’m just back from a four-day trip to Edinburgh where I saw a whopping sixteen shows, including the fantastic, surreal office farce Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl (pictured above).

In customary Fringe style, I am reviewing my shows using a complex star-rating system, out of five.

Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl (Barrow Street Theatre) – 5 yogics
I’m No Hero (Tangere Arts) – 3 yogics
Jonathan Storey, Jack Pratchard – 3 yogics
En Route – 4 yogics
The Harbour (Limbik) – 3 1/2 yogics
Daniel Kitson, It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later – 5 yogics
The Monks of Tashi Lhunpo, The Power of Compassion – 5 yogics
Hannah Walker, This is Just to Say – 4 yogics
Molly Naylor, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You – 3 yogics
Ross Sutherland, The Three Stigmata of Pacman – 4 1/2 yogics
Tim Clare, Death Drive – 4 yogics
Blackout (Thickskin) – 3 1/2 yogics
Operation Greenfield (Little Bulb) – 4 1/2 yogics
John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From a Murder – 4 1/2 yogics
John Robins, Nomadic Revery – 4 yogics
Invisible Dot by the Sea – 4 yogics

But I might change my mind later.

Also, I am announcing some special awards.

This is Yogic Award for the Longest Journey to Get to the Venue
Invisible Dot by the Sea (the clue’s in the title)

This is Yogic Award for Most Sickeningly Talented Youngsters
Operation Greenfield

This is Yogic Award for Best Former University Tutorial Partner
John Robins

This is Yogic Award for Most Dazzlingly Ingenious Set Design
Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl

This is Yogic Award for Best Use of Wellington Boots
The Harbour

It Felt Like A Kiss

I was lucky enough to see Punchdrunk’s collaboration with filmmaker Adam Curtis, It Felt Like A Kiss, for Manchester International Festival. A magical mystery tour / ghost train through a deserted five storey office block, deep into the bleeding heart of pop culture, terror and the American dream. It was astonishing. Some have described Punchdrunk’s work as ‘immersive’ theatre – for me, it was more implicating. I am still reeling from the experience with a mixture of fear, terror, guilt and confusion. The video clip is ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss’, a song about domestic violence written by Carole King and performed by The Crystals. The terror behind the window.

Hamlet at The Donmar


 
Last night Sarah and I went to see Grandage’s Hamlet at The Donmar – well, The Wyndham Theatre anyway. I generally hate the West End, but there you go.
 
It was, of course, Jude Law as the Dane. I have a specific – if slightly tenuous – reason to see this: my mother was Jude Law’s drama teacher. It was, therefore, a real delight that Law was not only technically competent, but top-notch. An energetic, physical, full-body, sinewy performance which foregrounded Hamlet as a petulant teenager on the edge of violent disorder.
 
But I was particularly impressed by his speech. He managed that rare trick of rendering the twisted logic of the soliloquies fresh, original and psychologically realistic. There was real poetry there, too. He was, as they say, the star of the show – not as the Hollywood superstar, but as a plain ol’ stage actor.
 
I thought Neil Austen‘s lighting was also terrific and imaginative, whilst Penelope Wilton put in a strong performance as Gertrude. Kevin McNally‘s Claudius was a bit dull though – all of the politic bureaucrat with none of the sinister murderer.