A review in five acts
1. O vkusakh nye sporit' (Don't argue about taste). I was reminded of this old Russian proverb during my August week in Edinburgh when I read a glowing five-star review in The Scotsman of a play from which I fled at the first interval because I was bored rigid.
The play was Lanark, a four-hour adaptation by leading Scottish playwright David Greig of a modernist novel by Alasdair Gray, produced at the Lyceum by the International Festival and the Glasgow Citizens theatre. The reviewer was The Scotsman's top arts writer Joyce McMillan, who lavished praise on the play and the production: 'mighty...astonishing...terrific...brave.' To me, it seemed as dead as the tramway route to Leith.
Leaving aside a few saltire-waving flourishes ('huge transformative significance in late 20th century Scottish literature...great Scottish theatremakers...wave of unstoppable cultural change in Scotland that began in the early 1980s'), the real difference between me and McMillan is that she is a big fan of the original novel, while I haven't read it at all.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of plays I have seen adapted successfully from novels; the genres are so far apart that the translation from narrative to drama generally doesn't work -- which doesn't stop people trying. One of the problems with Lanark is that the central protagonist seems to be largely passive. 'What do you want?' he is asked. 'I don't want anything,' he replies. That may work fine on the page, where the author can take us inside the character's head and explore multiple levels of meaning and narrative trustworthiness. Drama requires something different.
After watching the first hour, I found myself deeply unengaged with the character and the shifting nature of the story, particularly when it drifted into sci-fi, with men in white coats staffing a mysterious clinic. Sci-fi is a genre which seems to me designed either for prose or for the screen, but it becomes ridiculous on stage.
Graham Eatough's production seemed to me slow and plodding (I admit I saw a preview), with clumsy transitions between scenes and a lot of unwanted sceneshifting involving screens and furniture. It also struck me as over-designed, with the actors hemmed in by the set.
Anyone who is a fan of the original novel will probably have enjoyed the play just as much as Joyce McMillan did. All I can say is that I didn't.
2. But if you don't like one play in Edinburgh, you can be sure there will be another along in a moment, possibly something so astonishing that it's worth the cost of the rail journey several times over. A few years ago my jaw dropped at the imaginative triumph of John Tiffany's production of Black Watch. This year the show that had me on my knees begging for more was The Encounter, created by Simon McBurney for his company Complicite and the International Festival.
I've seen quite a few of McBurney's shows over the years and know that he possesses one of the most innovative brains in world theatre. This play is no exception -- in fact I don't think I have seen anything quite like it before, and probably won't ever again.
In the bowels of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, a large bank of raked seating faces an equally large stage, empty except for a few items. Every audience member has headphones, part of a highly sophisticated sound design that uses the kind of technology most of us will not have seen before.The stage is littered with what seems to be a random selection of objects; it looks more like a rehearsal room than a stage ready for performance. There are four loudspeakers, some microphones, lots of wiring, a desk and a chair, and a mysterious head on a pole that reminds me of an Easter Island sculpture. It turns out to be a highly sophisticated binaural microphone that records sound in the equivalent of 3D.
We know this because a shambolic figure wearing jeans and a baseball cap has quietly shuffled on stage to explain things. So this is why we have been listening to sound tests using our right ears and then our left ears. The shambolic figure is of course McBurney himself, warming us up with a deceptively casual conversation about the show during which he has fun at the expense of a couple of latecomers and takes a picture of the audience on his phone so he can explain to his young child what he's spent the evening doing. Within a few minutes, we are putty in his hands; he doesn't call his company Complicite for nothing. We are fully signed up to what is to follow, rather like participants in a Victorian seance, anxious to hear the words of those who have passed over to the other side.
Ostensibly, we are here to witness a true story, based on a real encounter between explorer/photographer Loren McIntyre and indigenous people in the Amazon basin. How much of the story really happened, and how much was invented by McIntyre or embellished by the writer Petru Popescu in his book Amazon Beaming 25 years ago, we don't know. How much of the story comes from McBurney's own fertile imagination? It really doesn't matter; McBurney warms us up for this balancing act between fact and fiction by showing us a VHS cassette which he says is irreplacable; then he 'accidentally' breaks the cassette and pulls out the magnetic tape, only to reveal that the real irreplacable cassette is a different one. Later in the show, that cassette gets destroyed as well. Well, what can you expect when you buy tickets for the theatre -- witnesses on oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
McBurney's theatrical talent is both as a performer and a writer, though he modestly doesn't claim any credit for the script. After all, he's just chatting to us and telling a story. Or is he? In fact, the show is highly structured. When the tension rises to much, the on-stage narrative is interrupted by a recording of McBurney talking to his child who is refusing to go to sleep. Yes, we've all been there and can empathise with that, even if very few of us have been anywhere near the Amazon.
The evening develops from a purely aural experience (something the old BBC Radiophonic Workshop might have dreamed up) into an intense piece of physical theatre. The water bottles serve not just to help McBurney the performer get through a two-hour show with no interval, but also as props in the explorer's story, told in the third person. The sounds we hear are partially pre-recorded and partially generated live by a variety of Foley techniques. It's both clear and unclear in time and space, which is precisely the intention. As the show develops, the fate of the lost explorer, captured by the Mayoruna people, remains in the foreground but other questions begin to take over -- the nature of memory and identity and the nature of time.
It's an astonishing show, which will be seen briefly in London at the Barbican and at Warwick Arts Centre. Grab a ticket.
3. I went to see Man to Man, a play by the German theatremaker and Brecht collaborator Manfred Karge (original title Jacke wie Hose), on the strength of a glowing advance feature in the Guardian. It's an expressionist drama for a single female actor, whose starting point is the true story of a woman who adopts her husband's identity when he dies. The play mingles fantasy and reality with German history, told very definitely from an East German communist perspective. No mention here of the Holocaust but a lot about the Nazi persecution of the 'Reds'.
Margaret Ann Bain gives a convincing performance as Ella, the protagonist, but doesn't quite become her. I kept wondering what Maxine Peake might have made of the role. And I was underwhelmed by Karge's play, not just because of its oversimplified account of German history.
4. Wojtek the Bear by the Polish-Scottish writer Raymond Raszkowski Ross is one of those Fringe plays that just won't lie down. Simple and truthful rather than flashy, it tells the story of a bear who was adopted in World War Two by Polish troops and ended his days rather sadly in Edinburgh zoo. First staged in 2012, it has also been to London and has toured Poland. On the night I saw it, I got chatting to an Edinburgh lady who remembered being taken to see the original Wojtek in the zoo during her 1950s childhood. As the programme says, this is a story of a bear who went to war, with lots of love and loyalty, heroism and hope. Corinne Harris directs the play with great finesse and the two actors are accompanied by a violinist. The London-based Scottish actor James Sutherland manages to inhabit the bear completely without a single piece of fur, proving yet again that the audience's imagination is the most powerful force in theatre, if it can be unlocked. Gavin Paul is equally good as Piotr, the Polish lance-corporal who becomes the bear's 'mother' but is forced to abandon him when the war is over. The story neatly balances the betrayal of the bear by human beings with the historical story of the wartime allies' betrayal of Polish freedom.
5. My last Edinburgh outing was to the Traverse to see The Christians, a new American play by Lucas Hnath, produced by the Gate Theatre in London's Notting Hill. Getting the rights to this play by an unknown author and taking it to Edinburgh must have been a bit of a gamble for director Christopher Haydon, but it pays off. The play is set in one of America's countless evangelical mega-churches, where everyone believes that if you don't give your soul to Jesus, you end up in Hell. One day the Pastor tells his flock he no longer believes in Hell, triggering defections and schisms in the congregation and a crisis in his marriage. Hnath captures perfectly the idiom of the evangelical world in the American heartland, stripping down his story to the essentials and placing the audience in the position of the congregation. This is a very un-European play at first sight, taking us into a world where atheism and rationalism have no place and everyone speaks directly to God. Not surprisingly, when the Pastor and his assistant, not to mention his wife, pick up different messages in these conversations, the results are explosive.
The cast of five is excellent; they talk and think like American evangelicals, and more importantly, they smile like them too. The choir sings and dances with just the right degree of happy-clappiness, without falling into parody. The important thing to realise is that this play is in no way a satire on religion; instead it pays it the compliment of taking it seriously. My only reservation is that the story is unresolved when the 80 minutes are up, and it doesn't have a second level of meaning in the way that a play like The Crucible does. A second act would probably have made it impossible to timetable during the confines of the Edinburgh fringe, but I really wanted to know what finally happened to the Pastor and his wife. I don't suppose I shall.