Thursday, 27 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Music Reviews - The Ex - Summerhall - Four stars / Skatgobs - Garage - Four stars

One of the biggest musical draws on this year's Fringe has been Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here programme, so named in ironical homage to those who mistakenly believe Edinburgh to be a musical desert and to City of Edinburgh Council's ongoing lack of civic will towards live music.

By far the most interesting date was the return of The Ex, the Amsterdam-based quartet who have been marrying angular punk guitar noises to African rhythms for more than thirty years. With strong Edinburgh roots care of guitarist Andy Moor, who formerly played in the capital's own wonky punk auteurs, Dog Faced Hermans, The Ex's first Edinburgh date in twelve years in a co-production with experimental music promoters Braw Gigs was a prodigal's return to be reckoned with.

Opening the show were My Two Dads, a knowingly named collaboration between Drew Wright, aka solo troubadour Wounded Knee, and Dylan Mitchell, formerly of Pet. With both men on guitars and Wright giving vent to his full-vented reinvention of traditional waulking songs, what emerged was an extended set of spaced-out rhythms that looked to Germany's kosmische-styled scene for a rollingly hypnotic display of open-ended Caledonian drone.

The Ex were a picture of intensity and discipline that ricocheted around the room with furious delight. With vocalist Arnold de Boer having moved into the slot previously held by G.W. Wok, Andy Moor and Terrie Hessels' guitars chug out insistent soundscapes over a percussive backdrop provided by drummer Katherina Bornefeld. Bornefeld also tag teamed with de Boer on vocals in a way that recalled the scatty yaps of Essential Logic's Lora Logic as Moor and Hessels' lurched off into abstract corners culled from the cutting edges of Europe's free undergrond.

While any punk fury of yore has given way to an engaging warmth, this is nevertheless a breathlessly timeless display of DIY ethics and aesthetics writ large. If only Moor and artist Marion Coutts, in attendance tonight, would reform Dog Faced Hermans and share a stage with The Ex again, it might possibly inspire a revolution.

The night before in an Edinburgh New Town lane, Edinburgh Art Festival's Garage initiative hosted Skatgobs, a glorious cross-generational alliance between veteran freeform vocalist Phil Minton with Dylan Nyoukis and Luke Poot, both exponents of the same sort of primal jabber that Minton has been pioneering for the best part of half a century.

Opening this show were The Y Bend, a cheekily named trio culled from the ranks of The A Band, the UK's most out-there free improv ensemble. Over half an hour using guitar, cello and keyboards, the trio eked out a curiously warm if wilfully slapdash set of noises that were giddily child-like in execution.

Minton, Nyoukis and Poot sat in chair in a row, with Minton at the centre flanked by his two proteges. The noises that emerged from the three mens' mouths was a surprisingly low-key and often entertaining barrage of wordless symphonies that ebbed and flowed into cartoon-like life as mini call and response narratives were set up in sketch-like performances. Again, however constructed each section was, there was a wonderful purity in watching the trio let rip with each other before coming to a close by way of a raging calm.

The Herald, August 27th 2015

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 - Theatre Reviews 10 - Trans Scripts - Pleasance Courtyard - Four stars / A Game of You - Traverse Theatre - Four stars

Six women line the stage at the start of Paul Lucas' new play, Trans Scripts. At first glance, such a disparate array seem to have stepped out of a common or garden piece about female bonding. As it is, the stories that unfold over the play's ninety minute duration presents a very different kind of sisterhood.

Culled and cut-up from some seventy-five interviews with trans women, Lucas and director Linda Ames Key have shaped six disparate stories from true life experience that lay bare the agonies and ecstasies of being a woman trapped in a man's bodies. The ecstasies, of course, only come later, after the women have risen above lifetimes of verbal and physical abuse. The stories that emerge are by turns angry, funny and at times wilfully saucy. There are flirtations with the audience and there are heartwarming tales of acceptance by families and local churches and communities as they support each other through the purging in this most beautifully realised of emancipations.

In a Fringe where gender has been one theatre's vital talking points, this is a show that matters, not just to those already aware of the trans communities, but for those who have no knowledge of them. In this respect Lucas and co aren't presenting a polemic, but a set of deep-rooted stories full of warmth and vulnerability that speaks to anyone en route to discovering their own identity. It's also whip-smart funny in a big-hearted show that only wants the acceptance by others that any of us do.

Belgian avant provocateurs Ontroerend Goed have long pushed the boundaries between performer and spectator. Now, after A Smile on Your Face and Internal put their audiences on the spot in an increasingly intimate fashion, the final part of the trilogy, A Game of You, takes things to the logical limit by allowing the show's sole participant to present a portrait of themselves that's reflected back at them with an honesty that's as incisive as it might be painful.

It begins and ends in a darkened room beside the Traverse's upstairs foyer. Once inside, you're led through a series of red-draped booths, where you are gently but firmly asked to come to terms with your own self-image. What happens over the next thirty minutes really depends on what you're prepared to bring to the party in terms of embracing the moment and being honest. This isn't nearly as traumatic as it sounds in a delicately constructed piece of personal history that's fascinatingly and entertainingly narcissistic and wittily engaging as it allows us a a glimpse at how others see us in the starkest of close-ups.

The Herald, August 27th 2015

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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 9 - Forever Young - Traverse Theatre - Four stars / The Solid Life of Sugar Water - Pleasance Dome - Four stars / Am I Dead Yet? - Traverse Theatre - Three stars

It's fitting that Forever Young begins outside the funfair carousel in the west end of Princes Street Gardens. As symbols of lost youth riding off into the sunset go, it's one of the best for this new piece of journey-based theatre from the Australian one step at a time like this company in association with the Irish Clonmel Junction Festival.

Using text messages and one to one interaction, the young people of Clonmel's newly christened Junction Joes ensemble lead the show's solitary audience member on a teenage joyride into rediscovering the child within. Risks may be taken, passion fruits may be stolen and hearts may be broken, but in coming to terms with lost idealism and the reckless joy of doing things for kicks, by the time you're on the couch being asked questions by a teenage therapist a la Lucy doling out advice to Charlie Brown, it becomes a melancholy confrontation with what it means to be a grown-up.

With our teenage guides on the cusp of going out into the big bad world themselves, under the guidance of directors Julian Rickart and Suzanne Kerston, every moment in this show is a two-way set of epiphanies, either in the moment for then, or half-remembered for an audience who's been holding onto those moments for decades. As far as restoring one's faith in an eternally questioning younger generation goes, this is a joy.

Runs until August 30.


A generation or so on, and love hurts in The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne's two-hander for the Graeae company, which puts a young couple centre-stage in the marital bed but increasingly miles apart as they stumble and tumble through their messy affair. Alice and Phil meet in the post office queue, where they fancy the pants off each other and throw themselves into a love story that by rights should have a happy ending, even if Phil does think Alice's deafness is 'exotic'. Beyond all the passion and icky-sticky stuff, however, life throws them a curve-ball when the baby they're trying for is still-born and suddenly all passion is spent as they tiptoe around each other, grieving as they go.

With the couple's conflicting versions of events initially as comic as a newspaper blind date column, things soon take a more painful turn as Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes wring every last gasp of emotion from Thorne's script in Amit Sharma's beautifully unsentimental production. Just as Alice and Phil's relationship seems to have fallen apart beyond repair, something is salvaged in this unflinchingly honest look at everyday tragedies and the healing that's required beyond them.

Runs until August 30.


Dying onstage is nothing new in Edinburgh at this time of year. Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe's fifty minute late-night cabaret drama based around notions of mortality takes such a notion to its logical limit in Am I Dead Yet?, their show for Unlimited Theatre. Opening with the pair standing at microphones in white vest and pants that give them the air of a 1970s anti litter campaign that ties in perfectly with their retro copper routine.

This is just one aspect of a show that barely pauses for breath in its low-attention-span race to cram everything in before anyone outstays their welcome. Spooner and Thorpe spar, jostle for position, tell stories, get a qualified first-aider to demonstrate CPR and generally contemplate matters of life and death with the high-octane energy of a stand-up in full flight. If there's a touch of the mid-life crisis at play here, it remains a provocative proposition designed to remind yourself you're alive.

Runs until August 30.

The Herald, August 26th 2015

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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Herbert Fritsch - Dieter Roth and Murmel Murmel

It was no laughing matter when German theatre director Herbert Fritsch decided to stage Swiss-based artist Dieter Roth's play, Murmel Murmel, at the Volksbuhne, Berlin, in 2012. Here was a work which had never been staged in full but which was now about to be seen at one of the most prestigious of Europe's stages. The fact that the play's 178 pages consisted of just one word, Murmel (Murmur) suggested that Roth's epic piece of concrete poetry was unstageable. As Fritsch's production arrives in Edinburgh for the final week of the International Festival, such perceptions couldn't be more wrong.

“They said to me that the Volksbuhne is not good for a little joke,” Fritsch explains. “I said that it's not just a joke. If you listen to the words, they can be a prayer or a secret. You can do everything with these words. You can make them as great as Shakespeare, or it can be like doing the telephone book.”

With the play-text consisting of six columns of words with breaks inbetween, there are few clues to how Roth's work may be staged. This initially caused some trepidation for Fritsch's twelve-strong acting ensemble.

“One morning I got there and they said, Herbert, what are we doing here?,” says Fritsch, “and I said, that's a really good existential question. The actors were a little frustrated, because they wanted the audience to like it. I said, okay, we have to think the audience won't like it, but when we go on we go on full of energy and make sure that we like it, because we don't know what they'll like.”

As it turned out, Fritsch's take on Murmel Murmel was a hit, with its eighty minutes of Dada-inspired slapstick tapping into an international language of theatre that needs little in the way of translation.

“We're just following the rhythm,” Fritsch explains. “There are three different parts to it, and we did a lot of choreography so there are kind of scenes, but I don't want to say too much. It has to be a surprise.”

Roth's early work saw him publish artists books and subvert existing publications as he did with his 1961 volume, Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage), the first copy of which was made out of an issue of the Daily Mirror mixed with spices and other foodstuffs an stuffed inside a sausage skin. Fritsch too looks to books to illustrate his approach to Murmel Murmel.
“When you have bookshelves in a room,” he says, “and you can see all those books, you wonder what happens to them when you don't read them. There's all this mumbling going on inside them, and you take this idea and try and find a way to stage it.”

Fritsch first came into contact with Roth after they were introduced by Basel-based gallerist Felix Handschin, a long-time champion of Roth who thought the pair might have some kind of artistic common ground.

“It was Felix who brought us together,” Fritsch explains. “It was the beginning of the 1980s, and Roth showed me this play, which I liked very much, and always wanted to do. Before he died Felix said that I had to stage Murmel Murmel, so we did a little bit at his funeral.”

Given his history as an artist of extremes, Roth himself had specific ideas about his work.

“He was heavy,” says Fritsch of Roth, who died in 1998. “He was full of energy, and he didn't accept everything. One time a friend of his who was also a director did Murmel Murmel as a big spectacle with opera singers and everything, and Roth hated it. He said he wanted to make the most boring play ever seen onstage. If he saw my production I don't think he'd be amused.

“He always said that you don't do what people want you to do, and for me that's a really good impulse to think about, and to do a play that's as boring as possible is a very interesting idea. You can't blackmail Roth. He did what he wanted without any kind of compromise. It's like when he did something with his wife in Iceland, when he took away all her clothes, her books and her furniture, and said that everything had to come from within.”

Fritsch was an actor at the Volksbuhne for many years before he moved into directing aged fifty-six., with a production of Moliere's The Miser in 2007. Since then he has worked in major theatres throughout Germany with a playfully restless style that pulses Murmel Murmel. The roots of this approach date back again to the early 1980s with a show he did called The Zero Show.

“We improvised strange moves of the body,” he says. We used faces and sounds but there were no words. That's been an influence on all of my pieces since then.”

In this respect, using one word in Murmel Murmel instead of none sounds like a step up, even if the play's author might not entirely approve.

“I think maybe Roth wouldn't like how I did it,” Fritsch speculates. “His son saw it and liked it. The Dieter Roth society liked it too. They initially didn't want to give me the rights to the play, but then they liked it. The way I've done it is my way to see it, and Roth had his way to see it, so maybe he would like it, I don't know.

“If the Volksbuhne had said, okay, you can do Murmel Murmel, but do it on a studio stage, it would have been something else. You take something like this and put it on a big stage, it's not a little joke. People look on it differently and it's taken seriously. It's not experimental theatre. I don't do experimental theatre. I do theatre on a big stage.”

Murmel Murmel, King's Theatre, Aug 28-29, 8pm, Aug 29-30, 3pm.
Www.eif.co.uk/murmel

The Herald, August 25th 2015

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Politics and Protest on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2015

Two weeks ago I was asked to appear on a radio programme to talk about political theatre on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. On Saturday morning I picked up a copy of a London broadsheet to find a regular columnist asking where all the political plays were in Edinburgh. Somewhere inbetween I have been attempting to help judge this year's Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow during a ceremony at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

Founded more than a decade ago as the U Win Tin Award, named after the imprisoned Chinese dissident, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is designed to honour the best show on the Fringe that highlights human rights in a way that puts artistic merit on a par with the particular issue it is focusing on. So, previous winners such Roadkill, which looked at sex trafficking in a production performed in a flat off Leith Walk, Nirbhayer, Yael Farber's devastating study of sexual violence against women in India, and the 2014 winner, Cuckooed, in which Mark Thomas dissected the erosion of privacy, were all major pieces of theatrical artistry that accentuated the points they were making while making for riveting viewing.

This year, some eighty-five shows have been long-listed for the Award. Given that there are some 3000 shows on this year's Fringe this may not sound much. Such a relatively high number of nominees nevertheless points up the fact that, beyond all the noise and the hype of TV names, and beyond the carnivalesque clamour on the packed city centre streets, there are some very serious things indeed going on in Edinburgh.

This has been fascinating to watch over the last decade, as the handful of entrants for the award in an age we were told was post political gradually morphed into a deluge of work that mirrored the abuses and injustices that were occurring in a wider society, both abroad and dangerously close to home. As a younger generation has become politicised through the Occupy movement in an age of austerity where democratic processes don't seem to mean much anymore, so politically engaged theatre has increased.

As I pointed out on the radio, that engagement by theatre-makers with politics – and, as most people must surely realise, all theatre is political, whichever way it swings – is a whole lot different from the nature of some work produced twenty years ago. While just as passionate as work of yore, the aesthetic has become both more direct and more to do with first-hand experience than mere polemic, with issues of gender, mental health and gentrification all on the agenda this year using a variety of different forms married to content.

Yet quantity alone isn't a badge of honour, however well-meaning a surge of worthy theatrical activity might be. Just because a show is politically inclined doesn't make it automatically eligible for the Amnesty International award. The definition of how something addresses human rights too is too fluid to be set in stone in such complex times.

As every single one of the winning shows has proven, it is perfectly possible, and indeed essential, to say important things through art and theatre in a way that will engage the senses emotionally as much as politically.

As I pointed out two years ago, there is a danger with an award such as the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award that it might end up looking like a league table, and that one issue suddenly becomes more important than another.

That isn't the case. Every issue raised, and every piece of work short-listed are as significant as each other.

This year the Amnesty award arrives on the back of several incidents over the last year when voices on the Fringe itself have been forced to remain silent. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it highlights the power art has and has always had to provoke debate. The Amnesty award remains at the centre of those debates.

The only bad thing about the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is that it needs to exist at all. If there were no sex traffickers, if activists weren't imprisoned for their beliefs and if free speech wasn't being stamped out by oppressive regimes in the UK and further afield every single day, the award and Amnesty International wouldn't need to highlight such crimes against humanity in the way that they do. In an ideal world, none of this would be necessary. But this isn't an ideal world, and until it is, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award will remain as vital as it has been since its inception.

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is presented on Aug 26.

The Herald, August 25th 2015


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Monday, 24 August 2015

Lanark

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Four stars

When Sandy Grierson as Alasdair Gray's eponymous alter-ego in David Greig's sprawling adaptation of Gray's magical realist 1981 novel declares that he wishes to pen a modern day Divine Comedy with illustrations inspired by William Blake, it knowingly sums up the artistic ambitions of both Gray and Graham Eatough's equally epic production for Edinburgh International Festival and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. We've already been introduced to our eternally bemused hero in scenes of retro-futuristic dystopian noir as he is psychologically ship-wrecked in Unthank, a city not unlike Glasgow where the Sun never shines. There Lanark meets Jessica Hardwick's equally wilful Rima before descending into the sci-fi trappings of The Institute, where he attempts to find out who he is.

Subtitled A Life in Three Acts, as with the book and in true Godardian fashion, the beginning, middle and end of this portrait of the artist as a young man don't come in that order as Lanark becomes the author of his own destiny, imagined or otherwise.

Parallel universes and parallel lives abound as Eatough's cast of ten navigate Laura Hopkins' rolling metal set accompanied by Simon Wainwright's projected animations of Gray's own drawings and Nick Powell's gloriously wayward soundtrack. By the time things rewind to Lanark's childhood growing pains as would-be artist Duncan Thaw, it's clear from the utilitarian chorus who trill Numbskull-like that we're witnessing an explosion in Lanark, Thaw and especially in Gray's head.

The final act's initial depiction of 1970s civic wide boys almost caves in on its own self-referential meta-ness. This in parts recalls manufactured 1960s boy band The Monkees' own break for artistic freedom in their similarly sprawling celluloid indulgence, Head, before slowly morphing into a moving elegy for life and art.

The Herald, August 24th 2015

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 8 - Smash it Up - Summerhall - Four stars / Tar Baby - Gilded Balloon - Four stars / Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer - Underbelly - Four stars

It's not just City of Edinburgh Council who are wilfully ignorant to their city's artistic past as they flog off everything in sight to any property developer who comes calling. In 2013 in Newport, South Wales, Kenneth Rudd's mural commemorating the Chartist uprising of 1839 was destroyed in the underpass it was built into alongside adjacent buildings so the privately owned Friars Walk shopping centre could be built.

The response of the South Wales-based live art troupe, Mr and Mrs Clark and their artistic cohorts, Bosch, is Smash it Up, a furious hour-long cut-up of performance lecture confessional, artistic actions, film, dance routines and a welter of pop-art detritus that rallies for an assault on the sort of reductive money-led culture that is now the norm.

Using Gustav Metzger's notion of auto-destructive art as its thesis, the two men and one woman who make up Mr and Mrs Clark unleash a wild and often witty plea for artistic and civic preservation that's high on theory even as it throws live art shapes that become increasingly madcap in a gloriously messy collision of activism and art

Runs until August 29th.
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To suggest that Desiree Burch is playing the race card in her one woman extravaganza, Tar Baby, is something of an understatement. Over ninety minutes Burch dissects institutionalised racism as she becomes an old time carnival barker co-opting the audience into demonstrating exactly what slavery means to unleashing her own experience of what it means to be black and American right now.

Burch's huge burst of energy sucker punches the audience into thinking they're on course for a straight-up comic routine. What they get instead is a series of provocations which, while laced with humour, are the deadliest of wake-up calls for the institutionalised racism that prevails.

As she flirts with cultural stereotypes before blowing it up in our faces, Burch tells it like it is in a rough-shod hymn to civil rights that's sealed with a kiss.

Runs until August 31.

It's been more than a decade since Penny Arcade regaled Edinburgh with her frontline dispatches from New York's original demi-monde. In the intervening years the all-pervasive horrorshow of gentrification has conspired to destroy what once made the Big Apple and pretty much every other city in the world, Edinburgh included, great. The motor-mouthed conscience of the counter-culture isn't happy about this, and pulls no punches in Longing Lasts Longer, an hour-long free-form call to arms for the freaks who got swept aside in in NY's upgrade to strike back.

Accompanied by an aural collage of some of New York's most iconic auteurs who soundtracked points ranging from Andy Warhol's Factory to Studio 54, Arcade takes no prisoners as she peers out from her shock of scarlet hair. Cupcake eating hipsters, middle youth and a generation currently having their own youth robbed by debt and careers are all in the line of her rapid-fire verbal machine-gun charges. These are spat out as perfectly polished epigrams designed to provoke a generation who never had to fight for anything into doing something more real with their lives. Ms Arcade has already been there, done that and is still doing it. Now she wants you to do the same.

Runs until August 30th.

The  Herald, August 24th 2015

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