Monday, August 21, 2006

Edinburgh theatre round up

by Jane Edwardes

Time Out finds more excellent offerings at the Edinburgh Festival

Vicky Featherstone, the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director, must be absolutely delighted with the huge impact her company has made at its very first Edinburgh Festival. Last week, my colleague Rachel Halliburton raved about ‘Black Watch’, a joint production between the NTS and the Traverse which must surely come to London. Now it’s my turn to cheer as the NTS collaborates with the International Festival on Anthony Neilson’s semi-improvised play ‘Realism’.

In 1991, Neilson staged ‘Normal: the story of the Düsseldorf Ripper’ on the Edinburgh Fringe, and he’s been shocking audiences ever since. You don’t usually look to him for laughs and the title of his new play suggests a dose of kitchen-sink drama with a splash of Zola. Instead, it’s a fanciful, occasionally blokeish description of a day in the head of Stuart, played by Stuart McQuarrie in his underpants with a mix of belligerence and neediness. As he hangs out in his flat, the only thing we know for sure is that he puts his clothes in the washing machine.

All the rest is strung together from that inner, uncensored dialogue that runs through all our heads and which is, thankfully, usually hidden.

Alongside sexual fantasies, conversations with girlfriends past and present, and imagining his own funeral, he interrupts the panel members on ‘Any Questions’ to make a point that renders them speechless, demolishes a cold caller, and slags off the gas board with a song and dance number that includes the Black and White Minstrels. Miriam Buether’s set is suitably fantastic. Distorted everyday objects sit in a pile of sand, while a man-sized, disdainful cat called Galloway (lest we forget ‘Big Brother’) flounces across the stage. After just over an hour of such intimacy, it’s a shock when the final scene reveals Stuart to be sitting in a realistic kitchen, once again an unknowable human being. Neilson’s ‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’, a hit at the festival two years ago, never made it to London. Let’s hope that someone is more adventurous this time.

‘Troilus and Cressida’, the International Festival’s other offering last week, made the news for all the wrong reasons when the first night had to be cancelled halfway through because the set had jammed. Director Peter Stein has a bit of a reputation for making huge scenic demands; in this case, the walls of Troy judder backwards and forwards before tipping back (or not tipping back) to create a burnished slope on which the final battle is fought. The Greek tents move across the stage like giant Daleks. For one of Shakespeare’s most bitter plays, Stein provides a graphic portrayal of vanity, lust, betrayal and corruption. The muscles of the Trojan soldiers ripple – the actors must have spent months in the gym – as they walk down a catwalk displaying their skimpy skirts to Pandarus and Cressida. Hector reasonably argues that Helen is not worth sacrificing Trojan lives for, but Troilus counters more romantically on Paris’ side; the latter shows his gratitude by organising the exchange of Cressida for a prisoner of war. The war doesn’t seem real – more like an afternoon outing – until the bisexual Achilles sees red after the death of Patroclus and dishonourably kills Hector.

Henry Pettigrew’s intense Troilus and Annabel Scholey’s knowing Cressida are clearly mismatched from the start but still spurred on by Paul Jesson’s voyeuristic Pandarus, an old roué who appears to be dying of a cough rather than syphilis. Ian Hughes’s Thersites rants dangerously at his superiors. Stein’s production has the great virtue of clarity but sometimes misses out on passion and urgency. The production goes to Stratford at the beginning of September.

Stein avoids overt comparisons with Iraq, but you are never far from the war elsewhere. Two shows deal with information overload and how difficult we find it to discern what is true and what is not. Is the hairdresser to be trusted more than the journalist? The more sophisticated is ‘(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch’, a revue presented by a New York company called The Civilians which will shortly come to the Soho Theatre and is loosely based on interviews with an eclectic mix of Americans, including those who share the name of Jessica Lynch. Everybody has an opinion on Tom Cruise’s love life, but they are less certain when asked about Lynch’s rescue. The actors are hugely talented and sing sweetly – but the connection between the pastiche songs and the material isn’t always clear and the presence of a man who believes he’s an extra-terrestrial feeding our fears is a whimsical step too far. ‘What I Heard About Iraq’ at the Pleasance is far more straightforward, a collection of quotes from the leading politicians, soldiers, and those living in Iraq, stretching back to before September 11. The tone is unnecessarily strident – the quotes speak all too clearly for themselves.

The smell of bad faith is far too rank to be missed.

Realism *****
Troilus and Cressida *****
(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch ****
What I Heard About Iraq ****