As I write these lines, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival slowly comes to an end after creating havoc for a month out and about the Scottish capital. This has been a somewhat quiet year, quiet as far as scandals and gossip are concerned. There was of course the fall out between Tim Fountain (comedian and self-declared sex-addict) and the managers of Gaydar.co.uk. The comedian's show featured Gaydar-users' profiles and revolved around Fountain's nightly conquests that would start on the mentioned web page and, perhaps, continue in some Edinburgh apartment. Consequently he was banished from the site. However fleetingly, this whole polemic raised some interesting questions regarding the privacy of the net, its uses and abuses. Other 'scandalettes' featured in this year's Fringe were the allegations about an apartheid in Fringe venues against wheelchair users, the last minute addition of Steven Berkof to the Pleasance's (one of the main venues) programme, a drunken attack on one of the performers in La Fura Dels Baus' XXX, and some talk about how 'the venues think they are there for the performers' and the need of a readjustment in the festival's direction. If there were any more they managed to escape me, or luckily I managed to escape them.
Besides that there were the usual: crowded sidewalks, street performers, 2 for 1 offers, tons and tons and tons of flyers, hopes, drink promotions, disappointments, publicity stunts, late nights, nightly fireworks for the Military Tatoo, Three Weeks and Fest (two free newspapers devoted exclusively to reviewing during the festival season), Perrier Awards (Nestle-sponsored comedy awards) and Tap Water Awards (reactionary awards to all kinds of innovative performance, without the support from an unethical corporation that is). The truth be said, Edinburgh during August is too vast a picture to spot the tiny differences with last year's 'edition'.
In this Fringe Report I have focused on devised work and physical theatre seen at the Fringe. It being an over-all report I have not included every single piece I went to, but limited to the ones that, for one reason or the other, were worth mentioning. Not believing in the bogus star system of giving performances a numeral rating I have limited myself to reflect on the different shows without intending to classify them artistically. I have also included in my report an interview with Teresa Vallejo, one of the performers of La Fura Dels Baus' XXX, and, jumping outside the box, an interview with composer Carles Santos and a commentary about his latest piece The Composer, the Singer, the Cook and the Sinner performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. The interviews appear here both in Spanish, the language they were conducted in, and English. Aware of the somewhat biblical proportions of this feature I include an index so that you may jump directly to whatever interests you most.
Edinburgh International Festival:
Interviews (in English and Spanish):
Turtle Dreams by Dance Theatre Khaos.
This was one of the first shows I attended at the Fringe. Turtle Dreams is a solo piece choreographed and performed by Hiromi Ishikawa. The programme informed us that turtles in Japan are a symbol of happiness, long-lasting life, and a life-long journey. The piece revolves around childhood and youth memories and is fragmented in sections with titles such as 'Waking from my dream' and 'Between reality and memories'. There were nine different scenes in total, which would not have been a problem if Ishikawa would have managed to hold us in the silences. Instead these remained uncharged, making her performance appear half-hearted. If any energies had arisen during one of these scenes, the moment the stage was left empty these would fall flat on their face. I will not say it was an unpleasant experience, but over all there was something missing, a certain gusto. Although the movements were all graceful and precise I could not help but feel that the potential of the themes has not been fully tapped. Ishikawa produces stock images of childhood play, such as playing with the frailty of soap bubbles or rearranging cardboard boxes. Besides a purely aesthetical interest, her choreography did not reach a deeper level, which would have been appropriate when dealing with a theme such as memory. In an attempt to personalise the conventional scenarios, Ishikawa filled her performance with facial expressions that did little more than point at the piece's forcefulness. These were not expressions arising from her dance, or the memories supposedly evoked, but slapped on as false and clumsy masks. Nonetheless Ishikawa is a technically clever dancer, her choice of music should certainly be praised. Perhaps all she needs to do is try flying free, without of her technical and conceptual restraints.
It's Only a Rehearsal by Zero Visibility Corp.
This Norwegian group brought us an abstract, dance version of Ovid's tragic tale of Acteaon and Artemis. Ina Christel Johannessen's choreography dwells on the games of courtship between man and woman before presenting us with a second section, more clearly based on Ovid's myth. For the first half of the performance the auditorium lights were on, revealing the vast space of St. Stephen's church hall. The two dancers were subsequently dwarfed. However this was not a detriment to the performance. The couple, Line Tormoen and Dimitri Jourde, magically filled the space with their electric presence. Their physical strength is admirable and although their movements are truly athletic, they do not become exhibitionist. Throughout the piece we observe as an invisible bond between them comes into being. Talk about stage chemistry? The two are lovers outside the theatre, which may be, of course, what makes them such great dance partners. Johannenssen draws on club dancing, modern 'hipness' and break-dance, and at the same time is able to transform a simple hug into something utterly meaningful. She is both tender and sexually explicit. Both the subtlety of a hand against a chest and the exuberance of a fellatio serve the piece and illustrate the workings of a modern relationship. Even the not so uncommon post-coital silence was featured. The couple inhabit with ease the demanding choreography and the outcome is so slick, so precise, one can't take his eyes off it even for a second. Then, there was a somewhat awkward pause, without music or dance, in which the couple caught their well deserved breath. It was not completely clear whether the audience was being invited to stand up and dance, not that anyone would have ever wanted to after seeing them. This small moment created, besides a lot of giggles, a complicity amongst performers and audience. In the second half, during which the lights were dimmed, there was a remarkable scene in which the couple danced and performed headstands, pirouettes and backflips whilst kissing, with tongues! Throughout the piece there is a tension between wild desire and calm tenderness, between aggression and loving care, between man and woman, without assigning a particular or fixed role to either partner. At the end, after hearing Ovid's text recited in French by a somewhat breathless Dimitri Jourde, the couple enact the moment in which the hunter Acteaon is transformed into a stag by the hunter goddess Artemis and how he is devoured by his own pack of hounds. For this last section a curtain is pulled across backstage, it is a back and white picture of a forest. In the corner a stag's head is revealed hanging off a wall. After Jourde's casual, almost informal delivery of the text, the dance and this new backdrop become shockingly tragic.
XXX by La Fura dels Baus.
From the very start XXX hands out both a full responsibility and an invitation to participate. As the audience enters one finds out that by sending a text message via mobile phone to a given number, his or her message appears projected on the stage. La Fura cleverly, and to set the mood, turn a passive moment into something that involves the audience. The show is a free adaptation of the Marquis De Sade's Philosophy of the Boudoir, and as such it is not surprising that it involves a lot of sex, and a lot of 'uncommon' practices.
The plot is rather simple: we observe as the young and innocent Eugenia is taught a number of lessons in depravity by a group of three libertines, Lula, a glamorous Madame/porn star, her incestuous brother Giovanni, and the aggressive Dolmance. The lessons go from how to pleasure a woman orally, to sadism and ultimately raping her own mother. However the real shock of the piece is the way it portrays sex as an experience that has become extremely mediated. This is slightly drilled into the audience as we are confronted with pornography clips, cyber-sex, a menu of sex toys and sex machines, and ultimately a live cam-chat with a girl somewhere in a strip club in Barcelona. De Sade's text is equally revolutionary and in addition to it we hear statements such as 'Plastic is much better than flesh' or 'Time and body no longer exist'. Formally the performance is equally mediated as a camera is moved around stage filming the actors. Theatre becomes cinema as camera angles impossible to archive due to the proscenium arch are projected on stage. We constantly see screens upon screens, or behind screens. The effect of seeing the actors' actions superimposed, on stage and on screen is somewhat dazzling at first, but ultimately works in favour of what La Fura is trying to say, or rather, shouting out at us. There is of course a great sense of humour in the piece, as it does not portray sex as something necessarily obscure and dirty but as having delicate and complex balance. The two best examples of this 'toilet humour' are a conversation one of the four characters has with his disappointed penis, projected on stage but appearing with a talking mouth; and the presentation of the 'Globalised Cunt' that comes with it's own travel case and it's own incorporated light. This light-hearted mood is broken on several occasions shortly after it settles on stage, making XXX a true rollercoaster. Moreover the show does not stop at the proscenium arch, it rolls into the auditorium to see if any adventurous audience members want a ride. There is a 'pheromone experiment' in which the audience are sprayed with pheromones and the lights turned off, whilst a crew members passes row after row recording with night-vision what people do. When the lights come back on, one of the characters is so disappointed in the audience's inability to spontaneously start an orgy that he starts asking for volunteers. Without giving too much away all I will say is that several spectators do get naked during the performance, one even receiving a fellatio from one of the characters. But don't be unnecessarily alarmed, not all you see in XXX is absolutely real. No, there is no live sex on stage and no, there probably were no pheromones. There are more important things to think and debate with yourself about, than whether it is all real or not. It is a piece with a sharp philosophical and political message, and it does not bite its tongue. The rhythm is frenetic and the images stunning. As you may guess, this is not a show for kids, the prude or fainthearted, but will certainly entertain anyone willing to take up a challenge. Whether you decide to remain in your seat or not, XXX makes you question your moral standards and preconceptions as well as question what kind of a society produces this kind of meditated 'sex'.
The Haunting of Hill House adapted and performed by Total Fear.
Shirley Jackson's novel is recreated in the dank, forbidding recesses of the Smirnoff Underbelly (one of the alternative venues). Total Fear sets out its stall for a few late-night scares in an unusual and innovative way. With the audience left to stand in the dark space throughout the promenade performance and the only light coming from torches hung round the necks of the characters, there's plenty of the requisite atmosphere for a tale that depends on the imagination for its shocks and scares. Following the novel and its two subsequent film versions Total Fear introduce us to a group of people that occupy the haunted Hill House for an experiment's sake. This analytical perspective is highlighted as the characters double up as narrators and ask the audience to observe and relate their impressions of other characters' reactions. The performance is interactive in more ways than this, as we are instructed to take Eleanor, the main victim of paranormal activities, from one character to another; or as we have to create the rooms with our descriptions. It is the audience who directly inflict the terror on the performers. We are told to press them down to the floor, pull them apart, silence them, or become the house's ghostly voices. Do we cooperate, or not? It is interactive to the extent that, depending on our decisions as an audience, the outcome of the piece will change. Total Fear has opted for creating an atmosphere with the actors' bare performances, there are no easy tricks that make you jump but a constant and claustrophobic sense of an indescribable fear. It is in this that the true horror of the performance lies. What are we capable of to inflict on others?
Chronicles – a lamentation by Piesn Kozla Theatre.
Piesn Kozla Theatre is an international group based in Poland. The company was founded by two ex-members of the famous Gardzienice ensamble and continues Grotowski's tradition of work. It is therefore a pure and essential, carefully constructed and physically demanding piece. The group thoroughly researched for two years the ancient polyphonic songs of lamentation in northern Greece and Albania. Proof of the care they take in such task is the fact that since their foundation in 1997 Piesn Kozla Theatre has only produced two pieces, this being the second. However Chronicles – a lamentation is neither a cultural salad nor blatant cultural appropriation. The traditional songs are handled with loving care, respect and artistic precision. It is clear that a lot of time has gone into it. The set, lighting and costume, of course, are all minimal in the style of Grotowski's Poor Theatre. However, there are few performances as rich as this one. The piece, using these traditional lamentation songs, retells the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. The narrative however is obscured by the Polish text. Rather than approaching Piesn Kozla's work rationally, trying to figure out what exactly they are telling, one should sit back and enjoy the way in which this tale is told. One does not need to understand the plot in order to feel its power. Through flawless song and sheer physicality, the company evokes certain energies in the auditorium and these are what guides you though the performance. Bodies writhe and tumble around the space, transforming the whole environment with the smallest of changes in rhythm. There are many astounding moments of breathtaking emotion, grief, loss, remembrance. The power of the voices, accompanied only by the subtle drone of a harmonium, resonated within you and touched upon something that is usually dormant. Chronicles – a lamentation will make you question the preconceived idea that any work inspired by Grotowski puts, or needs to put, the performer in a trance. The bodies we see jumping gracefully around on stage have not lost touch with the present, on the contrary, they are present and they are so with every living fibre.
Damaged by Miracles by Falsa Imago.
'Because of the irresistible attraction of my nerves, I have become an embarrassing human being.' This sentence is repeated throughout the piece, it is broken up into gibberish, turned upside down and back again illustrating the painful reality of a severely fragmented mind. Damaged by Miracles is inspired by D.P. Schreber's influential psychological memoirs. The text, I imagine, comes directly from his writings, but is so broken up that it becomes strange and unknown. The performers' accents, French and Spanish, highlight this with an interesting effect on the piece. Aude Tournay and Igor de Quadra play around with a tape recording machine, recording and repeating over and over the sounds, breaths and words, uttered into the microphone. This constant replaying of previous actions somehow resembles the analytical eye of the psychologist focused on a patient's behaviour and confession. The action is slowed down, copied and fragmented as the body becomes an alien shell when mental illness takes control. Body parts seem disjoined in a general and ever growing lack of coordination. Igor de Quadra becomes a man dancing with and against his madness, sometimes embodied by Tournay. He strips off his clothes and becomes a helpless baby, utterly lost in an incomprehensible world. Here we are told of the phenomenon of psychological dysfunction in a fresh way that does not involve screaming or drooling. It also shows how the situation can in fact be quite humorous for its victim. One moment we see them innocently playing, completely absorbed in some silly game, the next moment the situation becomes unbearably painful to watch. We are witnesses as the mind grasps in vain for itself. Madness possesses the body but not in the clichéd spasm, it is instead a simple choreography of disruption and clumsiness. The piece does not lead us to draw any ultimate conclusions. Only at the end, desk lamp in hand, does Tournay ask: 'Are you damaged?'
The Composer, the Singer, the Cook and the Sinner by Carles Santos.
The title to this piece does not have anything to do with Peter Greenaway but is a reference to the unlikely and tangled plots of Rossini's operas. Carles Santos pays homage to the Italian composer by presenting us with a peculiar visualization of his works, as well as his own compositions. Although the piece is formed by an amalgamation of seemingly random fragments, arias, concertos, and choruses, the effect is not that of fragmentation. The stage here displays a magical unity though Santos' unique style. There is no set design but rather powerful and challenging performances. The three voices glide, jump and do cartwheels in front of our very eyes. However there is an inherit simplicity to The Composer: as the curtain rises all we see is a drop of water falling from above the stage onto an oven, there is nothing else. Then suddenly, the oven's door opens and the cook appears singing an aria to the tempo of this water drop. Throughout the performance bodies and voices are tested to their limits, whether it is singing with their head caged within a glass box, under a shower, or being bashed against the piano keys the singers' voices retain their strength and presence. The result is extremely funny. For a while, after the performance started, the audience continued giggling and clapping in joy after each of these vocal circus stunts. But once we had all become used to Santos' peculiar visual and musical language one realised how deeply emotional and mysterious these scenes were. There is little narrative besides observing the characters interact with the drop of water that occasionally becomes a stream, with each other, or with the piano. Santos gets down and dirty himself, which is admirable, as he drags across the stage, on all his fours, a bed carrying the Cook and the Sinner. They, whilst performing the most extenuating sexual positions, continue to sing a delightful duo. Not all music is live, only the three voices and the piano. There are a number of recorded orchestras, and even two sections that are completely recorded and have no live element. In the first one a chorus of cooking pots appears backstage. As we listen to a recording of Rossini's sublime religious music the light on these pots or from beneath them, the cooking rings, increases and decreases. Quite a simple thing, right? And yet, somehow this image electrified the music, giving it a presence within the theatre. During the second of these actionless scenes a screen came down, hiding the stage from our view. What followed is simply indescribabl: whilst listening to Rossini's score for The Tempest we watched a black and white film of bodies attacked by water jets. It was both playful, as if children were playing with hoses, and at the same time there was something darker at play. This was a piece in itself. Santos should be praised for his ability to break down conventions, whether theatrical or musical.