Edinburgh this August is a shadow of its past self. Streets usually thronging are almost empty. The atmosphere is changed, but the festivals are back, finding ways to keep going in this new Covid-normal, which doesn’t feel normal at all.
Little seems normal in Enda Walsh’s new play, Medicine, presented by the official festival. Jamie Vartan’s set suggests an institution: sports-court markings on floor, glass-windowed doors; incongruously, a drum kit. When John (Domhnall Gleeson) enters, a young man in pale-blue pyjamas, hesitant of demeanour, we get the impression he could be a patient. He sits in a makeshift booth and, donning headphones, is interrogated by an invisible questioner, who asks how long he has been there and why. John cannot answer the questions. A lobster (Clare Barrett) enters, followed by an old man (奥菲达芬). These, 事实证明, are actors, both called Mary. A drummer arrives, running late (real-life jazz percussionist Sean Carpio). We gather that all three have been hired to help John perform the script of his life, featuring key moments that have brought him to this place, 在哪里, 正如他所说, he is given medicine that pushes him into the darkness.
John is the membrane linking two situations: the increasingly fraught relation between the Marys and the scenes that they are role-playing from his own infancy, schooldays, institutionalisation. As the action escalates towards frenzy, the separate situations start to map on to one another; present and past aggressions, conflicts and emotional intimacies superimpose, bleed into one another.
Out of the jumble of confused overlappings emerges an impression of John’s particular state as a reflection of a wider experiences of separation, isolation and desolation. Gleeson, in a performance of exceptional delicacy and intensity, seems to offer us John’s soul, fragile, tentative, wounded. Barrett and Duffin, aided and abetted by Carpio’s rhythms, thunder through emotional scales from tender to explosive, giving lightning flashes of humanity within ridiculousnesses. The production, as directed by Walsh himself, is pitch-perfect, hilarious, terrifying and revelatory. Unforgettable.
根据 Doppler, antihero of a satirical 2004 novel by the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, people don’t like him because he doesn’t like them. It’s true, he is difficult to like. On learning of the death of the father he never knew, Doppler has abandoned wife, son (四) and daughter (15) for the freedom of the forest, here to live in splendid, hunter-gatherer, anti-consumerist isolation. Grid Iron theatre company locates Doppler’s newly established camp in an actual National Trust for Scotland woodland. We squat on cushioned tree stumps in a grassy glade; a blustery west wind blows smoke from a campfire into our faces (until front of house douse it with water).
Having killed an elk (played by Sean Hay; also the son, Dusseldorf and shopkeeper), Doppler adopts its calf (Chloe-Ann Tylor, in furry ears; her roles also include wife, daughter and “the reactionary”). Gruesome foley effects accompany the evisceration (achieved in view of the audience by the musician and sound designer Nik Paget-Tomlinson). When Doppler’s cherished solitude is shattered by visitors, he decides to march his son off on a “military campaign” in search of forests new, leaving behind his daughter, new baby and financially straitened wife. Keith Fleming’s performance as Doppler is glorious in its energy and commitment. In this real setting, 尽管, the satire is blunted and the character so horribly convincing that it’s difficult to enjoy spending time with him.
屏幕 9 takes us into real-world misanthropy. This second production from the young British troupe Piccolo Theatre (not to be confused with the company in Milan), centres on a mass shooting. Nine years ago, in Aurora, 科罗拉多州, an audience settled into a local multiplex to watch the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. 这里, 在爱丁堡, an audience settles into an auditorium. We are facing a screen in front of which Mary, Alex, Katy and Jonny are telling us what they were doing that July day. They step down into the auditorium, scatter among us, finding seats. For them, the Batman film is about to start. It’s interrupted by gunfire. We seem to be suspended alongside them as they relive three minutes of carnage, recounting their experiences, impressions and emotions. Mary was injured; one of her sons was killed, as were Alex and Katy’s partners. Altogether 13 people died and 70 were injured.
Writer and director Kate Barton has crafted 屏幕 9 from actual accounts of events by the people directly affected, amalgamating testimonies to develop the four characters before us. Script and performances are simple, direct, incisive and involving. A surprisingly shocking moment comes during a discussion among the characters, taking place some time after the event. After all that has happened, Jonny argues vehemently in favour of the right to bear arms. They agree to differ on this, but all concur with Mary that the way to tackle the pain they all live with is by “spreading kindness”.
Burnt Out is British-based performer Penny Chivas’s response to the “black summer” fires of 2020 in her native Australia, and to the global heating that fuelled them. Alone on stage, wearing a white boiler suit, Chivas combines words and movement to communicate how her personal experience interconnects with wider issues: her father is an environmental geo-chemist whose work charts climate change. The combination is ambitious and feels not yet fully worked out. The church-nave venue’s poor sight lines mean that sequences of floor-based movement are obstructed. To cover its flaws, the performance requires an intimacy that the venue cannot offer.
As it turns out, one thing is normal about this year’s festival: the work is as varied, unpredictable and thought-provoking as ever.
Star ratings (out of five)
屏幕 9 ★★★★
Burnt Out ★★★