The Edinburgh Fringe
Fringe 2011 Reviews (64)
A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson
If you did not know that Dr Johnson had died a couple of hundred years ago, it would be easy to believe that he is treading the boards at the Traverse this week.
Ian Redford makes a tremendous fist of bringing "Dictionary" Johnson to the stage, warts and all. The experience might not compare with reading Boswell's lengthy Life, but as an overview of the great man and his peers, it cannot be faulted.
While Johnson was a polymath, he was also an irritable, ugly man who said what he thought regardless of the consequences.
The Doctor may have penned a variety of different books including the epic dictionary but he would now be forgotten, were it not for his friendship with James Boswell, a Scottish laird and rake.
"Bozzy" is embodied by one of Redford's co-creators Russell Barr, who also gets the pleasure of imitating a number of other characters including George III, Flora Macdonald, blind Mrs Williams, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith.
The only two parts that he doesn't take on are Hodge the cat, unusually played by a spaniel, and Trudie Styler's Hester Thrale-Piozzi, the society hostess with whom the good Doctor fell in love but who could not be prevailed upon to marry him.
Together, they tease out the story of this singular genius and enable him to trot out all of his best aphorisms and definitions, much to the delight of an appreciative audience.
"I'm a three-man Japanese bunraku-style puppet", says the three-man Japanese bunraku-style puppet. "And these are my operators" - and he introduces Nick who's doing his feet, Sean who's on his right arm and holding his body by pinching his bum, and Mark who's on his left arm and head, and doing his voice. This is meta-puppetry, you could say; surreal post-modern puppetry; stand-up puppetry; and, in the odd moment, it seems very much like improvised puppetry.
The puppet is on top of a table, and he rambles on at some length about the dimensions of said table, how long he's been on it (40 years apparently), and the techniques that his operators use to make him move realistically. A latecomer creeps in, puppet stops and watches them pointedly, and then suggests he runs through that whole last bit again. And then he does so - a speeded-up summary re-enactment. This apparently ad hoc little addition seems to make one of the puppeteers crack up. How the hell is this possible? Only with the consummate skill of the puppeteers, surely, and an almost supernatural unspoken understanding between them.
Blind Summit's show is on at 10pm at the Pleasance Dome, which by late evening is normally almost entirely populated by stand-up. But I can't imagine any comedy show being funnier, more profound or more enthralling than this.
The company say they're influenced by Beckett and Sartre among others, and you can see what they mean. Our puppet hero (never named), while he goes on about this and that, loses his train of thought, starts again etc, is really putting off what he told us was the main aim of his performance: to re-enact the last twelve hours of Moses' life, in real time.
Of course he never gets round to doing it. But the meaning of the reference gradually becomes clear. "Moses died alone after 40 years in the desert", he mutters bitterly, and suddenly we have a glimpse of his lonely existence, stranded on the tabletop for decades, unable to summon the courage to move off it - dismissing the area underneath the table (ie. the floor) as not worth his venturing into. There's this sort of fug of existential malaise behind his chirpy showing-off.
Of course this sounds ridiculous, but that's the joy of the play: that it gets us to invest in the feelings of the puppet, even while explocitly telling us that it's absurd to do so. It is somehow simultaneously very funny and profoundly sad. And that's not even mentioning the girl who after a while comes and sits at the table and reads. And can't seem to see the puppet, even though he shouts at her, headbutts her and stamps on her shoulders. He's baffled and furious - she's interrupting his show, her presence makes absolutely no sense - "You're dramaturgically inconsistent!" he fumes. But when she eventually leaves he sort of wants her back; she was some company, at least. And that maybe is all the sense that we need to make of her.
Two further small pieces follow the opening mini-play with our bunraku protagonist. In the middle piece - the strangest and most abstract - a series of disembodied heads dance in strange formations behind three picture frames. It's beautifully choreographed but seems to have no other purpose than to display the puppeteers' skills.
But then the last piece is a worthy finale. A suitcase full of pieces of A4 paper is set on the table; the first piece of paper brought out of it tells us that this is going to be a demonstration of "Le Marionnettisme Français" - French puppetry - and the four performers all fix cigarettes in their mouths. Then they proceed to take the pieces of paper out of the suitcase in a precise order and float them through the air in appropriate movements: a picture of birds flies up high, a picture of a car shoots towards a picture of an old woman crossing the road and we're told the thrilling story of a hit-and-run accident that becomes a police car chase that becomes a desperate man's last stand. It's so clever and so slick, with so many hilarious touches of detail. And I can barely imagine the skill of the performers as they move around each other, picking up each piece of paper in perfect order within a fraction of a second. Well-drilled hardly covers it. All praise to Mark Down, Nick Barnes, Sarah Calver and Sean Garratt; and to Blind Summit for daring to do this.
Another post-apocalyptic zombie drama? It sounds like it'll be a cliché-ridden gore fest, but by goodness this new play from JD Henshaw transcends the limitations the genre can impose. It is a gripping, claustrophobic account of the fraying psychologies of a handful of survivors of the "virus", who have banded together in a loose alliance but who each have one and only priority, to keep their own selves alive.
Large chunks of the play take place in disorientating darkness punctured by the characters' terrified shouts, and our sense of being plunged into an alien situation is heightened by the fact that we're actually sat in a cramped, nondescript meeting room in a hotel.
But no - for the next hour we're in an isolated farmhouse in which the survivors are holed up and beginning to dare to believe that they might be able to build a life together. They don't know each other - they just happen to have all run in the same direction from the last zombie attack, and took shelter in the house together. But they make shaky efforts to get on.
Only this is tricky, with one of the women (Susanna Mulvihill) a fussy, faux-cheerful, mothering type who seems in complete denial about the cataclysmic state of affairs, and the other a dead-eyed teenager (Lynne Campbell) given to doomy pronouncements that cut far too painfully to the truth of their situation. The men are a difficult pair too: one (Iain Martin) constantly on edge, irritable and borderline-violent, and the other (Paul J Creegan) a well-meaning peacekeeper who is trying, and failing, to suppress his debilitating fear.
The play very interestingly explores the theme of survival tactics: its main concern, as you may guess, is not how you survive a zombie plague, but how you survive when thrown into close proximity with strangers with whom you must communicate and co-operate, or else.
The most interesting conversations are between the two women. The older woman, it turns out, has adopted a persona that she hopes makes her seem likeable and somewhat soft-headed and vulnerable, to inspire the protective instincts of others. It's seriously back-firing in the current context though.
The younger woman by contrast makes no effort at all to make herself socially acceptable, feeling that death is surely only ever round the corner and so attempts to form human bonds are surely pointless.
Then a stranger (Calum MacKaskill) comes into this small world that they have constructed. He's been with a stable group of people for a while, but a sudden attack surprised them and now he is the only survivor. But has he brought the virus with them ? He should be the potential source of fear; but it is he who is scared of them, at their appalling lack of human warmth towards each other, how they can't bring themselves to say each other's names, how they "dissolve in front of each other". His account of the group of people he was with before makes us consider that the tense, icy cold relationship between the survivors in the farmhouse is not an inevitability - it's their choice.
It's such an interesting spin on the genre, so tightly written and chilling in its plausibility. Humans are the real danger, is the gist of the message; potentially each other's salvation, but also potentially each other's poison. A real surprise, this excellent piece from a small company whose work I didn't previously know. It delivers one of the most compelling uses of an unpromising space, that you'll see anywhere at the festival this year.