The Edinburgh Fringe
Fringe 1999 Reviews 2
Really, it was. This Commedia dell'Arte-based production of the Faust story is absolutely hilarious. Combining physical theatre, slapstick, witty word play, modern references, audience involvement, puppets (very Punch and Judy!) and a little bit of music, Faustus had the audience in fits of laughter from beginning to end.
There was a great deal of interaction with the audience, much obviously scripted but some clearly off-the-cuff. I've seen actors responding to late-comers like many comedians do, trying to get a cheap laugh at their expense, but that wasn't the case here. Two girls did arrive late, but, although this was remarked upon by one of the actors, it was in a non-threatening, albeit humorous, manner, which got a laugh, but also got the audience on their side.
The four performers, in a variety of beautifully made Commedia-style masks, play seven characters with an ease which makes clear their total professionalism. Each character is sharply delineated.
The company, founded by Howard Gayton (Faustus) and Geoff Beale (the servant, Wagner), work in the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, rather than slavishly following its conventions. They have preserved its spirit whilst developing it into a form which is very much of today.
It's a superb ensemble piece, and it's quite impossible to single out any particular actor for either praise or blame. I've already mentioned the two founders of the company, but it would be totally wrong to ignore David Bere's Mephistopheles and Sarah Ratheram's Gretchen (Faustus' wife), both of whom are now permanent members of the company. The piece was devised by the company, we are told, partly through a day of mask exploration in London and partly through a two week "training programme" at Centre Selavy in France. It shows: there is an obvious commitment to the show itself and to its ensemble nature which lifts the performance well into the five star bracket.
This is one of those pieces which I should be enthusiastic about but can't be. Joanna Rosenfeld, who also wrote the play, plays four characters - Marlene Dietrich, Sarah whose husband beats her, Kate whose mother was a Dietrich fan, and Priss who wants to be beautiful like Marlene so that she can be happy. And she plays them well.
There is much use of recorded soundtracks and video. There are three video screens: two monitors and one projection screen. Sometimes each is showing a different scene, sometimes the same one. Sometimes we hear Dietrich singing: sometimes it is Rosenfeld on the video screen.
Each of the three women are "exiled", in some way alienated from themselves. Their alienation, their exile, is mirrored by Dietrich's self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany. On the other hand, Dietrich is very much the product of her time, with attitudes and ideas which are totally out of sympathy with those of modern women - and their needs.
It's a very intellectual piece and herein, for me, lies its downfall. Our emotions are not engaged: we can understand but not feel. We can admire, too. The piece is cleverly put together, but I feel it was a mistake to have a change of wig and clothes for each character. Watching the actress slip a dress or skirt and blouse over the basic simple dress, then change shoes, then put on a wig, is carrying a Brechtian style of alienation a bit too far. It became distracting, preventing us from caring about any of these women.
It also prevented us from using our imagination. The change of wig would have been quite enough.
There was a good play here, trying to get out. But as it stands, for me it was just too intellectual, too lacking in feeling.
Ashes to Ashes
How to describe this play?
The Jewish Chronicle, when they saw it in its try-out run in London, called it "an extremely moving play about the holocaust which strives less to tell what went on in the death camps than to show it."
But that description is inadequate: it doesn't convey the emotional power of the piece. Perhaps we should change that word "show" to "share", for we share the experiences of Philip, Hirsch and Moshe, the play's three characters.
This is theatre pared down to its basic essentials: three characters, a black box setting, minimal props, and a spare, simply lighting plot. Much of the time the protagonists address the audience directly, even, at times, when they are talking to each other. Stripping away the inessentials throws an enormous burden on the writer and the actors, for everything depends upon them.
This could be a recipe for disaster - indeed, it has been in the past - but not here. The writing is tight and the performances - writer Steve Lambert as Philip, Sartaj Grewal as Moshe, and Dan Robb as Hirsch - intense but controlled. The result is a hard-hitting piece which leaves the audience stunned and deeply moved.
Wisely the company do not take a curtain call but leave the audience to sit in silence as the house lights come up. It took a minute or two before the applause began, not because of any lack of appreciation but because it took us that long to return to the reality of the theatre.
Two five star shows in one day, and each so different from the other: that is really something!
If Whoredom is a bawdy romp, Fanny Hill is a bawdy trudge. What is absolutely clear is that a few bare breasts and some simulated sex do not an erotic classic make! Having seen and enjoyed the same company's Glimpse at the '97 Fringe, I was really looking forward to this production but, as is all too often the case at the Fringe, I was sadly disappointed.
The advertising blurb tell us that this adaptation is true to the original - the tone throughout is charming and humorous, the language literary and voluptuous - but it isn't so. It is a series of scenes, most of which end up with Fanny (played by Philippa Hammond) wrapping her legs round someone. Unfortunately Ms Hammond's style of delivering the lines which link the scenes is so laid-back (yes: deliberate pun) that they get lost and one is left with the impression of a series of sexual encounters (some of which are, it is true, mildly amusing), which only differ from a Confessions of.... movie by the fact that there is rather less flesh on display.
The performances are fine - no complaints there - and the the costumes (designed by Isobel Drury) good: pity about the play.