The Edinburgh Fringe
Fringe 1999 Reviews 13
God Love Thatcher! Fade to Greek.
Aristophanes' The Birds, like most other Greek comedies (with the notable exception of Lysistrata), is not often done nowadays. Although some of the jokes, especially some of the one-liners, are still funny even now, the whole style is quite foreign to us. Our satire - for The Birds is satire - tends to be broader and more cruel, more vicious in fact.
Two men, escaping from the politics and litigation which bedevils Athens, persuade the birds to set up their own city - Cloud-Cuckoo-Land - in the sky between the earth and the heavens where the gods live. There they would still be able to live their free life, unbothered by all the things that men have to put up with in city life, and in addition they would be able to tax everything which passes from earth to heaven or in the other direction. They would, in essence, become gods.
But it doesn't work: no sooner is the city set up that the bureaucrats, politicans, lawyers and so on all begin making their appearance. Hence, by the way, the reference in the title to Thatcher (I think!).
It's a pleasant enough show, the performances never less than sound and the set very cleverly done, but, like many other Fringe shows, it does not really move us. The audience sits outside instead of being involved, and whilst that may have been enough for the Athenians of Aristophanes' time (I say "may" because I don't really know!), it's not what modern audeinces want.
A worthy effort, but it didn't really hit the mark.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Apart from a few minor additions at the very beginning - the point of which, I confess, eluded me, because they added nothing - this is a straightforward performance of the well-known Coleridge poem, splitting the words between the ten performers and making considerable use of physical theatre techniques.
It worked beautifully. This Nottingham University group resisted the temptation to be too clever and kept the whole thing very simple. And that is a lesson which many student groups should learn: simplicity is far more effective than complexity.
It was certainly well received by the audience: rather than hurrying out at the end of the show, which is what normally happens, quite a lot of people sat talking about what they'd seen, and commenting on its effectiveness.
There were one or two things that didn't quite come off. The one which most annoyed me was the adoption of a quavery old man's voice for the Hermit who appears at the end of the story: it was more in keeping with sketch comedy than a serious piece of theatre. Thee were bits of the soundtrack, too, which seemed to have no real function, but these are really minor quibbles which did not spoil a very effective peice of story-telling.
Homer, the old adage tells us, sometimes nods. When he wrote Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare - if indeed it was Shakespeare who wrote it - was not only nodding but in the grip of some bad acid dream. What an appalling piece of work it is! It makes Webster look positively restrained. It is beyond the wit of anyone, I submit, to play this seriously and get away with it.
Malachi Bogdanov, the director, doesn't even try. He sends it up, and sends it up sky high! The cast wear wigs and make-up in the eighteenth century style, although the wigs are coloured rather than white. The characters are naked. The cast aren't: they wear pot-bellied and flabby body suits, complete with pubic hair (fake fur) to match their wigs, and all appendages. (Which led one newspaper to run the headline Putting the tit back in Titus!) They stomp and pose, make silly noises, sing, run around, and waggle their "appendages" with great gusto.
Between them five actors play ten parts. Other parts are played by puppets dangled on string from the ends of sticks while the actors holding them speak the lines in silly voices. It's so high camp that the summit of Everest is a mere ten minutes stroll away.
Sounds awful? One man sitting next to me walked out after less than ten minutes. But the audience which stayed (the vast majority) laughed a lot, at times falling about.
To give a flavour (yes, deliberate pun in the style of this production!) of the show, the high (low?) point of gothic horror, the cooking of his enemy's children in a pie, is done in the style which almost every pantomime dame has made familiar to us. Oh no it isn't! Oh yes it is!
A great romp. A big laugh. Shakespeare? No, but then it's highly unlikely that, even on a bad day, he would have written this twaddle. If you're going to do Titus Andronicus, then you have to do it straight and stretch the credulity of your audience well beond breaking point, or send it up, and, frankly, it deserves to be sent up quite as high as Bogdanov's production hurls it.
But, of course, that begs the question: why choose to do the damned thing at all?
Romeo and Juliet
What do you do when your leading actor falls ill and is rushed into hospital at five in the morning, and the understudy is not ready?
Obviously: you cancel the performance.
Not if you're Shakespeare 4 Kidz you don't. Instead of the full two hour performance, you put on an hour-long workshop style presentation and give your audience tickets for another performance.
The audience was quite small - quite a number were members of the National Youth Theatre (playing at the same theatre) - but I suspect from their reactions at the end that they would have been quite happy to have paid for what they saw, and, considering that they workshop was devised and rehearsed in a couple of hours, that is quite a compliment.
It would obviously not be fair of me to review this in the same way as I would have done, had the performance gone ahead as usual. That is why, for instance, there is no star rating for the show. However I do feel it is appropriate to make some comment.
Basically what happened was the Friar Lawrence took us through the Romeo and Juliet story, with some scenes (and songs, for this is a musical version which is aimed at young children) being performed as in the show, wth the director, Julian Chenery, reading in Romeo. The occasional references to his being somewhat older than the real Romeo simply added to the audience's enjoyment!
It does look to be an interesting production, so it was a big shame that it had to be cancelled. Still, the audience did go away satisfied - and they'll have the opportunity to see the proper show later on. Unfortunately I won't - at least, not until it comes to my local theatre, as it is due to this Autumn, and I'll review it properly then.