Aug 18, 2007

Festival Round-up

Well the festival has now stumbled drunkenly into its second week. Hope, enthusiasm, fatigue, despair and nausea have all come and gone and its possibly time to (heaven forbid) to reflect a little.

For some this has been a festival of circus and spectacle, of bright lights, loud music and dazzlingly euphoric images. Still glowing from its rapturous reception at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, Fuerzabruta is undoubtedly the big show of the festival, if only in the number of wide eyed and over-enthusiastic flyerers it has lingering on every street corner, their t-shirts emblazoned with the show's trademark image. Elsewhere the polish company Biuro Podrozy have torn from Macbeth a grand night time spectacle of revving engines, flickering flames and dangling skulls. And at Assembly the Canadian company 7 fingers of the hand are selling out houses for what is essentially an astounding gymnastic display with a smattering of story.

These remarkable spectacles are invariably successful in Edinburgh. The festival is a sea of white noise, every pore of the city saturated with a kind of bubbly mindless excitement. Rushing from venue to venue there is little time or space to stop and think. The moment the clapping dies down the memory of the show is being drowned out by deadlines, timetables, flyerers and the incessant thronging of the crowds. In such a maelstrom it is understandable that the things that you remember are those that pick you up shake you, leaving you gasping in awe.

For me however, this festival has been about smaller, subtler, quieter shows. About absences, loss, ghosts and the simple art of storytelling.

Tim Crouch's latest show England is one such meticulous and devastating tale of absence. Billed by the traverse as a site-specific performance taking place in the Fruitmarket gallery, I entered (burdened by the baggage that term carries with it) with expectations of grand installations and rooms transformed. What I encountered was simply the gallery itself, bare white walls and slick laminate wood flooring. From out of the assembled throng two nondescript voices rose, thanking us for coming. As they spoke, sharing and swapping the lines of a monologue, somewhere in the air between them the outline of our anonymous narrator began to take shape; an absence, a character without a body, a ghost.

Like the spectral figure at the centre of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, the character is a nameless, fractured urbanite. The beautiful elusive text carefully draws this blurry figure; a man or a woman, surviving heart failure in a high-brow London filled, like the gallery itself (a former fruitmarket now stripped of its history and its purpose), with art, empty symbols, referring to nothing but their own beauty.

In the second half, as we move downstairs into an even barer, emptier room, this devastating sense of loss and emptiness spills out of this insular London world, to the unnamed country in which our narrator's boyfriend has found him/her a replacement heart. Here it is the foreign husband and wife, the heart donor and his widow, who are the greatest absence; unseen, unheard except through the mouth of a translator, unwilling lifesavers for this western stranger. Their identity, their very lives, torn from them to fill a deep emptiness festering at the heart of our slick metropolitan existence.

Rotozaza's Etiquette is similarly an elusive, tantalising insight into metropolitan life. You arrive in a cafe and sit at a table opposite your partner, an assortment of props lined up on one side. A set of headphones buzz with the recorded sound of a cafe, similar to that in which you actually find yourself, and a voice calmly tells you what to do and say. Again, slowly, characters and a conversation form between the two of you. Somewhere in the space between the voice speaking to you and the words coming out of your friend's mouth a scene (almost like a mirage) shimmers and appears - a man and a woman, two strangers, sitting talking in a cafe in Paris.

But it is never as simple as this. You stare across at your friend, they are at once known and unknown, two separate people. At points the tapes you are both listening to diverge, while you continue to carry out actions together they now have different meanings, exist in different worlds - a balcony in the rain and a quiet walk up a hillside. This glorious, intricate kaleidoscope of identities and fractured conversations is punctuated by moments of real intimate beauty shared by the two of you. The kind of connections, the conversations late night with strangers in bars and cafes, that make it feel like the world is whirling ceaselessly around a bubble containing just the two of you. This is the feeling that Etiquette leaves you with. Of having shared something special, and just a little magical.

Another roster of disembodied voices and characters fill Chris Goode's marvellous Hippo World Guest Book. Taking 400 or so pages of conversation from a long-since abandoned Internet message board, Chris has carefully constructed a beautiful parable for, well, the whole of civilisation really. We begin with the creation -an introduction informs us that the page was created by a pleasant looking middle aged man from somewhere in the US called Ramon Valencia, to share his innocent fascination with and love of hippos. As the introduction goes on to tell us how a disillusioned Ramon abandoned the site about a year, Chris carefully builds a little shrine, a stuffed toy, a candle and a photo of this most beneficent of creators; yet another ghostly absence, leaving in his wake a fascinating petrie dish, teeming with modern life.

Slowly and painfully this little society begins to fall apart. In the shows most beautiful and absurd segment a single voice cries out to Ramon, his absent creator, beging and pleading him to answer. By the end even this desperate human voice has died off, leaving only blank spaces and automated spamming machines. And as the lights dim and the music soars, from one man reading from an Internet message board the image was conjured of a lonely barren future, peopled only by automated robots, picking through the last broken debris of civilisation. And its quite funny at points as well.

What these clever, beautiful little shows seem to share is a fascination with fractured, elusive characters; the shadows that we all become passing through the bright lights and the bustle of a big city. And they find ways of representing these characters, of exploring them, embracing them, telling stories about them, through three joyously inventive theatrical forms. And it is these forms that convey this sense of absence as much as their content. In each case you are left with the sense of people you've almost met; the neighbour's intimate conversation overheard in a cafe, the lonely looking girl on the underground, the anonymous note, carefully typed in an internet chatroom.


Andrew Haydon said...

Beautifully written and nicely observed as always. If you haven't had the chance yet, do try to catch Melanie Wilson's Simple Girl at the the Underbelly's caves annexe (I can't remember what they've called them) - it's a 4.45. You got two days. It really is ace. Some of my reviews are not on my blog - I wonder if we'll ever get around to that drink.

Andrew Field said...

Watched it yesterday. Delightful show. We must indeed do that drink.