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Best of Fest (theatre)

Well, itís been physical. This festival the theatrical world lifted the skirts of society and found out it was going commando. Theatre is traditionally the most debauched of all the artforms, but the sheer sleaziness that has preoccupied the Fringe should have us all worried.

As every year, thereís an awful lot of exposing the darker side of the zeitgeist with dread, an awful lot of exposing liberal hypocrisy and an awful lot of good old self-exposure. This was the year of crazy Russians with great propmakers, overbearing mothers, gastroporn and tasteless showtunes. This should have been the year of Saddam the Musical, if there was any justice in the world.

Itís surprising how much of the best stuff on the boards was what is known to drama tutors as Ďdevised workí. Those on the lookout for great new scripts to take home to their local Little Theatre have been disappointed. Watching Braintree Community Arts tackle Derevo Ė Islands in the Stream (5stars) would be entertainment of sorts, but perhaps not art. Itís hard to imagine this being done justice by anyone other than the mad Moscovites, whose mysterious, mystical approach to their work is legendarily weird. It pays off, though, in this impressionistic take on loneliness in the modern world. Perhaps itís the ingenious props, or the stunning lighting, or just the sheer eeriness of the whole production which makes this an unmissible highlight of the Fringe. The fact that Derevo themselves all look the same - androgynous little embryos with shaved heads and eyebrows Ė only adds to the sense of being caught in a fantastic world where words canít be trusted. Ironic, since this play has nicked the title of a Hemingway novel.

No less mad, but more rooted in the everyday, is Grid Ironís Those Eyes, That Mouth (5stars). This ambitious show involved the company taking over a house to put on a production about a house taking over a photographer. A derelict New Town flat hosts an altogether unhinged woman and the ghosts of her relationship. Site-specific work can be balls, and a way of fudging a companyís lack of talent. Here itís a way of exploring loneliness in a way that lingers for days.

Of course, everyone wants a slice of these box-office hits. Chance would be a fine thing Ė at this stage in the game, tickets are like gold dust. There are plenty of venues, though, which understand that the beer and fag fog that descends over most festival goers tends to screw their ability to organize their ticket-buying. Even if you only had one Festival day to live, thereís top quality theatre to be had. The Argument (5stars) plays a large enough auditorium to let the less cool and collected of us pick up tickets on spec. This incredibly intelligent but beautifully agile play is the perfect antidote to all the rather sterile shoutiness of high-concept agitprop fare. Its observation of family life falling apart after the loss of a mother understands the big stuff through the private and personal, and is all the more affecting for it. Any family will understand shouting ĎI want to have a conversation with you, but I donít know what about.í

Cillian Murphyís cheeky little face ought to have sold out The Seagull (5stars) instantly. Apart from him being beautiful and talented, itís rare to share a theatre with a live, genuine film star. Those clever International Festival types have come up with the ruse of holding back reserve tickets every day, so everyone stands a chance of basking in his prettiness. While youíre there, this is a hard to come by chance to see Chekhov in a first-class production. Exquisite acting and a very bare stage add up to an almost unbearably bitter study of ambition and jealousy. And itís got another one of those goddam awful mothers in it. Theatre, thy name is Oedipus.

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