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Edinburgh International Festival 2014 – Taster

In his welcome for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills, Festival Director explains the underlying motive of this year’s commemoration of the Great War: “It is often in the darkest of times that artists can be at their most sublime and Festival 2014 is replete with [such] works that … offer a unique space to contemplate, or escape, the monumental challenges of humanity.”

As a NZ stage critic in Edinburgh during this season and privy to watching numerous shows, I feel the majority of these works at the Festival do indeed reflect that unswerving commitment not to simply honour the past – but also the tragedy that has endured after it.

Below you will find five reviews to give you a small taster of the varied works at this year’s Festival: The War, Gnosis, Patrias, Ubu and the Truth Commission and Delusion of the Fury.

THE WAR

A commentary on art and war, life and death, beauty and her antithesis – The War is all of these and yet simultaneously, a magnificent testimony to l’art pour l’art. A co-production by Chekhov International Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh International this is an elaborate inquisition of the decisions we make in times of crisis.

We are on the brink of war. In Paris, 1913, a youthful group have gathered to proclaim the power of art and their subservience to her ministry even as the possibility of imminent catastrophe looms. Among them are two Russian poets, Vladimir and Nikolai, and Vladimir’s wife Anna; a British painter named George and his wife Betsy. Vivacious and naïve, they contemplate the world around them against a fallen chandelier. A stunningly simple set.

A year later the world has shifted. George has died in war. Vladimir is distraught and disturbed, and the result is a form of drama therapy whereby Vladimir’s family and friends (including Anna who is now a nurse) re-enact their experiences based on the one of the greatest war epics of time: The Iliad. The giant chandelier rises.

Using Homer’s material as its touchstone, director Vladimir Pankov creates a landscape that is almost absurdist in nature. Sculpted to exact auditory and visual precision, the opening scenes of the disengaged bourgeoisie offers a somnambulant atmosphere as the actors prattle to one another in hues of beige (both in conversation and costume) and exchange conventional pleasantries with shimmering champagne flutes in hand.

But after the first twenty minutes the work comes into its own – machine or monster, it’s hard to differentiate. Nineteen actors take to the stage to systematically interrogate the humanity (or lack thereof) in times where life is blurred and death becomes more real than we could possibly imagine.

This is what war does. Artyom Kim and Sergey Rodyukov (director of music and composer) have created an alternative universe, an auditory ecology that is enhanced through Mikhail Fateev and Anton Feshin’s soundscape. Whether they be contemporary international geopolitical conflicts or ancient epic battles that infiltrate our conscious, wars have left an indelible stamp on the world.

And yet as we hear the words of Homer himself there is a call to reconcile ourselves to the fact that beauty, in times of war, flourishes”.

The War is more than a theatrical production, it is an opera with poetic recitations. Although the narrative might be text-driven, it is a melange of genres including large scale ritualised moments and folk elements with all their poignant simplicity.

References to Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Nikolai Gumilyov’s autobiographical essays The Notes of a Cavalryman are also found gently interspersed, but again and again it is the words of Homer that ring continuously: “Often we are fed nothing but bunk but if we are not given anything else then what are we meant think?

This is a brilliant production and yes, while the artistry is utterly magnificent to the point of being clinical and cold, it is never sterile. It is an experience, both alienating and intoxicating and utterly captivating in its ability to bring the epic of Homer’s Iliad to the very present reflection on the Great War.

GNOSIS 

If St Augustine was right in saying that “he who sings once prays twice” then it is only appropriate to consider how divine dance must be.

It is the opening night of Akram Khan’s Gnosis.

The evening opens with a few whirls of smoke hanging in the air as the singers and musicians warmup. There is a cello, violin, a large drum set, a smaller mridanga and two tablas.

The percussion begins as the masters of the classical Indian drums gently slide their hands over the taut skin of their instruments. The music has begun.

A sliver of lights cut through the darkness on stage and Khan steps out to perform ‘Polaroid Feet’.With a remarkable finesse, Khan demonstrates once again his technique as a traditional Kathak dancer, his gunghrus in perfect synchrony with his musicians as he performs a classic Kathak solo from early on his career. His movements, both of hands and feet, are so intensely specific that they are fully conversant not only with the polyphonous rhythms that surround him but also with the very light that he seems to catch and cradle.

‘Tarana’, which comes next, is also greeted to similar acclaim as once again a mastery of technique reverberates against the vocals of Koushik Aithal, but it is his quirky jam session that concludes the first half-of the performance that really finds favour.

Hardly a fusion, and more of a conversation with the instruments, singers and Khan himself, the improvised fifteen minutes is an explosion of sound: delicious and varying, spontaneous and completely uninhibited by structure or form; the signs of pleasure on both sides of the stage are evident as audiences responds to a completely eclectic yet universal rhythm.

But despite the satisfaction of the first half, it is the Akram’s post-interval performance of Gnosis that really elevates storytelling to an exquisite level. An interpretation of the story of Gandhari and Dhritarashtra’s love for each other (one of the classic tales of wife-husband compassion found in the Mahabharata), this gripping duet is performed with Taiwan’s acclaimed performer Fang-Yi Sheu.

In a role-reversal, Sheu plays the blind Gandhari while Khan is the wife who, in a sign of devotion, commits herself to wearing a blindfold for life. Sheu’s sheer physicality, the marblesque stances, long lines illuminated beneath shafts of white – all accomplished without a single note of music – is utterly mesmerizing.

This is world where darkness has its day. No ordinary mortal man and woman wrestle with things unseen but the king and queen: the father and mother of a hundred sons and a daughter (known collectively as the Kauravas) who perished against their ancient foe the Pandavas.

The sequences are bold and then submissive, alternating with such sensitivity that when Khan throws himself down as Gandhari for Sheu to walk over, it is a glimpse, quintessential in its brevity, that allows insight into a world where higher knowledge is borne out of the experiences of suffering.

Hence Gnosis.

The inevitable conclusion, the parents perishing in a forest fire, is shudderingly agonizing and yet untarnished by anything but the body’s ability to speak when words (and everything else) have failed.

Khan is an indomitable force but it is in this duet that the true sophistication of his dance, both in his technique and history, are shared in a powerful exchange with Sheu. Undeniably one of the most memorable moments of the Edinburgh International Festival.

PATRIAS 

The word flamenco conjures up a number of images and it is often with a great deal of squeamishness that I will even consider attending, given such shows, more often than not, are a flamboyant extravaganzas that masquerade as flamenco.

Luckily I have none of this hesitancy when preparing for Paco Peña’s PATRIAS. This is a tribute to the life of Andalusian poet, dramatist and musician Federico Garcia Lorca whose sudden execution by the fascists at the height of the Spanish civil war (1936) in Granada fuelled outrage from the artistic community – and over the years, poetic homage.

This is Peña’s attempt to bring together the passion of an artist, the beauty of an art-form and the truth of a life-time together in what is genuinely a lyrical panegyric to Lorca’s life.

PATRIAS (motherland in Spanish) is an appropriate title. The performance begins with Peña himself on the Spanish guitar, fingers flying as this master gently sets the stage for his accompanying dancers – Angel Muñoz and Mayte Bajo – in the opening segment named ‘Tribute’. In a highly controlled performance of the Flamenco – untarnished by lace, ribbons, flowers and fans and dressed in simple flowing garments – this showcases not only highly refined technique but a vitality for life itself that needs no extras.

Unconventionally short, ‘Tribute’ ends with text projected upon the screen, preparing, perhaps even forewarning, the audience of the upcoming pieces: ‘Nana de Sevilla’ and ‘Evocacion’: both works centering on Lorca and the world that grew out of the Spanish Civil War.

Peña and his two accompanying guitarist – Paco Arriaga and Rafael Montilla – are the sole musicians on stage and it is their music that frames the multiple different stories, from the village gathering to the dirges delivered by the company’s singers José Angel Carmona and Gema Jiménez, all against a constantly evolving background.  The songs, the program tells us, include a variety that Lorca recovered from Andalusian folklore; songs that he himself performed on the piano.

The projections do not sit easily with one another but then again neither does the subject matter. The occasional English voice-over seems forced but is perhaps necessary for the significance to be grasped.

Within these intersecting worlds (and perhaps there are a few too many), including excerpts from French documentary Mourir à Madrid, there is a sense of celebrating the life and talent of an intensely gifted artist and simulatenously, lamenting the world and her people at the time, that provided his shroud.

UBU AND THE TRUTH COMMISSION 

Apartheid in South Africa was hardly an isolated event contained within dates and numbers. It was an era of trauma that has seeped into the land, bodies, hearts and minds of those who have continued to live. And not just ‘them’ but we, as members of a shared humanity, are haunted by the voices of those who lost not just their lives – but records of their having existed.

Ubu and the Truth Commission brings those notions of personal suffering to the fore. Based loosely on Alfred Jarry’s satirical drama of 1896, this unconventional theatrical production engages the talents of David Minnaar and Busi Zokufa along with the very talented Handspring puppeteers to offer a highly visceral and visual engagement with the stark realities that were brought to life as a result of the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Far from indulging in a trope of victimisation, this is an incredibly profound and moving testimony to the narratives of both the survivors and, interestingly, the perpetrators of such atrocities during the regime.

The opening scene distils what is to come. A conceit is set up – in this case the comforting image of a puppet character tasting soup – and within seconds it is completely disrupted by the arrival of Pa Ubu,who violently kicks everything sky-high. Such is the nature of the play.

Expectations are disrupted and the demarcations between human, animal and puppet are blurred. As we follow the rapacious adventures of our only two human characters, Paand Ma Ubu, we are introduced to their reptilian henchmen: Niles the crocodile and the treacherous three-headed dogBrutus. Sitting in the corner on a creaking, rusty contraption, the nameless Vulture spits truisms that light up the screen. Together these three deeply symbolic characters form an echelon of the constructed society of South Africa under apartheid.

But then there are also the witnesses. In the same way as it would be difficult to imagine (especially on a pragmatic level) endowing the particular qualities associated with the animal puppets (and their highly malleable features) upon a human canvas, it is disturbing to think, imagine even, re-inscribing the testimonies of survivors onto human bodies.

This is one of the chief successes of Ubu and the Truth Commission – that it is not simply a puppet that is manipulated by a human but instead – as Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, Executive producer and puppet designer argue – “wooden dolls attempting to be real people. As they try to move and breathe like humans, they cross the barrier of the here and now and become metaphors for humanity.”

It sounds grandiose but the truth – that elusive slippery version of reality – is what gives these puppets a presence that transcends the limits of breath and movement. The performance also, and quite successfully, merges a strong visual component into the production that highlights the horrors of such a time through technological contortions of time and space.

William Kentridge’s direction is both deft and yet has a lightness of touch that enables the dramatisation of the testimonies to be foregrounded in the provocative character of Ubu.

As playwright Jane Taylor explains in an extract from her introduction to the play: “Rather than represent any particular figure from South African history, Ubustands for an aspect, a tendency, an excuse.”

And in that context, Ubu and the Truth Commission is an immense success because there really is no excuse for such war crimes but it is us, as audiences to these theatrics, who find our laughter echoing accusingly back at ourselves as we realise the magnitude of such actions. Both then and now.

DELUSION OF THE FURY 

Harry Partch was undoubtedly a visionary. His designs were to reconceive music as we know it and in Heiner Goebbels production of Delusion of the Fury we are given an opportunity to be immersed in what is surely a psychedelic stimulation of the senses.

Massive instruments, with outlandish but certainly interesting names such as the Chromelodeonand the Gourd Tree, are staggered amongst more conventional organs and percussive instruments. The ensemble, members of Musikfabrik, are dressed in a strange industrial garb and there is a massive waterfall in the centre.

This is spectacle on a massive scale. And so is the spinning of a web of fantasy and the fantastic. Not a moment of silence relieves these two acts which, as the programme indicates, take place in “neither a specific time nor a specific place”. There is a vague hint of a Japanese story dating from the 11th century and an African (vague indeed) folk tale but these are mere outlines for a much larger and invariably obtuse immersion in the utter musical alchemy that Partch facilitates.

One of the primary issues with this work is that it is, on one level, simply a very fine collection, and finely tuned arrangement, of bells and whistles. At times seemingly quite pretentious, it is a musical extravaganza whereby story seems not to matter but play and farce are married, divorced and then have a lovers’ affair, all the time to the incessant beats of a pulsing and largely organic collection of wayward instruments. While this in itself is fabulous, the grandeur of the technical sophistication tends to be eclipsed by the absurdist elements, scattered narrative and atonal rhythms.

Again, silence has power that doesn’t seem to be appreciated as much as it could be in this potential musical paradise. Unfortunately Delusion of the Fury is not as satisfying as the spectacle leads us to believe.

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http://www.theatreview.org.nz/reviews/review.php?id=7355