Those Eyes, That Mouth / Ladies & Gents / Pandora 88 /
Lewis In Wonderland / Demetri Martin: If I / Ridiculusmus
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2003

The Grid Iron company has become renowned in Edinburgh circles for ingenious and vibrant site-specific work; indeed, a few years ago one of their shows first opened up spaces which are now part of the Underbelly venue complex (see below). Last year, invited to participate in the Edinburgh International Festival, they slightly over-reached themselves, but this year's offering is among the most magical I have seen from them, or indeed anyone. Those Eyes, That Mouth (****) is a collage of recollections and insecurities from the sole inhabitant of a semi-derelict flat. The venue (which changed at the last moment, when the original site fell through, so to speak) is a New Town house halfway through major rebuilding work. We are guided from room to room, sometimes seeing performer Cait Davis directly, sometimes glimpsing her up a stairwell or hearing her voice through a closed door, gradually building up an intellectual and emotional picture of how her character has come to this pass. Also present is composer and singer David Paul Jones, who at one point launches into a musical performance that makes you feel as if you have quite literally stepped into a David Lynch film.

The other most bizarre venue this year is a set of public toilets just behind the St James Centre. Ladies & Gents (****), presented under the aegis of the Traverse, is a diptych: half the audience goes into each set of loos to see a scene performed, then switch over for the other half of a simultaneous set of events involving prostitution, blackmail, political scandal and revenge, which collectively form an indictment of the hypocrisy beneath the surface of 1950s Ireland. Karl Shiels' production for Irish company Semper Fi is magnificently atmospheric, with a cast that could almost have been chosen for their sinister and striking looks in the dim, shadowy lighting designed by Sinead McKenna.

Pandora 88 (****) takes place on a relatively conventional Fringe stage at the Aurora Nova venue at St Stephen's but Wolfgang Hoffmann and Sven Till perform their piece (not so much physical theatre as dance with some text) in a three-walled, ceilinged box roughly the size of a lift. Loosely inspired by Brian Keenan's book An Evil Cradling, Hoffmann and Till portray a pair of bodies coming to terms with their enforced proximity, trying to distract themselves and finally settling into a deeper kind of bond. At times hypnotic, at others deeply affecting, the show makes no explicit comment on its title, but we nevertheless come to realise that after everything else has gone, what remains in the box is hope.

Far more frequently, though, the strange spaces investigated by Edinburgh shows are those inside characters' heads. Lewis In Wonderland (**** Underbelly) peers into the mind of Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, and his by now notorious fixation on the children of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, in particular young Alice Liddell. Naked Productions' show begins unpromisingly, with displays of self-conscious but limited physicality typical of many student-age performers. However, gradually, almost imperceptibly, they turn this into a virtue, as an aspect of Dodgson's and the Liddells' own awkwardness and ambivalence. Admirably, too, they avoid coming to any conclusions about the nature of Dodgson/Carroll's feelings, and steer well clear of modish paedophile-hysteria.

Almost as labyrinthine as Carroll's mind is that of young New Jersey comedian Demetri Martin. His show If I (*** Assembly Rooms) is a confessional account of years of playing mind-games with himself: anagrams, palindromes (the programme to his show contains a 224-word palindromic poem) and attempting to score his life against a complex and shifting system of points. Martin's material is astounding and never less than brilliant: where he falters is in presentation. You can see a barrier just behind his eyes, and you get the feeling that he's not actually working the audience so much as just making the conventional moves without fully understanding why they're necessary. He tells us that these remarkable mental callisthenics have tended to militate against his getting a life, and his manner seems to bear out that he's more interested in the internal workings than in actually making a connection.

Compare and contrast with Ridiculusmus (**** Pleasance Dome). The Belfast-based duo have in their time created a number of bizarre theatre works; a few years ago, their show about the odd games played by art gallery attendants to pass the time was staged amid a Yoko Ono retrospective. Their current piece is classed as comedy, but it's a weird, hi-tech dadaist kind of stand-up: two men, three microphones, a synthesizer, a sampler and sound effects unit, and a shifting panoply of characters. It's as if comedian Simon Munnery at the height of his League Against Tedium phase had been genetically spliced with both Pet Shop Boys. The material is wildly patchy, but there's an electric fascination to the hour that takes it into a different area altogether.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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