Beachy Head / Accidental Nostalgia / 360 / A British Subject

Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2009

How on earth did the Edinburgh Fringe work with any less technology than we have now? Crippled by a mobile phone which is slowly dying on me, I’m unable to check my day-to-day schedule, and so the other day made an eejit of myself by loudly demanding a ticket for a show which doesn’t start for another week. The broadband connection in my Festival flat is so cussedly “smart” that I need to run three different accounts and programs just to send and receive e-mail. Of course, my misfortunes are as nothing compared to those of the Fringe as a whole last year, when their whizzy new central ticketing system stood up, blinked in the sunlight and promptly fell over with a thud that may have cost millions in lost revenues.

Productions, too, have reached the point where a multimedia component is hardly worth mentioning in review. In Beachy Head at the Pleasance Dome, for instance, far more theatrically potent than video and CGI backdrops are the way the live performers interact and use even such basic techniques as attaching pieces of paper to long poles to mimic their flapping about in the wind. Not for nothing is the company named Analogue. Dan Rebellato is beginning to corner the market in scripts about trying to piece together the events surrounding one person’s demise, about personal connections and disconnections. This one reminds me less of Mile End, the company’s show here last year, than of his haunting work Static staged a little earlier still. At the core of all these pieces, though, is a sense of the thrilling primacy of humanity. This is never drowned in silicon-based effects; rather the productions utilise what guitarist Robert Fripp used to refer to as “an appropriate level of technology” and no more than that.

In contrast, Accidental Nostalgia at the Traverse, Cynthia Hopkins’ “operetta about the pros and cons of amnesia”, is a hi/low-tech mash-up. Shot video footage is mixed with live images from mini-cameras, sometimes tracking through tabletop models of a house or town; Hopkins plays accordion and toy piano and is accompanied by a kind of klezmer-and-western quartet, but at one point sings, live, a contrapuntal duet with a little girl on video; once or twice on opening night individual sequences had to be restarted because of synching problems. It’s a kind of neurological mystery, with the amnesiac amnesiologist narrator uncovering her childhood trauma and real identity, then assuming a new one. Imagine The Wooster Group and the Dresden Dolls collaborating on a stage musical of an episode of The X-Files that had been originally shot by Werner Herzog… well, exactly. It’s a fiercely intelligent and immensely complex work, playfully arcane and oblique and full of ingredients that I usually love. And yet the components are assembled with an impassive self-satisfaction that got up my nose like a little finger: I’m afraid I found it annoying and even rather tedious.

As against such technological exuberance, some Fringe performers are consciously stripping back. Hugh Hughes, the “emerging Welsh artist” and glorious creation of the Hoipolloi company’s supremo Shôn Dale-Jones, parodied multimedia work in his first two shows in previous Fringe years by using jerry-built arrays of props and technology such as old-style classroom overhead projectors. For 360 at the Pleasance Courtyard, though, the stage is bare even of his usual collaborators and “friends”. This is Hughes seeing whether his phenomenal bonhomie can sustain a story without material support. I was not entirely sure beforehand, thinking that perhaps the whole Hughes persona might be about to go stale. Not a bit of it. This piece about friendship and basically being a bit daft begins outside the theatre with Hughes greeting the queued audience; in the theatre itself he introduces us to each other and chats away before the tale proper begins, then later also bids us farewell at the door. If Hughes sat down next to you on a bus or train, you would begin by slightly recoiling as your internal nutter-alert went off, but would by the end find it one of the most magical journeys you had ever taken.

Ultimately, in theatre as in life, faith and persistence can be enough. Actress Nichola McAuliffe’s first play written under her own name (she had one on the Fringe a few years ago under a pseudonym), A British Subject (Pleasance Over The Road), tells the true story of her and her husband, journalist Don MacKay, in their attempts to secure the release of Mirza Tahir Hussain after 18 years on death row in Pakistan and return him to his home and family in Leeds. At first the play seems like a solid piece of work but probably no more compelling than any number of similar stories. Things begin to change with the pivotal scene of MacKay’s meeting with Tahir in jail: Kulvinder Ghir’s performance combines dignity and fatalism with a sense that Tahir’s grip on reality is increasingly precarious, with little more than his devotion keeping him anchored. His Islamic faith is complemented in the following scenes by the Catholicism of McAuliffe (who plays herself) as she and MacKay feverishly work personal and professional contacts until the matter is ultimately settled direct between the Prince of Wales and President Musharraf. Both the events portrayed and the production itself feel, to use a term from yet another faith, like a +mitzvah+.

In low-tech days people simply applied themselves with more dedication. I used to know a couple of little old ladies who planned their Fringe-going months in advance with the precision of a military campaign, using only the published programme and a transatlantic phone line (one was based in San Francisco, the other in Glasgow). And they were amazing. The last time I saw them, they were rather apologetic: “We’re not staying in Edinburgh this year, so we have to miss late-night shows and get the last train back to Glasgow; and we’ve given up on comedians where every other word is eff… so we’re only seeing 94 shows this year.” There’s always a way.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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