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Edinburgh Fringe - A 72-hour Taster

Part Two

“Woyzeck” by Sadari Movement Laboratory, Assembly Aurora Nova
“Traces” by Les 7 Doigts de la main, Assembly @ George St
“The Battle of Stalingrad” by The Tbilisi Marionette Theatre, Assembly Aurora Nova
“Closing Time” by Conflict Zone, Assembly Universal Arts

by Stuart Sweeney

August 7 and 8, 2007 -- Edinburgh, Scotland

Many of the dance shows in the Fringe start between 6pm and 8pm, in line with standard theatre practice, but with venues hosting as many as six different productions each day, there has to be variation. When I saw that Sadari Movement Laboratory’s performance of “Woyzeck” started at 10.30am, my heart went out to them. However, the converted church of Assembly Aurora Nova was full for their innovative version of the Bluthner play concerning an outsider driven to despair and murder by the society around him.

This physical theatre company from South Korea has an extraordinary talent for creating images, with dynamic movement from Director Do-Wan Im and dramatic lighting by Tae-Han Gu. Scenery and props are provided solely by straight backed chairs that are sometimes spun like tops, sometimes combined into a mix of awkward shapes or symmetrical patterns such as a series of cages and sometimes even as objects to sit on.

The company solves the problem of a text primarily in Korean by providing written and subtitled notes for each of the scenes and occasional snatches of spoken English. We certainly miss something from not understanding the dialogue, but with so many other theatrical components to savour, I never felt short-changed.

The drama is presented with almost comic book simplicity: Woyzeck is the victim, put upon by his fellow soldiers and doctors and cheated by his love, Marie, all performed in a stylised, larger than life acting style. It works, partly because of the extraordinary visuals and also, perhaps, because we accept the links to classical Asian drama forms.

The characters are differentiated, and as Marie, Eun-Young Joung plays the role as a child of nature, rather than a heartless hussy. In her love scenes with the Sergeant Major, fully clothed, she generates as much sexual energy as I have seen on-stage for a long time. Jae-Won Kwon is convincing as the put upon Woyzeck: in one scene he is tormented by voices emanating from sinister upturned heads highlighted behind the backs of a row of chairs, and in a medical examination, he is suspended with only chairs at his neck and ankles, emphasising his vulnerability, as well as the actor’s physical mastery. The humorous sections, including a march past with one soldier perpetually getting it wrong and a drinking hall scene, made me laugh out loud.

In the final tableau, as Marie and Woyzeck enter a forest, the rest of the cast face backstage creating an image of trees, but when Woyzeck stabs Marie, they resume their characters and several also stab her, illustrating the point that the anti-hero has been driven to this tragic act by the actions of his comrades.

While the use of Piazzola’s tangos to accompany the drama raised a question mark in my mind beforehand, in practice they work a treat, providing sensual rhythms for the love scenes and passionate discords for the conflicts.

While the production has been criticised in more than one review for not sending us home in tears, I felt that the message regarding the devastating effect of inhuman treatment was put over effectively and with its stunning visual quality, I anticipate that “Woyzeck” will be on the short list for the Fringe Total Theatre Award.

The mix on the Fringe is exceptional, even if you stick to the dance and physical theatre category and in complete contrast, I enjoyed the modern circus production, “Traces”, by Les 7 Doigts de la main, from the central hub of this genre, Quebec. The format for the show is a group of friends knocking about together and joking. The young performers, all 25 or under, are very appealing – they all have strong circus skills, several are great movers and others talented musicians.

As well as fairly common tumbling, we see tricks on two parallel poles that go further than I have seen before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my two favourite bits were the most dance-like: the only girl in the group, Heloise Bourgeois, initially sits reading a book in an armchair, which then flops over, with her continuing her reading from underneath. We then see a veritable Kama Sutra of positions for reading, as chair and reader spin before our eyes. Second, was a large metal ring with a life of its own in the hands of its keeper: spinning inside it in the style of the De Vinci drawing, jumping through or just letting it spin. With full houses, pages of feedback comments on the Fringe website and a standing ovation on the night I attended, this is already one of the hits of 2007.

My Fringe ended with two productions concerned with the effects of war and conflict on individuals. The first was the result of an important part of the Fringe effect: sharing a table with strangers and discussing favourites. The Tbilisi Marionette Theatre has brought “The Battle of Stalingrad”, written, directed and designed by Rezo Gabriadze, as part of a Georgian season. The great strengths of the play are the beautiful puppets and scenery, managed on the tiny stage by five animators, and the focus on individual stories, rather than the detail of the Stalingrad story where over 1 million people died. Given the strength of feeling even to the present day regarding the Great Patriotic War, it is a notable achievement that the German characters are also part of the tragedy: a painter, seen first in a Berlin club and then dying in the Battle and a noble German general, preparing for a final attempted break-out. The most notable effects are the opening train journey with objects placed and removed from spinning circles and the marching German troops: neat rows of little helmets on trays being walked across the stage by the animators. Perhaps the story of the two horses seeking love is a little sentimental, but somehow this is more forgivable with puppets.

Finally, a brief word about a theatre work, “Closing Time” by Conflict Zone, set in a London restaurant where staff members and a customer from around the world tell their stories one by one, while they wait for the all clear for a bomb scare. The unifying theme is separation from loved ones due to conflict or war and several of the stories work very well, particularly one from a Nigerian Father, working in London and learning, just when his right to remain is refused, that he has lost his family back home to his best friend, and another from a UK born Muslim, rejected by his family and community for talking to the police. Both this work and Chickenshed’s “As the mother of a brown boy…” are nominated for the Freedom of Expression Award, established by Amnesty International in 2001, for the performance making the most significant contribution to the public's awareness of human rights issues. I wish both these thoughtful productions good fortune in the competition’s final stages.

And then there was just time for me to dash to the station, up and down Edinburgh’s steep hills, but this time with a suitcase. Three days was only enough to get a taster of the Fringe Festival, sampling a few of the dance events on offer and leaving no time for any comedy or music. As someone who attends several festivals around Europe each year, it’s clear that Edinburgh has a special atmosphere and attracts skilled, innovatory artists from all over the world. Next year I must diarise for a week, at least.

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