Theatre review: Helen Lawrence | Front | The War

Helen Lawrence with its use of projected images. Picture: Contributed
Helen Lawrence with its use of projected images. Picture: Contributed
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WHEN the curtain came down last night on Ubu And The Truth Commission, it also brought to an end Jonathan Mills’ final Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme.

It was a line-up that shared several features with all seven of his previous seasons. Since 2007, we have come to expect a Mills theatre programme to have a thematic consistency, to contain several hits, the odd misfire and something good but a little long in the tooth. There has usually been at least one show that was as musical as it was theatrical, another that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and another still that was flashy but flawed.

Of those that opened in the last fortnight or so, Canadian Stage’s Helen Lawrence fits into the last category. The work of photographer and videomaker Stan Douglas, the show is a technically impressive fusion of live performance and projected images. For the actors, it must be like being in a blue-screen film studio. They are in costume, but the set has no defining features – it’s just an empty space.

We, however, see them in context because they are being filmed live and their images combined with a series of backdrops. These are projected in black and white on a gauze screen that fills the proscenium arch. At the same time as seeing them on stage, we can see them on screen, lying in hotel bedrooms, hanging out on street corners and sitting in a train compartment.

So far so clever, but it’s as if Douglas developed the technique then went in search of a story to justify it. Chris Haddock’s script, based on an idea by the director, takes us to the Vancouver of the 1940s, a lawless place where corruption is rife and old scores have to be settled. The characters, like the big-screen imagery, draw heavily on classic film noir: there’s the femme fatale, the cops on the make and the black-market traders, as well as assorted bell boys, prostitutes and go-betweens. The eponymous Helen Lawrence is after the man who killed her husband.

But the production leaves us between two stools. As a piece of theatre, it offers little human insight or thematic exploration, still less any sense of being in the same room as the actors – it’s just a series of events, snappily told but without depth or purpose. As a piece of film, it has novelty value but is no substitute to watching an actual 1940s movie.

Of course, there’s a strong argument to suggest it’s the job of festivals such as the EIF to test the limits of every art form and to see how technology changes things. It’s not impossible to imagine Douglas using the same technique to better effect with a more complex script and a more theatrical interrelationship between actor and screen.

Equally, however, he could run into the same stumbling block as Teatro Cinema, which brought Sin Sangre and The Man Who Fed Butterflies to the Festival in 2010 and Histoire d’Amour last year. There was nothing superficial about the stories this Chilean company wanted to tell. They had endured the tyrannical regime of Augusto Pinochet and were drawn to tales of violence or escape. They told them by placing their actors in a filmic landscape and bringing jump-cuts, close-ups and split-screens into the theatre. Once again, it was impressively done and, once again, it constrained the actors in a way that denied them spontaneity and presence. Like Helen Lawrence, their work was compromised as film and neutered as theatre.

On both visits, however, Teatro Cinema did contribute to the thematic thrust of Mills’ programme: the Americas in 2010 and technology last year. With the exception of 2012, the artistic director has structured each Festival around a governing idea. Looking back, it’s striking to see how influential those ideas were and how each theatre line-up was shaped by them. This year, being the anniversary of the First World War, it showed itself most obviously in two plays, The War, one of the highlights of an impressive opening weekend and, in the last week, Front by the Thalia Theatre.

I’d already seen Luk Perceval’s production of Front earlier this year in Hamburg and had been expecting to enjoy it even more this time. In Germany, its multiple languages were translated into German, which I don’t speak, so having read All Quiet On The Western Front, the novel on which it is based, I focused on the production’s sound, shape and atmosphere and didn’t worry about the details. Very enjoyable it was too.

Back in Edinburgh, I was looking forward to filling in the gaps, but found instead there was so much reading to be done, as Flemish, German and French were turned into English surtitles, that my attention was drawn away from Perceval’s sober and subtle staging. What had seemed graceful, meditative and poignant in Germany now seemed heavy going, which sadly meant the director’s observation about how every solider had a similar experience of war became lost in translation.

Thanks to its more dynamic approach to sound, choreography and stagecraft, Vladimir Pankov’s production of The War for the Chekhov International Theatre Festival and the SounDrama Studio treated the same subject with greater immediacy. It was part of an opening weekend salvo that showed Mills’ theatre programming at its best. Along with the entertaining provocation of Ganesh Versus The Third Reich and the audacious historical sweep of the three James Plays, not to mention the living installation of Exhibit B, it set the theatrical pace in the city. As was the case in 2012, the year of the London Olympics and a bumper year for EIF theatre, nothing on the Fringe came close to matching the Festival for ambition and scale.

To look at Tom Cairns’ design for Minetti, which played in the middle of the Festival, you’d say there was no shortage of ambition and scale there either. His towering evocation of a 1970s hotel lobby was a gorgeous sight. Less persuasive, however, was Thomas Bernhard’s play about a has-been actor convinced he is about to make a comeback as King Lear.

Despite the conviction of Peter Eyre’s performance, this portrait of a tedious old man was in itself tedious. However much his deliberate repetitions aspired to a Beckett-like level of existential philosophy, they remained resolutely earthbound.

Putting on misses as well as hits is an inevitable part of the game and, to Mills’ credit, there have been far more of the latter. Yes, we could mutter about 365, Caledonia and Metamorphosis; yes, we could argue about those that have split opinions, such as Wonderland, The Sun Always Rises and Leaving Planet Earth; but I for one would be first in the queue for any festival that could give me Grzegorz Jarzyna’s 4:48 Psychosis, Silviu Purcarete’s Faust, Tim Supple’s One Thousand And One Nights, Camille O’Sullivan in The Rape Of Lucrece and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir. Over to you, Fergus Linehan. n

Twitter: @MarkFFisher