Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre, dance and circus reviews: He’s Dead | Civilisation | Look At Me, Don’t Look At Me | Bad Teacher | Tiger Lady

Our latest round-up of reviews includes a powerful piece of experimental dance theatre, some high-speed character comedy, and a vivid circus fantasia. Words by David Pollock and Sally Stott.

DANCE, PHYSICAL THEATRE AND CIRCUS

He’s Dead ****

Summerhall (Venue 26)

He's Dead. PIC: Elise Rose.

Through the unsettling atmosphere of an industrial futuristic world, dark and heavy with smoke, the sharp shapes of what could be a gang of cyber-goths, or even an army, emerge from the smoke, their bodies moving in unison, powerful, confrontational, towards us.

It’s an arresting opener for this shape-shifting piece of experimental dance theatre. “Was Tupac depressed?” is the question that artist and choreographer Malik Nashad Sharpe (Marikiscrycrycry) is exploring, according to the over-simplified headline on the marketing material, but the piece feels bigger and more open ended than that, primarily driven by a structure of ever-evolving moods that draw on the experience of being black as well as simply human.

Propelled by the evolution of a rich soundscape, by Yummy Online and Joanna Pope, which includes music by JONI, the performance takes us from the angry, tightly choreographed intensity of the opening scene, into the horrifying but also invigorating violence of war, before finding something more compassionate, through the simple act of two people washing, in the windswept wasteland of the aftermath.

The dancers slickly move through the different moods of the piece - sharp, jagged and sleek - the sweeps and falls of their bodies mimicking the ups and downs of the beats, as they move together or apart with military precision, before they finally become looser, freer, and the sun begins to rise. The anger and, ultimately, sadness feels real, even if the reason behind it is more elusive. Words spoken through the music create fragmented themes: “interrogate justice by those perceived as flawed, those denied sadness, denied acknowledgment and denied a voice.”

It’s powerful stuff, disturbing, enlivening and ultimately moving in a way that it’s difficult to pinpoint, but feels deeply embedded in our feelings of fear, of others, of ourselves, and the dark but also more compassionate places that this can lead. Sally Stott

Until 28 August

THEATRE

Civilisation ****

Zoo Southside (Venue 82)

It’s sunny out there, a young woman is drying her hair and getting ready to go somewhere, but it slowly becomes apparent that it isn’t a place that’s as upbeat as the music that fills her flat, along with bouquets of flowers and the remnants of a man now gone. As she carries out everyday activities – getting dressed, frying an egg, making her bed – her blank face mimics ABBA’s lyrics “don’t go wasting your emotion”.

Occasionally dancers join her routine, moving more expressively to emotive ‘80s hits, revealing the energy of contemporary movement as well as the poise of classical ballet that perhaps also exists within her outwardly stoic persona. A strikingly sad moment when she destroys a bunch of flowers is almost the only time she loses control. Otherwise, she makes her bed, gets distracted by YouTube, plays the stupidly repetitive game Bop It! and watches porn with exactly the same bored listlessness.

Is her apathy a façade? Will she eventually break down? It’s a piece that isn’t scared of exploring these questions in real time in a way that makes the moments of heightened dance all the more enlivening.

Through the sharp shapes of the choreography – sometimes synchronised, sometimes not – we get an insight into not only an everyday personal tragedy, but an empowered perspective on grief and sadness, as well as being together and alone. “Be a man,” sings another song as, wearing all of her former partner’s clothes, she assertively carries out a business call, sad and silly but also strong.

When she finally packs up the flat and the dancers melt away, it’s done with a similar focus – one that doesn’t come from someone who is broken, but instead is quietly, formidably impressive in the most difficult of circumstances in a way that a lot of us often are. Sally Stott

Until 28 August

Look At Me, Don’t Look at Me ***

Pleasance Dome (Venue 323)

“I don’t need you to like me,” says Lizzie Siddal, at the start of fun, feminist theatre company RashDash’s rethinking of her role as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous muse. “Look at me, don’t look at me,” she angrily repeats, torn between wanting the pleasure of his (and our) attention, and frustrated by the pain of all-consuming desire.

Through powerful harmonies and excellent original songs that capture this inner conflict, writer/ performer Abbi Greenland’s Lizzie becomes sick, as she is worn down by Becky Wilkie’s Rosetti, a comically insecure caricature of ‘the male genius artist’ who, accompanying her on the piano, paints (and plays) himself out of accountability in a way that is great, guilty fun – but also feeds confusion over where our sympathies should lie.

Portraying Lizzie as a long-suffering mistress-then-wife, against Rosetti as a comic philanderer who “needs to be free”, creates an unusual mix of upbeat comedy and more thoughtful commentary on the way women’s suffering was and perhaps still is romanticised.

It’s a show that can sometimes feel like its feeding as well as challenging male and female stereotypes – but mainly it’s an enjoyably original reimagining of an intriguing couple and a silly-sensible questioning of how we remember them. Sally Stott

Until 28 August

Bad Teacher ***

Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302)

We can’t vouch for the authenticity of what the young teacher at the heart of this new production gets up to outside the workplace, but in the classroom there’s no doubt a large shot of truth to this high-speed character comedy. The show is produced by young company Queens of Cups, aka writer and performer Erin Holland and director Grace O’Keefe, and it draws upon both of their past histories as schoolteachers.

Holland’s character Evie is a fraught but not-untypical twentysomething when she’s off-duty, going clubbing, consuming drink and drugs, and sexting with her older boyfriend Andy, whose penile dimensions she has plenty of thoughts on. Yet in work she’s diligent, hard-working and thoroughly underappreciated, whether she’s approaching the headteacher for a pay rise, getting ready for the twin disasters of parents’ evening and an Ofsted inspection on the same day, or trying to help a troubled young girl in class.

There’s comedy and tragedy to her story, but the play goes stronger on the former, and Holland’s performance is a real treat. She performs her own script with pacey energy and a good feel for how best to deliver her jokes, creating a solid hour’s entertainment which will ring especially true with teachers and anyone who struggles their way through life as an essential worker. David Pollock

Until 29 August

Tiger Lady ***

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

“In the circus you earn your scars,” says one character amid Dead Rabbits Theatre’s smart piece of historical biography retuned as a vivid circus fantasia of the 1920s. Co-writer Natisha Williams-Samuels is the Tiger Lady of the title, the real-life pioneer in the field of tiger training Mabel Stark. The piece dramatises Stark running away from Kentucky to travel with the circus and her push to work with the big cats, even though a woman doing so is inevitably frowned upon.

The story’s handled with great physical invention, bringing the spectacle of the circus to a small theatre stage. There are real, more spectacular full-scale circuses to be seen in Edinburgh this month, of course, but as a storytelling device what happens here is very pleasing on the eye, especially when giving a sense of a ‘big animal’ era of circus which is almost entirely gone. Memorably, a convincing elephant is created out of a large sheet and Rajah the tiger looks fearsome, despite being created from a facemask and some good lighting.

There’s a lot going on here, including some live washboard and banjo music, acrobatics and a little audience participation. If anything, the devised nature of the piece perhaps contributes to its over-busyness, but a tight and very talented ensemble hold the narrative together in a piece which celebrates the diversity of the traditional circus life. David Pollock

Until 29 August