Edinburgh Fringe reviews: The Last of the Soviets | A Fairie Tale | Ancient Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer | Gareth Williams: Songs from the Last Page
The Last of the Soviets ****
Zoo Playground (Venue 186) until 27 August
Two Russian newsreaders, one male, one female, sit behind a desk, formal and businesslike, reading the events of the day in a dry monotone. Before them lies a spread of materials and foodstuffs arranged on plates, which they begin to arrange before the table-mounted camera in ever-more eccentric and sinisterly destructive ways.
A plate decorated with caviar and a delicately sliced portion of the man’s tie is smashed with a hammer. A small toy soldier is stamped into the soil. Her face is pressed to the table and her hair brutally trailed in the muck and freshly-chewed animal bones, while he spits water over her. Meanwhile the audience are offered caviar canapes and shots of vodka, while the pair keep returning to spoken excerpts which read less like news and more like harrowing first-person reminiscences.
Inspired by the works of Belarusian dissident writer and Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich, the words performed with grim determination by Czech Republic-based Russian exiles Inga Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov span the glory years of the Soviet Union as a pre-eminent global superpower, from the blood-lashed soil of the conflict with Nazi Germany, to the dark and poorly-reported days of the Chernobyl disaster in what’s now independent Ukraine.
Amid it all, a sense of the Russian psyche of the era – which apparently permeates to this day – wears through; a respect and approval for masculinity; the greyness of state propaganda versus a distrust for all leaders and official narratives which it engenders; the pitch-black sense of humour behind a litany of jokes about the Ukraine disaster.
The Spitfire Company’s previously acclaimed Fringe hits include Miss America and Antiwords. If it all sounds grim and harrowing, the stark and relentlessly uncompromising sense of humour permeates everything happening on stage, creating a striking, moody piece of work which is as captivating as a disaster happening in real time. David Pollock
A Fairie Tale ****
Scottish Storytelling Centre, Netherbow Theatre (Venue 30) until 27 August
Niall Moorjani is a prolific storyteller, with an impressive three shows at the fringe this year including children’s show, Grow, and last year’s acclaimed, Mohan: A Partition Story. A Fairie Tale made its first debut as work-in-progress at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2022 and been reworked into a tight work that exudes confidence and style.
Moorjani is among an excellent generation of South Asian Scots theatremakers, with contemporaries such as Annie George and Maryam Hamidi, writing on contemporary Scottish life rich with the cultural memory of the Asian diaspora. Moorjani exudes charisma and warmth, grounded with the most Scottish of humour (lets face it, we really do have the best sweary words). Taking the story of Thomas the Rhymer as its leaping-off point, Moorjani’s tale is scored on cello by Diana Redgrave as they take us to the Fairie Underworld on the back of a magical horse following a kiss with the mysterious Thane, an androgynous figure who enchants Moorjani’s ‘sweet teller’.
In Moorjani’s fairie court there is no gender binary and revels there abound as much in queer culture and sexuality as in magic and transformation. This is ultimately a fable of finding oneself by allowing yourself to go beyond the bounds of what we believe is allowed. Moorjani’s story is poignant and at points evokes horror and a Bluebeard behind the locked door of the closet, such is the deep fear of rejection and risk of exploring the unconscious of the whole self. Moorjani enchants the audience with a show which holds heavy issues lightly, relaying the contemporary queer experience through the themes and figures of Scottish mythology with remarkable skill and vulnerability, evoking well-earned empathy from the audience by the end of this fabulous journey to self-acceptance and self-love. Laura Cameron-Lewis
Ancient Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer ***
artSpace @ StMarks (Venue 125) until 19 August
The Border ballad of Thomas the Rhymer is based on the real-life Thomas Learmont, a 13th century Scottish laird from Earlston, who supposedly had the ability to tell the future. In the ballad itself, Thomas meets the queen of the elves and is shown three pathways he can take with her – the one into heaven, the one onto hell and the one to her own kingdom, which he chooses. It’s here he learns the art of prophecy, and also becomes magically unable to tell a lie.
It's all perfectly fertile ground for a children’s show, and here the three performers putting it on go for a straight retelling, albeit with a high level of interaction. Children are invited onstage to dress up and take part in Thomas’s journey, even reading lines at the direction of faerie Queen Julia Munrow; there’s a medieval tone to the language, so this may appeal more to the adults in the room as a work of storytelling, but it still appears a fun, engaging experience.
The really enjoyable part of the show, however, comes with the folksy live musical score of John Sampson and Pete Baynes, particularly the parts where forgotten instruments from history – a shell, a crumhorn, a goat’s horn – are played to much intrigue and delight. David Pollock
Gareth Williams: Songs from the Last Page ****
Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30) until 18 August
It sounds such a perversely odd project by composer-songwriter Gareth Williams – to write songs around the final paragraphs of novels or short stories by notable Scottish authors, past and present. The last word, you might think, in eccentricity.
Yet these closing phrases, sung from the keyboard by Williams with a confiding warmth and passion, plus atmospheric violin and cello accompaniments from Aisling O Dea and Justyna Jablonska, can encapsulate the essential nub, of truth or otherwise, of a story, reprising its drama, terror, poignancy or existential resignation.
Take, for instance, hoary old classics like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear, ending with a frustrated Sherlock Holmes: his “fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil.” Or the sinister cries of “Pieces of Eight!” that haunt the narrator’s dreams in Treasure Island, which Williams renders with a suitable degree of melodrama.
As he takes books from a pile by his keyboard, reading then singing their closing phrases, sign-offs from more contemporary novels see Ali Smith saluting old bones in How To Be Both and Alasdair Gray contemplating maps and mortality in the epilogue to his mighty Lanark. In contrast, an exuberant treatment lends a note of triumph to the pithy station platform exchange closing Ely Percy’s Paisley-set novel Duck Feet while, in a Gaelic interlude, Deirdre Graham joins the trio to sing her poignant lullaby, Bà Bà Mo Leanabh, in response to collected letters from Gaels in the First World War trenches.
From the pathos of Jackie Kay’s Pink house to the pizzicato strings ticking away time in the bittersweet conclusion of Peter Pan, Williams’s music lifts words off the page, transfiguring them while at the same time re-focussing our understanding. Jim Gilchrist