Edinburgh Festivals 2019: Top theatre picks - five of the best shows we’ve seen so far

From adaptations of classics to post-modern tragedies, our critics share five of the best thought-provoking plays from opening productions across the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe
Until The Flood, Traverse Theatre, EdinburghUntil The Flood, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Until The Flood, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Until the Flood, Traverse 2 *****

The latest show by magnificent New York writer and performer Dael Orlandersmith is a searing account of the 2014 killing of young black man Michael Brown by a young white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. The tragic death helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement and exposed bitter and frightening racial fault-lines in American society, where once those divisions were thought to be healing.

In an immaculate 75 minutes of solo theatre, with the help of powerful visual images by Nicholas Hussong, Orlandersmith creates a series of seven characters, each with a different perspective. They range from retired black schoolteacher Louisa who remembers the whole history of the civil rights struggle, through two young black teenagers struggling for survival and escape, to the wise Ferguson barber-shop owner Reuben, and the terrifying Dougray, who morphs before our eyes from admirable white working-class success-story to full-blown white supremacist, declaring that these day, when he watches Schindler’s List, it’s with the Nazi that he identifies.

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Yet even in this brilliantly and superbly-performed anatomy of the multiple meanings of a single incident, the sense of something spinning out of control is palpable. Towards the end, Orlandersmith walks away from her characters, and gives us some closing words in her own voice. “Has the wake-up call been answered and deleted?” she asks, suggesting that we may find out, very soon.

Until 25 August

La Reprise, Lyceum Theatre ****

There is a profound sense of political pain and sorrow in Rau’s gentle but relentless dissection of the circumstances surrounding the death of Ihsane Jarfi, a young gay man who disappeared from outside a Liege nightclub in 2012, and was found in nearby woodland ten days later, savagely beaten to death.

Set in the depressed landscape of post-industrial Liege, Rau’s 100-minute show begins with the auditioning of some Liege-based actors for roles in the tragedy, and as fragments of the city’s broken history emerge from their personal stories, the show also begins a powerful inquiry into what theatre can do to give true expression to a story of a dispossessed community, and the victims of its profound alienation and bruised macho culture.

Using live video fluently and sometimes with searing intensity, La Reprise features some of the most thoughtful and profoundly responsible performances you are likely to see in European theatre today, from a company of actors who have all been deeply involved in the development of the work, and who all seem deeply committed to Rau’s “Ghent Manifesto” values, promising theatre that tries to change the world. Until 5 August

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A brilliant and often hilarious account of a male life run off course and then redeemed at the last, David Hare’s new 21st century version of Peer Gynt – which takes triumphantly to the Festival Theatre stage as one of the opening productions of this year’s International Festival – is about as free an adaptation of Ibsen’s great 1867 epic as an audience could hope for.

Lavishly updated to a world of laptops, global financial markets, and dodgy western intervention in conflicts between two types of Islam, this co-production between the National Theatre in London and the Edinburgh International Festival is given a strong contemporary Scottish accent that fits like a glove around Ibsen’s tale of a rural wide-boy turned global imperialist.

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It is both remarkable and thrilling to discover that the main impact of Jonathan Kent’s spectacular production – with massive, dream-like sets by Richard Hudson – is to remind us of the sheer enduring brilliance, and continuing power, of Ibsen’s original vision. At a moment of civilisational crisis brought about by uncontrolled greed and often driven by toxic ideas about masculinity, it is breathtakingly impressive to see how accurately Ibsen foresaw both the crisis, and the psychological detail of the cult of individualism that would bring it about. Until 10 August

Enough, Traverse 2, Edinburgh ****

Two immaculately-dressed female flight attendants gradually crumbling in a failing world as an aircraft plunges to destruction, - the image that lies at the heart of Stef Smith’s terrific and terrifying new stage poem for two actors, Enough.

Enough also revolves powerfully around a sense of earthquake and instability, as the beloved home Jane shares with her husband and children succumbs to subsidence, and Toni is tormented, from city to city, by a deep sense of tremor in the earth beneath her.

Yet there’s also huge lightness, humour and energy in Smith’s writing, as she sends up the once-magical role of “air hostesses” as global symbols of modernity, freedom, flight, and sex; and as she explores the profound love between two women who may not be partners, but are still drawn to one another in ways often too complicated to express, except by getting roaring drunk together in cities across the world.

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And if Bryony Shanahan’s otherwise pitch-perfect production falters slightly in pace and focus just before the end, it’s perhaps because Smith herself cannot quite tie up the loose ends of a play full of resonant half-finished sentences. “Have you seen the news? Terrible. What can we…” and “It’s as if the whole of history…” Until 25 August

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, Traverse 2 ****

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A story that begins with a single human tragedy, but rapidly expands to create a powerful non-western perspective on a global civilisation beginning to spin out of control.

Javaad Alipoor’s new show Rich Kids: A History Of Shopping Malls In Tehran, co-created with Kirsty Housley, Rich Kids also revolves around an image of something hurtling towards destruction; but in this case the primary image, conveyed through the show’s Instagram account which we’re all invited to join, as well as on the shifting screens that dominate the stage, is of a crushed and mangled yellow Porsche in which the wealthy son of one of Iran’s revolutionary leaders, and the middle-class girl with whom he has been cheating on his fianceé, meet their deaths during a wild night in Tehran.

Behind the story of Hossein and his girlfriend lies the whole accelerating arc of modern and post-modern global history, as Iran emerges into modernity as a rich source of oil exploited by the west, then rises up in revolution against that western domination, and then spawns a revolutionary elite whose children can and do enter a hyper-homogenised global shopping culture, and live the western consumer dream. Until 25 August