FROM Strindberg in South Africa to an action film Macbeth and a Korean Electra, there are no also-rans in the festivals’ bid to break new ground in drama
IF THE Edinburgh festivals are the Olympics of the arts world, when are they going to start testing for performance-enhancing drugs? Surely any sporting adjudicator watching Mies Julie, the sensational hit from the Baxter Theatre Centre and South African State Theatre, would wonder whether it was humanly possible to build a show of such violence and eroticism without chemical aid.
But, of course, the stunning performances in Yael Farber’s production are all the actors’ own. Just as much as any athletic triumph, their achievement is one of breathtaking control and prowess. Hilda Cronje in the title role and Bongile Mantsai as her servant John are actors prepared to take their conflicting impulses of sexual desire and political repulsion to the limit. Moment by moment, we’ve no idea whether they’ll tear each other apart or submit to each other in a frenzy of sexual ecstasy.
Such intensity has been made possible by Farber’s brilliant re-imagining of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Where the original exposed the tensions in the class system in its story of the upper-class Julie seducing her man-servant Jean, this radical version switches the setting to a post-apartheid kitchen where the characters carry the weight of not just class but the whole sad legacy of South African racial oppression. Their attraction is primal, but with it comes the terrible knowledge that they are not meeting as equals.
Farber ups the stakes further by turning the third character of Christine from John’s fiancée into his mother. Played by Thokozile Ntshinga, she has tended to Julie since she was a newborn baby, showing her as much love as she does her own son. Yet this close domestic bond only seems to amplify the cultural differences between the two and to bring home the tragic impossibility of their union. The result is bloody, brutal and riven with a vicious passion.
The production, part of Assembly’s impressive eight-show South African season, is the closest this year’s Fringe has to a runaway hit. There are plenty of fine shows elsewhere, of course, but this is the one animating audiences in a way that only an electrifying Fringe show can do. It demonstrates the Edinburgh International Festival is not the only player in town when it comes to world-class work from abroad.
It seems a long time ago now, but when Jonathan Mills programmed his first Edinburgh International Festival in 2007, he gave his audience a challenge. Noting the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the birth of modern opera, he wanted us to think about the boundaries between music and theatre. By scheduling shows such as the Wooster Group’s La Didone and Barrie Kosky’s Poppea, which owed as much to experimental theatre as they did to opera, he made us question the definitions we impose on art.
If a director fancied blending a 1965 sci-fi B-movie with a 17th-century opera by Francesco Cavalli, as the Wooster Group’s Elizabeth LeCompte did, then it only went to show what a broad church theatre could be.
In a different way, Mills seems to be making a similar point with his bumper theatre line-up in 2012. Unlike in previous years, he has made no thematic connection between the shows, but by presenting so many of them in quick succession, he reminds us just how elastic the definition of theatre has become.
In less than a week, I have partaken in a night-time ramble, seen Shakespeare given a hi-tech relocation to the Middle East, enjoyed an eccentric music-theatre response to My Fair Lady, been seduced by an acting technique developed in a Japanese mountain village 600m above sea level, and been captivated by a one-man piece of Irish storytelling.
All of these experiences are classified as theatre – with the exception of NVA’s Speed Of Light, a piece of environmental art in a category of its own – yet you’d struggle to connect them in terms of their mood, purpose, form or audience relationship. Politically, aesthetically and artistically, they have little in common. What they do share, however, is a sense of adventure, boldness and artistic vision. As a result, they have provided some of the most enjoyable and stimulating hours of the festivals so far.
As is routinely the case with EIF shows, such boldness comes at a price. If you choose, like Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, to situate Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a world defined by the Hollywood action film (with the odd David Lynch-ism thrown in), you have to accept that something will be lost in the process. For all its many strengths, 2008: Macbeth will not be remembered for the felicity of its verse, for example. The up-side is the tremendous urgency Jarzyna brings to the story, thanks to his visceral vision of modern-day military manoeuvres, complete with carousing soldiers, deafening aircraft and earth-shattering explosions.
Performed until yesterday on an imposing stage evoking the stark concrete and shaded interiors of a military hotspot in the Middle East, it maintains the shape of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but in detail it is every bit a play for today. Cezary Kosinski’s Macbeth looks like a war criminal even before he gets his first promotion and needs to be goaded by Aleksandra Konieczna’s Lady Macbeth only in uncharacteristic moments of doubt. For the most part, he treats her with the contempt of a man making a bid for despotic control.
The mood at the other end of the Royal Highland Centre couldn’t be more different. Here, in Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor, Christoph Marthaler makes a music-theatre response to My Fair Lady. The relationship to the original ranges from the tangential to the obscure. There’s a theme about translation and correct pronunciation, plus the occasional melody from the musical and the odd echo of the key characters. But in this gloriously batty production, it pays not to ask too many questions.
After all, there can surely be no rational explanation for the scene in which Professor Higgins, wearing tight-fitting man-made fabrics, engages in a food fight with a frumpy, middle-aged Eliza Doolittle as they tuck into airline meals while sitting in a language lab. That’s before they comfort the Frankenstein’s monster who’s sitting at the electric organ. All this is accompanied by the rest of the cast at the piano singing about a trip to a far-away star. The musical selection, from Wagner to George Michael, is no less eccentric, but it is frequently performed with great beauty and sensitivity. It means you laugh at the oddball clowning, the retro stylings and the ironic comedy of manners without ever quite letting go of the possibility that there is a serious undertow to the whole thing.
In contrast to the exuberance at Ingliston, the two plays that ran at the start of the week in town were exquisite jewels. In Samuel Beckett’s Watt, a comic study of nothingness, Barry McGovern gave a masterclass in the art of storytelling. His voice sonorous, his poise still, he delivered his own edited version of the novel with such precision that we relished every perfectly chosen word. And Waiting For Orestes: Electra offered a second masterclass in precision as director Tadashi Suzuki invested the Ancient Greek classic with a mesmerising level of tension. The longer Yoo-Jeong Byun held her silent pose as Electra, the more powerful you knew her retribution on her murderous mother would be. It was a thrill to watch.
• Mies Julie, Assembly Hall, until 27 August (not 20); Speed Of Light, Arthur’s Seat, until 1 Sep (not 13, 14, 20, 21, 28); 2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, run ended; Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor, Royal Highland Centre, until today; Watt, Royal Lyceum, run ended; Waiting For Orestes: Electra, King’s Theatre, run ended. www.edfringe.com; www.eif.co.uk