The Traverse is the first stop for the serious Edinburgh Fringe theatregoer, now not just in terms of quality but of chronology; its two flagship productions began on July 30. Fine pieces of work they are, too. David Greig's Outlying Islands confirms him as probably the most thoughtful major playwright currently working in Scotland, and Iron by Rona Munro admirably avoids any kind of artificial dramatic shapeliness in a prison-located examination of family relationships.
Greig sets a pair of Cambridge ornithologists on a rock in the Atlantic together with a dour crofter and his niece. It is the edge of the world in more ways than one: it is 1939. Big issues – the ecology of a haven for rare seabirds versus the Ministry's desire to use the island as an anthrax test ground – jostle with more intimate matters, as both young men vie for the girl's attentions. A remarkable performance by Laurence Mitchell, as a researcher with a kind of emotional autism, is rather sacrificed by Greig in an overly neat, in some ways high-romantic ending, but the preceding matters are first-rate.
Any such temptations to closure are resolutely shunned by Munro, in her tale of the reunion after fifteen years of Josie and her mother Fay, the latter serving a life sentence for the murder of Josie's father. The play uncovers both the family history and Fay's strange combination of manipulation and panic in areas where she is powerless. Sandy McDade's performance in the role is terrific: flinty and jittery, callous and concerned not just by turns but at once, she makes these insecurities and inconsistencies the core of Fay's character. And Munro's play reminds us that life is seldom as neat and explicable as theatre.
The Traverse has now scheduled a late-night comedy strand, kicking off with Will Durst's gleeful excoriations of the Bush regime. Weeks to come will see Stewart Lee, Neil Innes and John Dowie, and Barry Cryer. One of Cryer's old gags is about an Indian theatre critic called Pandit Unmercifuli, which brings us to Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan. Indian company Teamwork Films' stage pastiche of a 1970s love-and-social-grit Bollywood musical would not be out of place in a number of Fringe venues, but on the Traverse's main stage it is horribly over-exposed. Costumes and set missing in transit do not explain the company's limited acting range, stuttering pace and awkward writing by Sohaila Kapur (sister of film director Shekhar Kapur). If enthusiasm translated into ability, the company would have no problems. But it doesn't, and they do.
A similar problem, though to a much lesser extent, has beset young company Unlimited Theatre, elevated to the Traverse after garnering Fringe Firsts in 2000 and 2001. They have, I think, been too lauded, too soon. Chris Thorpe's Safety, about a celebrated war photographer scarred by both war and celebrity, makes a number of trenchant points about the commodification of news, but doesn't do so particularly powerfully or originally.
In the smaller Traverse Two, a brace of deliciously dark works are on show. Stitching follows a couple's slow sundering in writer/director Anthony Neilson's trademark manner. The language is direct and forthright, and even without portraying them, the mere discussion of various acts is made harrowing. Neilson specialises in violations of intimacy, in flaying relationships to the bone, and we are both exhilarated by his dissections and disconcerted by the events portrayed and by our own responses to them. Gary Owen's The Drowned World is in some ways a swirling, sci-fi cousin to Sarah Kane's Crave, and like that work's premiere it is strongly directed by Vicky Featherstone for Paines Plough. In this world, "radiance" is a communicable disease, and the "clumsy... mean-spirited... cowardly" citizenry have embarked on the annihilation of those who are "radiant". Relics from the latter – hair, teeth – become prized on the black market for communicating this mysterious quality, and ideas of persecution and shelter, of rescue and remaking both intentional and accidental, of fundamental self-confidence, whirl together hauntingly.
A last word on Pig Iron Theatre Company's Shut Eye: to paraphrase a classic Fringe listings one-liner, "Lovers of Joseph Chaikin-devised work will love this Joseph Chaikin-devised work." The rest of us needn't bother.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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