Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Opened 12 August, 2002

Edinburgh International Festival's director Brian McMaster may deny that it is now the Fringe that makes the running every August, but the evidence is against him. Ostensibly, the Festival stoutly refuses to resynchronise with the Fringe following the latter's decision a few years ago to begin a week earlier, but this year a week's worth of £5 concerts ran before the official Festival start date. That looks pretty irrefutably like either covert realignment or the introduction of a Fringe-style "Week Nought" to EIF.

Increasingly, too, McMaster's way of meeting demands for adventurous theatre billing seems to be to programme Fringe shows writ large. Last year featured a production from Soho Theatre Company; of 2002's first brace of theatre offerings, one is a presentation from site-specific Fringe specialists Grid Iron, the other Jon Fosse's The Girl On The Sofa, in a translation by David Harrower is a production by the Traverse Theatre, which is situated literally at the back of the Royal Lyceum. Yes, it's an international offering: a world première from a Norwegian playwright big in Germany, under a German director (Thomas Ostermeier of the Berlin Schaubühne, with whom this is a co-production) working with a predominantly English cast on a translation by a Scot. But despite the increase in resources and the bigger, proscenium Lyceum space in which it is staged, it feels essentially like a Traverse show.

The Girl On The Sofa is a 75-minute memory play. A failed painter tries to create an image of her younger self, lolling bored at home on days off school. We see the girl on the cusp of puberty, her sexually adventurous older sister, the absence of her father away almost permanently at sea, her mother's affair with his brother. In the present, the painter breaks up with her partner and copes with the imminent death of her mother by talking with older versions of her sister and father about the past.

Ostermeier's staging begins behind a gauze, making memory visibly a process of recalling people and events from a misty background. The family's living room is bounded by a skeletal framework, the merest suggestion of walls and doors; beyond this space (and sometimes even within it), characters not directly involved in the action stand, sit, move casually, watching the main goings-on or engaging desultorily in business of their own. Characters do not concretely interact across time, but seem to register each other as they observe and are observed, sometimes silently sharing a particular emotion at a particular moment.

It's visually impressive and scrupulously staged, but there's an essential diffidence to it all. Fosse says in the programme notes that often he begins writing without any direction or any given end in sight, waiting for a play to reveal its shape to him. That's exactly how this feels. It says some nice things; it says them, in Harrower's translation and Ostermeier's production, quite nicely. But, unlike our memories and our relation to them, there's nothing that compels the play to exist.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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