Pritham Chakravarty / The Taming Of The Shrew / Agnes / Oleanna / Kassandra / Red, Black And Ignorant / Correspondent /
The Al-Hamlet Summit / The Trojan Women /
Omid Djalili: Behind Enemy Lines
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2002

There's no getting away from it: sex and violence may be looked on as lowest-common-denominator buttons to push, but they sell. Even in the Edinburgh Festival proper, Indian theatre activist and storyteller Pritham Chakravarty has been regaling bemused audiences with a detailed account of the traditional method of castrating hijra transsexuals, complete with full recipes for the various treatments to stanch bleeding and minimise scarring.

This year on the Fringe the inevitable favourite play, Macbeth, is rivalled by The Taming Of The Shrew: you can choose from a feminist Shrew, an all-male Zimbabwean Shrew and a Welsh one on top of Calton Hill. Zimbabwe's Over The Edge company (Augustine's, venue 152) zip through the piece in 90 minutes, the six actors augmenting their number with life-size puppets. Their astute cutting of the text only comes a little unstuck in the notoriously knotty closing minutes.

Hull University's Z Theatre Company present Agnes, a tale of familial child sexual abuse, which at its best contains writing and performance imagery both intense and poetic, but is given a patchy production with misguided and distracting nods to multimedia. They're also hampered by appearing in a poorly converted hotel function room (Crowne Plaza Hotel, venue 39). But it's worth seeing despite its more erratic aspects.

The students from Z will learn to adapt to different performance spaces. Guy Masterson, after several years producing, directing and/or appearing in shows at the Scotsman Assembly (venue 3), should know better. In David Mamet's Oleanna, he plays a university lecturer accused of sexual harassment, and does so in the style of studio naturalism at which he excels. The trouble is that the play is housed in the complex's second biggest venue, the Ballroom; the acoustics and Masterson's habit of facing upstage when delivering his lines mean that we lose vast swathes of the script. It's also an odd decision to stage the play in English accents; Mamet's distinctive ear for the rhythms of American speech survives, but the campus-political climate portrayed is wholly alien to British universities.

Elsewhere, sex wars are supplanted by shooting wars. At the Underbelly (venue 61), Double Edge Drama revive Ivo Stourton's precocious verse drama Kassandra, which blends elements of Vietnam, Troy, the Wars of the Roses and several other conflicts. At Southside (venue 82), Edward Bond's war play Red, Black And Ignorant is given an intense but opaque performance in French by three actors and a five-piece hardcore band.

At Assembly, Greg Lyons' Correspondent examines the relationship between war and the media. When idealistic protagonist Liz (Sandy Walsh) finds the harrowing footage her more cynical cameraman had shot just before he was himself killed, she determines that her network should screen it. Her mission is to make a difference by reporting the horrors of war truthfully. She finds the unexpected cost of that difference brought home to her on a return visit. It's a well-crafted piece, especially when considered in combination with Safety at the Traverse: Correspondent's line of inquiry more or less begins where the other piece leaves off. But I suspect it will be stronger in the two-act form on which Lyons is apparently working.

The Al-Hamlet Summit (Pleasance Dome, venue 23) is a fascinating piece by London and Kuwait-based writer/director Sulayman Al Bassam. Shakespeare's story is updated into contemporary Middle Eastern political rhetoric, set in an unnamed Arab state and staged as if in a negotiation chamber, complete with nameplates, microphones and mini-video cameras on the desks of the six main characters. It works remarkably well until Hamlet's return from exile in England. At this point, the analogies break down, and too many plot strands generational conflict, westernised secularism and venality versus Islamic fundamentalism, commercial and political manipulation by external forces, the Israeli dimension crowd in to be tied up satisfactorily. But it remains one of the most intriguing and intelligent shows I have seen this year. It will shortly visit Cairo.

An equally invigorating find, though a much smaller-scale production, is The Trojan Women at C Cubed (venue 50). The company of recent graduates from York University have "freely adapted" Euripides' tragedy in which a trio of Trojan noblewomen await word and speculate as to how the victorious Greeks will treat them. They not only update the language but also convey the sensation of waiting in dread, of being on the cusp of something huge but unknown and never quite arriving, beautifully, with occasional discreet echoes of Chekhov and Beckett. It's the kind of little gem of a discovery that makes the Fringe a worthwhile experience.

This is also the year in which Anglo-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili definitively hits the spot. He has long been a sharp, endearing and also thoughtful performer, but in his current show Behind Enemy Lines (Pleasance, venue 33) he stops trying too hard to be liked at every moment, and delivers a set of often scabrous material, much of it directly or indirectly concerning September 11 and its aftermath, as seen from his unique viewpoint. The result, paradoxically, is that we take him to our hearts even more. Speculation about the Perrier Award seems an increasingly risky business, but let's just say I wouldn't be surprised...

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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