Serendipity is what you're aiming for in Edinburgh: a happy discovery out of the blue. Yes, it sounds like a paradox, like "expect the unexpected". But up here, you must not just expect it, but welcome it. So if you hear, for instance (in a genuine example from a few years ago), of a 15-minute musical about an air stewardess called The Jolly Folly Of Polly The Scottish Trolley Dolly playing in a minor venue towards the bottom of the Royal Mile, well, it's not so much time or money, so you've nothing to lose by taking a punt on it. And if you're staggering across the Royal Mile in the small hours and meet a crowd of drunken loudmouths, wait for a couple of minutes before writing them off: it could be comedian Arthur Smith's legendary Alternative Walking Tour. This event, though, is now in semi-retirement following an incident in 2000 when the reeling mob was mistaken for a bunch of nocturnal anti-Ann Widdecombe protesters (no, honestly), which led to the arrest of avant-comic Simon Munnery for assaulting a police officer... "assaulting" in the sense of getting in the way of the cop's body-charge. (Munnery's trial and acquittal were amusing, too, in retrospect though not at the time, and also took place outside Festival season.)
The true Edinburgh experience is being knocked sideways by a show, trying to explain it to others and realising that there's no way you can do so and sound remotely compos mentis, such as the piece about ten years ago which consisted of a Hungarian woman in a sealed Perspex tank, performing a dance routine whose duration and moves were limited by the available air in the box. And sometimes, to be sure, these responses are simply attributable to the mass hysteria known in the trade as "the Edinburgh bends".
But sometimes not. If I were to say that last week I was affected beyond words by a Polish theatre company singing the ancient Sumerian Epic Of Gilgamesh in the strange polyphonic harmonies of southern Albania, you'd no doubt wonder whether I've been getting enough sleep lately. Yet Chronicles: A Lamentation by the Piesn Kozla company, is a remarkable piece of work. The seven performers seem to pluck musical notes out of the air and shape them with their hands and bodies as they enact their 35-minute piece. To be honest, I could see no connection between the printed translation of the sung text and the actions onstage, but the cycle of conception, birth, life, death and mourning was clearly conveyed by the cast's movements, all the while singing in the kind of style popularised in the west by the Mystère des Voix Bulgares albums of the 1980s. It all seemed admirable and impressive, though hardly shattering. And then, a few minutes after the show was over, whilst walking away from the venue (Aurora Nova at St Stephen's), I had to stop in my tracks: I found I was fighting back tears, for no reason I could consciously identify. Somehow the piece had bypassed the conscious areas of my mind altogether and tapped into the well of basic emotion.
Harrowing stuff. But the main discovery of the month so far is altogether more joyous: a bunch of Ukrainian paper-tearing clowns. Here we go again, you're thinking, but no. Around 1990, Italian "origami impressionist" Ennio Marchetto was the hit of the Fringe, performing a series of mime impersonations whilst wearing amazingly intricate costumes he had constructed out of cardboard. Marchetto returns this weekend for the first time in several years, but he may find his thunder already stolen by the Mim-I-Richi company and their show Paper World. Not that their show is as painstakingly designed... dear me, no. They simply tear loads of plain paper up and play with it. And I mean loads: possibly around an acre of the stuff per show. You walk into the theatre, see a huge paper backdrop of around 20ft x 20ft, and think, "Ah, that'll be the climax of the show." Not a bit of it: it's already in shreds after half an hour, and the fun keeps coming.
Mim-I-Richi's discovery is a simple one: tear paper, crumple it up, and you can pretend it's just about anything: a football, a baby, a man-eating monster, whatever. It's the same sort of aesthetic which has informed many of designer Julian Crouch's projects in the UK with Improbable Theatre, but more endearingly ramshackle. Like Improbable, too, Mim-I-Richi relish the spontaneous and unexpected; it's that shared delight in the moment which is at the heart of the best clowning. They go to great lengths to involve the entire audience in their show, and are happy to take ideas and run with them, even when the "idea" is an uncontrollable little boy in the front row who won't stop flinging balls of paper back at them. For this isn't enforced audience participation of the "let's pretend we're having fun" kind. The four performers manage to get hundreds of people in the Pod Deco's main space all pratting gleefully about like kids in a playground; they create an atmosphere of free play that is intensely liberating, and make sure that every single person in the house is carried along. All that without a single word of dialogue. People by the hundred are discovering Mim-I-Richi up here, but that doesn't make the joy of serendipity any less when you find them yourself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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