Various venues, Edinburgh
, 2007
*** / *** / *****

The star ratings I have given to this year's Edinburgh International Festival theatre offerings do not always reflect the consistent interest of the shows. Where his predecessor Brian McMaster sometimes seemed to view épater les bourgeois as an end in itself, new director Jonathan Mills' selections have always contained an amount of thoughtfulness to be respected and engaged with even when aesthetically or artistically they may not have pushed a particular spectator's buttons.

So it is for me with Lee Breuer's Mabou Mines DollHouse and American Repertory Theatre's Orpheus X. The central idea of the former is what Breuer has called "the politics of scale": the actresses in this version of Ibsen's proto-feminist drama are all on the tall side (and in one instance, augmented by stilts), whereas the men are played by actors of restricted growth. We see Maude Mitchell's Nora Helmer, required to conform to husband Torvald's restrictive expectations, literally cramped on a stage set too small for her, making concrete the metaphor of the title. She also uses a voice that is by turns infantile and Betty Boop-cartoon-vamp, as if these were the only dimensions allowed to her in such a marriage and society. Indeed, all characters deliver their lines in ludicrous caricature-Scandinavian accents to distance us from all the conflicting value systems in play.

All fine ideas, but once each aspect has been played out a few times, the point has been made. Mark Povinelli executes some vaudeville pratfall routines to puncture Torvald's self-importance; a couple of strobe-lit silent-movie-style sequences emphasise the decision to go for melodrama in what is usually seen as one of the first properly modern dramas; but successive iterations provide momentary amusement rather than developing the basic ideas.

What could probably have "bought" these indulgences is a shocking change of key for the final scene in which Nora realises that she can no longer continue in this stultifying life, and declares her intention to leave Torvald. Instead of shock, though, Breuer gives us another twist of artifice, as the duologue is delivered in cod-grand opera arias with an array of marionette Torvalds and Noras re-enacting the argument in an array of plush opera boxes upstage. Once again, plenty to think about, but little to care about.

Such an arresting finale does take place in Rinde Eckert's Orpheus X. As well as writing both text and music, Eckert plays Orpheus himself: an ageing rock star who becomes obsessed by the so-so poet Eurydice whom he ran over and killed. The climax comes when, just as Orpheus's harrowing music has won him the right to bring her back from the underworld provided he does not look at her en route, Eurydice herself rips off his blindfold, asking, "Did you think I would welcome rescue?" Eckert's three-handed rock opera (which at times sounds feelingly reminiscent of some of the work of Peter Hammill) finds much more of interest in Eurydice's relationship with her creative spirit and with Persephone, queen of the dead. The programme notes reveal that Eurydice's final sacrifice is also motivated by her recognition that Orpheus must return to the mortal world with his gift still intact, but the piece's impact is far stronger without this knowledge.

And a far better job than Breuer's of challenging audience preconceptions and prejudices is done by Brendon Burns in his 2007 Fringe comedy show, So I Suppose THIS Is Offensive Now. For years Burns has addressed his own issues (with notable success) and everyone else's (rather more quixotically) in a series of forthright, vigorously foul-mouthed in-yer-face comedy sets. This year Burns, on the way up in terms of sharpness, has met culture in general, on the way down, and the result is cataclysmic. His show hinges on a climactic coup de théâtre which is genuinely inspired, and provides the kind of smack in the face which is immensely invigorating when delivered by a piece of theatre and virtually unprecedented in recent stand-up comedy. Burns was the strong favourite to win this year's principal if.comeddie award, and he richly deserves the result announced on Saturday night.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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