Futureproof / The Wheel / Mission Drift / Ten Plagues
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2011
**** / **** / *** / ***

Dense symbolism is the order of the day in the Traverse Theatre’s main house this Fringe season: from an ambivalently miraculous little girl, via a chanteuse named Miss Atomic, to an armless bearded lady, a pair of conjoined twins, a half-man/half-woman and a mute mermaid. The last batch are among the attractions of Riley’s (not quite Ripley’s) travelling Odditorium in Lynda Radley’s Futureproof. Carny freaks, of course, are often reviled by the townies who nevertheless pay to gawp at them. However, when Riley hits on the idea that the fattest man in the world losing all his weight and the bearded lady shaving might actually bring even more custom – “a spectacle of hope” which renders them “futureproof” – the pressure of normality becomes more intimate, insidious and tyrannical: the commodification of conformity, the ordinariness industry which pervades our own society. Dominic Hill’s co-production with Dundee Rep (his last show as artistic director of the Traverse before he moves to the Citizens in Glasgow) strikes exactly the right note, namely that strangeness is not otherness.

Several of Zinnie Harris’s plays have dealt with the human depredations of war. So does her latest, The Wheel, but although no less bleak than her other similar pieces, in Vicky Featherstone’s National Theatre of Scotland production it feels less astringent. Perhaps this is because the playwright whose voice echoes most strongly in the piece is not Howard Barker (as in her similar trilogy a few years back) but Brecht. When Beatriz (Catherine Walsh) takes charge of a little girl and sets out to find her father amid a Franco-Spanish war, in a trek which subsequently seems to take her through all lands and all wars, she becomes a kind of Mother Courage in reverse, acquiring more children and becoming harder-edged in nature. This transformation seems driven by the girl’s supernatural powers to acquire what this surrogate family needs but at increasing cost to those they encounter. What the girl may represent I don’t know (Belief? Ideology? Brute circumstance?), but the wheel of the title, as Beatriz returns to her home village, is that big cosmic one which none of us can stop, only try to learn to travel around.

The TEAM – Theatre of the Emerging American Moment – have become Fringe favourites over the past few years, and whilst I admire them greatly I had hitherto found their material rather too sprawling and scattergun. Mission Drift still sprawls but turns this into a virtue as it follows a couple of early immigrants across the American continent and across centuries until they become central figures in the boom of Las Vegas, and more recently its bust; meanwhile, one of their empire’s former employees tries to find a way through her own America. The 1950s beauty-pageant figure of Miss Atomic acts as mistress of ceremonies and musical director, with Heather Christian leading the company through an integral, concert-style score ranging from post-rock to deep soul. It is a lush panorama of contemporary Americana, although I am amazed that a story which mythologises Vegas both in itself and as an emblem of the nation’s capitalism contains not a whisper about organised crime.

Christian and company’s music is, I’m afraid, more to my taste than Conor Mitchell’s score for Ten Plagues, Mark Ravenhill’s song-cycle based on Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year. Mitchell provides an intensity much to the taste of solo performer Marc Almond (after a tentative start), but his modernism is jejune and narrow in scope. The work is, I think, an implicit both-ways challenge, daring us at once to make the connection and to refrain from making it, between the plague of 1665 in London and the experience of gay people today, not simply HIV/AIDS and other diseases but an atmosphere of, as it were, invisible but pervasive threat; the final refrain is simply “I live”.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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