EDINBURGH FRINGE 4:
Once.../Empty Jesters/Skin Tight/Death In New Orleans
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 1998

Last year's show by Russian clown company Derevo was a gloomy, semi-intelligent affair that divided audiences sharply. Its offering this year Once... (Pleasance; venue 33), retains a fair bit of the shadow and ends on a downbeat note, but has many delights. The wordless tale of the street-sweeper trying and failing to woo a waitress manages to evoke images simultaneously of Chaplin and F.W. Murnau while employing a soundtrack that includes some vintage Deep Purple.

Silent-movie comedy is also the inspiration for Empty Jesters at the Traverse (venue 15), written and performed by Steven McNicoll and Mark McDonnell. This story of a dreadful, mutually antagonistic double-act in the age of vaudeville and the golden silents is a gleeful, and often gleefully sick, parody in which the two characters, both now in their dotage, recount wildly differing versions of their history. Not all the jokes work, and a reliance on blackouts between scenes hampers the pace, but the relentless running gags and silent-film sequences are often wonderful.

An altogether more moving double-act is also now on show at the Traverse in the form of Skin Tight, which arrives in the UK after several successful seasons in New Zealand. Actors Jed Brophy and Larissa Matheson are less than half the age of their septuagenarian characters; the story of their fifty-year love is recounted in an imaginary space that Tom and Elizabeth have created for themselves. Bouts of wild physicality intensely erotic without ever actually depicting sexual acts alternate with scenes of immense tenderness. Gary Henderson, who also directs, has overwritten the odd line, but the order of the day is one of nuance, implication and sensitivity.

Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit company has visited the Traverse several times in recent years. John Murrell's Death in New Orleans is a play of ideas in which a Canadian cultural anthropologist and her friends engage with various inhabitants of the Louisiana city in debates on diverse aspects of racial, cultural and spiritual identity. Staged as inventively and resourcefully as ever by Denise Clarke from Blake Brooker's original direction, the show displays One Yellow Rabbit's unembarrassed but unshowy consciousness of performers' bodies and their relationship within an intimate space. Invisible to the other characters, the figure of Elizabeth Stepkowski stalks the stage, bearing witness to their travails and singing Delta blues and voodoo chants.

Two footnotes to other Traverse shows: First, my review of the Grassmarket Project's Soldiers appeared after the show's run had unexpectedly ended; Canadian-Croatian army officer Nick Glasnovic abruptly left after being confronted with accusations that his brigade had committed war crimes in Bosnia. This inevitably complicates responses: is it still legitimate to have been so moved when one of the participants is suspected of such activities?

Second, and with as much joy as the allegations about Glasnovic have brought anguish, The Right Size playing at the Traverse in Mr Puntila And His Man Matti are due to revive Stop Calling Me Vernon, their breakthrough show of a few years ago, for one night as a benefit performance for the Entertainment Artists' Benevolent Association. I can confidently say it is simply the funniest show I have ever seen.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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