By Mark Brown
The one-actor play has long been a staple of the Edinburgh festivals. Sceptics suggest, not unreasonably, that the proliferation of monodramas is a simple matter of economics: they are (for the most part) cheap to stage.
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However, every now and then we are offered a piece (Tom Courtenay in Moscow Stations in 1994, Michael Gambon in Eh Joe in 2013) that raises a solo performance into the pantheon of great Edinburgh festival experiences. One such is The Encounter, an unforgettably brilliant work of total theatre by Simon McBurney and his famous company Complicite that has its world premiere at this year's Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).
In an extraordinary, two-hour performance, McBurney ¬– and, it must be said, his small army of creative and technical staff – draw us into a compelling reimagining of the real-life experience of American photographer Loren McIntrye. Inspired by Romanian writer Petru Popescu's account of McIntyre's story, the piece follows the photographer's 1971 journey into the heart of Amazonia following his capture by members of the remote and endangered Mayoruna people.
McBurney's exceptional abilities, in voice, physical performance and deceptively simple stage effects, are interwoven with deeply impressive technical and design elements to create a work that is simultaneously unique, spectacular and genuinely affecting. As we, the audience, wear headsets, the live and recorded voices of the actor combine with soundscapes, music and various aural interjections.
The primary effect is one of temporal disorientation. Before McBurney immerses himself in the character of McIntyre, he introduces us to various ideas about the meaning of time and its place in human history.
By the time he lands us in the region of Brazilian and Peruvian Amazonia inhabited by the Mayoruna, we are already unsure of what is past and present in the aural world we are inhabiting. For sure, there are no visual clues on a stage which looks like a slightly messy theatre rehearsal space, with loads of bottles of water lying around. The back wall, an optically illusory affair that looks like it could have been designed by Escher, only makes matters more perplexing.
More than any theatre production I have ever witnessed, The Encounter creates an interaction of technical features, design, narrative and performance which is both constantly changing and mutually reinforcing. To take one of many examples, McIntyre's engagement in a ritualistic, high stakes game, a play with time, with the Mayoruna chief, reflects and is reflected in the technical effects achieved by the superb sound work coming through our headsets.
The show is like a flawless, high-tech radio play performed by a truly great, highly inventive actor-director. One leaves the theatre awestruck, moved and humbled, not by the fabulous technical accomplishments of the work but, much more profoundly, by how McBurney and Complicite have used them to consume us within a story of an ancient people for whom the arrival of "modern" humanity spells destruction.
If McBurney repays the faith of new EIF director Fergus Linehan abundantly, Ivo van Hove's Antigone, which famously stars Juliette Binoche (for my money, the finest film actor of her generation) , disappoints immensely. The Flemish director's production comes to Edinburgh following a run at the Barbican in London and even a screening on BBC television.
One supposes that Linehan calculated that, despite this considerable British exposure, the prospect of seeing Binoche performing live would be enough to entice the EIF's audience to purchase tickets. My sympathy goes to those who have done so.
Van Hove has created a modern-dress production that collides elements of the physical structure of the ancient Greek stage with the paraphernalia of the 21st-century office. His stage feels more like a dentist's waiting room than the scene of great, tragic events.
This staging, complete with distractingly irrelevant, often blurred projected images, presumably makes some kind of conceptual sense to the director. In practice, however, Anne Carson's adaptation of the script assaults the play's poetry with silly informalities; King Creon talks of something being "top notch", Antigone declares her exit with the words "I'm off".
Minute-by-minute, Sophocles's opus is denuded of its gravitas. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that the actors (all of whom are wearing microphones) seem as uncertain in their movements (where to stand, how to sit on Jan Versweyveld's daft set) as in their speech.
Antigone, who defies the implacable Creon by burying her supposedly traitorous brother Polynices, should be the very picture of political rebellion and personal sacrifice. So anaemic is Van Hove's production, however, that Binoche's heroine appears to lack motivation.
Ultimately, almost as if to fill the dramatic void around her, she descends almost into histrionics, over-emoting in a way that suits neither Antigone nor Binoche herself.
There's tragedy of a very different kind in Jonathan Maitland's much-vaunted An Audience With Jimmy Savile. The piece, which stars impressionist Alistair McGowan as the disgraced late DJ and TV presenter, has been wrongly proclaimed by elements in the London press as the first play about Savile's crimes; that dubious honour actually belongs (albeit less directly) to the 2013 Traverse piece Quiz Show by Scottish dramatist Rob Drummond.
I didn't think much of Drummond's drama (which divided critical opinion, but picked up the Best New Play gong at the 2013 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland), and I think even less of Maitland's effort. A predictable, poorly written, appallingly structured series of barely connected scenes, it tells us nothing about Savile's depravity and deviousness that we didn't already know or couldn't easily discover in a half-hour search of the internet.
We witness heartless and/or amateurish police officers failing victims and a sexist TV host sweeping evidence of Savile's paedophilia under the carpet. All of this is done with such a lack of subtlety and theatrical skill that one cannot help but feel that the writing is almost an afterthought.
The play seems to be little more than a vehicle for McGowan's unquestionably accurate and accomplished impersonation. As he swings between Savile's affable, if egotistical, public persona and a believably vicious, threatening off-screen character, one can't help but wonder what this cobbled-together drama is actually for.
If Maitland's work barely merits serious attention as a piece of new stage writing, Swallow, by recently announced Traverse Theatre associate artist Stef Smith, demands our consideration. Smith is, after all, the author of Roadkill, the award-winning and harrowing drama about the trafficking of African girls into prostitution in the UK.
Sad to say, however, Swallow, which is directed by the Traverse's artistic director Orla O'Loughlin, is the kind of underdeveloped, unambitious social drama that too often characterises new stage writing in Scotland and, I daresay, the UK as a whole. Too modest in both its dramatic scope and its poetic register, it interweaves the stories of three women at moments of life crisis.
Rebecca (Anita Vettesse), who has been plunged into an unwanted separation, is on a self-destructive bender. Sam (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is taking the first, tentative, difficult steps into transitioning to life as a man. Anna (Emily Wachter) is agoraphobic and so catastrophically anorexic that she is on the brink of starvation.
Fortunately for the structure of Smith's play, Rebecca and Anna live in the same tenement, while Sam makes his first moves as a heterosexual male at Rebecca's table in a coffee shop. This contrivance might be less irritating if the drama actually succeeded in generating a sense of moral weight.
Instead, the piece (which is blessed with undeservedly good performances) alternates drearily between quite insipid first-person narration and dialogues that are surprisingly lacking in urgency or consequence. A comic Scottish drunk wastes Vettesse's talents, while a closing avian metaphor seems like a desperate attempt to spice up a somewhat flaccid script.
Neither O'Loughlin's direction nor Fred Meller's antiseptic, minimalist set seem to know quite what to do with a work that in no way deserves to be the flagship production of the Traverse's 2015 Fringe programme.
In fact, the Jennifer Tremblay trilogy, which has been built up by leading Scottish actor Maureen Beattie and Stellar Quines theatre company in recent years, would have been a far worthier candidate for the Traverse's lead role. Beattie completes the Quebecois author's trilogy (all of which she is performing this summer) with The Deliverance, the agonising story of a dying mother who cries out for the presence of her estranged son.
As with many dramatic monologues, and like the play's predecessors The List and The Carousel, this piece does sound and feel more like a work of prose fiction than of drama. However, the combination of Beattie's emotional and intellectual range with the narrative depth and fine characterisations of Tremblay's writing results in an experience which is more dramatic than many a well-populated three act play.
I would happily listen to Beattie reading a car manual, such is the captivating power of her acting. Here, speaking from the perspective of the devoted daughter of the dying woman, she relates various family stories.
Beattie paints the most vivid remembrances of her character's love, as a child, for the miscreant father who broke her mother's heart. Likewise, husband number two, a misogynistic despot who turned her half-brother against their mother, is conjured memorably in word and action.
As the end gets ever closer, with no sign of the prodigal son, John Byrne's lovely chapel set (lit expertly by Jeanine Byrne) and Philip Pinsky's unobtrusive, atmospheric music complete director Muriel Romanes's beautifully crafted, sure-footed and intensely moving production. It is, by any measure, a tremendous conclusion to an excellent theatrical trilogy, and one which further enhances the remarkable relationship between the theatres of Scotland and Quebec.