Wednesday, October 21, 2009

REVIEW - Confessions Of A Justified Sinner ****

Artistic director and producer Mark Thomson holds a mirror to the face of Robert Wringhim, the protagonist of his excellent adaptation of James Hogg's 19th century novel, and reveals a disturbing reflection of madness and fanaticism that shines through the past to hold unsettling relevance today. What follows is a dark, oppressive and mesmerising slab of Scottish theatre which grips throughout in a chilling portrayal of one man's relentless descent into a spiral of 'justifiable sin'.

Hogg's critically-acclaimed work is an examination of religious extremism and moral disintegration under the guise of perceived righteousness. Thomson's adaptation is powerful and current, yet faithful to the original text and without any clumsy signposting of points, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions and sub-texts from the work.

Ryan Fletcher is excellent as Robert, portraying him as a social outcast with a meek, detached conviction in his adopted clergyman father's insistence that he is one of the Lord's 'elect', put on Earth to carry out God's work, with his place in heaven assured. The scenes in which he stands, facing the audience as he sings a hymn in small, reedy voice, whilst the consequences of his actions play out behind him are truly unsettling and excellently staged.

The rest of the cast also impress, with Kern Falconer in the role of Reverend Wringhim in particular standing out with a performance crackling with Calvinistic wrath as he imparts his dangerous wisdom into Robert's naive and receptive mind.

This confused state and indoctrinated upbringing soon set unstoppable events in motion, with Robert's belief that he is the 'sword of God' unwavering as he exacts vengeance on those perceived deserving of his divine justice. He is encouraged on this path by Gil-Martin, a charismatic and mysterious figure that appears only to him and who goads Robert into terrible action to the extent where his confusion as to who is his real 'lord and master' is evident.

Thomson directs Gil-Martin's character, portrayed by a conniving and snake-tongued Iain Robertson, with delicious ambiguity: is he the Devil - Robert's oft-mentioned Prince - or a manifestation of Wringhim's increasingly delirious mind? Thomson refuses to answer, a directorial decision which ensures the tale is allowed to twist in satisfyingly opaque and unanswered ways.

The stark, monolithic set is well used; evoking moonlit graveyards, portentous cliff edges, seedy Edinburgh brothels and - in those scenes with Robert and Gil-Martin - places more metaphysical. A revolving section allows for some original and effective staging, particularly in those scenes in which Gil-Martin takes on the appearance of other characters, allowing the cast to switch places without impacting the pacing of the piece. Lighting is understated but well-used, whilst a quietly discordant soundtrack pervades the production like a guilty conscience, increasing in volume and density only towards the play's satisfying climax.

With Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, Thomson successfully breathes new and surprisingly relevant life into a 19th century classic and the cast - particularly Fletcher and Falconer - inject the tale with enough power and nuance to make it a disturbingly dark and thoroughly enjoyable piece.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Edinburgh FESTIVAL Insider...?

Yep, I know my last review was nothing to do with the Edinburgh Festival.

However, I had such a good time viewing and reviewing shows during August, I've decided to keep going.

This site's probably not the best place for that, though. Fortunately, I have a cunning plan...

REVIEW - The Beggar's Opera at the Lyceum Theatre **

Whilst Vanishing Point's production of The Beggar's Opera at the Lyceum Theatre is certainly original, it's not nearly as daring as it would like to think it is.

There is some clever stuff going on here, with the stark and well-designed set literally presenting an underworld where the tale of Macheath - the dashing gentleman criminal of John Gay's 18th-century ballad opera - unfolds. From a staging perspective, Vanishing Point also successfully transport the orginal into a post-apocalyptic near-future setting, allowing them to indulge in some striking cyberpunk wardrobe choices and effective dramatic devices, such as the digitally-rotoscoped animations projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

However, the direction is a little less successful. Although Gay's original was by its nature a populist satire, here The Beggar's Opera becomes a camp cross-dressing cross between the Rocky Horror Show and a steampunk pantomime. There are times during the piece's relatively short running length when I expected us to be encouraged to shout "he's behind you" during Macheath's prison incarceration; or to sing along to words appearing on a sheet dropped down from the gantry.

Fortunately, neither of these panto staples actually happened, but if they had they would have been completely in keeping with the piece's mood and pace. Any opportunities for emotion and pathos were removed with a blunt instrument and replaced with frantic mugging and over-laboured attempts to shock. The actors did the best they could with the script, but characterisation was sacrificed to cariacature, leaving them with little to do. Perhaps most puzzling of all, the satirical opportunities were seldom taken, with only a few sideswipes at consumerism and the media being harvested from a fertile ground that could have offered so much more.

I also feel the choice of having a live band not only providing the soundtrack but integrated into the action was a mistake. This is not a criticism of A Band Called Quinn's competent Moloko-ish style and sound, but more due to the fact that their presence seemed to encourage the rest of the cast into the belief they could sing, providing at least two unnecessarily toe-curling moments.

Visually, The Beggar's Opera was wonderfully staged and executed and its dark futuristic dystopia was well-realised and portrayed. It was however a shame that this original and unique stage was then used as a backdrop for something so ill-fittingly camp.

The Beggar's Opera runs at The Lyceum Theatre until 3rd October.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

All over...?

It's been a crazy, hectic, tiring, chaotic and fantastic month.

I've seen shows which have left me moved, astonished, fascinated and inspired.

I've met performers, singers, magicians, actors and princesses.

I've taken some of my best ever photographs and I'm eternally grateful to the companies and press offices involved who let me do so.

I've had nights I can barely remember and mornings when it was an effort to drag myself out of bed and do it all over again.

And I've loved every minute of it.

I hope you've enjoyed sharing some of it with me via this blog, which has been - largely through the power of Twitter - more successful this year than I'd dreamed possible.

The daily updates will now cease, but I'll likely add to it now and again with a photo or an article - as much to remind myself of the wonders of 2009's season as for anything else.

Also, stay tuned for a rather exciting announcement, coming to these pages soon...

So long folks, you've been amazing.


Edinburgh Festival Insider - Pick of the Fringe 2009

Although I'd seen Zen Zen Zo's showreel and read about Zeitgeist's bold, cutting-edge take on contemporary physical theatre and dance, nothing prepared me for actually seeing this live.

The only point I didn't sit and marvel open-mouthed as their startlingly original and visually outstanding show progressed was when they threw eggs into the audience. Even with that, I was spellbound from start to finish.

A wonderfully physical group of talented dancers and artists, Zen Zen Zo have had much praise heaped upon them from many established sources this year as well as from me and - after much deliberation - the vision, integrity and style of Zeitgeist have resulted in it being given the highest accolade I have to offer.

Edinburgh Festival Insider - Venue of the year 2009

With 100s of venues across the city - from the 'big three' of the Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon to the likes of private residences and restaurants - there's almost as wide a choice of places to see shows as there are performances to enjoy.

The nominations for the Edinburgh Festival Insider Venue of the Year Award 2009 are:
  • C Venues. Particularly the multi-levelled labyrinth in Chambers Street, culminating in the wonderful Urban Garden. A great place to hang out and mingle with performers who keep the spirit of the Fringe alive.
  • Venue 150 at the EICC. With its air-conditioning, ample legroom and modern decor, this feels far removed from many of the hot, cramped and crumbling venues elsewhere.
  • St George's West. Few things can compare to witnessing some world-class music being performed in front of St George's beautiful stained-glass rose window.
  • Spaces venues. Played host to some small first-time groups on a budget and therefore brought some interesting - and in the case of productions like Stitches, exceptional - new talent to the Fringe
  • New Town Theatre / Universal Arts. A wonderfully diverse programme in the grand and only slightly spooky Masonic Hall on George Street.
And the winner is...

Venue 150 at the EICC

Although the EICC has been used as a Fringe venue in the past, this year it featured a far wider and more adventurous programme than ever. With close ties to Universal Arts and The World Festival, it saw two amazing world music shows, the wonderful Sambor Dudzinksi and his Time(less) Machine, Fred MacAulay's daily breakfast show, Fringe Select, a great cafe and more.
Besides its aforementioned comfort, its willingness to take a little bit of a risk results in it being my favourite venue this year - especially as its success during the Fringe could see more and more shows of a similar ilk being featured there outwith the Festival season.

For a resident like me, the chance of that is enough for me to give Venue 150 the: