Do you get the picture?

Go to a Fringe theatre this year and chances are you'll end up watching something by George Lucas or Quentin Tarantino. Which may be no bad thing, says Robert Hanks

What's that peculiar smell? Ah yes, popcorn. The Fringe, it seems, is slowly evolving into an offshoot of the Film Festival - a kind of sprawling multiplex with uncomfortable plastic chairs. Leaf through the Fringe programme and you find adaptations of Reservoir Dogs, Star Wars (twice), Hal Hartley's Surviving Desire, The Long Good Friday, not to mention a hommage to Ray Harryhausen (the misleadingly titled Fantastic Voyage - nothing to do with the Raquel-Welch-in-miniaturised-submarine-injected-into-bloodstream epic) and any number of Bond and B-movie spoofs - "Almost George Lucas!!" boasts the Exploding Heroes Theatre Company blurb, clearly unaware that this year "almost" looks a bit namby-pamby.

The number of celluloid rip-offs is, it's true, dwarfed by the massed legions of Beckett, Ionesco, John Godber and William Shakespeare. But even the traditional Fringe shows are starting to tart themselves up to sound like movies: there's a Coriolanus that picks up on the "Natural Born Killer" quip which the RSC used on posters for last year's production with Toby Stephens, and a Macbeth described as "this violent psychological thriller". And then there's Alibi Attractions' The Killer in You, advertised as bringing to the stage "a powerful Tarantino effect", and the "Nineties Tartan Tarantino mix" of Bouncers.

In what's generally agreed to be a disappointing year on the Fringe - no really outstanding plays, a dearth of youth theatre, the usual glut of stand-up comedy - it's tempting to read this resort to film as part of the pattern of decline: a sign of theatre losing confidence in its ability to attract audiences, losing its grip on the things that make it unique, losing its imagination. But behind that line of thinking lies the assumption that films are somehow naturally unsuited to adaptation to the stage - and certainly there have been disastrous examples of films- into-plays, instances where imagination really does seem to have failed: in the last year, we've seen the RSC's universally panned production of Les Enfants du Paradis, the David Glass Ensemble's tacky musical version of La Dolce Vita. Perhaps, too, there's the old worry about the decline of literary culture, a sense that, when we turn to the cinema for ideas, we've given up on words. Most of this feeling was summed up by the reaction of a serious actor I was talking to just after I'd been to see Reservoir Dogs: he sighed deeply, rolled his eyes and said: "What is the point?"

The answer to that is that there are various points. For the sprinkling of 14-year-olds in Drummond Community Theatre on Wednesday night to watch the student actors of the University of Southern California doing Tarantino, you guess that the point was to see a film that they couldn't see at the cinema (and which Edinburgh's scrupulous video-shop owners won't let them rent). For other members of the audience, Patrick T Gorman's adaptation worked as a rather neat piece of criticism - it shows you that, for all the hype about him learning his craft by watching videos, Tarantino has a profoundly theatrical cast of mind: the flashbacks and shifts in narrative stance, the heavy stylisation of speech and action which seem remarkable in the cinema are all very much part of the furniture on the stage.

Something similar comes through in Rough Magic Theatre Company Scotland's staging of Surviving Desire, a bleak comedy about a literature professor obsessed both with Dostoyevsky and with one of his female students: a sense that theatre is the natural place for Hal Hartley's stripped-down, conscientiously non-naturalistic style of writing.

A different set of ideas comes out of Phill Jupitus's entertaining hour- long dissection of what Star Wars means to modern man and USC's 30-minute warp-speed run through the entire trilogy. Both work on the assumption that cinema is the place that supplies the modern myths - that Star Wars is the Iliad and the Odyssey of the late 20th century. At any rate, when Jupitus conducted a straw poll, everybody in the audience had seen Star Wars, and knew exactly what he was getting at when he complained about, say, the absurdities of Jedi mind control (try getting a Jedi to buy his round): this is our common currency, and for theatre to ignore it would be for theatre to cut itself off from the rest of the world.

The main point, though, is that all these are rather enjoyable evenings out. Student actors don't match up to Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, maybe (though they aren't far off matching up to Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford), and you lose something in terms of pace. But by and large, in turning to the cinema, these companies have found sources for shows with sharp dialogue, streamlined stories and great opportunities for visual invention. It's arguably an improvement on the trend for adapting classic novels - theatre and cinema both do the same thing, putting a story in front of you, but with different technologies. Novels are after something different: playing the story inside your head, letting you give it your own inflections. This way, you lose so much less in the translation. So please, bring more films into the Fringe. This way, I may never have to go to the cinema again.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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