Edinburgh Festival Day 3: A keen nose for a good story: Gerry Mulgrew specialises in 'casualty theatre'. It's his prescription against becoming a victim of his own success. Sarah Hemming reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The critics were agreed; the audiences were agreed. No matter which way you stacked your list of favourite shows on last year's Fringe, Communicado's Cyrano de Bergerac always won by a nose and then some. Vigorous, witty and superbly athletic, the production burst across the stage, driven by Edwin Morgan's mischievous Glaswegian translation of Rostand's romantic tale and by the company's swashbuckling grab- 'em-by-the-lapels style. So what next? How do you follow a success like that?

The answer, not surprisingly for a company that has always made inventiveness its hallmark, is with something completely different. The Legend of St Julian, this year's Communicado show, has, like Cyrano, a French source - a short story by Gustave Flaubert - but there the resemblance ends. Where last year's production thrived on verbal pyrotechnics, this year's boasts around 100 words (working out at about a word a minute); where last year there was plenty of physical derring-do, this year's show concentrates on evoking a mysterious world through light and music.

'It's not really a conventional play,' explains Gerry Mulgrew, Communicado's artistic director, and director of last year's triumphant nose job. 'I take a chance, basically. I've always tried never to repeat a formula - I think it's boring. That gets harder and harder the more you go on. I've tried within a limited scope to surprise the public.'

Mulgrew, a small, ebullient man prone to fits of giggles, founded Communicado with a group of like-minded performers 10 years ago. The company's first show, The House with Green Shutters, struck gold with its combination of a dark Scottish story and an emphatically visual, European style. Since then Communicado has carved out an enviable reputation for exuberant physical theatre, using choruses, music and, most important of all, surprise. Lorca's brooding Spanish tragedy Blood Wedding was transposed to a village in the Western Highlands; Mary Queen of Scots was performed in a circus ring; The Legend of St Julian doesn't have a script. Mulgrew confesses that he's nervous about this one: it's possible that he just won't pull it off.

'Probably no matter what I was to do, it couldn't achieve the elan of Cyrano,' he admits. 'So you just have to tell a story you think is worth telling. If theatre's going to stay alive, you've got to experiment. Cyrano was a QEII sailing to New York. This show is more like going to sea in an experimental catamaran.

'It's extremely difficult to capture the tone of the original story. It's told in the form of a fairy tale but it contains really dark symbolic elements. We've been trying to capture it in a visual way, using image and movement rather than Flaubert's language. Flaubert has an amazing facility to be able to enter into this medieval world: he seems to be able to smell what a medieval banquet smelt like. It's very sensual . . . I'm fascinated by the aspect of theatre which is sensual.'

Mulgrew has worked closely on St Julian with the artist Keith McIntyre and the musician Jim Sutherland, and explains that he tries to find a key to each show with which to open rehearsals. 'With Mary Queen of Scots we started with the idea of a political thriller; it evolved stylistically into a circus but it kept that original feeling of cut and thrust. With Cyrano, I started with the ridiculousness and the outrageous quality of the story. This time it was the light. We did a lot of rehearsing with just a few floor lamps, candles and fire-brands to try and get a chiaroscuro feeling to it.'

Mulgrew reckons one secret of success is to choose a good yarn. 'The Legend of St Julian is based on a Christian myth, but it deals with an enormous dark force, which has to do with Julian's love of hunting and almost psychopathic desire to slaughter. I do like a good struggle between good and evil. I don't like shows to be too earnest, but I do like to go and see theatre that makes people confront something. If people are going to laugh, I like them to laugh like drains, so they have to be carried out on stretchers - and similarly if they're going to weep. It's casualty theatre.'

Mulgrew's next stop will be the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is guest directing Moby Dick. He's spreading the net for Communicado, inviting other directors to take on shows. But he won't be handing them a prescription for a successful Communicado show. 'I've tried to formulate a manifesto several times and I've always had to throw it in the bin,' he says. 'I don't really want to be restricted by a manifesto; I want to be free tomorrow to do something different. If you don't have a go at something new, what's the point of being alive?'

Communicado hit list

The House with Green Shutters (1983, revived 1989)

'. . . renowned command of stagecraft and presentational invention . . . raucous tunes, ribald songs and a graphic, often emotionally dramatic, account . . .' Observer.

Blood Wedding (1988)

'Communicado . . . has always been known for its willingness to mingle moods and blend discordant styles, but never has this been put to better use than in this passionate, deeply felt and brilliantly executed staging.' Scotsman.

Jock Tamson's Bairns (1990)

'. . . a tough, clever, funny and absorbing two-hour journey through the lower depths of Scottish culture.' Guardian.

Cyrano De Bergerac (1992)

'Edwin Morgan's Scots-English translation of Rostand's play simply bursts at the seams with Glaswegian vigour: his swaggering, idiomatic drive, his fine, lyrical sweep, his cheeky rhymes all fuel an evening of marvellous, warm-hearted theatricality.'

Sunday Times

'The Legend of St Julian' is at the Traverse, Cambridge St (venue 15) to 4 Sept, 031-228 1404. 12 noon (18, 20, 26, 29 Aug, 2 Sept); 3.30pm (19, 21, 24, 27, 31 Aug, 3 Sept); 7pm (22, 25, 28 Aug, 1, 4 Sept).

(Photographs omitted)

Comments