Edinburgh Festival: The simple bare necessities
Sunday 30 August 1998
Ursula Martinez caused a furore in Edinburgh before she even got off the train at Waverley: the publicity shot for her show was a naked portrait of her and her parents. The Assembly Rooms airbrushed out the genitals. They couldn't, however, airbrush out the revealing bits in her show.
A Family Outing lobotomises family dynamics and relations in a way that I, for one, have certainly never seen before. Ursula tells us that the show is "aversion therapy. As a kid I was embarrassed by my parents. And indeed I still am." Then the parents themselves come out on stage, hanging back like shy toddlers. Ursula sits them on a couch and interviews them about their relationship.
Martinez, a veteran of the gay cabaret circuit, is exploiting the late- Nineties penchant for confession as art and entertainment. "Exploiting" in the truest sense, because while she may appear to be continuing in the Tracey-Emin-cum-Oprah vein, she is all the while undermining the whole premiss. Although their ease with each other and the material may make it look like off-the-cuff improv, she never lets us forget that the show is constructed artifice: "I want to do proper acting. With a proper script," the father says petulantly at one point. "We've got a script," the mother reminds him, "Ursula wrote it for us."
The best moment comes when she asks her father "Do you mind me being a lesbian?" There is a pause. "I can't remember what I'm supposed to say to that," he admits. Ursula produces the script to remind him, and he and his wife read aloud a speech of liberal acceptance in stilted, inert tones. Ursula then leaps from the couch and does an effusive Jerry Springer number: "all my life I've just wanted my parents to approve of me". It throws into relief not only the fakery of confessional TV, but more importantly, how family life can become prescribed, and how our reactions are often rehearsed versions of whatever we think the other person needs to hear. It's hilarious, devilish and brilliant: Martinez has, if you like, created a new theatrical genre. And that's not something you can say about everyone.
And now to something Ursula's father would doubtless call "proper acting" with a "proper script": the RSC's Krapp's Last Tape. When the single light first comes on above the desk, you get a shock: Edward Petherbridge's worn, hawkish face and wild, silver hair look, for a moment at least, uncannily like the playwright's.
It's not just parallel physiognomies that make Petherbridge and Beckett such a perfect combination. As the disaffected and solitary Krapp, Petherbridge is precise and resonant: he can convey exasperation with just a twitch of his wrist. His Krapp is a man trapped by loneliness into well-worn rituals, his irritability not so much self-loathing as self-weariness. And he can hold and stretch the silences of the play longer than anyone in any production I've ever seen, which ultimately has a curious effect. In these elastic moments, you become claustrophobically aware of every inhalation, rustle, stomach-gurgle, scratch and murmur of the audience: the play about the debilitating effect of solitude paradoxically gives you a yen for seclusion.
Which is something Paul in Hoipolloi's Honestly would understand. "I just want to live on my own!" he screams. A fresh-faced Welshboy, he is having trouble finding his new apartment in the labyrinthine corridors of a block. This is a sinister, surreal comedy, and Hoipolloi have a brilliant sense of spatial theatre: carpets, mats, pillars and doors are used to transform the stage into a building of Escher-like dimensions. On his stressful odyssey, Paul encounters the other inhabitants, all a collection of ticks, obsessions and funny walks: Raymond, who's so lonely he'd give Paul his bedroom if he'd only live with him; the officious landlord who asks everyone "Do you respect me?"; Martin, with frightening orange hair; and Gloria, a German with a fox fur, who's grieving so much for her dead husband that she makes everyone dress up in his clothes.
It's so ingeniously and deliciously inventive that it's hard to do it justice in words. It's like Delicatessen meets theatre de complicite in their most fertile and daring phase. Only 10 times better. They are beginning a tour which is going just about everywhere, so there's no excuse not to see it.
Theatre details: see Critics' Choice, page 15.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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