Vieux Carré, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Gospel at Colonus, Playhouse, Edinburgh
Caledonia, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Tennessee Williams's down-and-outs in a New Orleans boarding house are given the multimedia treatment

It ain't exactly pretty. Imported by the Edinburgh International Festival, Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carré looks, knowingly, like a pile of junk. Not entirely old junk.

This avant-garde production, by Manhattan's famed Wooster Group, presents the boarding house in this New Orleans memory play as a seedy hellhole and a hi-tech rehearsal room. Scraps of decor lurk in a black chasm: a soiled pillow here; a free-floating battered door there, Director Elizabeth LeCompte's crew also has its sound and lighting desk on stage, trailing wires, and a host of flickering video screens.

The Writer (wan, sweaty Ari Fliakos) is a struggling artist being sucked deliriously into this underworld. Between slugs of whisky, he taps at a computer keyboard (unplugged). He's seems feverishly troubled yet coldly disconnected, conversing while striking poses in a thong. Flitting in and out of his room, the other boarders are a tragicomic bunch of junkies, sex workers and skid row painters. The Writer falls into the arms of these lost souls – farcically, desperately, decadently.

The deranged landlady Mrs Wire, who wants to mother him, is a fairy-tale witch. Her scarfed head pokes over a screen where magnified hands stir a pot of gumbo. The consumptive gay prowler Nightingale (Scott Shepherd) tiptoes around in a grey kimono, a priapic penis sticking out of his pants. Another badboy lover materialises only ethereally, on screen, overlaid with apparently live footage of Fliakos – only it doesn't precisely match (filmed at another time).

All this is technically sophisticated and an extremely clever way of exploring the blurry line between reality and imagination which occurs in states of intoxication, in half-remembering, and in theatre-making. Some festival punters didn't care for such challengingly experimental fare. Several walked when Shepherd launched into crotch-groping. Personally, I lost interest when – to deal ironically with Williams's verbosity – his typed script was flashed up as rapid-fire surtitles. I could have done with fewer video screens too.

That said, the Woosters are seriously world class, wackily idiosyncratic yet sensitive. Multimedia pioneers for decades, they're still up there with the best, with mutual influences evident here between them, Robert Lepage and Simon McBurney.

I'm more disposed to write off the director of The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer, another veteran New York experimentalist, as rubbish, having endured his Mabou Mines Dollhouse (with dwarves) at Edinburgh in 2007. OK, this new productions isn't that bad. An alternative musical from 1983, this is Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus staged like a Pentecostal service. In Breuer's adaptation, a preacher man tells of Oedipus's last days, as a sermon. The Chorus is an African-American gospel choir combined with the Legendary Soul Stirrers – a more R&B-style group. The role of Oedipus is shared by the Blind Boys of Alabama, four singers in shiny silver suits and dark glasses. The gospel choir concept isn't unjustified. Oedipus at Colonus has obvious structuralist parallels with Christian myths. As an archetypal sinner/scapegoat, Oedipus is punishingly burdened with man's taboo crimes, then finds redemption. In Colonus's sacred groves, he mystically dematerialises, perhaps ascending to heaven.

Some of Bob Telson's music is splendid. When Theseus's citizens grant Oedipus asylum, the choir bounces with joy, ecstatically chorusing, "We will never, no never, drive you 'way!" Oedipus's prayers are underpinned by deep soothing harmonies: part-spiritual, part-barbershop.

This production, nevertheless, gets off to a slow, unengaging start. The acting, such as it is, offers no psychological depth. An electric organ churns out lift muzak. Is Oedipus's ascension to be by lift? No, he exits in a naff cloud of dry ice which, typically of Breuer, is neither clearly wry nor kitsch with real style. The backdrop's projected painting of the Fall is just embarrassingly fifth rate: modern couples dropping hellwards alongside moggies and giant bees. Hieronymus Botched? One reviewer, praising this director, once said you rarely see stuff like that on stage. Mmm, mercifully.

Also with a short EIF run, Alistair Beaton's Caledonia proved a resounding flop, premiered by the National Theatre of Scotland. The 1690s Darien disaster is a fascinating historic episode, with financial reverberations. Having set up the Bank of England, the entrepreneur Willliam Paterson returned to his native land, wining and dining Edinburgh's parliamentarians so they passed a Bill establishing the Company of Scotland. This privileged trading corporation enticed a rush of private investors, a huge chunk of the nation's wealth unwisely entrusted. Patterson's high-risk project to establish a colonial port in Central America was devastated by incompetent management, epidemics and Spanish flotillas. William III cripplingly refused English aid, until a bailout deal was struck in the 1707 Act of Union – money from which was poured into the Royal Bank of Scotland.

This largely forgotten story is begging to be told. But Beaton's script is a wasted opportunity, narratively plodding and satirically feeble. Peter McKintosh's beautiful, timber-framed set – with potted ferns in the rafters a witty synecdoche for palm trees – deserves better. Director Anthony Neilson struggles. The supporting cast offers silly caricatures while Paul Higgins, as Paterson, is hopelessly lacklustre – investing nothing in this production.

Next Week:

Kate Bassett reviews the Royal Court premiere of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, sequel to A Raisin in the Sun

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'