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
Sunday 29 August 2010
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.
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