EDINBURGH FRINGE / One-way ticket to heaven: Paul Taylor on a magical retelling of The Legend of St Julian at the Traverse Theatre

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The Independent Culture
ONE WAY or another, it's a dog's life being a saint. First, there's the tricky trainee period. You don't, of course, know that it's a trainee period, so you're left quite in the dark as to why you're vaguely not enjoying having the statutory rare old time letting rip as a sinner. Then, before you know it, either your breasts are cut off and dumped in a dish or your bum's on a red-hot gridiron ('Not yet, oh Lord, not yet') or you're having selflessly to embrace some old leper somewhere. Then, after all the good works, the penance and the pain: eternal beatitude - a state whose bliss must be a trifle modified by the fact that it's not permissible to question why your new chum, God, felt obliged to put you through the mill of an exemplary parable first.

Now, taking a much more respectful line on such a career, comes Communicado's magical retelling of the legend of the medieval saint, Julian, in an engrossing stage version of the conte by Flaubert that managed to sweep up into its spell even this hardened sceptic.

Reading the story just before going to the Traverse, I thought, well, they'll be lucky to pull this off. Its prose, to my ear, sounds suave and vivid but also cool and, at some level, uninvolved, tracing the tale in a tone that embraces some pretty deadpan lapses into what might well be thought laughable, for example: 'He liberated subject peoples. He freed queens shut up in prison towers. It was he and no other who slew the Viper of Milan and the Dragon of Oberbirbach.' Frictionlessly, it seems, just like that. The story itself is gripping, though. Born of noble parents, young Julian is the subject of several mutually unwitting prophecies: that he will marry into an emperor's family; that he will be a saint; and (the one prediction vouchsafed to him) that he will kill his father and mother.

With detailed emphasis on the bloodlust that makes Julian a compulsive hunter, the story (inspired by a stained-glass window in Rouen Cathedral) relates the fulfilment of each of these prophecies. But apart from its introducing a tincture of 19th-century psychology into its Book of Hours atmosphere, it's hard to work out why it was written.

By contrast, Gerry Mulgrew's hypnotic stage version pulls you right into the story's nervous system. It spaces you out; by the end, you wonder what drug you've been on. Largely non-verbal (the only words the hero utters are the heartrending cry 'Father] Mother]'), its narrative grammar relies on expressive near-ballet (excellent in the hunting scenes), on a sculptural disposition of bodies whereby the actors create the various environments (connected shifting limbs evoke, say, the branchy barriers of a thick forest) and on the ambient music of the superb modern jazz-like soundtrack.

The music, among its many involving virtues, manages to keep you abreast of both Julian's pulsing pagan instincts and the over-arching divine plan. For example, the tempting, taunting gasps of his dogs, nightmarishly amplified, alert you at once to the disease in his blood and to the hounds of heaven who are up to their paradoxical tricks and out to get him.

The cast is all the more attractive for having bodies of normal weight (or slightly over) instead of that unreal, over-trained look of dancers, and Keith McIntyre's design, beautifully lit, avoids any trace of Ladybird Book medievalism. His talents are key to the stunning ending. Atoning for his sins by working as a ferryman over a treacherous river, Julian one night takes in a leper who complains of cold and demands to be warmed by his host's naked body. Here, as they roll over in a deathly clasp, the clothes of the leper are shed to reveal the risen Christ, who, to a great surge of liturgical babbling and bell-ringing, carries Julian out through a glittering recreation of the stained glass at Rouen, the whole stage adazzle from its trembling panes. In more than one sense, miraculous.

See Day Planner, p 14, for details