Y ou can barely move, these days, for dramas about sex tourism. Just a fortnight ago we had Tanika Gupta's Sugar Mummies, set in Jamaica, playing at the Royal Court and now, for the last leg of the Edinburgh International Festival, the polemical Catalan director Calixto Bieito has got his hands on Michel Houellebecq's acclaimed novel, Platform.
Co-adapted by Bieito and performed by his Companyia Teatre Romea (in Spanish with English surtitles), this piece is rather pretentiously described as a "dramatic hyper-realistic poem for seven voices and one Yamaha". Actually offering a striking mix of the grungy and luridly fantastical, the graphic, teasingly suggestive and sorrowful, Bieito's production includes explicit porn on TV monitors, men simulating sex with an inflatable doll, and a naked showgirl tottering around in stilettos, giggling, groaning and breaking into a karaoke number with white gunk dribbling from her mouth.
Obviously, this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it tells the story of a jaded European bureaucrat called Michel who, on inheriting his father's wealth, ditches work at the Ministry of Culture to head off on a prostitute-obsessed vacation in Thailand. Falling unexpectedly in love with his tour guide Valérie, he sets up a sex tourism business with her - attracting wealthy Westerners and Arabs - only to end unhappily with his so-called paradise being bombed by Muslim fundamentalists.
In the past, Bieito has imposed on various classics a wearisomely repetitive vision of contemporary underworld sleaze. In many ways, Platform seems more suited to his deliberately trashy, avant garde style. It is, in fact, the best production that I've seen by him to date. At points the tone of the piece - slipping between the satirical, damning, titillating and sympathetic - makes for morally unsettling viewing. Juan Echanove's lardy, sweating, masturbating Michel manages to be tender as well as repulsive. Marta Domingo's Valérie is a swinger with a surprisingly innocent air, and there's an unnerving ring of documentary authenticity about the shamelessly un-PC, sometimes misogynistic monologues spoken by Michael's fellow-travellers.
However, this compacted saga also feels skimpy in terms of both its storyline and its analyses of sexual, racial and economic relations. We never actually hear what any Thai prostitutes have to say. Moreover, though seemingly developing a romantic heart, Platform is never really poignant.
Brian McMaster's final theatrical offering as the festival's outgoing programming director very audibly divided opinion on its opening night. Chekhov's Three Sisters, performed in English, might sound like a safe box-office bet but - directed by Poland's Krystian Lupa - the American Repertory Theatre company's unorthodox and downbeat production provoked one lady in the stalls to yell out that she couldn't hear until Jeff Biehl's Baron Tuzenbach sarcastically hollered his next line (to applause from the more appreciative spectators).
Personally, I had a lot of time for his production, especially at first. The play is treated almost like a piece of music, with movements and mood swings. The Prozorov siblings' family home - one year after their father's death - is an atmospheric, ghostly shell of a house, dimly glimmering with glass doors and echoing with the sound of an edgy violin. The titular sisters are highly strung too. They are sometimes explosively joyous, with Kelly McAndrew's Olga whooping at the arrival of a cosmopolitan from Moscow, but also frustrated, sourly rude and chronically depressed. It's not just Molly Ward's gaunt, halting Masha who is verging on a nervous breakdown. Sometimes the house seems like a hallucinatory living hell, full of whispering and mocking laughter and Sean Dugan's disheveled Andrey is deeply messed up too, apparently playing with himself more than with his fiddle in his study.
I didn't mind the American accents, the liberties taken with the text, or the loosely modern costumes. However, Lupa's directorial concepts are sometimes heavy-handed. Ominous offstage drumbeats become a bore and the deliberately slow pace has been pushed to such an extreme by the end that everybody's lines start to sound ludicrous, provoking painfully rude but understandable snorts of derision from some punters.
Finally, the Arcola's Lorca season boasts a fine, spare yet poetic new translation of Yerma by Frank McGuinness. Helena Kaut-Howson's production, staged in a stark black and white space, is also well above par for the London fringe, with Kathryn Hunter capturing neurotic frustration and vulnerable yearning as the eponymous childless bride.
However, even if you believe she's not too old to play this part, her physically stylised acting - almost dancing as she strokes her own limbs and writhes on the ground - looks awkwardly half-baked. The tribal African-cum-Spanish setting is also culturally questionable. Hit and miss.
'Yerma' (020 7503 1646) to 23 SeptemberReuse content