At this year's Edinburgh International Festival, Ulysses comes home twice. The Royal Ballet of Flanders dance Christian Spuck's version of the story at the Playhouse. Across the city at the King's Theatre, William Kentridge stages Monteverdi's opera with puppets. Both productions do a lot of inventive doodling, piling extras onto the central theme.
Spuck focuses on Penelope, the faithful wife waiting for her husband's return. This time, her rejection of the suitors who want to take over her kingdom has become a ritual. She dresses up, gives out flowers, goes through the motions. When Ulysses finally makes it home, she doesn't recognise him. She treats him as another rejected suitor, going back to her patterns.
Spuck assumes that you know about Ulysses and Penelope, that you'll recognise a bossy tour guide in gold lamé as the goddess Athena. Sébastien Tassin has a scene-stealing appearance as the god Poseidon, waddling duck-like across the stage in tutu and flippers. The music goes from Purcell (a fine performance by Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Pope) to songs by Doris Day and Charles Trenet.
The choreography is often derivative. When Penelope wrestles with her suitors, the deep squats, chattering hands and air of alienation recall Mats Ek. Her courtiers break into William Forsythe-ish unison performance of academic ballet steps. Spuck's best dances are formation numbers to the pop songs. Suitors stand in clumps, swaying in time or swooping their hands through cheesy gestures, moving with bouncy energy.
A Penelope who can't move on is this production's boldest stroke, but it never becomes an emotional response. Though Eva Dewaele gives a bold, committed performance, she remains a type rather than a person. The myth is fragmented, told for its patterns rather than its drama.
The Ricercar Consort give a lively chamber performance of Monteverdi's Ulisse, with a small, taut ensemble of authentic instruments and voices. Diction is clear throughout, with voices blending beautifully in trios and choruses. Julian Podger is a light-voiced Ulisse, with Romina Basso as a vividly expressive Penelope. William Kentridge's production uses music, animations and puppets, but keeps breaking into its component parts.
Handspring Puppet Company are best known for the astonishing horse puppets of the National Theatre's War Horse. That was a brilliant way of presenting animals on stage. But what do the characters of Monteverdi's Ulisse gain from being in puppet form? I found myself watching the singers rather than their beautifully carved puppets.
It doesn't help that Monteverdi's opera is so full of soliloquies, blank-faced puppets alone with their thoughts. The production perks up no end when we get to the suitors, who have something to react against – crestfallen when rejected, delightfully stroppy as they try to upstage each other.
Kentridge's own animations provide changing scenery, cutting from inky decorations to shots of scans or surgery. It's part of a hospital metaphor that never comes into focus. The story is recalled by Ulisse from his hospital bed – but even Kentridge seems to lose interest in his framing device.
'Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria' runs until 26 August (0131-473 2000)Reuse content