THE CRITICS : Is there an actor in the house?

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL : THEATRE
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There was a crucial moment in theatre history, some time in the sixth century BC, in fact, when the number of speaking parts on stage leapt from one to two. This gave us dialogue. The innovation lasted a couple of thousand years and created the acting profession. Towards the end of the second millennium - with the inexorable rise of the one- man show - the trend went into reverse. At the Edinburgh International Festival this year we went a stage further and witnessed the one-man show in which one man doesn't appear.

The much-hyped Elsinore, which features the Canadian actor/ director Robert Lepage, was billed as a multi-media meditation on Hamlet. Lepage was in Edinburgh, along with his sizeable off-stage crew. The audience and critics were there too. But one tiny custom-made $150 rivet refused to play its role in the state-of-the-art extravaganza. In this business, you might think, the show goes on. Not any longer. Shamefully, in techno- theatre the week's performance gets cancelled.

The Festival's other main highlight this week was a dramatisation of Virginia Woolf's 1928 historical fantasy, Orlando. This extravagant story of an Elizabethan boy who becomes a favourite of the Queen, has an affair with a Russian princess, goes to Constantinople as an ambassador, turns into a woman, mixes with gypsies and gives birth to a son, could usefully employ the largest possible company of actors available. In this slow, portentous production, by the revered American director Robert Wilson, all the parts - including that of the narrator - are taken by Miranda Richardson. Wilson's minimalist approach, which uses screens that alter in colour and size, highly selective lighting effects and insistent low-key music, makes a pompous contrast to Woolf's fertile, sophisticated jeu d'esprit. The spartan stage effects constantly draw attention to themselves, when the real Barnum & Bailey here, the one out there on the high rope, dazzling us by juggling around with all those playful themes, is Virginia Woolf.

Why are we staring at darkness? Why has Miranda Richardson walked off- stage? Is that huge cylindrical construction that has descended centre- stage an oak tree? What does it mean when she speaks one moment with a microphone and then the next without one? Decoding Wilson's parallel interpretation is like reading a heavily annotated book and discovering there are no footnotes at the back. When Miranda Richardson moves in and out of light it could be a comment on the insubstantial nature of experience. When the follow-spot wobbles back and forth across the edges of Richardson's red hair and porcelain face, it could merely be a technical problem.

Miranda Richardson looks beautifully androgynous, her short red hair cut in a masculine way on one side, a feminine way on the other. She has a formidable vocabulary of poised gestures, delicate steps and voices (many of them familiar: the squeaky one, the sneery aristocratic one, the terribly clear one). Her performance grows in strength as the evening progresses and Orlando reaches the 19th century. This coincides with Woolf's most explicit satirical comments about what a woman can or cannot do in Britain and how the prevailing dampness had caused people to have lots of children which led to the British Empire. These speeches are very funny. But across two hours, without an interval, Richardson's technical skill and commitment is not enough. As she crosses the stage barefoot with white feathers pinned to her dress, I wondered if Orlando wouldn't have been equally well served if the admirably clear Miranda Richardson had simply stood at a lectern and read us extracts.

In another one-woman show, Exquisite Sister, a West Yorkshire Playhouse production, now on the Fringe, Kelly Hunter offers, in a far more direct fashion, the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth. She has rapt, gleaming blue eyes, an undaunted smile and a hurried urgency. In Simon Usher's production, designed by Anthony Lamble, Hunter employs a multitude of props - cups, sprigs, branches, bowls, gates, little toy boats, laudanum, even a miniature lighthouse that blinks - as she takes us through the Wordsworths' moves from the West Country to the Lake District, across to France and back. Exquisite Sister reminds us that Dorothy is no gossip. Her frequent weather reports (rain, incessant rain, clear morning, etc) can make her sound like the Romantics' answer to Suzanne Charlton. It's tantalising, for instance, to hear of Coleridge dining with the Wordsworths and have no word of the conversation. Hunter's main addition to the diaries - apart from being able to hint at Dorothy's feelings for Coleridge - is to mark the painful onset of her pre-senile dementia, as she stumbles over words, screws her face up, and clasps her hand in her mouth. This provides a dark counterpoint to the radiance of the diaries.

In Parallel Lines, the young Scottish company Theatre Cryptic give us a bold, whole-hearted transposition of a literary text into another medium. They take Molly Bloom's soliloquy, the last chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, which has only eight sentences, the first of which runs to 2,500 words, and create a one-hour show that splits Molly's character between four performers: actress, mezzo-soprano, clarinettist and cellist. While the appropriately raunchy actress Muireann Kelly sprawls across the bed, the others provide different levels and types of response and consciousness, sometimes choric, sometimes solo. Intriguing.

After so many largely static theatre pieces, wholly dependent on prose texts, I fell on the Wrestling School's production of Howard Barker's new play Judith, which moves to BAC in London in September, as if it was a boulevard farce. Here was a forceful, vivid debate between the widow Judith (Melanie Jessop), the Assyrian general Holofernes (a cruel, rational William Chubb) and the perky down-to-earth Servant (Jane Bertish). Barker directs the excellent cast himself.

In Barker's retelling of the Biblical tale, Judith inveigles her way into Holofernes's tent - craftily designed by Robert Innes Hopkins as a series of ropes - the night before the battle, and finds herself overwhelmingly attracted to the man she is there to kill. Barker depicts the relationship not in terms of psychological nuance but as a poetic and philosophical exchange. There are moments of excess (after Holofernes' head has been cut off Judith tries to make love to his corpse), but also moments of restraint. In the erotic twists and turns, Barker illuminates the rich, amoral ambiguities of desire, in an arresting and decisive way.

The Spirit, a series of short playlets of very variable quality by the American dramatist Joe Pintauro, deals more astutely with grief and bereavement than with sexual politics and marital disputes. If stretches of writing are tiresomely explicit, across the range of scenes the versatile American cast turn in some affecting performances.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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