IN SO FAR as it deals with a theatrical audition that gives rise to a lot of soul-baring and gut-spilling, Mad could be said to bear an odd resemblance to A Chorus Line. But at that point all similarities abruptly cease: there could be nothing further from the synthetic showbiz emotionalism of Marvin Hamlisch's musical than the authentic experiences of nervous breakdown and mental illness that a group of woman harrowingly re-live in this Grassmarket Project production at the Leith Theatre.
The show completes the rhyming trilogy that the director, Jeremy Weller, began two years ago with Glad, in which a group of homeless people from Edinburgh presented a play based on their own lives. Using the same workshop methods of dramatic construction, he followed this up in 1991 with Bad, which gave the stage (or rather the gym) two young offenders. At this year's Festival, in addition to Mad, Grassmarket is presenting The Big Tease, directed by Jean Findlay, in which six go-go dancers reveal all about their lives in the sex industry.
I was reminded of the Grassmarket Project and its principles while watching the Royal National Theatre's rehearsed readings of Granville Barker's one-acter Farewell to the Theatre on Thursday. In it, an aging grande dame flutes condescendingly about the 'wretched amateurs' who play duchesses, kings and judges in real life. Thespians, she reckons, 'live those lives of yours more truly'.
Weller has no such luvvy delusions. His casts always include a sprinkling of professional actors (usually excellent ones), but his work is based on the belief that the lives of the dispossessed are best conveyed if they themselves are brought on- stage to tell their own stories. The results (which are the most memorable feature of each Festival) are routinely accused of pandering to liberal voyeurism, and of exploiting the performers. One journalist this week added the charge of philistinism, on the grounds that some of Weller's pronouncements (though not his work) constitute an implicit slur on art, a throwback to a puritan equation of play-acting and untruth.
The Big Tease was presented in a sleazy disco and, speaking as someone whose neck-tie was given an erection, fellated and then made to fall limp by a stripper (or so I'm told by my Daily Telegraph colleague; my own eyes were fixed on a trembling notebook), I have to admit there were too many moments in this piece where the line between being a spectactor of a show about strippers and being a voyeuristic participant in a strip-show became somewhat blurred. And the clash dramatised between a girl who needs to dance to finance her studies, and her odious John Knox-quoting, Calvinist boyfriend, is not the subtlest opposition of values we could have been shown. The best parts were the simplest: as each girl danced, beautiful black-and-white photographs of her face were flashed up on a screen and, in voice-over, she told us about her life. A striking juxtaposition of human being and sex object.
Mad is on a different plane of achievement from this (demonstrating the vital contribution played by Weller's editing and directorial skills). The passages that seem most contrived are those where the play addresses the question of its own possible ethical dubiousness. The 'director' conducting the audition (for a play about women's experience of mental illness) is all too clearly being set up to have the tables turned on him at the end.
But the sections of the show where the women re-live psychological and familial crises have a brave, seering immediacy and a generosity of revelation that only enhance the women's dignity. In one stunning role-reversal game, a young black girl tries to visit on a white actor the jeering sexual violence and humiliation her husband has repeatedly inflicted on her. Revealingly, it looks wrong that way round, and it gets out of hand, too, the actor left naked and cowering, the girl frantically apologising. The main point that emerges from these various stories is that it is disastrous to deprive a child of unconditional love. Not a new truth, but by laying bare their hearts, these women open our eyes to it in a particularly salutory and memorable way.
Mad is at the Leith Theatre; The Big Tease is at The Calton Studios - both until 29 August. For booking, ring the Fringe box office: 031-226 5138.
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