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Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2011 - Viewless / The Dark Philosophers / zanzibar cats / Traumatikon / Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box

Viewless – St Georges West – 3 stars
The Dark Philosophers – Traverse – 4 stars
Zanzibar Cats – Gilded Balloon – 4 stars
Traumatikon – Summerhall – 3 stars
Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box – Assembly – 4 stars

In a room in the middle of nowhere, two bespectacled and bearded men
wearing overalls are reinventing people's lives. For Cumbernauld
Theatre's first ever Fringe visit, director Ed Robson and his cast of
three have devised Viewless, a quirky piece of quasi European absurdism
that cuts through the lost files of botched bureaucracy in a manner
Czech satirist Vaclav Havel might have recognised. This is Britain,
however, until recently the cleverest police state on the planet, that
looks ridiculous.

With only an ancient typewriter, a window that looks out to nowhere and
their increasingly cyclic imaginations for company, the uncharted
territory these lost coppers occupy is the no-man's-land of the Witness
Protection Programme, the police's safety-first catch-all designed to
give those who spill the beans a hope of surviving beyond any attempted
revenge attacks. A life changed, however, is also “a life lost for
doing the right thing.”

Robson's production is playfully deadpan, with a series of heightened
physical tics performed in po-faced tandem by Robbie Jack and Finn den
Hertog, their material remaining just peculiar enough to make you
wonder how long they've been together in the same room. Some vintage
Super 8 footage is incorporated too, with an on-screen Oran Mor czar
David MacLennan playing the sort of stiff-upper-lipped mandarin who
probably went to Eton with Harry Enfield's Mr Cholmedley-Warner. It's a
curiously conceived studio oddity which nevertheless casts a gimlet eye
on how easy it is to be all but rubbed out by the state at large.

The Dark Philosophers is a collaboration between National Theatre Wales
and Told By An Idiot which dramatises the life and work of mercurial
Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas. On a stage racked high with wardrobes, the
older Thomas sits beside his younger self as he observes the small-town
characters he culled from his own experience, but which he gifted with
a way of saying and doing things that in Paul Hunter's production finds
them occupying a world somewhere between Milk Wood and Twin Peaks.

As a half masked Thomas moves among assorted bar-keeps, goats, coal
miners, wannabe singers and troubled couples, in Carl Grose's script he
becomes a garrulous puppet master, prompting lines as if purging his
own psyche of all the acquired baggage. A fearsome sight comes in
Oscar, the village patriarch and bully, here presented as a faceless
oversize puppet with a rasp of a voice, and whose actions blight any
presumptions of sentimentality the play's initial breeziness might
suggest.

There's showbiz, too, in Thomas' wonderfully incongruous appearance on
Michael Parkinson's late-night chat-show. In among the bustle, the
show's songs, set to music composed by Wee Stories veteran Iain
Johnstone, are belted out with all the heart and soul of a chapel choir
in an important reclaiming of a lost literary legacy that is here
reinvented with a vivid physical brio that never allows its charming
cast of eight to let up for a second.

A literary figure similarly airbrushed out of view is poet and
playwright Heathcote Williams, whose own legacy on the Edinburgh Fringe
dates back to the early days of the Traverse Theatre. Williams' public
heyday, at least, was the early 1990s, when Roy Hutchins performed a
trio of ecologically inspired works which were subsequently made into
TV films. As with Thomas' appearance on Parkinson, these are events TV
today probably wouldn't allow for.

Praise be, then, for Zanzibar Cats, Williams' latest and long overdue
collection performed again by Hutchins. The combination of Williams'
versifying and Hutchins' delivery is a quietly exquisite double-act of
political anger with a human face born of wide-eyed exposure to the
1960s counter-culture from an early age. Now chock-full of wisdom and
experience yet still maintaining a sense of wonder at the world,
Williams tackles his own and others mortality, composes a treatise on
Van Gogh's ear and tackles his perennial loathing of celebrity culture,
from original ancient Greek glamour chaser Herostrates to the
infinitely less heroic Katie Price.

Where such works could easily be Eyoreish, they're written and
delivered with an inherent playfulness, even as he talks of Barack
Obama watching snuff movies in the White House. The title poem of the
collection that closes what suspects is one of the few shows in
Edinburgh this year that takes its title from Thoreau is an angry
extended polemic that manages to reference Richard Branson's airlines,
the Sex Pistols, Buddy Holly and Otis Redding. Rave on indeed for a an
all too necessary radical conscience reborn.

From the same era when Williams' poetic sensibilities began to stir
came Polish auteur Tadeusz Kantor's Cricot 2 company, a radical
collective that presented a form of total theatre which at the time the
western world had seen little of. Under the directorial guidance of
former Cricot 2 members Andrzei and Teresa Welminski, the young
Counter-Active company and students of Rose Bruford College of Theatre
and Performance understandably look to the maestro for inspiration in
Traumatikon, a messy melange of fantasy dinner party and the sort of
circus cabaret that's currently undergoing something of a revival in
the more decadent areas of clubland.

In a hotel cafe, disembodied hands appear through little mounds of
earth. It's a familiar image to anyone weaned on zombie and vampire
teen TV, but these clutching little hands have been grasping their way
into life, and indeed death, since Kantor's own metaphysical
constructions. Once swept away, however, the party of the year erupts
into life with a guest list of twentieth century icons including Edith
Piaf, Frida Kahlo, a well-oiled Picasso, a soggy Virginia Woolf taking
stones from her pockets, Neil Armstrong and Muhammed Ali. Even Margaret
Thatcher makes an appearance.

Not that this is always clear in a series of representational
interpretations that occasionally burst into little tortured solos, all
set to a live piano and double bass score. Once the circus arrives,
it's as if the original Cabaret Voltaire live art club had been drafted
in to add to a youthfully lusty grab-bag of sound and image that
suggests Kantor's children are very much alive and kicking.

One man missed off Traumatikon's guest list was Arthur Cravan, the pre
Dadaist con-man and prankster whose spiritual presence provides the
launchpad for Greyscale's show, Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and
Box. Grierson, of course, is a Polish-influenced actor who is a
performer compelling enough to grip an audience by reading the
telephone directory out loud if he so chose.

Here he sets things up with a shaggy dog story that suggests he is not
only the grand-son of Cravan, now a hundred-and-twenty-five year old DJ
in Portugal, apparently, but plans to transubstantiate himself so
actually becomes him. With the house lights kept on, the audience
becomes complicit in Grierson's quest by way of little forays into
role-playing and origami as we're cast as Cravan's assorted peers and
lovers. Beyond the bonhomie, however, is a serious treatise on identity
and self-definition that finds Grierson acting as both himself and
others and treading the tightrope between truth and artifice. This
loose-knit approach in Lorne Campbell's production recalls the late
great Ken Campbell's similarly reckless experiments in performance,
whereby the audience can't help but leave scratching our heads,
wondering who the hell we might be in this deceptively clever public
meditation.

Performances for Viewless until August 29; The Dark Philosophers until
August 28; Zanzibar Cats until August 29; Traumatikon until August 20 ;
Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box until August 28.

The Herald, August 12th 2011

ends

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