Unnatural Selection by Boris Mitkov – review

Published in Edfringereview

Vampires have proven curiously ripe for cinematic inspiration. A staple of horror films in the pre-war era, including such classics as Nosferatu and Count Dracula, they were known for probing the seedy underbelly of a monstrous society. By no stroke of coincidence were both these films so popular at the height of the most infamous economic downturns in their respective countries, Germany and the USA. But over time the aesthetic qualities of such classics gave way to fetishistic gore-mongering and vulgar kitsch, which characterises the latest fad for the vampire underworld – look no further than the lucrative Twilight film franchise.

But Boris Mitkov’s Unnatural Selection is a ravishing revision for the stage of a much-maligned and mocked inspiration. His highly original script recreates a vampire underworld of criminalised creatures hiding on the margins of society. Yet there is nothing quite so vulgar as a two-dimensional opposition between humans and vampires. The vampires’ lust for blood mirrors humankind’s insatiable lust for economic growth and technological expansion. The humans regard themselves as morally superior to the vampires, but is this a mere mythic smokescreen to guise their amoral instincts? Is the parasitic vampiric existence the logical extension of humanity’s own means of existence? As Thomas O’Connell’s intoxicatingly brilliant High Councillor (of the vampire high council) proclaims, “We vampires are just top of the food chain.”

A further cinematic influence is apparent in the most original aspect of the script: a political conspiracy that unravels backwards over time, a structure well-known from such movies as Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but largely unknown on the stage. Mitkov’s deft dénoument divulges a thoroughly unexpected twist. I’m not quite sure what it means, but that is precisely the point. Empson famously talked about seven types of ambiguity. Mitkov’s script has at least a hundred. This is all the more to be appreciated at the Edinburgh fringe, where every other play is a student production that so vulgarly makes clear what it’s about. Resisting the temptation to create a smart, simple allegory out of his concept, Mitkov plasters layers and layers of multifarious meanings over the plot, leaving the audience dazed and confused – in a good way.

Every member of the cast deserves special mention for their authentic acting. How one can bring authenticity to the lives of vampires I do not know, but Thomas O’ Connell, Matthew Plumb, Andrew Kinsler, Eilieh Muir, Max Wilson and Rosie Orchison all certainly did, without turning their performances hammy, as lesser actors might have done. Mitkov’s direction and choice of music avoided cliché, and the fast-paced use of strobe lighting during the fight scenes was a breath-taking touch that one really must see to believe. Much like the play itself.


Simply the Jest – review

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It’s well-known that comedy is a fairly hit-and-miss game. For no brand of comedy is this truer than the student sketch show, from whose ranks have hailed such comedy classics as Monty Python, Lee & Herring and, of course, the Cambridge Footlights, but also the appalling likes of Little Britain, Cowards, and, of course, the Cambridge Footlights. Simply the Jest, Exeter University’s comedy cream, unfortunately belongs in the latter category – but not for want of trying.

Unless, of course, you find appeals to the lowest common denominator to be enjoyable comic forays. It’s perfectly possible to see the funny side to mulling the possibility of a film called Edward Penis-hands, naming schoolchildren Va-jay-jay and Titty, or having nipples in unexpected places, like behind the earlobes or on the back. But an hour long regression to genital humour is tiresome, unoriginal and cheap. (The latter can’t be said for the tickets; without the complementary ones granted to this reviewer, one would be coughing up a tenner for jokes that can be heard for free at any pub in the country).

Occasionally, the humour did rise above the level of pub banter. The pregnancy iphone app, for example, where women pee on their phones to find out if they’re pregnant, was a brutally pointed satire. The audience consistently expressed their approbation through hearty bouts of laughter, though, plied with enough alcohol, they ended up literally laughing at anything; at one point the venue’s manager appeared on stage to make a smoking-related health and safety announcement, and this too was greeted with an inexplicable roar.

Every comedy writer knows that, shorn of inspiration, one’s only recourse is to the pull-back-and-reveal, which works every time, but is to be used sparingly. For example, a drama teacher brings a visitor to school. He mimes – shall we say, canine carnal congress – with him, whereupon the visitor refers to the teacher as his dad. The fact that every other gag adhered to this facile form suggests the writers were not merely shorn of inspiration, but irrevocably expunged of it, much like the several castrated penises referred to during the show.

Nevertheless, the writing was as bad as the acting was good. All of the performers betrayed a remarkable gift for comic acting. The perfect timing, not to mention miming, was not merely proof of the performers’ palpable comic chemistry but also strong evidence that the show must have been impeccably and admirably well-rehearsed. Rosie Abraham deserves special mention for her versatility with comic personae, by turns a retrogressive mother or a precocious schoolgirl, as does Jack Stanley (of Little Britain fame) for his towering stage presence that must have been honed over years of being bullied for being so short. With some good writing Simply the Jest could have been the best sketch show in town, instead of the most mediocre pub banter this side of the Sheep Heid Inn.

The First Day of My Life by Timothy Bond – review

Published in Edfringereview

A lazier review might merely state the obvious flaws to this largely monologue-based meditation on death. But most of them are quite deliberate (at least one hopes so): the inactive acting (what else are actors supposed to do when delivering a monologue?), the clunky script (of course it’s going to sound clunky; one’s thoughts, especially in the face of death, as in this play, weigh heavy) goes with the territory of interior monologues – I for one respect the attempt. The premise isn’t a bad one: 4 Londoners are stuck on the tube as it’s about to be blown up.

But the play tries to have its cake and eat it. Timothy Bond’s cliché-ridden script, which includes such lines as “this is the story of my life” and “it was just a normal day”, would be perfectly excusable on the grounds of being authentic representations of ordinary speech, and one might even on these grounds forgive Bond’s recourse to cheap sentiments and cheap laughs – including the line “he must be a banker: twat!”. For isn’t that the sort of thing people say and think? Except it’s full of things that real people don’t say or think. Things like: “I call it the human condition”, “hate is the only constant”, and so on. This, too, would be perfectly excusable if that’s what Timothy Bond decided to go for in a fit of Brechtian inspiration that threw realism to the wind in a bid to get the audience thinking. But not both. Perhaps Timothy Bond couldn’t decide between either style, or – what seems more likely – he failed to notice the jarring inconsistencies in his script. Even the actors seemed to be cringing as they delivered their lines.

It is not merely with speech that Timothy Bond betrays a deficient dramatic sensibility. His tin-ear is more than matched by his feeble mind. The brazen unsubtlety of naming his characters “man”, “lady”, etc. was probably the low-point. I winced when each character came on, declaring at the outset: “I’m teen” or “I’m lady”. A good dramatist leaves it to the audience to decide if the characters stood for a particular archetype; a bad dramatist shoves it in your face, as his craft is too weak to suggest it with any skill, sensitivity or subtlety.

And one might forgive all of these flaws if the script betrayed a single original thought. Instead the script is knee-deep in fortune-cookie pseudo-profundity about the nearness of death, the importance of seizing the moment, free will, blah blah blah. An unwelcome addition to the vast genre of the dramatic memento mori.

The Investigation by Peter Weiss – review

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The eponymous investigation of Peter Weiss’s “documentary drama” (“with dance”, adds the press release) is a Frankfurt war crimes trial. But what does a “documentary drama” entail? How does such a creature differ from an historical drama? Is it an attempt to stage history or use history as a stage? For sure, the latter would have made for a better play, but this was deliberately and defiantly the former. There is a school assembly feel as witnesses bear testimony to the horrors of the camps, reeling off statistics as if reading from a history textbook: 3.3 million dead in the gas chambers, 500 000 dead in the ghettos, 700 calories a day in Buchenwald. But I suppose that was the point. I neither noted down nor knew in advance those facts: they stuck in the mind. Oddly it was the most banal of them which distilled the most evil (I winced at the mention of potato peel soup) – perhaps I finally know what Hannah Arendt meant by the ‘banality of evil’.

But if Peter Weiss is a history teacher, he is one with all the narrative flair of a Simon Schama or David Starkey (to say nothing of the camp gusto). Using drama to convey knowledge is a difficult task but the script frames the facts and details in convincing stories – a Jewish doctor who is forced to collaborate, or the psychological effect on survivors as they try to re-integrate into post-war German society. Moreover, there needn’t be a drama-history dichotomy; like all good drama, good history casts light on moral issues from all perspectives. The collaborators’ qualms and the redeeming guilt of Nazi criminals provide a perspective all too absent from popular history and fiction, which do no justice to the moral complexity of a situation where, say, Josef Mengele affectionately has sandpits built for children who wear jumpers knitted by his wife, even as he prepares to murder them.

But most originally, the incorporation of physical theatre brings to life the horrors, brings to life the death. Original, because the choreography consisted not merely of the morbid miming of the acts described, but also more nuanced narratives told through dance: the performers’ movements slow down and descend to the floor representing, perhaps, the decline of civilisation; children play clapping games while a skipping rope turns to a hangman’s noose – a potent and poignant evocation of Germany’s lost innocence, as well as a welcome influence of the symbolist theatre of the likes of Maurice Maeterlinck (or indeed late Chekhov).

Influences loom large in this play, but so deftly are they incorporated and so lightly are they worn that one might easily miss them. The Investigation is engaged in a highly-literate conversation with past representations of the Holocaust; a girl wears a dashing red coat as she is led to the slaughter, reminiscent of the famous girl-in-the-red-coat from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; a pitch-perfect piano score evokes the minor-key piano music that has become a quintessential feature of Holocaust films from Europa Europa to, of course, The Pianist; and the closing (and only) song in which all cast members join in recalls unmistakeably the eerie solemnity of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from the musical Cabaret.

But this conversation with the past goes much further. Didacticism has gone out of fashion (and this, make no mistake, was didactic – right down to the chalkboards at the back on which cast members occasionally noted down harrowing details). But there is a long tradition of plays whose primary purpose was to convey knowledge, such as medieval mystery and miracle plays or the passion plays, characteristically marked by antisemitism. Is this a Jewish rejoinder? There are hundreds of “revivals” in Edinburgh: revivals of plays. This flaunts a whole lot more chutzpah: a revival of a genre.

Ink by Laura Lexx – review

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The publicity material for Laura Lexx’s debut play, Ink, proclaims a “dedication to exploring personal protest through words and worlds”. Exploring the personal disintegration of a grieving estate agent, Luca, who mourns the loss of his job, his father, and his lover, Ink lives up to this bold claim. Luca’s obsessive impatience with words stands for the futile attempt to search for meaning in a world whose tragedies – in this play, 7/7 and the “credit crunch” – belie a nihilism they cannot bring themselves to accept, while Luca’s hallucinations reveal an ultimately failed attempt to create a meaningful world, albeit a solipsistic one existing only in the mind of one desperate, depressed man. But it is Luca’s airheaded bimbo of a flatmate, adeptly acted by director-playwright Laura Lexx herself, who best expresses this nihilism; “people date, people fuck, people die”, she exclaims, impatient with Luca’s solemnity, which actor Peter Byrom carries over rather well.

Yet Ms Lexx fails to convey her message about the media with any authenticity. “Ink sets out to deal with the hypocrisy of a national media”, says the publicity material. Yet random references to the London Lite, The Times and The Independent, and a set consisting almost solely of old newspapers, do not entail a meaningful meditation on the media. Sure, Luca has his vaguely amusing hallucinations of jobbing journalists out to twist facts to create compelling copy, but Ms Lexx ends up doing the same thing – wrapping big issues in Hallmark Card sentimentality about beauty and truth. (Admittedly, that charge might equally be levelled against Keats…)

When she’s doing that at all. Most of the play actually consists of banal chitchat, the point of which was much beyond this reviewer. Perhaps it was too subtle. What has clearly happened is that Ms Lexx set out to say something about the media but ended up getting distracted by the psychology of grief and its manifestations in the banal. And the better for it.

The management of rising tensions demonstrated dramatic craft worthy of a two-a-penny creative writing course. This is no insult; a grasp of structure, however unoriginal, is better than no structure at all. There was one good metaphor in the whole play, but a fairly good one at that – the black-and-white colours of the world of print standing for the black-and-white worldview the media propagate: simplistic, but effective. The former, as it happens, could summarise the play as a whole. One wishes the same could be said for the latter.

Principal Parts by Henry David – review

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Churchill famously liked to think of Europe east of the Danube as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Strip Theatre’s latest production Principal Parts (C Venues, C Soco), set in that most enigmatic of Eastern Europe’s cities, Sarajevo, is a tragedy wrapped in a farce inside a world music concert. The story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination has been rehearsed in every history classroom, but it takes playwright Henry David’s Stoppard-esque dramatic disposition to conjure out of history a story that enchanted the audience one and all.

Principal Parts is framed as narrator Professor Mehmed Basic’s theatrical attempt to understand the stories behind his and his collaborators’ erstwhile participation in the violent conspiracy that triggered a world war. But this play turns out to be about a motley crew of lovelorn thespians-cum-political-radicals rehearsing a play about an assassination. Thrown in to this mystifyingly meta mix is a love quadrilateral on which depends – one likes to think – the fate of the world; love and politics more fatefully intertwined than in Doctor Zhivago, but with a whole lot more rip-roaring laughs.

At least I think it might be a love quadrilateral, although a two-dimensional shape hardly does it justice; perhaps a dodecahedron? The eponymous Princip, whose dissonant combination of naïveté and wisdom Ivan Juritz captures so well, is enamoured of Alice Allemano’s sensuously seductive waitress Ana, whom lead conspirator Dano Ilic is eyeing up for marriage. Meanwhile, their co-conspirator Vaso rather fancies Ana too but is insanely infatuated by Dano’s even insaner mother, Nina, a schoolteacher in the habit of seducing her pupils, including Professor Basic’s younger self. Basic happens also to be the object of Ned’s affections, the most ardent Serbian nationalist of them all, a prickly and misogynistic homosexual, a performance actor Nick Stafford hilariously ensnares in a slithery spirit of reptilian camp.

The Arthur Schnitzler-style merry-go-round of erotic collusions is not the only way David catches the Austro-Hungarian fin-de-siècle, neither his delightfully and disarmingly bawdy jokes reminiscent of the period’s classic German pornographic tracts. Bosnia’s unique heritage of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian worlds collide in Schiller’s coffeehouse (itself a perfect symbol of both), where patrons’ favourites include the wiener schnitzel as well as baklava, accompanied by Beth Hipwell’s beguiling Balkan original score, whose continental cacophony is grounded by an oriental tabla.

But behind all the entertainment lies a serious kernel smuggled in amid all the wit and wordplay; the conspirators’ bumbling, fumbling incompetences mask the evil face of nationalisms past (and present?), whose utopian intentions cause, as Ana bears witness, untold damage. Is this a comic answer to the question – whether political violence is ever justified – posed by Camus in his play Les Justes? Princip eventually answers no, and prioritises love over principle, but in an unexpected twist this counts for nothing. Princip and Ana’s first kiss is oddly touching, but not for too long, and the comic merry-go-round starts spinning again, briefly, until it unravels to a satisfying stop, some time in 1934, not too far from another tragedy.

Marx assertion in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Henry David’s meta-theatrical triumph does both in one go.

rogerandtom by Julien Schwab – review

Published in Edfringereview

After the decade-long lull, the play-within-a-play is clearly back in fashion. Often one finds plays framed within other plays for little apparent reason. Alan Bennett was ever-so-slightly guilty of this in his most recent play, Habit of Art. And one must always be wary of anything that bills itself as a metadrama; the structure is occasionally used as a way of disguising a play’s flaws. If a play is poorly performed or if its plot is unconvincing, one can all-too-easily claim that it was meant to be like that.

Happily, this cannot be said of Julien Schwab’s rogerandtom, the latest production of the fittingly named 4th Wall Productions. As talk of “the end of postmodernism” begins to gain currency in the literary pages of the Sunday supplements, Julien Schwab’s latest play takes theatre in new directions that the Michael Billingtons of the world probably didn’t know existed.

It would be a spoiler to reveal who the eponymous Roger and Tom are (though I’ll hint that the unorthodox orthography of “rogerandtom” is not without its significance), and any coherent description of the plot would ruin the fun of piecing it together during the performance. But despite a plot that resembles the infamously mind-boggling film Synecdoche, New York, where a director builds a vast superstructure of stages-within-stages to stage his existence, it all comes together. Lines and actions don’t make sense at the time, but they do soon enough, yielding some of the most satisfying “a-ha” moments since Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Nothing’s ever spelled out; that’s part of the fun. One needn’t worry about failing to understand; judging by the unceasing number of garrulous guffaws emanating from the audience, they were all clearly in on it.

In on it in more ways than this review will do justice. In time we end up just as important members of the cast as Corey Volovar’s show-stealingly stupid Penny, Bruce Wexler’s endearing everyman Roger, and Julien Schwab’s competent turn as the knowing Richard/William (the double billing will make sense once you’re there). The audience needn’t do anything; this isn’t “interactive” (God forbid), but our being there is at the play’s core.

One wonders what it all means. Is this the application of Heisenbergian principles to theatre – that a life is only lived when observed? Does fraternal or marital separation – Roger’s from his brother Tom, Richard’s from his wife – drive a person absolutely bonkers? Like Godot, Tom never turns up (or does he? Because he sort of does) – is life about standing by false hopes? Time and again William/Richard tries to prevent the truth from outing: are we happier deluded? All of these questions are gently mooted through a script of superb subtlety.

Not that the play is an intellectual burden. Lots of intelligent sight gags, often relying on a well-designed yet deliberately bare set, call to mind the Marx Brothers and make sure that even a child wouldn’t be left un-entertained, and the self-referential joshing is never an intellectual burden.

I wonder what they are doing at the Fringe though. On the back of a sell-out runs at professional venues in Los Angeles and New York, a London-side production is surely due. Julien Schwab may well be the next Luigi Pirandello, though like Pirandello, I fear he won’t be appreciated for a long time yet.