Meta-theatre, voyeurism and the vogue for Lecoq

Nicky Woolf's second Edinburgh diary.

 

August 9. Day two.

The day dawns with rude punctuality. I am not, by inclination, an early riser, but by seven the sun is shining through the open window on my face with tropical brutality: the city is glorying in a heatwave. I rise mostly in order to stave off sunburn, and head for the Pleasance.

The first show I see is a real gem. Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double is really two plays, Double: Vision and Double: Figures, running simultaneously with a video-link between the two, and I begin my day with the former. The shows together are a meta-theatrical farce about the collapse of an ambitious production of Macbeth, and it is riotously funny and tightly performed, so I book for the next day's production of Figures, to complete my set.

Next door to it, at the Pleasance courtyard, is a low black construction which houses the Peep stage, set up so that the audience sits in booths surrounding the stage in the middle, separated from their fellow viewers by curtains and from the performers by one-way glass; the sound comes over headphones. There are three short (20 minute) shows that play here, all about sex and sexuality, and I see the middle show, 69, by the Royal Court's Leo Butler. It is immaculately directed, production values are clearly very high and the voyeuristic effect works uncomfortably well.

My two shows for the evening are both by companies that have been formed out of the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Lecoq (childish snigger) is famous for physical theatre, focussing on dynamic movement and choreography, and is also a famously brutal learning environment: ninety students are accepted for the first year of the course, but sixty of them have been culled by the end of the first year. Lecoq is very much in vogue at Edinburgh this year; there are lots of shows by Lecoq graduates this year. I chose two of them for my first evening.

Edinburgh, built on a series of closely-packed and steep hills and hillocks, is a multi-layered city. From Cowgate, a valley street, you can look up at Nicholson, one of the city's great thoroughfares, crossing about fifty feet above you on an ancient stone arch, the buildings whose doors open onto it five stories above descend chaotically to the lower level, one city on top of another.

It is the Underbelly that takes the best advantage of this labyrinthine civic architecture. Its Cowgate headquarters is a bewildering warren of tunnels and dank chambers buried in the bowels of the city, and my first show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, is in one of its deepest and dankest. This vaulted dungeon is an apt setting for a deeply, deeply surreal performance about the end of the space race, science fiction, and memory loss. The audacity of the conception is breathtaking, and the effect is a show whose overall effect is a little bit mind-altering; at times too weird, but also at times strangely beautiful. It leaves me feeling a little winded, so I gulp a restorative libation at the Library Bar at the Gilded Balloon, and then head to the second show of the night.

This is Centralia at Zoo Aviary, a charming character-comedy about the last three inhabitants of a town in Pennsylvania that is beset by a slow-burning seam of coal that runs beneath it, turning into a superheated nightmare of smoke and yawning infernal chasms. It is a wonderful play, the characters are lovingly designed and there are some fantastic physical set-pieces, just in case we had forgotten what Lecoq training is all about; but the most amazing thing is that the story of the town of Centralia is entirely and dramatically true.

Day One: The Big Four explained.

Voyeurs wanted: Peep's show, 69. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times