Devil's dozen

Theatre - A mixed bag of Fringe shows is led by a magical Polish Faust by Michael Coveney


The 2005 Edinburgh Festival had hardly kicked off when William Burdett-Coutts, who has run the Assembly Rooms for 25 years, called for the Fringe to be amalgamated with the international programme.

This was a statement as fatuous as it was impertinent. All the best and most serious theatre has been provided by Sir Brian McMaster's international programme these past 15 years, while Wil-liam Burdett-Coutts has allowed the comedians to take over, has shamefully gone along with the early start to the Fringe - now almost ten days before the "real" programme - and done more than anyone to spread a damaging soundbite culture by restricting playing time to 90 minutes in order to maximise production turnover and box-office potential.

The greatest compliment I can pay Faust at the Assembly Rooms is that you would more likely find such an astonishing production on the international programme - about 20 years ago. Janusz Wisniewski, director of the Teatr Nowy in Poznan, is one of Europe's outstanding younger Turks, and his version of Goethe's mythic masterpiece brilliantly condenses the downfall of the good-but-flawed doctor, an obese atheist trapped inside his own books. The battle is waged against a background of strident, triumphalist music by the aptly named Jerzy Satanowski and a series of animated tableaux, part Hieronymus Bosch, part Gogol, that surge across the stage.

The effect is tremendous, and the acting has the kind of expressionist vigour that, here in Britain, only Steven Berkoff ever attempts. The Easter setting of the Faust legend is extended through the action, with a Crucifixion scene corresponding to Faust's undoing and the death of Gret-chen. Amazingly, only two of the cast are under 60 years old, so we are experiencing a richly sustained ensemble tradition.

The best Fringe venue for physical theatre is Aurora Nova, where Double-think, by the British/Italian company Rotozaza, is an unsettling exercise in creating chaos out of a muddle. At each performance, two volunteers stand on either side of a white sheet and obey instructions as given by a disembodied voice. The instructions are enforced by two operators, who sit with their backs to the audience. One of them swigs vodka and smokes a cigar throughout.

The newcomers are told to relax, jump about, don white boiler suits, think about the future, change light bulbs. At one point, just when you think you have had quite enough of this sub-Frantic Assembly nonsense, the theatre plunges into darkness, everyone starts screaming, and the female operator dives through the screen. The theatrical environment closes in on the newcomers, swallows them up and then spits them out. The delicacy with which a narrative is conveyed through subtle prompting and emotional revelation is simply breathtaking.

On a more mundane level, Mikey the Pikey at the Pleasance Dome is a new musical about chavs on a sink estate, and has attracted the support of Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Sir Cameron Mackintosh. These worthies are right to recognise the talent of its young writer/composer Joel Horwood, who made a splash with the piece in March at the National Student Drama Festival.

For all its energy and vim, however, the show is a mess and has nothing of note to say about the plight or, indeed, the point of chavs, beyond letting them dream of bigger and better things in a string of high-school dance routines that make Grease look like the Royal Ballet. Still, there might be something here after a proper director gets his hands on the material, and British musical theatre desperately needs a busy new composer to improve on Elton John's score for Billy Elliot, for instance, or all those ghastly back-catalogue shows.

The Traverse, as usual, is the Mecca of "good new writing" in the flat, depressing manner of the recent stuff at the Royal Court in London. The best so far is After the End by Dennis Kelly, in which a strange loner (played by the brilliant new actor Tom Brooke) smuggles a girl (Kerry Condon) into his nuclear fallout shelter after the world has ended, possibly. More dead-end stuff in The Girls of the 3f Floppies by the Mexican writer Luis Enrique Gutierrez OrtIz Monasterio - whose unreasonably long name means I can say little more than that John Tiffany's superb production is graced by Aida Lopez and Gabriela Murray as a pair of feisty prostitutes. And Richard Wilson's deft production of Martin J Taylor's East Coast Chicken Supper suggests there is trouble and strife in Fife among the small-time drug pushers. Surprise, surprise.

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Michael Portillo is away

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Robin Cook: a tribute