Edinburgh Festival: Theatre

Thunderstruck | Voices | Hopeless Games | War of the Worlds | Cabin Pressure

Thunderstruck Traverse

Voices Traverse

Hopeless Games Komedia@Southside

War of the Worlds Royal Lyceum

Cabin Pressure Royal Lyceum

The most audacious show that has been produced at the Traverse during the Festival is Thunderstruck. It's not the most perfectly shaped: the dramatist Daniel Danis and the Canadian theatre group One Yellow Rabbit have made a mini-saga out of an incident. But it's shot through with an original weirdness.

It has invented a wild eloquence for its characters, who speak of terror in childlike accents. It has an unnerving appearance; none of its movements are predictable. Its staging and its vocabulary are all of one unsettling piece.

A wooden timber-frame topped with a weathercock serves as the outline of a backwoods cabin in which three brothers and their sister are orphaned when a bolt of lightning strikes. Later, wheeled across the stage, this very unstable home becomes a cage.

The brothers, who are eerily similar with identical boiler-suits and synchronised gestures, which can break into a hillbilly hoe-down, pop their sister into this. They guard her, they display her, and they abuse her. A 'red, red clot' on her brain has changed her from a talented country singer - a dimpling figure in gingham and glitter who swishes her petticoats as the audience enters - to an unresponsive body who is strung up in her brothers' harness like a piece of wet washing. Care can be a prison, the play suggests.

A Dutch company is responsible for the most surprising theatrical coup of the Festival. Under the direction of Johan Simons, Jeroen Willems's one-man show is an intricate and scalding denunciation of the free market.

The text of Voices is taken from statements by Pier Paolo Pasolini and the chairman of Shell International. Its manner shifts startlingly. Five bigwigs are portrayed with an intense realism which could be rivalled only by Johns Fortune and Bird. But every so often this realism is disturbed by a vein of grotesque fantasy, of Fellini-like extravagance.

Set around an opulent but dishevelled dinner table, Voices opens with some donnish reflections - delivered by a crumpled, hesitant figure who sidles into the theatre as if by accident, with his napkin stuffed into his collar - on how to survive the loss of humanist belief.

It goes on to include a drag act, a detailed dissection of one man's wolfish smile, a story about meeting the Devil, a wordless episode when Willems's tongue gets completely out of control and behaves like a terrible sea-serpent, and a defence of the ethics of multinationals. 'Reality doesn't have interruptions,' declares Willems's first character. The skill of Voices is to pick this notion apart - and then to prove it true.

To watch Hopeless Games is to see mood-setting images, normally glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, invading the centre of the stage. It is like seeing something subterranean rise to the surface of a pond.

This sequence of danced stories - the result of a wordless collaboration between the Do theatre of St Petersburg and the Fabrik company from Potsdam - begins with a headless squat overcoat waddling across the stage, as if tugged by the balloon it carries. It proceeds with a coat-rack writhing into many-limbed life, and interlaces its doleful acrobatic sequences with video footage. Framed by the lashes of an enormous eye, a train is seen rushing towards the audience and the band of (mostly shaven-headed) performers. As fireworks burst across the screen, the form of their bodies disappear under the patterns of exploding flowers. The melancholic images in Hopeless Games are memorable: they should be harnessed to a story, not left evocatively wafting. After Edinburgh, the show tours England, Europe and Ireland.

You'd think it would be almost impossible to make a dull play out of the performances - biographical and cinematic - of Orson Welles. But the Siti Company, New York has managed it with War of the Worlds. Setting their investigation in front of a big silver-framed screen, they've come up with a horde of clangingly obvious formulations about the director's art - 'magic' features largely.

The acting is so wooden that for a long time you suspect parody. As Welles, Stephen Webber bellows expressionlessly or sonorously intones. When period flavour is required, an actress flings herself on to the stage, shrieks and throws her beads and arms into the air. Every time a phrase by Welles or a description of his work is quoted, it serves as a criticism of what's being seen. 'Depth of field and sharpness of focus' enthuses one fan: this piece is shallow and fuzzy.

The same company has produced Cabin Pressure, an inert examination of the idea that 'being an audience is a creative act' which reduces its watchers to stunned passivity. The piece was conceived by Anne Bogart, who has brought together snatches from a number of plays - the warring couples from Private Lives and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? share a stage - and added a number of quotations from theatrical sages. She has mixed in some dull audience reactions to one performance - one person says it was pretty, another didn't feel very comfortable - which are repeated with minor variations throughout the evening.

She has also set up some would-be provocative stagings. As the audience settle into their seats, a scene is in full flood. From time to time the lights go on and off in the auditorium, while the actors continue to perform. Occasionally the performers are seen as if from backstage.

To have any point at all, this should influence audience behaviour. It didn't. The performance was accompanied by the customary cross rustle of macs from walk-outs, but when a mobile phone went off, people shushed its owner as if it were an interruption, when surely it should have been deemed an act of creative participation? One day, declares one of the actors in Cabin Pressure, 'an audience will rise to its feet and say who do you think we are?' Let's hope so.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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