Wednesday 14 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Roots at the Church Hill, or, An Underwhelming Afternoon

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 11th August 2019.

My only previous encounter with the company 1927 was their Magic Flute, staged for Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with Barrie Kosky which visited the Festival back in 2015. I was underwhelmed. I thought that perhaps seeing one of their own shows would explain their reputation to me, but I'm afraid this anthology while technically impressive and delivered by a versatile ensemble of musician actors (Susanna Andrade, Esme Appleton, David Insua-Cao, Francesca Simmons) left me rather cold.

This new show, co-produced by Edinburgh and receiving its European premiere here, is a collection of folk tales including a greedy cat, patient Griselda (whom it is difficult not to regard as out of her mind in this version) and an ant who loses her mouse husband in a stew accident. The company's approach is a repeat of that used in The Magic Flute, with the benefit here that they can precisely tailor the constant musical accompaniment to fit their needs. So the staging consists of a white screen on which everything required is projected, with a few holes cut in it through which faces and hands can appear.

There's no denying the technical cleverness of this device and, to begin with, the effect of the highlighted faces against the projections is arresting. But as the approach is repeated and repeated through 70 minutes its limitations become steadily more apparent. The stories are narrated by recorded voice over (supplied by friends and family - the quality of whose deliveries varies). The result is that there is little verbal interaction between the characters, and the characters rarely speak directly to the audience - there's a parallel here to one of the big problems with their Flute where the characters were so focused on interacting with the projections there was little human connection between the performers. For me at least the result was emotionally alienating. It's compounded, I think, by the anthology approach - we've usually barely met a character before they've disappeared and we're on to the next story - again there's a shallow quality to this.

There's also one particularly tiresome moment when two alleged audience members who have, apparently, previously seen a 1927 show, appear in a filmed inset to complain about them. Although their remark that that previous show was too long certainly echoed my own reaction to this one.

This is one of several EIF theatre shows in recent years that look rather Fringe-like. I'm not convinced this is the right solution to the tricky problem of the EIF's place in the crowded Edinburgh Festival theatre market. At any rate this was an underwhelming afternoon.

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