Viewing the Edinburgh Fringe

Two vignette reviews cannot do justice to the productive maelstrom that is Edinburgh Fringe Festival, run every August in parallel with the other Edinburgh Festivals (International, Book etc).  Of the 2,500 productions, most will make a considerable financial loss as in the past; nowadays, ribald so-called comedy has so outgrown experimental theatre that this is the association that many people now have for the Fringe.  It was always possible to go as couple and as an audience be outnumbered by the cast, and there is still much amateur acting, but also a very large number of good productions for which the audience and reviewers are not numerous enough.  Darwinian profusion and competition: much good writing and acting talent is first seen at this important showcase.  Aided by track record of author and company, and nowadays by internet-accessible reviews of the production before it came to Edinburgh (from almost any quarter of the globe), it is possible at relatively affordable prices to feast breakfast-to-suppertime on shows including music, dance, cabaret and children’s fare, whilst mostly avoiding those productions you need for the occasional laughable story, but would want to tell friends to avoid.  I am thus confirming rather than showing any original insight original in awarding  *****  to the following two.

Request Progamme by Franz Xaver Kroetz

The frightening thing about Miss Rasch, the sole character in Request Programme, is not that she is deeply abnormal, but that she is marginally normal with obsessive tendencies, and living alone, very very alone, in her mini-apartment.  The author Franz Xaver Kroetz is a much-honoured left-leaning German political playwright.  Rasch is a not uncommon name in German but it also means “quick” or “over-hasty”.  Controversial in the Germany of its birth in the 1970s, this play was staged in New York in the 1980s.  The script running to 7 pages is more like a screen-play and gives no words for the actress to speak, only broad prescriptions for her return from the office, domestic round of evening meal, cleansing of crockery and some acts of personal hygiene, and preparation for sleep. The challenge of this very free hand accorded to Swedish director Hedvig Claesson and actress Cecilia Nilsson is therefore to sustain sufficient interest in detailed observation of movements and objects through the long introduction, in which the mild obsessionality is only marginally humorous.  The excruciation is managed brilliantly by Nilsson with a facial expression blank and fixed, as is common in combined anxiety and depression.

Just when we can take no more silence, sound arrives through the radio request programme.  This is a middle-brow medley but the musical content does not call for too subtle decipherment; it seems largely irrelevant with the exception of a piece of Tina Turner rock which briefly elicits some very human crazed gyration during the dish-drying — the only expression of any positive emotion, which is rapidly self-censored.  Significantly, all the dedications from the requesters to the show concern dysfunctional relationships, but these amount to at most a few hundred words.  Later, on checking the lock but failing to get to sleep immediately, Fraulein Rasch proceeds in steps of only minor hesitation to commit suicide, swilling down the pills with a pre-opened (therefore undoubtedly flat) mini-bottle of champagne from the mini-fridge.

Many Edinburgh Fringe productions are staged in church halls but this was in the loft office of a language school.  The central set is ingeniously designed for theatre-in-the round with an audience space of only 20 seats.  The mini-versions of sink, fridge, table and bed-sofa with bedding compartment, underline the hemmed-in quality of a life felt by its owner to be worthless.  These and more minor properties become very important with the lack of words, and give coherent hints of the emotional poverty of the character’s life, or perhaps some lost richness. A kitsch china dog of the type whose unglazed back permits home-grown cress shoots to grow for ultra-fresh but ultra-small vegetable portions; an equally kitsch candlewick rug which the character is completing, with a design featuring a dog and a baby.   Request Programme continues almost 40 years after it was written to push the boundaries of our idea of theatre.

Kafka and Son, developed by Alon and Mark Cassidy from a letter Kafka wrote to his father

Franz Kafka was a tortured soul, as is evident from his writing, in which there is renewed interest because of the currently contested ownership of the archived papers.  In 1919 Franz wrote his father Hermann a long letter full of psychological insight and not too self-centred, which Hermann probably never received.  The purpose was to explain why Franz was afraid of his father and to resolve an intolerable set of problems arising from that fear.  It is from this that the script has been meticulously constructed.

The father, a successful businessman was apparently not just a bully but a systematic tyrant, sarcastically deprecating and deriding all of Franz’s activities and thoughts: childhood milestones, writing, marriage intentions, and exhaustively undermining the boy’s confidence.  Even the Judaism to which Kafka senior paid lip-service, and might have offered some solace as an alternative authority structure, was vilified with little subtlety.  The letter is fashioned somewhat as a legal case.  Hermann is given some limited right of reply, via a repudiation of the complaints in the letter; but we are set up to find this unconvincing because it is in caricature form by the mainly Franz character (it would be marginally incorrect to call this a monologue).  In effect, Franz illustrates the bullying via ripostes presumed from the father, of which the argumentative content is poor, as we would now expect.  The father’s imputed replies grant no concessions, whereas in the writing Franz articulately and dispassionately gives some concessions, seeking chiefly to clarify rather than blame, and his position is consistent.  Arbitrariness and inconsistency, the hallmarks of tyrants, pervade these replies.

Whilst this plot is readily summarised, the dialectic and its illustrations are sufficient to support an hour’s one-man show.  At the most cataclysmic moments, scene-changes are in effect created by alterations of lighting along  with mood, and by altered use of the minimalist stage properties, a mattress free wire-sprung bed and some metal animal caging.  Periodically throughout, one of these serves also as the writer’s desk, but also once as a cage of refuge, underlining the refuge in writing.  These alterations are expertly managed in a virtuoso performance by Alon Nashman, abetted by skilled direction from Mark Cassidy, in a production that has played in major Canadian cities.

The writing desk cage is covered with black feathers, which serve variously as quills and other things — food for the gourmandising father or — when the feathers scatter — as general trappings of chaos.  Although Kafka wrote in German, the family name means “jackdaw” in Czech, a black bird to which European tradition ascribes kleptomania for bright objects.  There is also one large white feather.  In some contexts white feathers have been a badge of cowardice.  Indeed, fear and failure previously to confront his father are an issue that Franz himself recognised, but the symbolism imparted is more that of the escape into writing.  Does this piece of theatre render the letter more accessible and the writer and his works more explicable ?  Definitely.

Request Programme  plays at Inlingual School, 40 Shadwick PL » Pleasance, through 27 August.

Kafka and Son plays at Assembly George Square Edinburgh, through 28 August.

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