December 30, 2015

2015: A theatrical recap

I figured that as I'm on holiday during these days, I should put some of my notes and scribbles I've made in the year to use, compiling a list of things that have made my year and things I'm looking forward to in 2016. I've decided to start with theatre and thought I may as well share it on here.

2015 was a pretty good year for shows up my street, including the touring production of King Charles III.
A "future history play" set in a modern day constitutional crisis, it makes clever references not just in its Shakespearean dialogue but also in reference to specific plays. From the conflict between Charles the king and man, to ghostly apparitions and its very own Lady Macbeth character, they're all bundled together into a story that keeps you hooked throughout.

From one hypothetical future to another, Dawn Kings adaptation of the science fiction classic Brave New World also came to Edinburgh towards the end of the year. As one of my top ten books of all time, I was slightly apprehensive about how this would turn out but I was delighted with the TCTC production and how it brought Huxley's dystopian universe to the stage.

A special mention must also be made for the Citizen Theatre production of Lanark. Again, I was intrigued to see how this work of four books and two worlds would translate onto the stage. The answer it turns out is a faithful adaptation of Gray's novel, in three acts.

Promotional image from the Citizen's Theatre production of Lanark at the Edinburgh International Festival

A key element of the story is the connection between the characters of Lanark and Duncan Thaw; along with their respective worlds of Unthank and Glasgow. This was approached in the production by telling Thaws story in the past tense, using nothing but a double scaffold as a stage setting and therefore relying heavily on the cast to tell the story, jumping between a group of narrators and the individual characters in Thaws story.
Lanark/Thaw was played by Sandy Grierson, whose performance as the main character was second to none and nearly exactly as I imagined Lanark to be as I read the book.
Hopefully the productions has raised the profile of this masterpiece of Scottish literature and it was a close contender for my Theatre show of the year. However, it was pipped by one performance that simply blew me away, during this years International Festival.

My Top Pick: The Encounter

This show was beyond any doubt, my highlight of this years Edinburgh International Festival. Based upon the Petru Popescu book Amazon Dreaming, it tells the true story of Loren McIntyre's journey into the Amazon rainforest in 1971. Surrounded by 400 miles of jungle, he finds himself amongst the people of the Mayoruna. The account of what happens to McIntyre and the Mayoruna next forms the core of the story told by the performance.

A really interesting part of the show was its use of binaural technology to create an immersive and intimate experience. Once you pop on the headphones that are next to your seat you are completely isolated from the surrounding audience. The 3-dimensional sound, created through the use of numerous microphones, an array of everday objects taken by the storyteller, such as piles of video tape, pencils and water bottles and an invisible team of technicians to turn these sounds into ones that take you out of the conference centre and into the depths of the jungle, twisting the everyday into the unfamiliar.

Of course, a production like this cannot be simply carried by its special effects, regardless of their sophistication. To tell a great story you need a great storyteller, which we had in the form of Simon McBurney, director and solo performer. From his portrayal of McIntyre, using a deep, husky voice throughout to the occasional "interruptions" in the story, where he immediately breaks out of character to talk to his children (who are pre-recorded) before diving right back in McBurney gave us an energetic and enthralling performance, pulling the entire audience into a story that lasts two hours straight with no interval. It seemed fleeting at the time, but after the show you couldn't help but admire the sheer stamina required to pull a show like the Encounter off. That is of course, once you had actually returned to the real world yourself.

Poster for The Encounter during Edinburgh International Festival

The Encounter is still touring and should I have the time, I fully intend to see it once more. Although part of me wonders if the effect will wear off the second time around, I doubt it. It's the sort of show that will remain transformative, no matter how many times you experience it.

What's Next?

Quickly looking ahead to 2016, there is one set of shows I'm interested to revisit. Premiering in Edinburgh back in Festival 2014, Rona Munro's James Plays return to the stage of the Festival theatre in February. Bringing to life three generation of the Stewart dynasty, the plays made a massive impact last time they were in Edinburgh, bringing a combination of high drama and comedy amidst questions of national identity, highly apt in the year that saw the independence referendum.

James III: The True Mirror, at its premiere in 2014

I still haven't seen a cast list for the productions this time around but I think they'll still hold their own regardless. (although Sophie Grabol as Margaret of Denmark will be a tough act to follow). With these three plays to kick off the year, here's hoping 2016 will prove to be another good year for theatre!