A visit to Summerhall – a new Fringe venue set up in the Old Veterinary School under the auspices of Richard Demarco – to see Pages from the Book Of… will repay the festival-trawler looking for pearls.
Demarco’s passion for the work of genius Polish painter and innovative theatre director Tadeus Kantor, whom he introduced to Edinburgh in the 1970s, has led to this superb production using Kantor’s techniques and theories to explore the life and work of Bruno Schulz, the surrealist writer and artist who was killed by the nazis in 1942.
A narrator leafing through Schulz’s strange book Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass introduces us to a group of mannequins who lead us on an evocative journey through the prism of shifting time, encompassing power, sex, fear, memory and death.
At first, the living dead – reminiscent of Kantor’s famous Dead Class – acquire a vitality more human than their manipulators.
Schulz’s son first seeks his lost father in this Kafkaesque world peopled by the artist’s creations, becoming increasingly entangled in this incomprehensible dream existence.
Former members of Kantor’s Cricot 2 company, directors Andrzej and Teresa Welminski lead 50 Letters Theatre to reveal the sad humour and musical madness of Schulz’s vision.
And so from Poland to Japan.
Hanafuda Denki from Tokyo’s Ryuzanji Company (C Venues) is publicised as a Japanese version of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. The message here, however, in this “nihilistic musical,” is more philosophical than political.
The single prop is a standing coffin clock in Danjuro’s House of the Dead funeral parlour, in which he helps his clients into the other world with gusto.
Like Mr Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, he and his wife are determined to thwart their daughter’s marriage to the dashing thief Kataro, even at the expense of helping her into the land of death.
Unfortunately it all goes wrong when daughter Karuta kills her beloved so that they can be together.
But this is no grand opera tragedy. This dynamic cast in traditional costume handle an infectious score and swinging dance routines with enormous enthusiasm belying the questioning theme – isn’t death better than life?
At least there is stability. The audience is helped through the confusing goings-on in this visually delightful show by clear super titles.
A grand finale has the company performing the game of skipping between life and death, finally holding out their hands. Any offers?
It is good to see Brecht back in town.
In How Much is Your Iron at Sweet Grassmarket, Warwick University students present two virtually unknown short cartoon plays written by Brecht in his 1930s exile in Denmark and Sweden, exposing in simple comic terms the pre-war nazi takeover of Europe through a mixture of cajolery and brutality.
The first has a naive pig seller, a “man of peace,” lamenting as he watches his business neighbours menaced and destroyed by the gangster-like visitor.
The second more darkly features an iron trader in the same boat, compromised into accepting the menacing visitor’s offers of mutual friendship, fearful for his profits and his life, and clearly destined to lose both to his bullying neighbour.
For Brecht committed to avoiding political activity in order not to embarrass his host countries, the broad satire approach enabled him to continue writing although there was little or no chance of staging these hardly veiled attacks on the preparations for the coming war.
The student company are to be congratulated for the enterprise in unearthing works that are far from irrelevant history.
A stunning one-man performance at The Space@Jury’s recreates the life and times of WEB Du Bois, that neglected giant who piloted the early struggles of the American Negro – Du Bois was responsible for the use of the capital N in Negro – cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and fought the Jim Crow horrors of the post-civil war US.
Brian Richardson’s impassioned portrayal of this leading black intellectual, activist, socialist and later communist, who never flagged throughout a long life, experiencing both achievements and setbacks for the cause of freedom is moving and, above all, educational for an audience which had largely never heard of the man.
Finally in this first round up of Fringe specials, a Nigerian version of Chaucer’s the Miller’s Tale – Wahala Dey Oh! at C Venues captures all the bawdy fun of the original and couples it to the African ebullience, colour, movement and music.
Adapter Ufuoma Overo-Tarmo has married the original tale – largely now the province of academia – to the Africans’ contemporary determination to enjoy life against all the odds, with no security, no electricity.
Chaucer would approve.