Edinburgh Fringe-goers have come to expect high standards from the Traverse. Known as “Scotland’s new writing theatre”, it’s a useful starting point for anyone trying to navigate the ever-expanding festival.
It’s a bit less useful, though, for anyone hoping for insights into Scotland’s referendum on independence next month. The Traverse devotes just one play to the issue, John McCann’s Spoiling. Instead, what connects this year’s diverse line-up – with many pieces by non-Scottish companies – is a certain approach to theatre-making: most of the plays I saw had just one actor and a strong element of storytelling.
The highlight is Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities, a loose weave of stories about men, lonely and often alone. It’s more storytelling than theatre, Goode standing at a microphone on a bare stage, his spotlight changing colour as he switches between characters. All the men are part of society – all have homes, most have jobs and families – yet all are fearful of society’s judgment should they reveal their true selves. There is a bleak humour in their quiet, unshowy despair: Rehan, a newsagent working late, discovers that the photocopier can do “copies of nothing”; Jeff, at breakfast, eyes his Bran Buds and thinks, “I did National Service for this.”
The characters’ paths barely cross, yet there’s a cruel irony in the similarity of their loneliness. Some mirror each other: Rufus, a 10-year-old boy obsessed with gay porn, is impatient to be grown up; he imagines moving to London, “where everyone has sex like constantly”. Meanwhile, a young gay man called Ben takes a bath, submerging himself “like a baby waiting to be born”. Framed by the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby, a soldier killed in south London by two Islamist extremists, this is a masterly piece, beautifully observed down to “the fruit bowl with its patient fruit”, recalling still life painting.
As Men in the Cities is a portrait of masculinity – how it is defined, challenged, misunderstood – another one-actor play, The Carousel, attempts an equivalent picture of femininity. Charting three generations of a family in rural Canada, Maureen Beattie plays the many parts with verve but is weighed down by the play’s laboured style (people are never addressed by name, but as “my granddaughter”, “my child”).
Comedian Mark Thomas is one of the biggest names at the Traverse this year. Cuckooed is the true story of his former friend, an arms trade activist revealed to be a spy for arms company BAE Systems. The piece treads a careful line between righteous anger and self-ironising (getting a bicycle D-lock stuck around his neck at a protest, Thomas muses that there’s a reason most activists are skinny vegans). It’s angry and polemical but at its heart is a story of friendship and devastating betrayal.
John McCann’s two-hander Spoiling is another political piece, though in a different key. Scotland’s foreign minister (Gabriel Quigley) is preparing to deliver a speech on the newly independent country’s relationship with the UK. From Tunnock’s Tea Cakes to Tory-bashing, there are plenty of gags but there isn’t much depth. It’s interesting that this minister should be female and heavily pregnant (and tight-lipped about who the father is), but neither angle is really explored and Quigley’s portrayal of a blunt, passionate woman feels one-dimensional.
Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-Up Comedian transforms the Traverse Two into the “Edinburgh Chuckle Hut”, sending up the kind of painful stand-up – complete with amplified breathing, sweaty palms and badly pitched jokes – that will be familiar to all Fringe-goers. In this cracking new piece, writer-performer Gary McNair dissects the tricks and psychology of comedy in what becomes a touching coming-of-age story.
Acclaimed playwright Owen McCafferty’s Unfaithful follows two troubled, tangled relationships. The older couple have “grown out of the way of being alone together”; too late for them to start again, when the wife discovers her husband has been adulterous, she feels “not cheated on but cheated of – cheated of time”. The younger couple are more sketchily drawn, but McCafferty writes with empathy and a wry humour that makes for an absorbing – if painful – hour.
In writer-performer Valentijn Dhaenens’ SmallWar, Dhaenens plays both the nurse tending to a dying soldier in the first world war and the soldier himself, at different stages of his life. The soldier appears in multiple pre-filmed projections and as a motionless amputee on a television screen on the hospital bed. The projections appear lifelike until one figure crosses into another’s space, the overlap revealing their immateriality – an effect that conjures the hallucinatory hinterland the soldier occupies between the living and the dead. Drawn from the testimonies of soldiers through history, the play exposes how brutally war dehumanises: the nurse is “a machine with barely any trace of a woman inside”, the soldier “a piece of meat that keeps on living”. This is a slow meditation on war, too slow for some, but, finally, it rewards the audience with great poignancy.
riverrun is Irish actress Olwen Fouéré’s adaptation of the voice of the river in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake. If you struggled with the book, this one-woman play – by turns mesmerising and impenetrable – offers no easy answers. Androgynous in a grey suit, her long silvery hair tied back, Fouéré makes fluid movements, murmurs and howls. Wordplay and allusions come thick and fast: “I’ll be your oral ighness,” she tells us, swapping letters and words, adopting accents and rhythms then dropping them, like ever-shifting waters.
David Leddy’s Horizontal Collaboration takes place at a Hague tribunal where four UN lawyers have been asked at short notice to read transcripts relating to the murder of an African warlord. “We are reading this blind,” says one, and her statement is doubly true: each night, four new actors read the script for the first time. It’s an interesting approach, but the themes of power and sexual violence are suffocated by the stilted transcripts and formal delivery.