In its golden jubilee season the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe’s most prestigious venue, offers a bill of fare as diverse as usual in terms of material and, especially in the smaller Traverse Two space, even more so in terms of quality. To start at the top: God I love Patrick O’Kane as an actor. He is virtually unmatched at pent-up emotions: fury, loathing, grief, frustration, you name it, he can convince you he’s bottling it up only by mighty effort. In Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, O’Kane’s character listens to an account of an event that shaped his life 36 years earlier in 1974 in a Belfast pub. McCafferty’s play argues that in a process of truth and reconciliation such as is necessary after the Troubles, the second does not always follow from the first, but that does not mean that the truth should not be told. But it is O’Kane, stroking his shaven head, glaring venomously and then speaking in the register that gives the play its name, who is electrifying.
David Greig, too, once again considers the limits of our comprehension in The Events, a play for two actors plus choir. It considers both a fictional ideologically driven massacre and its aftermath as a survivor (a female priest) finds her life defined by her obsession with understanding the event. Neve McIntosh and Rudi Dharmalingam excel in Ramin Gray’s production for ATC as, respectively, the priest and virtually everyone else, from the murderer to an extremist politician to the priest’s lesbian partner.
Lucy Ellinson gives a compelling solo performance in Grounded, from London’s Gate Theatre. George Brant’s play tells of a female US fighter pilot reassigned to the “Chair Force”, flying drones in Iraq from a remote base just outside Las Vegas. The concept of remote warfare brings on a paradoxical blend of obsession and alienation, as we watch the unnamed pilot fitting ever less well into the real world she is supposedly defending. Ellinson performs within a cube of semi-transparent scrims, emphasising the pilot’s mediated, semi-detached experience, not least because the actor herself cannot see the audience.
Tim Price’s I’m With the Band works from a central conceit that the overgrown teen muso in me adores: it considers the break-up of the UK by personifying the home countries as members of a rock band. When the Scots guitarist goes solo, he finds his contractual terms are still oppressive, while the remaining three struggle to redefine their relationship. Scenes centre on musical numbers, usually fragmentary or inchoate, whose form symbolises the dynamics of the interaction rather than simply recounting them lyrically. Not everyone may be as gripped as me by a portrayal of England’s megalomania in terms of audio overkill by endlessly overdubbing live-recorded loops, but the metaphor of the band named The Union proves phenomenally flexible.
David Leddy is one of Scotland’s finest artists in the zone where theatre begins to shade into conceptual art and/or dramatised essays. Long Live the Little Knife is superficially an entertaining two-hander about a pair of only erratically successful scammers. Gradually, however, it offers up a series of meditations on authenticity and artifice, from con-tricks to biology (there’s a castration motif to which the title indirectly alludes). Wendy Seager and Neil McCormack take over each other’s sentences and even accents as a Russian doll of frauds and fakes is opened layer by layer.
A couple of Traverse One shows fire only erratically. David Harrower’s Ciara, an in-house production, features a tour de force solo performance by Blythe Duff, but the story of a Glaswegian art gallery owner confronting her family’s roots and continuing entanglement with the Weegie organised crime community never really gets anywhere extraordinary.
Nor, I’m sorry to say, does Cadre. Omphile Molusi’s three-handed production about a young man’s resistance to the South African apartheid regime in the 1960s and 70s is performed with versatility, if rather less subtlety, but I kept feeling I was watching a rerun of Molusi’s 2008 Itsoseng. I fear its reception may be principally, if unconsciously, as an item of ideologically sound dramatic exotica.
Belgian provocateurs and manipulators Ontroerend Goed return with Fight Night, in which the audience votes directly through electronic terminals for five “candidates” presented to us but, unsurprisingly, end up with exactly the result the company has scripted. Interestingly, both Belgium and Australia, home of OG’s collaborators here The Border Project, are countries in which voting is compulsory and which, whether through the crass ouster of Julia Gillard or 18 months of governmentless coalition haggling, have recently given the world object lessons in the failings of democracy. In this campaign, as in a sloppy episode of Thunderbirds, you can too often see the strings.
But rather that than watch Feidlim Cannon play with himself, his mother and his psychotherapist (really and truly) in Have I No Mouth, the most self-indulgent kind of performance art. Cannon obsesses over the deaths of his father and infant brother in a piece that believes its eccentricities excuse its vapid solipsism. Perhaps if I had participated in the exercise for dealing with anger by deflating a balloon, I wouldn’t have spent the next hour wanting to smack Cannon’s head and tell him to just get over it. I’ve taken to calling it Have I No Shame.