Close Encounters: International Festival Theatre Highlights

<strong>Gareth K Vile</strong> takes a closer look at the Festival's top guns

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 03 Aug 2009

The International Festival is often lost during the Fringe coverage, regarded as little more than a series of more expensive, more traditional events that happen to overlap with the smaller performances. Yet the programming for the International Festival has strong thematic connections and is both challenging and popular, creating the elusive new audiences for difficult hybrids of dance, opera and drama.

Aside from Michael Clark, the former enfant terrible of dance who is settling into a middle-age that retains his punk bite while acknowledging the ballet tradition, and Scottish Ballet's triple bill, Christian Spuck is bringing the Royal Ballet of Flanders to Edinburgh. The Return of Ulysses updates the Homeric myth, homing in on the often ignored character of Ulysses' wife.

"I'm more fascinated by Penelope, her decision to wait twenty yeasr for her husband," he says. "There are people constantly attacking her, telling her to give up – not to be nice, but to get power."

By shifting the emphasis from Ulysses' heroism, and updating the costumes to the modern era – with some ironic twists, such as the sea-god Poseidon in flippers, Spuck attempts to emphasise the timelessness of ther myth without simply stressing its iconic status. "I like to find a story and try to transform it," he admits. "It's very modern. It has no connection to the myth, just the basic story."

Re-imagining Penelope as the central character has been done before – most notably by Margaret Atwood in her Penelopiad. Spuck, however, is not working from an explicitly feminist sensibility, unlike Atwood. He is discovering a theme in the Odyssey that resonates with modern culture, and it is best exposed in the wife's waiting. "It's about boredom," a subject that has preoccupied theatre since Beckett – not least because it offers a challenge to the performers in expressing boredom without simply being dull.

Spuck also enjoys the irony of Penelope's reunion with her husband. "When he returns, she doesn't recognise him. The ballet goes on to the moment of the return." In the original, Ulysses then fights and defeats his enemies, before being re-united with Penelope in one of the most sensual passages in Greek literature. "The Killing happens at the start of our story," Spuck concludes. "Then the action happens backwards."

Since Montiverdi's Il Rittorno d'Ulisse is also running in the festival, it seems clear that there is life in this particular epic. Spuck's modernisation of the tale is a noble attempt to use an archetypal myth for contemporary issues. His style, which owes much to musical theatre and jazz as much as ballet, boasts a score of both Purcell and Doris Day, matching kitsch with intensity.

If the Homecoming year is a political ploy to attract tourists, On Keng Sen's Diasphora brings a more nuanced reading to ideas of migration and homeland.

"I am interested in the bastard." Ong Keng Sen lives in Singapore, from a Chinese family and, educated at a protestant school, embodies the complex modern ideas of cultural identity. "I didn't set out to make anything autobiographical," he adds, although his own background must heavily inform his own take on migrancy. "In my early days of research, it was always about the classical, the traditional. Suddenly I was encountering young people who, like me, were mixtures. I'd been concentrating on the traditional, but my life is contemporary and urban – why not make a piece from that?"

Diaspora is a multimedia work, incorporating two thousand years of Asian music with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, and specially commissioned video stories. It grapples with the notions of identity and nationhood, withut offering the simple slogans that often stand in for debate. "Identity," laughs Ong Keng Sen. "This word is looking haggard around the eyes. Identity is constantly evolving."

In particular, Diaspora has a distinctive take on the ideas that hoover around the Homecoming year. When Scottishness is so often reduced to Braveheart sentimentality – and some unpleasant anti-English racism – Diaspora brings in some much needed complexity. "It's not really a homecoming to just come to Scotland. I have a resistance against the natural order of thinking that just because your grandparents came from here you are also from here. It's much more complex than that."

By chasing the experience of "The Asian Scot", Diaspora offers a fragment of the migration story – an approach which is suited to the Eastern school of theatre which Ong Keng Sen calls "similar to MTV – little bubbles, you don't have long expositions on a theme. It's more like a mosaic." And despite his grounding in indigenous theatre in Singapore, his work has an internationalist's flair and a positive engagement with the modern world and other media.

"It's very natural in Singapore to work with other art forms. Theatre in Asia is not necessarily text based – movement and dance is typical, a music theatre. It is moving away from purity and authenticity to a bastard situation."

Diaspora has that synthesis of content and form that is so often lacking: here is a a performance that talks of fragmentation and integration in a theatrical experience that mirrors the subject.

Works of this scale could only really be part of the International Festival, in terms of scale and financing. Not only does the Festival feed the culture of Scotland, it is adding subtlety to a debate that is often confined to tabloids and party-politics, and offers the sort of challenging perspective on nationhood that is art's responsibilty. This time, not only are the ideas present, they are set to reach an audience that might actually be challenged by them.

Diaspora (Theatre Works)

8pm 15-16 Aug, Playhouse

Return of Ulysses (Royal Ballet of Flanders)

21-24 Aug, Playhouse