Fringe Theatre Reviews: Experiments at Summerhall

Experimental theatre, you say? As part of the Edinburgh Fringe? At Summerhall? We prepare for Abacus, Smash It Up and The Litvinenko Project to bend our minds to their various causes

Feature by Eloise Hendy | 21 Aug 2015

Summerhall’s reputation as the hub of genre-defying, experimental theatre remains unshaken this year, as it showcases a clutch of pieces that cleverly blend confrontational theatre, educational style and performance art techniques. 

At the heart of the programme is ABACUS [★★★★☆], a near-indescribable theatrical event. Part TED talk, part science lesson, part multimedia barrage, part one man show, Early Morning Opera’s piece defies easy categorisation. Which is suitable, given its subject matter is the dissolution of national boundaries. Or is it about persuasion and information manipulation? 

The man professing to be Abacus appears unassuming as he walks onto the stage. The Main Hall seems to dwarf him. However, as the screens looming behind fill with technicolor graphics and distorted live images of his own face, the scene takes on new levels of spectacle. The constantly-shifting screens and ever-heightening passion of the speaker seem to be too great for even this space's scale. The human action bursts from the room to pace hidden corridors behind the scenes, all the while streamed back to the audience in oversized video close up. ABACUS is an assault on the senses; an exhilarating piece and an ambitious one. It manages to cleverly leave you both stunned and suspicious – how much can we trust what we hear?

Suspicion is also at the heart of The Litvinenko Project [★★★☆☆]. Here the narrative is told through the medium of tea. The audience are arranged in a circle in Summerhall's cafe, green tea poured for them from kitsch floral teapots.

However, this is not some twee, Lewis Carroll-esque tea party, but a political investigation. The familiar, defiantly low-tech welcome is a cleverly masked way in to the still unresolved murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Devised in 2013, and performed in café spaces throughout the UK since, 2 Magpies Theatre are attempting to keep Litvinenko’s poisoning firmly on the table. In an absurdist performance, featuring raw chicken, boiler suits and a mop (most pulled from a quintessentially English picnic hamper), the two young men recreate Litvinenko’s final day, each cup of tea mapped and noted. Which was the fatal cup?

The cosy teatime chat may seem like a gimmicky approach to this international murder mystery, perhaps even inappropriate. The focus on the tea ritual is clearly a way into the larger enigma, but it is also a clever strategy for making a gripping piece of theatre from a story without narrative arc. The company are making a political statement.

The political and the theatrical are blurred once again in Smash It Up [★★★☆☆] which opens with a history lesson on the destruction of culture by fanatics and institutions alike.

The set is reminiscent of an Orwellian Ministry, with perfectly nondescript ‘official’ uniforms to match. These are costumes that are not just for this stage – the three performers are also activists, who have taken to the streets on numerous occasions in acts of theatrical resistance. In well-constructed pieces of video art, the audience is shown snapshots of these ‘happenings’. In one notable section the trio utterly destroy a large sign proclaiming, ‘THIS IS PUBLIC’, before sweeping the remaining dust into swag bags. The Smash It Up Collective are the real deal.

This is not a glossy production and feels a little too episodic – even if the section when an audience member is encouraged to destroy the valuable belongings of the performers is waywardly enjoyable. However, the lack of gloss is apt in a piece that is clearly deeply personal and rightly drawn from anger. Along with a keen sense of performance art history, the piece has strong elements of the punk movement. This production is too substantial for the stage, but its overspill is less directorial stunt than uncontrollable oppositional rage. It may be physical objects that are destroyed on stage, but the collective’s real aim is clearly to smash the system.

ABACUS, Summerhall, 'til 30 Aug (not 25th), 6:10pm, £15/£10

The Litvinenko Project, Summerhall, 'til 30 August (not 27th), 8pm £10/£8/£6

Smash It Up, Summerhall, 'til 29 August, 4:35pm, £12/£8.50/£8