Scotland vs Poland on the Edinburgh Fringe
Poland versus Scotland: it might lack the clarity of a sporting contest, but theatre does bring out the national identity
The Edinburgh festivals - Book, International and Fringe - play an important role in revealing how different nations approach the performing arts. The spirit of the founders of the EIF, optimistic in the aftermath of the Second World War and envisioning a spirit of international understanding based on the sharing of culture, is powerfully represented in the willingness of countries - this year, like South Africa, Russia and Poland - to send their artists to Scotland and share their talents.
By following a particular strand throughout August, it becomes clear that even countries that share a heritage have very different approaches. Perhaps on the back of the UK's Shakespeare celebrations, Britain appears to have a respect for the text: Kieran Hurley's Beats or Gary McNair's Born to Run (at the Traverse), The National Theatre of Scotland's Appointment with the Wicker Man and Love Letters to Public Transport, Macbeth in Scots or even the entries from Glasgow's venerable A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons (Slice and Casablanca, the Gin Joint Cut) all base their action on the written word, even though Hurley and McNair are more than willing to add cross-platform sparkle.
Meanwhile, the Polish programme, supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, suggests that they are equally inspired by devised or physical origins. Even when a Polish show is inspired by a text - such as Planet Lem, Teatr Biuro Podrozy's take on the world of the science fiction master - the production relies as much on the scale, the video projections and movements of the actors as the word.
The Blind, which is based on a novel by Jose Saramago, is a fast paced, physical spectacle, evoking an epidemic of blindness through a choreography that is between dance and despair. As the victims are imprisoned in an asylum, they develop their own society, acted out on a massive set and with props that become boats, cages and beds through the actors' dexterity, The Blind explores the impact of deprivation on the way that humans evolve morality and community. Yet words are of minor importance: what is spoken in Shakespeare through a sophisticated language is expressed through the very body.
In the British corner, Molly Taylor, in Love Letters' eloquent exploration of passion and the hidden lives that ensure that trains and buses and planes and trams take us to our destinies, uses the minimal setting of theatre: alone on stage, limited movement, a suggestive set and a script that is, in itself, a love letter. Tracing her journies across the country - and chasing the men who made them possible, pausing only to tell anecdotes of how buses have brought together artists and lovers- Taylor reveals her skill as a storyteller and celebrates the beauty of the mundane. It's in the detail that her writing is most powerful, whether describing the first flush of desire or the modesty of a champion bus driver, lending a mythic grandeur to the commuter or the public servant: a perfect example of how theatre can sanctify the apparently frustrating and irrelevant.
It isn't that the Polish artists are unwilling to take on intimate subjects - 24hr is a durational piece that is part of Waclaw Miklaszewski's attempt to document his entire life in a series of performances - but that the emphasis is shifted. Two versions of Macbeth give the bard a suggestive, allusive and physical workout: while Taylor or Hurley balance the demands of script and the performer's presence to empower the words, the Polish approach seems to privilege the presence.
Future Tales (komuna//warsawa) is a rough and ready assault on both the bullshit of modern Marxism - their attack on the florid verbiage of the left which fails to turn words into action; indeed, the words replace and obviate actual political engagement - is equally a challenge to the pieties of contemporary theatre. More like a punk happening than a polite tragedy, it deconstructs the possible futures of a noted Polish thinker in a scathing cabaret of ideas and loud music. While their leftist manages to avoid attending any sex clubs, he is satirised for his willingness to substitute rhetoric for direct action: komuna//warsawa have a background in anarchism and while they have abandoned the idea of theatre as a meaningful contribution to change, they hammer at expectations and assumptions with the reckless intensity of Crass: the glamour of language that fuels much British theatre is replaced by a relentless and hilarious violence.
The joy of the Fringe is that both Scottish and Polish companies can learn from each other - Hurley's uses of the telling phrase and sublime integration of Johnny Whoop's DJ magic is alongside Wojtek Ziemilski's Small Narration, which seeks to address his own family history and is influenced by the director's time training with the UK's Third Angel, who share a tradition with the artists who appear as part of Buzzcut's programme.
Scotland, far more than the rest of Britain, has always been influenced by international currents - possibly because of Richard Demarco's attempts to flavour the Fringe - and the younger generation of Scottish play makers, even those like Rob Drummond (Bullet Catch) who identify as authors, are ready to toy with traditional formats. There is also an interest in different sorts of stories in the Polish programme. Casablanca, the Gin Joint Cut and Appointment with the Wickerman reconstruct classic cinema through a wry filter: the Polish programme is marked by serious intentions.
The kabbalah is still an esoteric mysticism, but neTTheatre use it to restructure the Book of Job in Puppet: Book of Splendour. Pawel Passini began hs process by considering the impact of Polish performance superstar Kantor, but soon developed a alternative musical that takes on the problems of evil, the status of the artist as a god, the interaction between the holy and the profane: at the same time, he mixes up video projections, an exquisitely designed set, angels as gospel singers, a desperate painter, children as wise men and some of the most dense theology of the Jewish tradition.
If Casablanca is a witty play on the film and the cliches of drama, Puppet is a primal scream at the mysterious universe, deeply moral but ready to embrace degradation. Across the programme, the various national strands take on their own character: British work tends to the script, Polish to the body and the geography of the stage and set.
Thanks to the Fringe, there is no need to relish one approach at the expense of the other. The sort of fusions that mark McNair's (watch out for the running machine), or the reimagining of Shakespeare by The Song of the Goat - a far better tribute to his genius than another predictable straight version - emphasise that although there is a dialogue between the national styles, they retain individuality. And after the interplanetary drama of Planet Lem, which alternates social satire with a stern moral warning - and cool robots - the broad humour of Wickerman or Taylor's sweet travelogue may be the perfect combination: a reminder that theatre can range across the breadth of life's apparently disorder tapestry of moods.