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I knew my first full day in Edinburgh would be a good one when I was seated for breakfast at the hotel on a table next to a very Anglo Celtic man in a kilt and knee socks conversing confidently with his companion in Japanese. They were talking about “Euston”, “Hokkaido” and the “National Rail.” How exactly one gets from Euston to Hokkaido via the National Rail I couldn’t quite make out, but I’m all in favour of cultural exchange.
After making my way to see Table 23 without falling in a jet-lagged heap, my second event of the day and first event for the Edinburgh International Festival was Krol Roger (King Roger), an Polish opera by Karol Szymanowski.
There isn’t much story to Krol Roger. A Shepherd wanders around seducing people; first the wife of the king, then the king, and then the king dies. The opera is really a Nietzschean anti-morality tale. The king is tempted away from religion by sensual desire, and abandons even that desire in death.
The music was fantastic. It swings from very classical religious chorus music to very modern sections with gypsy and oriental influences. I particularly liked the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka and her performance of the aria in the second act where Roxana pleads for the king to pardon the shepherd.
The production was a bit overstated for my liking. The beginning in particular was a bit odd, with actors filing into a few rows of seats making up the pews of a church prior to a service. The crowd didn’t seem to realise that the performance had started and continued talking for some time. From my seat in the third balcony I could see the conductor crawling stealthily into the orchestra pit to avoid initiating conventional applause.
The production also had plenty of what seems to be an essential ingredient of serious modern opera: the greasy nude actor. Plenty of them were employed to writhe enthusiastically, pose suggestively with the glowing semi-albino shepherd and then tear the reluctant king’s clothes off.
At the second interval I was jotting some thoughts down in my notebook when I was lucky enough to overhear the conversation of a middle-aged group of women seated behind me.
“I understand that Szymanowski is a homosexual, but why does he have to make such a song and dance about it?”
The opera was completed in 1924 so I doubt Szymanowski is still making songs and dances about anything (indeed Wikipedia tells me he died of tuberculosis in 1937). In any case, you would think that opera composers are generally granted a licence to make songs and dances about whatever they like.
Focusing on Szymanowski’s sexual orientation seems to be missing the point. The story is a unique refashioning of Euipides’ The Bacchae and is all about temptation and desire and destruction in a typically mythical sense. Excessive nudity aside, I really enjoyed it.
Mariinsky Opera Company
Festival Theatre Edinburgh
I slept through my first fringe show, The Axis of Awesome’s Comeback Spectacular. This was not entirely unexpected as I got into Edinburgh at about 10am and sleep-walked around the old town for five hours (at which point it was about midnight Sydney time) – at least I gave them the ticket sale. It was disappointing because I was looking forward to seeing what sort of response Axis of Awesome would get here in Scotland – they are wildly popular with Sydney uni crowds, and one member of the band was kind enough to play me Ziggy Stardust era Bowie songs on the piano when I was bored and sober at the Arts Revue after party last year.
So the next morning, spurred on by my Fringe failure the night before I grabbed a ticket to a play called Table 23, staring friends of a friend who studied at East 15, a reputable drama school in London. The show was held over at the university campus (near the underbelly tent – pictured above), so I got a chance to orient myself a bit better in the city.
I was quite impressed with the play. It had been given a reasonably warm but not glowing reviews.
The problem noted in those reviews I’ve seen (and I agree) is that the main plot point of the play is implied, but not very clearly. Someone has died, and the main character is sad. Mysteriously sad. He and his sister are estranged. It reminds me of the feeling you get from the overuse of ellipsis in juvenile literary attempts – something bad has happened, but it is so very bad it can’t be mentioned. Often you get the feeling the author hasn’t even decided. I’ve seen plays with the same problem at Short + Sweet in Sydney. Given that the rest of the play works as a dark comedy, the actual story seems overly earnest and not entirely necessary.
All credit for the success of the play really hangs on the physical skill of the actors (they make up a group called Hot Tubs & Trampolines). While the plot of the play was thin on the ground, the puppetry, dance and physical theatre performed by the ensemble cast was enthralling.
They were even lucky enough to get a mention in the Times coverage of the Fringe.
Unfortunately the Times lists Table 23 as one of many plays that “peer into the darker side of online social networking and internet chatrooms”. Mercifully, it didn’t.
Hot Tubs and Trampolines
Sportsmans, Gilded Balloon
(My review here might be slightly biased as one of the Hot Tub and Trampolines actors once drove me around Essex in search for a Sunday roast. But subjectively, she was brilliant in this.)