EDINBURGH — The Edinburgh International Festival comes in many tongues this year, among them Dutch and the Aboriginal dialect Dharug. But no matter the language, one abiding impression after a whirlwind weekend of playgoing at the festival and its complementary Fringe event is of a world coming apart at the seams.
It’s all but impossible, for instance, to leave the director Neil Armfield’s stirring Sydney Theater Company production of “The Secret River” without a sense of lamentation. Premiered in Sydney in 2013, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of a 2005 novel by Kate Grenville tells of an English convict named William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) who arrives with his wife and sons in New South Wales early in the 19th century.
Will finds land by the Hawkesbury River that he can claim as his own, well away from the slums of London’s East End. But his newfound sense of self brings Will into contact, and eventual conflict, with the Aboriginal community that calls the same river home.
A decent man enmeshed in a clash of cultures destined to end badly, Will prompts a re-evaluation of just who, exactly, are the “savages” referred to early in a story of colonial misrule that ripples well beyond the specific time and place. (Mr. Armfield shows several individuals cruelly bound together with ropes, calling to mind recent news reports in the United States of a black man, Donald Neely, being treated the same way.)
The production suffered a setback during its Edinburgh run when one of the leading performers, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, withdrew because of illness, and the cast had to be rejiggered. (Sadly, Ms. Lawford-Wolf died in Edinburgh a few days later.) But by the time I caught the play, the company was in full command of a nearly three-hour narrative that falters only when it is too literal-minded. “The world here was about to change,” we are informed, though Mr. Armfield’s stagecraft has already made that clear.
Mr. Dean deserves credit for chronicling the fraught byways of Will’s moral reckoning, and he is ably supported by a large company that includes Major “Moogy” Sumner as a Dharug patriarch and Jeremy Sims as a disruptive English expat tellingly named Smasher. Stephen Curtis’s design, fringed with eucalyptus and given a painterly glow by Mark Howett’s lighting, suggests a pastoral setting just waiting to ignite.
“The Secret River” will travel to London’s National Theater next, playing there beginning Aug. 22. Wherever it goes, it should be seen.
The English theater troupe 1927 is no stranger to touring, either. Its latest show, the whimsical 75-minute “Roots,” had its world premiere in May at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and is running in Edinburgh through Aug. 25 at the Church Hill Theater.
It’s been a busy year for 1927: The company’s coproduction with the Komische Oper Berlin of “The Magic Flute” was seen at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York last month, and its groundbreaking fusion of live action, animation and music, “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets,” was revived in London this year.
“Roots” retains the company’s signature mix of art forms, with a silent-movie-like style that combines a kind of Gothic Expressionism, slyly subversive social commentary and anarchic humor. There’s something grimly funny about an omnivorous cat that devours everything in sight, his owner included. And about an ogre who laughs so hard that he literally splits his sides.
A sequence of folk tale vignettes, most of them little known, “Roots” ranges from giddiness through to bewilderment and distress. The end result doesn’t push this enterprising company forward, but it does at least remind us of where they’ve been.
Not to be outdone by the festival proper is the capacious, unruly and uncurated Fringe, which bills itself as the world’s largest arts festival and features a hefty program guide that runs to more than 450 pages and 3,000-plus shows. Fiercely competitive in their quest for audiences, Fringe shows live in hope of a mention in The Scotsman’s weekly Fringe First Awards, which are a useful way of finding the theatrical musts.
Some shows didn’t make that cut, among them the hourlong “Like Animals,” a sweet if slight piece in which a real-life couple, Kim Donohoe and Pete Lannon, appear as themselves, as parrots and as dolphins: Yes, you read that right.
Ellie Dubois’s production makes quirky demands of its performers, who get to unleash their inner aquatic mammals, but it’s difficult to know what the play itself is saying. Relationships are tricky, it would seem, and depend on circumstance, no matter where you are within the animal kingdom.
Other Fringe shows rival the best of what’s on offer anywhere in town. The Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s invaluable “Are We Not Drawn Onward to New ErA” is an admonitory piece about climate change that has a palindromic title and structure to match. And it speaks an initially indecipherable language that makes complete sense by the time the show has come to its bleak but beautiful end. After seeing this, you may never want to hold a plastic bag again.
“Crocodile Fever,” a pitch-black comedy at the Traverse Theater, extends the best Fringe tradition of showcasing the new. In it, Meghan Tyler, a writer from Northern Ireland, finds gallows humor in the troubled region’s conflict.
The show’s director, Gareth Nicholls, was responsible for “Ulster American,” one of the more raucous successes of last year’s Fringe. “Crocodile Fever” is even better: This portrait of a family that will stop at nothing, even the occasional severed limb, to settle long-festering scores comes soaked in blood and bile.
Running concurrently at the Traverse theater, “Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran” finds its Anglo-Iranian creator, Javaad Alipoor, in the unusual position of encouraging audience members to turn their phones on, so they can follow the hourlong show’s social and historical weave on Instagram. (If you can’t do that, trust me, the portrait of brazen societal excess still lands.)
As it is, the piece seems almost too compact: There are a multitude of themes, glancingly conveyed at present, that could be further teased out.
And taking a late-night slot at the same address, Stef Smith’s unexpectedly poetic “Enough” peeks behind the sunny, welcoming smiles of two flight attendants (Louise Ludgate and Amanda Wright, both terrific) to reveal sexual abuse, familial distress and enveloping loneliness. Skilfully calibrated by the director Bryony Shanahan, the piece unfolds against repeated references to a calamitous news event (“Isn’t it awful?” “Just awful”) that is never made clear, an omission that feels absolutely right.
The grimness of the world is apparent everywhere, or so I was often reminded across seven shows in three days: Why limit the grievous specifics to just one?
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