The Shit / La Merda, Summerhall

Originally written for Exeunt.

In the absence of adequate words that it leaves in its wake, it is tempting to characterise Cristian Ceresoli’s searing collection of monologues as one long, piercing scream. Such a description certainly captures the raw, bruising intensity of the piece, an intensity that rips the breath from your lungs. But it also ignores the open tenderness of that same wound, a wound that is scabbed over and viciously picked at in a relentless yet compelling cycle. In Ceresoli’s creation, pain is a constant presence.

The pain we experience is that of an unnamed woman, perched high on a platform in the centre of Summerhall’s gloomy Demonstration Room. As played by the astounding Silvia Gallerano, she is naked in every possible sense of the word, bare save for a slick of blood red lipstick. Microphone clutched in hand and limbs protectively folded, she speaks with startling directness, nothing to separate or shield her performance from the audience other than the few metres of air in between.

Ceresoli’s equally naked writing has the quality of a symphony, teasing out recurring patterns of notes. The speaker is obsessed by her thighs, by the false idol of fame, by her painfully terminated relationship with her father. Repeated words puncture the text: courage, sacrifice, alone, self. It is a boldly honest exploration of the values we attach to our identity and the ways in which we define ourselves, be that against our family, our nation or the cruel expectations of the media.

In interrogating notions of identity, the piece becomes a fascinating study of what it means to be a woman, as well as what it means to be this specific woman. Although written by a man, this is intensely about female selfhood in a way that is not reductive or – that awful criticism of writing by or concerning women – domestic, but simply, honestly, starkly truthful. No thought is taboo, no impulse censored or diluted. It is the stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf married with the spitting rage of punk.

Despite the conspicuous lack of stagecraft – all that ever appears in the womb-like space is platform, performer and microphone, simply lit by spotlights – this is as theatrical a piece as is likely to be found at the fringe this year. It is overwhelming proof of the power of the performer, Gallerano holding the audience immovably rapt by her open, direct address, every last muscle seeming to move with the text. Brittle yet achingly vulnerable, her voice has the slightest wavering hint of a tremor even when she cracks jokes, before releasing astonishing intensity when an acknowledgement of selfhood is finally ripped out with convulsing screams: “Me! Me! Me!”

Consumption – and, as the title would suggest, excretion – are at the pulsating heart of the piece. Eating here is a method of control, of sacrifice. Like the octopus at the aquarium that her father tells her can eat its own tentacles, the speaker describes a hunger-crazed fantasy of eating her fingers, an act that she is convinced would usher in the fame she so desperately craves. It is as though by eating her own flesh, absorbing and thus hiding a part of herself, she can transform herself into a tastier morsel for the greedily consuming public. It is, like the piece as a whole, a deeply unsettling comment on society, the female experience and the construction of identity.

Dr Quimpugh’s Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions, Summerhall

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

Treading the line somewhere between opera and musical theatre, this strange little piece by Martin Ward and Phil Porter concerns legacy and what it means to make the most of a life. Nearing the end of his days, the eponymous Dr Quimpugh worries about what he is leaving behind, prompting his two nurses to remind him of his life’s work and trigger a musical skip down memory lane.

The doctor’s speciality, it emerges, is odd and unusual ailments. As hallucinatory memories form before him in his study, the piece takes us back through a category of increasingly bizarre complaints, from one woman whose hand has a mind of its own to another determined to eat every object she can lay her hands on. Embarrassing Bodies has nothing on Dr Quimpugh’s clientele.

A musical freak show of sorts, this succession of strangeness muddles on with little purpose. Peculiar it certainly is, but even peculiarity can become dull. While Ward’s score is skilfully sung by the cast, accompanied by a trio of onstage musicians, the eccentric charm that the piece reaches for remains just out of its grasp.

Despite this, there is something intriguing and potentially moving about the piece’s central question; as Quimpugh despairingly sings, “what will they write on my grave?” the doctor doubts the worth of a career essentially fed by the misfortune of others, questioning the value of the knowledge he has accrued. It is just a shame that such questions are not more engagingly interrogated.

Puppet. Book of Splendor, Summerhall

Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of neTTheatre’s hypnotic physical theatre show is a little misleading. There is, throughout this compelling hour and twenty minutes, a distinct scarcity of puppets. Instead, channelling the work of Tadeusz Kantor and excavating dense Jewish scripture, this is a non-linear, disorientating journey through the realms of life and death. Viewing the human condition through the lens of cabalism, director Pawel Passini’s creation is a contorted compendium of dreams, desires and nightmares, as captivating as it is bewildering.

We are given a road map of sorts, a projected schema studded with words such as “beauty”, “justice” and “understanding”, through which the performance can be refracted but never quite clearly seen. This, we are warned, is to be expected. In one of several deft nods to the artifice of theatre, the knowing voice of the director cuts in to tell the audience that we will probably struggle to follow what we are about to see and that we might not enjoy it; this is “sit down tragedy”, not “stand up comedy”.

The piece, however, is as visual as it is intellectual. Rich and sometimes ridiculous images compete for attention, from dreamlike projections to a host of angels in white wigs and hipster glasses. In the midst of Passini’s assault on the eyes, it is the alternately graceful and vicious physicality of neTTheatre’s performers that captures the gaze. A man and woman, cast as Adam and Eve figures, move fluidly as one body, arms hemmed together inside the same shirt; another woman spits the Hebrew alphabet, the letters bodily wrenched from her diaphragm as her torso spasms.

The screaming succession of startling images summons questions, tumbling feverishly one after another. Who is the silent artist figure, seeming to paint the world into creation around him? What is reality and what is dreamed? Does the gaping emptiness of a figure made from clothes – one of the production’s few instances of puppetry – suggest that God too is just a void clothed in empty faith?

Questions, however, are deflected by both text and performance. We are told that “to know is to pose questions”; questions breed questions in the same way as Passini’s baffling imagery, with none of those insistent “why’s” bringing us any closer to understanding or satisfaction. The answers that we seek are repeatedly evaded. In this way, neTTheatre grasp us by the hand and roughly guide us to the relinquishing of linear logic that is required to experience their performance as intended – as an experience.

And as an experience it is exhilarating and exhausting. There is perhaps too much going on, certainly too much to fully absorb both the surtitles and the stage language, but this seems to be the point. A fraction of enlightenment is all that we can hope for. But understanding is not everything. As a Rabbi in the show says of the young daughter who insists on reading from cabalist teachings, “she understands nothing, but it pleases me”.