Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 21 August

Two radically different solo performances make up my day: a joyful, music-based reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Summerhall entitled Titania, and Total Theatre Award shortlisted physical/visual theatre piece, Oog at dancebase. Oog is the more polished and complete of the two, a non-verbal expressionist work depicting a broken soldier at the end of some unknown war, alone in a cellar. Titania is a sexy, celebratory, aural experience with audience participation that focuses on the fairies’ story.

Anna-Helena McLean uses live mixing, voice and cello performance in an impressive display of vocal dexterity to evoke the fairy kingdom. She often uses Shakespeare’s text, with spoken-word style delivery, and simultaneously creates atmosphere through sound. The effect is a rich, aural bath that can easily be absorbed with eyes closed. Rather than ethereal, this forest is earthy and sensual. McLean takes on a range of characters through fluid transitions and vocal differentiation, disregarding a narrative. More physical distinction between characters would have been welcome and in a piece entitled Titania, there isn’t as strong a focus on the fairy queen as expected.

At points McLean has the audience singing, snapping their fingers and joining her on stage. The scene where Titania seduces Bottom involves four audience members, one as Bottom and the others as fairy attendants; this scene is so sexually charged as she undoes Bottom’s shirt and strokes his chest that my rapidly-repeating inner monologue consists of, “OMG THEY’RE ALL GONNA START FUCKING”. As well as the sexual overtones, there is celebration and laughter. This piece could easily develop into a larger, club-style performance with additional actors, that seeks to create the forest through participation rather than the audience passively watching for much of the show.

Though using Shakespeare’s work as a launch pad for new styles of work is brilliant, to make a fully effective reimagining of the original, the artist must provide a clear, specific comment or interpretation on an aspect of the text. I’m not sure what McLean seeks to say about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; there is no evident overriding message in this piece. The grounded, sexual aspect of the fairies is a starting point, but it isn’t enough. That said, Titania is a piece I wholly enjoyed, even though it needs additional development.

Oog is an entirely different beast, using fast, twitchy movements to exhibit the trauma of war experienced by soldiers. There is no speech, but the character replays happy moments from civilian life mouthing conversation, memories of battle, and intermittently gazes up the ladder leading to his freedom that he cannot bear to climb.

Like a video sped up, performer Al Seed is relentless and tense. Oog is captivating to watch with a range of movements and styles; the expressionism lends itself to a range of interpretations. His Beckettian struggle feels like he has endured it forever, and will continue to do so for time eternal. There is little that signposts him as a soldier, though. Without the programme notes, I don’t know that I would have determined the production concept.

The design is stunning. Side lighting and smoke create strong visual angles and the electronic soundtrack enhances the tension in Seed’s body and mind. His coat is huge and sculptural, a presence in and of itself. Even though the performance is only 40 minutes, it could have been shorter and still conveyed the same intensity, particularly with the cyclical nature of the piece.

These radically different one-person shows experiment with form and style, showing the possibility of character-driven, non-narrative live performance. Both have their merits and both have their flaws, and both are worth seeing for their interpretations of timeless stories.

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