With no live Edinburgh International Festival and no supporting Fringe events this year things were looking a bit bleak. But with a huge dose of enterprise, lots of content has gone online and will be available throughout most of August. Although some online events are still live the majority of the shows are there to be seen at a time and in an order which suits the individual. There are, of course, many different strands of the arts represented but I will be adhering to those categorised as theatre pieces.
Before hitting the Fringe, I thought I should first pay my respects to the main Festival via a filmed piece called Ghost Light written and directed by Hope Dickson Leach and presented by the National Theatre of Scotland. The ghost light is the single lamp that is left burning centre stage when a theatre goes dark. It may have its origins in superstition, being there to appease the ghosts of actors… or it may just be practical in stopping people tripping up before they can reach the stage lighting switches. Whatever the derivation, in this show it stands as a beacon for all the closed theatres around the world and provides an ideal starting point for a swift overview of many pieces with Scottish origins.
Proceedings begin with an extract from Barrie’s Peter Pan in which Afton Moran reasserts the power of the imagination. The ghost light becomes a lively Tinkerbell who leads us backstage at the Festival Theatre itself. Extracts by writers such as Rona Munro, John McGrath, Jackie Kay and Kieran Hurley follow performed by the likes of James McArdle and Siobhan Redmond. The pieces are curated from the past and some are more current and were presumably intended to premiere at this year’s festival. They are short and sharp and are there to show the power and beauty of the dramatic art form and why it is that theatres matter. Nor do we just concentrate on actors; we also get glimpses of scene shifters, the flyman, the costume creators/cleaners, the office staff – even the lady selling the interval ice creams. The show is there to celebrate theatre as a community and in just half an hour does so creatively and poignantly. An ideal way to start proceedings.
The problem with the Fringe isn’t so much deciding what to see as what to leave out. There’s about 60 shows to choose from with this online version so I thought I might as well begin by following the already established spectral theme. At The Ghostlight is a short two hander by J.J. Lepnik about an encounter between the ghosts of Elizabethan clown Will Kemp (Steve Taylor) and Victorian music hall performer Nelly Power (Lottie Walker).
The pair are at a loose end because (just as in their own lifetimes) the theatres are closed down and so they sit and compare notes and reminisce. It turns out they have more in common than would first appear – principally that they have both played second fiddle to someone history remembers more substantially. i.e. William Shakespeare and Marie Lloyd. It’s a fairly slight piece but put over with an enjoyable twinkle and no great demands on the intellect. Walker, in particular, makes a very believable character of someone I’d never heard of and would like to know more about so thanks to Blue Fire Theatre Company for raising this artiste’s profile.
Having seemed to hit on a theme, I thought I might as well follow it through with a play based on Henry James’ famous ghost story The Turn Of The Screw. This turned out to be a modernised version which actually keeps very close to the original concept. Here known as After The Turn: The Mystery Of Bly Manor it is presented by Nine Knocks theatre in the guise of a documentary about the shadowy events surrounding a children’s nanny and the increasingly bizarre occurrences at her place of work which culminate in her mysterious disappearance. Various characters are interviewed for their take on events but at the heart of the piece is a video diary left by Theodora (the nanny) in which she details enigmatic sightings of long dead characters and the twisted mind games played by the two children in her charge. Nine Knocks create a very creepy atmosphere. probably more effective on a cold November evening rather than a sweltering August night but, even if you know the story and the outcome, it’s still an effectively creepy tale. As central character Theodora, Eilidh Gibson gives a carefully modulated and orchestrated performance as, each time we see her, she looks more haggard and weighed down by the events that are slowly but surely overtaking her. It was a clever touch, I think, not to show the children ensuring that the mystery surrounding them was preserved.
After that, there was only one more piece I could possibly turn to in order to complete the cycle and that was a short monologue called (of course) Haunted. Written and performed by Nia Williams for Three Chairs And A Hat, this is a study in modern obsession and creating a creepy atmosphere. After the breakdown of his relationship Rachel is helping her brother move house. She suffers from a number of conditions such as migraines and myopia which slow her progress and give some excuse for lurid special effects. She also seems to be intolerant of anyone but her sibling and we begin to find her confessional is telling us more that Rachel intends. Is it ghosts she sees in the window glass or a reflection of her own insecurities? And then there’s the dark, dark secret. The monologue proceeds at a smooth pace and generally holds interest although I’m not sure how it would hold up on stage. The horror tropes (weird camera angles, sudden noises) are really the stuff of cinema rather than theatre but it was a good way of rounding off my ghostly encounters.
While an online festival can hardly claim to have anything like the same degree of atmosphere the various organisers are to be congratulated with getting a variety of material online. Looking on the bright side there’s no ticketing hassles, no rushing from venue to venue, no queues, no dodgy weather and no feeling embarrassed if you want to leave if something turns out not to be for you. I’m planning another “trip” soon.