Theatre in Wales

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Past and Present in Powerful Collision

Wales at Edinburgh Fringe

Sherman Theatre- Tremor , Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh , August 17, 2018
Wales at Edinburgh Fringe by Sherman Theatre- Tremor The Fringe is 71 years of age. It underwent a dramatic shift in the 1980s, or rather a non-dramatic shift. The media landscape changed with the establishment of Channel 4. In 1981 the Perrier Award was established. The time was right with the Conservative government presiding over division with small precedent. The Opposition was at war with its favourite enemy- itself. Britons are bashful on the subject of money. Stand-up came to offer a very small number of performers the opportunity to make a lot of money.

Comedy still occupies a large chunk of the Fringe Programme. But theatre is still there, 2018 offering a robust 1004 productions. In this melee few companies have a story to tell as good as the Sherman. Its only real peer is a formidable combination of Headlong and the Birmingham Rep. Amy Hodge is directing for that power-duo and has earned a sourly-worded review from Mark Fisher, a tier one Scots critic. The Sherman Theatre tells its story- an Olivier for the explosive double-O partnership and Regional Theatre of the Year in the Stage Awards 2018.

But it competes with 1003 other productions and that is before the piled-high dance, the musicals, the spoken word events. “Tremors” comes nonetheless with a big advantage. And that advantage has been lost.

Promotion on the Fringe is driven by the database. The time of the daily print output of Three Weeks, Broadway Baby and all the others has gone. The Fringe database is large but then large is relative. The service database for a Boeing by comparison carries detailed data extending to over 2 million components.

The Fringe database has been augmented with an app but it is relatively inflexible and not fast. The great weight of the print programme still leads. It would not be printed in its huge numbers if it were not used intensively as a communications medium. Dic Edwards once had a production at the Fringe which he titled “Astrakhan (Winter)”. “Most people start reading at the beginning” said the wise owl. He is quite correct. Call a production “Zugunruhe” and you are hobbling your income.

“Tremor” has a video trailer. No trailer in theatre tips a theatre-goer to the box office. It is technology driving the advertising, which is the wrong way round. The word allocation used to be 45 words and looks like 40. Read the advertising copy for the 1004 and the subjects are huge in range. Mental health, the Me Too movement and gender issues naturally all feature.

“Tremor” stands out with its subject matter that covers religion, media, nativist politics, the hazard that follows being in the public eye.

There is an audience there and the production fails to tell it as it is.

Its copy runs: “This tense new play by Brad Birch (Black Mountain, Roundabout 2017) explores how we choose to see things and live our lives in a world riven with anxiety and division.” This waffle not only says nothing but it is not about what Brad Birch has written. The audience on August 10th was not huge. Brad Birch has been under-sold through poor copy. The audience quite likely ought to be greater, the reviewers more numerous. The description is what the Greeks termed hamartia, a concept that means missing the mark.

This is not intended to pick out the Sherman. Headlong too makes its “Meek” sound like a variation on Margaret Atwood. “Penelope Skinner’s new play is a haunting vision of ruthless state control, tense friendships and one woman’s determination not to be broken. Meek is a tale which reflects on our own fraught times.” Waffling generality. Most of the productions under-sell what they have to offer.

Only two reviewers have been to “Tremor” and both liked what they saw a lot. Fest: “Brad Birch's play is a powerfully constructed house of cards. The complex system of circumstances responsible for its inevitably crushing denouement is laid out from the start. Actors Louise Collins and Paul Rattray are directed by David Mercatali with a sense of urgent intensity.”

British Theatre Guide: “Brad Birch has written an edgy two-hander that proves to be a psychologically astute investigation into the ways in which people behave under extreme stress. It also looks deeply into the manner in which the media has begun to override truth and control our minds... “Tremor” is a clever, well-written and superbly acted play that will leave viewers pondering their own opinions long after the end of the 70 minute running time."

Paines Plough's circular unadorned space fits a two-hander perfectly. Hayley Grindle's design from Cardiff is cut back to a toy dinosaur. David Mercatali's direction grips. The two actors, Welsh and Scots, pace the space, in part yoked in past intimacy, in part gladiators in divergence over present action. David Rattray runs the gamut of emotions of connection, distance, explanation and justification. “Guilt is a weapon to put pressure on you” he says. Louise Collins is a face from a Winifred Knights canvas, in expression a mosaic of varied pains.

“Tremor” was very well received earlier this year in Cardiff. Dramatist Brad Birch has served his dues. Quite how long is not checkable for free with Doollee's passing to a commercial publisher. In this production his nearest dramatic cousin- he may be surprised at the comparison- is Euripides. The dramatic action in “the Bacchae” is offstage, the fate of Pentheus related by a messenger.

So too it emerges that Louise Collins' Sophie has a backstory of a moral complexity that grows as it unfolds. This back-weight is revealed with some skill on Brad Birch's part. But theatre is the art of action. The weight of told narrative pays homage to another era in drama. A third character is in another town in a hospital bed. His non-appearance as a dramatic character gives “Tremor” a quality of protection. His appearance on stage as an active participant would have made a different play and a very bold one for 2018. Theatre is big and wide but there are zones where it treads fearfully.

Works of art are ever there for the reworking. Themes and ideas can simmer for years. The versions of “Pygmalion”, one of Shaw's few plays to have survived the verdict of time, were written 14 years apart. Another denser play on the same theme is in there. As for the relationship of director and dramatist Brad Birch deserves to be given the commission for four to six actors.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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