Hit and miss at Edinburgh. It always is. Random impulses drive you to select one show from the thousands on offer. Coffin Up (10 Dome) contained the hint of a macabre pun (‘coughing up’?), so along I went. It begins in a mortician’s office. There’s a coffin centre stage. The lid springs open and a masked clown sits bolt upright. He waves. Surprise! On comes the undertaker, also masked, and we learn through wordless gestures that he’s bankrupt and has embarked on a killing spree to save his business.
It’s charming enough in a cheesy kind of way. The best thing is the soundtrack, a sequence of pub tunes and orchestral favourites that lends subtle emphasis to the dramatic mood. Alas, the plot is a meandering muddle which makes as much sense as a striptease at a nudist camp. But if you’re a fan of mime you’ll enjoy it enormously.
Me, I prefer words. Words are my thing. Words are also, as it happens, the single most important development in the history of creation. Babies, chimps, drunks, deaf people, visitors to loud discos and foreigners without a common language all use mime. The rest of us communicate verbally. So mime isn’t really an art form but the ingenious circumvention of a debility, the excellence of an impairment. And at a festival celebrating the wonder of humanity it’s strange to be deprived of the best tool ever designed for expressing the wonder of humanity.
My next stop, Translunar Paradise (King Dome), had attracted a lot of advance buzz: the one to watch, the sleeper hit, the surprise smash of the Festival. Oddly enough, the word for this swarm of rumours is ‘the word’. So you can guess what’s coming next. It was another bloody mime. And incomparably worse than the last one because it aimed for universality. (One of the hallmarks of bad art is its readiness to identify itself as great art.)
The show begins with two masked bumpkins, man and woman, travelling to hospital rather slowly. The woman climbs into bed, rather more slowly. Then she dies, even more slowly. The man is sad. Then we rewind and watch the masked slowcoaches’ early life. Meeting, dating, marrying, separating, reuniting. Their soppy CV is accompanied by a burbling accordionist who plinkety-plonks at random while also moaning, whistling and ululating. I’ve had more fun in traffic jams. Because the characters are presented without any contextual details of location or nationality they’re clearly intended to ‘stand for all mankind’. This particular segment of mankind couldn’t stand them at all.
So what’s wrong with mime? It ignores the instincts of the audience. Under the label ‘silent movies’ it was once the world’s most popular artistic genre but it was killed off by the talkies, within the space of barely a few years, and it now survives as a whimsical abstraction or an acting school module. In fairness, I should say that Translunar Paradise appeared to delight the crowd and was nearly sold out.
The Assembly Rooms has shifted to new premises. A version of Medea (Two Assembly, George Square) by Critical Mass is being presented in a converted lecture hall with the audience seated at desks, like students. This is an exemplary show not least because Euripides is permitted to do the work. An American TV studio would spin this tale out into a mini-series lasting six hours, or possibly six years, but Stella Duffy’s spare translation reduces the story to its swift and savage elements.
The parts of the chorus, always an irritant to modern audiences, are pared to a minimum and Nadira Janikova brings an august and eery sexiness to the title role. Even the conversion of the lecture hall has been done with unfussy simplicity. A family next to me, including an eight-year-old girl, watched in rapt silence. At the end of the show, with the stage full of corpses and blood, the girl turned to her mother and said in tones of grave appreciation, ‘That was very interesting.’
Jeff Mirza’s show, Jihad! Heresy or Hearsay (Underbelly), is a lecture on comparative religion delivered by a charmingly deranged East-ender of Pakistani origins. He ought to be playing to big crowds of late-night boozers (the show starts at 10.40 p.m.) but the location is too remote to attract passing trade. His retelling of Christ’s Passion as a Bollywood movie is a brilliant piece of satirical invention. And he had the best joke I heard at the Festival. ‘Seventy-two virgins is a mistranslation. What the martyr really gets is a 72-year-old virgin.’