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Across the Festival: August 3--Traverse

Michael Cox reviews Cuckooed, Unfaithful, SmallWar and riverrun.

The first Sunday of the Fringe Festival, and back to the Traverse to check out the main stage’s programme.

Who can you trust? Are your friends really your friends, and do they truly share your ideals? Does a lover have a hidden agenda? What right does the state, or a corporation, have in obtaining information about individuals?

Mark Thomas’ politics are quite clear, and it might be easy to accuse him of a liberal bias, but Cuckooed (****) is a theatrical tour-de-force that asks some pressing questions, questions which have some rather frightening answers. Thomas tells the audience about his political activist life and how a dear friend of his, someone whom he loved and thought trustworthy, was in fact supplying information to the opposition.

The first half is a very funny look at political activism, filled with good intentions and interesting insight. Some of Thomas’ shenanigans are quite ingenious, and it’s easy to root for him and his political colleagues and friends. But once the idea of a mole hits, the play twists into an angering, sometimes gut-wrenching drama. The betrayal Thomas and his friends felt is still potent, and his demand for justice and answers is justified and understandable.

Cuckooed might not have the satisfyingly happy ending one wants, but that really is the point: we still live in a time of uncertainty with daily violence the world over. And while one might feel the need to take a stand, there may be some hidden consequences in doing so. Is it worth it? Well, that depends on the individual. Thomas still fights the good fight, even with the heart-breaking knowledge that he has been deceived.

When the lights come up on Unfaithful (***), the heart drops: a young beautiful woman chats up an older man in a bar and willingly offers herself to him. We’ve seen this before, this cliché of the older man finding a new lease on life through sex with a ridiculously younger woman who could easily do better.

But bear with it, because Owen McCafferty’s script is actually a bit smarter than that. Instead, the play is really about a jaded older couple struggling to communicate with each other, and the consequences that come when couples shut each other out.

There are some admirable aspects to the production. All four performers are excellent, and the production values (direction and design) are impressive. But the play itself still feels a bit hollow with scenes that wear out their welcome and characters who are interesting but not compelling.

In short, this is a production that, like its central couple, goes on a bit too long without truly saying much of interest.

SmallWar (****) is a quiet play that has a big heart. It’s a meditation on the devastations of war, performed by the acclaimed theatre artist Valentjin Dhaenens. It isn’t about any specific war but is instead based on a collection of observations made about war and its consequences from throughout the ages. Dhaenens plays multiple characters in different ways: live, voiceover and through video projection.

It’s a production that, perhaps, doesn’t create major floods of emotions during the running time, but it manages to ripple in the memory long after the curtain has fallen, with images, songs and stories refusing to disappear. It is an intelligent piece of theatre that is made all the more relevant when one turns to the news and sees all the mindless killing taking place in the world right now.

Warning! Do not go searching for solid characters or a linear story when embarking on riverrun (****). Those looking for such things—anything remotely like a plot or a substantial character—will not only be confused but just might come away disappointed.

Theatre artist Olwen Fouere has turned to the depiction of the Liffey in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and has created a 65-minute performance celebrating voice, movement and breath. Fouere is phenomenal, almost hypnotic in her performance, coming across like a shaman or a storyteller speaking to a group before a campfire from long ago. Most of the sounds might not make logical sense, but they are beautiful, poetic even, to listen to, and it is easy to become transfixed by this engaging performance given by a striking woman with long, silver hair as she stands before a microphone, speaking deeply and whispering…

All productions perform at the Traverse until Aug 24 (dark Mondays). Check venue for starting times are performances rotate daily.

Unfaithful is part of this year’s Made in Scotland programme.

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