Edinburgh Festival theatre celebrates the power of cinema

By sheer coincidence both my first and last Edinburgh festival shows this year yoked the power of the moving image to live theatre.  From an impressive display of physical dance-theatre in Leoa one man show on the Fringe, to the exuberant spectacle of Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir in the converted Lowland Hall of the Royal Highland Centre at Ingilston, the impact of cinema on the 20th century was clearly in evidence.  Leo took a very simple premise – projection of a 90 degree rotated image of the performer in a bare set, whose walls are shaded different colours -and exploited it to the fullest extent imaginable.  Every sight gag possible with gravity running side to side rather than up and down was employed – recalling the early days of cinema when exactly such ‘trick’ photography played an important part in the medium’s early forms entertained admiring theatre and sideshow audiences.  But the climax of the show introduced a second element of cinema-magic with the performer drawing chalk ‘furniture’ and props on the bare walls which then, through superimposed animations, came to life, the goldfish swimming off as the room ‘filled’ with water and Leo ‘swam’ through the waves.  A superbly physical piece of theatre which danced with the magic of 19th century cinema by the simple device of a 21st century high-definition video camera.

Théâtre du Soleil’s magnificent Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir also delved into cinema history, but on a much grander scale with nearly forty performers in an epic (four hour) tale of the pre-Great War hopes of socialist transformation.  It re-enacts the making of a filmic tribute to socialist values by a troop of cinema workers who have left the Pathe studios to go it alone and wound up in the attic of a restaurant  thanks to its starry-eyed owner.  The show synthesises the magic of theatre’s mechanical operations – swift scene changes, lighting, smoke and sound effects etc. – with the illusionist power of the early cinema to recreate exotic worlds with a dash of painted background and a seagull on a stick.  It’s a show which tackles the difficulty of telling complex stories and history through the medium of entertainment, whether on stage or screen, and the difficulty of realizing visionary states of human society amidst the seemingly irrepressible lust for land, power and domination that besets humankind.

In very different ways both shows remind us of the theatrical origins of cinema and the shared techniques and tropes that make both capable of transforming a darkened space into a window on another world and a crucible for considering other ideas.

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