Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Black and white. An improvised silent movie with a fifty minute piano riff. One of the most colourful productions you’ll see at the Fringe.
To the Gryphon Venue on Bread Street to witness a first for me, and I suspect for many of the audience, a silent improvised movie from the Italian group, I Bugiardini. But their improvisation skills long pre-date their first show here – they’ve used crowd funding to raise the cost of bringing their show to this sceptered isle. Very creative.
And they were as innovative with their meet and greet the audience routine as they were with their funding. Holding a double-sided chalkboard, the master-of-ceremonies invited the audience (through mime, of course) to write down the occupation around which they wished today’s silent movie to be based. This being a democracy, we were also encouraged to debate amongst ourselves what we should ask the troupe to improvise around. It’s funny how quickly one person can direct a whole load of sheep, but within minutes we’d all fallen under the MC’s spell, ditched verbal communication and opted for point and grunt, a form of mime I suppose. Thus it emerged that today’s story would be about a farmer.
Cue blackout, ragtime on the piano and a series of those screen fillers you get with silent movies that set the scene for you. These looked so professional, I thought the choice of topic had been rigged, but out of the corner of my eye I saw our MC furiously hammering at a keyboard as he composed each slide, which was then projected onto a frieze at the front of the stage, behind which all the action took place.
This being a silent movie, everything was in black and white – slide inserts, costumes, props, lighting, piano, pianist and MC. The colour was created by the sextet of actors, four men, two women as they wove a story that grew in complexity and absurdity as the action unfolded. And I can reveal the full plot as this was the one and only showing of “The Farmer” for this Fringe.
A farmer falls in love with Gwenda, his cow, to the not unreasonable chagrin of his wife. He and Gwenda plan to elope, but she is kidnapped by two men with evil intent (probably looking to turn her into burgers). But Gwenda (and don’t forget she’s the cow here) is quite enterprising, using acquired Stockholm syndrome to turn the tables, proving also to be a high-roller at five card brag, winning back the ransom money paid by the farmer (his life’s savings) before the latter arrives at the kidnappers’ lair, lays them out with a few well directed blows and cow, farmer, wife and savings are all reunited. Got that? So far, so improvised and wonderfully surreal, absurdist, funny and, occasionally, poignant it was throughout the fifty minutes of action.
So what made this so special? Simple – the amazing array of technique, anticipation and teamwork on display. You’ve got six actors who clearly all understand the art of mime, using the hands to express emotion and meaning, the body to convey language but particularly in terms of how to use the face and the individual parts therein to create a character and convey the overall story. Take the farmer’s wife. The way she mimed speech at times conveyed annoyance (talking at nineteen to the dozen in the commedia dell’arte style so redolent of silent movies), seduction, incredulity and the range of other emotions you might expect to see from someone whose husband is threatening to run off with his favourite cow. Lips, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, mouth, teeth, the lot were employed to some effect.
Then there’s the cow, played by a man of course. His use of his hands to convey the sexuality of his “udders” conveyed more than a thousand words. And his facial expressions and demeanour as he won hand after hand of five card brag reminded me so much of that ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ sketch where Rowan Atkinson humanised a gorilla being interviewed on a TV chat show, save our man here of course remained silent throughout.
And there’s the denouement, involving a slapstick stage fight that they’d clearly rehearsed and rehearsed as a kind of ‘slot in module’ that can be dropped in time and again in various scenarios. All this was delivered in classic commedia dell’arte style, the characters each beautifully stereotyped in the true sense of this art form but never to the extent that they morphed into caricatures – a difficult balance to maintain in such an extended improvisation.
OK, so they can mime commedia dell’arte rather well. But they’ve also got to engineer scene breaks to move the story along, allow them to change character, dress and so on. With no warning. And the scene break triggers an overlay script that needs to be composed and projected (just like in a silent movie), reflecting what’s happened and occasionally (and this is the cute bit) what might be going to happen next – improv needs the occasional prod!
Each scene change, of course, means at least two lighting changes – one to black and one to set whatever is coming next. Not impossible, I agree, but all the techies I’ve ever worked with like their lighting plots laid down quite precisely, in black and white, in advance. Which probably explains why the techie looked a bit frazzled at the end, poor lad.
Right – good mime and a coordinated back stage bunch but a lot of companies have these qualities. Oh yeah, and a guy tinkling along on the ivories – but there are also plenty of people who can watch something and play a bit of music aren’t there? True, if they know what’s coming, as those silent movie pianists in the 1920’s invariably did.
Our man, however, has no music. He also has no script – no one does – so he doesn’t know what is going to happen next. He’s got to work with the library of tunes and chords in his head, watching the action and adapting tempo, volume, pitch and mood to reflect the action. So we had ragtime, snatches of classical, pop in a ragtime theme and lots and lots of jamming and vamping, a musical art form in itself. For fifty minutes. Without a break. And here’s the really clever bit. I noticed that this guy also triggered scene changes. He was somehow able to sense when the story was heading up a blind alley, stuck in a quick change of key and a rallentando (look it up if you don’t do music!) which sent a cue to the actors, who moved to a scene change, which triggered an overlay script (not that we actually needed these – the miming was so good it was obvious what was happening) and so on.
This, ladies and gentlemen, was real team play. Never, mind the story, look at the interaction between those on stage and those off it. But don’t tell me this comes without a lot of rehearsal. A lot of people have spent a lot of time planning for almost every eventuality, or so it seems. Chatting with them afterwards (in mime and the occasional spoken word), I learned that they work with a different theme each day (the previous day they’d dealt with a mad scientist scenario) and most of it is done ‘on the hoof’. Whilst it would be tempting to go back to see a couple more shows to see how much ‘drop in’ material they really are relying on, I got the impression that a lot of it was spontaneous. But not all of it. Fifty minutes with not a hint of a hitch or glitch, acting, lighting, overlays or music. This lot must live this medium so that when they step on the stage, movement and interaction becomes semi-automatic.
But how do I rank this – for all reviews have to be ranked don’t they? And what to rank it as? It was real long-form improv – we only gave them one word and they built a fifty minute play around it. It also stands on its own two feet as a scripted piece of commedia dell’arte mime. You could maybe even describe it as physical theatre, as one man spent the whole play as a cow and the rest of them used extensive and intricate body movement to tell a story. And there was also a complete concert running in the background.
Not a word from start to finish. But what an impact. Memorable doesn’t do justice to it. The applause at the end probably conveyed more than I’ve been able to in this ode to one of the best live performances (any genre) I’ve seen in a long while. Go and see it.