Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Edinburgh Fringe stalwarts spellbindingly rework the Iliad
Edinburgh Fringe is a smorgasbord of shows, catering for a variety of tastes and interests. Many prospective audience members might recoil from a show about Greek mythology, perhaps for fear of their threadbare knowledge being exposed. Furrowed brows may even be involved – and that would be the tragedy in this case, because Ad Infinitum have devised a dazzling, high octane, entertaining show that everybody can appreciate. Ad Infinitum are, of course, no strangers to the Fringe, their previous works, including Odyssey and Translunar Paradise, playing to much acclaim. And this is yet another triumph.
The opening’s delivery is akin to a hand grenade being tossed into an arena : Medusa steps out of the shade and says ‘this is the story of my severed head’. The talented Deborah Pugh (also co-creator) immediately has her audience in her grip and the following 75 minutes race by, breathlessly, relentlessly. Beautiful Evil Things is tantamount to a Greek mythology greatest hits, with empowered women being central to seismic events.
We hear Medusa’s tale, one of the three Gorgons. She has remarkable, serpent-like, hair and a stony, but oh so deadly, gaze. But Medusa has incurred the displeasure of the Gods ; she is rendered mortal and spends the Trojan wars strapped to Athena’s shield. We meet Zeus, who is endeavouring to airbrush inconvenient truths from history, Stalin style. As custodian of the archives, this puts him directly in conflict with Medusa. We are introduced to Casandra. Her curse ? To be always right, yet never believed. The cast list grows – Poseidon, Hercules, Aries, Ajax, Perseus, Paris, Hector : the audience is challenged to keep up. Other women’s tales, perhaps less known, are relayed. Clytemnestra, daughter of Zeus, with her extraordinary intra-familial tale. Penthesilea, the Amazonian queen killed by Achilles during the Trojan war. The women are put upon, but never victims. Love Island eat your heart out, this is drama.
We enter the Pleasance Courtyard’s Queen Dome space to find a red box, a rolled up mat and a series of microphones connected with cables. But this is all Pugh needs. She weaves her epic tale, adopting a variety of characters, with fluidity. The Lecoq training is immediately evident. Co-creator George Mann directs the performance exquisitely. It moves with pace, assuredness and Pugh drifts, sways and explodes, imploring the audience to hear the story. The microphone under Pugh’s control seamlessly becomes a walking stick, an axe, a spear, an arrow.
Ad Infinitum’s stated objective for this piece was to scrutinise classics and thoroughly interrogate their familiar telling. As Pugh says : “The much-maligned Medusa is drawn to the excluded, the ignored and the demonised, unearthing and reframing the tales of some truly phenomenal ancient wonder women; each as flawed, fearless and front-footed as their male counterparts, each stood strong and centre in their own story”. In this modern era, there remain swathes of excluded groups, people deprived of housing, education or status in a country. Women continue to have to push against glass ceilings regardless of environment. And like Medusa, find themselves demonised at the drop of a hat. While this is a show depicting Greek mythology, the relevance of the message remains pervasive. See this captivating performance while you can.