Power breakfast needed

Heather Neill

Heather Neill introduces a page of Edinburgh Festival events.

A red man and a green man are standing on the pavement in Princes Street. They make occasional robotic movements, but mainly they are being Red and Green. A satire on the tyranny of traffic lights? A statement about gostop arts funding? Perhaps it's just that Red and Green is all they can do. Behind them children in harlequin tunics casually demonstrate stilt-walking, ignoring a South American folk band. And, just beyond, if you can push through the throng, the Canova exhibition (including the Three Graces, all milky perfection in a floral shrine) can be viewed for free at the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Edinburgh Festival is a perfect introduction to the arts for any young person - there are dozens of shows for children (see below) - especially for the teenager or student. Those who come to perform have the time of their lives while spectators become time and motion experts, fitting in up to half a dozen events a day, beginning at breakfast time.

The Festival proper tends to attract the older, better-off culture fiend, but John Adams' opera, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky (Royal Lyceum) is especially suitable for first-time opera-goers. Musically interesting without being too demanding, it is a hard-edged social drama set in Los Angeles with the street-cred of a cop show. Petty crime, illegal immigration, the intrusiveness of tabloid television and the 1994 earthquake punctuate the lives of characters whose singing style is closer to Broadway than Covent Garden. In Peter Sellars' tense production, the action takes place against a spray-can coloured series of graffito-like artworks.

The Fringe isn't all played for the benefit of one man and a dog, although there is a male person with canine attachment in George Dillon's Hamlet (Assembly Rooms). This is Hamlet at speed (possibly on speed) played in riveting, cut-to-the-bone style. The main plot and most of the best bits survive in an exciting two hours of Japanese-dressed, bare-stage performance. The secret of success lies in the intelligent, well-spoken delivery. The dog? Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) is alone with puppet pet.

Any theatre studies student could do worse than camp out at the Traverse Theatre. Ariel Dorfman (of Death and the Maiden fame) has his new play Reader premiered here. A tricksy sci-fi thriller, played against a spectacularly eerily-lit mirror set, it raises issues of the identity of the individual, of the manipulation of truth and the rewriting of history by a repressive state. Clive Merrison plays a publisher's reader-cum-censor in the near future who has a fictional doppelgAnger and a guilty secret. The plot isn't always sufficiently convincing, but the general effect is strong enough to act as a chill warning.

Ian Brown, the director of Reader, is also responsible for a beautiful play by Sue Glover. Bondagers is Scottish social history, a celebration of the itinerant female agricultural workers who toiled in the fields as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years until machinery revolutionised the system. This is ensemble work at its best, with some rhythmic, choreographed movement but enough individual characterisation to tell the stories, funny and sad, of half a dozen women. Recommended in the Fringe for Schools programme for over 12s, this production is a pleasure for any age - moving, informative, unsentimental and theatrically satisfying.

Visitors to the Traverse include Communicado with a spirited production of Athol Fugard's A Place with the Pigs, a comic lesson in Brechtian political comment. Gerry Mulgrew plays a deserter who hides from the Soviet authorities in a pigsty for 40 years and eventually has to take the decision to face the consequences. Fugard, as South Africa's best-known playwright, no doubt had other resonances in mind too.

Jazz, dance and cabaret illuminate Edinburgh nights all over town. In a church crypt masquerading as a palmy night club (Mansfield Place Church) the Jiving Lindy Hoppers take their audience energetically through the history of jazz dance - tap, swing, charleston, cakewalk and the rest - and hold afternoon workshops for all ages.

Identifying Fringe themes is not easy, but experimental Shakespeare recurs, so does circus and, as always, storytelling. Ningali, a young Aboriginal woman tells her own story and dances and sings at the Traverse. Among the storytelling shows for children is The Star Child, based on a tale by Oscar Wilde (C Venue, Overseas House, Princes Street). Pin-Stripe, the young company responsible, are themselves new graduates. They have created an admirably simple style, using few props and involving the audience without talking down to them. Some of the performers were manning the venue last year - such is the draw of the Fringe: if you are young, one minute you are pigging out on culture, the next you are up on your hind legs yourself.

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