Fringe feast of the Bard;Festival Watch;Arts

27th August 1999 at 01:00
It's difficult to avoid Shakespeare on the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I was scarcely off the plane when I bumped into him outside the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile.

Dressed in ivory silk doublet and hose, his pearl drop earring winking in the sunlight, he was animatedly explaining the fire regulations. There were just too many people jostling to get into Shakespeare: in Love - the passion, plays and poetry, a compilation of the Bard's greatest hits from the sonnets and the plays on the theme of love. The Elizabethan expert on fire hazard turned into the Man of the Millennium between the door and his "stage", the excavated floor of this stately kirk. With the aid of no more than a few props - an astrolabe, a pewter jug - actor Bruce Morrison managed to fill the space with poetry, Elizabethan singing and dancing.

There are 50 shows on or about Shakespeare among the 1,300-odd offerings on the Fringe. Most reflect the pick-and-mix nature of this frenetic explosion of arts events. If anything lasts longer than an hour and a half, the desperate funseeker may miss another show - The Millennium Musical, perhaps, or Three Weird Beards (a medley of three Scottish stand-ups, since you ask).

Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Edward Petherbridge goes in for quite a lot of chat between the extracts ("Who did Hamlet think he was, this princely person giving professional actors advice on how to do it?") in his Mr Dickens and Mr Shakespeare at the Pleasance. He does a brilliant impersonation of the 19th-century actor Beerbohm Tree doing the "Oh pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth" speech from Julius Caesar. He had learned it, complete with crackles and whistles, from a record bought for a shilling in Worthing. The Petherbridge Dickens is less happy - "Dr Marigold" is a very long story and remembering it takes more energy than the telling.

In Romeo and Juliet: the nurse's story at the Quaker Meeting House, Sue Emmy Jennings tells the tragic tale, with quite a bit of text, from an off-centre perspective. Jennings is an appealing storyteller and this would be an excellent reminder for students at all stages.

New writers flex their muscles in Edinburgh and a student or newly-qualified cast comes cheap enough to allow for a reasonable number of characters. A Symmetry of Love is an ambitious piece by Michael Chance for Cambridge University ADC at Roman Eagle Lodge. The death of Marlowe is played as a thriller with interjections from a 20th-century cast, lost Pirandello-fashion, from Tamburlaine, the plot further complicated by post-war espionage. There's too much going on, but this is an ingenious, witty piece. A student writer to watch.

Turning books into plays requires a particular skill. Oxford graduate Emma Reeves has made an efficient job of adapting Little Women, performed with precision and charm by a young cast at the Pleasance. Jill Murphy's Worst Witch, in a version by Bob Staunton, is played by a much younger cast in a production imaginatively using a simple set and costumes at St Ann's Community Centre.

This is one of eight shows brought by Leicestershire Youth Arts in their 20th year at Edinburgh. There are almost 100 young people aged 16 and over acting or learning administration and technical skills. Their energy and sparkle is infectious.

Young casts frequently offer the best value for money. The National Youth Theatre's production of They Shoot Horses Don't They and the National Youth Music Theatre's The Ragged Child, both at the George Square Theatre, show a level of commitment and professional skill quite beyond the years of their casts. The NYT presents a moving version of the infamous dance derby endured by the downtrodden in Thirties hicksville America and the NYMT is nothing short of stunning in this sad tale of street children in Victorian London. Forty-three young people, aged 11 to 19, played instruments and sang and acted their hearts out, moving the audience to tears, but also to admiration for their extraordinary efficiency in changing costumes and locations without a blink. People queued around the theatre to get in. This really is a hot ticket.

Heather Neill

Fringe tickets: 0131 226 5138

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