Ben Cook examines the rise of the one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year
What do Dostoevsky, Kafka and Chet Baker all have in common? Tortured lives, plagued with illness and depression? Perhaps. But what can be said for certain is that in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe they all had one-man shows dedicated to their memory. George Dillon takes on Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Alon Nashman interprets a letter by Kafka and reworks it for the stage, and Chet Baker’s life is examined by the talented Mike Maran.
The one-man show can be an unruly beast. Only too easily can it slip into self-indulgence; the actor simply reeling off his monologue to a captured audience, glorying in the attention (if not admiration) that he receives from being the only person on stage. At the Fringe, where any crack-pot with a few thousand pounds to burn can put on a show, it pays to be careful over what you invest time and money in viewing: beware any show that advertises with hand-puppets, sex or audience participation. (Although if the show in question contains all three it might be worth sneaking a look.)
George Dillon, an actor who rose to prominence with director Steven Berkoff, takes us on a solo performance of Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Originally a short story by the Russian writer, it transfers well onto the stage. The ambiguity of what is and what isn’t a dream coupled with the religious allusions work well, though when Dillon climbs onto a stool and spreads his arms as if crucified the subtlety is momentarily lost. Parts of the production were overacted and you cannot help but wish that a director, other than Dillon, had been there to rein the actor in. This play was one of six which Dillon was performing at the Fringe, all of which were one-man shows. For most other actors this would be case of stretching oneself too thin; but Dillon, with a combination of furtive glares and hoarse shouting, manages to just pull it off.
At the other end of Edinburgh, Richard Jordan Productions brings to the Fringe an award-winning Canadian show: Kafka and Son. Alon Nashman plays Kafka as he writes a letter to his father, expressing all his bitterness, disappointment and pent-up anger at his own and his father’s emotional inadequacies. It is part indictment, part confession, and like Kafka’s iconic book The Trial explores the sensation of being entrapped in a prison of one’s own making. The set creates this atmosphere with cages and wire fences, which Nashman manipulates and utilizes to great effect. The danger of not only doing a play about an author, but having that play consist of an author writing, is offset by the creative use of light and Nashman’s schizophrenic impersonations of Kafka’s father, whose guttural laughter and sneering tone make it easy to imagine what Kafka must have gone through. Spectacularly acted and directed, if you can’t point out a villain in the piece you can easily point out all the elements of the play that make it a sure-fire hit.
A less ambitious play, A Funny Valentine still offers the discerning jazz fan a rewarding experience. The story of Chet Baker’s life has all the ingredients that we’ve come to expect from a great jazz biopic; proficiency in a instrument from a young age; crippling drug addiction; untimely death. Chet Baker lived much longer than many foresaw, but his fall from a hotel window and the aspersions that it was suicide sum up his troubled life aptly. Mike Maran gives his interpretation of that fateful night when Chet lost his life. As he explains his own memory of the events, he backtracks and the audience get a colourful account of the life that the famed trumpeter led. Maran is accompanied with Colin Steele on trumpet and Dave Milligan on piano, and they intertwine with his monologue with short bursts of music. At times it is more like listening to a lecture with auditory aides than watching a play, but the mystery of who Maran is actually supposed to be keeps the audience on their toes until the very end.
These three productions, on the whole, manage to steer clear of the pitfalls that upset many one-man shows. They are fine examples of the variety of the Edinburgh Fringe and demonstrate that you don’t need expensive budgets and celebrity casts to put on riveting shows.
Photographs by Cylla von Tiedemann
A Funny Valentine (Valvona and Crolla, 17 August 2011), Kafka and Son (Assembly George Square, 21 August 2011), Dostoevsky’s ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ (Spotlites @ The Merchants’ Hall, 24 August 2011)