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Superb Drama at Edinburgh

The Festival's cosmopolitan productions - both large and small- had power to entertain, delight, and move their audiences. THEATER: REVIEWS

THIS year as always, drama took all kinds of shapes at the Edinburgh International Festival, which ended its three-week run Sunday. There were small, intense productions in cramped venues, like the little, six-year-old Red Shift Theatre Company's ``Frida and Diego: A Love Story.'' There were large-scale productions by long-established, highly reputable groups, like Moscow's Taganka Theatre, directed by the politically rehabilitated Yuri Lyubimov, doing Pushkin's ``romantic tragedy'' of 1825, ``Boris Godunov.'' And there were one-man productions by actors unknown or well-known: ``A Muse of Fire,'' a compilation of excerpts - some read, some performed, all in some way connected with fire - was one of the outstanding examples of the genre, with Alan Bates as its sole star.

``Frida and Diego'' tells the story of the 20th-century Mexican artists Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. A mere seven players peopled a tiny stage space. Rivera was played with an authority that effectively suggested the muralist's solid mixture of gutsiness and lyricism by Nicholas Jeune. Kahlo - whose paintings (the very direct expression of very personal experience) were described by her husband as ``acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing, lovable as a beautiful smile and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life'' - was portrayed with fearsome relish by the piercing, dark-eyed Anna Savva.

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What most stamped itself on the eye and mind was Kahlo's fierce love of life, a realism all the more vigorous because of extraordinary adversities, sought and unsought. Everybody else paled in the face of this flaring human light, in spite of all its untamed desires. She could finally utter the words ``I am Mexico'' not only without absurdity, but without sounding as though she was quoting some aesthetic/patriotic manifesto. The Rivera character, on the other hand, was at times hampered by undramatic quotation of this sort.

Turning artists' lives - and, by extension, their art - into drama is an oceangoing business fraught with icebergs and sandbars. Playwright Greg Cullen was perhaps helped on his particular voyage by making at least one of his two characters extremely extrovert: Rivera abandoned his early experiments with Parisian Cubism to become a much-heralded muralist - a highly public artist, political, symbolical, dramatic.

Kahlo's art, however, is private in its inspiration. As the play humorously illustrates, it even tempted the major-domo of Surrealism, Andre Breton, to try to rein it into his stable. But the wild Mexican mare would have none of it. She didn't paint dreams; she painted life. Impressively, the small brilliantly adaptable cast and Anna Savva, in particular, managed to convey by outward expression something of the artist's inner life, something of her fierce sincerity, her despair and her joy.

``Boris Godunov,'' in director Lyubimov's hands, was epic in scale, suggesting something between Shakespearean and Greek tragedy - though weightily Russian, of course, with even the more comic portions emerging as darkly sardonic rather than merely rumbustuous.

This production of a play that has been described as unstageable - little more than a string of unrelated episodes, valued only for Pushkin's language - turned it into an impressive and lengthy thing of somber moods and brooding introspections - a striding historical affair of surprisingly human interest.

Much of the effect was achieved by insistent symbolism - vast, meaningful shadows cast symbolically on the back wall; startling clashings of swords hung on that wall; a sharp-pointed staff, representing absolute power and authority, stabbed over and over again into the stage to subdue the common herd. This ``chorus,'' present throughout, was cowed by the tyrant Godunov but began to sway and heave like an ocean as the final storms gathered for the guilt-ridden Czar.

His long death-scene was staged with a dramatic aplomb that made for extraordinary theater. When, in the end, the unprepossessing deliberately absurd ``Impostor'' (or pretender) Dimitri triumphed, the chorus at last fell silent. The new upstart tyrant, with his giant double shadow cast behind him, stood legs astride on a large wooden plank that was used throughout as a highly adaptable prop, with the two bodies of Godunov's children (or were they his wife and son, I wasn't clear?) hanging under it. As an image of assumed power, it was indelible, and it sealed our sympathy for Godunov.

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Whether or not this sympathetic view is really present in the text - in spite of our never being allowed to doubt that Godunov murdered an innocent child to gain power - it came across as the central emotion of the play. The audience was made to sympathize, too, with the Czar's dying efforts to secure his son's succession. That such remote and historical matters of state should engage the feelings of a modern, non-Russian audience, which was partly helped and partly distracted by simultaneous translation, is admirable evidence of the power of Lyubimov's directorial eye, and of the power of his actors.

We owe it to glasnost that this production ever came to be. In the early '80s it had to be put into cold storage in Moscow after the official censors raised 42 objections to it. What they could have been is very hard to imagine.

``A Muse of Fire'' was lapped up by its audience. What a marvellous theme for a one-person entertainment! Alan Bates clearly enjoyed having the stage to himself. He encompassed a considerable range of material from John Donne's poem ``Busy old fool, unruly sun'' to moving contemporary reports of the self-immolation of Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia.

There was some splendid comedy which both Bates and the audience seemed to enjoy most: an excrutiatingly funny letter by Evelyn Waugh about ham-fisted aristocrats and army types blowing up a tree stump, and a brilliant monologue about the way in which Handel managed to interweave strings into his ``Music for the Royal Fireworks'' in spite of the King's decreed preference for martial trumpets.

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