Aldo Aranda, Death, Death on the Fringe, Dia de los Muertos, Edinburgh Fringe, Eraida, Fiesta de los Muertos, Gaëlle Dohen, Julie Chilvers, Mexico, Sarah Nichols, Surgeon's Hall, The Modern Troubadours, Theatre Review, Tom Wohlfahrt
Tychy has never known much of death. I sometimes suspect that the powers which are authoring my life are shielding me from death until I am mentally fit enough to be able to cope with it. Nobody close to me has ever died; I have been estranged from lovers and intimate friends, but never without the feeling that these relationships could be always mended again with a little willpower. Never has the consciousness of a loved one been totally vaporised, removing every possibility of their return.
So Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, a celebratory holiday in which the dead are regaled with sweets and flowers (on the evening of November 1st ), expresses for me an alien mentality. What do you do if you have no dead – who do you party with? Violent death is, of course, more common in Mexico, with its daily Wild West-style shoot ‘em ups in the drugs war. Most people will have achieved a personal acquaintance with death; to some, he, or she, is a valued colleague. Mexicans can therefore hold this kind of office party with death, as a means of humanising the boss and briefly alleviating his or her official sternness. Still, how can the Modern Troubadours, a musical storytelling company from the Netherlands, impose any sense of this alien festival upon a Fringe audience?
Maybe I am taking this performance at the Surgeons Hall too seriously, but the harpist Sarah Nichols’ final “personal death story” is an earnest attempt to communicate the motivation behind her performance. “Fiesta de los Muertos” is otherwise locked in an implicit competition with Halloween. It is more beautiful than the Monster Mash, even more stylish, as light and clean as a sunbeam for all of its grinning skulls. The Modern Troubadours initially resemble one of those colonies of crusties who you see sitting in patches on the Meadows, pounding bongos and rasping through flutes. They are in fact a radical perfection of the same model, and one which produces a never-ending stream of strange instruments, as if out of a magician’s hat (my favourite was the cymbal played with a violin bow). The multi-instrumentalist Aldo Aranda, who is rather unfairly down in the programme as “percussion,” seemingly possesses a musical gadget to convey every imaginable object and emotion.
The Modern Troubadours are wondrously internationalist, between them hailing from seven countries on four different continents. The pretty stories which adorn their garden of death are judiciously selected. We learn about the Aztecs’ somewhat bureaucratic organisation of the afterlife (every schoolboy knows never to expect anything sensible from the Aztecs) and a jolly tale about a Russian soldier who imprisons death in a bag. Strategically, this show does well to exploit the stark visual contrast between the showbiz cheerfulness of the narrator Nichols and the impassive skull face of the smouldering singer Eraida. Various things strive to be the highlight of the show, but a deliciously creepy dance between the company’s local recruits Julie Chilvers and Tom Wohlfahrt probably wins.
But are we any nearer to understanding or accepting death? Alas, it seems to be still as remote from my life as ever.