Edinburgh International Festival, HOME, Spoleto Venue USA, Theatre de la Ville de Paris
11-30 December 2019; 65min, no interval
HOME's Christmas theatre this year has nothing to do with Christmas. But if Christmas for you is humour, wit, music and stories then this show, from the international company 1927, more than fills the bill. It is a wholly unexpected evening that is original and ingenious in its conception and execution.
Roots' writer and director, Suzanne Andrade, takes her inspiration from a huge compendium of folk tales which she has told and had re-told by her company and gradually made into theatre-work. So we have around 13 "folk-jokes" - "great ideas, very silly ideas, and very very weird ideas" - each telling a separate story from a simpler age.
It begins with a fat cat that eats its porridge, a ladle and its mistress and goes on to gorge on everything in hell, heaven and earth, spitting out only a toupee before being left alone in space. Another creature is an ant, that gets a penny and is therefore wooed by a variety of fellow creatures, including a cockroach, finally accepting a mouse. The mouse sadly comes to grief by falling into a huge pan of stew.
Another unfortunate is the unlucky man who jettisons a cup of coffee into a pot plant and sees it wither instantly - and whose every venture is fraught with such disaster. A man, a woman and a boy go fishing and each catch one fish a day until the woman and the man decide to drown the child so they can catch his share. Ever after though, they can catch only two fish.
These extraordinary tales are told in a marvellously theatrical way. A stage-size projection screen carries a series of colourful and inventive animations with which the four versatile actors interact, often showing their white faces through holes in the screen so their bodies can be the animation. The fisher-folk, for instance, have real rods with which they land virtual fish. This work, by Paul Barritt, is endlessly witty and diverting. It is wonderful to see how Andrade's research has been transformed into these funny, vivid vignettes also set off by Lillian Henley's excellent score, played mainly on fiddle, guitar and a bewildering array of percussion.
The tales, like the genre as a whole, are morality-free, as several of these show - especially The Patient Griselda which sees the King endlessly try out the loyalty and obedience of his peasant bride.
We might think we are a long way from Christmas here, but the sheer effrontery of the tales and the vivacity of their presentation make it an occasion for festivity. Stories, like the roots of the title, bore through our being and bind us together: we cannot be cut free. HOME has done well to maintain its connection with 1927, and this show is certainly reason for celebration.