Assembly Checkpoint, Edinburgh
August 7, 2019
It’s been 30 years since actor Brian Cox brought the renowned Moscow Arts Theatre School to the Fringe in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. At last, they are back. The Brusnikin Studio is a collective made up of latest graduates from the school, and in Forest, which Brian’s son, Alan, co-directs, they have a very special show.
Forest is based on the philosophical work of the same title by Vladimir Bibikhin. Director, Dmitry Melkin wanted to look at today’s post-ecological consciousness on the history of human-forest relationship. In other words, the relationship with oneself. Students at the School (who are trained in Stanislavsky technique) spent two weeks in a forest, at one with nature, in preparation for the piece. Also represented are Aristotle’s primary materials: earth, fire, wood, metal and water. All are seen or heard.
Contemporary dance, physical theatre and choir singing in Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian (but no speech) combine in a series of 18 scenes with titles including Awakening, Play-Intimacy, Reflection/Entelechy, Death, Last Rites and Future Perfect Time. There are occasional duets but Forest is largely large ensemble in nature as it explores the forest and man’s connection with it. In doing so, it causes one to reflect on the parallel and increasing disconnect. Those scenes roll neatly into one another. Sometimes you would be hard pushed to spot the join.
Despite the range and depth of influences, Melkin never over-complicates, however. He’s also has done a fine job in adapting the work, originally designed to be performed in the round on an 11m square space (it has also been performed outdoors in the street), for the rather smaller Assembly Checkpoint stage with the audience on two sides.
Each of three main duets have a different feel. The first in particular has a particular intensity. There is much use of move and respond, which often gives a sort of stop-motion feel to the dance. It is quasi-mechanical and yet comes with much depth. Melkin explained afterwards that he feels young performers do not have the memories or experiences to work from emotion immediately; better to start with that sort of movement, build a solid base, and let the feeling come from it. During those duets, the rest of the cast sit and watch. As much a part of the scene, albeit as silent witnesses, as the main protagonists.
When the whole ensemble is involved, the seven men and women frequently pair up. Sometimes they cling to their partners looking for support, sometimes they soothe, but sometimes they threaten and even fight. When as separate male and female groups, they taunt each other, they show off.
The simple white shifts and shirts, with black trousers for the men, work a treat, but the star of the designs is the and the real wooden logs of varying heights; some very big indeed. The performers use them in various ways, often balancing on them, teetering right on the edge. Towards the end and in one of the more powerful images, each of the women ascends one of them, falling backwards as if felled by a chainsaw, right on cue with film of a real tree falling on the super video projection by Kirill Pleshkevich that accompanies the work throughout.
The performers sing too. Sometimes it’s almost chant-like, adding to the ritual feel of the work. Desperately affecting is a scene where the women cradle quartered logs in their arms as they walk and sing a Bulgarian lullaby.
Beautiful, magical, totally engaging from start to finish; and with a strong message. Forest is one powerful picture after another (which can be enjoyed as just that if meaning is unclear), the mix enhanced even further by Niyaz Karim’s fascinating concoction of distorted natural sounds along with a range of instruments including lyrichord, guitar and kalimba. It has a rare spirituality at times, the forest seen as a sort of natural temple. It manages to feel ancient yet also so very, very contemporary.
Forest is at Assembly Checkpoint to August 11, 2019. Visit edfringe.com for tickets.