Under the direction of Theatre Re’s Guillaume Pigé, students of Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company have created a high energy piece of physical theatre that is both polished and captivating. Being the only professional production at Edinburgh Fringe this year to feature performers in training, The Woman and the Canvas is a good example of how student performers can flourish in a devising process led by an experienced director.
Inspired by the films 8½ by Federico Fellini, and Hour of the Wolf by Ingmar Bergman, the performance follows an artist seeking inspiration; an artist who, as is the case in both of these films, uncovers elements of the gothic and grotesque. In her mental searching, the memories of the eponymous Woman are dished out as a smorgasbord and brought to life by an ensemble of 25+ physical performers. Like waves undulating on a beach, images appear and disappear from the ensemble: art critics with pen and paper in hand chase after a canvas like flies while a sequin-covered matador clings to a spinning table. With rarely one fixed point of focus for the audience, this constantly moving piece always provides something to engage with.
The plot bleeds through the fragmented barrage of action in the same way that meaning bleeds through the layers of strikes and splashes in abstract expressionism. The intensely precise characterisations delivered by all of the performers are instantly recognisable as societal or archetypal figures and carry with them a hallucinatory presence. The energy emitted from the performers makes the piece engaging in a visceral way where nothing is referenced but instead, everything is brought into an amped-up, adrenaline-spiked view. The inundation of movement is successful not only as an aesthetic achievement but is cleverly woven into the piece as a tool for transitions and solving logistical tasks. A whirlwind of housemaids, school bullies and clowns materialise in motion around a murder victim, who is swiftly caught up in the crowd and carried offstage, with the audience being none the wiser, as the victim appears to vanish in plain sight.
All aspects of the movement and the dramaturgy are solid but occasionally lose their impact when delivering more nuanced parts of the piece. This isn’t down to what the performers bring to the table but is instead the result of a mismatch between the lighting design and the performance space. When working with softer palettes and less contrasting levels of light for toned-down scenes, the lighting isn’t received well by the natural light bleed and architecture of theSpace’s Triplex venue, and merely colour the performers’ faces while failing to extend the theatrical space. These sections are sparse throughout the performance and the remainder of the show is supported by harsher, immediately disorienting lights that emulate the protagonist’s internal journey.
The Woman and the Canvas refreshingly utilises the full potential of an ensemble-driven process. All performers support each other throughout the show and present a balanced and well-rounded piece which has clearly been cared for with passion throughout all stages of its creation. The sense of care and complicity between the cast extends into the audience as they scatter and flurry across the room, facilitating a unifying audience experience that operates fully in the here and now.
Featured image (top): Michael Wharley