Belt Up, one of the great success stories of the Fringe, are currently, and sadly, on hiatus. However, fear not fanbase, as you can still see most of them here or elsewhere at the festival.
In this instance, it’s through a trio of shows (which also includes Macbeth, although that production is ineligible for a Fringe First award, hence its exclusion here) which continue their trademark style of “immersive” theatre, placing audiences and actors on equal standing, inside beautifully constructed sets.
Here it’s a First World War bunker, lovingly created by producer, director and designer Jethro Compton. While Agamemnon and Morgana aren’t as interactive as some of Belt Up’s previous work, the set is one of their most transportative; a small and intense space, the sound of gunfire thundering overhead and the faces of fellow audience members staring like ghosts from the shadows. And, of course, hard benches to sit on. But then, as Compton says: “War isn’t comfortable.”
Morgana (* * *), based on the Arthurian legend, tells the story of three soldiers – self-titled “knights” with nicknames to match – and their relationships with one another and the women they love, one of whom, Morgana, exists somewhere between fantasy and reality.
The analogy feels a little clumsy at times, but the camaraderie between the men – played with life and energy by Dan Wood, Sam Donnelly and terrific new addition James Marlowe – is a delight.Wilkes’ writing captures the amiable charm and underlying tragedy of former public school boys, full of joy and vigour, transported from Oxbridge to the front line.
Serena Manteghi gets to have less fun as Morgana – one of the great female characters of mythology but, here, disappointingly sappy; floating about and staring wistfully into men’s eyes.
In Agamemnon (* * * *), the fusion of a Greek myth with the First World War setting is more seamless. The classical story of a soldier’s return from war only to be murdered by his wife’s lover is re-imagined in a neat little script (again, by Wilkes) that sees guilt over a past infidelity haunt and kill a wandering hero as readily as any bullet.
Performed by the same terrific cast, this, the more intense of the two pieces, subverts the idea of a glorious homecoming, so familiar in wartime dramas, and turns it into an awkward conversation between a couple whose relationship has died, as relationships sometimes do, after a long period of absence.
It’s a taut and moving scene which, along with many others, is made more so by the intimate setting, subtle sound design (from Ella Wahlstrom) and beautiful unaccompanied singing of songs from the era.
Dan Wood’s Aegisthus is refreshingly understated, an awkward but likeable chap typical of the early 1900s, lovestruck by Manteghi’s conflicted Clytemnestra. But it is Marlowe’s abandoned Agamemnon that we really feel for, lying wounded and dying, unsure of whether those he loves are desperately awaiting his return or secretly hoping he’s dead.
Written for The Scotsman