Thursday, August 24, 2006

On day in the life of the Underbelly

First find your belly. For the locationally-challenged, getting to a show at the Smirnoff Underbelly can be a test of endurance as well route-finding skills. There are twelve separate venues across seven city centre sites, all with similar-sounding names - Big Belly, Baby Belly, Belly Button, Belly Dancer, Delhi Belly etc.

It's eleven forty am and I'M trying to find “Netochka Nezavanova - Nameless Nobody”, a stage adaptation by Russkiya Notchi of a little-known and unfinished novel by Dostoevsky. This is surely the ultimate Fringe experience - a dark story of madness, death and violins performed in a dank cave on an Edinburgh morning.

It wasn’t bad either. The luminous Ukranian actress Vera Filatova is clearly a future star, though she doesn’t yet possess the range to carry off this demanding one-woman play. But she won the hearts of the Baby Belly audience - even the guy in the front row who fell asleep during the performance. (I asked him afterwards). Most of the audience seemed to have actually read the book. One had come back again to sketch Vera for a sculpture.

And so begins another day at the extraordinary Underbelly. Not so much theatre-going as pot-holing in the stone vaults under Edinburgh’s Bridges. Since it was established five years ago by two ex-Edinburgh University students, Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood, the Smirnoff Underbelly has grown into a two million pound subterranean culture factory. They mount seventy different productions here every day. Last year they sold over 100,000 tickets and this year they will sell twice that number.

You can’t argue with that - except of course you can. For critics, the Underbelly sums up how the Fringe has lost is way, become commercialised, entertainment-led, unadventurous and dominated by comedy. For me - I’m just astonished that it happens at all in dour old Edinburgh.

After lunch I go to a rare performance of “Flood”, by the German novelist, Gunter Grass. First performed in East Germany in 1957, its theme of denial in the face of catastrophe takes on a new resonance following Grass’s own denial about his own involvement with the SS. The retelling of Noah's Ark through the eyes of the rats also served as a rather clunky allegory for global warming.

But the performance was impressive, the pace urgent. So urgent indeed that the cast were dismantling the stage before the audience had entirely left the venue. They'd run into the slot assigned to “Krapp’s Last Tape” and Andrew Dallmeyer, the renowned Beckett actor, was in the gents making himself up – truly - next to punters like me queuing for a pee.

Where else would you find prominent thespians dressing in public toilets? Undressing perhaps – but not preparing for a performance. Or directors serving in the bar, which is where I found Allegra Galvin, of “Flood”. Underground, everyone is equal.

Booze is very big for the vodka-sponsored Underbelly where there are a dozen bars and everyone seems to go into shows with a glass in their hand - even at three in the afternoon. This year, Underbelly was concerned it might lose its license because of the smoking ban - not because of obstinate actors, but through English theatre-goers lighting up in ignorance. They needn’t have worried.

By now I'd taken in “Bloggers” a diverting trawl through look-at-me internet sites, and “Radio” a meditation on militarism and middle America by a wannabe astronaut. It took a little time to achieve lift off, but accomplished its mission.

Later, I emerge into daylight to speak to Ed and Charlie, the monsters of mirth, at their newest venue, a huge purple inflatable cow called “The Udderbelly”, which dominates Bristo Square in the heart of Edinburgh University. Looking less like culture capitalists than disheveled students, they talk wearily about the need for better marketing and infrastructure by the city authorities.

The Godfathers of the Edinburgh mega venues, Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded etc got together last week to bury their feuds and form a united front the Voice of the Independent Producers. About time too. The last thing they need is the council calling the shots.

Ed and Charlie want Edinburgh to become more like Glastonbury, complete with a tent city and a three-day festival pass, so that it can tap into the huge UK-wide market for music and mud. At present, according to credit card receipts, 70% of their punters come from Edinburgh and the Lothians – a figure I found staggering. Time was when Edinburgh folk wouldn’t touch the Festival, except to rob the actors through exorbitant rents.

Back in the steamy vaults I take in “Painters”, engaging physical theatre and slapstick but about as challenging as Norman Wisdom. Unlike the amazing Taylor Mac, who is a cross between Tom Lehrer and Leigh Bowery, but with a ukele. Not just another ‘performance artist, Mac really can sing and his songs were witty, sardonic and sad and laced with acute political commentary.

At eleven, Paul Provenza hosts a chat show with comics Demetri Martin and Jimmy Carr where they talk about the ethics of cracking jokes about rape. And my day in the underworld ends at Spank, a showcase for stand ups. I’m still laughing at three am, which must mean something.

All these shows were packed and rowdy and young. The theatre I saw was a little uneven (I deliberately avoided the well-reviewed big-name productions like Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio”) but it certainly wasn’t unadventurous. And at #7.50 – 8.50 a pop, represented good value.

Call me na├»ve, but I don’t see this kind of enterprise as any kind of threat to the spirit of the Fringe or to artistic standards. Nor is it “cultural colonialism” as one over-wrought figure described it last week. The Underbelly is surely a portal through which an entire generation can gain access to the arts - on its own terms. Roll on Glastonbelly.

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