Joseph Farrell gives us a taste of what Edinburgh has to offer this month

THE huge hoarding over the portal to the National Gallery on Princes Street proclaims REMBRANDT, and in the shadow of the building an eager enthusiast presses on me a flyer for a comedy show, advertising it with the information that it has “two and a half clean toilets”. What riches are available in Edinburgh during the Festival! What is wrong with cherry-picking, whatever Eurocrats say?

The sweetest cherry so far is undoubtedly Waiting for Godot, produced by the celebrated Druid company of Galway and staged in the Lyceum. Audiences tend to turn up for this play in a state of dutiful anxiety, certain they should be awed by the work, convinced that every word is weighted with meaning which might elude them and fearful that the demanding script will test their endurance. Beckett himself warded off demands for interpretation of the plight of the two tramps waiting futilely in a lonely place for someone called Godot and who might be God, or who might not and who might not even exist.

Director Garry Hynes has allayed their fears. This may be the poem of the void, but she has not imposed any narrow vision of her own, and was content to produce a series of tableaux which constitute a comic, harlequin show where the two men, superbly played by Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea, wait, strike poses, pull odd faces and indulge in chatter whose seeming randomness conceals patterns and echoes of great thoughts. When Pozzo and Lucky (Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard) burst on to the scene, the bullying Pozzo orders Lucky to think, and Lombard’s controlled torrent of gibberish with recognisable words was delivered at a pitch of perfection which drew un-British applause in the middle of the production.

In the second act, leaves mysteriously appear on the tree which is the only ornament on the bare scene, but this is hardly a sign of hope since the two men debate whether they should hang themselves from it. They debate this possibility in the same spirit as they discuss Estragon’s boots and the pain they cause him. Talk whiles away the time, but I defy anyone to find any uplift in Beckett’s vision or in the cavorting of the two men. This play is as black as anything by Aeschylus, and is devoid of genuine sense of the value of life. But the play is engrossing and appeals directly to the heart, especially when done with the finesse of mind and speech and skill of movement displayed here.

Ireland and its future are at the heart of Ulster American, playing at the Traverse. Playwright David Ireland, a young man with a burgeoning reputation, has deftly and powerfully intertwined two very contemporary dilemmas, male behaviour in the age of #MeToo, and the question of identity of loyalist people in Northern Ireland. The onstage playwright Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy) has written a play from the perspective of an Ulster Unionist who proclaims herself British and decidedly not Irish. This is too strong meat for the gentle director who intends to stage her work and is well beyond the grasp of Jake, the Oscar-winning, blustering American actor who has been flown to act in the work and who views himself as Irish, even if he had never previously set foot in the country.

Before Ruth arrives, the two men (Darrell D’Silva and Robert Jack) indulge in some highly male bragging concerning who they have fantasised about raping. Jake’s lurid eye had been on Princess Diana, while the other, under pressure, admits he would, in a different spirit, have violated Margaret Thatcher. This is the aspect of the play which has drawn most comment, some of it outraged, at the idea that naked male, predatory aggression should even be mentioned in public, even when it is so plainly condemned as offensive, most vociferously by Ruth, who is appalled at the macho chatter. This restricted response has meant that the issue of political or national identity has been side-stepped. Theatre is an arena for discussion, and this play rises to an intensity, physical as well as intellectual, as ideas and values, some of them evidently appalling, are tossed back and forth with vigour. Director Gareth Nicolls has expertly controlled the tempo of a challenging and highly intelligent piece of work.

As it happens, we are still in Ireland, or least in Irish culture, for a quite different work, Simon Callow’s one-man recitation of Oscar Wilde’s scream of pain, De Profundis. Callow’s memory is now a library of great European literature since in previous years he has performed Shakespeare’s sonnets and the satires of Juvenal. Seated alone on stage under a large light which is his only prop, he faces the audience and with no preliminary launches into the bitterest expression of thwarted, disappointed love in the English language, apart from Shakespeare’s sonnets. The letter was written to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s erstwhile lover, whom Wilde flays for his casual egoism and callous abandonment of him when he was condemned to prison for homosexual love.

Callow adds the magic of his own sonorous, magnificent voice to the rhythms of the prose, rising to a pitch of outrage as Wilde recalls his humiliation when exposed in his prison garb to a jeering mob at Clapham Junction, and bringing tears to the eye, or at least to mine, when he softens his delivery as Wilde recalls rare kindnesses, such as that of the faithful Robbie Ross who simply raised his hat to Wilde as he was being dragged to the bankruptcy court. “Men have gone to heaven for lesser acts,” wrote Wilde.

The Aspirations of Daise Morrow too is drawn from a prose work, a short story by Australian writer Patrick White, and is performed in a more mellow mood at the Palais de Variete in George Square. The cast of four, backed by some haunting, original music from the Zephyr Quartet, move among the audience, shifting from character to character, from male to female as they recite White’s often moving narrative. As with the Beckett and the Wilde, director Chris Drummond has declined to attempt to mould or refashion the prose, but this deference to literary story-telling comes at a cost in the theatre. No matter how well played, Aspirations begins to drag once the situation is clear. The tale concerns the diverse people in a village, where the village dump adjoins the cemetery where Daise has been laid to rest.

But the festival is not all fractured psyches and injured egos. There are now so many autonomous centres all over the city, each with its own brand of entertainment, profound and demanding or simply relaxing and escapist. The Meadows houses the Underbelly’s multi-coloured Circus Hub, and while there is no sawdust or animal acts the Big Top there caters for the tastes once met by touring troupes. I saw Circolambia, the ideal way to round off an intellectually and emotionally stretching day. The performances by international stars provide excitement and arouse from the audience the necessary quota of ohs and ahs as bodies leaps through the air from one platform of arms to another, as they dangle from ropes high above the performing area without benefit of safety nets, or as they sing, or execute sexy, writhing dances and prances. The mixture of strength and grace on display from both men and women is stunning.