You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Forest in question refers to the cast – a fourteen strong group of graduates from the Moscow Art Theatre School. But they are not doing Stanslavski’s naturalism here. Instead, the large cast move carefully, deliberately, until a woman is standing on an upturned log, singing. The lyrics are in Russian, like all lyrics and voiceovers in this show, and the song is hauntingly beautiful.
More like an end-of-term showcase than a coherent piece
Unfortunately, the Russian words and lyrics which pepper Forest – which exists right on the boundary line between dance and physical theatre – are not translated or captioned. They raise the question of whether the piece would have been clearer, had they been understood. As it stood, the forest imagery moved in and out of clarity – the second half of the piece felt strong, with a clear connection to theme. The first half felt much more focused on human stories, told wordlessly by pairs of actors in contact at the center of the stage, while their castmates watched. Besides feeling tenuously related to the theme, the interlude featuring five different pairs was very strictly gendered. Each pair consisted of one of the seven men and one of the seven women, and for at least half the time, it felt as if the movement was on the verge of turning either violent or sexual or both, though it never did. The partner exercises also felt like a waste of an unusually large cast for an Edinburgh Fringe show. There are probably hundreds of two-handers at the Fringe – if you’ve got fourteen actors, it feels silly not to use them.
This issue was rectified in the second half, when the whole group got involved and the sheer number of them contributed dramatically to the impact of each section. Despite a continuation of the antiquated gender roles – all the men dancing with axes while all the women washed a large sheet in a bucket of water, for example – the volume of bodies and decent synchronisation went a long way. The imagery of the forest also strengthened, into an exploration of logging – the use and abuse of the forest by the people near to it.
Forest made full use of the large, airy space of Assembly Checkpoint, both with Anton Astakhov’s lighting design and Dmitry Melkin’s direction and set, consisting of wooden logs that the actors often stood on. The performance was in many ways as vertical as its namesake, a credit to the designers. However, the quality of the performance was inconsistant – sometimes timely and relevant, but often feeling more like an end-of-term showcase than a coherent piece of theatre or dance.