Theatre review: Bonanza

Edinburgh Fringe Scotsman review: Bonanza at Summerhall (Venue 26), reviewed by Susan Mansfield

One hundred years ago, Bonanza, Colorado, was a thriving mining town with a population of 25,000, 36 saloons and about as many whorehouses. Now, it is officially the smallest town in the state with a year-round population of seven – or five, depending who you ask. And, as we come to see in this gently incisive film portrait, there isn’t very much the citizens agree on.

Belgian filmmakers Berlin, at the Fringe as part of the Big in Belgium season, made this film as part of their project, Holocene, a series of in-depth portraits of cities or regions around the world.

It’s not hard to see what drew them to Bonanza, with its beautiful, desolate location in the Rocky Mountains, 300 miles from the nearest city, and the claim (made by one of its residents) that it is a microcosm of the world.

The film is shown on five screens – one for each household in Bonanza – underneath a scale model of the town.

Multiple screens could be distracting, but it is so well edited that you always know where your eye should focus, while the remaining screens give a sense of the threads of other lives continuing as the community goes about its daily business. In a town this small, one person points out, everyone really does know what everyone else is doing.

“Anybody that lives up here is unusual,” one resident says. And yes, some do conform to the stereotype: backwoods folks who don’t get out much (there is no television or radio reception), or have interests in odd forms of spirituality. Some are simply there because they value solitude and have found ways to live with it.

But, as the filmmakers dig deeper, they find a hotbed of arguments, grudges and lawsuits under the surface of Bonanza, and a town council most of whom live 300 miles away.

Most of the land is owned by summer visitors, and the residents have a fear of property developers. A microcosm of the world? I’ll say.

Bonanza is more film-screening and art installation than theatre. But whatever it is, it’s almost pitch-perfect, and a completely absorbing way to spend an hour.

MORE INFO: Bonanza at Summerhall, until 25 August

Originally published in The Scotsman