Fringe Reflections, pt. 1

Rambles, Theatre

Part Edinburgh reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre.

Kieran Hurley: Hitch @ Forest Fringe

A monologue and video performance about hitch-hiking to the 2009 G8 conference in L’Aquila, Italy. Direct, simple and moving – a performance about travel and about political action, dwelling lightly but significantly on the meaning of both, telling a good story and a few jokes. Sweet, and a little inspiring.

Fish and Game: Two Trillion @ Forest Fringe

An unusual play about biology, performance and Abraham Lincoln and death, as well as a lot of other things. Employs so many theatrical techniques and touches on so many themes that it sometimes seemed incoherent, but it was at least a fun an hyper-real journey through thoughts and experiences. I liked the frankness of the delivery especially, the feeling that the avant garde elements weren’t self-consciously or pretentiously outré: they were just presented for what they were.

Zambezi Express @ Assembly

An African drumming and dance show strung along a paper-thin plot about football. The music and movement is stunning – skilled, celebratory and exhausting. The story is a near-nonsensical retelling of the boy-wins-girl triumph-over-adversity plot, hopping effortlessly from cliché to cliché. It feels like a very Western myth, as well, which leads me to think hard and confusedly about the semiotics of the show: what does it all mean? What roots does this show have, and how much is it a construction for Western audiences? What does it mean to the participants, and where they’re from? Whenever I see something fusion or cross-cultural, I feel my ignorance strongly.

ArtsAdmin: Future Editions @ Forest Fringe

You roll a dice and get a library ticket; you enter the library and find your book – a human, with whom you have a conversation about the future. Mine was a Town Planner from Edinburgh; my conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I liked this concept a great deal, but felt that its programming didn’t allow it to fulfil its potential: there was only really time for me to have one ten-minute slot. I wanted to browse this library! I felt under pressure, instead of enjoying being around fascinating tomes. Hopefully we’ll see it more, with more leisure.

Tim Crouch: The Author @ Traverse

This play’s been causing a lot of talk. The audience are sat in banks of seats facing each other, with no stage space, and the actors are spread among us. It’s a play that tells the story of a play about violence – The Author is about the portrayal of violence in our culture, why we make art and view art about violence, and what it means for us. Here’s what I wrote about it in response to this Guardian article.

1 ) Violence and Walkouts

I’m in the happy position of not understanding in the least why anyone would walk out of this play. (Not counting the initial staged walk-out.) There’s nothing particularly sensational or awful going on — to repeat a cant that’s only got a little tired, there’s no narrative of something happening off-stage that is any more unpleasant than in, say, Titus Andronicus. Despite the unexpected staging, the audience is genuinely made to feel comfortable, the actors work hard to keep on-side, even when perpetrating acts of violence on their ears and minds. This is really a very conventional play, about subject-matter we should be used to dealing with. Of course, if someone is uncomfortable they have every right to leave — but I wonder if some audience members don’t go to supposedly controversial plays with the intention of walking out. Still, it does make for good drama!

2) Violence and Interactivity

This is not an interactive play. It starts with the illusion of interactivity, but this simply serves to put the audience in the right frame of mind for thinking about the play, rather than to create a contract of interaction with the audience. There are no choices for the audience, no branching points, no option of guiding or refusing the narrative. (I tried, at one point, when “Tim” asked if we wanted him to stop, saying “Yes”. The audience whooped a little, the script carried on relentless.)

As such, the play constitutes an act of violence on its audience: like “Esther”‘s “Karen”, we are offered the illusion of choice, only to have it roughly taken away.This is a neat reflection, only a little too neat, which helps to bring out some of the salient themes — but I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have a play that’s genuinely interactive. To have a genuine conversation about these ideas. To have a play that’s really happening, rather than purely representational. As it is, despite the beauty of the writing and the depth of the thought, the approach to choice can seem as trite as the closing of Ben Elton’s “Popcorn” . . .

3) And is it any good?

Well, yes. It’s a very good play, a beautiful and sensitive approach to its subject matter. But, at the same time, being a play about theatre most of all, and culture/media in general more widely, it has rather limited scope and appeal — that is to say, it’s a play written for theatre people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is limited. While the post-modern game-playing isn’t too overwhelming (thank goodness — that would be morally irresponsible for this subject), it is still a bit smug, a bit exclusionary. I wonder if the play “The Author” describes wouldn’t in fact be a wider and more interesting and more accessible exploration of the same subject matter. I’m reminded of the Presnyakob Brothers’ “Terrorism”, which deals with many of the same ideas — the meanings of violence, of choice, and of the infectiousness of representations of horror — but with more humour, wider scope, and greater relevance.

Finally: I’d find it a bit sad if this were indeed Edinburgh’s most talked-about play. That would show an extreme insularity of theatre-goers — one which I suspect exists, but which I wish didn’t. For us to be talking about a play which talks about talking about violence — oi, that’s a little too circular and self-referential for my tastes. Yes, this play is excellent, but I’d still rather be actually doing things instead.

Polar Bear: Return @ Forest Fringe

A “spoken word film” about Birmingham and coming home. Beautifully written and performed, with charm and grace. Only a little maudlin at times, only a touch slow and meandering. But full of moments of pure light.

I’m thinking about this directness and simplicity thing a great deal, as it’s a current not just at the Forest Fringe, but throughout contemporary fringe performance, especially in the penumbra of Live Art. Commonalities: an artful artlessness, a lack of guile and deception, the presentation of a performance for what it is, a thing in itself rather than a thing which is represented, a desire not to overreach, an imagination that plays very directly with the audience rather than to the audience. I can only explain the phenomenology of these shows by implication, but it is there. I wonder what it means. I like it, but I’m uncertain of it, and it does have to recognise the virtues of whimsy, utopia and entertainment, to avoid being too self-satisfied in its simplicity.

Still to come: Beautiful Burnout, The Tempest, The Man from Stratford, Penelope, Freefall, Camille O’Sullivan

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