Edinburgh 2015

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Now that I’ve just about recovered from the Fringe (and the inevitable Fringe cold), here’s my annual round-up of links to reviews and features written over the course of the festival. You know the drill by now.

Exeunt:

The Sunset Five
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family
If I Were Me
Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)
Heartbeats & Algorithms
Citizen Puppet
Hair Peace
O No!
Ringside
64 Squares
The Eulogy of Toby Peach
Going Viral
Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)
Current Location
Electric Dreams
E15
The Paradise Project
A Question of Faith (The Christians and The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven)
You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy
This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage)
Portrait

Fest:

Speaking Up for Free Speech (feature)
Impossible
A Gambler’s Guide to Dying
I Am Not Myself These Days
Traces
Births, Deaths & Marriages
Tar Baby
The Biggest Marionette Circus in the World
The Modern Lovers (feature)
My Name is… 
Dolls
Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer
Key Change
Happy Birthday Without You
God’s Waiting Room
Fiction
After Freedom: New Rhythms of Soweto
Idiots
Brute
Othello: An All-Female Production
I Got Dressed in Front of My Nephew Today
The Litvinenko Project
Blake Remixed
Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production
The Church of Malcolm
Wail
Scaramouche Jones
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Quizoola!
Daggers MacKenzie
The Bastard Queen!

Ross & Rachel, Assembly George Square

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They’re a package deal. A team. Ross & Rachel. An ampersand permanently between their names. Over the years, though, that innocent bit of punctuation looks less and less like a symbol of love, more and more like a tightening knot. What happens to you as an individual when you’re always part of a pair?

James Fritz’s play picks up after the big reunion and the happy ending. This is ‘The One Where it All Fucks Up’. In this fragmented monologue, two partners – unnamed, but with repeated allusions to the Friends couple of the title – are so tightly intertwined that they have one voice. In Thomas Martin’s beautifully simple production, Molly Vevers performs both halves of the pair, snapping rapidly back and forth. If it’s not always clear who’s speaking, that’s part of the point.

Mere years after finally getting together, the couple are already beginning to drift apart when we join them. For Ross, the language of love is the language of possession. “She’s a prom queen and she belongs to me,” he gloats at parties. Rachel, meanwhile, bristles at this yoking of her identity to his, complaining “I don’t know when people started saying our names together”. She’s toying with the idea of an affair with a work colleague; he’s plastering a forced smile on a relationship that’s far from picture perfect.

Fritz shows relationships as moulded by the expectations of others, whether those others are millions of television viewers or a tight circle of friends and family. There’s always the pressure to resemble the perfect image, to fit into whatever shape society tells us is right. That shape might come from Friends, but it might also come from romcoms or magazines or the great old love stories passed from generation to generation.

The play is canny, then, in not overplaying the Friends references. There are plenty of light nods to the show (even Ross’s infamous “we were on a break!”), but these never overpower a narrative that could just as well be happening to any couple drifting apart in their 40s. And when true disaster strikes, it’s never TV-show dramatic, just sad and shitty and unextraordinary. Suddenly, faced with the prospect of an abrupt full-stop to their relationship, Ross and Rachel are also confronted with their differing ideas of what that relationship was in the first place.

It can be exhausting to watch, as Vevers flickers frantically back and forth between conversations, thoughts and fantasies. Her extraordinary performance somehow allows us to feel these two people uncoupling, to sense the distance between their voices even as they’re spoken by the same person. This gradual breakdown is contrasted with the romantic iconography of Alison Neighbour’s set design: all flickering candles and twinkling fairy lights. Promise butts up against reality.

The play could be accused of a narrow focus, but it knows its targets and strikes hard. Ross & Rachel does a comprehensive job of de-mything romantic love, attacking its language, its imagery and its underlying hints of misogyny. At the same time, it acknowledges how hard it is to let go of that myth and how devastating it can be when the perfect picture shatters. Ultimately, we want to believe in the happy ending, because it’s easier than the alternative.

Photo: Alex Brenner.

Cracks in our hearts and heads

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I’m sitting on a cushion, knees drawn protectively to my chest, feet covered by the edges of a massive duvet. In a small room in a block of flats somewhere in Edinburgh, I am listening to James Leadbitter (aka artist-activist the vacuum cleaner) share his experiences of mental illness and activism, while medical assessments and police records flash up on a overhead projector. He talks about depression and anxiety. He talks about being suicidal. And I listen, arms curled around legs, biting the inside of my mouth, tears prickling at my eyes.

Ordinarily, I’m not particularly prone to crying – especially in public. So often I emerge dry-eyed from films or shows or exhibitions at which everyone around me is audibly sobbing, feeling oddly shamed by the chorus of sniffles and sighs. Is it that I simply don’t feel as much as them? Or that the public nature of the theatre auditorium or art gallery is too exposing a place to reveal emotion? Or, perhaps, that I feel inhibited as a critic, conscious of my responsibility to be rational rather than emotional?

One piece of criticism that I keep returning to, acknowledging again and again its impact on me, is academic Jennifer Doyle’s reflection on Franko B’s I Miss You. Oddly, it is a piece of art that I never saw. What I’m struck by, though, is Doyle’s emotional response to the piece and her attempts, through this piece of writing, to work through that emotion. The provocation of the unexpected tears elicited by I Miss You expands into a much wider discussion about art, emotion and the position of the critic, who has been encouraged to treat crying with suspicion and disdain.

Two suggestions made by Doyle catch at my mind every time I read them. The first is that, in the space of the gallery or classroom (to which I mentally add the theatre), the act of crying “can leave us feeling a bit naked”. The second is the idea that the impulse of the critic is not unlike “the boundless narcissism of the lover who loves in vain”; that the critical presentation of feeling masked by restraint might be compared with “the lover’s need to have his struggle to hide his feelings acknowledged”. In other words, we can’t admit to naked emotion, but we are desperate for readers to acknowledge the garments in which we have clothed it.

This year at the Edinburgh Fringe, an environment in which emotion is so often heightened and laid bare, I found myself wondering again about the role of emotion in criticism. Not least because my own emotions were frequently tapped in a way that startled me, leaving eyes and cheeks damp to the cool Edinburgh air. Talking to friends and fellow critics, I joked – in that way that everyone knows is not really a joke at all – about what a weepy festival I was having, to the extent that the slightest hint of sentimentality could set me off. No dry eyes now.

But how, as a critic, is it possible to render those tears on the page? Do they contaminate criticism, blurring thoughts like ink on paper, or just offer another lens through which it’s conducted? The answer is … I’m not sure. I have huge admiration for the way in which feeling suffuses the prose of others’ theatre writings – most notably (and brilliantly) Maddy Costa and Megan Vaughan – but it’s a different matter entirely when it comes to tapping out my own emotions on my computer keyboard. I feel far more comfortable with analysis and reflection, whereas I often wince when I see my own feelings held at one remove, suddenly appearing trite and artificial in unforgiving black and white. In a culture saturated with emotion, a culture fed on sob stories and Hollywood romance and X Factor montages, feeling feels cliched.

There’s one section in Ross Sutherland’s Standby for Tape Back-Up that I remember vividly from the work in progress I saw last summer and that jumps out at me again when I see the show for a second time in Edinburgh. Sutherland is recalling the death of his grandfather, a moment in his life that frames the whole piece, and talking about his emotional response. All he can think of as he tries to comprehend the enormity of this loss is the way in which people react to death in films and television programmes. His bereavement is filtered through pop culture, through all of the possible behaviours he has experienced through the screen. It’s a state of emotional uncertainty and paralysis so familiar it hurts. Is this really how I feel, or is this how I’ve been told I should feel?

Another moment that punches me in the stomach with its familiarity and somehow – paradoxically, uncannily – with its unfamiliarity arrives towards the end of Men in the Cities. Chris Goode is telling the story of Brian, just one of the many broken, contorted men who populate his play. Brian is drunk and grieving and heartbroken, walking through the busy streets of London surrounded by the pre-Christmas crush of shoppers. Until suddenly a singing voice breaks through the crowd and the whole piece lurches in a furious new direction. Goode is vomiting an extraordinary stream of text, words that break and fall over me and half of which I don’t really comprehend until I read the script later. In the moment, all I’m aware of is the pure, throbbing, exquisite anger of it all.

People are crying, but this is one of the moments I don’t feel close to tears for a change. Instead I feel emptied out, as though my insides have angrily leapt up on stage with Goode, as though every murmur of rage I’ve ever felt and tuned out has been ear-splittingly amplified. In life, I’m bad at being angry. But like the glorious noise of #TORYCORE, Men in the Cities is angry for me – though not with any of the passivity that suggests. It transforms my anger into something external, something shared. I look at this anger, this hurt that is at once recognisable and alien, and it is nothing like the emotion relentlessly beamed from screens.

I don’t cry during Men in the Cities. I do cry during Clara Brennan’s monologue Spine, though less for the human relationship at its core than the intertwining of this very personal story with the play’s angry, energised and tentatively hopeful politics. I leak a quiet couple of tears during Bryony Kimmings’ new work in progress at Forest Fringe. My eyes well up as my heart thumps during Greg Wohead’s small but beautiful Hurtling. Countless other shows lead me to the brink of tears, sometimes with the profound and sometimes with the painfully banal. One morning, I almost cry while queuing to buy coffee, staring hard at a display of croissants until my eyes clear.

Not all those tears are bitter. Sometimes, like in Hurtling, they are little beads of relief and gratitude. But the show that really feels like a gift, that triggers all the right emotions at just the right time, is Every Brilliant Thing. Those occasions when a piece of theatre feels as though it has been created precisely for you to encounter in the particular parcel of time in which you encounter it are rare. Every Brilliant Thing, on one of the few sunny mornings of the festival, is one of those precious occasions.

My response to Duncan Macmillan’s play is hardly unique. The packed audience on the day I see it is all sniffs and smiles; a collective outpouring of joy and anguish. At one point the show uses, I think, the phrase “happy-sad”. It’s a simple contraction of two simple words – so simple that they conjure emotions little more complex than line drawings of faces with the mouth upturned or downturned – yet it’s somehow just right. Every Brilliant Thing is happy-sad, in the same way that so many moments in life are stained with the feeling of their opposite. Ecstasy is laced with sorrow and despair is pierced with hope.

It’s that heady cocktail of all the brilliance and heartache of simply existing in the world that intoxicates me. Sitting in the beautifully sociable space of Paines Plough’s Roundabout auditorium, I laugh and cry with relative decorum, but if left alone I would be heaving great, shoulder-shaking sobs, a stupid grin plastered on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks. There is no way in which Every Brilliant Thing turns away from the realities of depression and the bitter impossibility of making others happy, but still it is somehow joyous.

And so back to the cushion, the duvet, the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes. I find myself profoundly affected by Mental, Leadbitter’s almost-too-intimate show. This is another facet of depression, not entirely shorn of the optimism that tempers Every Brilliant Thing but certainly with more jagged edges. It is raw and painful and personal. At times I find it incredibly hard to watch, in part out of concern for Leadbitter and what he is forcing himself to revisit every time he performs this show, and in part for a hundred tiny other reasons entirely my own. Reflecting on the piece in the minutes, hours and days afterwards, I struggle to think about it in a way that isn’t deeply coloured by that emotion and difficulty. I wonder if that’s a problem.

Since returning from Edinburgh, and as part of an ongoing effort to make more time in my life for thought and reflection alongside the endless work I foist on myself, I’ve been listening to some of the conversations that Alex Swift has been recording and uploading to his website (if you have some time, do yourself a favour and check them out). In one, artist Harry Giles talks about how politics feels. It’s not something that usually gets raised (at least not explicitly) in political discourse, which tends to be steeped in ideology or, in the case of party politics, policy and spin. But really, when you stop and think about it, the feelings tied up in politics are what tend to have the most impact on our lives and opinions.

I’m not going to add my voice to the debate about Scottish independence – mainly because, being English, it’s not really my voice that matters. But what is astonishing and exciting about the impending referendum, particularly in recent days, is the way in which it has truly engaged a huge range of people in political discussion and how that political discussion has been vitally inflected by feeling. There is a passionate sense that this really matters. Not only that, but it matters not just in terms of the economic arguments that have dominated headlines; it matters at the level of identity and democracy.

In all thought, be it critical or political (and of course those two things are so often intertwined), emotion contains both danger and potential. Feeling in art has a tendency to be equated – often rightly – with catharsis, escapism and conservative sentimentality. But there is also another kind of catharsis to be found in art, one in which emotion is politically charged and straightforward sentiment is replaced by radical collective feeling. It is this collective feeling which Giles emphasises when he discusses how politics feels. And, though far from all of my tears in Edinburgh were provoked by this kind of emotion, it is a similar collective feeling that the space of the theatre is able to hold. When our bodies tense during Men in the Cities or we cry at the end of Spine, our emotions meet in the room, however fleetingly. We feel together.

I’ve now been wrestling with this unwieldy piece of writing for so long that its meandering train of thought is no longer clear to me. I’m not quite sure how I’ve travelled from Jennifer Doyle to tears to the Edinburgh Fringe to the Scottish independence referendum. What I’m clumsily grasping towards is something about emotion, art, criticism and politics; something about how feeling is provoked, experienced, processed and harnessed; something about crying in the theatre and what that really means.

The other night, with complete disregard for my own once again fragile feelings at that precise moment in time, I re-read Men in the Cities. Experiencing it again on the page, a good month after seeing it in Edinburgh and with more space in which to think about it, I was bowled over a second time by just what an extraordinary piece of art it is. It’s fucking stunning. And this time, tears did begin to pool in my eyes. It was these words, directed at the audience, that got me:

“I know. I know. Can we not just put it all down. Aren’t you tired of it all. Aren’t you just tired.”

That’s exactly how it’s written – no question marks. And if I’m remembering the performance correctly, those questions never really felt like questions in the moment either. If they were questions, if it were a genuine invitation to put “it” – anger, violence, hatred, the thousand tiny ways in which we hurt one another – down, then the catharsis would be too complete. It would be a bit of a cop-out, for theatre-maker and audience. Instead, in a world where we can’t (at least not yet) “put it all down”, this possibility is suggested and denied. Emotion is provoked, but never fully released.

In lieu of any real conclusion, I leave you all (or, rather, the handful of poor souls who have made it this far) with this, because a) it’s what I’m listening to this afternoon and b) Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is the best barometer I know of how I’m feeling each time I revisit it.

Edinburgh 2014

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To save inundating this site with new posts, I’ve collected below links to all of the many pieces of writing I’ve produced over the last month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Happy reading!

Fest:

Radical Stories (feature)
The Initiate
The World Mouse Plague
Unfaithful
Notoriously Yours
My Uncle’s Shoes
My Luxurious 50 Square Feet Life
Dear Mister Kaiser
Prelude to a Number
Red Riding Hood
Great Artists Steal
Guess Who: Meinzeye or Cold Corner?
Somebody I Used to Know
Mush and Me
The God Box: A Daughter’s Story
Conflict in Court
Land of Smiles
Symphony
Domestic Labour: A Study in Love
The Future for Beginners
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
Jamaica Farewell
#MyWay
Early Doors
The Time of Our Lies: The Life and Times of Howard Zinn
The Ruby Dolls: Fabulous Creatures
Janis Joplin: Full Tilt
On the Upside Down of the World
Crazy Glue
Watching You (feature)

Exeunt:

True Brits
Every Brilliant Thing
Sister
Guinea Pigs on Trial
The Hive
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Mmm Hmmm/Hug
Show Off
Return to the Voice
I Promise You Sex and Violence
Forest Fringe: You Must Sing (group article)
A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts (group review)
More Fringe Things (group article)
Men in the Cities (group review)
Fringe Things (group article)

WhatsOnStage:

Edinburgh Fringe highlights
Beats North
Pioneer
Lungs
merry christmas, Ms Meadows
Wingman
Standby for Tape Back-Up
Kim Noble: You’re Not Alone
Our Teacher’s a Troll
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory
Blind Hamlet
Edinburgh Fringe Diary #3
Lippy
Hiraeth
Sirens
Silk Road
Freak
Dead to Me
Edinburgh Fringe Diary #2
Broke
He Had Hairy Hands
Spine
Chewing the Fat
Britannia Waves the Rules
Play Dough
Edinburgh Fringe Diary #1
The Fair Intellectual Club
Confirmation

Blog:

SmallWar
Light

Photo: Laura Suarez.

Light, Pleasance Dome

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If the Thought Police are an uncertain, shadowy presence in Nineteen Eighty Four, somewhere between self-regulating myth and chilling reality, then in Theatre ad Infinitum’s new show they are a constant presence. Light imagines a world in which, thanks to new technology, not just our actions but the workings of our minds are under surveillance. In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent to which we are routinely monitored, it doesn’t seem miles from plausibility.

Given what we have learned about surveillance, there is no doubting the necessity of discussing its dangers – especially considering the astonishing lack of outcry about the current situation. Theatre ad Infinitum do so through the means of sci-fi and dystopia, genres which often have more to say about the present than the future. This particular future is a grim one, where fears of terrorism have been harnessed as a means of robbing citizens of their basic right to privacy. And there is something chillingly uncanny about the rhetoric with which these imaginary politicians put a positive spin on the ability to see into the minds of others.

Light is over reliant, however, on the metaphor that gives the show its title. Light is used by GCHQ as a codeword for meta-data, but it also has the advantage of creating some rather striking images on stage. Theatre ad Infinitum take this connection and run with it – so far that it almost pulls the show off its intended course.

The company’s central visual device is the use of LED torches, which only illuminate limited segments of the stage at any one time, leaving everything else in the dark. This allows for several startling, nightmarish moments, as well as some slick manipulation of our perceptions. But it is also limiting to the scope of the piece. Where in Translunar Paradise and Ballad of the Burning Star the formal constraints imposed by Theatre ad Infinitum were what made the shows focused and distinct, here it begins to feel like an unwieldy albatross flung across the company’s shoulders.

The story, of a citizen who eventually attempts to break the state’s control over the mind and defy his own tyrannical father in the process, is vital to the show. But thanks to the formal limitation, its telling is not always clear. The action is wordless save a few short projected sentences, underscored instead with an impressive – and often impressively thumping – soundtrack. It is often more cinematic than theatrical and it is not helped by the restrictive space and limited sightlines found in the Pleasance Dome.

One of Theatre ad Infinitum’s greatest strengths as a company is their ability to reinvent themselves with each new production. Light is another audacious transformation, but one that sadly falls short of the high standards set in previous years.

Photo: Alex Brenner.