Fractured Narratives

Originally written for Exeunt.

As theatre implicitly recognises, our experiences in life are typically defined by the stories we tell after the event. The heightened experience of the Edinburgh Fringe is no different, from the startling encounter in the street to the performance that stole a little bit of your heart, or even just the slurred poetry of intense discussions in the early hours. We package our experiences in small, select slices, reassembled into a mangled but recognisable version of reality.

Perhaps this is why, as we pack away our deflated enthusiasm and file that inevitable late copy between jolting sips of lukewarm East Coast Trains tea, it becomes obligatory to overlay the mad anti-narrative of the fringe with some grand, overarching tale of political or artistic significance. The annual Edinburgh round-ups are scrawled over with trends and a theme inexplicably emerges from the shapeless nebula. Even coffee-fuelled discussions with fellow theatregoers and makers gradually, almost subconsciously slip into comparisons of what the work we have seen is “about” and how it interconnects.

Of course, no piece of theatre exists in a vacuum. Threads can be traced and there is a wider context in which all work sits, comfortably or otherwise. Context is particularly significant to a festival which has itself played host to smaller festivals, miniature curated or partially curated seasons that have carved out shapes within the amorphous whole: Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, Escalator East to Edinburgh, Old Vic New Voices and, arguably, the impressive, internationally-flavoured programme at Summerhall. Each of these programmes has had a distinct identity that has coloured its work – a narrative of sorts.

Yet the kinds of narratives we find ourselves imposing on our festival experiences are unavoidably subjective and essentially arbitrary. As an exercise, one might pluck a theme out of the air, sit down with the now dog-eared fringe guide and quickly circle a generous clutch of shows fitting the bill. Political protest, sexual politics, athletic prowess, urban decay, environmental disaster, eating disorders, the riots, childhood, adulthood, life, death, zombie apocalypse. Take your pick and build your story.

So I could insist on the triumphant glow cast by the Olympics on theatrical stories of sporting achievement, or point to numerous damning indictments of modern politics. I could even make an irritatingly ironic point by dreaming up a ridiculously idiosyncratic theme and using it to battle a pathway through the dense jungle of the fringe. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll surrender to subjectivity in another way by falling back on one particular show at this year’s fringe which neatly illustrates my point. What I Heard About the World, a collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe, is all about stories, employing these as a way to understand the world around us. Gathered from the far corners of the globe, their odd little fragments of narrative are both amusing and revealing, but what the show is always aware of is its incompleteness. Any story it constructs from its many splinters of smaller stories must be limited and selective. A similar point was made by Thorpe’s serving up of exotic tales at Hunt and Darton cafe; you place your order and you taste the dish of your choosing.

If the Edinburgh Fringe could be distilled into any written structure, it would be a sprawling, web-like poem, replete with spiralling references and veering tangents; probably written by T.S. Eliot, with annotations by Roald Dahl. It has stories, sure – it’s overflowing with them. But the beauty of the experience lies in its messy, democratic multiplicity, its stubborn resistance against the narratives that we insist on vainly saddling it with. There is no overarching story, but we still have the stories that each of us tell.

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What I Heard About the World, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

What do you think of when someone mentions Brazil? Israel? How about Korea? The concept behind this collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe is born from the partial knowledge that we can now boast about all the far-flung corners of the world, dinner party trivia that slots together into a fragmented vision of the globe. As Thorpe puts it, “the more we know, the bigger the world gets”, and the more knowledge is accumulated, the more that the gaps in our knowledge glare out at us.

Creating a colourful theatrical map, Thorpe, Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly and mala voadora’s Jorge Andrade relate stories and quirky snippets of facts from around the world, communicated through direct narration, through pen-scrawled pictures, through roughly assembled sketches and through electric guitar accompanied music. Eschewing the indifferent wisdom of statistics, their charming and disturbing anecdotes all veer on the wacky side of odd, from cardboard cut-out figures issued by the American military to the families of servicemen and women, to a confession hotline that promises to cleanse you of your sins at a reasonable rate.

It rapidly becomes clear that what all of these stories share is their focus on artificiality. In a newspaper in Singapore, the editors photoshop suits onto obituary photographs; in Brazil you can hire mourners, while in Germany paid-for protestors are a booming commodity. Most staggeringly, a couple in Korea allowed their own baby to starve to death because they were so fixated on caring for their virtual child that they forgot they had a real one. Everywhere, it seems, signs and substitutes abound, and anything can be bought if you know who to call. The piece skilfully traces a map of an increasingly connected yet dislocated globe, around which revolves a Baudrillardian precession of simulacra.

As a backdrop to this carousel of eccentricity, the stage at St Stephen’s is packed with paraphernalia both homely and exotic – an apt accompaniment to the driving thoughts behind the piece. A fish tank and a sofa sit in the same space as a poolside life-belt and a paper plane, speaking of a yearning for both adventure and hearth. It is, as the piece recognises, essential to our self-identity to have a sense of place, a sense of place that is as much defined by stories of the “other” as it is by the idea of home.

As Thorpe, Kelly and Andrade repeatedly emphasise, the stories they tell are all true, collected through a formidable process of research and reassembled in different formulations for each of the show’s incarnations, but the very theatricality of the piece inherently begs us to question this truth. And, of course, we are right to. For these can only ever be constructions of the truth, ephemeral simulacra in the same way as the photoshopped suits or the donkeys painted as zebras in Gaza zoo. As soon as a piece of information is passed on, it gains a new identity, clothed in a thin film of fiction.

Yet, as inaccurate and incomplete a cartography as they draw, there is something oddly comforting about the stories that this production collects in cupped hands. As one woman from the anecdotes recognises, stories are a way of staying alive, of passing down a legacy that might cross mountain ranges and oceans. Simple facts, like national borders, can melt, change and die away, but stories are ever present.