Mark Fisher’s theatre round-up: ‘Stage makes an exit’
The line between drama and performance art is blurred, but the inspiration behind it is clear, writes Mark Fisher.
IN THE past three weeks, I have been shouted at for an hour while standing in a newly painted corridor (Anna), followed an epic journey across the UK while sitting in a minibus (Cape Wrath), watched black-and-white puppets projected live on screen (Feral), seen three naked performers get dressed then naked again (Tourniquet 2013), listened to stories of lost love in two city gardens (Dark Matter and Pirates And Mermaids) and joined an audience making a miniature rally of Plasticine protesters (How To Occupy An Oil Rig). All this in the name of theatre.
The Edinburgh Fringe, in its concentrated glory, reminds you of the incredible variety of work that calls itself theatre. At some point every year, those of us who judge the Scotsman Fringe Firsts will fall into a debate about whether a nominated show even counts as theatre at all. It’s hard to identify the exact point when a performance becomes so musical, so filmic, so art-like, so uncategorisable that it’s really something else altogether.
Even when you’re in a regular theatre with regular actors performing the words of regular playwright, you are frequently confronted by the unexpected. Watching David Greig’s The Events, for example, you realise with a sense of giddy surprise there’s no reason a production couldn’t involve two professional actors joined on stage by a community choir who, like the audience, are seeing the play for the first time. Built into the structure of The Events is a reinvention of what a play could be.
Even so, when I told a friend about Nick Steur’s Freeze! at Summerhall, I can see why she said, “You’re not persuading me.” This 35-minute performance consists of nothing more than a man picking rocks off the floor and balancing them vertically on top of each other. While he plays a self-effacing recorded commentary from a speaker attached to his head, Steur focuses all his concentration on a seemingly impossible task. The more he concentrates, the more we hold our breath in a Zen-like celebration of stillness, an antidote to the clamour of the festival outside. You’d call it futile if only the finished results, like a series of Andy Goldsworthy sculptures, were not so beautiful.
Having failed to persuade my friend, she proceeded to tell me about the Summerhall show she had loved, L’Après-midi d’un Foehn, which involved plastic bags being blown into the air in time to a Debussy score. If you can like plastic bags, I told her, I can like stones.
Freeze! is part of Big in Belgium, a five-show season that wilfully pushes at the boundaries of what theatre can be. Elsewhere in Summerhall, for example, the Antwerp company called Berlin is presenting Bonanza, a show that doesn’t even have actors. In front of us are five television screens beneath a miniature landscape that looks like the work of a particularly zealous model railway enthusiast. It represents Bonanza, a once booming mining town in Colorado where the population has plummeted to single figures.
On each monitor, we see crisply shot documentary interviews with the residents, while the lights fade in and out on their model houses above. It starts off celebrating the backwoods life of a group of mild eccentrics who prefer their own company, but turns darker as they reveal the animosity that has built up between them. It seems the more isolated the community, the more viciously it can turn on itself. If categories bother you, Bonanza is more documentary art installation than theatre, but quite absorbing either way.
Also in Big in Belgium is Ontroerend Goed, which has a formidable record in reinventing what theatre could be in Fringe hits such as The Smile Of Your Face and Internal. This year’s offering, Fight Night, doesn’t present the head-spinning challenge of those shows, but in its playful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of democratic politics, it has a typically surprising structure. On our way in, we are given a remote control device that allows us to vote at various stages during the performance on which of the actors we like the most. Those with least audience support have to leave the stage. The actor left at the end is the “winner”.
But winner of what? There’s an implicit joke in Fight Night about our willingness to judge the actors, on looks, on personality, on attitudes, yet we know nothing about what we are electing them for. You can find yourself passionately hoping your chosen candidate will remain on stage without any idea of what their victory would mean. It reminds you of the subjectivity of the decision-making process and also, as we watch worthwhile candidates fall, how the will of the majority can deprive us of subtlety and nuance.
Fight Night isn’t the only show on the Fringe making use of audience voting. In the excellent Choose Your Own Documentary, Nathan Penlington revisits his adolescent passion for the Choose Your Own Adventure series of interactive novels by showing us documentary footage about his quest to find the former owner of a set of the books and asking us to vote on what should happen next on screen. There are in excess of 1,500 permutations for the show (Is it film? Is it theatre?). The version I saw turned out to be a deeply moving testimony to the small choices we all make in our lives and the profound effects they can have.
In Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, Bryony Kimmings is also considering the choices we make in our lives (and the choices that are thrust upon us) and her show is more moving still. With its roots in performance art, it makes use of a loose cabaret structure to explore the relationship between Kimmings and her nine-year-old niece Taylor and to consider the pressure put on young women to play the passive victim and the sex-starved starlet. By turns, funny, radical, provocative, sentimental and life-affirming, it is a show with a big feminist heart that everyone should see.
All runs ended apart from Choose Your Own Documentary, at Gilded Balloon Teviot, today, 1.30pm
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday