This was my tenth fringe and around my seventh I started to realize that each year, I could find themes in the plays and comedy. This year was about the biggest questions of human existence asked with icons and stories of the past. This year I saw a sort of mass acceptance of schizophrenia as a state of being: we can be two things at the same time, we can be different things.
(Spoiler alert for everything. In my mind it doesn't even matter. Who is going to manage to see all these plays? I write these like the NYT reviews books: knowing that the person reading the review will probably never pick up the actual book. Is that so wrong? I don't feel any duty to withhold narrative. Does that make me a monster?)
Friday started with Tuesdays at Tescos, an English adaptation of the Parisian hit Mondays at Monoprix: a monologue of an over the hill transgendered daughter who used to be a son, and her Tuesday visit to her ancient father. The writing is so rich, and has layers that I am still considering. The monologue was performed by Simon Callow, the guy who dies in Four Weddings and a Funeral, remember, the totally jolly gay guy with a beard who danced like a maniac? He was occasionally mesmerizing, but the monologue was punctuated with dancing. And instead of the sensuous grind you would expect from a person who made their living as a prostitute, I'll be damned if he didn't dance just like in Four Weddings. It did not fit into the piece. It was performed with a musician onstage and sparse, discordant music. Companion K thought it excellent. I was a little too distracted by Callow (Is that really the only way he can dance?) to be too moved, although the ending is moving (cheap deus ex machina moving). (You may think this demonstrates that people who review plays are just bitter playwrights constantly critiquing the successes of others like craven Salieris. Well done you for spotting this. Ten points to Griffindor!)
Next was the famous impresario and occasional actor Guy Masterson acting in a revival of a 1998 production: a one man character study of Shylock. The beginning is really unbeatable. A human being telling the story of how his race had been the whipping boys of humanity since Ceasar and Shakespeare's place in that continuum. And how Shakespeare's imagining the Jew as human - if you cut me, do I not bleed -- maybe started to turn things around for old Shylock and the Jews a bit. Maybe reminded people of their humanity. I know a Jewish guy in his 40's and when he moved to Texas as an adolescent, kids in his school really thought he had a sawed off tail and horns. We have not done right by the Jews, and the slow realization of the scope of the persecution with a Jew performing was very moving. Unfortunately, the Jew is also British and as such the show had twenty minutes of mostly very boring stories about the great actors performing Shylock in the past (there were to be fair some very funny lines). The British and their obsession with the past. Their backward looking DNA. It has some downsides.
After that was Dave Gorman's Power Point Presentation. I went to see his Googlewhack show in 2003 when I was pregnant and we had run in from another show and I had to go to the bathroom through the whole thing. I had to go so bad. I thought I was going to get a bladder infection. The thing was, though, he was too funny to leave- he has this magic build in his comic storytelling. I can think of no higher praise for a comedian that I once risked a bladder infection to see his show. He had another big thing about Jews, everyone thinks he is one, and it's an awkward as hell thing to play. He also had a segment about mobile phone marketing, he is obsessed with the Facebook and Twitter icons of fake people that appear in the picture of the phone in a newspaper. It was a very sly attack on the utter pointlessness of advertising. Perhaps so sly that he didn't even notice it?
Last on Friday was Mat Ricardo in this great venue - The Viper Rooms - performing Three Balls and a Suit - more obsession with the past but also a genuinely talented but sweetly insecure juggler. He told tales of gentlemen jugglers of the past, and tried his own sleight-of-hand to a Tom Waits song. The Fringe has had a real surge of circus and cabaret, and I do appreciate seeing feats of skill. It is entertaining. It was only OK. I actually think he would be happy with me saying that.
Saturday began with Ten Plagues - this is a song cycle about the plague year - 1685 -- that killed 100,000
in London. It was performed by Marc Almond, one half, I came to find out, of Soft Cell (Tainted Love, dude!). The book was written by Mark Ravenhill (Shopping & Fucking). This was the highlight of the Fringe for me, so ingenious and powerful was the end of cycle. Oh, this piece crept up on you. It had some sweeping music, but the story of a lone man who lived through the plague, who got so close to death, who knew and lived at that powerful edge between life and death for so long. When his friends returned to London, he could not understand them, he was a different person. Suffering turned him into something different. It made him indifferent to the petty commerce of the time, but indifferent in a true and enlightened way. The way the world goes on and ignores its own mortality is simply appalling. And one of the great tragedies of this world and of our own time. The way this man changes is artistic genius of the highest order. So powerful that I felt the waves coming out from the stage into me. (I hate using that phrase and all real artists I know truly hate it as well - artistic genius - but I felt such a resonance, such a resonance that continues to today and to now that I don't know what else to say) I was sobbing despite myself at the final blackout. Also during the final blackout, two teenagers sitting next to me, stood up, announced "WELL THAT SUCKED!" and stomped out. So then I cried and laughed at the same time, such is the absurdity of the world.
And the absurdity of the world and more precisely the observation that life is a joke -- a very funny joke, but a joke -- was the point of Theatre of Wales' Dark Philosophers. This told the story of the inhabitants of a terraced street under a mountain owned by a lecherous tyrant and the perverse behavior and bizarre coping mechanisms that evolve to protect humans from and through such suffering. Coal mining. It is the gift to the Welsh that keeps on giving: this time in a metaphor for the Welsh themselves, digging down through the black rock like some kind of polluted cortex. It had Welsh songs. It was fantastically inventive. The snatches of narrative were interlaced with a possibly true story of one of the boys becoming a TV personality. (But the sound system was way too loud and I watched the end with my fingers in my ears). Since I am Welsh but am not always very clear on what that means, I really ate this up as immediately useful information. One of the best descriptions of my brain was provided by a woman singing a love song so passionately while at the same time, six actors told the story of love, by three fights of two people trying to kill each other. But in a slapstick way. There was waves of this kind of symbolism as well as absurdity. It was a little long.
Next a very different show: Bryony Kimmings in 7 Day Drunk. This is a comedian, an incredibly adorable young woman who must draw inevitably comparisons to Katy Perry (but cuter and smarter). Her show was the result of an experiment: she got drunk for seven days and it provided the material for the show. There are segments where she is chewing on a lemon, chewing on coffee grounds, stabbing a pen into a teddy bear and you think, WTF? then you think, ok, right, she was drunk. She also got an audience member drunk and tracked her progress. It was billed as tackling the question of substance use and creativity but it didn't tackle it with any profound or even very interesting observations, she just sort of said that being drunk probably ended up helping the process a little. She succeeded in getting three sets of people to make out for a while who didn't know each other, in a great slow dance sequence, and ended with a dance party that was supposed to celebrate the now, the fun of this moment, and kind of did, but mostly for the people who had been making out and the girl she got drunk.
We then went on to the East End Cabaret in the delightfully anarchic Free Festival; the Fringe is broken down into theatres and venues - aggregators who have fifteen or so venues near each other. The price to go to a show has gotten really high (I remember when the most expensive ticket I bought at the Fringe was £6, I am now paying on average north of £15 for a play) so most people need to take advantage of discounts offered for seeing multiple shows at the same venue. I kept talking to people who had only seen shows at Pleasance, or the shows at Assembly. The Free Fringe is a collection that seats for free but then solicits donations on the way out. Refreshing. And the show was a fantastic naughty cabaret that was funny and racy and had a song about ping pong balls in Bangkok and the trajectory they travel that had marvelous sound effects. The crowd is definitely drunker at the free shows, and for late night cabaret this is a plus.
We ended with Glen Wool, a comedian who looks like a roadie in a tribute Metallica band tour of Australia. (I think he would agree with me.) He was funny, but the show's conceit was a revenge story involving feces and you are never going to get me completely on board with that material.
Sunday started with Phil Nichol performing a monologue written by Royal Court young writer David Florez. It was putatively about a man in a North London cafe lusting after a Lithuanian restaurant. Also it was about the life and death of a perhaps fictional but maybe not severely disabled guy. Also it was about the cheap trick that a play is, that storytelling can be. But the narrative twisted and moved and grew in a way that belied the cheap trick protestations. Phil Nichol is unreal: one of the greatest shows I have ever seen on the Fringe was his 2005 Naked Racist. I really don't understand why the United States hasn't discovered him yet. This show was called Somewhere Beneath It All A Small Fire Burns Still and if you get a chance, see it. It replaced Ten Plagues as my darling of the Fringe.
Next was Futureproof, like Ten Plagues at the Traverse, which has reputedly the greatest bar in Europe. I dispute this claim, but it is a great bar. Futureproof is the story of a travelling freak show trying to update for the times. Conjoined twins, a Fat Man, a hermaphrodite, a armless bearded lady and a beautifully mysterious fake (maybe not fake) mermaid. Everyone is starving using the traditional freak show, so the circus owner comes up with something good for business: show the freaks becoming normal. SO he puts the fat man on a diet and shaves the bearded lady and they lose something essential in their identity, of course, even as he eyes the conjoined twins and hermaphrodite for corrective surgery. It was beautifully staged with mesmerizing costumes and this idea of cutting off part of your identity to fit in is very interesting to contemplate indeed. The images stay with me, and I think of the truths behind this piece quite a bit especially because I am not clear what they are.
Then a mad dash over to a real Festival play - the Fringe is called the fringe because it took place at the periphery of a large international arts festival. Now the Fringe is much bigger than the Festival but to be high art and old school we thought we would check out the Festival and saw a Japanese-American play called Wind-up Bird Chronicles, an adaptation of a psychological Japanese novel. As we were finding the theatre, an officious intermeddler informed me that we would never be able to follow what was going on in the play if we hadn't read the novel. She was kind of right but I got a few things anyway. There were some nice symbols but after all the crashing tumult and bravery of the Fringe it did seem a little staid. Only incest? Only two stories unfolding at the same time? Still, some nice puppet work and a very multinational audience. Subtitles are a bitch in a play though.
Then from Festival to the Pyjama Men - an extended hallucinatory sketch show roughly revolving around an alien kidnapping a baby, I think. It mostly was funny because the two performers kept corpsing, although I thought they were legitimately trying to make each other laugh.
What a great three days. It was magic.