THE arts community has always challenged society’s complacent assumptions and taken the side of minorities. If you want to watch national public mores on the move, from gay equality to feminism, follow the art.
So it is encouraging to see the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe take Christianity extremely seriously. This year, Christian themes are presented frequently and without cynicism; it is atheism that is exposed as lazy and thoughtless. And audiences have been greedy for it.
The most talked-about play in the festival is The Christians, the British première of a play by the American Lucas Hnath. This important play is on its way to London, and there will be a review on these pages when it opens there. But if you have a heart, a brain, and a soul, trust me, and book a ticket. (Two out of three will do.)
That, however, is just the most high-profile of the shows that shine unexpected lights on faith. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven has also been acclaimed. Jo Clifford, a senior transgendered woman, takes the role of Jesus. She retells his parables with great tenderness, employing only the colourful liberties that any preacher would use in an all-age service.
Well-known stories fill with previously unnoticed meaning simply because of the voice that is relating them. Who is that neighbourly Samaritan? What made the brother so bitter towards the prodigal son? In the closing moments, the audience joins hands and a long prayer is offered, in the style of the Beatitudes, for the despised people of the world. In a candle-lit room there were many whispered Amens.
The Temptation of St Anthony, by the Mechanical Animal Corporation, relates the experiences of people who think that they are possessed by evil spirits. It references the life of Anthony the Great, the fourth-century Egyptian hermit. In the 16th century, he was often painted tormented by grotesque demons, and that combination of tragedy and salacious fascination is well conveyed. The devised piece examines the response to this form of mental illness by several religions, both its solace and its potential for exploitation. The singing is gorgeous, but the standard of acting by the multinational cast is not consistently high, and it has a whiff of a drama-school improvisation class.
Mental illness of all kinds, from depression to dementia, has reappeared so often during the festival that it has become an informal theme. It appears with great power and poignancy in Vanishing Point’s Tomorrow. Set in a residential home for older people, the play views life sometimes through the eyes of the staff, compassionate but stretched to their limits, and sometimes through the confused distress of the elderly guests. The use of masks and the appearance of young children serve to make it deeply affecting, because we are reminded that each of us carries his or her aged self within us at all times.
Tomorrow has witty moments, but Fake It ’til You Make It laughs recklessly in the face of male depression. The theatre-maker Bryony Kimmings had been living with her partner Tim Grayburn for six months before she discovered that he was taking medication for depression. With sweet and funny candour, they tell the story of how they have come to live with this — narrating it, singing it, miming it.
Tim is not an actor; he is an advertising executive. The show’s appeal lies in how earnestly we rally behind him, out of his comfort zone and dancing in his pants. When he takes a paper bag off his head and explains how medication is not enough, and the couple’s evident love is not enough, but a combination of the two is allowing them to muddle through, the honesty is not just touching, but genuinely helpful.
FOR dance that is about an equally dark subject, there was much praise for Caitlin, an award-winning National Library of Wales commission by Light, Ladd & Emberton. The audience sits in a circle, as if at a gathering of Alcoholics Anonymous. Caitlin, the wife of Dylan Thomas, confesses that she never realised her promise as a dancer because she lived in the shadow of a husband who achieved such fame as a poet. We know she is lying. What she sacrificed her talent to was the exhilaration and utter destruction of drink.
Over the course of a genuinely dangerous hour, the two dancers crash through the chairs, on to the walls and into each other. They blind themselves with drink and each other’s enwrapped body. The most memorable image has both their heads jammed together through the back of a chair as they pace, then stumble, in a locked circle. I’ll never touch another drop.
Even in the huge comedy strand of the festival, bleak subjects seem to dominate this year. It is as though comedians are challenging each other to find the most desolate subject from which to wring meaningful laughter. Daniel Sloss, aged 24 and already a veteran of eight Fringes, even calls his show Dark. So it’s a relief to stumble on the bonkers delight that is O No! by Jamie Wood.
With hilarious earnestness, he gets the audience to recreate the art happenings of Yoko Ono. Two unseen figures constantly make their presence felt. One is Jamie’s long-suffering partner Wendy, whom we hear on tape refusing to sit Yoko-like in an onstage bag. The other is John Lennon, whose life and death can occasionally be glimsed behind the frivolity, giving the show enough melancholy to make the laughter ache.
If it is more than five years since you last went to a circus, you may be unprepared for the sophisticated spectacle that it has become, with fused art forms, intriguing themes, sometimes even narrative. This year, the Fringe has a dedicated venue, Circus Hub, with not a hint of a performing seal, just physical marvels. Gandini Juggling brings 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, in which the breathtaking feats of four jugglers are taken to a new level of beauty by four ballet dancers weaving between them. It has rhythm; it has wit; it has about 500 people asking, “How the dickens is that actually possible?”
In its 12th year, the Edinburgh Art Festival is now a significant event, with exhibitions, projects, and landscape-changing commissions. Phyllida Barlow has filled the entire Fruitmarket Gallery with “Set”, monumentally huge and made from simple materials such as plywood and canvas. It feels as if you are walking at the back of heaped and splattered theatrical scenery, intriguing you round its corners to imagine the unseen spectacle beyond.
EDINBURGH has always belonged to the young, and the choir of the convent school in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour take it by scatological force. Lee Hall’s new musical, based on Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos and presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, is this year’s guaranteed hit. The rich harmonies of the six young women singing Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes” belie the fact that the competition that has brought them to the city is an excuse for a night of clubbing, alcohol, and sex. As the uniformed and uniformly brilliant cast rips into Bob Marley and Electric Light Orchestra classics, the girls’ stories come to light, revealing the fragility beneath the raunch. They hurtle, devil-may-care, towards expulsion. And surely towards a London run.
This year, however, my heart was lost to six altogether different teenagers, who took me on a solo romp through the streets of Edinburgh’s West End. Forever Young is a glorious interactive piece for an audience of one by the Australian company One Step at a Time Like This. Directed by text messages, chalk marks on the pavement, and beckoning hands, you pick up scraps of the Scottish legend of the Kelpies, horse-like creatures who drag you into the waters where you will either find your heart’s desire or an untimely death. The young people keep challenging you with questions about the gulf between your teenage idealism and your subsequent compromises. Torn between adventure and safety, I declined to smoke something herbally dodgy. However (I confess), I did shoplift an apple in front of café staff who were clearly in on the act, and two pensioners who weren’t.
The technical ingenuity is formidable: I was drawn to my final destination by my favourite song, which I had unwittingly revealed in conversation an hour previously. I can barely express how much I loved this show. For an afternoon, I was 17 again.
When I actually was 17, 1400 police violently arrested 500 travellers who were planning to stage a festival at Stonehenge during the summer solstice. Breach Theatre’s multimedia piece The Beanfield is a jokey and then increasingly upsetting attempt to film a reconstruction of the clash in the manner of a historical re-enactment society. It uses archive footage, interviews with eyewitnesses, and the absurd enthusiasm of a cast of only six in fancy dress and fake blood.
After the Battle of the Beanfield, hundreds of arrests were made, travellers’ homes were destroyed, and children were taken into care, but not one prosecution took place. As violence erupts in the tiny room where the play is staged, the suggestion is that the visceral exhilaration of the travellers’ drugs and the police violence was essentially the same. This piece is just one of three shows brought by talented Warwick University graduates and is unsettlingly superb.
BUT the very best of the festival returns to Christian themes. In Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me), Ben Duke, of Lost Dog Dance, presents all 10,000 lines of Milton’s epic poem. Except he doesn’t, of course. He actually manages to read only ten. The rest of it he dances and describes; and he explains its impact on his life and relationships. In the role of God, but with an interlude as Adam in a body-stocking and fig leaf, Ben is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes hilarious, and always thought-provoking. He presents creation and human creativity; failure and human fallibility; the birth of Jesus and the birth of his own daughter.
Towards the end, all the strands come together as God realises what the price of the salvation of those he loves will be. The whole, unbearable awfulness of the death of his Son comes cascading down on him, quite literally, in an unforgettable coup. Then, as Odetta sings the Battle Hymn of the Republic, God heaves himself from his chair and steels himself for the relentless trudge, round and round, which will be the cost of redeeming thankless humankind.
At this point, I failed to make any notes, because, like many of the audience, I was sobbing.
The Christians opens at the Gate Theatre, London, on 8 September. Box office: phone 020 7229 0706. www.gatetheatre.co.uk
Fake It ’til You Make It visits Brighton and London during September. www.bryonyandtim.com
“Phyllida Barlow: Set” is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh, until 18 October. Phone 0131 225 2383. www.fruit-market.co.uk
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour tours Scotland, and then opens at the Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Quayside, Newcastle (phone 0191 232 1232), on 1 October (till 24th). www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me) tours during the autumn to Polegate, London, Bath, Oxford, and Bournemouth. http://lostdogdance.co.uk