A COMMON sight at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe was a crowd motionless in Princes Street Gardens, bewildered and slightly dazed by the shock of what they had just witnessed. It was the sun. Blazing unprecedentedly through almost all the first half of the festival, it was responsible for endless changes of plan. Small-scale shows found it even more difficult than usual to attract audiences into the city’s 294 venues.
Of course, not only unexpected fine weather causes changes of plan. So do world events. Brexit hung over the festival, particularly because it has caused Scottish independence to re-emerge as an urgent issue.
Of all the art-forms, it is stand-up comedy that responds most quickly and incisively to events. The Edinburgh Comedy Award winner for 2013, Bridget Christie, tore up the script of Mortal, a show about death, and replaced it with a tirade against Brexit. James Acaster, whose show Reset travelled from Edinburgh to Greenbelt, included a very funny riff on whether drinkers were better off with the teabag in (weakening, but in a strong drink) or out (purer all round, but the bag’s going to be chucked away).
In I Was a Teenage Christian, Katy Brand told the story of how, as an adolescent, she became involved in a Charismatic church in a way that now seems ridiculous to her. She was warned that studying theology at university would undermine her unquestioning faith. It did; and she’s glad it did.
Many must have had a similar experience. It was all very interesting; just not very funny. Jokes intended to make Christians seem ridiculous were of the kind that people of faith make about themselves and each other affectionately. I remember Adrian Plass telling one of them in the 1980s. Brand turned down the request for a press ticket. It’s hard to understand why.
IT IS much clearer why Lucy McCormick’s press team sent a splendidly considerate query about whether Church Times readers had strong enough dispositions to cope with a review of her piece Triple Threat. It gained a reputation as the festival’s most shocking show, retelling the story of Jesus’s life in the style of a performance in a hardcore gay nightclub. (If you are trying to work out what that could look like, imagine how Judas’s kiss of betrayal might be staged.)
Was it entertaining? The audience laughed raucously, and I did so fitfully. It was impossible not to be caught up in the joy as the audience body-surfed Jesus up the stairs to stage his ascension.
For all its ramshackle irreverence, the play had a serious intent. McCormick, in various states of dress, undress, and wide-eyed naïvety played all the main characters. She says that she is attempting to work out where she stands morally in relation to a religion that has been so negative about both women and the body.
A repeated trope of this year’s festival was women using the liberation of nudity in feminist rage. But one can’t help observing that the bodies on display were buffed to a particular idea of desirability. It’s not the Christians who are presently responsible for body-shaming. Try being overweight in a hardcore gay nightclub.
SOME of the most interesting pieces in the Fringe in recent years have been by secular companies taking on Christian themes. This year Fourth Monkey brought four plays in which Bible stories were subverted with a contemporary twist. The Whale, for example, placed Jonah in solitary confinement in the belly of a juvenile detention centre. Sodom retold the story of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters in the company’s highly physical ensemble style.
The intentions of Ami Sayers’s script were clear, shaming the hypocrisy of political leaders with hidden lives. But the setting was neither specific enough to land punches nor general enough to have mythological resonance. What must have seemed like passion on the page became unrelieved shouting on stage.
Less is often more. Lucy, Lucy and Lucy Barfield was a tear-in-the-eye solo show about how a quest for a life story grew into a quest for a meaningful faith. The first Lucy is the writer and performer Lucy Grace, who adored the tales of Narnia when she was young. The second is the heroine of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And the third is C. S. Lewis’s god-daughter Lucy Barfield, to whom the book was dedicated.
The search was a bitter-sweet one, because Lucy Barfield had a short life, diminished by multiple sclerosis. Her story was told in the simplest way, on a set consisting of memory boxes, toys, and cascades of envelopes. The recorded voice of her closest friend, whom the storyteller interviewed, was tremendously poignant. Lucy Grace, of the theatre company How Small How Far, was beguilingly honest. Her description of what it feels like to attend a church for the first time, aged 26, was delightful. Her longing to find her own Narnia through human connection was universal.
But what would you do if the loving, redemptive religion that C. S. Lewis allegorised in Narnia had been lost for ever? According to the world’s final four survivors in DugOut Theatre’s bonkers Swansong, you would start your own. And heaven help humanity if its only hope was the quartet who survived a global flood perched on top of a swan-shaped pedalo.
The writers Tom Black and Sadie Spencer do not mean us to take too seriously their account of how actions become rituals that become religions. Their characters are too stereotyped and too funny for that: a world-weary intellectual, a public-school bloke, a fitness fanatic, and a daffily spiritual vegan. But, as they established their new world order, with its commandments, liturgy, and rites, there was just enough bite to the satire to provoke a conversation in the bar afterwards. The world ahead will be a very silly place, but there will be a scrap of optimism and a lot of fun.
THERE was no such hope and not a hint of fun, however, in World Without Us, from the award-winning Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. It was a monologue delivered by a black-clad performer, superbly picked out in shafts of light in front of a black obelisk.
The account begins at this very moment and in this very theatre, where the audience and all the rest of humanity cease to exist. At first, little changes. Machines maintain themselves for a time. Animals adapt their behaviour to new circumstances. But gradually the world that humans have constructed disintegrates. The forces that brought life to this planet continue remorselessly, and all that is familiar to us is overwhelmed.
Light years away, the last trace of humanity, a satellite bearing a time capsule with images and sounds of our existence, drifts further and further into space. That satellite really was launched in 1974. Its images and sounds are a reminder of the wonder of human culture, but make all that has happened since then seem as nothing.
The text is credited to four writers, including Karolien de Bleser, who delivered it in a whisper on the morning I saw it, calm and utterly compelling. The lights rose to reveal a devastated audience, and it deservedly won the first of the major Fringe prizes. It is a profound challenge to the Christian account of our destiny. Of course, a world without us could never happen. We would find a solution. Wouldn’t we?
THE fact that so many plays at this year’s festival had the theme of gender was thought-provoking in itself. There was a great deal of cross-dressing — sometimes playful, sometimes provocative, very far indeed from pantomime. In one of the outstanding performances, Amy McAllister gave a searing insight into what it feels like to be inside a body that seems to belong to someone of the opposite sex.
Scorch told of how a teenager dealing with all the usual challenges of youth and identity discovered that her online actions had criminalised her as well. Dressed in a reptilian hoodie, McAllister shuddered and twisted as if trying to shuck her body like a snakeskin. Stacey Gregg’s play is an unsettling story based on a real incident, and it invites the audience into a vital conversation that the Church of England has so far barely recognised as necessary.
In the same venue, Luke Norris’s Growth was a complete contrast. Charming but aimless Tobes nurses a broken heart and refuses to admit to himself that the lump he has found on his testicle is something that should concern him. Andy Rush’s affable performance made this one of the funniest plays in the festival, unlikely though that seems. Confronted by a dozen other characters, all played by Remy Beasley and Richard Corgan, Tobes must man up, sort out his self-absorption, and work out that there are bigger tragedies in the world than his. The play opened up into a fascinating exploration of what growth into masculinity means today for young people.
A WALK out of town took one to the dour tent and scaffolded set which were atmospherically ideal for Still Here. This was a piece by Rachel Partington, of Theatre for Justice, about the impact of a trip to the church in the “Jungle” refugee encampment in Calais. There she met and interviewed an Eritrean man who had fled persecution because of his Christian faith.
At just over 30 minutes, it was a sliver of a play, and its impact lay in the honesty of Partington’s realisation of how inadequate was her response to such overwhelming need. Sponsorship by the Church of England (a first) allowed for high production values, with puppetry, inventive lighting, and live music. But its shock ending misfired. The destruction of the church was represented by military police storming through the tent and ordering everyone out. But they were too kind. The small and mainly elderly audience was unable to hurry, and the police had to offer an obliging arm on the uneven grass.
The festival almost always offers one uniquely joyous experience. On this occasion it was In Fidelity, a show by Rob Drummond in which the audience played a key part. In it, he chaperoned a blind date on the stage between two strangers carefully but unexpectedly picked from the crowd. Drummond’s theme was whether humans are evolutionarily conditioned to cheat.
He interrupted the date with scientific information, the story of Charles Darwin’s marriage, and frankness about his own temptations. Part scripted and part unpredictable, the piece is different each time, but, on the evening I saw it, Will and Dusty were so charming together that two hundred people willed them on, offering suggestions for first-date questions and advice on how to sustain a relationship over a lifetime.
The closing moments were as perfect as one could hope for in the impromptu circumstances. I had assumed that the gasp of pleasure from the audience when the pair kissed was as heart-stopping as the festival could get. But Drummond topped that with a revelation that left the audience tearfully elated.
Reset tours the UK until 5 December. Mortal, renamed Because You Demanded It, will be at the Leicester Square Theatre, London, during the autumn. World Without Us plays at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in November. The tour of Scorch continues, mainly to Ireland. The Paines Plough production of Growth tours England until 30 October. In Fidelity is part of the High Tide festival in Aldeburgh during September. Other shows reviewed will announce tours in due course.