Monthly Archives: August 2013

Myths of the Fringe

In Hag, a girl called Lisa, full of rash fury, goes to get a light from the house of Baba Yaga. She strides determinedly into the dark, and therein finds what she most needs.

In The Bread and The Beer, the dark is woken by two unwary workmen who unearth John Barleycorn, an ancient god of harvest revels. Resurrected, the god looks around at the modern world, at all its well-lit order, and decides that it will not do.

Both tales on the surface appear similar. Both are stories of humans encountering the dark and receiving what they require. However, where Hag is simply a good story, The Bread and The Beer is a narrative rush.

Hag boasts excellent costumes. The pig-nosed stepsister masks, the stepmother’s evil beehive hair and the wizened fetish-head of Baba Yaga all function as visual shorthand for the characters’ natures. The acting was good too. Grief is no easy thing to convey convincingly, but the tears of Lisa felt genuine. Still, though I was entertained, I was never immersed in Hag.

That was not the case with The Bread and The Beer. Tristan Bernays told the story of John Barleycorn with the fervour of a prophet mid-revelation. He was never still, always on the move, his prose flowing intoxicant like the blood of his hero, his language switching without pause from bard to modern bloke and back again. His was a show with a Stone Age heart, beating with captivating rhythm. His was a show that knew the wonder of the dark.

In the old times, the imagination of humanity filled the gaps of knowledge with phantoms. Into them was poured all the fear and excitement mankind felt on meeting the unknown. The Bread and The Beer is a modern myth, in the sense that it brings that wondrous unknown back into the modern day. Hag by contrast is a modern myth that takes the everyday into the dark. Hag humanises Baba Yaga. John Barleycorn remains an inhuman force, and that’s what I preferred.

There is definite value in making myth human. Sometimes humans are even best examined in unreal contexts. And yet, it is the wondrous unknown that holds the vice-grip on my pituitary glands. Humanity made its gods to inspire fear and awe, their white eyes hard-gleaming within painted faces, and Barleycorn is a proper god: alien, chaotic, fantastic and old. Into the story he brought the mass of age, so great that it pulled me close and down, with gleeful velocity, down into the dark, because only there could I find what I needed.

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Fringe Review – Titus Andronicus

It is wonderful to hear good words being said by good actors. When the words are Shakespeare’s you’re halfway to happiness, but he alone could not win a relay. So with this review I celebrate the victory of the Smooth Faced Gentlemen, who seized the Bard’s baton and ran like devils, to this spectator’s joy.

Titus Andronicus is a play of pure emotion and grisly, pulpish fun. Dichotomies like that aren’t easy to handle, but the hands of the Gentlemen were sure. Francesca Binefa was sympathetic and exasperating as the toddler-ish Emperor Saturninus, playing the fool with just enough ham. Madeline Gould (the vengeful Empress Tamora) needs more monologues. The time constraints of an hour long performance cut her speeches short, but just those snippets showed she was born to grandstand. A gift for multitasking is on display too, with Ashlea Kaye and Stella Taylor (Tamora’s sons) nailing both Shakespearian dialogue and vile bro-culture at the same time.

Henri Merriam has the most thankless role in Titus: Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists rarely get to be fun. Yet she is august, and when acting in concert with Leila Sykes’ Lavinia (whose face the horror of rape never leaves) she darkens the room with her sorrow. By contrast, Vivienne Acheampong is all cool, suave evil as the machiavel Aaron. The minimalism of her monologues, delivered slowly with just a hint of spiteful mockery, had me shivering with delighted chills. She was also admirably patient when her all-white audience got squeamish over a 16th century pun on skin colour

All this talent was well-supported by the show’s design. Titus Andronicus is a play drenched in metaphorical buckets of blood, a fact approached very literally by the designer. Instead of fake swords, all the Andronicus actors were armed with brushes, regularly dipped in buckets of red paint. As such, by the play’s end, clothes, walls, floor and faces were all liberally spattered with gore, the perfect aesthetic for such a messy play.

An hour is not really enough time for Shakespeare.  Now and again you could feel the production hurrying, particularly at the beginning. Still, when you’re playing the Fringe such limitations are inescapable, and it speaks to the Gentlemen’s credit that the show’s main flaw was due to a format beyond their control. Otherwise, they were thoroughly successful. Leaving the theatre, I all but skipped along to my next show, my mood made ecstatic by this union of great words and excellent performers.

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It’s Dark Outside

I am scared of many things. Creaks in the night. Ghosts. Sambucca. But I have only one fear, one source of terror that does not disappear with the sun’s return. I fear the loss of my mind.

I fear this, because my mind is my treasure. I love thinking, analysing, stripping away the veils and gazing on the visage beneath.  I love building my mind, adding new structures along which thoughts might wind their way towards conclusion. When I embark on full-blown monologues, grabbing at words, assembling theories, experiences and stories, that rise around me like towers built in timelapse, the sensation is glorious: like dancing amongst the gods. My mind is my treasure. As such I fear its loss.

So I cling to it, and guard it, jealous and dragonish. At the merest intrusion, my ego may don scales and wings, rear its arrogant head and pour forth condescending smog, to hide the inconvenience from my sight. Then, with all threats obscured, I sprawl upon my gold, clinging to it so tightly that jewels and coins embed themselves within my hide.

Yet still I know that no matter how tightly I grip, someday I might lose my mind regardless. My memory is already awful. My speech is peppered with constant halts as I scramble for words or names I bloody knew just a moment before. For now that’s just a comedic fallibility, but age has a habit of turning humorous things into scary things. So, scared as I am, it’s understandable that It’s Dark Outside ravaged me.

It wasn’t a violent ravaging. It’s Dark Outside is actually exquisitely gentle, proceeding slowly and smoothly to music with the pace of a silt-rich river. It’s just that this gentle tale concerned an old man riding through a Western-inspired dreamscape, losing his mind piece by piece. It is a beautiful play, even through a haze of tears. A mixture of live action, cartoon, silhouette and puppetry, this is a show of true and varied craftsmanship. The manipulation of perspective to give the silhouette sections a camera-shot aesthetic is particularly effective at building tension. What’s more, it is a well-told story. There is not a scrap of established fact that goes unused in the lead up to the heart-rending ending.

It’s Dark Outside is a show of beauty. It’s not a striking beauty. Awareness of it comes as gently as the holding of a hand. Yet this softness serves to make the show all the more terrible, because it suggests that the worst loss that I can imagine is not a threat (and something that might be fought) but an inevitability. The loss, it says, is part of life, and life is sometimes terrible. So it goes.

And so I sat. Out in the darkness beyond the stage I sat, and watched my worst fears unfold, face coated in a hardening glaze of snot and tears, and eyes still leaking fluid for the awfulness and beauty of inevitable loss.

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Review: The World’s End

The World’s End feels weird. On the surface, it resembles its Cornetto Trilogy forebears, especially once the old propulsive energy kicks in. The camera still skips and zooms across the film’s geography. The banter still ricochets from one mouth to the next. The action is, if anything, better than it has ever been. For this film, Wright moves from the more orderly ‘dude VS dude’ duel-style action he had nailed down following Scott Pilgrim, to long, flowing takes across perfectly choreographed brawls. I like a busy shot, and with one character’s battle merging into another’s battle, set against a background of multiple other battles, The World’s End pub fights definitely keep the eye occupied. Furthermore, it’s refreshing to see the chaos of conflict conveyed through actual visual complexity, instead of a shaky cameraman. Still, the film as a whole remains weird. Like Newton Haven itself, The World’s End looks like the same old Cornetto on top, but is very different underneath.

Up until now, the consistent undercurrent of Edgar Wright’s filmmaking has been a faith in humans. The characters of Spaced have their past traumas (whether ex-girlfriends, the deaths of dogs or Jar-Jar Binks), but no matter how awful or bizarre their tragedies, Tim, Daisy et al manage to recover and advance as people. At his film’s opening Shaun is a stagnant slacker, but once thrust into conflict he takes responsibility and gains in competence. Nicholas Angel by contrast manages to break through his own fanatical work ethic to find friends on the other side. Even Scott Pilgrim becomes an adult, and not just for the woman he loves. Wright doesn’t skimp on tragedy, or gore, or even ugliness (Scott’s mental reordering, post-breakup with Knives, is particularly uncomfortable), but despite all of that he seems to believe that people can change for the better. This belief is absent from The World’s End.

Representative of the bleak state of mankind is protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg), a character best summarised as a modern Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange). He doesn’t kill anyone with giant plaster cocks, but while the two characters may act differently, those acts occur for the same reason. They are both escapists. Alex, surrounded by his dirty, dreary town and his ditchwater dull parents, expected to submit to predatory authority figures, finds exhilaration in destruction. Gary King, who has found adult reality to be similarly disappointing, attempts to escape through nostalgia. For him, the past is Utopia, and his determination to reach its shores never wavers, no matter what he might have to do to get there.

This is a particularly sad character to hang a film around. Every time King reveals another fragment of his past that he’s dragged into the present, the discomfort twists you up inside. Yet Gary is worse than just sad. He’s bleak, because he’s contagious. He doesn’t just refuse to move on with his life: he somehow manages to drag the others backwards. In his company Peter (Eddie Marsan) is consumed by his memories of being bullied. Steven (Paddy Considine) becomes re-obsessed with his secondary school crush.  Andrew (Nick Frost) hurls himself off the wagon after passionately declaring the bravery of the teetotaller. It seems to make no difference that Gary is a man mentally and physically broken by an excess of nostalgia. His obsession ensnares his drinking buddies all the same.

That’s pretty sad already, but Wright takes things further. Gary is not just nostalgic for increased hangover resistance and a lack of back troubles. What Gary wants from the past is the joyous freedom of his youth. He returns to Newton Haven to recapture that, and blunders into The Network (Bill Nighy), an alien intelligence who has filled the town with robots, and would really like it if humans could start behaving sensibly. Naturally, the two do not get on.

The Network has all the worst traits of the old imperialist, dressed up in the pleasantries and justifications of the modern counterinsurgent.  They try to hide obnoxious arrogance behind twinkly-eyed paternalism, and attempt to rationalise atrocities out of existence. They claim not to conquer, but all the replaced people would imply otherwise. Then, when they find resistance too tough to manage, they bugger off like sulky children, taking their toys with them and leaving their supporters behind to face the hatred of the colonised. Yet, though World’s End is not kind to the colonisers, when the rebels are led by Gary King, can they be much better? If the Network acts like an evil stepfather, overbearing and illegitimate, Gary and the others behave like naughty children. They drink or fight or break everything they touch, and in the face of judgement make dick jokes, though these are, at least, slightly funnier than the joke that is their cause.

King and the others fight for freedom, in a film with strong beliefs about what freedom is. We tend to use the word ‘freedom’ as an ideal term, a grand and noble thing. The word even sounds good, like audible sunshine. In The World’s End however, it starts to sound stale. It’s inspiring when King says the human race does not like being told what to do, right up until you remember that King used his own freedom to lie, steal and binge. In The World’s End, freedom is the ability to self-gratify and self-destruct at the same time. This film takes a culture-defining ideal, makes sweeping statements about its appeal to humanity as a whole, and then pisses all over it and its pedestal both.

The World’s End does this skilfully. Like the previous Cornetto films, The World’s End is dense with Easter eggs of foreshadowing (pay attention to the pub names) and meaningful song choices. Each character has clearly defined motives and traits. This a story with legs. It’s also a story with two faces, a smiling one on the front, and a sad one emerging out the back like a depressed Voldemort, and the problem is that, while the sad face weeps loud enough to be heard, the audience barely sees it. All we see is the cheeky grin of the front-face, and as the sobbing becomes louder and louder, that unrelenting grin becomes less entertaining and more baffling.

Tragedies can be funny. Last time I saw Hamlet I found bits of it hilarious, but at some point in every tragedy the jokes should stop. In The World’s End, they never do. Right up until the credits, The World’s End allows only moments of seriousness before Wright’s staple goofiness creeps over it again. The World’s End is a good story. It is well-structured, the characters work, the fight scenes are incredible, the dialogue is clever and the ideas that animate it are clearly expressed.  Still, it is also a tragedy that has real difficulty just being tragic. I don’t think this makes it a bad movie, but, it does keep it from feeling ‘right’.

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