Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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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