Fringe benefits

IN DUBLIN, the curtain has fallen on another Absolut Fringe festival.

Its roots are in theatre, but the Fringe is home to a diverse programme of live performance: theatre, circus, comedy, music, and dance. One of this year’s more charming pieces (The SI Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm) centred on portrait-sketching.

The Fringe provides artists with a space to take creative risks. Sometimes these risks pay off. Sometimes they don’t.

There were a few notable disappointments. Elevator was a surprising misfire by highly regarded Irish company, This Is Pop Baby.

But even shows that were a little rough around the edges had intriguing elements. BRB (Be Right Back), by Galway company Waterdonkey, was a good example. The piece had a weird, jumbled-up aesthetic that incorporated everything from old torch songs to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies to readings of WB Yeats.

It never quite gelled. Yet the show successfully identified a theme — the desire for home and the human’s uncanny sense of being always homeless — and it found lovely ways to riff on this theme, using the Oisín myth to tie it together.

It was more difficult to know what to make of The Oh Fuck Moment, which — despite its provocative title — was surprisingly conventional.

Presented by two English poets, Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe, the piece brought the audience around a meeting table to reflect on our ‘oh fuck’ moments, those terrifying occasions when we mess up with frightful or embarrassing consequences.

It was an interesting topic and the true-life examples they referenced were amusing and horrifying. The problem lay with the participatory format. It wasn’t necessary to include the audience.

If anything, the piece would have worked better without our involvement. Walker and Thorpe are clever writers and the large chunks of verse were quite good, but their delivery was far too hasty, and the show ended up being less than the sum of its parts.

One of the most pleasing — if also baffling — shows was the English piece Jimmy Stewart, An Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits). With the aid of a synesthetic stereo (don’t ask!), Tassos Stevens presented the audience with an inspired ramble in which actor Jimmy Stewart, who we learned was a Martian, had a quest to decipher the human concept of love.

Love, it soon turned out, was measured in units of Chaka (after 1980s pop star Chaka Khan) and there’s a mighty difference between loving someone and being ‘in love’ with someone. It was a surreal study of emotion and psychology, but one that wore its intellectual elements very lightly.

Stevens’s show was a double-bill with 30 Cecil Street, a contemporary dance piece by fellow Englishman Dan Canham. This was a real highlight. Marrying his incredible movement to a fractured soundscape of audio loops, Canham turned his body into a mesmerising channel for the decades of memories welled up in an old, dilapidated theatre in Limerick city.

As he danced, every flick of his limbs seemed to nudge a new narrative into life, and the show was a provocative reckoning with memory and the residual energy of human spaces. Canham won the festival’s award for ‘best male performer’.

Expectations were high for The Company’s photo-inspired show, Hipsters We Met and Liked, and for THEATREclub’s Hungry Tender. Both companies are emergent forces in contemporary Irish theatre and these were their new wares. Hipsters proved slight, a piece that didn’t really ‘click’ as a photo presentation or as a theatre-piece, yet somehow remained enjoyable. This was due to its two charismatic performers, Brian Bennett and Nyree Yergainharsian, and the piece’s simple but inviting stage design.

Hungry Tender, meanwhile, was a strange but oddly beguiling show. Confessional in key, its sole performer, Shane Byrne, opened a window onto his troubled relationship with food and explored his body-image issues.

Byrne, who played acoustic covers throughout, invoked an Elvis shtick, a pop reference that seemed arbitrary at the outset yet which, by the end, had found a poignant resonance.

Hungry Tender benefited from brilliant stage design and, under the direction of Jason Byrne, was agile in its shifts through the emotional gears.

The piece was a rare recognition of the corporeal realities of human existence. Sure, it wavered and felt off-the-cuff at times, yet this seemed to its benefit rather than its cost.

One of the most warm and optimistic of Irish shows at this year’s Fringe was Farm — a blend of documentary and promenade theatre and a charismatic meditation on agricultural life. It won the award for ‘best off-site production’.

No less impressive, however, was The Last Ten Years, by Seán Millar and members of Dublin’s RADE programme (Recovery through Art, Drama & Education). This was a startling work, staged in the evocative surroundings of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Woven around Millar’s excellent guitar accompaniment, the piece featured 11 performers, each of them recovering from addiction or mental-health issues.

Decked out in business suits and stylish designer specs, the 11 took turns to deliver a sharp invective against the monstrous rise of the prescription drug culture, indicting the pharmaceutical companies who have driven it.

Everything about the piece was affecting. Its iconography was suggestive. Millar’s songs rose and fell on seductive chord changes and the lyrics were full of sinister refrains. The vulnerability of the performers, too, was very moving. Not that there was anything remotely ‘worthy’ about the production. This was theatre with teeth.

Ultimately, the real strength of The Last Ten Years resided in its political engagement, and in the way it succinctly exposed the checkered past of pharmaceutical products (as heroin originally was) and the hypocrisies surrounding the illegal drug trade.

The piece was nominated for the Spirit of the Fringe prize. (The prize went to Paperdolls for their blend of acrobatics and dance, in Constellations).

Finally, other shows that merit a quick mention include Sequin Dreams, a one-woman piece that featured an extraordinary turn by Michele Moran, and This Is What We Do, a contemporary circus show buoyed by slapstick and autobiography that — while a bit ropey in places — made subtle allusions, beneath the frippery, to the frustrations of creating artistic work on the margins.

To its credit, Absolut Fringe’s big success, again, this year was its continuing support of artists (and Irish artists, in particular), offering them a very potent platform for expression and a healthy creative yardstick to which to aspire.


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