Jelena Sofronijevic reviews

FreshFringe 2018: Summerhall at the Festivals

During the final week of Fringe, I finally had the opportunity to see some of the plays staged at Summerhall. A venue renowned for polished, international theatre, I was intrigued to see how the shows at Summerhall compared to other (often more small-scale and budget) Fringe shows, as well as to each other.

SKaGeN/KVS’ Unsung explores the psyche of homo politicus, with Valentijn Dhaenen’s portrayal of the politician during a tumultuous election cycle. Despite being the sole actor, Dhaenen’s performance fills the stage. Convincing and believable, he adopts the role of homo politicus with startling resemblance. His carefully constructed speeches and body language remind audience members of current prominent politicians, including Donald Trump. Many scenes were particularly profound; following a leak of explicit images exposing the protagonist’s affair, Dhaenen uses his massive, ‘perfect’ election image as a physical barrier between himself and the photos, which are being shot at the audience with an air blower. Perhaps the politician uses his perfect image as a defence in itself, or as something to hide behind. Though meaningless political rhetoric if frequently used to indirectly say something meaningful, stark diction also undercuts the script; one line in particular, “people want things to change, they don’t want to change”. Equally, emotional moments pepper the script, reminding the audience that despite his façade and scandal, homo politicus is still a human.

A walk over to New Town took me to Army @ The Fringe for Komuna//Warszawa’s Cezary Goes To War. Four actors and one pianist conduct aerobic military recruitment exercises, live soundtracked by a variety of Polish folk and classical pieces. Yes, it is as surreal and obscure as it sounds. The team behind the show received the Best Artistic Team Award at the 2017 Divine Comedy Festival (Krakow), and their musical talents carry the show through absurdity. Half of the time, the audience were laughing as a result of the actors’ facial expressions and dancing. The other half seemed to come from giggling. A real contrast in style and content to Unsung, using physical movement and humour to approach a serious topic.

Summerhall’s Demonstration Room provided the perfect venue for Elbow Room’s Prehistoric, a bolshy and roaring image of the punk music scene in Brisbane, Australia in 1979. The energetic four-strong cast explore themes of civil liberties and resistance in the context of the ‘punk moment’ under the Queensland’s brutal Bjelke-Petersen government and policing. Prehistoric received the Best Performance Award at the Melbourne Fringe Festival; the emphasis on performance must not be understated. Deb, Nick, Pete and Rachel’s journey from meeting to forming a band is brought to life by live music and songs interspersed throughout the play. Hilarious and unapologetic, Prehistoric caught and held my attention from start to finish.

The dark and cavernous basement of Summerhall is an ideal location for immersive theatre, and Knaïve Theatre’s War With The Newts. This reimagined production of Karel Capek’s dystopian science-fiction satire was engaging from the outset. As the audience walked into the venue, we were congratulated on ‘making it aboard’, checked for illnesses and allocated a job (stamped on the arm) based on which colour we identified our mood with at the time. As a green, I was allocated ‘oddjobs’, and sneered upon when shown to my seat inside. In my view, War With The Newts is a case of dystopian drama at its best; captivating and immersive from beginning to end. The cast of three flawlessly transitioned between different characters to tell the apocalyptic tale, making great use of physical and digital props to present and crack a façade of calmness in a storm of trouble.

In Two Destination Language’s Fallen Fruit, writer and performer Katherina Radeva explores her experiences of growing up in communist Bulgaria, and the collapse of communism. The play is full of intricately woven stories and details, including that of a (necessarily) secret lesbian relationship, and the effect of 1989 upon the individual lives of these women. Radeva is energetic and fun on stage, playing up to the image of a young pioneer in the youth wing of the communist party whose uniform she dons. Indeed, this is no mean feat for an 11am show at the end of its full Fringe run. Though at times disjointed, the various storylines are interesting and charming.

Finally, Raw Material’s After The Cuts is a satirical piece which considers a NHS-less future, in which ordinary citizens are forced into expensive private healthcare or, in the case of Jim and Agnes, more rudimentary DIY options. The cast of two shared fantastic chemistry together, and were singularly bold and hilarious. Despite the fact that Jim narrates the play, at times the audience wonders whether there is a protagonist at all, with Agnes’ scathing sarcasm providing the perfect counterbalance. Without wanting to spoil the play entirely, Jim labels himself a ‘fixer’, and decides to take matters into his own hands when Agnes falls ill. In this vision of the not-so-distant (or different) future, After The Cutscalls upon past notions of ‘make do and mend’ in times of hardship. The play balances comedic and thought-provoking scenes perfectly, with direct reference to our present; Agnes concludes that we (the people) let ‘them’ privatise the NHS, and didn’t put up enough of a fight. As with Prehistoric, After The Cuts was staged in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. The inclusive nature of the venue worked equally well as a living room (and makeshift operating theatre) as a stage for live punk music.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see LUNG Theatre’s Trojan Horse, which received great critical acclaim for its exploration of Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools. Nevertheless, I can certainly say that my desire to see political theatre was well and truly fulfilled, with the plays above considering political themes in the past, present and future. The quality and variety of shows presented at Summerhall’s venues this Fringe did not disappoint, with something for everyone’s interests.