Despite my hectic schedule over the Festivals season, I always make time for shows at Summerhall. Renowned for its international theatrical presence, Summerhall’s Festivals programme tends towards bigger budget and scaled productions. This year, I was fortunate enough to catch a great many more than the word limit of this collated review permits. Here, I’ve focussed on five social and political-themed pieces from across Summerhall’s varied programme.
Cardboard Citizens’ Bystanders interrogates the rise of homelessness as the product of government austerity and society’s rising tendency to dehumanise rough sleepers. The four-strong cast leap between six almost-verbatim stories of homelessness, including that of an individual who doused a homeless man begging outside of a supermarket with paint, and uploaded the recorded footage online as a warning to others. The six broken and interspersed narratives demonstrate the worrying degree of neglect and contempt with which we, as a society, treat homeless individuals and the issue at large. Furthermore, by often illuminating these stories from the perspective of the homeless people themselves, the production counters the dominant media broad-brush narrative of the problem. Cardboard Citizens make theatre with and for homeless people, and the stress on the nearly-verbatim nature of the play is intentional and resonant – it simply couldn’t be actual verbatim, because many of the victims of homelessness are now dead. Strong in both message and performance, Bystanders does exactly as it suggests, demanding its audience to reject its very title and take conscious action.
By contrast, Matt Woodhead’s Who Cares is almost entirely verbatim. The play is the product of two years of interviews with young carers in Salford and others involved in the social care system, including social workers, policy makers, and the cared-for. Often, it is difficult to reconcile verbatim pieces with the narrative flow and flexibility permitted by more fictional or interpretative pieces. Though it doesn’t escape these problems entirely, Who Cares does give voice to three young carers, telling their stories from their school uniforms. Through these detailed and often sad histories, the play actually extends beyond the individual to reinforce that the UK social care system is propped up by unpaid and unaccounted-for young carers. Much like Bystanders, then, Who Cares is an expression of individual stories intended to illuminate the social and political problem at large.
Moving to Summerhall’s Roundabout venue, Middle Child Theatre’s The Canary and the Crow describes the life of a working-class black child at a privileged (read: posh) white grammar school. Through vibrant and punchy gig theatre, writer and performer Daniel Ward tells his story about growing up black in white-dominated environments, a story especially pertinent given the Fringe’s continual problems of racist and classist discrimination. The blend of classical and grime music might seem unlikely, but it was well-executed by fellow perfomers Nigel Taylor, Laurie Jamieson, and Rachel Barnes, much to the entertainment of the packed crowd in the round. Avoiding criticisms of generalisation, the play is self-admittedly an expression of one (rather than the) black experience. Yet the performance and message are unapologetically bold, engaging the audience from the humorously overexaggerated accents of Ward’s posh classmates, to the storyline’s dramatic crescendo.
Caroline Horton’s All of Me – winner of the Mental Health Fringe Award 2019 - offers a refreshingly holistic view of mental health. Central to the piece is the message that depression and other mental illnesses often – in the words of The Guardian’s Catherine Love - ‘ebb and flow’, counter to the dominant linear narrative into recovery. Asking her depression if and when it will return, it responds that ‘it will again, and then it won’t again’, over and over to the play’s outing. During the production process, Horton became ill again, informing the play’s overarching dark tones. Indeed, All of Me is likely the most challenging piece of theatre I watched over August; some audience members during my performance left, following bizarre, hard-to-interpret scenes. On reflection, the seemingly obscure nature of the production is perhaps intentional to Horton’s message - that there is neither reason nor rationality in mental illness, and thus we should not expect it in (theatrical or otherwise) expressions of mental health issues. Instead, she boldly suggests to ‘unfuck the world’ in order to reduce the number of shows about mental illness.
At just forty minutes run time, Ahmed El Attar’s Before the Revolution undercuts the Fringe standard. Actors Ramsi Legner and Nanda Mohammad, both dressed entirely in white and standing stationary on a bed of nails for the entirety of the performance, deliver a set of vignettes of life in Egypt over the last twenty years, entirely in Egyptian Arabic. Through these snapshots of Egypt’s cultural traditions and society, the piece aims to illuminate a better understanding of the causes of, and events in, the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. The subtitles sometimes lagged behind the fast-paced delivery, preventing the audience from fully appreciating the facial gestures and acting of both performers - which are to be especially commended given their static poses. Nevertheless, these snippets of family and social life, including jokes about a presidential visit to a primary school, provide individual outlooks into the social climate precipitating revolution.
Once more, Summerhall’s programme certainly offered plenty with respect to my tastes for socially and politically-charged theatre. Some unmentioned favourites from this year’s programme include Buzz and Taiwan Season: FISH - you can catch up on recorded interviews with the cast and production teams from these shows, amongst others, at https://www.mixcloud.com/Fresh_Air/.