I came back on Monday from the Fringe Fest - I saw sixteen shows in three days and the winner and champ, the great moment which made the whole trip worthwhile was a play called The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh. A dark comedy about the imprisoning (as opposed to the liberating) powers of theatre, the Walworth Frace takes place over one afternoon in a fifteenth floor council estate flat where a deranged father forces his sons to act out an eight-character black farce. The father has created the farce over time, there are nuggets of truth about the father and the sons, their exodus from Cork in Ireland ten years before and the absence of their mother and wife. It ends as a ripping tragedy and it's perfect.
I knew that much going in to see the play and it was still pretty confusing. But unforgettably rich - talk about showing rather than telling, there was zero exposition - it was just there. And as the boys pretend to be their uncle, their mother, their aunt and offstage plan their escape from their father, the stories merge in theme and content. I have written on this forum before about how parents shape children's views of reality with the stories they tell - this shows it brutally. Someone said it was the funniest and the saddest show on the Fringe and I couldn't agree more. And great to see it was a proper play.
Mark Ravenhill wrote 27 short plays for each day of the Fringe and I caught his last one - he called his cycle Breakfast with Ravenhill, it was at 9:30 a.m. - a pretty ungodly hour for the fringe - and they served coffee and bacon sandwiches. The short I saw was sharp as hell - four art therapists showing up in a war-torn nation to let the healing begin. I know a lot of people don't think much of Ravenhill and I heard that on some days the plays just sucked but I really liked the experience. The play cycle was all about the war on terror, so it had a little bit of a preaching to the choir feel to it, but it is nice to come together with other apparently sane human beings and feel concern for the world, and feel sad for what has happened in Iraq, and feel not completely convinced that art can help.
I saw my first Sarah Kane play performed - Crave - and it was much better than I'd even hoped. Watching Crave performed is a little like Walworth Farce - the plot isn't as important as the waterfalls of language, mostly the language of human hurt, washes over you. The actors were young but clearly on top of their game.
(There were two other well reviewed plays I was dying to see but couldn't get tickets for -- England and Damascus.)
I saw again on the Fringe the prevalence of ensemble pieces written together and one man shows. Some of the ensemble pieces were riveting - I loved Game? - a four person absurdist send-up of a British middle class dinner party. I hated a similiarly created piece called Certified Male. It was puerile, simplistic and boring. The audience went crazy for it however. Low standards? One of my friends suggested that the average British male is so repressed that even such obvious observations as "men miss their freedom when they are married and feel trapped" comes as a cathartic revelation.
The two great one-man shows I saw were Hugh Hughes' Story of Rabbit and Rick Miller's Bigger than Jesus. Rick Miller did MacHomer a few years back and he is a Canadian genius (and ridiculously good-looking). He deconstructed Jesus in his show while performing a mass. I had a basic problem with the piece because he wanted to show Jesus did not deserve glory and worship but he wanted to cloak himself with the glory and worship usually reserved for Jesus, but you can't argue with a last supper tableau featuring Jesus, John Lennon, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader Ben Kenobi, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz as a prostitute and the Tin Man as her pimp.
Hugh Hughes is a Welsh emerging artist and his show was about death - he intertwined the story of the death of his father with the story of the death of a rabbit. His observations about death were sweet and interesting and he vaguely followed a funeral-type format. He served tea ("in Britain, when people die, a lot of tea is served") He and Rick Miller really have mutimedia down. A lot of shows use films, power point, action figures, stuff like that, but rarely does it add much to the show. Usually it's just kind of pointless. But Hughes and Miller know how to let each serve its purpose and do it kindly.
I also was shanghaied into dropping £25 on tickets to South American spectacle Fuerzabruta. In a big black tent, enthusiastic actors ran on the walls, swam in a swimming pool above our heads, ran on treadmills and burst through walls. It was an amazing spectacle but forgettable. And once you were in their big black tent, it was a triumph of cross-marketing - get the tokens to buy the food, the t-shirt, the love of the troup who came out and danced with the crowd at the end of the show. We stood for the performance and the crowd had to move around as effects were brought to different parts of the tent. It sort of crossed that line between circus and nightclub and I wasn't that interested in crossing that line. Some number of young people who had their evening chemically enhanced were perfectly happy to do so, however. I hope this will mark the decline of the Fringe as opportunity for Freak Show/Spectacle type shows. In the end, Fuerzabruta - despite the five star hype - was just a cynical money spinner. I felt used.
I saw two one person biographies turned into one-person shows. There was Miracle in Rwanda - about a hutu who hides from the tutsis in a 2 by 3 foot bathroom for three months and eventually forgives her family's killers. It was kind of boring watching someone being agonisingly quiet and fearing death while the tutsis searched the house. It was OK but reminded me that just because you have been through a horrific experience doesn't mean that you are capable of making good choices in presenting it to an audience.
I also saw one about a transvestite male sex worker called Venus as a Boy. It was pretty good, but again, the story needed work.
Boswell & Johnson was a pretend book tour interview with two comedians playing the biographer and his subject and it was splendidly funny. Simon Munnery played a deadpan Johnson so perfectly.
I will limit my comments on the comedy as follows: the Perrier awards used to mean something. Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry have been past recipients. It was one of the most prestigious awards in the international comedy circuit. This year the nominees for the top comedy award were four shit comedians who were puerile melagomaniacs, filled with rage and not remotely funny. It was the worst comedy show I have ever sat through at the fringe (except one in 2001) What happened? Someone should lose their job over this. It shook my faith in the Fringe to the core.
So look for The Walworth Farce - I promise you will be richer for seeing it, and the images and ideas will stay with you long after the play is over. But if a big black tent comes to your town, avoid it.
Every year I get tickets to the Sunday night award show where the five finalists perform so I saw Burns do a 20 minute set which was not funny. He was aggressive with audience members to the point of barely restrained violence and threatened to cut off a female audience member's genitalia. He also accused the same woman - who was not laughing - of being willing to climb over piles of male genitals in order to suck another male's genitals. Not funny, just angry, just raw hurt emanating from a man who hates himself - a very hurt and emotionally retarded train wreck.
I don't think a lot of today's "comedians" understand that it is not the rage that is funny, the rage against the world fuels the desire to be funny, which then fuels the comedy and the comedy is funny. But comedy is also work. I don't want to see your damned rage - I'd rather see a play where it is in a context and a narrative. I want you to make me laugh. We seem to be getting a lot of lazy shorthand lately where people go straight to rage and it's not fun to watch. At least for me. A lot of lads with five or six pints down seem to enjoy the naked catharsis of racist, sexist, mysogynist rants but people who go to the award show are actually looking for comedy instead. We didn't see any.
People did not like Burns - I don't know how the hell he won. It really did shake me that all of a sudden this is the best the Fringe has to offer. What gives? I think Mark Watson (Welsh comedian, kind of philosophical) should have won but once you are a finalist (he was last year when the great Phil Nichol won) I don't think you can win.
Burns He talked about being drug and alcohol free for the last nine months. Normally, I would be positive about something like that, but the people I went with, including a psychologist, thought he should go back to drinking if he was going to act like that sober.
I hope I have not offended. I call 'em like I see them.
Oh no offense at all! Everyone's entitled to their opinion. Brendon Burns though is more popular than you think - I've been to see his shows the last five years running and he's always been sold out with a rapturous audience each time. The only thing I can say, is that his full show is far more intelligent than you would probably imagine - this year's is particularly astounding in terms of making an audience question themselves and if you can bring yourself to do it I would totally recommend you see his show if it comes to London. I wish I could explain to you why, but a lot of its power comes from knowing little about the show itself. There would be no way he could've transferred it to a short slot. I can see how he would come across in a short snippet with his angry shouting et al, but actually when you know him as a performer this behaviour is more about him making fun of himself - he's more than aware that he's ridiculous. And his act hasn't changed much since he became sober - if anything his material is much more insightful (again, I press home the full length show when referring to this). Personally I don't mind aggressive comediens as long as they're smart with it. Might be worth giving him another chance.
Great reviews though - I might actually get around tor reviewing more than Brendon Burns soon! Managed to see quite a lot this year!
Hey, fair enough commentary and interesting. Thanks. I do know some Americans who like him. And tis very true that someone can give very different impressions in different contexts. It's a big crowd for the awards, too. That can make a difference. Well, maybe I will check him out.