The Fringe: high points and hell

Mon, Sep 24, 2012, 01:00

Subversion, submission and solitude were some of the issues addressed in a Fringe festival that offered a look at the state of the nation through imagination and the proscenium arch, writes PETER CRAWLEY

‘OCCUPY YOUR Imagination,” instructed the slogan of this year’s Absolut Fringe. As a theme for two weeks of new performance, which could be as enchanting as Willfredd Theatre’s Farm (part documentary, part petting zoo), or as starkly confrontational as an invitation to assist Stephen Rea in a fictive suicide in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, this command was wide open to interpretation.

Was the Fringe presenting art as a form of protest and intervention, or co-opting an exhausted political movement into its marketing campaign? Were we invited to engage with the world around us or retreat from it?

The answer, paradoxically, was both. From the beginning, imagination was persuasively presented as a political act, a tool to depict the state of a nation through the eyes of the individual. To transcend global authoritarian borders, to envision the worst-case scenario then construct positive alternatives in the hope of somehow realising them.

Stefanie Preissner’s light and lyrical Solpadeine is my Boyfriend showed a young woman self-medicating while her society dissolved in apathy and emigration, but finally refused to take it lying down.

Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit brought the Iranian writer, a conscientious objector forbidden from leaving his country, into our minds with a teasing experiment in control, conformity and resistance.

But while they both represented struggle, there was something equally revealing and concerning in scenes of submission. PillowTalk’s Anna in Between was not the only piece explicitly engaged with depression and unsure how to depict it, but it tapped into a helpless mood, a sorrow without explanation: “I don’t know why I feel like this. I just do.”

Thisispopbaby did something similar with Elevator, a production that seemed equally prey to hype and backlash, in which various beautiful 20-nothings orgied unhappily and snorted drugs so ravenously from each other’s bodies, it seemed they were trying to inhale themselves. The play engaged with its own substance abuse (it didn’t have much), but here was a flashy tomb for the good times.

For others the party didn’t stop. You could make comparisons with the wonderfully inventive and richly immersive All Hell Lay Beneath, director Marc Atkinson’s loose retelling of Steppenwolf for Sugarglass Theatre, which made similar points with considerably more glee, threading the novel into a bacchanalian party of blissful discoveries, interactive installations and, finally, a sobering reminder of the cost of decadence.

Among a strong dance programme, Emma Martin’s revelatory Dogs watched polite society reach an exciting feral collapse, measured out in gender collisions, fraying classical music or the sensationally choreographed repercussions of a supermarket freakout.

Aerial performance was prevalent on the Fringe this year, a gesture, perhaps, of rising above quotidian concerns, but which PaperDolls’ Constellations turned into a noisesome bombardment, Ether Productions’ Mirror, Mirror made a psychosexual interpretation of fairytales and the adorably risqué cabaret Briefs had it as a form of subversion and delight.

It seems telling that, in a festival so full of solo performances at a time heaving with social networks, even good-humoured ensemble pieces and interactive performances were preoccupied with solitude and disconnection: these included Una McKevitt’s Singlehood, Lauren White Goes on a Date, I Am Martin Sharry, and even the novel opera Flatpack (in which relationships are temporary, selfassembled and dismantled under an all-seeing Ikea). It’s a modest irony that we watch scenes of isolation together. It may be where performance is both political and restorative, like having our guilty secrets aired in the poetically cathartic The Oh Fuck Moment, or gathering for The LSA’s communal Mass in a secular alternative to eroding community rituals.

The vagaries of funding – particularly for production-enabling project grants – saw the Fringe shrink this year, while “logistical circumstances” prevented an installation on the Liffey by Fergal McCarthy. That may have diminished the festival’s broader presence in the city. Even something as apparently trivial as a smaller festival club seemed unlikely to give punters a greater social space to occupy, where imaginations meet and plans are sparked and hatched.

As Absolut sponsorship ends, creating those spaces will become more challenging but, 18 years on, ingenuity, creativity and radical alternatives still define the Fringe. If you can imagine something, you can create it. Those ideals should keep us more than occupied.

Highlights

All Hell Lay BeneathForced to change venues at the last minute, this dizzyingly ambitious and multi-storied installation may not have known at the time that the Fringe gods were smiling on them. A much more capacious space hosted director Marc Atkinson’s loose retelling of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf as a party of blissful discoveries, surreal interactions and a sobering reminder of the cost of decadence. Heavenly.

DogsProbably the most beautiful show on the Fringe. Emma Martin’s dance piece was alternately exquisite and raw, its bold approaches to choreography and text presenting civility just a thin veneer over pandemonium.

The Oh Fuck MomentRemember that awful thing you once did, which still makes your chest tighten at its thought? This poetic and profane group confession will forgive you, if you’re willing to put it on a Post-it note, share it with a group of strangers, and put it on the spike.

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