What's in a name? Sixty-nine years ago eight companies arrived uninvited at the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival. The next year they were joined by more festival crashers, which drew one newspaper's attention to the activity "round the fringe of the official festival drama". The name stuck. But, as festivals multiplied around the world, the "fringe" could mean almost anything: marginal, stylish, alternative, surplus, experimental. So when Jimmy Fay set up an independent event to run alongside Dublin Theatre Festival most supporters encouraged him to avoid using the word. Twenty-two years later, through successive title sponsorships, our own fringe, whatever it means, is here to stay. Here are five ways to comb through this year's Tiger Dublin Fringe.
So you want to see a show that . . . gives you a good night out with a twist
How do you pitch the shows in the Spiegeltent? The charming pop-up structure of mahogany and glass returns, this time to Merrion Square, where its biggest show is finally homegrown. On the surface
it may look as though Thisispopbaby have been invited to become the new La Clique – in short a variety show of music, comedy, physical daring and overamped sex appeal. But Riot, already breaking box-office records, seems like something more, blending the talents of the writer and performer Emmet Kirwan, the musician Alma Kelliher, the all-rounder Megan Riordan and the acrocomedians Lords of Strut – not to mention Dr Panti Bliss, the queen of Ireland. It's been too long since we had a good riot in a performance space.
Direct from their champion turn at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Brisbane's Hot Brown Honey have been folding the spectacular elements of cabaret into the sturdier apparatus of political performance. (They recently won a Total Theatre Award for their troubles.) That's a timely proposition: one physical routine evokes overthrowing an abusive relationship, for instance, so while the grammar of cabaret and circus never alters hugely, it can be re-energised to say something important.
Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, under their time-warped personae The Vaudevillians, may be delighted to find themselves performing in a venue that is older than they are. Trapped in ice since the 1920s, and thawed out almost a century later, they are understandably peeved to discover that the pop music of their day has just been repackaged and sold back to us as the pop music of our day, gussying up Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in studio effects. This, then, is an effort to reclaim the pop songbook and dress it back up in vintage. Will it matter to the sepia tinge of nostalgia that Jinkx came to prominence via RuPaul's Drag Race? Probably not. In drag, as in pop, a pose is a pose.
If you've been out in the city through our shifting decades of multiculturalism you might have been forgiven for wondering how far away we are from something like interculturalism. Or, to put it another way, how come audiences, clubbers and public gatherings look so homogenous? The closing night of the fringe plays host to Goulash Disko, an international cabaret of artists from Dublin, Warsaw, Prague and beyond, which promises a party of Balkan brass, Spanish flamenco, Polish oberek and, more generally, Slavic soul. Nothing ever melted in the melting pot, so mercifully the note here is eclecticism rather than "fusion". Swathes of new Dublin will already know the acts. For others it's time to discover new stars in your solar system.
. . . doesn’t lose the plot
Here, for many, is the most annoying and misunderstood sentence in the history of the festival: the f
ringe doesn’t do plays. This has frustrated many naive writers and some audiences, few of whom distinguish between a play (pages you can read) and a production (a show you can see). If you send the fringe a play they can’t turn it into a production for you.
This has given rise to the idea that you can't find plays within the programme. You can. This year Collapsing Horse, whose use of puppetry and fairy tale has marked them out as an outfit of equal parts smarts and whimsy, take on an epic. The Aeneid has a story – Aeneas's flight from Troy to Italy and the foundation of Rome – and various subplots (the Trojan Horse), but it also has a political context: Virgil was commissioned to write a nationalistic myth. Staged by an inventive company during the centenary of our own mingled myths and truths, this should be fresh as a daisy and old as the hills.
For six years the Show in a Bag programme – four new short and portable productions developed in association with the fringe, the Irish Theatre Institute and Fishamble theatre company – has been helping to populate Irish theatres starved of economical touring productions, and several of its performances have gone on to find national and international acclaim. Who's next? Niamh McGrath and Keith Singleton deliver an Irish undertaker comedy, Looking Deadly; Margaret McAuliffe explores the fixation with Irish-dancing championships in The Humours of Bandon; Kate Gilmore's The Wickedness of Oz merges love and loss with 1960s musicals; and To Hell in a Handbag finds Helen Norton and Jonathan White revisiting The Importance of Being Earnest from the perspective of its characters Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism.
Presented as a rehearsed reading of Rough Magic's Seeds project last year, Shane Mac an Bhaird's play Traitor casts its mind forward to 2026, at the veneration of a revolutionary martyr whose motivation may not have been quite so noble, and the absorption of an activist figure into establishment politics. Now staged by the new company That Lot, it's a play that needed to find its way to the stage this year for a smart look at radical politics and the inevitability of compromise. It also contains a human lizard.
The makers of last year's Spirit of the Fringe winner, a wry depiction of sex, narcissism, ethics and robotics called Love+, return with BlackCatfishMusketeer, which sounds like a variation on similar themes. Malaprop's new show is about people getting to know each other through screens, where doubts, trust and intimacy are all negotiated at a distance in this new internet of us.
. . . pushes the form
Fresh from bringing their recent f
ringe show It Folds to Edinburgh, and before they stage The Circus Animals' Desertion at Dublin Theatre Festival, the adventurous Irish formalists Brokentalkers – Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan – stage their latest work, The Beach. Premiered earlier this year, in Munich, it translates the ongoing refugee crisis into the fable of a wedding party interrupted by a stranger who arrives on the shores of their private beach. The path from substance to form has never run conventionally for Brokentalkers, a company operating internationally and firing on all cylinders. This ought to get people talking.
Speaking of which, Dick Walsh, now attached to the alternative grandees Pan Pan Theatre Company, uses verbatim talkshow scripts as the basis of his new production, George Bush and Children. The programme mentions little beyond that, and some will wonder if Jerry Springer: The Musical hasn't exploited broadcast inanity as far as it can go. But if much of Walsh's work has resembled a poker-faced inquiry into form, it has always resulted in something satisfyingly divisive. Love it or reject it, you won't soon forget it.
Definitions are not immensely helpful when it comes to Cuncrete, a drag king punk gig about architecture and idealism. In other words Rachael Clerke's alter ego Archibald Tactful fronts a band, The Great White Males, in sharp suits and blunter ability as they critique the patriarchy, urban squalor and the built environment through ragged and raging noise rock. If it could be better described we wouldn't have to see it, now, would we?
Less antagonistic, more recognisable but similarly untested is Half Light from Mollie Molumby, part reality, part fable, in which a 10-year-old boy searches through the fantasy land of his father's storybook in an attempt to rescue his dad from a monster. Created by a team of young theatremakers from Trinity College Dublin, and supported by Fringe Lab, it's another display of Irish talent that is always emerging.
. . . is completely different
It’s easier to resist definition if you never stay still. That appears to be the MO of Aoife McAtamney, choreographer, dancer and songwriter who le
nt some of her musical talents so memorably to Justin Vivian Bond's cabaret appearance last year and who created a dance installation previously for the RHA. She now delivers Age of Transition, a category-defying production of contemporary dance, music and visual art on the Peacock stage. Themed around community and self-actualisation, her songs nestle into the movement of the Berlin dance troupe Sweetie Sit Down and shifting visual design from Kelly Tivnan.
Trends are born, furthered and forgotten in a ferociously short space of time on the fringe, where ideas catch fire and flame out in brisk bursts. But things have been looking up for aerial theatre in recent years, following captivating displays by the Paperdolls, Niamh Creely, Dying Breeds and Loosysmokes. Now a new company, NeedMoreInput, combine aerialism, lighting installations and a live synth score for Start with a Circle, an experimental mind meld between the video artist Jack Phelan, the aerialist Erin Hermosa and the musician Dunk Murphy. When ideas always come around, a circle is a pretty good place to start.
Already participating in Riot (see above), the dance duo Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding, who trade as Up & Over It, build playfully on Irish dance traditions for family-friendly entertainment in Into the Water. Here they are bringing their foot-stomping skills and an array of percussion to a fantasy wasteland where nothing is wasted.
Slavish devotion and unbridled imagination combine in the internet phenomenon of fan fiction, which is to say noncanonical contributions to the expanded universes of intellectual property. In the cult hit FanFiction Comedy the New Zealand mirthmakers Heidi O'Loughlin and Steven Boyce delve deep into the subculture for a Harry Potter night and a Game of Thrones night – but don't expect those boundaries to be anything less than porous.
. . . leaves blood on the mat
There's a story about Philip Larkin, that most sardonic of poets, watching a boxing match in frustration and yelling,
“Only connect!” There, EM Forster’s plea for compassion became the clarion call for one person to hit another person squarely in the face. You may deplore it, but violence, or a fantasy of it, is a prevailing theme at this year’s fringe, during another very violent year for planet Earth.
One of the ideas behind Cláudia Dias's show, Monday: Watch Out for the Right!, staged at the National Stadium, is whether fighting can be made to mean something more potent. Reconstructing a kick-boxing match in the ring, with arguments and live commentary on contemporary issues, the choreographer's new work (the first of seven performances) is a collision of ideas, equals, and fists. Actions speak louder than words, and here both land with a crunch.
Who is performing harder in Wrestling Is Art, the latest bout from Over the Top Wrestling: the wrestlers or the audience? It's hard to tell when the narratives behind the fighters, assembled with a pleasing daftness, are so ludicrous and intricate that you need the attention of a soap-opera devotee to keep pace. Here the Dublin characters the Session Moth and Kings of the North duke it out with Britain's Ryan Smile and the Japan Pro star Will Ospeay, all of whom trail a compendium of backstories and catchphrases into the ring. The acrobatics are intense and often improvised, the violence sensational and carefully choreographed; it's all you can do to keep up with it.
To say that Áine Stapleton's new collaboration contains nudity would be like telling you that a Bach recital contains music – nudity is this choreographer's medium. Conspiring with Rebecca Warner and Karen Gleeson to form a new company, Rak, their debut, Fist Pump, is a paean to rave culture, long since disappeared, but emulated in constructed, clothesless chaos.
But for a more deviant take on art and anarchy, track back to George Bernard Shaw's interpretation of Wagner's Ring Cycle, the inspiration for Aoibheann Greenan's The Perfect Wagner Rite. Using Shaw as source, this frenetic reinterpretation stages an orgiastic ritual of peep shows, smoking godheads and talking shopping trolleys, laying waste to Wagner's opera while seizing the Marxist glee of the collapse of capitalism within its action.
It could be awful. It could be divine. It will, with luck, be both. And that sure sounds like fringe to me.