I started trying to pin down my views on Ulster American and ended up going a bit apocalyptic. Here are some loosely tied thoughts on shows that tackled sexual assault at the fringe because every time I try to move on from them, I keep getting dragged back.

***

In Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Ellice Stevens plays 15 year old Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s a 17th century baroque painter giving evidence in court against her alleged rapist Agostino Tassi. Winding art history analysis and verbatim transcripts, Breach rebuild the trial.

Even though Tassi is the accused, Gentileschi is being questioned. Made to do a lie-detector test, Stevens places her hands into a contraption that’s beautifully portrayed by director Billy Barrett in a way I won’t spoil. Sophie Steer, playing Tassi, leans in. She is terrifying, electrifying. She and Stevens stand, side on, eyes locked, leant towards each other like the edges of a triangle about to touch at its tip. As Steer questions her, Stevens is defiant. She’s telling the truth, she says. She’s telling the truth. She’s telling the truth and this isn’t fair and she’s telling the truth and it’s true. She repeats it again and again. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

That moment feels stuck on a loop in my mind and it doesn’t stop for the rest of the fringe.

It’s still going as a video of Samira Elagoz plays slowly on a screen in Cock Cock… Who’s There? Her lips are slightly parted, red and shining wet. Cum drips down her tongue. She takes a seat in front of her own image and looks at it for a while.

It’s still going as two men drink large glasses of wine in the studio theatre of the Traverse in Ulster American. One stares at the other in disbelief. The man on the sofa has just said that if he had to rape anyone, he’d pick Princess Diana. I’m trying very hard not to let anyone notice I’m crying.

It’s still going as, after an hour of trying to keep myself awake in an unutterably boring play I won’t name, the actor who has just bowed and said thank you for listening reveals the play is the true story of their assault, and I end up feeling guilty for the rest of the day.

At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, every second show seemed to be investigating sexual assault and the concept of consent, so much so that a whole section of the programme was classified as responses to the #MeToo movement. Some shows used the topic to make skin crawl. They painted the city in bright gold with letters that read THIS IS REALLY FUCKED UP AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS. But others did little to challenge or question, using stories of assault as emotional manipulation or simple shock tactics.

Granted, every story of assault is valid, important and stunningly brave of anyone to talk about, with sometimes brilliantly therapeutic effects for having shared it. But I am quite certain that not every one should be made into a play and a paying audience be made to sit and watch it.

I’ve written about, taught and researched sexual assault and consent for a few years. I’m not easily shocked by talk of it and I’m fascinated by ways of portraying it on stage. But this fringe it began to feel overwhelming. I started to wish for days without another show about toxic masculinity or assault. 

There were two stories in particular that I couldn’t get out of my head after the month was up: Daughter and Ulster American. Both caused a significant amount of controversy throughout August. People disagreed about the ways in which the shows could and should caused offence, in the use of laughter and the control of language. I found myself on the extreme end of both performances, loving one and severely disliking the other.

Daughter is a one-man show by Adam Lazarus. It starts as stand-up and devolves into tense drama. Ulster American is a dark satire, a three-hander by David Ireland. Both, I think, intend to attach the end of your laughter with something bitter, questioning how far you should really be finding it funny.

I thought Daughter astonishing (I reviewed it for The Guardian). Lazarus tells a story about his six year old daughter, his wife and his relationship to women. To what extent it is fictionalised is never clear, which is part of what makes it so shocking. It was one of the first shows I saw and one of the only ones to stick with me through the whole month. When people ask what the best thing I saw at the fringe was, this is often the one I mention first. Lazarus’ storytelling is vivid and profusely uncomfortable. It’s incredibly self-aware, knowing exactly how uneasy it makes people feel. I hugely admired too, that the company offered a chat with any uncertain audience members before or after the show to explain what would be/had been discussed. Not everyone showered it with praise though, and Alice Saville’s cutting piece for Exeunt is worth a read.

In many ways Ulster American sets about doing something similar to Daughter. It tells a story of male violence against women through jokes and gritted teeth, becoming more extreme and eventually ending in farcical levels of destruction. Unravelling multiple political and social issues between a playwright, an actor and a director over the course of one evening, it is brutal in both language and action. They hold many similarities. Why then, did I feel so vastly different in Ulster American?

The first twenty minutes or so of Ulster American centre around director Leigh (Robert Jack) and actor Jay (Darrell D’Silva) getting to know each other before they start on their new play. At one point, Jay raises a hypothetical scenario of who you’d rape if you had a gun held to your head.

It’s worth noting any personal experience affects responses towards stuff like this, of course. But I’ve seen sexual assault discussed and performed so many times on stage over the last few years and it’s rarely got under my skin so unbearably. Something about Ulster American was different.

In a podcast I did with Tim Bano and Lyn Gardner, I tried to defend my reaction – namely that I sort of went into shock and cried a lot and desperately wanted to leave the theatre. I said on the podcast that I didn’t find any of it funny. That was wrong of me – it was an overstatement in an attempt to understand and protect my own disgust, because actually parts of it are funny, and some of it later on did make me laugh or guffaw in that kind of I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this way. But for most of it I just felt sick. I felt so deeply stabbed by the audience laughter at the prolonged rape joke, the detail the script went into and the twisting round of words it did to try and justify its place on the stage. Talking for a prolonged period of time about rape to a background of laughter is distressing, and I wish I’d been warned about that before going into the theatre. The whole play felt like the slightly tipsy and overly smug provocateur at the pub who sees how much what they’re saying upsets you, says “just to play devil’s advocate” and intellectually trumps you to force you to admit they have a point, all the while making you feel infinitesimally small and rendering your viewpoint insignificant. In its uppityness it felt like it was devaluing genuine stories of assault.

The audience reaction matters significantly for this kind of play, and perhaps it changed later in the run, but in Daughter the room felt deeply uncomfortable, laughter hesitant and fading as the story got darker, while in Ulster American the unabashed laughter felt emboldened every time the rape joke was mentioned yet again. It felt it was allowing the laughter rather than criticising it.

I wonder if I’d feel differently had a woman written it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I hadn’t seen the press performance and had read reviews prior to seeing it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I’d known more about David Ireland’s previous work. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had never had to relearn intimacy. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had seen more comedy about sexual assault. I wonder if I’m just being overly sensitive.

But I also wonder if it needed a place on stage. I wonder if a woman would have written it. I wonder if it would get a different reaction if that room was full of an audience of victims of sexual assault. I wonder if that matters. I wonder if we need more comedy about rape. I wonder if we need to embrace the laughter. I wonder if we need to burn it all down. I wonder if my thoughts on this align with anyone else’s. I wonder if the fact that had I been reviewing it for my paper it would have gotten a significantly less positive write up and star rating makes me a better or worse critic than I would hope. I wonder why I still can’t find the right words for this. I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The loop of Tassi’s trial keeps rolling.

It was going on 400 years ago in that courtroom.

It was still going on as in F**k You, Pay Me, Joana Nastari howled through history

It was still going before the words me too were preceeded by a hashtag.

It was still going as in Chase Scenes, Ming Hon sprinted away from the masculine shadows haunting her.

It was still going while Hollywood blinkered itself.

It was still going as in dressed., Josie Dale-Jones looked to the audience and said, “Men, we couldn’t have made this show without you.”

It was still going while we all read Cat Person and argued over what actual bad behaviour was.

It was still going as in Unconditional, the mother and daughter duo looked at each other and thought how how the world had changed in the two years they’d been making this.

It was still going while incels grew up and grew angry.

It was still going while Elagoz took that video of white liquid oozing from her mouth.

It was still going while Adam Lazarus had his child and it was still going later when he stood blazing in the theatre with lights blinding his audience.

It was still going while David Ireland wrote the scene where they debate whether Princess Diana would have enjoyed it.

It was still going while I slipped into the bathroom and waited to stop shaking.  

This story is not going to get old – not for a long time yet – but the crux of it all is finding ways of talking about it that do it justice. Some shows this fringe really did. Others bored me and felt like a waste of time. And some made me feel sick and want to leave the theatre, saw off my ears and poke out my eyes, chuck pints over the men at the pub who laugh at their friend’s jokes when they’re more harmful than funny, and force every person who has ever sexually assaulted someone to sit in a room and watch each of these shows one after another, over and over again until they get it, until they know each word and movement off by heart, until the sound of the shows starting again makes them want to scratch their own skin off, until they’re sorry, until they say it’s true, until they understand, until they stop.

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I’m thrilled to have been awarded the Allen Wright Award for reviews for the second time! It was presented for my pieces on Daughter and Everything Not Saved, both published in The Guardian. The Stage did a lovely write up of the awards here.

The features category was won by the entirely deserving Tim Bano for his articles on the NHS at 70, being an American artist in the age of Trump and child’s play. He’s also been co-hosting The Stage’s fringe podcast with Lyn Gardner, the first episode of which they invited me to join them on.

All my pieces can be read here and my reflection on the month is here.

(It was a pretty great month.)

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On my grandma’s dresser is a letter that my brother wrote when he was five? six? It’s addressed to the Manchester United football team. He names each of the players. He invites them round for tea and scones with grandma. He tells them they’ll have to walk from football because they can’t all fit their cars outside her house.

I think about this letter during several different shows.

I think about it in Before I Forget You, I Love You, as Pip Utton watches his character’s wife deteriorate but memories from years ago remain crisp. I think about it in Unconditional, the gorgeously creative two-hander by Josie Davis and her mum which makes me want to go again with my mum and grandma. And I think about it in [Insert Slogan Here], a show that has been rumbling around my brain and made me listen on repeat to the music from adverts, where Sam Ward describes writing to Volvo as an 8 year old and asking to be in their next ad. I think about grandma and theatre and whether my other brother would like this show and what my grandma would make of it and how she keeps forgetting how long I’m away for and the fact that my brother never got a response from Man United.

*

I tell myself I’ll be healthy and organised this fringe. I’ll have days off. I pack tupperware, books, a swimming costume. I join the library.

*

It’s pouring and we don’t have raincoats. She bought a tourist’s poncho and we share. I break a hole along one side for my head before realising the arm hole works too so we walk along, arms wrapped around each other, both of our shoulders getting wet from the unnecessary extra gap we’ve made. The air is cold and fresh and the peaks around Arthur’s seat rise above us.

*

A man gets up during Dice festival to get a pint. The performer draws attention to it, so the guy turns back to apologise. He then scurries to the door and pushes it but it’s a pull door so he falls into it with a bump and by now everyone’s watching him and his face pops with a blush.

*

I think about who you sit in the dark with. I know that I prefer seeing live art with other people, if only to gorge on its strangeness together, but with theatre I often find it distracting waiting on another person’s reaction. As a critic, I’m so used to seeing stuff by myself, and in Edinburgh it feels inevitable. But I’m walking back from Cold Blood, feeling lucky to have seen both it and its predecessor Kiss and Cry, and I’m thinking that one day I’d like to take someone to see a show by Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael. Someone whose hand I could hold throughout.

*

I feel the lack of Forest Fringe significantly this year. I miss the space, the feel of community, the certainty of surprise. At D&D we talk about whether there is space for live art at the fringe. We decide there is, it just needs another group mad enough to take charge of organising it.

*

There’s a talk at the literature festival that I’ve been looking forward to all month. There are two places in Edinburgh with the venue’s name, half an hour apart, and I go to the wrong one. By the time I realise, I’m too late, and of course it’s raining. The anguish I feel at having missed it is disproportionate to the actual stress of the situation and it’s all a bit much and I think I’ve crashed. I walk home, flop on the sofa with shoes still dripping and don’t move for half an hour.

*

I’m on the bridge trying to push past hundreds of people who seem to mould into one giant fish of a person, gills opening to reveal gaps to slip through, then closing and trapping you in, more tangled than you were a moment ago. I reach the mile where it’s even worse. I squeeze past and go down a quiet street, arriving at a venue where there’s almost no one there. I sit down, out of breath, and let strangers tell me a story for an hour. At the end I cry and then drag myself back out into the cobbled streets. I know I should be used to it by now, but none of it quite feels real.

*

On the last night we go to a friend’s show and I’m expecting it to be good but not quite dance on the tables kind of good, and funny but not proper belly laughs funny. It’s a brilliant surprise and I feel full as we head out into the night.

*

I’m writing on a plane a day after leaving the festival. It’s a tiny plane and we’re up so high so fast, the windows are already spraypainted white. The captain is feeding us instructions. A baby is crying and I wonder what would happen if the captain were to ask it to be quiet. Nothing is crackling and the lights are still on – all in order – but I can’t help feeling the rumble of the plane is an imitaton of Flight’s simulator, rather than the other way around.

*

I cook maybe four times in the month. I don’t take a day off. I have too many meal deals, too much pizza, the exact right amount of falafel wraps. I don’t read a single one of the books I brought and by the end of the month I am getting angry emails from the library about the overdue book I haven’t opened. I don’t go swimming but I do wear my goggles to write my Drip review. I turn up to a few shows at the wrong time or venue, usually soaked in a mix of rain and sweat, and after five days of soggy shoes from the torrential rain a week before, I have to give up and buy new trainers. I’m exhausted. Next year, I tell myself, next year I’ll be on top of it all.

*

Some of my favourite conversations this fringe have been the ones I haven’t quite caught: Sam Ward whispering to a stranger in [Insert Slogan Here] as he dances with them on a stage strewn with candles and cardboard; The things I think I heard in Malaprop’s Everything Not Saved but now, two weeks on, I’m not sure I’ve remembered them right; When they stare at eachother in the low light and the bright noise near the end od No One Is Coming To Save You and they ask eachother – I think they ask each other – if they’re okay; Two debates jumping across each other at a drinks laiden table, new faces trading in shows and ideas; Something whispered in my ear in the dark, turning, tired, what did you say; My friend yelling something to me at 5am, a few of the vowels flying over the music but the rest of it just a blur.

There’s something in the uncertainty of the other half of those conversations, the secrecy or ephemeral nature of them that makes them more exciting than the actual words that fill them could possibly be. That gap, that uncertainty, that darkness, that potential. It feels like the most exciting companies are engaging with that this year – Malaprop, Breach, YESYESNONO, Poltergeist, This Noise, This Egg. The idea of belief and half truths and reality and playfulness on stage. I like the uncertainty of it all.

*

I’m walking back across the meadows. The light is dimming but not dark. The grass joins the gravel path. To the right are three boys. They’re sitting on a bench. They look young. My age, I think, maybe younger. Sprawled on the grass in front of them is a middle aged magician. He wears a bright green suit with playing cards stamped all over it. Cards are scattered around his arm too. Perching himself up on his elbow, he says “this is Edinburgh.” I don’t hear the rest.

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To keep track of the month:

 

Reviews

Offstage – Fest 2*

Class – Fest 3*

Chase Scenes – Fest 3*

Beowulf – Fest 3*

Everything Not Saved – The Guardian 4* <——– this is my favourite, read this one

Midsummer – The Guardian 5*

User Not Found – The Guardian 4*

Weird – Fest 3*

Puffin Island – Fest 2*

After The Cuts – The Guardian 4*

Daughter – The Guardian 4*

Hocus Pocus – Fest 3*

Captain Cauliflower and Marvin the Mischievous Moose – Fest 4*

Pussy Riot: Riot Days – Fest 4*

What Girls Are Made Of – The Guardian 4*

Busking It – Fest 3*

La Maladie de la Mort – The Guardian 3*

The Cat’s Mother – Fest 3*

The Squirrel Plays – Fest 2*

Drip – The Guardian 3*

 

Features

Love Songs to Lavender Menace – Fest

Road Trippin’ with Thorpe and Chavkin – Fest

 

Other

Best shows of the Fringe (various) – The Guardian

Live blog of All These Things, Live Art Bistro 5-5

Sexual assault on stage

Notes from the fringe

 

P.s. I won the Allen Wright award again!

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lists

Things I liked about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That they try to tap into the nostalgia that gives a little warm glow from trivial but personally important things.
  • That they blend future/past/present.
  • The line: “I’d steal all my ex-husband’s money and donate it to charities he’d hate.”
  • It reminded me of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing.
  • The aim: “Make someone laugh in another language.”  This was one of a few moments that conjured a silent smile and a little shiver of warmth, like when you think back on a happy memory.
  • The moments of crossover from separate lists like: “I love you”, “Fuck”.
  • That it made me want to write my own set of lists about goals and reflections.
  • That their lists don’t have a number so they could always either be complete or always have the potential of having more items added.
  • The list: “Times my eight-year-old self would be proud of me.”
  • That they let me in when I was four minutes late.

Things I didn’t like about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That actually, when you think about it, it simply seems to steal some of the best bits from Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing and doesn’t offer much in way of authenticity.
  • That the cast of four read out certain lists like Oscar speeches and dark confessions, overacting as if they carry far more emotional weight than they actually do.
  • That they are too emotional. The joy of lists is their matter-of-factness. They are a way to dissipate stress and excess emotions by laying them out on a page. They are an organisational function. Their delight is precisely the lack of emotion. No matter how frivolous the list, they carry logic and reason, and try to do away with overly passionate feelings. Here, it felt like the production team had a sweet collection of lists pinned on a wall and decided that the best way to stage it was by throwing intense balls of emotions at them, like that balloon-paint scene in The Princess Diaries.
  • There is no undercurrent of story.
  • It’s like a Forced Ents list-reeling endurance test without the endurance.
  • The game seems more fun for them than for us.
  • All shows are in a tougher position in Edinburgh than in a usual run of a show because audiences are generally seeing several shows a day, so the “meh” shows tip out people’s minds if they’re not either spectacularly good or astonishingly bad. Because of this, companies are under pressure to try to make more of an impact. With Lists for the End of the World, they suffered from their own attempt to get us to sit up and pay attention through the cheesy music, dramatic emotional switches and over-energetic direction. Really, their movements around stage were an unnecessary distraction. The crowd-sourced lists were delightful, blending the lightness and darkness of every life, at once nodding to individuality and the lack of originality of human beings. Unfortunately, for us to enjoy the lists, it didn’t really need to be a play.
  • The cheesy song choices.

Original: Exeunt

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ed

Topping off a wonderful week in Scotland, I’m delighted to have been awarded the Allen Wright Award for Reviews by The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

Allen Wright was the first Arts Editor of The Scotsman, and the paper’s Chief Theatre Critic. The award began 19 years ago and is designed for the best arts writing by writers under 30. The award for best features went to Arusa Qureshi.

I’m over the moon to have been chosen as the winner of the reviews category, and I’m thrilled to be part of a gang of writers contributing to the discussion of some of the best, worst, strangest, most uplifting and devastating theatre around.

My submitted reviews for the award:

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – Exeunt

The Believers Are But Brothers – Exeunt

BlackCatfishMusketeer – Fest

Announcement: EdFringe

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alipoor

Blue lights illuminate the theatre like popping candy. WhatsApp. It’s a death threat. I click the screen off and it flashes again. A rape threat. Click. Something about a K-bar. Click. They’re flashing up too fast to read them all. I click the screen blank again. It lights up. I turn it over.

The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of the power of the internet; of loneliness and of radical jihadis; of men and their machines.

Part of the show takes place on WhatsApp. The threats are posted in the instant-messaging group made for each performance, with all the audience members added in the queue before the show. Creator Javaad Alipoor shares memes and articles in the group to help illustrate his words on stage. It quickly turns darker, as between audience members offering examples of the most disturbing things they’ve watched online, anonymous trolls begin to slip in hostile warnings. The threats are fictionalised but it’s not hard to find similar threats on any 4chan forum or Reddit chain.

This digital illustration – this sped-up insult mosh pit- is a demonstration of how the the secure end-to-end encryption network is used away from the public eye. But it’s also more than that. A few hours after the show, my phone will flash again. It will announce the terrorist attack in Barcelona. That night Islamic State will claim responsibility. The next morning the death toll will rise. Alipoor’s digital tap on the shoulder in The Believers serves as a reminder that while some of these words and stories are fictionalised, this situation is all too real.

Alipoor has spent months delving into the dark depths of the internet, bantering with IS recruiters, engaging with 4chan trolls and trying to understand the network and actions behind digitally-tentacled terrorists.

However brutal its content, this show is delicate in its approach and is never gratuitous with its violence. Alipoor fuzzes and hides the most grotesque imagery, leaving gaps for our imagination to fill. A river of blood washes the screens. Alipoor describes a generation of men in crisis. His language is both intellectual and poetic, painting pictures of incredible savagery with a brush thickly coated in detailed research. He focuses on three men: Marwan, Atif and Ethan. From very different starting points, he explains how each draws closer to radical Islam.

The play demonstrates how the internet can be used for that space between irony and evil. How rape videos can be shared for the lols. How memes were made mesiah. How recruiters reach out to their warriors. Above all it reveals a deep-seated loneliness in the men who engage in all this. In Graeme Wood’s prolific book The Ways of the Strangers, he finds something similar. He interviews supporters of Islamic State and reveals how, when taken away from their movie-like propaganda videos and passed a cup of tea, they are just lonely men looking for purpose. The Believers adds to this by demonstrating how forums empower them, and how their belief becomes their comfort blanket. These men grab onto an injustice they see being fought against. They get a glimpse of the community behind it. They want in.

Alipoor’s language leaps between intellectual and poetic. It is beautiful storytelling but the speed at which this show travels- with multiple strands traversing the stage together- means that each character’s narrative needs a little more clarity.  It almost overloads with information. The impact of its individual stories would be greater were it to slow its pace a little, and clarify its edges.

But it does serve to provide an example of the strength and scope of Islamic State via the internet. It demonstrates the power loneliness and isolation hold in the creation of a monster. When a man in the internet age is disregarded and angry at injustice, it is not hard to see the allure of a group who offers him power and purpose.

Throughout the show, Alipoor is not alone onstage. A man (Luke Emery) sits quietly behind the screens, illuminated but ignored. Though Alipoor is honest with us from the start about himself, Emery is never introduced. He sits facing us, hiding the content of his screens. We assume he is controlling the WhatsApp group, YouTube videos and projections that illustrate the men’s stories, but as the show progresses, we begin to suspect that we are not his audience. As the brutality builds and the tentacles spread, we get the impression that Emery is communicating with a different set of blue lights. A different pack of popping candy spread across the globe. The fictionalised men from Alipoor’s stories have stepped out of the screen and now hide in plain view, centre stage and purposeful, waiting for their moment.

Original: Exeunt

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If stories are not continued to be told, the lives they contain can be wiped away like chalk on a blackboard. In the basement of Edinburgh’s Army Reserve Centre, Will Huggins preserves the story of his great uncle Edgar, a veteran of the First World War. This is a story of boys thrown into battle, of horses and of dreams never quite realised.

Dotted with recordings of Edgar’s voice, collected by the Imperial War Museum, there are delicate moments of humour and love. As it becomes clear that Edgar was resistant to talking about the darker details of his time during the war, perhaps the greatest reveal is the guilt of being alive some soldiers feel, that surviving somehow makes you less of a hero.

Huggins acknowledges that as a child he unconsciously glorified his great uncle’s trauma, looking at a war wound with “horrified wonder”. Here, he approaches the topic with care, but the pain is never blistering and he moves too fast to let it settle.

Huggins illustrates his words with chalk, noting dates, names and ill-prepared attack strategies like an old fashioned lecture. The pedagogical style seeps into the content. It is a tragic story but told by numbers. This personal history lesson is an important record, but could be just as impactful, and perhaps more so, were it made for radio.

At the end of the play Huggins wipes the blackboard clean. He leaves two numbers: year of birth and death. In the end, this is how most of us are remembered. While this may not be the most accomplished play, it is lovely that Edgar’s story can now also be remembered by strangers through his great nephew’s performance.

Original: Fest

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Yaël Farber’s thrumming production returns to the Fringe after it first stalked the stage in 2012. Creating a vivid, bloody drama of race and class, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is transposed to post-apartheid South Africa. The intensity holds throughout as Julie (played with feral desire by Hilda Cronje) tempts her manservant John (with an avalanche of a performance by Bongile Mantsai) in this production which roars for its full 90 minutes.

The love between the impossible duo is so ferocious the stage seems to beat. Their destructive passions never settle, power constantly throwing them across the stage. A gun is pointed one way then the other. Lungs crack and blood seeps.

Though Julie and John’s bodies fit together, they are unable to find any sense of harmony. There is a temporary moment of calm where tensions reduce to a simmer, limbs bubbling to touch, before cascading once again into a thumping, savage haze. Over the haunting, metallic tune of the onstage band, they replay the tensions between their ancestors as they rip wildly at each other’s cores. The vast theatre is not ideal for the intensity of the production, but it pulsates regardless.

While bundled in the illicit couple’s searing lust, the production also shows how John’s mother is traumatised by her past, agony tangible in her song. The tragedy of the ignorance of youth is revealed in the last few moments of the play, as the dust settles, and John’s mother is left to clear up the devastating mess.

Original: Fest. Photo: Murdo Macleod.

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orwin

We watch as a movie is made. Orwin plays Her, a seductress whose every action is for Him, played by a different member of the audience each night. Dressed as a cowboy, he is the star of the show. He reads from an autocue in a Texan drawl, following his stage directions. Our audience member is perfect, macho, tattooed, standing tall. The gun looks natural in his hands.

Her grip on the gun is sexual rather than controlling. She holds it not to shoot, but to pass to him, or to caress. As she dances for him, tempts him and fawns over him, his scenes become more possessive, more violent. As Orwin’s accent fades, her enthusiasm falters and her words trail off, he remains in character. Gun slung over his shoulder, drawl in place, we watch as his power grows and her patience goes.

We know he’s acting but his commitment to the role is chilling. He questions a slap and a kiss but goes for them regardless. He shoves her to the floor. He stares into the camera. He growls a threat.

The play is quiet and at time stilted. But Orwin provides a platform for alpha male traits to breed, deliberately leaving little space for him to think before doing. By watching silently, we too are complicit in these acts of gendered brutality. By both following and disrupting Jean Luc-Goddard’s famous phrase that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, Orwin has created a disturbing, wickedly manipulative exploration of consent, gender roles and violence.

Original: Fest

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