It is always harder to criticise a show that’s based on personal history because you’re often dealing with very real and often very present pain. The three performers in As a Tiger in the Jungle – an international production from Ali Williams and Circus Xanti – joined the circus as a result of human trafficking. Renu Ghalan and Aman Tamang were trafficked aged five. In a recent interview, Ghalan said, “I was in the circus in India for nine years, from age five to age 14. I don’t like talking about what happened to me there.”

There is something uneasy about this discomfort being translated into a show where he is forced to retell parts of his story every night. If the production was exceptionally brilliant, perhaps it would lend the show a level of honesty, or humility, or rawness. But a traumatic true story does not immediately make good theatre.

This piece, although a pleasantly entertaining hour with some good circus skills, does not justify the adaptation of real suffering. If we’re not being blown away by the injustice of their story, then we’re just witnessing their pain. That they speak very little English in the piece adds to the feeling that we, as an audience, are somehow exploiting them.

On a bamboo-like structure, Loan TP Hoang, Ghalan and Tamang clamber about. Tamang scrambles around a hamster cage, lifted by Hoang as he leaps up to drop her by the rope that holds them together, two weighing scales tipping up and over. Later the cage is replaced with a ring, and they glide over each other, almost embracing as their skin breezes past. Ghalan and Tamang are the more agile, leaping and twisting, while Hoang narrates, relating their stories with wide-eyed horror, as you would a ghost story round a campfire.

But director Sverre Waage’s script tips the story tips into melodrama with moralistic, storybook tropes that feel a little over the top. The attempts to combine the actions with the words are the weakest parts of the production. It is strongest when the choreography stands alone.

In one section of the dance, Ghalan and Tamang fight. They chuck themselves at each other with the full force of their weight. But just as their sibling is about to fall, their weight appears to slide off and they glide to the floor rather than thump. They flip when they should fall. A light touch moves into a violent thud. They are so utterly in control of their bodies they seem to defy physics.

After the fight, they sit, their bodies touching. One looks at the other. The other looks away. Their gaze glides past each other, just falling short of making contact. It is these moments of silence and beautiful movement that stand out, but it is the melodramatic script and the uncomfortable morals of the piece that linger.

One of the last pieces of choreography involves Ghalan dangling from and dancing around a length of fabric. He dresses up for it, demonstrating to us that he is acting. Then he sheds the costume and he winds himself up and up and up in the fabric. He knots himself into it, his muscles shaking and hair sweating. It feels like an act of self-harm.

How can we congratulate something that feels like exploitative?

Original: Exeunt

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team viking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a loop pedal and a slightly shattered heart, James Rowland stands alone onstage. He wears scuffed trainers, odd socks and a viking helmet. Paddling his way through our emotions, he tells us an extraordinary tale of grief, robbery and Christmas pudding. 

Growing up, Rowland used to play vikings with his best friends Tom and Sarah. That childish delight never really disappeared from their friendship, so when Tom is diagnosed with incurable heart cancer, it is only fitting that he asks his two best friends to give him a properly spectacular ending: a viking funeral.  

It’s funny how much someone can make you care about another person just through words and a few bad jokes. As Rowland describes Tom’s devastating deterioration, humour and sadness jolt through each other like an electric shock passing through water.

The way Rowland carves this story is at once beautifully groomed and wonderfully raggedy. His style of speech is causal and tangential, yet each strand of story is carefully gathered together and tied neatly, providing such a sense of catharsis, with layer upon layer of emotion offering us a full, thick fabric of a life. A loop-pedalled song divides the piece up, providing a respite to let the words settle, and Rowland’s slightly scratchy voice that sounds as if he’s had a pint before the show only serves to make it more charming. This play simply swells.

Team Viking is about grief and friendship. But within its humility and simplicity it holds so much more. It is anger for the things that weren’t good enough. It is joy for the little moments that make up existence. It is the look passed between friends when someone says something you’re too polite to outwardly react to, but you both think is utterly ridiculous. It is the joy of gathering with a group of strangers and sharing a story. It is the innocence of a child and the awkwardness of a teen. It is the awful urge to laugh in a tragic situation. It is fiction being better than real life. It is the excruciating faults of humans. It is the pain of living and the unfairness of death. It is wanting to be remembered after you are gone. It is the details you add to make a better ending. It is, I reckon, a little bit golden.

I watched Team Viking sitting next to one of my best friends. At the most overwhelming point of the show, when my face wasn’t so much streaming with tears but rather had itself become a puddle, he gently touched my arm, just to say that he was there. I put my hand on his knee, to say thank you. I think that’s what this play is about.

Original: Exeunt

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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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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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Anyone

A sledgehammer swings into flaming rubble. Darkness pours down her. A body. A rustle in the corner. A gap in the fence and a word between the line. They drive away and we don’t see them fall. Anyone’s Guess is a ghost story. Best told around a campfire (with a neon tube or two to spare), this is a tale of everyday monsters ready to eat you up. It looks at how what you owe and what you own can define and destroy you. How debt – emotional or financial- can burn a house and rip the skin from a skeleton.

When a story is not allowed to end it naturally deviates from its original plot points. It gets more outrageous and less realistic as it is forced to add new details. Barrel Organ make the concept of debt into such a story. It doesn’t just go away when you want it to. It grows like a tumour, clutching to you, hollowing you out.

Following their previous shows Nothingand Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ have a weight of expectation on them. They play with this lightly, like a ball for the audience to catch. What to do with a long car journey? Time for a game? But Anyone’s Guess takes a different path from the company’s previous work, leaving behind the racing circles and competitions. There are traits that lean into their past: the disjointed style, the same breath leaping from one mouth to the other, the little unexpected moments to trip up audience expectations. Nothing played with form, then Some Peopleplayed with words. Here, Anyone’s Guess plays with time.

In some ways, Anyone’s Guess has none of this intensity. The sledgehammer and the flames are just a postage stamp. It’s a casual chat in a car that makes up the envelope. Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray are in trackies. One has a coffee cup. There are gaps of silence as they wait for someone to think of something to say. But it’s that everyday-ness of the show’s opening that makes the darkness what it is.

Jack Perkins’ writing doesn’t hold the tight logic of Lulu Raczka’s work. It carries a different energy, slightly wilder and more unruly. There are gaps plugged with blu-tak, when what it really needs is superglue.

The infuriating delight of Barrel Organ is their non-linear thinking, the feeling that they are always one step ahead, or rather one step sideways. The final image in Anyone’s Guess is unnecessarily obvious, a fun but on-the-nose decoration kicking its way into the otherwise nuanced direction. It should have been a white out.

Original: Exeunt

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A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”

Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.

It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?

This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise, [Exeunt review here] a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The GardenerDark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.

In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.

As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.

For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.

Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.

I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”

Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”

It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”  Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.

Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.

“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”

Original: Exeunt

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