[This is the second part of Erin Horáková's report from the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Part 1 can be found here.]
Sleeping Trees's Treelogy consists of three comedy shows, all of which are adaptations: Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, Treasure Island, and The Odyssey. We saw the last of these offerings. Without costumes, props, lighting more complex than a (lit) bulb, or a set, using only physical comedy and human-produced sounds (think Bjork's Medulla), the three-man company manages to deliver a cinematic epic, with cyclops battles, ships and all. Their take on the text is loose, so if it's going to bother you that the hero's kid is not called Telemachus, maybe skip this one.
Low-fi Fringe shows are either excellent or utterly embarrassing. Odyssey featured a good script, great delivery, genuinely welcome repeated gags, and crisp character work. In terms of sheer skill and polish, we're definitely in the former camp here. The production, which here consists of sheer prep work, is slick as hell.
Odyssey was intelligent and funny, but not searingly witty or absolutely hilarious. Gags we enjoyed include: an abundance of mime trowels; a series of cut-aways to Odysseus's family, who reveal their secret pain to the audience, which culminates in the table they're arguing over telling you how it feels; and many of the physical gags (including a Kraken rolling about on stage), etc.
The show could stand to be refined—the surface is perfect, but the substance could use a bit of work. The whole thing might have benefited from a more thorough engagement with the source text. This could have provided the show with richer, weirder sources for humor and given the show a better structure to hang that humor on. I'd happily see the other two shows in the Treelogy, but I'm not rushing out to do so.
Can Shakespeare be fantasy? If the question is important to you, find a willing partner, friend, or relatively stationary neighborhood cat, and really have it out. I can't get that into it? For me, it's Schrödinger's fantastic. Plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth can be understood as genre and non as the context demands. The plays were created in an era in which some (yet not all) of their "fantastic" elements weren't classed as outside the bounds of natural possibility. They're also outside of and anterior to modern categories of publishing and reception. Yet the witches, sorcerers, prophecies, ghosts, faeries, etc. obviously resonate with our modern definition of the term "fantasy," and even Shakespeare's non-fantastic elements, such as his classical/medieval/Renaissance period settings and his complex dynastic struggles, should attract readers of high fantasy. What is Game of Thrones if not the somewhat-grimdark history plays, with zombies and without iambs? And let's not forget the rich adaptation tradition which can make The Tempest into Forbidden Planet.
There are a lot of great inroads into Shakespeare for the genre-oriented but sonnet-shy. If you found Billy a bore in secondary school and haven't given him a chance since, the Globe's resolute populism and engaging stagecraft could be for you. Blatantly fantastic or SFnal stagings like Julie Taymor's post-apocalyptic Titus, or the alternate history fascist England of Ian McKellan's Richard III, are also worth checking out. Captain Picard and the Tenth Doctor's bloody excellent Hamlet is also a great choice. I spent my high school years thinking Shakespeare was the most overrated thing since balsamic vinegar (remember the early naughties?), and I wasted some time railing against the work, when what I had real beef with was the cultural idea of the work. Don't let the canonization of Shakespeare steal a great experience that can be immensely resonant and personal from you—you've got the right to love or disdain him on your own terms.
Your opportunities to take in some Shakespeare at the Fringe are many and varied, and I'll discuss some of these (such as The Bunker Trilogy's Macbeth) elsewhere. However my consistent, long-term favorite Shakespeare on the Fringe is Shakespeare for Breakfast.
Why? For a start they give you a free croissant and coffee (avoid the tea option, it's awful, and depending on the year—maybe even the day?—the orange drink is either juice or squash, so you gamble with your life here). But there is even more to love!
Shakespeare for Breakfast is a Fringe institution. Productions and companies come and go, but this is their twenty-third year. This year, the plot of Shakespeare for Breakfast is a medley of plays and characters from Macbeth, The Tempest, Titus Andronicus, Henry V, Othello, Richard III, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and to an extent Twelfth Night. Last year they did The Taming of the Shrew, the year before Romeo and Juliet, and the year before that, King Lear.
Steph, a lighting technician who "doth teach the torches to burn bright," lands on a desert island after a shipwreck. The island is populated entirely by Shakespeare characters, and Steph gets entangled in the power struggle between team good and team evil. Upon learning that Shakespeare is dead, and has been for a while (which "doth explain why management of the island hath been so lax of late"), both teams want to discover the copy of the complete works of Shakespeare that must be somewhere, because this is after all a desert island (this Desert Island Discs joke may be a bit UK-orientated).
Shakespeare for Breakfast always has strong comedic scripts, but their casts make these scripts sing. In this production (as always), they do very capable doubling work, and what's more they excel at bombastic, audience-engaging clowning. The scripts combine Shakespearean and modern language easily. The work of wedding these elements never seems to slow anyone involved down, and the team resists the temptation to be overly invested in the purity of the original script(s) or to wander too far from its influences. In a practical sense, given that Shakespeare's work was originally very malleable, shifting to suit the circumstances and the talents of the available cast, this is Shakespeare as it was meant to be.
The productions usually include a musical element (again, dancing was a key part of the appeal of the comedies when they were originally played—the more things change, etc.). Lear featured a Mumford & Sons parody that still haunts me with its irritating catchiness. This year's performance included a rap battle. And granted, as a rap fan, I have slight qualms—the fuzzy mike interferes with enunciation, and the classic rap-battle issue wherein whoever gets to respond seems stronger is exacerbated here by having Team Good characters consistently rap first—but the sick burns of Third Witch from Macbeth (who, as her opponent hurtfully pointed out, does not even have a name) were nevertheless unmissable.
This year's play was frothier than other years', but the more traditional (but still funny) adaptations usually presented by the Shakespeare for Breakfast team aren't just fun parodies. They also stand as solid Shakespeare. The production's Taming of the Shrew was the least skeezy, most fun and romantic Taming I've seen, and regardless of what Harold Bloom will tell you, a not-creepy Taming is not easy to pull off. Nor is an Avengers Assemble-style medley that still feels intelligent and worth having rather than like a lame tribute act. The people who really enjoyed jokes about the First Folio seemed to get a lot out of it. The people next to me who, before the show started, were attempting to explain the plot of Hamlet to each other, were equally engaged. And each and every one of us took something from that show and held it within ourselves: a free croissant.
Human Child, from Irish company Collapsing Horse, is soundly made children's theater. The company's stagecraft impresses without dominating the experience, and is economic without being threadbare. As the company describes the production, "[i]nspired by changeling myths from Irish mythology and the poetry of WB Yeats, Human Child is a blazing adventure, fantasy story that mixes puppetry, comedy and live music." We follow Lelia, a young girl who consents to go away with the faeries and be replaced in the human world by a Changeling. Lelia's best friend, a stuffed rat, introduces her to his partner, a bear who lives here in the faerie world. Heinrich the bear reveals that the faeries' intentions for Lelia aren’t entirely benign, and the three travel together to meet Virgil, a blacksmith friend of Heinrich's who can help both girl and bear with their problems.
Heinrich the bear loved someone once, long ago, and they broke each other's hearts. Heinrich asked his friend Virgil to bind his heart in iron chains to keep its pieces from falling apart. Now that he's grown to love Harry the rat, his heart has healed, and he's ready for Virgil to remove the chains so they can be together. I appreciate the apt metaphors for love, loss, and healing, the casual gay relationship, and especially Heinrich himself, the silly-accented, well-timed source of much of the production's ample humor. (After the play, we saw a little boy asking to touch Heinrich, and afterwards proclaiming "I touched the bear!" to his sister—clearly I am well-supported in this opinion.) I should also mention that there were some fart jokes, and that kids dug them—but not an irritating amount of fart jokes, even for me, a priss who didn't enjoy them circa eight and doesn't care for them any more at twenty-eight.
This is a production in which the plot itself doesn't feel as important as its playing out. The story could dispense with our heroine's discomfort with the demands of maturation relatively quickly. Instead it chooses to linger in a wearing pattern of unsatisfying parent-child encounters and schooldays—a pattern which emphasizes both Lelia's boredom and the inevitable noose tightening around her neck. Lelia's resistance comes off as selfishness, but there's a complexity to that. How can Lelia maintain her childish individual identity against the demands of coercive socialization without selfishness? To what extent is selfishness her prerogative, and obedience dangerous? This is not, like Peter Pan, a fable of growing up that hinges on Becoming Sexual—think more Coraline. It's instead interested in adulthood as an embrace of valuable suffering, taking its cue from a famous snatch of Yeats:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
The choice works perfectly, Heinrich's arc tying in with and supporting Lelia's at the conclusion. The faeries' eventual defeat at the hands of the centuries of "ancient children" they've wronged is chilling, but the production doesn’t really play up that element. But however well realized, there's something potentially disappointing about the mechanics of this ending. The production finds no compromise with the faeries or between Harry's love for Heinrich and for Lelia. It seems to demand an abandonment of childish things that doesn’t allow for much compromise between the adult and child or human and faerie worlds and selves. And of course one might say this is the point, but the message that pain is a good and necessary element of mature life rather than something to be questioned and resisted seems a consolatory fable for adults that supports the status quo. As children's theater, the play might also serve to discipline children uncomfortable with the process of maturation or the ways in which they’re being asked to demonstrate maturity. One almost wants a more radical ending that opens up new forms of accommodation, or that asserts that Lelia's resistance to the gendered and control-oriented discourses of adulthood is possible or worthwhile.
I wish this production had pushed itself a touch more thematically, and feel it could have done that work without breaking its arc or losing its younger audience, but let's not mince words. This is an excellent play. It makes good use of its source material. It's fun and moving, and very well-acted. Its elements cohere very well indeed, and Human Child functions as both good children's theater and good theater.
Potted Sherlock has a bit of a lineage. The team's first production is wildly popular, and is currently on a massive world tour. "Potted Potter—The Unauthorized Harry Experience—A Parody by Dan and Jeff takes on the ultimate challenge of condensing all seven Harry Potter books (and a real life game of Quidditch) into seventy hilarious minutes." Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner put on a cheerful, amusing for all-ages double-act that’s fun for fans of various levels and endurable for all but the most ardent of haters.
Their follow-up, Potted Panto, ran through the major plots of pantomimes. Of what? "Pantomime in Britain (usually called Panto) is a peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theater. It has nothing to do with mime—silent performers in white-face make up walking into glass or doing Marcel Marceau-type physical comedy. British pantomime takes familiar fairy tales and children's stories—Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Snow White—and injects a bit of music hall (British Vaudeville) sensibility, contemporary references and audience participation to create a raucous, noisy entertainment that's fun for everyone in the family." The crowd for this show is somewhat more family-and-child-heavy (though pantos themselves cannot resist flagrant Dick jokes and like innuendo).
Pantomime plots are fantastic, even the ones that, unless you're British, you might be less familiar with. Dick Whittington's cat talks, and helps him fight a sentient rat king and become Lord Mayor of London. In addition to the multiplicity of other genres pantomimes should be interpolated within the context of, Panto should be read as fantasy. Panto's system of interaction also underlies a lot of UK interactive and fringe theatre. It's fair to say that if you're interested in British SFF, especially its filmed iterations, you may well have engaged with material influenced by panto's sensibility without realizing it. The excellent Bernice Summerfield (Doctor Who) radioplay "Oh No It Isn't!" is overtly about pantomime, but Doctor Who's sensibility is so thoroughly inflected by panto (No bad thing, to my mind—imagine if the show were instead inflected by a joyless Michael Bay sensibility! Oh, wait) that former producer John Nathan-Turner strong-armed the show's cast into doing actual pantos in the off season. Alas, the video in that link is broken—if you can find Davison's Buttons, it truly is . . . a sight to be seen. If you have the full video for any of these pantos, you are holding out on the world by not sharing it.
Potted Panto is a decent primer if you're not familiar with the core panto plots (you may think you know Aladdin, for example, but this is a totally distinct version of Aladdin), and a fun production. But you may need to come in with some knowledge, because the show assumes some familiarity with the rules of panto. My American family was left rather baffled. As almost-always with panto, there's comedy cross-dressing. Panto is inherently a bit queer. Perhaps the show's hammy highlight, Prince Charming, romanced a random middle-aged male audience member at some point.
You could argue that we shouldn't be talking about Potted Sherlock, but there was an entire Worldcon panel about the Holmes canon's continuing relevance to SFF, Potted Sherlock is yet another offering from this fantasy-based company, the company's take on this canon is arguably fantastic, and basically I think you probably care.
Potted Sherlock takes two unconventional steps—the first is that the second word in the title does not begin with P! The second (perhaps even more shocking!) is that there is a woman in it! This leads into several jokes, but not at her expense. The production has a good meta-awareness about its female performer. It actually does a great job pointing out that sexist thing where a woman can say an idea and be ignored, and then a man can say it, and suddenly it’s real and brilliant.
There's something of a spoiler issue in that Potted Sherlock is out to tell you what happens in every Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes story in its tiny time slot with a lot of comedic interruptions. I don't, however, necessarily think this production functions very well as a recap. It’s a good show, but one doesn't come out knowing that much more about the bulk of the stories in question, and good luck remembering how you were spoiled. It's fairly rewarding for the die-hard Sherlockian, but not the best parody ever.
Potted Sherlock is a high-energy production, funnier than Potted Panto was. It fills a large venue and dominates the audience's attention with what's really a simple, small-cast show with a straightforward subject, reminiscent of a lot of other small-cast shows. The difference here is that Potted Sherlock is exceedingly confident, well-made and well-produced.
The show gets its laughs in a refreshing variety of ways. It uses a lot of the techniques of pantomime. People corpse (in the theatrical sense, though also it's the Holmes canon, so hardly murder-free). There's general slapstick: people get drenched with water. There's strong wordplay. There's plenty of prop humor and a good use of the stage and costumes. There are songs, and effectively repeated jokes. If you think a literal case dropping from the ceiling for "our first case dropped into our laps" is funny, then yes, do go. A good Straight Man and Wacky Dim Guy dynamic persists throughout the company's shows.
Potted Sherlock is warm and family-friendly without being treacley-patronizing or twee. That's the hallmark, really, of the company's work generally. Bring kids or don't, either way you won't feel awkward. These are fun shows, they tour widely, and they're very worth catching.
Beowulf: The Blockbuster was the best and most moving thing I saw out of a strong block of Fringe performances. It was sad. And very, very funny. But mostly wrenchingly sad. It will almost certainly tour, and you should absolutely follow its progress and see it.
In the 1980s, an intelligent and deeply kind Irish single father works hard as a builder and cares for his young son. They have a rich life together, bound up in shared cores and stories, and the persistent memory of the woman they have both lost. The father takes the son out of school sometimes for sneaky trips to the cinema, to watch blockbusters like Star Wars. The father tells, and in part acts out, more classic stories, and he and his son love both the tales and the act of sharing them.
But after the production does the work to establish this particular life and love, it then does the work to establish the father's extreme physical decline under cancer. The father has to explain the inevitable to his son. Not the blunt fact of his death, but the things that matter more. The father has to work his death into some meaningful shape, for both their sakes, and to try and convey some truncated version of a life's worth of his obviously excellent, loving parenting. Father and son do this difficult work together through their shared love of stories.
I've never really gotten Beowulf or connected with it. The whole structure of it jars against my narrative expectations, and it champions virtues I culturally do not share and am suspicious of. It has always been, for me, the story of some braggadocio-fueled dick doing feats of arms I don't care much about and then dying in an awkward denouement. For me, this production makes emotional sense of Beowulf's hitherto unsatisfying protagonist, goals, themes, and structure. And this is no accident.
The entire arc of the core storytelling act is about exploring and reconciling the difference in narrative structure between the epic and Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars. It's about the ways we use both narrative forms to interact with the world (the son notes that his father, dying of cancer, breathes like Darth Vader), and the ways both forms are insufficient and dissatisfying, and simultaneously incredibly rewarding. When the story is as its lowest ebb, the father offers his son an opportunity to take up the great challenge of continuing to listen. The call is itself epic-like. The "will you try and listen" hangs, and the father visibly gives up at his son's "no." But the son follows up with a tremulous "do, or do not. There is no try," and you realize that even as there is a generation compatibility between father and son, their stories are also, after all, compatible. As an act of staged drama and as literature, this is storytelling in the most compelling sense.
Beowulf is a one-man play that skillfully establishes the difference between two core characters and occasional supporting cast members. The process of moving between characters isn't funny, it's just expertly done. The show's humor comes from its excellent jokes and comedic acting. The actor's physical work is admirable, and his accents solid. His choices all feel very intentional, sometimes explicitly so: Beowulf has the voice of Sean Connery for a reason, an evil character has an English accent for a reason. I'd recommend this production just as an excellent, visceral retelling of Beowulf. It manages, with words and gestures, to convey more of a sense of wonder and mighty, fantastic conflict than the Gaiman CGI extravaganza did with a budget of millions. The frame narrative wasn’t terribly strong, but in a production that wasn’t at its core so blazingly good, you wouldn’t even notice.
Every time the weight of the production became unbearable, something lovely would happen. Some joke would knife through the gloom. This raised the mood, prolonged the tension, and made everything worse by showing what was being lost—not the vague, pious idea of loss, but loss in its materiality. This is not a production about death, but about what death will do to these specific people—and for it, it makes far stronger universal points about loss.
The women in the text are very good, despite largely being spoken of rather than embodied. During his final testament, the father is alarmed and bewildered to realize that he will die before he's conveyed even the essential facts about his lost wife, and fears that he will completely fail to convey the essence of her as a person, of the things that mattered to her. The father is a builder in words and stones, however, and his efforts to build his son a memory of himself and a memory of his wife succeed for the audience, and thus for the child.
There's a simple, economic story about how the father once built a house for himself out of a crumbled old one. As he worked, he developed a crush on the mysterious young woman who biked past every day. One day she stopped, pointed to the wall he was working on, and said that that she used to live here. He was working on what had been her bedroom wall. Her biking becomes not a random act or a flirtatious provocation, but an unspoken record of some mourning, personal to her. The man she will one day marry gives her a pebble to keep and tells her she is always welcome. That very house is the one the father and son now live in. The son occupies the mother’s old bedroom.
There's so much respect in this production—for the audience, the child, the dying father, those mentioned women. The sentimentality isn't cheap, it's wrought carefully over time with characters you feel you know fairly well. I cried until my face ached.
This is an art of profound tolerance, beauty, and hope, made of Star Wars posters and quotations from Shakespeare and a man and a lighting rig. It sounds vague and sanctimonious to speak of the power of narratives, but Beowulf cuts down into the ways structures and their associated morals permeate everything. There is no apolitical, amoral art. Such a thing would be a soulless monster.
The crux of the play's question is the conflict between a Star Wars triumphalism that insists on heroes conquering all and living happily ever after and the rhythms of older stories, the brutal reality of the father's death. The son, furious at the loss about to befall him, accuses his father of abandoning him, of being a coward. The father gently, gently responds by saying that Beowulf, facing his final battle, was very afraid—not to die, but to leave his people, who he loved. He wanted to be with them in the coming years, to see their stories play out and to help them where he could. But death is not a failure, not a botched end to a set trajectory of cold victory. Death is a continuation of the work of life, and the story changes but the telling goes on.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.