“That’s not right…” The taxi driver and I had been talking about Chill Habibi, the Arab-Scottish cabaret at Summerhall. I’d repeated the compere’s stories about the difficulties Arab artists are having getting visas. “It’s called the international festival,” the driver said. “It’s meant to break down borders.”
This turned out to be the theme of my festival week. Is it chance, unconscious selection or antennae to the zeitgeist? This year, almost all the shows I’ve seen revolve around identity, belonging, rejection and acceptance; the breaking down of borders, real and imaginary. Between shows, the city’s crowded streets come to seem like a celebration of togetherness – when they aren’t a human barrier of leaflet-wavers, costume-wearers and punters blocking routes between venues.
“They’re beached. We have to help them.” On a windy corner outside Assembly George Square theatre, a pod of Whales (in fact a group of volunteers in wet suits) flaps its fins. More volunteers spray them with water. This is the Wellington-based Binge Culture collective, part of a season celebrating New Zealand artists: “Look them in the eyes,” the speaker calls. “Sing. Make contact.” Voices join a haunting melody: “Ngā iwi e”. “It’s a Māori song,” someone tells me, “about people pulling together and standing strong.” The whales return to the ocean (or top of the steps). “That was strangely moving,” says a Scottish voice beside me.
I was at primary school when, in 1966, 116 children and 28 adults in the Welsh village of Aberfan were buried beneath colliery spoil. I shall never forget what I saw on television that day. That’s why I wanted to see Neil Anthony Docking’s The Revlon Girl (Assembly Roxy). Now, I shall never forget the play either; its cloud-scuddingly fast changes between light and dark, laughter and tears. Based on the true story of bereaved Aberfan mothers who, ashamed to seem frivolous, secretly invited a Revlon sales rep to one of their weekly meetings to give them beauty tips, this is a study in the masks grief wears, and what it takes and what it might mean to put on a brave face. There are stupendous performances from the five actors, whose highly individual characters refract universal suffering and resilience.
Dundonian by dialect, Asian by birth, adolescent Jaimini is torn between cultures and obsessed by the spectre of Idi Amin, self-proclaimed last king of Scotland. When Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972, the writer Jaimini Jethwa was just a child. Her family, forced to flee their comfortable home, eventually settled in the unfamiliar surroundings of a housing scheme in the “D” – Dundee. The Last Queen of Scotland (Underbelly, Cowgate) is a fiction based around these real events. Jaimini’s emotional journey back to Uganda, in search of her true self and her place in her community, is evoked by two women. Rehanna MacDonald is a confused, angry, questing Jaimina; singer-songwriter Patricia Panther plays supporting roles and, sitting at a computer, the live soundtrack. What the performance occasionally lacks in pace it makes up for in passionate intensity.
The world has turned grey. Until Jihan’s Smile (Summerhall) returns, the sun and moon cannot shine. Jihan’s father sends a talking bird to fetch experts from abroad to help bring back his daughter’s smile. But it’s the local boy who realises the answer does not lie outside but within. With five actors and a musician, puppets and masks, Al-Harah Theater – based in the West Bank in Palestine – perform this children’s tale in English and Arabic. Accompanying adults might enjoy the multiple levels in the story, but what about the youngsters? Did you like it, I ask a brother and sister of about seven and 11. “Yes.” Would you recommend it to your friends? “Yes!”
Manual Cinema’s world is meant to be grey. On a huge screen the US company projects shadows created by puppets, actors and cut-outs. With these they create cinematic effects – close-ups, long shots, etc –in full view of the audience. In Lula del Ray (Underbelly Med Quad), these live manipulations unfurl the story of a young girl’s coming of age via conflict with her mother and disillusionment with pop idols (lovely live music). The artistry is exquisite but sometimes upstages a rather slow-moving storyline.
The colourful and lively conflicts between Auntie (Laughing Horse @ 48 Below), who hails from the pan-African state of Kengeria, and her gay, mixed-race, London-based son, Mtoto, are based around the experiences of their creator, Gavino di Vino. His characters are exuberantly idiosyncratic, yet their views on race and sexuality expose contemporary hypocrisies and reveal poignant pain. If di Vino’s act feels, as yet, embryonic, I imagine Dame Edna Everage, on her first outings, would have made a similar impression: not quite formed, but brimming with wicked potential.
A man in a grey suit sits on a park bench flanked by a briefcase and sandwiches. He writes on a piece of paper, screws it up, discards it, begins to talk: “Even as the sun…” Gently he entices us into the world of Venus and Adonis (C-Primo) as imagined by Shakespeare, the goddess of love seeking sexual satisfaction from the youth who, rejecting the advances, pleads with her: “Before I know myself, seek not to know me.” Christopher Hunter is the narrator, the goddess, the boy, a stallion chasing a mare. I thought I would not see anything else so finely crafted, so movingly delivered for the rest of the fringe.
And then I saw Tash Marshall. Alone in an empty space she creates the world of an English village where “I am that mixed-race kid… Around here I’m about as black as it goes.” Half Breed (Assembly George Square) is the semi-autobiographical story of a 17-year-old girl faced with choices – facing up to prejudice and rejection, discovering within herself the person she might become. Vivid characters; split-second changes; intelligent analysis delivered with emotional intensity – as writer and as performer, Marshall is breathtaking.
Exquisite artistry, often delivered at dizzying speed, is provided by the acrobats, jugglers, dancers and all-round extraordinary people who make up Quebec’s Cirque Éloize. Cirkopolis (Pleasance at EICC) takes its visual inspiration from Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist film Metropolis. Against back projections of giant cogs and endless-seeming colonnaded corridors, stifling bureaucracy is subverted by untrammelled movement. At times the fast format and loud, pre-recorded soundtrack block contact between stage and auditorium, but the acts are never less than spectacular.
How to resist a play about football after the England team’s near triumph last month? Offside (Pleasance Courtyard), by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, is not just a term to describe a rule in the beautiful game; it’s also a state of mind, a position in society. Three actors nimbly pass the action from pasts (1892 and 1921) to present as their characters tackle obstacles on and off the pitch. Issues covered include race, body image, mental health and media intrusion, but the team keep their eyes firmly fixed on their goal – to engage and entertain.
Woman or beast? Captured in the forests of Borneo, after growing up in a pride of lions, and transported to 1861 Holland, Lilith: The Jungle Girl (Traverse) is torn between the human and animal kingdoms. Subjected to scientific examination in a lab; rejected by the big cats in the zoo, her only hope is the opera. This zany three-hander from Australia’s Sisters Grimm is gloriously absurd, but its promised satire slithers across too many targets to take hold.
Because nobody would cast them in the roles they believed they were destined to play, actors Helen Norton and Jonathan White took matters into their own hands and wrote To Hell in a Handbag (Assembly Rooms). This comic gem follows Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism beyond their exit from The Importance of Being Earnest, into their private worlds of secrets and lies. The dialogue, delivered with impeccable timing and modulation, is light, wicked, artful. Never straining to imitate Oscar, it strikes a satisfyingly Wildean tone. Altogether a hoot of an instant classic.
In a mayhem of computer-smashing cabaret only just contained by compere Miss Annabel Sings, Dive Queer Party celebrate fun (queer or otherwise). One speaker on their Rainbow Soapbox (Traverse) encourages: “Take fun seriously and we just might change the world” – a fitting motto for this festival.