Art in the time of political contests, climate crisis, rising inequality, a global rightward backsliding – what should it look like? How many costume changes do we still have time for on a burning planet? Though there have always been political shows at the fringe, just as there are leaves on a forest floor, this year’s crop displays a heightened awareness around how art-making and power intersect.
Take, for instance, This is Not a Show About Hong Kong (Underbelly, ★★★★). In a harrowing feat of physical theatre, four actors perform a series of vignettes about the psychological realities of living under an oppressive state, as well as Hong Kong’s long, contested history in the shadow of great powers. A couple scream at each other over a false pregnancy; bodies become oysters to be shucked for pearls. The show’s use of the allegorical veil is a masterstroke, sharpening the focus without blunting the pain.
The denial in the title is a posture, of course, which on one hand is a recognition of the danger that the performers place themselves in to perform this play, and on the other echoes the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress whatever it considers aberrant to its official narrative.
What is a country, after all, if not a story some of us have decided to tell together? And if so, doesn’t that mean we could tell it differently? This is the question asked by Paines Plow’s A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain (Roundabout, ★★★★), a poetic fable that centers on Elif, a sheep shearer in an unnamed kingdom who struggles for years to obtain full subjecthood for herself and her daughter, Lily.
Rather than expose Lily to the true peril of their situation, Elif spins more palatable tales for her daughter, though as Lily approaches the age of legal adulthood her story starts on a collision course with reality. This is a stunning, devastating excoriation of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy that never forgets the human lives at its core.
Another necessary howl of rage comes from Chalk Line Theatre’s Blanket Ban (Underbelly, ★★★), which sees Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella examine Malta’s draconian abortion ban. The pair weave together years’ worth of interviews with journalists, activists and people affected by the law, combined with their own deep affection for their homeland, to present a rich, complex consideration of Malta’s cultural history. Though certain abstract sections, including a shrieking dramatization of the Mediterranean, feel unnecessary and overlong, the ambitious scope of Blanket Ban provides a powerful call-to-arms in the fight for women’s reproductive rights everywhere.
Later, I find myself sitting, rather aptly, in a hothouse of a tent, while David Finnigan looks to the past to see what lessons we might adopt to cope with the climate emergency. From volcanic explosions to devastating waves of pestilence, our species has been through a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re prepared for what comes next. to call You’re Safe Til 2024: Deep History (Pleasance Courtyard, ★★★★) a hopeful story feels reductive, yet there’s an admirable refusal to indulge in the unproductive doomism that often plagues climate narratives. Come for the earnest reflection on our limitless potential for creativity, kindness and destruction; stay for the most unsettling mashup of Steal My Sunshine by Len and Justin Bieber’s Sorry you’ll ever hear.
But as the pressures pile on, why not just switch off and tune out? A student production written and directed by Savannah Acquah, i don’t feel anything (theSpace on North Bridge, ★★★) sees three young people reflect upon the numbing effect of racism, homophobia and abuse upon their everyday lives. Though the scenes they perform as a cast lack the confidence of their monologues, this remains a work of striking maturity and style and an honest self-portrait of youth on the edge. All three performers are excellent, though Letitia Rhoden-Thomas in particular stands out as one to watch.
Rosie Holt has made much hay out of the past few months of political carnage, with her Tory MP persona becoming a viral hit on Twitter. In her de ella new show The Woman’s Hour (Pleasance Courtyard, ★★), she expands her character roster to include a rightwing broadcaster, Russell Brand and a Margaret Thatcher-shaped anchor named Liz Truss.
The results are, unfortunately, a mixed bag. Certain sketches, such as the sexy French wife of a disgraced MP, are confusing in intent and execution, while a running joke involving both Holt and Putin being victims of canceled culture quickly galumphs off into the Siberian wilderness. But when she ventures beyond the soundbite, The Woman’s Hour has its flashes of brilliance: her turn as Kirstie Allsopp, leaping through a “pre-immigration kitchen” to the downton abbey theme tune, is absurdist perfection.
Lest you think the fringe this year is all existential despair, Voloz Collective’s The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much (Pleasance Dome, ★★★) offers up a dose of pure escapist pleasure. A homage to classic Hollywood capers, the show follows New York-based Frenchman Roger, whose orderly life is one day rudely blown apart by a band of shadowy assassins. Though the rolling pace does flag at points, this four-hander magics up delight in every creative contortion and every rattle of the snare drum as Roger’s pursuit for answers takes him across continents and into the heady outer reaches of our atmosphere.
Sophie Duker takes us on a less literally explosive but equally enlightening journey around the world in her latest hour, Hag (Pleasance Courtyard, ★★★). Since her acclaimed her debut in 2019, the task master star insists she’s now more “low-key black” (“like Obama”) and, as proof, dabbles in the distinctly white activity of overinvesting in her horoscope.
But before we’re given much time to mull that one over, she’s rushing on to the next thing, recounting her childhood years in Ghana under the care of her formidable Ma. Then it’s all about the crystal witches she fell in with on a lesbian cruise, then the labour-saving benefits of threesomes. Despite Hag‘s scattershot direction, the audience trots gamely along, such is the power of Duker’s charisma, which has us leaning in with every conspiratorial drop in her voice. Armed with a tighter visions, the third time will undoubtedly be the charm for this tour de force.
Tim Crouch’s Truth’s A Dog Must to Kennel (Royal Lyceum theatre, ★★★★) opens on a blasted heath. We’re midway through a production of King Lear, watching the Fool abandon his king. He knows a lost cause when he sees one.
At least, that’s what we’re told. All the action is taking place behind Crouch’s VR headset, which he relays to us with moving aplomb. But the scope of his uncanny vision of him expands out into the audience too, until the theater becomes a microcosm for the world at large, full of tiered inequality and minor cruelties dressed up as politesse.
Crouch has a long history of exploding theatrical conventions in his work, though this time he seems ready to stick the whole lot six feet under. How can we perpetuate self-satisfied institutions such as these, while turning a blind eye to other evils? Yet here we are still, brought together on Edgar’s imaginary cliff through the power of Crouch’s storytelling. Maybe, as he suggests, theater’s death knell has already rung out and we’re just preparing the body for burial; I, for one, still want to see how this story ends.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism