Episode one: From star ratings to a dream of freedom and bondage
This is probably a good time to kick off the annual debate about the role of star-ratings in determining success. It might be a few more days before the first slatherings of stars are plastered across show's posters, but it's worth remembering that the rating is merely a handy guide to a reviewer's general sentiments. Those posters covered in stars are less about attracting audiences, and more about reminding other theatre companies who is the big dog, this year.
Complete reviews, on the other hand, can be quite helpful for potential audiences. A cunning reader will distinguish between the blow-hard critic who wants to establish their own big dog status; the young enthusiast who manages to convey their subjective experience in poetic turns of phrase; and the grizzled veteran who is content to slap out a vague congratulations in the hope of getting their name on a poster. Previews and articles, meanwhile, might be even more useful. They give an outline of the company's history, approach and content. And in the August jamboree of reviewing, star ratings may be less helpful than the opportunity to connect with a performance if you find their intention or story fascinating.
Christopher Tajah, for example, brings Dream of a King to Edinburgh by himself: 'This is the first play that I have written, the sole actor and artistic director of my theatre company,' he admits. 'This is something that I've never experienced before, the responsibility is enormous.' Dream of a King explores the life of Dr Martin Luther King: a slice of history perhaps, but worth recalling in a time when civil rights are being treated as an optional extra by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tajah's optimism expresses something of 'a Fringe spirit' which is threatened by its increasingly corporate persona. 'Theatre remains a forum that has the greatest power to remind us who we are and who we should strive to be,' he insists. 'The Edinburgh Fringe is the perfect environment to promote social discourse, an exchange of ideas, communication and social change.'
Dream of a King
'The great thing about theatre is that it forces audiences to have a live reaction with whomever they happen to be sitting next to,' says Charley Miles, writer of Daughterhood, which is part of the This is Wales showcase. Miles adds that she has a clear intention in her script: 'I hope that women will watch it and feel empowered, unburdened, recognised; I hope men will watch it and think about the women in their lives and the many roles they have to play.' The Fringe is increasingly occupied by plays that express a desire to challenge patriarchal values – to the extent that an article about plays that don't have feminist intentions would be more remarkable than another grouping of performances simply on the grounds that they are 'by women'.
Given the thuggish, semi-literate ranting of most anti-feminist 'thought', it would be unlikely to be an edifying article, and the volume of performance with a feminist sensibility does suggest that the Fringe could offer the kind of social forum for discussion that its optimistic supporters hope. Tajah and Miles clearly respect the medium for its intimacy and immediacy, and believe in its potential for change.
Everything I See I Swallow takes its title from a poem by Sylvia Plath and shares the toughness of Plath's approach. Using aerialism and shibari, a form of Japanese rope bondage, Tamsin Shasha, the producer, co-writer and performer happily dives into challenging issues around sexual desire and feminist autonomy, and wants 'audiences to come away with a more complex understanding of the issues raised in the show: what constitutes control, freedom, liberation, when does protection become control? Are the actions of posting explicit photographs a freedom of expression or exploitation, and what is the difference?'
With a plot that engages in a mother-daughter conflict, and social media's promotion of popularity through a sexualised presentation of the self, Everything I See is unashamedly feminist in its focus, yet moves into uncomfortable and explicit areas. This takes the freewheeling, inclusive nature of the Fringe into territory that can be startling, even offensive.
Everything I See I Swallow
Everything I See examines the body through feminist sensibilities, while Jo Blake explores the inverse in Blodeuwedd Untold. Blake acknowledges, as a contemporary dancer-turned-storyteller, that while the body is always present, feminism can challenge even traditional methods of performance. 'I have always been enthralled by the role of the storyteller – that figure who carries within them a vast repertoire of mythic narrative: storytelling is the root form of theatre,' she says. 'However, after over ten years of professional storytelling, I was deeply frustrated by the standard conventions which felt limited and inherently patriarchal.'
Through academic research and performance in Blodeuwedd Untold, Blake challenges the patriarchal bias, 'generating a storytelling form that deconstructs expectations of storytelling, and embraces a feminine, bodily, emergent practice that seeks to tell, both through form and content, the other half of the cultural narrative that has been submerged, forgotten or written out of history.'
From the dreams of Dr King to the restructuring of myth for a contemporary society, these shows all reveal a political dimension to their dramaturgy, and help assert the Fringe's dynamic claims to be a celebration of performance's social importance. This faith, this belief in theatre as a vehicle for ideas might be a place to begin a search for the truth beneath the stars.
Dream of a King, theSpaceTriplex, 2–24 Aug (not 4, 11), various times; Daughterhood, Roundabout @ Summerhall, 31 Jul–25 Aug (not 4, 6, 10, 13, 18, 20, 24), various times; Everything I See I Swallow, Summerhall, Demonstration Room, 31 Jul–25 Aug (not 1, 12, 19), 6pm; Blodeuwedd Untold, Pleasance Courtyard, 31 Jul–26 Aug (not 12), 3.15pm.
Jo Blake / Pleasance / Royal & Derngate Northampton
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