Can theatre change the world? We take a look at three plays asking the tough questions and challenging audiences at this year's Fringe
Political engagement has become one of the common themes within the Fringe. Parcelled up into different strands of the programme, theatre companies attempt to address the pressing concerns of the moment – predominantly Trump's ascendancy, the alt-right's occupation of public discourse and austerity over the past few years. At the same time, the umbrella of political engagement is used to justify the continued importance of performance at a time when food banks have become all too familiar and worries about the financial security of the NHS are frequently evoked in the discussion of state funding of the arts.
Activism is rarely the sole focus of Fringe productions, with exceptions like London-based company Cardboard Citizens who retain a direct link between their organisation and their subject matter, working with homeless people as they tell their stories on stage. But it has become an important component in contemporary theatre, while also influencing organisations like Extinction Rebellion who consciously incorporate theatricality into their protest actions.
Theatre is often content to operate as a form of consciousness raising, presenting certain perspectives – usually on the progressive or left-of-centre side – to encourage debate. The nature of criticism, however, often fails to extend this process, reducing shows to a star-rating and aesthetic commentary, and not taking the debate forward. It's here that the consciousness finds its ceiling, contained within the performance and not moving beyond the stage.
'I've learnt that telling a personal story can allow an audience a lens into a perspective they haven't ever considered,' says Nathaniel Hall, writer and performer of First Time, an autobiographical solo show that considers the impact of HIV. Beginning with his own experiences, Hall 'zooms out to consider the global perspective: 35 million people have died from HIV/AIDS and 37 million still live with it'. However, Hall is not content to limit his activism to the stage.
'First Time has allowed me to promote the incredible developments in HIV healthcare and prevention to a huge audience,' he continues. 'Theatre allows audiences to directly reflect on their role and responsibility within our society. During the original run of the show in 2018, we had a whole host of participatory and wraparound activity which increased the audience reach from the 420 who saw the show to 4600 who engaged with a workshop, visited our community exhibition or joined in a discussion. When we come to the Fringe, we're proud to be partnered with HIV Scotland and will be delivering talks, workshops and fundraising – including an opportunity to donate by text. It's my way of giving back and contributing to the aim of ending HIV in a generation.'
If First Time combines representation and workshops, Nouveau Riche, who stormed the Fringe last year with Queens of Sheba, hold a belief in the theatrical event as an impetus for change. Writer Ryan Calais Cameron says that 'it is the sense of community that I keep coming back to; for an appointed time we are all watching this experience together, laughing together, talking together, cheering, crying, in shock and in awe, and then we all leave together and evoke conversations with those we came with and those who we have just met.' His script, Typical, takes a true story and uses theatre to challenge preconceptions.
'It is the story of a black man who is just a man when he is in his home, but when he leaves he must navigate through society's ideas and prejudices about what it means to be black. His story brings up questions about belonging and identity: he fought in the Falklands war, he sacrificed himself for his nation, yet is that enough to class you as British? Can you be black and truly be British? I wanted to explore the reality of something that has felt like a huge contradiction throughout my life. Especially now in a post-Brexit referendum Britain.'
By addressing a fundamental and timely concern, Cameron affirms the potential of performance within the public sphere, lending the subject an intimacy and immediacy, transforming an idea into an emotive and emotional discussion. Emily Aboud, director of Splintered, has taken a similar belief and created a queer cabaret-theatre that has been influenced by Caribbean notions of carnival. 'Representation matters,' says Aboud, 'and most resistance movements began in cabaret bars. Society currently promotes a racist structure, a homophobic structure and a patriarchal structure – theatre (and all art) should rise to meet it.'
Splintered simultaneously celebrates the cultural diversity of Caribbean society and questions its homophobia: Aboud ponders how a society that energetically embraces so many religions and communities struggles to include queerness. 'It came to a head in 2018 when Trinidad and Tobago had its first Pride and I saw the sheer amount of queer people, celebrating and rebelling – it was fantastic,' Aboud says. 'I just wanted to speak to people and see what they had to say. I learned that so much of the queer experience is shared and, unfortunately, discovered that trauma around coming out was universal. I wanted to create a show that separated the trauma from queerness.'
Across the Fringe, the importance of autobiographical performance, the ubiquity of feminist-driven theatre and the increasing number of shows that engage with contemporary politics suggest a sustained belief in the power of theatre as a public space for discussion: Typical, Splintered and First Time, in different ways, challenge assumptions and make a connection between the stage and society. The question now becomes how these conversations are shaped through the responses of audiences to influence attitudes and policies.
First Time, Summerhall, until 25 Aug, (not 12, 19), 4.15pm, £14.50 (£12.50).
Typical, Pleasance Courtyard, until 25 Aug (not 13), 4.30pm, £10–£12 (£9–£11).
Splintered, Bedlam Theatre, until 25 Aug (not 13, 20), 9.30pm, £10 (£8).
Nathaniel Hall presented by Dibby Theatre with Waterside Arts
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Nouveau Riche in association with Soho Theatre
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