Theatre productions The Prize, Endure and Born to Run bring sport to the Fringe
Sport-themed shows at 2012 Edinburgh Fringe
This article is from 2012.
Any Fringe show which takes a sporting theme in the same month as the Olympic Games arrive in London might be seen as belonging to the roster of gimmickry which inevitably assails Edinburgh in August. Yet speaking to the writers of three of the most high-profile such shows on this year’s bill, the majority of which were only coincidentally created in 2012, reveals a trio of works intended to get to the heart of what sporting endeavour tells us about the human condition.
‘It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics,’ says Steve Gilroy, director and co-writer of The Prize, the only ostensible Games-themed show here, in which 28 aspiring and former Olympians were interviewed for a verbatim piece about their experiences. ‘It’s quite openly a massive marketing exercise for GB Limited, and afterwards you can bet there will be all sorts of political analysis about how many billions it’s generated for the economy. It would be carping to say an economic benefit isn’t a good thing, but there’s a sense that the scale of sponsor control obscures the very fundamental values about taking part and achieving something individually.’
Recalling his interviewees, he speaks of a young woman from a village outside Nairobi who was paralysed by polio as a child, about a former miner from the North-East who was active in the strikes during the 1980s and young female rowers from Henley who have room for literally nothing in their life but training. He mentions Ali Jawad, the paralympian powerlifter who is afflicted by Crohn’s disease. ‘He was advised by doctors that he could be risking his life and he shouldn’t compete, but he decided that wasn’t going to happen. For one of our contributors, an ex-policewoman who fell from a window on a routine burglary call, the prize is literally just being able to walk again.
‘One thing we assume about Olympians is that they all have a level, considered, structured journey,’ he continues, ‘but for a lot of them it really isn’t, it’s incredibly precarious. Our narrator (and retired 400m sprint silver medallist) Roger Black talks about the incredibly fine line between ultimate performance and disaster through injury. So these stories are about essential relationships and aspirations, about breaking down where these sporting ideas exist more broadly in human experience.’
It’s a theme that’s echoed by Gary McNair, writer and director of the one-woman show Born to Run, which debuted earlier this year as part of the Play, a Pie and a Pint series of lunchtime shows at Glasgow’s Oran Mor and is presented here by the National Theatre of Scotland. Inspired by the story of epileptic ultrathon runner Diane Van Deren, it’s performed entirely by one actress running for an hour on a treadmill, and is once again about so much more than just the relatively simple act of exertion.
‘Every now and then, you hear a story that just makes you want to write,’ says McNair, although he points out this is a different story to Van Deren’s. ‘Witnessing this woman running on stage, it puts into perspective the work that goes into it and the mechanics of the body going through it. I’m a big believer in sport and its ability to do things for good. A lot of people who came to Oran Mor the first time around have commented that they’ve been running every day since, or that they managed to get their 60-year-old dad to the gym, or that were reduced to tears. I can’t sit here and tell you it’s inspiring, but that was nice to hear. It’s a piece about what is achievable, and the incredible things you can do if you put your body and mind to it.’
Very similar in tone and in concept is Endure: A Run Woman Show, a site-specific piece which sees the audience follow creator and performer Melanie Jones on a run (although walking is an option, for those of less able body) while listening to her internal monologue on headphones. ‘The idea came to me in 2006,’ says Jones, ‘when I was training for Iron Man Canada with six-hour bike rides and three-hour runs week after week. With that amount of time on the road I started observing myself, noticing that various emotional states would come up, vast extremes from rage to despair to existential bliss. Memories would emerge – mile after mile layers were being stripped away, and something quite human was being revealed. As an artist, I observed this and realised it was rich ground to draw from.’
The show’s director Suchan Vodoor values the external effects of running as much as the internal. ‘When you watch a movement for a long time,’ he says, ‘you observe detail and nuance in it, and in this particular moment the audience sees the beauty in a runner’s body, the aesthetic quality of it and the passion in even the simplest movements. I remember watching Melanie perform the show in a park in New York City, and there’s this path bisecting the field, and an elderly man walking on it. You can see how the weight of his body and his life have bent him over, and he’s walking very slowly, very methodically. While Melanie is running a distance of two kilometres in the show, he’s made it along maybe two metres, but in his body I could see the same effort. That moment captured something about the show for me, about the way everybody endures something.’
Jones finds this metaphorical quality hard to overstate. ‘A marathon is going to be difficult,’ she says. ‘It’s a long way, there are going to be easy moments, there are going to be difficult moments. There will be moments when you don’t feel you can go on. That’s simply a tangible expression of what it means to be alive. The purpose of Endure in many ways is to validate the Monday morning when you wake up and you can’t face it, to validate a struggle that’s so internal it doesn’t get applauded. No-one’s there to cheer you on when you don’t know whether you can get through your work day or even out of bed, all the regular days that are just so damn hard.’
In McNair’s case, there’s one more equally resonant comparison to be made. ‘If we had delivered exactly the same words in exactly the same phonetic way from somebody wrapped in tinfoil at the finish line,’ he says, ‘you would walk away without the same experience. In Born to Run you hear it when she starts to get tired, what that does to the voice, what happens to the body. You experience it yourself without even knowing it. That’s what makes theatre such a wonderful medium to work in, there are no tricks, no cuts, no different takes. You’re there and you’re cheering this person on. It’s just like sport.’
The Prize, Underbelly Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 4–26 Aug (not 15), 2.50pm, £11–£12 (£10–£11). Previews until 3 Aug, £6.
Endure: A Run Woman Show, Assembly George Square, 623 3030, 9–19 Aug (not 13 & 14), 2pm, £7 (£5).
Born to Run, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 22–26 Aug, times vary, £18–£20 (£13–£15). Preview 21 Aug, 10am, £13 (£6).