All That Is Wrong
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?
4 stars ****
C Venues – C (Venue 34)
Mess 3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
The Static 4 stars ****
Underbelly (Venue 61)
BLISS WAS IT in that dawn to be alive, wrote Wordsworth, about being young during the French Revolution. Being young today, though, in this age of overwhelming global problem and helpless protest – well, for many it seems like a kind of hell. It’s five years since the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed first burst onto the Edinburgh scene, with their brave, relentless, boundary-busting shows, often – although not always – created with and about the current generation of teenagers; and in a quiet but unflinching way, they take another compelling step forward with their latest show, playing at the Traverse this week.
On the surface, All That Is Wrong is a bleakly simple, almost tentative two-hander, in which writer-performer Koba Ryckewaert – a skinny, intense 18-year-old – first looks at a series of dim slides of recent political protests, and then begins to write in chalk, on the black floor, a kind of mind-map of her own life and anxieties. She starts with family, and the usual teenage stuff about school and college, boys, body-image.
As she thinks and writes, though, something begins to happen. She gradually begins to write on a larger scale, using and connecting bigger words like “greed”, “war”, “violence”, “environmental waste”. The technician handling the lights and projector – fellow-performer Zach Hatch – is drawn into her work, bringing extra boards to write on, shouting suggestions. A rhythmic, quiet soundtrack starts up, driving them forward; and then, towards the end, this strangely intense hour of performance begins to collide with some of the most powerful recent trends in visual art, as the whole floor full of words and ideas is heaved, shuddering and clattering, into a different dimension.
It’s hard to say whether Ryckewaert’s show – created with dramaturg Joeri Smet and director Alexander Devriendt – offers a message of hope, or of complete despair. Yet in itself, it’s a near-perfect example of the art that conceals art, beautifully written and thought through, despite its apparent casualness. And it’s also a living demonstration of how the act of writing, creating and describing can offer some sense of meaning; even in the most terrifying times.
It’s one of the paradoxes of our age that we find it so much easier to honour the radicalism of the past, than to create effective radical movements for our own time; and it’s one of the strengths of Peter Arnott’s new play Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?, written for Pepperdine University students at their annual Glasgow summer school, that it fully understands that paradox.
Arnott’s play tells the little-known story of the Bonus Army, a movement of US First World War veterans who, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, marched on Washington to demand work, and the payment in full of the cash bonuses they had been promised on their return from their war. The story is not a happy one; the protesters were finally evicted from their Washington camp with a brutality so shocking that it helped drive President Hoover from office.
Yet the young cast, directed by Cathy Thomas-Grant, deliver a performance of terrific focussed intensity, seamlessly mixing direct narrative and live action, and punctuated at every step by the powerful protest songs of Woody Guthrie, and other radical musicians of the time. And what emerges is a vivid, beautiful show, packed with timely insights into the human consequences of financial meltdown, and – above all – into the complex political and psychological journey young men and women must make, in hard times, to find the strength to stand their ground, and make a real political difference.
Caroline Horton’s Mess at the Traverse, by contrast, marks out its story not on the big map of history, but on a tiny personal canvas, shifting through three quiet English towns, and focussing tightly on the subject of anorexia nervosa, and the recovery from it of the main character, Josephine. A play about anorexia potentially offers huge insight into many of the angsts and insecurities that scar young people today; the idea of it features in All That Is Wrong, and haunts many other shows on this Fringe.
Yet the chosen style of the show – commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre and Parabola, and co-devised by the company – is so would-be-playful, so self-consciously child-like and charming, so full of tedious meta-theatrical jokes, and so fundamentally apologetic about the seriousness of its subject, that it comes close to undermining its whole purpose, which must be to advance understanding of this life-threatening disorder. Some of the writing is exquisite in its sensitivity, though; and time and again, Horton’s own beautifully-pitched central performance, as Josephine, hauls the show back from the brink of a self-aborbed theatrical silliness for which there is no need, and really not much excuse.
Davey Anderson’s new play The Static, presented at the Underbelly by ThickSkin, faces something like the opposite problem; in that it’s a play with little new to say about the agonies of youth, presented with such a direct, in-your-face energy and invention that it becomes irresistible. The hero is a teenage schoolboy called Sparky, who fancies a girl called Siouxsie, who thinks she can make bad things happen by the sheer power of thought; and the point – hardly surprising – seems to be that teenagers are grumpy with grownups, and that their pent-up sexual frustration can cause explosive problems.
Fortunately, though, the show also features four thrilling performances, along with an ear-splitting but hugely effective musical score, terrific visual effects, and a strikingly fluent way with movement. And at the end, the audience cheer the cast to the echo; although probably not so much for what they’ve learned about the lives of today’s troubled teens, as for a dazzling display of current small-scale theatre technique, delivered with outstanding wit and flair.
Until 12 August, 11 August, 26 August, 26 August
pp. 255, 335, 298, 323