Going Viral, The Paradise Project, Here Is The News From Over There

Going Viral
4 stars ****
The Paradise Project
3 stars ***
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at Summerhall (Venue 26)

IT BEGAN in 2011 at St. Stephen’s in the New Town; and already, four years on, the presence of Northern Stage from Newcastle is one of the brightest fixtures on the Fringe, bringing “great theatre made in the North of England” to Edinburgh audiences. This year, Northern Stage looks pretty much at home in a spacious studio theatre at the furthest corner of Summerhall; and in that space, on their Fringe launch day, they unrolled a series of small-scale shows all tightly and courageously focussed on the growing sense, among younger artists, that our civilisation, our world, is living on the edge of a precipice – one that we have to confront with memory, knowledge, wit, invention, and also with a little laughter laughter, and song.

So perhaps the most satisfying show of the day was Dan Bye’s deceptively simple monologue Going Viral, about an ordinary bloke – not unlike Bye himself – who gradually realises that he is the “super-spreader” who, without contracting the illness himself, is gradually infecting the entire world with a potentially fatal weeping sickness.

Bye’s past theatrical style has often involved a touch of the hand-knitted, and a slightly twee use of small physical objects and images. This time, though – despite the appearance of a small bottle of hand sanitiser and an entire bag of liquorice allsorts, playing a key role in the drama – Bye’s storytelling seems more vigorous and complex, more fundamentally driven by language and character, as he conjures up the image of a world increasingly cruelly divided between weepers and non-weepers. And in the end, there seems almost no limit to the deep political resonances of this apparently light-touch show, as Bye brings a rare mix of science, artistry and compassion to bear on a neurotic and self-absorbed western culture, that often seems to be looking for any excuse to seal off the possibility of real human contact and empathy, once and for all.

The Paradise Project, co-created by Third Angel of Sheffield and mala voadora of Porto, captures a similar sense of looming apocalypse, although here the threat is less specific. A young woman and an older man are alone in a room, which they patiently build out of scenery flats, and furnish with a self-assembly table and stools deftly put together on stage while they chat, in an unremarkable image of ordinary human co-operation. Their task, it seems, is to spend a month in this strange space trying to create a new, utopian society – although they quickly learn that it takes more than two even to hold a decent vote, never mind construct an entire civic culture; and their conversations are punctuated by readings from reports which seem to document the chaotic or horrific endings and breakdowns of past efforts to create a stable and just society.

It’s a brilliant idea for a show, supported and co-written by an impressive team of artists; yet somehow, the scenes between the two characters in the room seem too slight to bear the weight of the significance attached to them. What should be a searching and sometimes terrifying experiment with welcome touches of humour, becomes a kind of bantering, flirtatous sitcom at the end of the world; and although it often hits the mark with sharp observations on how hard it is for human beings to live together, it also often seems evasive, and just a little bit dull.

In the late evenings, meanwhile, Northern Stage is offering an entertainment from the edge called Here Is The News From Over There (Over There Is The News From Here), a bold attempt to put on stage, in late-night cabaret form, all the multiple voices of the Middle East, the region which – thanks to pressures global and local – often seems to live closest to the kind of violent abyss that has recently engulfed Syria. Here Is The News will be a different show every evening; but to judge by its opening effort, jointly compered by Lebanese writer Abdel Rahim Alawiji and Egyptian writer and actor Sara Shaarawi, audiences can expect a chance to laugh, sing along and perhaps eat some cake; along with vivid punches of poetry from writers like Sabrina Mahfouz from Egypt and Hassan Abdul Razzak from Iraq, and some chilling insights into the harsh climate of religious intolerance with which artists and free thinkers now have to contend, in a region riven by all the world’s conflicts, but also bursting with life.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30, 30, 29 August
pp. 329, 356, 333.



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