JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOREST FRINGE 2015 at Out Of The Blue Drill Hall (Venue 195) and offsite locations, for the Scotsman Festival Supplement, 24.8.15.
4 stars **** (if star rating wanted)
ONE OF ITS offsite venues has had two of its three floors closed by the fire inspectors, another show demands the daily shovelling of 3 tonnes of anthracite, and two favourite associate artists have been bumped from so many possible spaces that they’ve ended up performing in someone’s living-room.
The Forest Fringe, in other words, still has some of that last-minute wildness that used to be associated with the Fringe as a whole; and with Fringe activity ever more concentrated around the university area on the South Side, it seems highly appropriate that this terrific mini Fringe festival – jointly curated by Deborah Pearson, Ira Brand, and the unstoppable Andy Field – not only still fails to appear in the main Fringe programme, but has also taken up residence a mile to the north, at the Out Of The Blue Drill Hall in the Leith Walk heartland of Edinburgh’s year-round creative life.
Yet it’s one of the glorious paradoxes of the Forest Fringe that it increasingly succeeds in being both marginal to the mainstream Fringe – in the most edgy and positive sense of the word – and also central to the creative lives of many leading Fringe artists. Over the two weeks of this year’s programme, the Forest Fringe plays host to a huge range of Fringe stars, from the mighty Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment, through the Volcano Company of South Wales, to the award-winning Made In China and the astonishing Christopher Brett Bailey, who, next Thursday and Friday, revives his sensational 2014 solo show This Is How We Die. And the festival ends, next weekend, with two days of work under the title Out Of The Woods, programmed by Glasgow’s own experimental Buzzcut festival.
So the past week at Forest Fringe has involved the usual range of the brilliant, the embryonic, and the slightly disappointing. The award-winning company Little Bulb failed to make waves with a sweet, deliberately childish romp-cum-song-cycle about whales called Wails, despite some beautiful singing from Clare Beresford, co-creator of this show with Dominic Conway. And Volcano’s promenade show Black Stuff – a reflection on the coal industry that shaped South Wales, staged off Bonnington Road on a warehouse floor half covered in a thick, jagged layer of anthracite – seemed like a flashback to a Richard Demarco event of the early 1990’s, all vivid splashes of red against black in a dim, dramatically-lit found space, fascinating in its determination to recall the range of international links and migrations fuelled by the coal industry, but slightly self-absorbed in its theatrical style, involving a series of enigmatic, installation-like gestures.
For me, though the shows that reached deepest in the first week were three spare, searching semi-solo performances, all featuring formidable artists in mid-journey. The most perfect was Emma Hall’s remarkable monologue We May Have To Choose, which should have been the most boring show on the Fringe, since it consists of 621 short opinions about almost everything – from Kylie Minogue to the death of the oceans – delivered in 45 minutes. Yet Hall is such a compelling, authoritative performer, the element of simple stylised movement in her performance is so perfectly judged, and the text itself contains such a subtle cumulative poetry about this moment in human history, that the whole show is strangely gripping, and absolutely irresistible.
Then beyond that, there is the absolute joy of a work-in-progress glimpse at Deborah Pearson’s ongoing project History, History, History, which explores how her own family’s history was changed for ever by the Hungarian uprising of 1956. And there is the privilege of spending time in a small room in which Tim Etchells and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva are gradually taking apart the language we use, into endless, concentrated, resonant phrases – “in any order” “it could have been worse” “they told their children the poor were ghosts” – and reassembling it in waves of intense repetition, accompanied by sound from the violin. Etchells performed the experiment he calls Seeping Through for four hours, on Thursday; and although it’s hard to say why, the half hour I spent there was one of the highlights of my week, an intense immersion in the way we use words but often fail to hear them, that seemed to cleanse my brain of all the sound and fury of the Fringe, and leave me ready – like Forest Fringe, which opens its second-week programme today – to start all over again.
Until 30, with further performances of Black Stuff untl 28.