The story of personal redemption through art is one of the favourite clichés in the Fringe book;place it in an East Harlem setting, and the possibility also arises of comfortable theatre-goers buying a convenient, pre-packaged and deodorised slice of street reality. Dael Orlandersmith's solo prose-poem performance The Gimmick runs all these risks, but soars gloriously above them to create an affecting and memorable piece which is the highlight of my Fringe so far this year. Orlandersmith's apparently semi-autobiographical tale follows her own alter ego Alexis and best friend Jimmy as they discover, respectively, words and painting in their East Harlem childhood, but fall back into the quagmire of ho's and shooting galleries, Alexis to escape, Jimmy to succumb. The verbal motif of "the gimmick" laces through, signifying both escape and sordid reality. Orlandersmith's language and characterisations are consistently compelling. A creation of beauty.
The Traverse's programme of premieres by women also includes Kay Adshead's powerful asylum drama The Bogus Woman. Noma Dumezweni gives a potent, fully controlled performance as an African poetess and sometime dissident journalist who, after her own rape and the murder of her family, flees on false documents to Britain, suffers indignities and casual torment at Campsfield and Tinsley House asylum centres, at best patronised by other parties, and when granted temporary residence is unsurprisingly unable to live on the deplorable voucher allocation. The aspect of poetry allows Adshead to overwrite every so often, but this production by The Red Room and Mamo Quillo is, perversely, a breath of fresh air in a theatrical climate which seems to have forgotten about accomplished agitprop.
Abi Morgan's piece for Paines Plough, Splendour, directed by Vicky Featherstone, is a kind of post-Yugoslav play which plays games with both time and language. Scenes are replayed several times with slight variations, gradually building up a Cubist picture of the quartet of characters: war photographer Kathryn (a nicely jaded Faith Flint), dictator's wife Micheleine (Mary Cunningham, giving a first-rate performance of brittle, unsettled hostess-dom), her supposed best friend Genevieve (Myra McFadyen), and kleptomaniac interpreter Gilma – Eileen Walsh, who does a fine job of gradually revealing her character's giggling vapidity to be a mask worn over ethnic-based bitterness and uncertainty of her own. What may seem at first to be simply a highly skilled technical exercise on a worthy contemporary motif proves in fact to have a quiet but riveting cumulative power over its 90 minutes.
A similar slow burner is da da kamera's two-hander In On It. As the unnamed This One (Daniel MacIvor) and That One (Darren O'Donnell) act out scenes from a play in progress and argue about the dramatic development, we move slowly beyond play-within-a-play clichés. It becomes apparent that the play is This One's way of dealing with his own life and temperament, including elements which he will not make explicit even when delivering pieces straight to the audience. Its ending manages to be both affirmative and tragic in the same moment. It takes a degree of patience to accept the degree to which one is gradually allowed "in on it" over an hour's playing time, but that patience is wonderfully repaid.
The Ridiculusmus company have grown in skill and stature over several years, and have garnered Fringe acclaim for the exuberant surreality of recent shows The Exhibitionists and Yes Yes Yes (the latter of which can be seen again during the final week of this year's Fringe). Their new show Say Nothing follows an expatriate Ulsterman now returned with a doctorate in Peace and Conflict Studies to do community work and research. It's both funny and clever (although an ear for the Belfast accent helps), and creeps gradually towards a darker ending, but the various pieces don't quite build in the way the company evidently hoped.
Written for the Financial Times
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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