Brexit and the anti-European hysteria sweeping the UK are huge thematic concerns at this year’s Fringe, unsurprising for a Scottish festival that causes Edinburgh’s population to explode with an influx of tourists and talent from across the globe. With such a diverse population putting on shows and sitting in the audience, Fringe theatre has a vital opportunity to challenge reactionary tabloid narratives which scapegoat immigrants and refugees and rely on lazy racist narratives to sell papers and politics. The Skinny looks at some of the best and most popular shows that challenge exclusionary Brexit and anti-immigration ire.
The Empire Builders [★★★★]
Turkish theatre company Hayal Perdesi, a vital alternative creative space in Turkey, have won awards all over Europe for their ingenious production of Boris Vian’s absurdist, arcane play The Empire Builders. A popular Milano theatre rag captured the production’s appeal which transcends Europe’s borders, describing it as a “beautiful” triumph, succeeding “where the European politicians have failed.”
The play centres on the Duponts – petit-bourgeois Father (Reha Ozcan) and Mother (Ayse Lebriz Berkem), rebellious daughter Zenobia (Tuna Karabey) and comical maid Mug (Selin Tekman). Their escapades stuck in a small apartment are pretty commonplace and humourous until a horrible “indefinable terror” is heard – the noise represented in this production by low rumblings, dark electro and an absence of light. The presence of the noise requires anyone living to flee, the Duponts must abandon their lodgings, grab as much of their belongings as possible and flee upstairs before their previous dwelling mysteriously disappears. This is innovatively evoked in Hayal Perdesi’s minimalist staging with tape, scissors, and a ladder defining space.
As if this wasn’t strange enough, the Duponts are accompanied by an intensely uncanny, abject and pathetic figure, the Schmürz, who seems intrinsically connected to the noise. Stranger still, is the treatment of the Schmürz at the hands of the Duponts. Never acknowledged in conversation by the family, the wretched Schmürz is actively ignored except when a single Dupont, mid conversation or quotidian chore, stops to violently degrade and humiliate her. Their punishments get more outlandish and unconscionable – she is beaten, spat on, sprayed with bleach, drowned – primitive actions, ironic against their middle class pretensions of civility.
As the Duponts ascend the stairs, abandoning floor after floor, members of the family mysteriously leave or disappear. The Schmürz, however much she suffers, always survives and endures. Hayal Perdesi’s founder, actress Selin İşcan, plays the Schmürz, ingeniously allowing for the character to be interpreted for the first time ever as female, adding another layer of alterity to the role.
The Empire Builders is a simple absurdist conceit, enjoyable in its elementary aesthetics and narrative as a stylish horror. In its absurdity, repetition and emphasis on what the French call l'incommunicabilité – the unintelligibility of existence and meaning – the noise and the Schmürz can be all things to all audiences. When Vian penned the piece, France’s empire was collapsing in on itself and the Duponts can be seen as oppressive French colonists, whose unsustainable existence depended on the oppression and exploitation of the colonised, before globalisation allowed for the exploitation of former colonies in different ways. In this interpretation, the Schmürz is the colonised and the noise is their rage and rebellion.
Seen in the contemporary context of Brexit and a move towards fascism in Europe and America, Hayal Perdesi’s production speaks to the suffering of immigrants and in particular refugees. The callous cruelty and violence caused by inaction and denial.
Counting Sheep [★★★★]
Branded as a ‘guerrilla folk opera’ and written by Ukrainian couple Mark and Marichka Marczyk, Counting Sheep thrusts the audience right into the middle of a full-scale revolution. The immersive piece recreates the 2013/14 riots in Kiev, Ukraine when thousands of activists took to the streets protesting the anti-EU and pro-Russian stance of a corrupt Ukrainian government, to be met with extreme police brutality resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and riot police.
With dancing, food and live traditional Ukrainian music from Canadian troop Lemon Bucket Orkestra, the 15 strong cast don sheep masks and play out the chaos of Euromaidan for an exhilarating 75 minutes. As the production gathers momentum, the audience are whirled around the room laughing and dancing until the tables are overturned and built into makeshift barricades. With a lingering sense of unpredictability about what will happen next, the dancing turns into fighting and the revolution rages on; police and protesters, actors and audience come together with an explosion of electrifying energy.
Overall, the production is messy, chaotic and destructive; everything reflective of a real revolution. Large screens play news footage from Maidan Square throughout, emphasising the devastation. Innovative and thought-provoking, Counting Sheep leaves a poignantly striking message reflected on the screens – the war is not over yet.
Glasgow Girls [★★★]
Written by David Greig and Cora Bissett, Glasgow Girls follows the lives of four young asylum seekers settling in at Drumchapel High in Glasgow, living in fear of deportation by the home office. As the frequency of violent and inhumane dawn raids by the immigration police increases, the asylum seekers and their classmates band together to form an activist group, the ‘Glasgow Girls’, joining with the local community to fight for the rights of families seeking asylum throughout Scotland. Based on real life events that occurred over a decade ago, the hard-hitting issues the musical addresses are still especially relevant to the world’s present situation.
Although overall a thoroughly powerful and enjoyable 90 minutes of theatre, the production is distinctly rough around the edges, with imperfections to be ironed out. Disappointingly, the inadequate acoustics in the venue caused the pre-recorded backing track to completely drown out the less powerful voices in the performance. The depiction of the home office and borders police fails to capture the fear they were attempting to evoke, with their songs taking on a childlike tone, detracting from the seriousness of the situation.
However, despite these issues, the committed cast whirl through the fast-paced script – featuring poetic lyricism and imagery typical of Greig’s writing – giving a high energy performance. Terry Neason as Noreen particularly stands out, with a powerful voice and emotional speeches directly to the audience. Callum Cuthbertson gives a comic, yet touching performance as Mr Girvan, a teacher at Drumchapel chosen to teach English to the asylum seekers through 'guitar, Scots and sheer persistence.' Although shaky in parts, Glasgow Girls deals with serious issues in a heartfelt and uplifting manner, while reminding us that the musical's theme still continues to be an issue in the world today.
The Other [★★★★]
Acclaimed French-Brazilian Fringe veteran Gael Le Cornec returns to Edinburgh for her heart achingly funny one woman show, The Other. Writer, researcher, puppeteer, actor and activist, Cornec puts her all into this humble lo-fi yet dazzling affair, illuminating the stories of child refugees and making them instantly entertaining and accessible to a casual afternoon audience. With such tragic, urgent subject matter, and such potential prejudice, this is no mean feat.
Cornec uses the medium of storytelling, fairytales and science fiction to achieve this effect. These devices push the audience to cast aside political persuasions they may have about real geopolitical conflicts, such as Syria, to instead focus on the story of the juvenile refugee as an imaginative, innocent child; as worthy of attention as any white Disney heroine.
The Other tells the story of Mana, a little girl from the alien red-yellow planet, sent on a dangerous but necessary journey by her grandmother to flee conflict. She dreams of the “beautiful” blue planet her grandmother has told her stories of and imagines a prosperous future where she will no longer fear the Pumpkin heads, a child’s metaphor for war criminals and death. On the way she rescues a doll, her only companion, and treats her as a child, mimicking her grandmother and the care which she tragically isn’t receiving herself.
Cornec uses shadow play, coloured lights, songs and poetry to great effect and simple props, at one point involving the audience in the play’s ironically most hilarious and most tragic scene, forcing us to see ourselves as inexplicably tied with the fates of the world’s most unfortunate children.
Cornec was inspired to write the play when she discovered that many refugee children, because of the unimaginable hardship they have endured and through a lack of 'official' documentation, are held in adult 'illegal' immigrant detention centres, stripped of humanity and freedom having survived their horrendous ordeals. The play ends on an emotive note. Mana, stripped of her clothes, her precious doll and her name, is instead given a number and has no language or power to fight her fate. This is of course based on the actual procedures many child refugees have to go through. It is a necessary call to action, with details of the Refugee Council (www.refugeecouncil.org) circulated after the show.
Glasgow Girls, Assembly Hall, until 28 Aug, 2:20pm, various prices
Counting Sheep, The King's Hall, until 29 Aug, various times, various prices
The Other, French Institute, until 28 Aug (not Mondays) 2pm, £10 (£8)
The Empire Builders, French Institute, until 21 Aug (not Mondays) 6.30pm, £12 (£8)