The Fringe offers strange and quientessentially 21st century takes on romance
The authorative, original love story of British theatre, Romeo and Juliet, when viewed outside of the theatrical canon is a pretty strange affair – ostensibly children, Romeo roofies himself, Juliet seriously overeacts, then romantically and tragically, they both end up dead. It's an affair that set up a tonne of romantic conceits, so much so that erratic and criminal behaviour on the part of those loved up seems standard dramatic fodder to audiences, perhaps almost logical when peeps be in love.
So how does love on the stage measure up in 2016? The Fringe offers strange and quientessentially 21st Century takes on lovers and romance and The Skinny reviews three of the best.
Love, Lies and Taxidermy
Boy meets girl at a medical testing centre. Their first date is in Tesco café. It is hardly the stuff of movies. Richard Curtis hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to choose Merthyr Tydfil as the perfect rom-com setting, and it is doubtful that Notting Hill would be the Christmas classic it is if, rather than centring on a glamorous Hollywood star, its plot revolved around a talk on taxidermy, a debt-ridden ice cream van and an amateur porn shoot in a dodgy hotel room.
Love, Lies and Taxidermy [★★★★★] (Roundabout @ Summerhall) is more Wes Anderson than Richard Curtis; it is much more quirky and offbeat than a romantic airport chase scene. Though, Rhys Ifans in his underwear just might fit in amongst Jakub, the Polish bird-stuffer who attends the local Conservative Club’s events (yes, “there really are Conservatives in Merthyr!”) Mr Tutti-Frutti, the desperate ice cream seller (since the new Tesco people are eating ice cream at home, “in front of Netflix”) and Maxie Doyle the desperate wannabe film maker, who is only going to make “soapy porn” until he has enough money to escape to the bright lights of Newport. Oh, and Valentine and Ashley, who are the star-crossed lovers of the piece, the teenagers caught in the crosswinds of their parents' mistakes, longings and worrying hobbies. There is also a brief cameo moment from Ron Burgundy.
No description of the tangled plot, the fast-paced, achingly funny language, or the first-class characters will do this piece justice. It is sweet, strange, endearing, uplifting and bursting with energy. The three actors never seem to stop. They dart around the stage, switching accents and body postures to contort themselves into the various idiosyncratic characters; they make cheeky glances and winks at the audience; they never leave the stage for a second. Awkward kisses, awkward parents and run-of-the-mill adolescent awkwardness are given an energy that elevates the central teenage love affair to that of the greats. In this case, life in Merthyr is more magical than the movies. [EH]
If you could bring your dead lover back to life, would you? Surely that’s an offer no one could refuse. But what if it was a version of your lover, an almost-exact replica, but not quite the real deal? What if you could bring them back using artificial intelligence? What then?
Solo Date [★★★★] (Assembly George Square Studios) takes this thought experiment and runs with it, into compelling, humorous and unexpected places. Ho-Nien, after learning his boyfriend has died in a plane crash, orders an AI personal assistant crammed to the brim with his late partner’s voice, image, memories and personality traits. But what of the secrets between the couple? The grieving attempt to reconstruct his lover leads Ho-Nien down into a spiral of information and emotion, at the heart of which are two resounding questions: how much can we ever know the ones we love, and what is love anyway? Full understanding of the story, and of the show's ambitious scope regarding its central themes, are only revealed in the final moments, as a clever twist shifts the plot into new, unforeseen territory.
As the audience enters, Ho-Nien (Tsai Pao-Chang) sits blindfolded centre stage, apparently contained within a box of gauze. This gauze is where much of the action takes place – it becomes a shimmering screen, across which projections glide. Each new scene is introduced by a name in bright white, floating text, giving the impression of a graphic novel come to life on stage.
In many shows, attempts to combine live action with multimedia feel forced. All too often the media seems uneasily tacked on; intended to add flair to a performance, it frequently instead distracts or actively detracts from the piece. This is certainly not the case in Solo Date. Here the projections not only flow seamlessly, shifting from iridescent electronic rain effects to gay internet chat-rooms without any uncomfortable jolt, but are integral to the piece.
The interaction between Ho-Nien inside his box and the huge faces looming over him on the screen is no gimmick, but an ingenious and necessary technique to communicate this near-future world. Appearing small and fragile in comparison to the all-knowing AI holograms, Ho-Nien seems trapped – a pet inside a cage he himself has built. Visually stunning, intellectually and emotionally challenging, and funny; this piece cuts to the heart of contemporary concerns, and provides a radically new dimension to the timeless theme of love. [EH]
It’s not an overstatement to say that Belfast native Stacey Gregg’s meticulously researched, award-winning play Scorch [★★★★] (Roundabout @ Summerhall) is one of the most heart breaking, affective and necessary pieces of theatre at this year’s Fringe. Not least because Kes’s story (Amy McAllister) is an amalgamation of shocking real life cases in which young teenagers have been convicted as sex offenders through a new and poorly defined “crime”: “gender fraud.”
The offence usually involves a minor who, still learning about their own emergent gender and sexual identity, is seen to deceive a sexual partner about their legally defined sex. As reflected in the play’s narrative, these teens are pulled apart by tabloid media. Licentious headlines and salacious language misrepresent Kes as a two dimensional, transphobic media stereotype- a predatory lesbian, a dangerous, deceitful and corrupting queer who robbed her lover of the normalcy and wholesomeness of heteronormativity. A cruel statement from a Judge to this effect, quoted in Scorch and chewed over by the defenceless Kes, is all the more horrifying for being real.
Kes is a gender curious teen who uses the world of online gaming and chat to escape the suffocating hegemony of prescribed gender roles. “Kes” is a self created, spontaneous persona with a leather jacket and a waistcoat. He’s smart and posturing like James Dean but sensitive and shy like Ryan Gosling. Online he becomes best friends with fellow gamer Jules. They trade emojis and xoxos, eventually becoming boyfriend and girlfriend IRL.
This story of first love is played out ingeniously in a one person show by McAllister, text tones and Skype sounds meld into music, coloured lighting invoke screens and mirrors effectively recreating cyberspace as something tangible and real, proof of the efficacy of Roudabout’s high tech set up. Scorch also uses the conceit of Kes telling their story to a trans support group made up of the audience to hilarious and dramatic effect. Don’t be surprised if Kes unwittingly gives you a backhanded compliment about your “wig.”
This is an important play, relatable enough for a mainstream audience yet asking difficult and pressing questions that affect the lives of millions of queer and trans teenagers and their families. It’s an entertainingly realised cry to action, not only from the LGBTQA community but also from the legal world; those who see the criminalising of consensual desire and intimacy in trans and queer kids as retrograde, reactionary and ultimately a slippery slope for personal freedom. Despite all of this, Gregg insists that first and foremost is about falling in love and we’re inclined to agree, as innocent, mundane and devastating as any standard cis romance. [RB]
Love, Lies and Taxidermy, Roundabout @ Summerhall, various dates until 28 Aug, 1.35pm, various prices.
Solo Date, Assembly George Square Studios, various dates until 29 Aug, 1.45pm, £10.
Scorch, Roundabout @ Summerhall, until 28 Aug (not Tuesdays) 6:05pm, £14 (£12) £32.50 Family Ticket.