BEOWULF: A THOUSAND YEARS OF BAGGAGE/TONIGHT SANDY GRIERSON WILL LECTURE, DANCE AND BOX/AT THE SANS HOTEL/MISSION DRIFT/SOMEWHERE BENEATH IT ALL, A SMALL FIRE BURNS STILL/AUDIENCE
I'm standing in George Square Gardens, new home to Assembly, waiting to go into Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage when I bump into director Lorne Campbell. He is about to do some flyering for his entertaining show Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box, which I've just seen. We talk about the way actor Sandy Grierson (who does indeed lecture, dance and box) starts off the show by chatting directly to the audience, acknowledging our presence in the room and enlisting our help as he tells the Dadaist story of the shape-shifting Arthur Cravan.
He welcomes us as we go in, tells us how to fold our programmes into paper boats and assigns roles for us to perform, be they a champion boxer or Leon Trotsky. It's an approach that's possible only in live performance, which is one reason audiences enjoy it so much. It also makes the moment more dramatic when Grierson asserts control, bringing the focus back onto the stage and delivering a closing performance of special intensity.
I tell Campbell about At The Sans Hotel, another great Fringe show that takes a similar approach. In this one, Australian performer Nicola Gunn, in the guise of a sexually frank and rather scatty European woman, hands out cake, drink and an invisible questionnaire to the audience before the tone flips and she switches into an alarmingly intense – and apparently autobiographical – study of a nervous breakdown.
It's like a performance art version of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, except by some quirk of Assembly's programming, it is attracting a large audience who appear to be more like the overspill from Milton Jones or Sarah Millican than fans of leftfield theatre. They don't know what to make of Gunn's brave, confrontational and – admittedly – offbeat performance at all and many leave clearly perplexed by it.
Sure enough, five minutes after my conversation with Campbell, I'm sitting waiting for Beowulf to start when a woman two rows behind me gives her neighbour some serious advice. "Don't see At The Sans Hotel," she says, mystified why anyone would want to watch such dry comedy and intense distress.
Sadly, I never get to hear what she thinks of Beowulf which, although it has a mainstream musical heart, is actually from the same performance-art tradition as Gunn's show. On the one hand, this thrilling production by New York's Banana Bag and Bodice gives a faithful rendition of the Scandinavian legend of the warrior Beowulf and his battles with the monster Grendel.
On the other hand, it is performed from a dryly ironic 21st-century perspective, as the actors, with their Wooster Group-style microphones, give a feminist re-reading of the story's old-school machismo and heroism. When the monster is the only one with a mother, it asks, what does it tell us about ancient attitudes to womanhood and male lineage?
Even though Jason Craig's script is very funny, it is no send-up and, despite the postmodern commentary, stays faithful enough to the original to maintain its essential power. The show also has an excellent set of songs by Dave Malloy, brilliantly performed by a seven-strong band which, I suspect, will keep happy those with more traditional theatrical tastes.
I imagine the same can be said about Banana Bag and Bodice's friends in the TEAM, the brilliant New York company whose Mission Drift at the Traverse is not only more coherent than some of its previous work, but is also graced by an excellent live score by Heather Christian. Director Rachel Chavkin is in typically ambitious form as she tells the story of the rise of American capitalism from the earliest Dutch settlers to the excesses of Las Vegas and the last stock market crash. Showing a healthy disregard to the unities of time and place, she builds a fluid, endlessly fascinating production that makes the connection between the frontier spirit of the pioneers and the money-worshipping culture that's been getting us into so much trouble today. Like Beowulf, it's a show you'd watch happily all over again – if only it wasn't leaving town after today's performance.
I have seen no sign that either of these shows are splitting audiences, but elsewhere, it is shaping up to be a festival in which the audience itself is in the firing line. Even Phil Nichol is at it. The Perrier Award winner and powerhouse behind the Comedians Theatre Company is starring in a one-man show called Somewhere Beneath It All, A Small Fire Burns Still. Written by Dave Florez, it begins as a routine monologue about a misfit under the delusional impression he is God's gift to women and that the waitress in his local greasy spoon has the hots for him.
Performing in a Glasgow accent, Nichol is convincing enough but, just as you're thinking this kind of play is ten-a-penny on the Fringe, something extraordinary happens. Look away now if you're planning to see it, because the surprise is what makes it special.
First you notice Nichol appears to be accidentally slipping into his native Canadian accent; the next thing he's getting all flustered and asking for the house lights to be put up. Now, he's haranguing us, in the most vulgar way, chastising us for wasting our time watching theatre – and bad theatre at that – when we could be doing something useful. He's ranting like a homophobic idiot and telling us all to leave. Surely this is a performer suffering premature Fringe burn-out. The audience doesn't know where to look.
It is, however, all part of the act and, in an inspired turn-around, a now relaxed Nichol makes us realise we have not been watching the story of a self-aggrandising loser but of a young paraplegic man on a futile search for love and affection. We spend the rest of the performance catching up. In less than hour, the mood has switched from humdrum to violent to poignant. You leave the theatre with your head reeling.
Being punished just for being an audience is not everyone's cup of tea but they're all at it. Actor Nigel Barrett in The One Man Show at C Venue, for example, gives a meta-theatrical performance that points to the absurdity of coming together to watch someone pretending to be someone else. And arriving at the Traverse this coming week, Tim Crouch's I, Malvolio – like last year's The Author – berates the audience for its collective cruelty to one of Shakespeare's most mocked characters.
Above all, the arch-provocateurs of Belgium's Ontroerend Goed are turning the focus from the stage to the auditorium in Audience, a show that sparked a minor stage invasion on the night I saw it. Even now, the pundits are writing earnest think-pieces on whether the company has gone "too far" this time. Director Alexander Devriendt, however, knows exactly what he's doing, and he and the company have already asked themselves every question the audience may ask – about the morality of putting people's private lives on show, about bullying spectators, about our free will when part of a crowd. No question it's an uncomfortable, confrontational experience, but no question either that you won't find a more animated audience anywhere in town.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, Assembly George Square (Venue 3), until 29 August; Tonight Sandy Grierson Will Lecture, Dance and Box, Assembly George Square (Venue 3), until 28 August;
At The Sans Hotel, Assembly Hall (Venue 35), until 28 August; Mission Drift, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15), ends today; Somewhere Beneath It All, A Small Fire Burns Still, Gilded Balloon (Venue 14), until 29 August; Audience, St George's West (Venue 157), until 28 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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