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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fringe shows that capture the Olympic spirit

Published in the Scotsman


WHAT with Wimbledon, Euro 2012 and the Olympics, the more observant among you will have noticed we are in the midst of a summer of sport. Earlier in the year, there were worries the arts would suffer as a result, but with the Edinburgh Fringe bigger than ever, there’s little sign of thunder being stolen here. On the contrary, many theatre companies are happily getting in on the sporting act themselves.

Should you suffer athletics withdrawal in that two-week window between the end of the Olympics and the start of the Paralympics, the Fringe is here to help. Complementing the Edinburgh International Festival’s Speed of Light, in which illuminated runners scramble across Arthur’s Seat, the Fringe is packed with shows on a sporting theme. They include Autojeu Theatre scaling the heights in How to Climb Mount Everest; Searchlight Theatre Company reliving the achievements of the 1924 Scottish 400m champion in Chariot: The Eric Liddell Story; and Cherrywild going game, set and match in Love All about Ireland’s first Wimbledon champion-turned-
murderer Vere St Leger Goold.

Neither is it all a spectator sport. In Endure: A Run Woman Show, you have the option to run alongside New York performer Melanie Jones as she covers a 5,000m route across the Meadows and beyond in a piece of outdoor dance-theatre. 
Tuning in to the athlete’s thoughts on an iPod, you can watch from afar or work up a bit of a sweat yourself by joining in.

“The creative question I had was could I create theatre for runners?” says Jones, who tells the story of a woman running a marathon. She says of working up the show: “We knew in theory that theatre audiences would come as well, but the experience of having these two groups mix was quite extraordinary. And some non-runners, who just came because it was an interesting piece of creative work, have since started running.”

Glasgow writer and director Gary McNair 
reckons the problem with film and theatre about sport is that it always focuses on the drama of winning or losing instead of the rigours of being an athlete. That’s why in Born to Run, based on the true story of Diane Van Deren, a tennis player who uses ultra-long distance running to alleviate the symptoms of her epilepsy, he gets actor Shauna Macdonald to perform the whole thing on a treadmill. She has to run for 45 minutes without dropping out of character.

“My general feeling is the crossover between sport and art doesn’t work; you just have to watch a film about football to see that,” says McNair. “You’re never going to represent a 110-mile run in reality, you have to try and put it metaphorically. To watch someone run for an hour and perform a monologue seems epic; you can buy into the longevity of the 110 miles because it’s a feat in itself. You’re seeing the struggle.”

Equally athletic is Charlotte Josephine, whose research into female boxing for her play Bitch Boxer turned her into a keen participant in the sport. “I work part-time in a coffee shop and I was lugging boxes into the storeroom when this guy made a stupid comment about me not looking very ladylike,” she says. “I wrote a rant on my phone about knowing that I’m physically strong but also feminine. The play grew from there. When I read that women are fighting this summer for the first time in the Olympics, I was like, ‘Ah, she’s a boxer’.”

She started training at her local boxing club and fell in love with the sport. As a result, her performance in the Old Vic New Voices season is as physical as it is verbal. “I had no interest in sport, the Olympics or boxing and now I’m obsessed with it,” says Josephine, who’s been talking to three members of the UK Olympic team – Natasha Jonas, Savannah Marshall and Nicola Adams – for inspiration. 

“Amateur boxing is about scoring points, being disciplined and not being aggressive. In the play, we’re taking the main movements of boxing and using different forms of theatre to express that. It’s quite a physical show and I’m constantly tired and constantly sweaty. I think sport is massively theatrical.”

Steve Gilroy has taken another approach. He’s the director and co-writer of The Prize, a piece of verbatim theatre for Newcastle’s Live Theatre based on interviews with athletes, mainly from North-east England, who have a connection to the Olympics. They include swimmers, rowers and a wheelchair sprinter, plus former silver medal-winning athlete Roger Black, whose voice is used as a kind of narrator. “For a lot of people, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, athletics was a way out of poverty or a way into a life that promised adventure and travel,” he says. “With the Olympics, my starting point was a little bit cynical – the machinery and hype of it all. But John Mayock, who was a middle-distance runner, talks about getting out of Barnsley and people in his street throwing stones at the scabs in the miners’ strike in 1994. 

“The opportunity to do those sports happened within organisations run by mining social clubs, so a lot of it emerges through a working-class 
culture. And you particularly find in the Para-
lympics that sport represents a life that holds more promise and opportunity.”

The cumulative effect of their testimonies is very moving, he says. “There are some strong, striking, emotional stories. And unlikely stories: the journeys that people take to end up in the same place this summer are quite remarkable.”

If all that doesn’t leave you out of breath, then head to the Edinburgh International Book Festival where a strand called Sport: Mind Games looks at the psychology of competition and the science of success. It includes Ben and Geoffrey Beattie who used running to cement their father-son bond; Ronald Reng looking at depression among sports people; and Bill Jones and Richard Moore discussing the dark side of athletics.
• NVA’s Speed of Light, Arthur’s Seat, 9 August-1 September; How to Climb Mount Everest, The Space on North Bridge, 20–25 August; Chariot: The Eric Liddell Story, Edinburgh Elim, 15–25 August; Love All, Assembly Roxy, until 26 August; Endure: A Run Woman Show, Assembly George Square, 9–19 
August; Born to Run, Traverse, 21–26 August; Bitch Boxer, Underbelly Cowgate, until 26 August; The Prize, Underbelly Bristo Square, until 26 August; Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square, 11–27 August.

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