Fringe frolics

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

On Friday, the Scotsman announced week one's winners of the "Fringe First" awards for new writing at the Edinburgh Festival. Of the six so-called "best of the fest', I was lucky enough to catch two: Beautiful Burnout at The Pleasance Forth, and Speechless at the Traverse. One might well argue that neither of these fairly mainstream pieces is reflective of the "spirito di Fringe", and that their credentials as marginalia are questionable. Burnout, for example, is a Frantic Assembly co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. It has its own, unshared auditorium, a lavish set, by Fringe standards, and, moreover, all the economic punch of a major player.

However, in terms of sheer physical commitment, Bryony Lavery's play about a group of young Glasgow boxers chasing the big time is beyond reproach. Audience members are ringsiders to a sweaty spectacular from the performers, who at times abstract the boxing repertoire into stylised formations and dance, and at others jack up the realism to the point of terrifying brutality. The training and fight sequences transfer beautifully to dance form, as do the soft-shoed referees, nimble and cambered as they peer into the action.

The piece feeds greedily off the filmic: as well as a bank of video screens, we have a soundtrack courtesy of Underworld, whose electronic anthems are ever associated in the mind with the Weedgie radges of Trainspotting. A revolving stage swivels the actors around, mid-fight, as they go into slo-mo and freeze-frame, and we arrive at The Matrix. Even the trainer's name - Burgess - seems to slyly reference Meredith Burgess of Rocky fame.

The characters are instantly recognisable fighting types: there's your world-weary trainer (check!), then there's his protegé, your classic pasty ginger one (Ryan Fletcher), and his showboating tawny nemesis (Taqi Nazeer). More gratifyingly, the lads are matched, blow for blow, by a young lassie, Dina (Vicki Manderson). She inevitably loses her place in the boxing story, and as the pugilists punch each other's lights out, her role dwindles to that of sad showgirl with a broken heel. Her fate, and that of the brain-damaged boxer, may just serve the final "hold the front page - boxing is bad for you" point of the play, but we sure have fun getting to that point.

Speechless, scripted by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan, and presented by Shared Experience with Sherman Cymru, is inspired by the real-life story of June and Jennifer Gibbons. The electively mute twins of West Indian parentage achieved a certain notoriety for their incarceration in Broadmoor after a steady withdrawal from the outside world. The show reveals the two youngsters as impossibly enmeshed. June (Demi Oyediran) and Jennifer (Natasha Gordon) move with synchronised but leaden grace, their every movement loaded with pain; they fight like wildcats but cannot function independently. They will always be "the Twinnies".

The play skirts the issue of the twins' private idiom, their dialect of two, and we understand them perfectly (when they are alone) as articulate girls, with writerly aspirations - girls whose imaginations are constantly at play over the grounds of early eighties popular culture: Top of the Pops, The Generation Game, Tupperware parties. And nothing is as fascinating for them as the Royal Family: the details of the Windsor frocks, the Royal colours of mint, lime and canary yellow, are repeatedly trawled over. It's the fascination and fierce loyalty of the outsider looking in. This is not simply a tale of spooky twins - the girls' race further marks and alienates them in uneasy post-colonial times.

The piece makes compelling use of archive recordings, and voice-overs of the twins' actual writings, and these auditory documents spool out unsettlingly. To an 'I heart 1981" soundtrack of the Brixton riots on the one hand and the nuptials of Charles and Di on the other, June and Jennifer become enamoured of a misfit American boy, the ironically-named Kennedy. Almost as removed from the British mainstream as the twins, he, however, expresses his own alienation with foul-mouthed nihilism. As Lady Di emerges on TV in her crumpled white winding sheets ("ten, maybe twelve pearl button on the cuff!") the twins have sex of dubious consensuality with the dissolute Kennedy, and the news of his imminent departure for the Land of the Free seals their fate - and their lips - for good.

Just as it pulls the twins' lives out of kilter, so does Kennedy's arrival buckle the play's shape. It remains, however, a gorgeously acted, insightful piece - as well as a chronicle of Eighties' camp.

The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.