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In our final Fringe round-up, Isabelle Dupuy singles out three very different productions that stood out for her in Edinburgh – all of which are transferring to London theatres over the next two months.
It was pouring rain and we were waiting in the atrium of a university lecture hall. I felt weary as I took my seat. A flashback to a time when one hour took a hundred years and I struggled to stay awake in rooms such as these. A man is on the stage floor, his back turned to us, behind tall metal bars. Another man walks on to the stage and calls out to him. And the next thing I knew, the hour was over and I was back out in the rain.
The Fishermen, adapted from Chigozie Obioma’s prize winning novel of the same name, is the most absorbing play I have seen in Edinburgh this year. Gbolohan Obesan has managed to bring to us the beating heart of a family saga with only two actors on a small stage with metal rods for props. Two brothers meet after many years apart. One had gone away and the other stayed home. They are still young.
The story of the undoing of a once happy family unfolds because of the common tradition of raising children in fear, superstition and ignorance. The story is set in a village in Nigeria, but it could have been anywhere in the developing world or in parts of Europe and America where old colonial habits of teaching through violence and fear still hold. Michael Ajao mainly plays the younger brother Ben and Valentine Olukoga the third born, but through their impressions we get to meet their mother, their father, their older brothers, even local madman Abulu.
Ajao and Olukoga have partnered before in the Royal Court’s Liberian Girl, and their interaction is so complimentary and seamless it is like a dance – farcical in parts, electric in others. Ajao in particular brings a physical dimension to the tale. A scene where he plays a fish dying of asphyxiation and another where he impersonates Abulu are breathtaking. The story is dense at times and we miss some parts of the novel, but this adaptation had to fit within an hour. Hopefully this Fringe performance will graduate to a full length show. Just like Obioma’s novel, the theatrical Fishermen will be one to watch out for.
The Fishermen will play at the Arcola Theatre from 17 to 22 September.
Queens of Sheba
At first glance, Queens seems like a celebration of the music and spirit of Aretha Franklin. And then the four black women on stage take ownership of the story and the music and the play soars. There is beautiful poetry throughout and one of the best lines, an answer to the annoying “Where are you from-from?” that one hears in this country when one is not white British is: “I am a mix. Of both racism and sexism. They lay equally on my skin. Passed down unknowingly by my next of kin.”
Jessica Hagan has bravely put on paper what so many black women have been thinking quietly and there is an almost audible sigh of relief and recognition among the members of the audience who relate to the lives of the four black actresses who play themselves as they go through a day in this world. The idea of the play grew out of a dissertation Hagan has written on misogynoir. The term was coined about eight years ago by Dr Moya Bailey, a black professor at Northeastern University in the US, to address the specific mix of racism and sexism that black women have been contending with for generations.
Ryan Calais Cameron has adapted Hagan’s academic work for the stage and together with the cast – Jacoba Williams, Kokoma Kwaku, Rachel Clarke and Veronica Beatrice Lewis – they have managed to make Queens much more than a tale of misogynoir. It is an hour long celebration of black women – their spirit, their courage, their humanity. There is a scene, inspired by a real event, where the four young women want to enter a nightclub. The women with a darker skin tone are told they cannot come in by a black male bouncer. The song that followed was heartbreaking: “If I cry twice a day – will my skin eventually fade?”
This is an important work that needs to be seen. It is a glaring shame that black women hoping and trying for heterosexual love are still banging against the twin walls of white fetishists and black hatred. Veronica Beatrice Lewis told me after the show that she feels her heart expand and mend after each performance. Even if, like Maya Angelou’s poem, black women incredibly “still” find a way to “rise”, it is time to stop turning the shade of a woman’s skin into her burden.
Queens of Sheba will play at the New Diorama Theatre from 4 to 8 September.
Lights over Tesco Car Park
A group of Oxford University drama students approaching graduation realize how little interaction they’ve had with the residents of the town they’ve been studying and living in for the past few years. Guided by Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, they go on a quest to make contact. Jack Bradfield founds theatre company Poltergeist (no, not after the film), actors Alice Boyd, Rosa Garland, Julia Pilkington and Will Spence get on board. They find an empty stage, a rubber alien mask, and a box of flying saucer sweets. Will remembers seeing an alien ship when he was six, and Lights Over Tesco Car Park is born.
It is a quirky, heart-warming play that takes a gamble on the audience. The whole theatre must take the “Are you an alien?” quiz. Random spectators are invited to come on stage and show surprise, sadness, serenity. Others draw an alien. It’s interactive improvisation at its best, framed by the actors who play ‘themselves’ and manage to bring out their own space cadet side.
Are there strange red lights multiplying across the night sky above a Tesco car park? Was the lion’s hallucination in the film Madagascar actually the magic of the island? Bradfield explains that the play “emerges from a radical lack of context,” but the touch remains light and there is no requirement on our part to take any of it seriously. It makes for a sense of wonder without bafflement and somehow by the end we do all feel connected to each other, holding up dozens of red lights with Life on Mars to swing them to.
Lights over Tesco Car Park will play at Pleasance Theatre, London from 13 to 14 October.