At the Fringe II: Eternal youth and male anger
After another jampacked Edinburgh Fringe comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the shows that truly impressed. Felicity Hughes picks her highlights in the second of our three round-ups.
The men’s movement is a topic ripe for satire and it would have been easy for writer Penelope Skinner and her actor partner Donald Sage Mackay to simply play the subject for laughs and score a hit. But this is not just a comedy, it’s also a dark drama that roots through the psyche of its troubled protagonist to show how easily disempowered people can be manipulated and radicalised. Told as a monologue interspersed with video clips made by real men’s movement advocates, this is the story of Roger and his growing fascination with Angry Alan, a charismatic men’s movement leader.
There are plenty of laughs as whiny Roger bemoans how awful his wife’s post-natal depression was for him, and even more hilarious when real YouTube clips are shown featuring puffy looking middle-aged men ranting about the “gynocentric conspiracy”. But there are also troubling moments.
Not everything Roger says can be so easily dismissed. In a recounting of a conversation with his girlfriend and her colleagues about the #MeToo movement, Roger questions whether people should be tried by media before an accusation of improper conduct even enters a court of law. This is a point Margaret Atwood herself has made recently, concerning the case of a university professor. “If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?” the novelist commented to great controversy.
Largely though, annoyed with his ex-wife and by his girlfriend’s new found interest in feminism, Roger seems to be channelling a rage against society in general at women in particular. He insists that he’s been emasculated by women – losing his well-paid job and having to scratch out a living in an electronics store have nothing to do with it!
Women are the cause of his self-esteem issues, of his broken relationship with his son and of his general malaise. This is, of course, what Angry Alan tells him online and just after he’s heard all this bombast, he’s puffed up, eyes gleaming like a zealot. But then he talks to his girlfriend and the fire begins to die. He begins to wilt, to plead with us, to become a rather pitiful figure. Nobody listens to him, to his feelings, nobody cares, nobody that is except for Alan who is happy to exploit Roger’s loyalty for his own ends.
Just before the end we see a real men’s movement leader smirking on screen, gloating about the rise of Trump and “grab em by the pussy” culture. It’s an utterly chilling moment that amazingly is topped by the play’s climactic and deeply disturbing final scene.
You Only Live Forever
Eternity is a big topic to tackle in just under an hour, but Viscera Theatre aim not only to do that, but to also deliver their take on the “theatrical process” into the bargain. A romance between one woman frozen in time and another being swept along like the rest of us into old age and inevitably death, the story jumps neatly through the progress of their mildly twee relationship. It only stalls when the two young actresses break out of character to explain how they devised the whole piece in the first place. You’d think these asides might be rather aggravating, but the best moments come when the fourth wall is broken through and we see “real-life” animosity flicker as the two butt heads.
They are a great comic duo. Alys Metcalf plays the goofy but endearing idiot to Roxy Dunn’s pretentious and controlling straight woman. In the play proper, Alys (playing a character called Inma) is the one who gets to drink the elixir of youth – the buffoon as always stumbling blindly into the best bits of luck – while poor Roxy (in the play Olga, as in “getting older”, geddit?) is left to age ungracefully, justifiably questioning whether her partner still finds her sexually attractive.
But this question is simply glossed over; the marriage between the two lasts with minimal hiccups despite the ever-growing age gap. The main problems that arise are all external: how to explain away Inma’s unchanging looks or the enormous age gap that is making Olga look increasingly sinister. Surely, the viewer thinks, Olga might justifiably feel like punching Inma as she skips youthfully beside her wife’s zimmer frame after the umpteenth move and identity change. But no, the main play persists until the bitter sweet end in its insistence that love between the two characters would win through.
Rather sappy stuff considering that all this is offset by the actors’ “real” and incredibly fraught relationship, an uneasy artistic partnership that devolves into out-and-out name calling by the end. This laughter might have spilled out more into the central action if it had perhaps been a parody of the kind of earnest theatre Roxy seemed to be fond of – that is, pretentious fare performed in high seriousness, that would have made the conceit of stepping aside to discuss their process make a little bit more sense.
As it was, I found many scenes fell slightly flat, though the energy and pace of the meta play within a play kept things moving along enough for the hour not to feel as if it had turned into an actual eternity.
You can find out more about Viscera Theatre here.
Baby Face opens with ‘In Heaven’, the Pixies version of a delightfully innocent-sounding song originally written by David Lynch for Eraserhead, before quickly seguing into a barrage of industrial noise that may well have been sampled from that very same film. While intentional or not, the parallels with Lynch’s work are clear as Katy Dye takes familiar modes of seductive behaviour and gradually dismantles them until they’ve devolved into something truly disturbing. But unlike Lynch, the agenda is deeply political here; the target, not the suburban dream of middle-class America, but mainstream society’s fetishization of childlike innocence in young women.
Inviting a male member of the audience to take the stage with her, Dye, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actress Sissy Spacek, is at first simpering and sweet, doe-eyed and alluring. But the sweetness becomes cloying as she demands that he stroke her hair and eventually that he even physically pick her up. If men get turned on by childlike behaviour, then surely this is sexy?
It was not easy watching this poor young man struggle with her overweening attentions and nor should it have been. There’s a brutality at the heart of this piece that often turns inward on the performer herself. As she flings herself about the stage, body morphing from sweet yet seductive nymphet to a gibbering mess of contorted flesh, you wonder how she’s managed to find the energy to keep this up every day of the festival.
One of the most powerful sequences was watching her mimic the marketing jargon of a skin cream, posing and cavorting around until she’s spraying pink cream all over the floor and smacking herself in the forehead screaming: “Love the skin you’re in!” Dye is a dervish that annihilates the conventions she’s set her sights on. The show ends in an infantile frenzy with its creator lying on the floor and screaming like a baby as clouds of talcum powder float gently down through the air, leaving the audience looking shocked and utterly dazed.
You can find out more about Katy Dye’s work here.