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After a month of reviewing (and performing) at the Fringe, it’s difficult not to become cynical about the whole affair. Several of the best shows I’ve seen are projects of passion in obscure box-rooms and forty-seater venues, projects with non-existent marketing budgets and audience sizes of five or less. Of the two “five-star” shows I reviewed for Broadway Baby, neither had more than eight people in the audience. I saw plenty of strong, but not overwhelming shows – like The Events, reviewed for this magazine – with audience members easily in the hundreds.
And then there was Omega. Given my personal tastes, there is very little that can ruin the promise engendered by the phrase “hoochie-coochie carnival for the end of time”, especially when such a carnival is performed by a Russian cabaret circus. And yet, I can say with bitter confidence that I have never seen a show with a more palpable hostility towards its audience. Previous winners of a Fringe First award, blackSKYwhite have all the hallmarks of a “big” Fringe show: posters plastering Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns alike, a several-hundred seater venue at the Assembly Rooms (respectably filled with eighty or ninety people at the show’s star), impossibly expensive set and props, wildly complex lighting.
But Omega – agonizingly loud (half the audience left; the other half cowered with fingers in their ears), grim and grotesque, intentionally obscure to the point of contempt – represents everything that’s wrong with the Fringe. It’s self-indulgent, unintelligible (the MC, who ostensibly explains the goings on of this macabre circus, is lost in a sea of microphone reverberations), existing only to shock and offend its audience with increasingly uncomfortable set pieces (a conductor sticks batons through his face and into his ears – possibly a preferable fate to listening to the world’s loudest soundscape). At one point, in a rare moment of audibility, the MC tells the audience “I feel your fear – even though you don’t feel it yet”, before reminding us that we are all sinners, doomed for all time.
Such an attitude is emblematic of Omega‘s approach as a whole. The production conveys nothing but sheer hatred for its audience – an assumption that the performers know what we want, and indeed what we deserve – better than we do. The painfully loud sound effects, the shrieking violins, the sluggishly repetitive physical sequences, all come across as some cosmic punishment for our imagined sins: an apocalyptic expression of hatred for humanity as a whole.
Just across the Assembly Rooms landing, on the other hand, there is Melmoth the Wanderer. According to some bitter and immutable Fringe laws, only ten or fifteen people filled the five hundred seat theatre. The lighting was basic, the props and set equally, imaginatively, minimalist.
And, of course, it was one of the best things I’ve seen at the Fringe.
Based on Charles Maturin’s tangled narrative of a Gothic novel, Melmoth follows the uncanny effect of a diabolically attractive immortal “wanderer” on a cheerily provincial Irish church choir (masked, energetic, hilarious). In what can only be described as Godspell on acid, the titular wanderer manipulates the choir into re-enacting the various stories of his past exploits – complete with funny accents, jarring pop culture references, plenty of physical theatre, and a bit of song. It makes no sense – after two days, I’m still not sure I followed the plot. But it doesn’t matter. If Omega is driven by hatred and contempt for its audience, Melmoth is driven by love – by a gleeful enthusiasm for the power of theatre to transform simple objects (a wardrobe, say) into whole worlds (an insane asylum). The actors are clearly overjoyed to be there, overjoyed to be sharing their wild, wonderful story with their audience.
Ambitious, joyfully messy, never at less than full-throttle, Melmoth is the Fringe at its best. Yet, after a month of seeing such phenomenal shows struggle to get audience members in seats, my pleasure at capping off my Fringe with one last five-star show is tempered by a measure of disillusionment with the festival as a whole. I’ve seen too much good theatre go virtually unnoticed, actors struggling to pay off the inflated hire fees at venues interested only in collecting a paycheck and sending production companies on their way; I’ve seen too much bad theatre with the funds and connections position itself as the Fringe’s “next big thing”. At my most cynical, I wonder if it’s all worth it.
Yet, for fifty minutes at 16:10 at Assembly Rooms, it is. It’s got one performance left – on the 25th. If you do anything at all at this Fringe, go see it. The performers deserve one hell of a standing ovation.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.