Features Published 6 September 2013

Between Darkness and Light

Hope, irony and critique at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Catherine Love

Dan: About halfway through this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Andrew Haydon tweeted the following: 

“I’m writing a piece about critiques versus hope in theatre. Who prefers what?”

Now, this is clearly a false dichotomy and as far as I can tell the vast majority of responders – including myself – suggested that, ideally, we’d like both. Nonetheless, the question sets up an interesting argument: are the two compatible, and, if we had to choose only one, which would we prefer? 

It’s a question which seems to have been asked by many of the artists I saw at the festival this year, and as far as I’m concerned most seemed to plump for the latter. We’ll obviously go into more detail, but just as a quick run down, Wot? No Fish?, There Has Possibly Been an Incident, The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, How To Occupy an Oil Rig, The Islanders, The Events, Bonanza, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening and even L’apres-midi d’un foehn all dealt with hope in some way, either implicitly or explicitly. 

Dan Bye’s How to Occupy an Oil Rig is a “demonstration about demonstrations”, which gives us clear instructions about how to protest effectively while telling a love story between two activists. The twist, however comes when [spoilers] it is discovered one of the pair is an undercover police officer, which in many plays would suggest a tone of defeat on the part of the author and a declaration of lost hope. By reminding us moments after that this is fiction, however, Bye indicates that by telling the story differently, change really is possible.

So let’s start there. Is there really the possibility of hope in an altered story? Or does it take more to make cynical and jaded populations think more optimistically?

Catherine: Before answering those last two questions, I want to return to your earlier question about whether hope and critique are compatible. I’d argue that not only are they compatible, they are ultimately inextricable; hope is necessarily born from a place of critique, implicit or otherwise. If we’re forcing a choice, then I’d always opt for hope, as even the most hopeful narratives have a critique of some kind embedded somewhere within them.

I would also suggest that this complex marriage of hope and critique is largely what I encountered in those productions that dealt with hope in Edinburgh this year. To your list, it might be worth adding A Conversation with my Father, Don Quijote, Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel and The Smallest Light. All of these pieces have complex relationships with hope, and I would hesitate to describe any of them as straightforwardly hopeful, but hope is a central element of their discourse.

Coming back to those questions about altering the story, I find myself believing more and more in the power of storytelling. The media tells us one story – about politics, about protest, about the world – and so it’s up to us to respond with our own narratives. The sharing of stories is an essential part of How to Occupy an Oil Rig, as you say, and is echoed in Hannah Nicklin’s show A Conversation with my Father, another piece that deals with protest. In a conversation I had with Nicklin before the festival, she described storytelling as a “vital civic act”, a phrase that has stayed with me. In the show itself [again, spoilers] Nicklin’s father suggests that it is through stories rather than protest that people’s minds might begin to be changed, articulating for me something I’ve been considering for a while about theatre’s role. Theatre can’t make us act, but it can make us think. And stories are a pathway to thought, to empathy, to imagining a different future together – to hope.

What I found particularly striking – and unexpectedly moving – about A Conversation with my Father was its honesty and sincerity. This sits in opposition to the popular vein of irony that runs through much contemporary work, and indeed much work on the Fringe this year. Rather than setting up a binary opposition between hope and critique, I wonder instead how hope sits opposite irony. It’s particularly interesting to consider irony in the context of some of the work mentioned here, for instance How to Occupy an Oil Rig, which to an extent blends irony and sincerity, and Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, which I suspect is so powerful in part because it marks a move away from irony for Bryony Kimmings. So is irony the enemy of optimism and positive change? Or can it have its uses as a tool of critique and thus a precursor of hope?

Dan: That’s a tough one. My instinct would be to say it is the enemy of optimism, but then looking back at a few shows (including, as you say, How to Occupy an Oil Rig among others) I’m not quite sure that’s true. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Ballad of the Burning Star, for example, was oozing with irony, and yet at its climax seemed to offer some kind of optimism hidden beyond the veil of its critique. Freeze!, though without a direct relationship to hope, was somehow affirming whilst having its tongue firmly in its cheek. And, when we peel back to layers of meaning in Fleabag, it’s a long time before we find any kind of “truth” or “hope”, but I do think it’s there.

There are two things which are worth laying out here. Firstly, one’s relationship to any kind of hope in theatre is, perhaps more than any other theme or aspect, going to be very much dependent on personal perspective. Being as I am naive and optimistic, I find myself able to find hope even in the most despairing of work (I managed to wrangle some light out of Simon Stephens’ Morning, for example). Now, this is probably in many ways a little bit pathetic, but this desire to find hope doesn’t bugger up my ability to critique something, to understand what it’s saying. On the other hand, many may manage to find despair even in a piece laden with joy, which is probably just as blinkered but is nonetheless a valid response. And one of the beauties of theatre is exactly that; to have a load of people in a room having their own thoughts and responding to something in their own particular way, so there’s no way in a million years that something can be entirely hopeful or entirely cynical or entirely ironic. So there’s that.

Secondly, and this comes back to your point, I think the whole critique/hope thing is probably a chicken/egg argument. Because both are dependent upon one another, and you can spend hours just outlining where one particular thought has come from before discovering that, yes, that particular critique of the way things are was actually triggered by a sudden realisation that things could be better and so on. 

Catherine: Your examples of irony that is tied up with or gives way to hope make me think that perhaps, as with critique, it’s unhelpful to posit anything as simple as a binary opposition. Irony and optimism might seem to be at odds with one another, but sometimes that moment where the tiniest chink of hope opens up in the cool armour of irony – as in the pieces you point to – can be the most powerful moment of all.

I think the issue is more to do with a particular, postmodern (for want of a better description) kind of irony, which functions to unsettle all potential meanings. I’m all for uncertainty and a recognition of the complexity and chaos of our existence, but if every possible reading is immediately undermined then honesty is pretty much ruled out. If nothing can be trusted, then what appears to be truthful, sincere optimism is also under suspicion. Ballad of the Burning Star is an interesting example, because its climax tips the whole thing on its head, but the impact is – paradoxically – at risk of being blunted by the very irony that makes this sudden contrast so much of a kick to the guts.

This line of thought returns me to Don Quijote, the message of which – particularly after chewing it over in conversation – I found naggingly problematic. The sentiment is, at first, rather intoxicating. The production’s reflection on the classic Cervantes novel challenges us all to follow in the footsteps of its protagonist and stand up to the status quo despite certain failure. Which is brilliant, apart from the “certain” part. By accepting the inevitability of this failure and removing hope from the equation, we’re let off the hook a little bit – we were always going to fail, so what does it matter if we do? A useful contrast is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, in which Kimmings is unafraid to look defeat dead in the eye, recognising the sheer enormity of the seemingly unscalable mountain she has to climb, but she somehow manages to clutch onto hope nonetheless.

And there is, arguably, a kind of responsibility for how this narrative of cynicism or hope is constructed. I’m currently reading Liz Tomlin’s Acts and Apparitions, which grapples with the seeming impossibility of a radical (or hopeful) performance practice in the wake of postmodern and poststructuralist thought. Surveying the work of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, Tomlin outlines how the notion of a foundational truth or single reality has effectively been destroyed, revealing every narrative to be an ideological construction.

But just because we can’t make claims to any essential truth, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a self-reflexive approach to the constructions of reality that we create. As Tomlin emphasises, acceptance of the implicitly ideological status of every narrative doesn’t dissolve distinctions between the narratives that the artist or critic chooses to tell, and these chosen narratives still have an effect on those who receive them. Whether or not artists can escape ideology or get outside the system they are resisting, the choice between cynicism and hope is still a choice and it does still have an impact of some kind, which perhaps needs to be recognised.

However, to return from that slight digression, you’re absolutely right to point out that all of this is of course dependent on the personal perspective of audience members. I’m often inclined to look for that glimmer of hope as well, which perhaps just says something about my own need to draw optimism out of bleakness, but I agree that the beauty of theatre is the way that it can hold open a space where we all bring our own cynical or optimistic or ambivalent reactions. Perhaps what we should be valuing most from this wide range of different productions in Edinburgh is that they are opening up that space and that conversation, so that all of our opinions can collide, be they naively hopeful or cynically jaded. As long as hope is part of the discussion, that in itself feels like an innately hopeful thing.

Dan: To go off tangent just a little bit, I think a huge part of the problem here is the narrative we are spun about the possibility (or lack thereof) of hope and change; that familiar cry of “there is no alternative”. I’ve been resisting bringing Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism into this discussion, as it feels almost too easy, but his arguments chime true here. Fisher argues that the existing ideology of the contemporary world (specifically since Fukuyama’s “End of History”) is narrated as our only option. “Poverty, famine and war,” Fisher states, “can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated [is] easily painted as naive utopianism”. Hope in this context, then, is seen not just as impossible but downright stupid, with the “sensible” option being an obscure pessimism:

“Some of Nietzsche’s most prescient pages are those in which he describes the ‘oversaturation of an age with history’. ‘It leads an age into a dangerous mood of irony in regard to itself’, he wrote in Untimely Meditations, ‘and subsequently into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism’, in which ‘cosmopolitan fingering’, a detached spectatorialism, replaces engagement and involvement. This is the condition of Nietzsche’s Last Man, who has seen everything, but is decadently enfeebled precisely by this excess of (self) awareness.” (Fisher, 6-7)

And though Fisher is here talking about the specific socio-political system we experience in the West, I think it’s a mood that has invaded all aspects of our culture, thus stifling the desire for change and casting hope as something not even worth pursuing. Instead, in all aspects of life, we prefer “compromise”, “pragmatism” and Realpolitik.

And what this has lead to in much of our art, our theatre, and our literature, has been critique with a rather heavy dose of irony, making our cultural artefacts part of the problem. I guess a question everyone has to ask themselves is do they want their art to be a reflection of reality or the rubric for some kind of imagined alternative? If we’re merely reflecting it, then there’s no problem with this “mood of cynicism”, but if there’s a desire for something “better”, then we have to try to offer up those glimmers of something else.

And I think that’s why one of my favourite individual moments from Edinburgh this year was during Lucy Ellinson’s piece for The Bloody Great Border Ballad, which had us all gather round candles with pieces of paper, each of which contained a story or casualty of government cuts. Everyone reads out what’s on their piece of paper before blowing out a candle, until the room gets gradually darker. And then, and then, as the last candle goes out and we are plunged into darkness, a match is struck in a corner, and in an instant we’ve all reached for a match and given light to the dark, refusing to allow the space to remain bleak. In that moment – those few seconds between pitch darkness and flickering light – I felt all the optimism and hope that I think is possible, realising that something can come from nothing, that we don’t have to stand by and watch those candles puff out, that together we can make a difference and challenge the narrative which has been so seemingly unshakeable for all this time.


Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.



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