Features Edinburgh Published 24 August 2014

Forest Fringe: You Must Sing

A party. An embrace. An exorcism. Our writers look back at this year's Forest Fringe programme, the second in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Edinburgh.
Exeunt Staff

Catherine Love: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today for … A party. An embrace. An exorcism. A singalong. An argument. A love story. A dream. A journey. Even a wedding, though not as you’ve ever seen one before.

Inside (and in some cases outside) the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, I and others encounter a dizzying array of art. In one room, a singer holds me tight, sound spilling over my body. In another, I watch Christopher Brett Bailey turn a cartwheel in a floor-length peach dress, before later brandishing a cake knife like a murder weapon.

This is the beauty of Forest Fringe’s Edinburgh home, where so much work sits in one place and there is always a slight hint of surprise, as though art might materialise out of nowhere at any moment – like when I’m sitting in the cafe and find my work gloriously interrupted by a sudden rendition of Rachel Mars’ pop-up choir piece Sing It! Spirit of Envy!

Oh, and Andy Field offers an excellent revival of his durational “running man” performance.

Rebecca Morris: Storytelling never dies. In If Destroyed Still True, Molly Naylor has brought together a collection of painful and clumsy stories from teenagehood. With some input from non-plussed, non-theatregoer Ian Ross and his guitar. And some nineties pop-indie rock, and lots of REM references. If you are into these cultural phenomena, it’s definitely a crowd pleaser.

Molly Naylor is a funny, irreverent, charming, magnetic performer. Ian Ross is very watchable too, even if he is largely silent throughout.

Here is the ‘but.’ If reliving clumsy experiences from teenagehood – warm cider and peach schnapps at house parties, getting fingered whilst watching some blokes play on an X Box – isn’t for you … well, it wasn’t for me.

Despite these reservations, however, this is definitely the clever and engaging side of autobiographical theatre. Narratives are delicately and cleverly interwoven, cut up with Molly Naylor’s attempts to realise her youthful aspirations of becoming a guitarist and rock out with Ian Ross (it’s okay, addressing performers by their full title is part of the show).

And I think, by the end, we all really want to rock out with Ian Ross.

Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn.

Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn.

Billy Barrett: It takes a certain charisma (and talent) to present work-in-progress that feels more urgent and thorough than a lot of artists’ “finished” material. Bryony Kimmings’ scratch Fake It ‘Til You Make It, she warns us, is not a show. The sketchy fragments of a project that will explore her partner Tim Grayburn’s anxiety and depression – and more broadly the gendered nature of these conditions – it’s currently in development with the man himself, who joins her onstage.

Recorded interviews, confessional song and a groin-thrusting dance are just a few of the scraps the pair have collaborated on so far, which even in this raw form seem to tap into something much larger than themselves. It’ll be fascinating to see how it takes shape, and whether Kimmings manages to strike a compelling balance between personal introspection and wider cultural comment.

Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly seems in some ways like a thematic continuation of Kimmings’ most recent success, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, which created a palaeontologist pop star to inspire young girls with an alternative to the saturation of hyper-sexualised idols. Orwin’s show takes a similarly serious approach to pop culture and teenage girlhood, responding to the wave of online videos which some of them make asking “am I pretty or ugly?”

Using familiar devices of live artists presenting research – an explanation of the project intercut with video documentation and staged performance – she delves into the phenomenon by posing as three invented characters and interacting with other Youtube users. As well as giving an insightfully nuanced take on self esteem and image in the internet age, Orwin analyses her own practice and touches on the ethics of this kind of work – weighing up whether she ever fell in too deep, or pushed these cyber-relationships too far. It’s moving, sometimes shocking and just occasionally uplifting. In its final moments, Orwin makes refreshingly un-ironic use of a Britney Spears song, to tear-jerkingly affirming affect.

There’s a more intense affirmation on offer in Verity Standen’s Hug, an immersive choral embrace that’s simultaneously solipsistic and communal, and feels – I hope this isn’t too extreme – like an actual, spiritual rebirth. Blindfolded, audiences sit individually on chairs scattered about the empty space. The room is then filled by an equal number of singers uttering a wordless, multi-textured polyphony of song. The hug is physicalised, as each chorister envelopes a listener and holds them close, their breathing and maybe even heartbeats coinciding with our own. It’s almost overwhelmingly tender and generous.

I’ve since heard that tear-sodden blindfolds have caused a bit of a practical problem, with so many performances one after the other, and for my own hacking sobs I can only apologise. I don’t know what did it exactly, but that intimate, anonymous connection in the dark had a deeply profound effect. By the end of the half-hour I tear the cloth off quickly, clink some coins into the collection bucket and almost run through the Drill Hall cafe – out of the door, out of the Forest, into the street and the Edinburgh rain.

Sleepwalk Collective

Sleepwalk Collective

Rebecca Morris: It looks like iara Solano Arana and Sammy Metcalfe are at a party, but their faces and postures certainly don’t reflect this. They stand off centre – rooted and un-reactive. In a monotone, they deliver lines fed to them by a large screen dominating the stage. Their voices are hushed, un-actorly and cold, but there is a tenderness in the delivery somewhere. So we listen to them. Not a cough or a shuffle from us – the silent watchers.

I don’t know how to talk about this. There are a lot of words in this piece, and perhaps that is why words fail me now. These words are in excellent sentences, beautifully crafted and projected up like karaoke lyrics on THE SCREEN. The messages begin as references to famous and cheesy song lyrics, well-trodden turns of phrases read out deadpan by iara and Sammy. The words gradually become this odd, other-wordly voice from beyond – an author, ‘a hand of God’, yet caressing, familiar, unsettling, Baz Luhrmann’s Wear Sunscreen, Milton’s Paradise Lost, catatonic, mesmerising, frightening, sometimes in Spanish and just … weird.

I saw it as: NIKE, JUST DO IT, DON’T PUT BABY IN THE CORNER, I’M LOVING IT – those messages that are gunned out rapidly and constantly around us. As the targets we pick them up, chew over and bastardise them. For me it seemed like the message and the karaoke screen was Sleepwalk Collective’s Trojan horse; that they had hollowed away the inside, climbed in, and had gently disrupted it from within.

Natasha Tripney: I am one of the last into the space. All the chairs are taken so I end up sitting on a cushion at the front, and maybe it’s something to do with the school hall floors at the Drill Hall, or the presence of the piano, or some kind of odd muscle memory, but I find I end up sitting crossed legged, as if at assembly. Chris Good is the teacher in this scenario, which is apt. The show he is performing, How Can I Keep From Singing?, is a one-off show intended as a kind of antidote to the rawness of Men in the Cities, something softer after a month spent shouting and roaring and raging at the Traverse. It is also the show he promised himself he would make in the year of Pete Seeger’s death, an honouring of the man’s spirit and the power of joining in song.

Goode knows he doesn’t have the strongest voice but assures us it doesn’t matter, that the act of singing is more important than the sound that comes out. His voice has a cracked fragility, possibly intensified by all the shouting, and it’s lovely, emotive, quivering. He promises us five songs, one of which we will all sing together. He talks about Seeger, his music and his significance, and then he takes to the piano and sings. And there are gulls calling over-head and night above through the skylight and it’s just incredibly soothing and warming and wonderful.

He sings a song from Disney’s The Rescuers. He sings a song for Andy Field (and Walter Benjamin). Then he asks us to join him in singing “We Shall Overcome”.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

It takes a while for everyone to warm up, but soon our voices are merging. The space he’s created is one in which it’s safe to sing, where what matters most is the noise we all make together. Goode omits the verse about living in peace, because he believes peace doesn’t bring about change, and as we sing I find myself thinking about what assemblies are for, about the act of gathering and sharing, about people with a common purpose. I find myself thinking about Christopher Brett Bailey using music to kill language in this same building a few days back and how here music is a unifier. A friend points out the next day how much choral work there has been at this year’s Fringe – Hug, Return of the Voice – how people seemed compelled to join their voices. There are many things I will take with me from Edinburgh this year, but one of the things that has left the deepest impression was Goode’s injunction via Seeger that: you must sing.

Reverend Billy.

Reverend Billy.

Rebecca Morris: Well Honeybeelujah for Reverend Billy and his motley be-sequinned choir. This is Gospel for the Radicals and the Rockers. Divas, rockabillies and what looks like an IT consultant sing with glorious voices about activism and global-warming and … bees.

This glamorous bunch is conducted by Reverend Billy, who expostulates and eulogises (actually) on the wonders of Bees! Railing against the horrors of Montesanto (booo)! Sweating, swearing, foul-mouthed, poetic, narcissistic and leery, but wonderfully charming. His choir disrupt and re-affirm, squirming, shaking and shimmying like The Furies.

If anyone is going to convert us into activism against global warming, it is The Church of Shop Stopping!

Amen! (Or A-women)

By the end the audience are writhing about like they have bees in their knickers, rosy-cheeked and eyes gleaming, perhaps jibbering in tongues as they listen to their newly anointed pastor and his love for the earth and all of God’s creations. The girls at the front of the audience swig their red wine like the blood of Jesus ain’t never gonna stop, as the crowd roar and stamp their feet. Even if you still don’t give a shit about bees, it’s a bloody great experience. My subscription to The Church of Stop Shopping is already in the post.

Catherine Love: I’m sitting at a desk on Carlton Hill, hair catching on the wind, looking down at Leith spread out below me. It’s the same view I will see, further away and as part of a wider vista, when I climb Arthur’s Seat in eleven days’ time. But for now I am here, sitting at this desk, with Greg Wohead’s voice surging gently through a pair of headphones. He is speaking to me from the recent past and he is speaking about time.

If writing about this performance in the present tense several days after the event is a bit disingenuous, then so is the whole concept of the present. After using the newspaper on the desk to prove that the recording I am listening to has indeed been made the same morning, Wohead explains that the present does not really exist. Instead, we experience our entire lives in the past. The moment our mind has processed anything, it has already passed us by.

This revelation and the fashion of its telling alone would be enough to send me walking back down the hill with a slightly altered mind. But then, as a demonstration of what it has been discussing, Hurtling delivers a heart-pounding moment of almost-togetherness. Wohead offers connection across a chasm, capturing in one fleeting encounter all the excitement and heartache of human interaction and the impossibility of ever quite occupying the same time, space and understanding.

And then I’m hurtling again, onwards and downwards, moving through time alone and always looking just over my shoulder.

Main photo: Jemima Yong.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine