In February I wrote about the events that I’d chosen to go to at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival, and for general information about those items, please read that post. What follows are my personal reflections after the event. It’s taken me a while to write this, partly because I’ve been busy, partly because my Internet connection has been patchy, and partly because reviews are not a form of writing that come naturally to me. I’ve ordered the descriptions by genre rather than chronologically, but first here’s a chronological list of all the items I saw:
- 1st March: Time-Travelling Magicians
- 6th March: Fleeto
- 10th March: Faraday’s Candle
- 11th March: The Galileo Project [not Fringe]
- 13th March: The Origin of Species
- 15th March: Eidolon
- 17th March: Seven Stories
The first and last of these items were both magic acts, so in a sense the entire season was framed by magic. However, I have to say that out of everything I went to, the magic acts were my least favourite. I love magic, but after all it is the one art that’s supposed to be held to an impossible standard.
I began my Fringe Festival season by attending Morgan and West: Time Travelling Magicians, accompanied by my Uncle Gavin and Auntie Heather (I invited at least one friend or relative to each event I went to). I’d previously enjoyed Morgan and West’s appearances on TV and Youtube, so I had high hopes of the show, and to begin with it seemed to deliver on those expectations. Even at its best, though, it is less the magic than the humour that sticks in the mind — for example the bit with the TRUE/FALSE cards was particularly well done. The moment I began feeling disappointed was when they did the trick where the magician apparently swallows a whole bunch of needles and a thread, then pulls threaded needles out of his mouth. This trick gets old fast, and unlike true classics of magic (cups & balls, etc), the presentation never varies much (I saw another magician do exactly the same thing a year ago — at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2011 — and didn’t think much of it then). Later they did a couple of mind-reading tricks (word and number guessing) that went on far too long and became tedious. And time travel, which should have been a unifying theme that helped the whole show cohere, wasn’t — a lot of tricks didn’t involve time travel at all. With all my misgivings, though, I still had a good time.
My last Fringe event was also a magic show, Seven Stories by Vyom Sharma, which I went to with Auntie Helen. I’d never heard of Vyom Sharma before, so I went in with less inflated expectations than to a magician I’ve actually seen on television, but I still hoped for a good show because its description appealed to me. Almost all magic acts these days seem to be presented as comedies, and although comedy magic is excellent in itself, I’d really like to see a more diverse range of styles. Story-based magic — magic intertwined with narrative — is a classic form that we don’t see much of nowadays, so I was hoping for something different. Unfortunately, Sharma’s stories did not so much enhance his magic as dilute it. The best story-based magic blends the two arts in a dynamic way, whereas Sharma often told a story for several minutes then followed it with a few seconds of magic. Big chunks of pure story not only leave too little room for magic, but also make the audience drift into inattention — a fatal flaw in a magic show because an inattentive audience is incapable of being impressed. As for the story-telling itself, Sharma did OK, but I think he would do well to work on his oratory skills because I did not feel I was in the presence of a master. My favourite moment was the trick where he turned bubbles into coins — not the most mysterious trick ever but definitely elegant.
(Long-time readers will remember that I’ve dabbled in a little story-based magic of my own. In my routine, playing cards represent treasures on the altars of the gods, and a travelling wizard robs the temple on a quest to find the one that is really a disguised magical artifact. I manipulate the cards in ways that represent the events of the story, for example shuffling them at the point where the gods scatter the treasures in their anger. As a mere dabbler I don’t really know if this routine is any good, but it’s a dream of mine to record it on video some day. If any magicians ask nicely I might share.)
Between them, Auntie Helen and Uncle Darryl went with me to three Fringe events this year. Seven Stories was the only one I went to with Helen, but earlier I’d been to two with Darryl: Fleeto by Paddy Cunneen and The Origin of Species by John Hinton. Both, coincidentally, were held at Holden Street Theatres. And although they could not have been more different, they were both very enjoyable.
Fleeto is an emotionally intense, and also very stylised, stage play about gang violence in Glasgow. Poignant scenes explore what it feels like to stab someone, to realise what you’ve done, to meet the mother of the victim, and so forth. The experience is very much emotional rather than intellectual; it’s not a performance to make you say “I never thought of that”, but definitely one to make you get your handkerchief out and wipe away a tear. Scenes that focus intensely on a moment alternate with others that serve to advance the plot, and in those I regret to say I missed a lot because of the thick Scottish accents (one reason why I wouldn’t mind seeing the play again). In describing the stylisation, we might begin by saying that the dialogue is like Shakespeare might have written if he were Scottish, and the props are minimalist, but that is only the start. In one surprisingly effective scene, one person stabbing another lies on one side of the stage, while the person being stabbed lies on the other. In other scenes, a policeman doubles as the protagonist’s conscience, bringing the internal dialogue to life. (I speculated on how best to interpret this, and I think one way is to suppose that some time after the events portrayed take place — maybe from inside a prison cell — the protagonist looks back and imagines the policeman in that role, imagines what he might have said if he were there.) The entire performance is most enjoyable: slow to get started, but one almost forgets that by the time it ends.
(Another thing long-time readers will remember is that I lived in Glasgow for a few years as a child in the early eighties, and started school at Meadowburn Primary. Here is a Google Street View link to our address in Bishopbriggs. Walking home from school one day, I was stopped by a group of older students whose ringleader pointed a gun at my head and told me to lift up my schoolbag — basically his way of getting some amusement out of a habit I had of letting my bag drag along the ground. He then told me to let my bag down again, then lift it up, then let it down, etc, until eventually he grew bored of that and commanded me to run. Now, this experience has nothing in common with the kind of violence depicted in Fleeto: for a start, nobody actually wanted to kill me, only to pull my strings, and in hindsight I bet the gun was just a toy anyway. But it seems appropriate to mention it here.)
The Origin of Species (full title: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Survival of (R)evolutionary Theories in the Face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections) is a comedy about Charles Darwin, with John Hinton as both the writer and sole actor. The play is precisely as historically accurate as Hinton wants it to be, which is to say he’s done his homework and inserted numerous historical references, but also cheerfully ignores the facts whenever it pleases him. It pays to be well-informed about Darwin to get the most out of the play, but not to expect any kind of purity, and to take comfort in the knowledge that any time Hinton tears the history books to shreds, he is doing it deliberately. The best comedy moments emerge from the audience interaction, which is extensive and sooner or later has everyone involved (I was cast in the role of a finch whose beak is optimised for eating meat). Particularly memorable is a certain mime that one audience member is asked to perform, but inevitably declines for reasons I won’t give away. This leads nicely to another aspect of the play: that in Hinton’s world all scientific publications are printed as musical scores — a good idea except that sometimes he sings too fast and is impossible to understand. Overall I found it another enjoyable and worthwhile Fringe experience, and I must end by commending Hinton on being the only Fringe performer I saw this year who made himself available to chat to audience members after the show.
Charles Darwin was not the only historical science person I saw portrayed at this year’s Fringe. The other was Michael Faraday, played by Bernard Caleo in Faraday’s Candle. This I attended with friend Phil Marlow and his new fiancee Jane, who I met for the first time. (Phil’s first wife was the late Pam Marlow.) It’s an educational performance brought to us by two science outreach organisations, produced by Re-Science and hosted in Adelaide by Ri-Aus, and basically a Reader’s Digest dramatisation of a series of public lectures Faraday actually delivered on the physics and chemistry of the candle. A number of simple experiments, illuminating hidden properties of candles, are performed. The whole thing is most enjoyable, but hard to capture in words: what sets it apart from a good but otherwise generic science lecture is more a question of atmosphere than anything tangible. The elegance of Caleo’s portrayal is a large part of that, and the smell of the burning candles contributes something too. On the minus side, sometimes Caleo would forget a line and momentarily slip out of character, and there was at least one scientific error — though that might have simply been a hasty attempt to recover from a fluffed line. (He said that a particular effect occurs because of a combination of capillary reaction and surface tension, which I believe is incoherent because capillary action is simply what surface tension becomes in a space that’s dense in surfaces.)
On the way back to the car, I shared some high school science memories with Phil and Jane that were prompted by the show. The connection was mostly tangential (ask me in the comments if you’re curious), but if other people were inspired to converse along their own scientific tangents, then I dare say the people responsible for Faraday’s Candle would count it a success.
I saw two more events that I haven’t described yet, and they were both performances that combined music with visual imagery. With my parents I went to see The Galileo Project by Tafelmusik, which was not a Fringe event at all but part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. It’s a tribute to Galileo, Newton and other pioneers of modern astronomy, featuring music that was popular in their day and, on a circular screen above the stage, a slideshow of astronomical images. Further adding to the variety, there are also readings of poetry, excerpts from letters from or about the astronomers in question, and so on. The lack of historical balance can be criticised (for example you don’t hear of Galileo’s less commendable side), but it is after all a tribute and not a history lesson. My favourite parts were when some of the musicians infiltrated the audience, playing from amidst our seats so that the music came from behind as well as from the stage. This created a sense of being surrounded by music, which was quite magical, and all the more so with the images there to help the mind drift among the stars. In short, I would say The Galileo Project may be the best classical music performance I’ve ever seen, and that the multisensory presentation is one I’d like to see more of. I only wish they’d made more use of that surround sound effect. Finally, for your interest, here is a link to the blog that Tafelmusik kept of their Australian tour.
I’ll finish this review with my favourite event of all, which was Eidolon by Nervous Doll Dancing. With that I had the company of my very special friend Julia, who I picked up in a taxi on the way there. It was held in the Promethean on Grote Street, which was lovely and atmospheric. One could sit either at small, circular tables each with a black tablecloth and a candle, or on long couches along the sides of the room that were richly endowed with big, soft cushions. A wine bar served drinks before the show — I had a chardonnay. The show itself starred cello player Francesca Mountfort, dressed in a doll costume and playing beautiful music, often with a pre-recorded accompaniment but otherwise solo. As she played, images were projected onto three objects: a screen in the centre of the stage, a white umbrella on the left, and a white cello case on the right. Among my favourite images was this puppet, but there were many others to choose from. Every aspect of the experience added up to a perfectly integrated whole — the music and imagery on the stage of course, but also the softness of the cushions, the light from the candles, the taste and smell of the wine, and the company of a valued friend. It all contributed, and I loved every moment. My only criticism is that the show could have been better structured: it lacks a well-defined beginning, middle and end, and just stops abruptly when the hour is up. I bought a CD of Mountfort’s music on our way out, and have listened to it many times since.