Festival in review

During the first half of March I went to various events at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, inviting at least one friend or relative to each, plus one non-Fringe event for which Mum bought the tickets. The following are my personal reflections. As an appendix I’ve added official descriptions from the Fringe website.

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 the Fringe season by attending Morgan and West: Time Travelling Magicians with my Uncle Gavin and Auntie Heather. I’d previously enjoyed Morgan and West’s appearances on TV and Youtube, so I had high hopes of the show, and at the start it seemed to deliver on those expectations. But even at its best it was the humour rather than the magic that made the greater impression (the part involving TRUE/FALSE cards being a case in point). I started feeling disappointed when they did the trick where the magician apparently swallows a whole bunch of needles and a thread, because frankly, this gets old fast and the presentation never varies much (I saw another magician do the same thing at the Fringe a year ago and didn’t think much of it then). Later they did a couple of mind-reading tricks 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 Morgan and West, but I still hoped for a good show because the description appealed to me. The fashion these days is for magic acts 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 narrative with magic in a dynamic way, whereas in Sharma’s performance he often told a story for several minutes then followed it with a few seconds of magic at the climax. Big chunks of pure story not only leave too little room for magic, but also make the audience lose focus — a fatal flaw in a magic show because an inattentive audience is incapable of being impressed. As for the story-telling itself, Sharma’s oratory skills were passable but left room for improvement. My favourite moment was the trick where he turned bubbles into coins — not the most mysterious trick ever but definitely elegant.

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.

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 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 figure from the history of science that 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 an abbreviated 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, 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 that a success.

There are two events I haven’t described yet, both of which combined music with visual imagery. With my parents I saw The Galileo Project by Tafelmusik, which was not a Fringe event 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 were poetry readings, excerpts from letters from or about the astronomers in question, and so on. The lack of historical balance can be criticised (for example no mention 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 imagery to help the mind drift among the stars. In short, The Galileo Project may be the best classical music performance I’ve seen, and 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 — 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 at other times 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 — not only the music and imagery on the stage, 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.

Appendix: Official descriptions

Here are the official descriptions of events from the Fringe website, along with its country of origin (which is either the UK or Australia). I originally posted these in a separate blog post but during a blog archive review have decided to merge them.

Morgan & West: Time Travelling Magicians [UK]

Morgan and West’s award winning stage show, brimming over with baffling magic, unparalleled precognitive powers and a totally genuine ability to travel through time. No future is left unforeseen, no timeline left unaltered as this pair of temporal tricksters burst into the twenty-first century with their trademark mixture of magic, wit and whimsy.

Fleeto [UK]

When his friend is stabbed, a young lad falls in with a gang. The terrible revenge he takes brings disaster on himself and the victim’s family. […] Fleeto was inspired by the media interest in Knife crime which came to a head in Glasgow a couple of years ago. The writer was keen to explore unvoiced aspects of this phenomenon and use an intense theatrical style to present it. In doing so he was struck by parallels in the story of the Trojan Wars […].

Faraday’s Candle [Australia]

More than 150 years ago, Michael Faraday saw beauty and wonder in the chemistry of a candle. His observations remain true today and the lessons are both simple and profound. Join Faraday at the Science Exchange for a truly illuminating theatre performance, ‘Faraday’s Candle’. […] Built around one man’s genius for observation and experimentation, ‘Faraday’s Candle’ uses simple technology to explore natural phenomena and the processes of science. Michael Faraday regularly presented public lectures to both adults and children and was passionate about encouraging people to question, experiment and ask ‘Why?’

The Origin of Species [UK]

THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION OR THE SURVIVAL OF (R)EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES IN THE FACE OF SCIENTIFIC AND ECCLESIASTICAL OBJECTIONS: BEING A MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT CHARLES DARWIN. After a sell-out run at Edinburgh Fringe 2009, John Hinton’s highly original musical comedy […] now hits Adelaide Fringe for the first time. Join Charles Darwin in his study and onboard the Beagle, as he battles with his blasted boring barnacles and the biggest moral dilemma of his life.

Eidolon [Australia]

A phantasmagorical journey into a kaleidoscopic dreamworld, set to the beautiful and haunting live cello music of Nervous Doll Dancing. This is a theatrical collaboration of music and projection that plays with fantasy and reality, dream state and present; a wordless and amorphous experience. With the use of multiple projections onto different objects, shapes and surfaces, they summon a timeless and bewitching musical dreamscape. […] “The interplay between music and projection is hypnotic. The piece unfolds like the petals of a flower in a series of poetic images that progress from one to another, driven not by narrative but rather by music and emotion.”

Seven Stories [Australia]

‘Seven Stories’ is an innovative show that blends compelling tales with exquisite magic. The show weaves seven stories ranging from urban legends, personal accounts, secrets from magic’s underground and much more. The night culminates in a special story unique to each show.

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