Alexander Kelly/Third Angel
Yusra Warsama and Chris Thorpe
The most curious thing about entering the Gate for a Forest Fringe event is the still-tangible slight dis-juncture between the two entities. On this first night, the Gate's FOH/security chap is still stolidly blocking the stairs, implacably insisting people fill up every row, from the front, row by row. It's a far cry from the find-your-own-chair/floorspace ethos of the Edinburgh space. But Forest Fringe is a concept, not a venue, now, so one mustn't get hung up.
It's interesting, though, to see FF able to present itself without the adversity, or at the very least necessity, of which it has been making a virtue, if not an aesthetic, for so long.
It's interesting to see, for example, what might be construed as a “Forest Fringe lighting state”. Normally, for about half its Summer programme, this consists of *light streaming through massive windows in a big old church-like hall above a roomful of hippies*.
Tonight, the Gate's long, low, narrow black-box space is end-on (audience *toward* the lighting box, if you know the space and care about such details), and the lighting is minimal.
There's a single chair behind an awkward table/desk, a microphone and a projection screen.
The first piece of the first night – after we've been welcomed first by Haydon (Christopher), then by Field – is Alexander Kelly of Third Angel doing “Cape Wrath (work-just-about-in-progress)”. As you gather from the title, this is the very first outing for something Kelly thinks *might* turn into a show.
Third Angel's work varies enormously. The only comparison you could make between Presumption and Class of '76, What I Heard About The World and Where From Here? is “these are very different indeed”. Ok, that's flippant and possibly untrue, but, from *acted*, prop-heavy “play” to one man slide-slow, via messy devised postdrama and early “visual theatre”, it'd be hard to pin Third Angel down to a specific style.
Cape Wrath, in its present – i.e. entirely embryonic – form, is most like Class of '76 (which I first saw at Forest Fringe, fwiw). It is 42-year-old performer (and author) Kelly, recounting a true story about his actual life. At least we might as well assume that, since he's got photos and seems entirely guileless about the truthfulness of his enterprise. (perhaps this is naïve of me, though).
The story he's telling is about following in the footsteps of his grandfather to the most North-Westerly point of the British Isles, the titular and brilliantly named Cape Wrath in Scotland (I do hope I'm not going to now Google this when I've finished and discover he's made the whole thing up. It doesn't sound made-up, fwiw). And that's pretty much it. There are accompanying slides.
Kelly is a congenial, likeable stage presence; his West Midlands accent surprisingly comfy. He claims that he is actually wearing his, now deceased, grandfather's suit. We have no reason to doubt him. He tells us about reading his grandfather's diary, and I suspect the final few minutes of the show are him reading from an adapted version of this very diary.
So that's what the show does at the moment. It feels slightly wrong to describe more, since if this is a first-ever outing for it, then it's more or less certainly going to change.
For me, the strand that most stood out, and which seemed to be left relatively unexplored – or at least which was left hanging over the rest of the narrative, was Kelly's early observation that the anecdote that his grandfather told about visiting Cape Wrath largely glossed over all the actualité. While the reading of the diary does engage with that, it felt, to me, like that element could have been the subject of more speculation.
As it is, the piece still stands as a lovely series of moments meditating on remembrance and place, family and, well, Volk. But without being right-wing as those elements might suggest. There is something quite reassuring about the matter-of-fact way that small migrations – his grandfather from Scotland to the Midlands, the journeys made by various other travellers Kelly encounters, the fact that the woman he happens to sit next to on the coach is an English as Foreign Language Teacher. Subtly, the piece does present People not as anchored to Place, but as roaming free-agents who happen to end up in various spots, as exemplified by the couple who run the coffee shop at the end of Britain who now live in total isolation since the other families who lived there have all gradually moved away.
I'd never actually seen any work made by Theron Schmidt before. Oddly, he is most familiar to me as a character from Chris Goode's now sadly discontinued and much-missed blog. Indeed, the first time I saw him on stage was in Goode's recent show God/Head as he was the “special guest” the night I saw it. Schmidt is a writer, performer and lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at King's College, London.
His piece, The State of Images, he tells us, was born out of research work he's been doing, thinking about images, and images on stages. For this 15-minute (ish) performance, the desk is moved from stage right to more or less centre stage, the projection screen is got rid of, and Schmidt also uses a tape player. Or CD player. Or MP3 player, which is placed on the floor by the desk. So that every time he wants to start a new track, he has to lean over from the desk to press play.
The text of the piece itself sounds like it started life constructed from the descriptions of set you find in old plays: “a lounge; there are two French windows in the rear wall; outside there are...” etc. You know the sort of thing. From these, seem to spin off ever more elaborate descriptions of objects in rooms, or ever more imaginative descriptions of perhaps paintings, or iconic scenes, or naff art on the internet. Or religious iconography.
I didn't take notes, so I can't be precise, but it felt as if the piece started off in a kind of quasi-biblical landscape and ended up in an impressionistic post-America, but even this *interpretation* feels highly subjective and like it might be closing off lots of possible avenues, as well as potentially barking up an altogether non-existent tree...
It was interesting, hearing the piece directly after Kelly's, the way that the landscapes partially melded together. Kelly's Scotland, and then Schmidt's altogether more psychological geographies.
This first night worked both as a game-of-two-halves, and as a suggestively cohesive whole.
Post-interval, the first act on-stage was Yusra Warsama. The only performer on the bill of whom I had no prior knowledge. Warsama is a writer, actor and something of a performance poet. Which was the first thing she did last night. She was wryly amusing about her Somalian heritage, noting that whenever people commissioned work from her, their first suggested topic tended to be Female Genital Mutilation. But then, dismissing the wryness, she delivered a poem on precisely that subject. Following it up with one about the positive side of wearing the hijab – she wasn't, but apparently used to – and one about English/British racism, inspired by overhearing some people on the train down saying that society “isn't racist any more”.
As a list of subjects, you might expect that to be on the bleak side, and whilst it did all feel a bit *bracing* in comparison with the first half, and a bit depressing to be sitting in a theatre in 2012, under a Tory government, *still* having to deal with the fact that society hasn't really sorted itself out as we might have hoped, there was also a good deal of wit and warmth to both poetry and performance.
In the content of the evening, however, it was less the *explicit* content of the poems that caught the attention so much as the way that they evoked new landscapes, but more even than this, the way that they also echoed this theme of travel. Warsama's evocation of Somalians as nomadic people. Her descriptions of migration and wandering, paradoxically making the idea of the place feel far less remote, suggestion almost a kindred spirit for Kelly's wandering Grandfather, or an alternate terrain for Schmidt's meta-narratives.
Perhaps also worth noting in passing that she was also the only performer all evening who did her thing standing up.
The next item was more fun - Warsama and curator Chris Thorpe are sat at two desks, speaking into microphones. About themselves. The twist is, they're using scripts written for them by each other. Both writer/performers had answered the same set of questions, but for their opposite number, and the point at which the person read out their *own* answers was the first time they'd seen them.
The questions seemed to range between things like “Describe yourself”, and “What do you eat for breakfast?” through to “How would you define happiness?” and “Do you believe in God?” We, the audience, never actually got to find out what the questions were, though. Instead we were read a series of answers. Some long, some short; some poetic, some funny; some thoughtful, some flippant. As a writing-for-performance exercise, it actually worked very well. You could imagine this idea being taken much further and made into a much longer piece of work involving more performers – although I also have a vague idea that Forced Entertainment have already done something quite similar, so perhaps it does/did work best as a more intimate exercise for two performers who who each other *quite well*.
Incredibly, thanks to questions perhaps about senses of belonging, of culture or family, or ancestry, this segment also added to what seem to have emerged as themes for the evening.
Perhaps more incredible, though was the way that the final piece, Chris Thorpe's short story written for performance at Forest Fringe in either 2008 or 2009 (I thought '08, he thought '09. He's probably right) seemed to tie the whole thing together so neatly.
Even if I don't remember which year it was I first saw it – oddly, years have a habit of not being all that relevant in Edinburgh, the Forest's hall barely changes/changed year-on-year, after all – I remember exactly where I was sat *when* I first heard it. And was actually surprirsed by how much of the story I remembered.
I kind of don't want to give too much away about the plot, which makes it hard to discuss the content.
Stylistically, I'm dying to say that it sort of reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis; except that is somehow completely and inexcusably wrong. There's a smartness and a hardness to Thorpe's prose, sure. But it's also incredibly, properly funny. Not just “amused” or “ironic”. And it's not self-regarding or dead-eyed.
But, yeah. Hell, I've got a five more short stories by Thorpe this week in which I can try to nail down a way of describing his prose style. For the time being, it is enough that this is happening. That Forest Fringe at the Gate is out of the starting gate.
Hopefully see you there at some point...
p.s. I shouldn't sign off this review without noting that after the first night of FF@TG Thorpe, Field and Kelly held “Everything is Fascinating – An Above-a-pub quiz”. Many of the questions were strongly influenced by the recent Third Angel show What I Heard About The World, which also features Thorpe and Kelly.
It would also be remiss of me not to note that the aforementioned quiz was won by a team comprising of myself and Christopher Haydon. And no one else. Ha.