Grace Patrick is in Edinburgh checking out a selection of Welsh productions at #EdFringe2019. In this first of a series of roundup reviews, Grace looks at the much anticipated one man show from Jonny Cotsen, his collaboration with Mr and Mrs Clark, Louder is Not Always Clearer; Jo Fong and Sonia Hughes’ immersive Neither Here Nor There; Volcano Theatre’s immersive political show The Populars; we’re all at sea with Clock Tower’s Adrift; and Flossy and Boo’s raucous children’s show, Ned and the Whale.
Louder Is Not Always Clearer (Mr and Mrs Clark); Summerhall
Louder Is Not Always Clearer is a one person show, created and performed by Jonny Cotsen. As the title may suggest, it’s an exploration of D/deaf experience in society, built on the foundation of Cotsen’s lived experience.
Immediately, it’s obvious that he’s got a lot to tell us. There are misconceptions and prejudices that run deep in our society, and the process of unpicking them has to start somewhere – so it may as well start here, on a platform that works for both deaf and hearing audiences. In many ways, this is as much an act of advocacy as it is an act of theatre. Cotsen tells us that even his own parents, not so long ago, refused to use the word “deaf” to describe him, stopped him from singing and pushed him towards mainstream schools which didn’t always make things easier for him. While none of these acts came from a place of maliciousness, they’re all clearly representative of a wider attitude towards deafness: one that prefers to brush it under the carpet rather than pay attention. In this show, Cotsen is quick to acknowledge, for example, that D/deaf people are generally expected to lip read, but barely anyone in the audience can even begin to decipher a video of silent speech on first watching.
The show relies on a combination of British Sign Language, oral English, subtitled interview recordings and live typing projected onto a screen, and this diversity in methods of communication is extremely interesting to watch. Cotsen turns his work of engaging with his audience into a creative act, shifting between the modes smoothly. As a storyteller and performer, he’s welcoming and inviting, although he’s also perfectly willing to break off into a signed conversation with an individual audience member, knowing that most in the room can’t follow it. Unplanned moments function as a reminder that Cotsen is choosing to make this show accessible to an audience which doesn’t know BSL. We’re taking a step into a world where allowances must be made for us, after perhaps a lifetime of always being in the majority.
This is an evocative and interesting piece of theatre, far from a cry for help, and closer to a polite request for our attention.
Follow Mr and Mrs Clark on instagram for all the behind the scenes footage from this show.
Neither Here Nor There (Jo Fong & Sonia Hughes); Summerhall
With two performers, Jo Fong and Sonia Hughes, functioning as something like conversational workshop leaders, Neither Here Nor There is, almost entirely, an exercise in audience participation. Its allotted time is broken down into multiple six minute segments, each of which foster a short exercise in listening, either with each audience member listening to another speak for the six minutes, or the entire audience listening to one of the performers, or conversation, with the audience paired off and encouraged to discuss topics provided on cards.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that, in a show which takes such a fluid shape, some moments drag; it transpires that being asked to tell a total stranger what life’s truths are will result in six strange minutes of a combination of pseudo-philosophical rambling, and incredibly painful silence. On the other hand, sometimes the elements come together, and it flows extremely well. The format is so reliant on its participants that it always feels precarious, as the next minute of smooth sailing is never guaranteed, and it’s this precariousness that gives the show its edge.
After a certain point, the air takes on a sense of what feels like faux-peace. The gentle conversation and polite laughter belies the fact that there’s actually something acutely stressful about needing to find something to say, because nobody else is going to speak, and the next few minutes will be very long otherwise. The questions themselves are clearly designed to draw people out of themselves, incorporating everything from family to the state of the entire world and our position in it. However, inevitably, sometimes people just aren’t up for it.
The more an audience is able trust the two performers, the better the show works. It’s at its best when the room collectively commits to it, and it flags when we flag. The responsibility is split between us and them, as long as we can cooperate, it can become a thought-provoking meditation on the world and our place in it.
Find out more about this show HERE
The Populars (Volcano Theatre); Summerhall
Sometimes, the really good shows are the ones that make you wish, painfully, that you were anywhere else. As in, anywhere which isn’t standing in the performance space, being invited to dance by several very enthusiastic actors.
The Populars is a lot of fun. The four performers are incredible dancers who all really know how to work a room and use a space. Their routines are smooth and polished, even in the moments of fallout or exhaustion, and they draw the audience along just about as far as they want to go – and then a little further. In the repurposed Summerhall cafe under the fluorescent lights, the whole thing feels very, very exposed.
But beyond the facade of sparkly jackets and high-energy movement routines, there’s a highly political element to this piece. The dances blur with discussion of the mother of all political discussions: Brexit. The performers become not just representative of themselves, but of the country that they live in. Perspectives are tossed between them, vanishing as quickly as they emerge. There are some moments where the ‘leave’ rhetoric takes on a somewhat mocking tone, spinning out the buzzwords of the leave campaign to the point of ridiculousness, and it’s questionable how helpful this is. It would be easy for it to shift from gentle mockery into artistic alienation, but harder to pin down where the line between these two lies.
With that said, it’s not something to be dwelt on too much, as this is such a sharply intelligent response to the last two years of upheaval. The real foundation of the piece is us, and our willingness to dance with strangers, answer questions and group ourselves by arbitrary preferences. In other words, our willingness to find groups which we feel welcomed by, and to stick to them. Sound familiar?
The rapid shifts in focus are sometimes so quickfire and unpredictable that each one could be stretched for longer if the performers chose, which might level out the pace of the piece as a whole. However, this is small criticism. The Populars offers an innovative shift from classic or traditional theatrical form, while suggesting that maybe it was never necessary to begin with.
Find out more about The Populars at Edinburgh HERE
Adrift (Clock Tower Theatre); Venue 13
Days after a failed mutiny on board a British naval ship, three crew members are floating on board a slightly smaller vessel: specifically, a drifting rowboat without any obvious oars. With opinion divided over whether it makes sense to try to paddle to land or to stay relatively still and hope for a passing ship, tensions are already running high. This is where we meet the cast of Adrift, performed by Clock Tower Theatre from Cardiff.
For the most part, despite its slightly ridiculous setting, George Infini’s script manages to sway just close enough to believability to remain funny rather than just ludicrous, although this line wavers at times, and a few of the plot twists do seem to stretch the requisite suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
However, moments like that are deluged when faced with the brilliant chemistry of the cast. Following the Godot-esque structure of waiting for a rescue which may or may not ever make an appearance, Adrift is, in some ways, an exercise in trying the audience’s patience. Of course, that makes it all the more impressive that the hour’s run time passes so swiftly. The cast’s collective comic timing is integral to preventing the play from dragging, along with George Goding’s focussed direction. The inclusion of brief physical interludes are an effective way to demonstrate the passing of time, as are the returns to increasingly meaningless diary entries.
Although Adrift is genuinely very funny, there are also some moments which are a bit heavier. The extended period of time spent on the boat allows revelations about the outside world to emerge gradually, without feeling particularly forced. These pointers move the action – if ‘action’ is the right word – forward just enough that it can remain reasonably pacy. Class and status, the dominant preoccupation of the British, both of which hold such power in the outside/ dry land world, are slowly but surely eroded over the course of the month or so the characters spend on the boat. Past rank fades to little more than an afterthought as the hierarchies have no choice but to dissolve. Adrift isn’t quite Lord of the Flies, but it’s in the same ocean. This is an interesting and amusing take on a reasonably common concept, providing entertainment along with plenty to think about.
Find out more about this show in Edinburgh HERE
Ned and the Whale (Flossy and Boo); The Space @ Symposium Hall
Like a lot of theatre aimed at children, Ned And The Whale jumps between acting and storytelling, dipping in and out of the narrative at intervals. This means that it’s easy to follow, but also breaks down into palatable chunks which are appealing to the attention span of children. Between the two performers, an entire array of characters emerge to help Ned along on his adventure. Even though they’re essentially relying on a selection of reclaimed materials and a variety of different voices, these characters couldn’t be more real. Along with the more traditionally human characters, there are also some puppets to contend with, portraying both Ned and the whale. It seems that because the performers absolutely believe in it, we can as well. The children in the audience are all completely won over by them.
The tent outside Symposium Hall is a lovely venue for this show: even though it was swaying on this windy Edinburgh morning, it makes for an ideal backdrop for a story about nautical adventuring. The lack of a distinct boundary between performers and audience means that it feels like a genuinely collaborative space. Audience members are invited to give suggestions, and allowed to be present in Ned’s world, even if that means collectively playing a selection of rocks.
The creativity of this show is obvious, but it’s also clear how well Anja Conti and Laura Jeffs (who make up Flossy and Boo) understand their very young target audience. Unexpected contributions from very small audience members are more than welcome; moreover, they just become a part of the story. It’s really refreshing to see a theatre environment where children’s needs are genuinely taken into account, and the experience is shaped around them. The cast took the time to stress that it’s fine to move around or to come in and out, which can make all the difference for younger children and their families.
This is a lovely way to start the day at the festival. It feels like a peaceful little island in a city which can become so pressurised, and provides a great introduction to theatre for the young, no matter how small.
Find out more about this show in Edinburgh HERE