Edinburgh Fringe 2017

  • Dr Philip Crispin

Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me

Irene Kelleher in Mary and Me

As ever, there is much of Catholic and spiritual interest during Edinburgh’s Festival season.

On the Fringe, director Jeremy Weller’s Grassmarket Projects has returned to the excellent Summerhall arts centre with Doglife, the second part of a trilogy based on the life of Thomas McCrudden – a former gangland enforcer struggling to change from a violent past to a more hopeful future. In last year’s Doubting Thomas, the real-life protagonist, a Catholic from sectarian-riven Glasgow gangland, revisited his life of violent crime and we saw how, thanks to a spark of empathy he discovered while in prison, and the gift of artistic self-expression, he was determined to atone for the past by helping others.

McCrudden continues to re-enact his previous life with raw, visceral power, accompanied by a muscular Glaswegian vernacular and an impressive grassroots company of non-professional actors from similar social backgrounds. Doglife reveals the hard man leaving a trail of broken relationships, haunted by his past life of violence, and castigated for not being ‘normal’. Under Weller’s sensitive direction and mentorship, McCrudden – a man who has a gift for language and performance – struggles to come to terms with his confusing, messy and destructive past. ‘I cannae leave my past; my past is always in front of me,’ he says. And yet, this hopelessness is countered by hope in this compelling confessional play: ‘I am asking yous for forgiveness,’ says Thomas – his social and familial conscience well and truly pricked.

Irene Kelleher’s first play Mary and Me is a one-woman show in which Kelleher plays a fifteen-year old schoolgirl confiding in Mary and Mary Magdalen (whom she dubs Mary Junior or Mary J) at a Marian grotto in rural Ireland. The play was inspired by real events from 1984 when a fifteen-year old girl died alone giving birth at a grotto. The play and Kelleher’s performance are both superb. The thirty-one year old actress is utterly convincing as Hannah, the sweet-natured schoolgirl, in both voice and gesture. The dialogue is natural and sprightly and there is much to laugh and smile at, until three quarters of the way through, when the play suddenly becomes much darker. The familiar shadows of Irish sexism and sex crimes then loom large. The reason for Hannah’s deep concern for her younger sister Joanna when she is sent away to Dublin (after a nasty scene in a pub brought on by nasty schoolboys) becomes all too clear when, in the play’s final scene, she reveals a pair of scissors and a towel and calls on Mary, who gave birth in brutal surroundings herself, to come to her aid. Director Belinda Wild has brought out the very best in Kelleher’s performance and play, and Cormac O’Connor’s selection of 80s music and sound design, along with Paula Lynch’s cleverly adaptable costumes, add a great deal to the whole. The stagecraft in Kelleher’s play is hugely impressive. The sudden darkness which descends is desperate indeed.

Corinne Maier’s production of Like a Prayer had engaging Swiss performers Julia Bihl and Johannes Dullin spout a fair amount of gobbledygook about the spiritual life and its place in the modern world but the piece, which self-identified as ‘documentary theatre’, was redeemed by its filmed documentary footage of a community of six Franciscan sisters living in isolation at the bottom of a valley in Muothatal, in the Swiss Alps. The sisters were unfazed by the provocations of their thespian guests though they gamely joined in with some charades and play. Rather, we were treated to glimpses of their performance of everyday life: at prayer, in the kitchen, in the garden. Integrity, charity and empathy were three words which struck me forcibly, following this ludic visitation of the convent.

Lara Foot’s Tshepang: The Third Testament is a devastating portrayal of the phenomenon of infant rape in South Africa and is an outstanding piece of theatre. Like Fugard, Kani and Ntshone before her, Foot employs ritualised poor theatre in her own mise-en-scène to bear witness to a great evil. Mncedisi Shabangu, who plays Simon the narrator, and Nonceba Constance Didi, who plays Ruth, deliver hugely affecting performances. The play opens with Ruth, with a cot attached to her back, atop a pile of a white substance (it could be salt), like Job upon the dungheap, raking the substance forward and backward like one of Dante’s damned. ‘Nothing much happens here,’ says kind-hearted Simon, who loves Ruth, and who sculpts oversized nativities to be sold in the nearest city. Through Simon’s engaging narration, sometimes delivered in an African tongue, we learn of poverty and the crushing poverty of aspiration; of drunken hopelessness, violence and casual sexual predatoriness and abuse.

Ruth remains silent. ‘She doesn’t say a word any more.’ But she listens and responds with further frantic scrabbling; by cradling a loaf of bread as if it were a child.

Simon creates an image of a Holy Family on stage with his great Nativity figures and Ruth places the infant on Mary’s knees, under her fecund mother’s breasts. ‘All my life, I’ve been waiting for her, the saviour,’ Simon says. ‘Jesus came too long ago. People forget so easily these days.’

Tshepang was the name of Ruth’s beloved baby girl whose name means ‘Hope’, and who was raped at the age of nine months by the man Ruth lived with.

Simon describes and ritually enacts the rape and its devastating consequences. ‘Like Lot’s wife, we were turned to salt.’ He recalls telling a pushy journalist who wonders where Ruth was when the rape took place: ‘Shame on you, on all of us.’

Truly, everyone is implicated in this horror, Foot’s play tells us; not least all those bound up in the previous brutality of Apartheid and its systematic abuse of power, whose baleful influence still endures.

As the play ends and the lights fade out, Ruth, whose name means pity, looks out and says ‘Tshepang’. There is the sound of children playing in the distance. A sob fills the air.

In 1966, the late Bishop of Galway, Fr Eamon Casey (as he then was) helped co-found the homeless charity Shelter. The charity was created only a few weeks after the screening of Ken Loach’s ground-breaking drama documentary Cathy Come Home in which Fr Casey also appeared. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Loach’s film, Cardboard Citizens, Britain’s celebrated homeless people’s theatre company led by director Adrian Jackson, commissioned a powerful new play, Cathy, by Ali Taylor which dramatises the social impact of spiralling housing costs. A fine company performed the sobering piece which makes clear that things have actually become worse. And while there wasn’t time to intervene from the audience forum theatre style, there was just enough time to suggest some concrete measures to take to parliament through what the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal, dubbed ‘legislative theatre’.

A different type of desperation was on display in Maddie Rice’s rich, ripely delivered, and sensitive performance in Sophie Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. It is clear that not everything in the protagonist’s porn-fuelled, sexually liberated garden of delights is rosy. Far from it. The deep pathos elicited in the demise of the fragile pet guinea pig is full of symbolic power. We are fragile beings. Laughs aplenty here but caveats too about vain pursuits, the fleshpots and female vulnerability.

The Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, written and directed by Joan Greening, recounted the tribulations of the great baroque artist, after she was violently raped by her father’s friend. Agostino Tassi. Orazio took the case to court and there followed eight months of humiliation and agony for Artemisia. During the trial, she was viciously tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She was left with horribly injured hands and was terrified she would be unable to paint again. This is apparently the first rape trial ever to be fully documented whose records are still in existence. Julia Munrow (Artemisia) and Julia Rufey (her former servant) provide strong, clear performances in this fascinating historical play.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s art also features in the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition on in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. The Gallery’s permanent collection has a great deal of Catholic interest: Old Masters aplenty, religious paintings, and Poussin’s Seven Sacraments. The National Museum of Scotland’s current exhibition on ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites’ is a superb exploration of would-be kings with a Catholic style.

Doglife: Summerhall; Mary and Me: Paradise in the Vault; Like a Prayer: South C, St Peter’s, Lutton Place; Tshepang: Assembly Roxy, Roxburgh Place; Cathy: Pleasance Dome, Potterrow; Fleabag: Underbelly, George Square; The Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi: the Space on the Mile.

For more information see: www.edfringe.com

Dr Philip Crispin is a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Hull

Tags: Thomas McCrudden, Irene Kelleher, Dr Philip Crispin, Edinburgh Festival

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