11 Things I Learnt at the 2019 Dublin Fringe Festival

I really enjoyed this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. It was two weeks of booking more shows than I could really afford and seeing wonderful performances all over the city. It’s one of my favourite times of year. I love coming out of a half six show while it’s still bright out and then heading off to see something else. I love bumping into friends in theatre foyers and hearing what they’ve seen or what they recommend. Here are some of the things I learnt over the course of the festival.

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Tana French in conversation

In May I saw Tana French being interviewed by Anna Carey in Smock Alley. The event was part of the International Festival of Literature. I am a huge admirer of her writing but I’d never heard her speak about it before so I was really looking forward to the event. She didn’t disappoint.

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Reviewing and directing

Lyn Gardner wrote an article recently about reviewing actors’ performances which became a little bit about reviewing in general. The line “My rule is to gloss over a mediocre performance unless it comes with a star name attached” made me think about the reviews I write for this blog. It made me happy to know that I’m not the only one who wants to avoid writing a bad review. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Even though my influence is non-existant and it’s unlikely anyone involved in the production would read it, it would still feel mean. I know how much time and effort goes into a production, it seems unnecessary to dismiss all that while sitting safely behind my keyboard. If I don’t like something, I just don’t write about it. Of course, I have that luxury because I’m only really writing for myself. It nice to have people read what I write my reviews but I don’t have to answer to anyone else.

I write about the shows I like because I want to celebrate their good work and encourage people to go see it. I also think it’s useful for me because I want to create theatre, to write about it. Writing a review means I have to look at things a little more closely, to try and figure out why I enjoyed a particular piece of theatre so much. I can walk out of the theatre thinking ‘yeah, I really liked that’ but when I sit down to write about it, I have to think about what it was I liked about it, what made it so enjoyable, what made it work. (It would probably be helpful to write about shows I don’t like and try figure out why I they didn’t do anything for me, but I am a generous reviewer – if I like something, I will attribute it to the skills of the theatre makers, if I don’t like it, I’ll blame myself; I didn’t get it, it’s not my sort of thing, etc.)

I do mention acting (though I’ve never written anything as beautiful and concise as the examples in that article) because it’s something that interests me. The thing I find hard to review is directors. I find it difficult to see a director’s influence. I say this as someone who has both directed and been directed, who has been in very rehearsal rooms. I know a director’s contribution can be huge, generally is huge because it’s their vision you are seeing onstage, but with a good director you don’t really notice that. The whole thing will seem so natural and right that it’s impossible to imagine it happening any other way. That is the result of a million decisions and aborted attempts but if it’s a good show – you don’t that. I have a lot of respect and admiration for good directors, even if I don’t generally mention them in my reviews!

Reviews, finally

These are the shows that I did manage to see at this year’s Fringe;

As you are now so once were we
Two weeks after seeing the show, I finally get the name right! I’ve just been calling it the play by The Company . As I said before, I really enjoyed it. It made me smile and I left the theatre feeling very joyful.

I loved the set – loads and loads of cardboard boxes stacked up on top of each other, used to represent everything from fast food chains to tall buildings, chairs or bank machines. (Photos available here.) It was a fluid, ever-changing set – in more ways than one as the cast argued about what a particular box actually was.

That tongue-twister of a title comes from Ulysses and the show was based on Joyce’s book. Not so much on the story (not that Ulysses really has a story) but more on the essence of the book, which meant it was about Dublin and a day in a life in Dublin. Or in this case, a day in the lives because the show also used Ulysses ever shifting narrator, but here the narrators disagreed with each others and events were re-told from a difference perspective as the narrative control was passed from actor to actor.

Like Joyce’s book it was very much grounded in time and place. It was set in Dublin in September 2010, name checking people and places that exist here and now. And like Joyce’s book, it made me notice things about Dublin that I hadn’t seen before.

It was also a very funny show which is properly why I came out smiling. I really hope it gets another run at the Project because I would really like to see it again!

Camille O’Sullivan: Chameleon
I saw Camille in the Fringe Factory on the Friday night and enjoyed her show as much as ever. I did sort of miss the Spiegeltent but this was smaller, more intimate venue. I managed to get a seat up front, close to the stage – I’m not sure how it was further back because the stage seemed quite low and the room was long and narrow.

Camille O’Sullivan is a tiny, little thing. She came onstage with about six layers of outfits on and she was still a tiny, little thing. These layers were gradually discarded (the Chameleon part of the title?), so there were lots of different costumes and characters throughout the evening!

Greatest Hits
Last Thursday I was Greatest Hits in the Project. The programme described it as “Operatic Electric sound theatre” which is accurate but for some reason I was expecting more story. Possible there were stories in the songs that I missed because the vocals were often drowned out by all the other instruments. This might have been an opening night glitch. Probably for a lot of people it wouldn’t be a problem at all but my brain likes stories! The songs were interesting to listen to and it was a strong visual piece as well, with a wide variety of instruments and other sound making devices.

Greenstick Boy
I mostly saw this because it was on on Saturday lunchtime when I didn’t need to be somewhere, and because I like going to see one-woman shows and seeing how other people do it. I also liked the promo image.

I find Bewley’s Cafe Theatre a bit of an odd venue. It’s so small and they leave all the tables out even when they aren’t serving food, and the last couple of times I’ve been there it’s been weirdly empty. It’s not a theatre I feel particularly comfortable in but I did enjoy the performance. It was a simple enough piece of theatre but very well performed by Maggie Cronin who had to compete with the buskers on Grafton Street and did so fantastically! She definitely held her own and held my attention throughout the play. I liked the set and the change it underwent through the play.

It did reenforce something about my own taste in theatre – I like shows more when the actors acknowledge the audience and the fact that they are performing in front of other people. Maybe this is why I love Camille’s cabaret and enjoy stand-up so much. Even though Greenstick Boy was delivered straight out to the audience, it was done in such a way that the character was almost talking to themselves or to another off-stage character in that fictional world.

So I enjoyed the play and learnt something from it – pretty good for a Saturday afternoon!

And that was my Fringe. I had a ticket for Cappuccino Culture on Saturday night but decided to stay in the Project and watch Trilogy again instead. But that show is a whole other post!

Project Brand New 5 – Thursday

Thursday was the first night of Project Brand New 5 and I was looking forward to another three nights of brand new theatre. As ever, the upstairs foyer was buzzing with people when I arrived, the comment curtains were ready for feedback and the bar was doing great business!

The first piece of the night was called Calle O’Reilly. It was Afro-Cuban music, enhanced with a live video performance. The musicians were already playing when the audience entered the theatre. Lots of percussion and a bit of bass. Eventually the crowd were all inside and settled in and the piece began.

The musicians and singers performed in darkness and there were light-displays projected onto each performer. These were tribal masks, the kind that remind me of a totem pole, with exploring fireworks of light coming out of their heads! The fireworks were linked to the sounds each performer was making, so it would only happen when the drummer banged the drum and it was in time to the music. There was also a video of drawings of Cuba on the screen behind.

It was a really great opener; it looked and sounded great, it wasn’t too taxing to watch and it made me feel like we were in for a good night!

My only small criticism was that because we couldn’t see the singers faces, it felt like it could have been a recording. Some of the specialness of live music was lost for me because of that.

The second piece was You Will Never Be Seen Again and came with a warning that it started with six minutes of darkness, so we wouldn’t be concerned by that. The darkness came with a voice-over telling us about something that happened to them. These voice-overs (from about three different people) were the main part of the piece. They were all about relationships – relationships gone bad mostly. They were very raw; they felt like real interviews played in all their flawed glory. While the voice-overs were going on (and after the lights came up on stage), there was a single performer onstage performing a movement piece. It didn’t seem connected to the text and it didn’t really do much for me. I liked it better when we were sitting in the dark, just listening to the voices.

The third piece, Short Message Service was very much a work in process. It was more a presentation than a performance. The two artists, Helena O’Connor and Leslie Cullinan are creating a performance based around text messages. They explained where this idea came from and how they had been exploring it. They also said that they found they couldn’t use their own texts because they had a history attached and they found it impossible to see them outside that context. Instead they were looking from texts from strangers and giving out their phone number all over the place. And they would come back on Saturday with the resulting performance.

It was a genuinely enjoyable presentation. They managed to be funny and informative and I’m really looking forward to seeing the final piece on Saturday. They also had a wall of post-its outside in the foyer with all their texts on them. They were brilliant – tiny little snippets of information, a peek into someone else’s life.

The fourth piece was called Body Response System and it was as technical as that sounds. It involved a “motion-sensing interface that triggers musical responses” and a dancer that moved around inside this interface. There was also a saxophone player who responded to the music created by the movement. It was an interesting idea and I’m sure a lot of went into it but it wasn’t all that interesting to watch. The developer, Maria Coleman, did say at the beginning that she created it because she wanted to make something that audience had to phyiscally engague with, not just be a spectator. Possibly I just didn’t experience it properly.

The last performance Delicious O’Grady, was the highlight of the night for me. It was a one-man show about the famine. By then the audience was a little bit giddy and after three intervals, possibly a bit drunk. Luckily it was a tragicomedy that leaned heavily towards the comedy; it was very very funny. It was five short scenes (one was a little animation on the big screen) set during the famine.

It was very visual and great fun. Colm O’Grady had a great rapoture with the audience. There was a bit of audience participation, and a very silly scene with an Irish school master. It also had a fantastic ending!

I think the piece we saw in the Project was a short section from a much longer show, and the whole show will be performed at the Cathedral Quarter Festival in Belfast on May 5th. Definitely worth going to see if you’re in the area.

This was only the first night of goodies, I have two more nights of magic to recap!

Krapp’s Last Tape

On Wednesday night, I saw Krapp’s Last Tape at the Gate. It was a strange show because it was so short (only an hour long) and Beckett is just a bit odd in general. I’m never sure if I like Beckett. I’m not really a fan of post-modernism but sometimes his language is so evocative and beautiful that it makes me think I get it. I don’t find him an easy playwright to love.

Krapp’s Last Tape is about a man, called Krapp, who records his thoughts (nice, old-fashioned spools of tape) every year on his birthday. He also really likes bananas. The play is set on the night of his 79th (ish) birthday. He listens to a tape from his 39th birthday, which also seems to be a birthday tradition – listening to the ramblings of his younger self, and then insulting them – and then makes his new tape. And that’s the play.

It’s full of interesting ideas – the tradition of recording your thoughts on your birthday, the idea that your younger self as someone to be despised, the endless making of resolutions that are never followed through on (something I’m definitely guilty of) – but it’s also about this one man, who loves bananas but seems to have lost everything else he loved.

Beckett asks a lot from his actors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the actor is Michael Gambon and more than up for the challenge. His performance was superb. His Krapp was grumpy and fed up of life but there were still comedic moments. And moments of heartbreak. He was so old and feeble you couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. (My mum was relieved when Michael Gambon bounded enthusiastically onstage for his bow at the end. She had been worried about him.)

It was a nice little play but to me, it felt too short. I would have liked to hear more from Krapp. I wanted to know more about him and what had happened in his long life to bring him to this point in time.

I enjoyed the play but I did think it was a little over-priced for such a short show. We went on the Wednesday when tickets were “only” €25. Tickets for Friday and Saturday night shows are €35. The cost is my main problem with shows at the Gate but I have others! It’s probably my least favourite theatre in Dublin. For some reason, whenever I go there, at some point throughout the performance I will become very aware that I’m in a theatre, watching people pretend. I have no idea why but it just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the theatrical magic for me.

For me, Krapp’s Last Tape was a nice little play, but not a must-see by a long shot.

Workshops and classes

I didn’t see that many shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival but I did get to see Freefall by Corn Exchange and I loved it. I like Corn Exchange a lot and I was raging when I missed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year so I had pretty high expectations for their new show. I wasn’t disappointed. It was fantastic; wonderful actors and a great story, beautifully told. I found it a bit of an emotional roller-coaster of a show and felt drained by the end of it but there was still some very funny moments and a few moments which were painfully, tragically funny. I don’t know if they are touring the show, but if you get a change to see it – I highly recommend it.

I did a workshop with Corn Exchange about seven or eight years ago and I really enjoyed it. It was three evenings classes and we got to build our own Commedia del’Arte character each evening, picking out clothes for them to wear and painting on own mask. We spent the rest of the class creating scenes with our characters.

I have been dying to do another workshop with them ever since but whenever they came around, I either didn’t have the money or I couldn’t get time off work or I was in England. Even just a few months ago, I didn’t have enough days leave left to take the week off work and go and do yoga every morning instead. Maybe 2010 will finally be the year that I get to do another Corn Exchange workshop!

At the moment, I’m doing a voice class with Actors Training Ireland, who I would also highly recommend. I did a weekend workshop with them in July (it included voice, acting and moment work, as well as some singing). I enjoy it and got a lot out of it. It’s not really a beginners class; the aim is to remind you about the things you already know and maybe pick up a few new skills. Acting is something that you need to practice but unlike other performance arts like playing an instrument or singing, it’s very difficult to practise on your own. You need other people, you need an audience. Going to class let’s me practice and remind myself what I’m trying to do. It also helps me to feel like an actor, even though I spend all day in an office.

More Fringe Madness

The Fringe Festival has thoroughly taken over my life. All I seemed to have done for the last two weeks is go to work and Fringe stuff. My room is full of ticket stubs, programmes for shows I went to see and flyers for shows I didn’t manage to get to. I need to hover, and change my bed and wash some clothes. My eye-brows need plucking. Last week I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t seem to get to bed before 11.30pm, this week that’s turned in 1.30am!

Last night I was working at the Speigeltent again, and it was bliss to sleep in until 10 this morning. It was my last shift and I got to see most of the first half of La Clique, which included the girl who spins about 15 hula-hoops at the same time! Amazing! And the wonderful Mario, Queen of the Circus. And because it was my last shift, and things all seemed under control, there was dancing and drinking and hanging out in the Artist’s Tent. It was a good night.

I was down at the Speilgeltent on Wednesday night as well. This time to see Camille O’Sullivan. I went with my mum and dad, and my aunt and uncle like some sort of fifth wheel, a family affair. Last year I saw the Cat’s Miaow with my mum and my aunt, which was a bit of Camille and lots of other people she’d roped in to sing a few songs. This was more of a prepared and rehearsed show with just Camille and the band and it was glorious. She sang for two hours and I think I would have stayed for two more, expect that my ass was falling asleep – Speilgeltent seats are very small and very close together. But it was still an excellent night. We stayed for a drink on George’s Dock and I’m so glad that the weather has been dry for the two weeks and it’s been possible to sit outside and enjoy the evening.

On Thursday I saw Jesus has my Mom in there and has beaten her up real bad and really enjoyed it. It’s a bit strange, a bit like the stuff produced in Brunel, full of ideas and finding interesting ways of putting these ideas on stage. That’s what I like – theatre full of ideas and new ways of looking at the world. Afterwards, I ran up to Blessington Basin for a another fantastic volunteer shift. (Sounds sarcastic but it’s not.) The show – Basin was completely sold-out with 15 people on the waiting list half an hour before it started, most of whom were turned away, and I saw it for free! It was also really, really good. Devised and written especially for the little hidden park at the end of Blessington Street, it was about things that had happened there (the show’s creator used to live in the park-keepers house, inside the park) and things you could imagine happening there. It was really strange and beautiful. I liked the little out-door scenes where it felt like you (and twenty other people) were ease-dropping on the conversations. The pieces inside the house were also like peeking in on something. You were free to wander about the house as you wished – there was no specific order to see things in, and each piece was just a glimpse, just a snippet of life in this house. I really enjoyed it. And enjoyed talked to all the lovely people who worked on it in the pub afterwards and ended up down at the Speiltent, hours after I should have gone to bed.

Today’s been a bit of a lazy day – I’m still in my dressing gown at 3pm – I’m heading out this evening to see Meltdown at the Project and Scar Stories at the Absolut Fringe Factory. I didn’t manage to get a ticket for Madame Butterfly but I’ve been told the show takes place in a window on Crane Lane and that’s it’s worth a look so I’ll wander down and take a look at that too! But sure yet if I’m going to try and cram in a final few shows on Sunday or if I will take it easy before the Fringe Awards and closing night party tomorrow night.

Fringe so far.

I am having a very enjoyable Fringe Festival. I’m enjoying my volunteer shifts and seeing lots of shows. I was getting a bit worn-out at the end of last week. By Friday evening I had completely run out of steam – poof, no more steam let, but I took it sort of easy over the weekend and am ready for another busy week.

My first shift was on the first day of the Fringe, Saturday 5th September in the Absolut Fringe Factory in Smock Alley. The Factory is actually quite impressive. It a great tall space and has lots of nice Absolut Art winding up the wall.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far;

Anatomy of a Seagull
I saw this while I was volunteering and I was glad I hadn’t paid for my ticket. I didn’t really like it. I’d seen the National Youth Theatre version of The Seagull at the Peacock the previous week so I was maybe a little bit too familiar with the script. I also found the production too naturalistic for my taste. Possibly Loose Canon’s style is just not my kind of thing but this my problem not theirs. They won Best Production at last year’s Irish Times Theatre Awards for Phaedra’s Love, which I hated. I will give them another try. I’m going to see Jesus has my Mom in there and has beaten her up real bad on Thursday.

This is Not a Drill
I also saw this as part of a volunteer shift and I loved it. It wasn’t one that I was planning to see, I hadn’t even really noticed it in the programme so I’m delighted that I got to see it by change. It was very much my kind of theatre. Beautifully written, dark and funny, it was non-naturalistic and a bit weird. I loved the very clever use of technology (yes I am a big nerd but that kind of thing. I grabbed the director afterwards to find an explanation for some of that wonderful tech.) and repetition that really worked. It reminded me of Forced Entertainment (mainly Speak Bitterness) and Katie Mitchell’s production of The Waves that I saw at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. I left the performance feeling joyful with a big smile on my face, which is an odd way to leave a show about the end of the world! I saw it again the next night because I had the same shift again, but I was happy to watch it again.

The Blanch
Very funny and sometimes a little bit disturbing. Three actors played I-don’t-know-how-many characters and live music and sound effects were provided by onstage performers, it was fantastic. The characters were a little bit terrifying, especially since the house lights were up for the entire and they did look straight at you. It was wonderfully weird and very contemporary.

Who is Fergal Fitzpatrick
I went to see this show because a couple of people had recommended it to me. And I did like it but I think my expectations were maybe two high. It was interesting and a clever way of looking at theatre, what we expect from theatre and ways to distort these expectations. I think it was a high-concept show that was well executed. It didn’t really have me leaving the theatre with a big smile on my face but it did make me think.

Le Clique
I can’t really offer a full review of this one because I only saw the second half of the show while I was volunteering. What I saw was still fantastic – the physical abilities of the performers is breathtaking, but they are also entertaining! One of my jobs on the night was to look out for people taking photos because this is strictly prohibited. I didn’t see anyone with a camera in their hands. All I could see were rapt faces gazing up at the magnificent spectacles taking place on stage. However, it’s hard to pay that much attention to the audience when there’s a girl being spun around by her partner onstage, he’s on roller-skates and she’s just has her foot hooked around his neck! It sounds impossible but it happened. I was ready to duck, just in case she came flying at me!

Power Point
I saw this on Sunday evening. I think it was probably their 8 consecutive night performing. I got the feeling that the actors were a little off, that timing wasn’t quite right. It felt sloppy to me. It was a strange show anyway – the audience are at a business seminar and the people giving the seminar are a little odd, and having a few problems of their own. I loved the set-up, it’s a great idea but for me, it just didn’t quite work. Maybe I just didn’t get it. There were just too many things happening that didn’t fit together and I left feeling a bit disappointed.

The Legend of Zorroco
This was a one-woman show and I was the preview performance. It was a Spanish nanny who really wants to be the Rose of Tralee. It was very funny and I think it will get better as the week goes on. It had loads of little jokes, mostly at the expense of the Irish, a great story and a sympathetic main character. I really enjoyed it.

Iris Brunette
Another one-woman show but very very different. Where Zorroco was one woman behind a microphone, Iris Brunette had many lighting and sound cues and used the audience to stand in for other characters in the story. It was a slightly troubling tale about love in a weird, post-apocalyptic world. I liked it a lot.

Project Brand New 4 – Day 3

Saturday night was probably the busiest of the three nights at the Project. Maybe word had spread and people were bringing along friends or maybe it’s just the night for going to the theatre. I had spent the day in a drama workshop and when I got home that evening after a day of lots of movement and lots of ideas flying around, I considered giving it a miss. Just staying in, maybe watching a movie and then going to bed early. I couldn’t do it. I was afraid I’m miss something spectacular, something special if I didn’t go. I’m glad I did manage to drag myself down to the Project in the end. I think it was my favourite night of the three.

The first piece was called Worksong and was based on interviews with people who had experienced a big change in their work life. It was about work, but the underlying theme was the importance of having meaningful work to do, work that people feel is worthwhile. This idea really resonated with me.

The technique used was a little strange. The edited interviews were played directly to the actors through headphones, and they repeated the words they heard. Reading the programme before the performance, I wondered why it was done like this and what the advantage was. Surely it would make more sense for the actors to learn the lines before hand and have time to work on the characters they were playing. These doubts went out the window when I saw the performance. The actors were forced to react instantly to what they were hearing and this gave the performance a immediacy that felt fresh. The only disadvantage was that the actors weren’t able to pause for laughter or spontaneous applause. They had to keep up with the interview that was playing through their headphones. And there was laughter and applause – it was a great piece.

Dog Skipping Pegasus was very like the live art pieces that I studied and experienced at university. It was almost a visual art piece that consisted of a woman working at a sewing machine, feeding material along, while on the other side of the stage a man skipped, mirroring the mechanical repetition of the sewing machine. The man stood in a spotlight on a white canvas divided into four squares and used a long red skipping rope, the sound and movement of which was vaguely hypnotic. The text he spoke (while skipping! he never stopped skipping) was flow of conscience stuff that sounded poetic, lots of images. I found it hard to concentrate on the words because I was entranced by the sound of the skipping rope. It looked good and the physical accomplishment was admirable (non-stop skipping for 20 minutes!) but I didn’t really find it very theatrical.

The third piece was called Messages from God and was a piece from an artist that had performed at Project Brand New before and was invited back (Project Brand New RSVP). It consisted of the artist, Priscilla Robinson talking about illustrated notes that she’d made as a child while listening to her father’s sermons in church. The pages were projected onto the wall behind her and she told us the biblical story each page related to. I liked the piece. Priscilla was very personable and it was a funny and light-hearted. She’s the only artist I feel the need to name in these reviews because it was such a personal piece and who she was was a big part of it.

One of the pieces of feedback that she asked for at the end was how could she make these drawings and stories into a piece of theatre. For me, that’s the big question and one that I have asked myself often when devising theatre. We would have all these ideas and images and characters that we wanted to put onstage but we had no idea how to put them all together in a way that worked in a theatrical sense. I hope Priscilla finds a way because I would like to see more of her work.

The final piece on Saturday night was Market Research This which might be my favourite of all from the entire Project Brand New 4 run. It was another work in progress, with the final piece being staged in early next year. There was a sense that there was more of the story to be told but at the same time if seemed very polished and tight, and it worked. The three actors were very good and really gave life to their characters. The writing was also excellent and probably the main reason that I am dying to see the finished piece. It was smart and contemporary and funny and I really enjoyed it.

Market Research Thing was the second piece of the night to be about work, and it was a perfect contrast to the first piece Worksong. Here the characters, working in their Market Research job, their job in Market Research, did not find their work meaningful or worthwhile. Again, this struck a cord with me because I have experience of those jobs that just slowly suck the life out of you. However it was not a depressing piece of theatre. It was lively and clever and had such a light, sure touch but still the themes and the struggles of the characters stuck with me. As I said, I am really looking forward to seeing the finished piece and will be looking out for Redtape, the company who are producing it.

I left on Saturday night feeling inspired and invigorated by all the pieces I’d seen, my mind buzzing with ideas. I’m already looking forward to the next Project Brand New and who knows, I might even have my own performance to put forward for consideration by then!