Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing. www.dorothymaxprior.com

Circus, Circus! Edinburgh Festivals 2022

Small gods, humans, animals and a brave space. Dorothy Max Prior samples  some of the many circus shows on offer at the Edinburgh Festivals 2022

Over the past decade, circus has become an increasingly important part of the Edinburgh Fringe, with key venues such as Underbelly and Assembly making space for some of the world’s top companies. I’d like to think that the attention given to circus by the Total Theatre Awards might also have helped to push things forward! 

In 2015, the ante was upped with the creation of Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows – the first major Ed Fringe venue dedicated exclusively to circus and cabaret. Circus Hub is made up of the Lafayette (a 550-seat big top) and The Beauty (a 500-seat spiegeltent). In case you’re wondering, the spaces are named after one of the world’s most famous circus performers and illusionists – The Great Lafayette and his dog Beauty, who both died in Edinburgh in 1911. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the advantage of having circus-dedicated spaces is that there are, one would hope, fewer issues with rigging and get-ins. Having previously produced shows incorporating aerial at the Fringe, I can personally testify that dealing with venues not usually set up for circus work is an absolute pain. Circus Hub sensibly alternate shows between their two venues, allowing for a decent amount of time (by Ed Fringe standards, anyway – sometimes a whole hour, for goodness sake!) for get-ins.

Of course there’s been a bit of a gap due to a certain global pandemic, but this year saw the return of the Edinburgh Fringe to its usual boisterousness, and it was a delight to see a whole host of great circus shows – at Circus Hub and other venues – ranging from the family-friendly feel-good shows through to the experimental edge where circus meets live art. Something for everyone, then.

Circus Abyssinia: Tulu

At the feel-good end of the spectrum, Circus Abyssinia are always a pretty safe bet for a fun-for-all-the-family outing. Here, they present their most recent show Tulu, which is inspired by Ethiopian athlete and icon, the long-distance runner Derartu Tulu. The show starts with a run around the space and the voice of a sports commentator celebrating her achievement (she was the first Ethiopian woman and the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal). The theme is picked up on now and again as the show progresses – we get a nice image of the Olympic five-ring emblem that prefaces a great hoop-tumbling act, a bit of flag-waiving and parading, and the lead five acrobats’ costumes reference the Ethiopian kit. Oh, and a fire juggling scene that starts with a flaming torch run and handover/lighting moment. But not everything can be forced to fit the theme, so we also have some lovely contortion by two young women dressed as cheetahs (OK, fastest land animals so maybe on-theme after all!); an old-school, but good with it, rollerskating double; some great all-female acrobalance/hand-to-hand; an extraordinarily good male hand-balancer, who later does a gorgeously controlled straps act, featuring a perfect box-split held totally still for what seems like an impossible amount of time; and a fabulous Russian Swing finale that brings the house down. All delivered to a great Ethiopian/African soundtrack that moves from folkloric to rock to jazz, and often a magical blend of all three modes. 

Cirque Alfonse: Animal

Also in feel-good mode, but with a little more edginess, comes Cirque Alfonse with Animal. So we’re talking farm animals here, not circus animals. And this is not a sentimental trip to the petting farm, it’s a feisty grown-up take on farm life – I saw a couple of small children  getting pretty worried about the references to the abattoir, and the general loud boisterousness of it all was too much for some of the little ones. But the venue/company clearly give the age recommendation as 12+ so what can you do if people ignore the guidance? As ever, the Alfonse team of butch beardy men and athletic women give us a breathtaking display of physical skills – all aided and abetted brilliantly by the musicians with their fantastic mulch of rock and roll and Quebecois folk. And some of the acrobats sing and play, too – so there’s a constant changing roster of instrumentation as drum kit, guitar, bass, keyboards, trumpet and musical spoons all come into play. Plus, clog dancing!

So what do we get, circus-wise? Lots, and it’s all somehow weaved into the farm theme. We have object manipulation – pitchforks and buckets-of-grain and milk churns are juggled and rolled and tossed. We have hand-balancing (those milk churns put to use again). We have teeterboard (of course we do, it’s Cirque Alfonse!) incorporating big plastic pigs and chunky tyres; and we have wheelbarrow races. Then, there’s the egg balancing, and the singing and dancing plastic chickens. There’s a ridiculously silly big dancing cow, and a tossing of the giant cowbells act. And we have a phenomenal bucking bronco finale on a big bull. Weaving through all this is a great clown character, a Granddad farmer with a gristly white beard and dungarees who stomps and sings and rides his tractor through the onstage mayhem. It looks rough and ready, but is meticulously designed and executed. Good, dirty fun – a fabulously raunchy display of circus skills, physical theatre, and music from a brilliant ensemble. 

Circa: Humans 2.0

Following on from Animal is a show that couldn’t be more different, aesthetically and in the type of skills employed. Australian company Circa are back with Humans 2.0 – an evolution of the show Humans that has played twice previously at Circus Hub. But each new incarnation of the show is its own thing,  exploiting the specific physicality and skills of whoever is in the ensemble at the time. The design is pure and simple, relying on a strong music score and excellent lighting to provide all that’s needed by way of the scenography. There is no set or props – just a white dancefloor making a circle. Sometimes there are lightning flashes, and sometimes the circle is lit red. There’s nothing to interfere with the fact that it’s all about the human bodies in the space – an ensemble of ten who work all together or in small groups, with the very occasional solo moment. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has said that he created Humans 2.0 to capture the challenge of being human. The show explores ideas around trust, support, balance, and collaboration: bodies are tossed to each other at phenomenal speed, three-person towers rise and fall effortlessly, women and men base other women and men as if lifting feathers – from standing, or lying, or kneeling, or (provoking gasps of astonishment from the audience) from bridge position. In a moment exploring risk in a way that the audience can identify with – much of the time, the action is so swift and perfectly executed we don’t see the risk – an acrobat leaps in the air, seemingly expecting to be caught, but instead hits the floor. Circa can afford to play these sorts of games – their level of skill and brilliantly timed execution of everything they do is so very high. A breathtakingly beautiful show I could watch a hundred times.

Aloft Circus Arts: Brave Space

All of the above are performed in The Lafayette tent. Over in The Beauty spiegeltent, there’s a very lovely morning show that is very different to anything else on at the Hub or elsewhere in the Fringe. Brave Space is brought to us by the all-female Chicago-based Aloft Circus Arts company. Each show is for a maximum audience capacity of 100 – and this is because they create a space within the space, building a safe haven from scaff poles and white parachute silk, a constantly-evolving structure that morphs from womb to enormous hooped skirt to secret den to circus tent. The performers move along and around and under the structure, creating gorgeous shadow images from within, or outside the structure walking along horizontal metal poles, and dancing and spinning on vertical poles. The audience start out watching, but get drawn into the action. First it’s making a big circle, and a lift of the parachute silk – Girl Guide style – in a great big whoosh. Then, we are asked to put the cloth over our heads, and crawl underneath. Join in now or miss the rest of the show, our ‘ring-mistress’ calls out to those on the edge hesitating. Chairs are brought for those less able to stand or site on the floor. The tent grows around us. Now, with everyone inside, volunteers are gently brought in to the action, to hold poles or ropes or hoops. We are just inches from the performers as they twirl their hoops or juggle or climb and balance. in one extraordinary moment, we are invited to lie down under the trapeze to watch the aerial action with a worm’s eye view. Health and safety be damned! A warm and wonderful show, bringing some real beauty to The Beauty.

Circa: Carnival of the Animals

Elsewhere, there is circus aplenty. 

New venue The House of Oz (at Kings Hall, which has a lovely garden set up as ‘the outback’ with colourful decorations and comfy cushions) plays host to the second Circa show at this Edinburgh Fringe – their production for children, Carnival of the Animals. Here we have a very different sort of animal to the Cirque Alfonse variety. Our team of acrobats, sporting vintage vaudevillian costumes and red noses, give us a gentle run through the animal kingdom. Using simple props like silks, different sized boxes and trunks, balloons and hula hoops – and with projected animations of cityscapes, savannahs, and underwater scenes providing the scenery – we meet and enjoy swift-swimming shoals of fish, playful penguins, trumpeting elephants, jumping frogs, and delicately floating butterflies. The circus skills are what we would expect from Circa: top notch, that is. No playing down to the children: they get the top-level tumbling and balancing and the triple towers. But all done with gentle ease, at a pace suitable for very little ones, with more than enough to interest the parents, and never any patronising of the kids or playing over their heads to the adults. It is so, so good to see children’s work of this quality.

Sadiq Ali: The Chosen Haram

Over at Summerhall, two very different shows using circus skills in the service of experimental physical storytelling. Performed on two Chinese poles – plus a falling-apart sofa, some bottles, and rather a lot of sticky plastic – queer circus show The Chosen Haram deals with themes around sexuality, faith, addiction and connection. Lead artist/performer Sadiq Ali was born and raised in Edinburgh – and so at the show’s conclusion shares his delight with being on home territory, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and part of the Made in Scotland showcase. The Chosen Haram tells the story of two gay men and their chance meeting through a dating app. We get a breathtaking display of Chinese pole skills, some pretty sound physical acting, and a dash of high-energy disco dancing as the story moves from solo portraits of each man, their first sexual encounter (brought to us with tenderness and humour), further meetings, experiments with S&M, and outings to clubs. The show is full of strong scenes, and is performed with great skill and sensibility, but it feels like it needs a little more work on the structure. I really enjoy the show, and we have a fantastic introduction and set up, and some very strong scenes, but I feel set adrift a little after an ending which seems to suddenly just happen out of the blue.

Zinnia Oberski: Dreams of the Small Gods

Dreams of the Small Gods is also at Summerhall, in the small and intimate Demonstration Room (The Chosen Haram plays in the main hall). This mesmerising solo is devised and performed by Zinnia Oberski and directed by Ellie Dubois. The performance tells the story of the awakening of the Wild Woman and her meeting with a horned creature from the otherworld. We first meet the Woman naked and upside down on a trapeze, her hair hanging down. As she slowly writhes and turns, her body is exposed but her face is always obscured by her hair. This is the Wild Woman in her primitive, animal-like state. This first section lasts around 15 minutes and involves minimal but effective movement, to a soundscape of gentle rustlings and whistlings. It may well be the slowest and quietest 15 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe – and that is no bad thing. There’s a change in mood as the Woman tosses her hair back and sits on the trapeze, gently rocking and observing us calmly – then jumping down onto the earthy floor, and taking obvious pleasure in rolling in the dirt. Another change as a new element comes into the space – a fabulous (in both senses of the word) horned mask descends from on high, looking out at us eerily through the mist. A totem. A fetish. A Pagan god. Does she take on the mask, or does the mask absorb her, to make her the horned creature? Whatever way round we view it, the physical action is carefully choreographed, and the visual images created are stunning. A total gem of a show – so very different to most circus work, so meditative, so clear and confident in its dramaturgy and execution.

Cirk La Putyka: Boom!

Over at the vast McEwan Hall, a very different show, one of two at this year’s Fringe from renowned Czech company Cirk La Putyka Whist the company’s established artists perform Runners at Zoo Southside, the company’s ‘young bloods’ can be found at this much more imposing space. 

Boom! is a collaboration between Cirk La Putyka and Kyiv Municipal Academy of Variety and Circus Art. A few days after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, young circus students from Kyiv came to Cirk La Putyka in Prague. Together, these 16 or so Gen Z circus artists have made a show about freedom, friendship and borders. It’s all a bit messy, but that’s OK. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink show. There’s a raid-the-dressing-up-box approach to costume with baggy neon hoodies and trainers and sports bras and national costume from both countries and flowery maxi-dresses and fuchsia tutus and big bubble-heads all in the mix. There’s plenty of high-energy dance, including a nice take on Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’. There are words too: in at least three languages, using the now-familiar on-mic confessional motif first brought to us by 7 Doigts in Traces, as childhood memories are shared and hopes and fears and dreams are expressed. In one of the many poignant moments, we learn that both countries have a tradition of offering bread and salt to strangers – leading to an onstage breaking and sharing of the bread. 

As for the physical action: there’s lots of lovely duets including a very good aerial straps routine, paired with a breakdancing boy at floor level; a clever combo of Cyr wheel and hula hoop; and a classic boy-girl acrobalance/hand-to-hand duet. We get a cabaret-style Lyra/hoop act in high heels, and some good strong Chinese pole. And there’s a juggling act that ends in a snowball fight, reminding us that these young performers are not so far away from childhood. This all accompanied by an onstage musician playing a mix of digital sounds and live guitar and keyboards.  A bright and breezy show full of teenage energy and – despite the dire circumstances that brought them together – joy and lust for life.

Gravity & Other Myths with the National Youth Choir of Scotland: Pulse.. Photo Andrew Perry

An even bigger ensemble of acrobats can be found at the Edinburgh International Festival at Gravity and Other Myths’ The Pulse. To say first of all: how odd it feels to see this company on at the EIF – they seem such stalwarts of the Fringe! But during that Covid pandemic, they got themselves some proper funding and knuckled down to make an ambitious large-scale show – without knowing when, if ever, they would be performing it. The gamble – led by company director Darcy Grant, together with designer Geoff Cobham and composer Ekrem Eli Phoenix – paid off, and here they are at the Edinburgh Playhouse: 30 of them, teamed with the same number of singers from the National Youth Choir of Scotland. This same enormous team also appeared, with extra dancers and musicians, at the EIF opening event, Macro, held at the massive BT Murrayfield stadium. But as the circus content of both events is essentially the same, I’ll focus on The Pulse.

Mathematics rules here! Sequences, sets and patterns are a key element. Whilst the singers chant ‘one two, one two three, one two three four…’ the acrobats assemble in groupings of two or three or four. In another motif running through the piece, we see human bodies as architecture: skylines of silhouetted bodies, towers that rise and fall. And my goodness, it’s very exciting to see four-high human towers! There is plenty of humour and pizazz  – a comic take on ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ sees the ensemble ‘playing’ each other by jumping on prone bodies, eliciting a scale of howls and groans. But there are also many gentle moments. There’s a poignant ‘meeting the other face on’ scene that uses the classic physical theatre hero/chorus technique well, as a solo acrobat performs to and around the choir, then a solo singer performs to a wall of acrobats. There a few scenes that don’t quite work – a long drawn out house-lights-on race through the audience to pull out ropes into a spider web seems like too much effort for the outcome; and there’s one scene that might have worked better if placed earlier – a switch to electronic music with pulsing red light traversing the stage feels out of place so close to the end as it shifts the mood oddly. But these quibbles aside, this is a brave and bold step up for Gravity and Other Myths, and as I saw it on my last evening in the Burgh, a fitting end to my 2022 Edinburgh Festivals experience.

Featured image (top): Gravity and Other Myths: The Pulse at Edinburgh International Festival. Photo Andrew Perry.

For more information and bookings for all Edinburgh Fringe shows, see www.edfringe.com 

For Gravity and Other Myths: Pulse at the Edinburgh International Festival, see www.eif.co.uk     

The Honest Truth

Black Sheep, Head Set, Musclebound, and Boy: Four very different shows at the Edinburgh Fringe 2022, from autobiographical solos to docu-theatre, that explore identity and tell true-life stories – as witnessed by Dorothy Max Prior 

A Black woman in a boldly patterned dress is sweeping the floor, moving a psychedelic carpet of orange and pink leaves and petals to one side of the space. She bangs a drum, calling out: What are you? Mulatto? Half-caste? What are you? In a different moment, the woman is manipulating a pair of large feathery wings in a seductive fan dance. And in yet another moment, she stands nearly nude, dressed in a flesh-coloured bodysuit and adorned with sticky labels which she peels off and reads out. Each word affirms an aspect of her identity: Black, queer, rainbow, public, private, magnificent… Later in the show, she roller-skates across the stage, handing out ‘Black Lives Matter’ placards for audience members to hold up.

This is Livia Kojo Aloura, better known as MisSa, the world-renowned sword-swallower and burlesque/circus performer. All of these splendid images, and many more, flag up different aspects of her-self. Black Sheep, her first solo theatre show, is an exploration of her personal and cultural identity, blending autobiography with a call-to-arms to the audience to ‘Check Your Privilege’ (another of the placards). And indeed, looking around, the vast majority of the audience is, like me, white… 

Livia was raised in a safe and secure home in Germany by a white mother, with a grandmother who loved her dearly, but was a former supporter of the Nazi party. Well, plenty of material there to play with! Her relationship with her mother is complex – explored in a lovely, classic physical theatre moment using a coat hanging on a stand and one red glove, the objects animated to create a moving picture of an embracing mother and daughter. They love each other, but Livia feels the need to move on; to create a life in which her Black, queer identity can find its voice. 

Black Sheep gives Livia, as a poet and writer, the opportunity to combine her talent for physical performance with her carefully-crafted words, the resulting show an excellent blend of powerful visual images, great poetic text (these poems to be gathered in a collection coming out later this year), and song, as she reworks cabaret classics such as ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – delivered to us as ‘They Put a Spell on Me’, which follows a declaration, repeated throughout the piece, that ‘White people don’t love me for who I am but for who they want me to be’. 

Black Sheep, seen in preview the day before the official opening of the Edinburgh Fringe 2022, is one of a number of shows at this year’s Fringe that explore personal identity. Of course, one-person autobiographical shows are a staple of the Fringe – but it is good to see work like this that takes the form beyond the regular autobiographical-confessional mode into new territories. Livia Kojo Aloura has been mentored by Marisa Carnesky, whose Showwomen she recently appeared in, and Black Sheep is a similarly sassy blend of cabaret, circus and performance art skills, proving that political theatre needn’t be dull and dirgy. Bravo!

Livia Kojo Aloura: Black Sheep

Another interesting take on the one-person show is Victoria Melody’s Head Set, which looks partly inwards (literally in this case, as she reflects on the workings of her brain, having been recently diagnosed as neurodivergent) and partly outwards at the goings on within a particular specialist community. At the beginning of the show, Victoria gives a brief summary, for those who don’t know her work, of her usual process – which is to embed herself into a world she is unfamiliar with and explore it thoroughly, often over many years, before making a show about it. In the past, she’s been a pigeon-fancier, a Northern Soul dancer, a beauty contestant, and (with the late lamented Major Tom, a handsome basset hound) a championship dog handler.

Now, she’s exploring stand-up comedy. Which she does, naturally, by adopting a stand-up comedian version of Victoria who riffs throughout the show on how hard it is to be a stand-up comedian. As is the norm in stand-up, she’s presenting carefully scripted material that gives the impression of being off-the-cuff – mixed in with actual off-the-cuff responses to the live room. So yes, as she points out herself, with a derogatory ‘fuck off’ added, what we  have here is a stand-up comedy show embedded within a theatre show – meta-theatre, innit! Or perhaps it’s performance art, who knows? Whatever it is, it works brilliantly on many different levels. You could take it as a regular Edinburgh comedy show and enjoy it as that, or your could enjoy the theatrical game-playing and flagging up of the intrinsic twist at the heart of stand-up: that interplay of the real-time experience and the scripted material, all performed by someone who (like a clown) is neither a 100% real-life person nor an assumed character, but an aspect of the self. 

Head Set is delivered with the wide-eyed mix of confidence and vulnerability that is typical of a Victoria Melody show. As always, her warm and welcoming stage persona puts the audience at ease, and invites them into whatever is her current world with welcoming arms. In the first half of the show, we are given a run-down of her time at stand-up comedy school, learning the craft. Her teacher is none too impressed with her material. Where’s the punchline, she repeatedly asks. This is not funny, where’s the joke? (I’m reminded of Stewart Lee’s essay on the English obsession with punchlines – apparently less important in other comedy traditions.) Victoria’s early attempts at a five-minute comedy routine are actually very funny, despite being un-formulaic. For example, there’s the one about the ducks she can’t look in the eye, because she lives on a boat and knows her pee is going into the river, but then realises the ducks are also peeing in the river. Laugh? I nearly wet myself…  Later, Head Set moves on to exploring her diagnosis with ADHD, adding in another strand to the work – the strange head set she starts wearing to monitor brain activity, which inadvertently becomes the breakthrough gimmick that helps her win over audiences. But there’s an irony here: she was so, so determined not to be ‘theatrical’, to do away with sets and props and just conquer the world of stand-up with her words…  Looks like theatre has cast a spell on her that she just can’ shake off. But whatever the ways and means, Head Set is a winner!

Victoria Melody: Head Set

An interesting extra theatrical addition in Head Set is the inclusion of offstage/onscreen husband Mitch, filmed talking about Victoria’s failed early attempts at stand-up in front of a live audience. Including other people (on film, or referenced) in one’s autobiographical stage work brings its own set of ethical dilemmas. In this case, we assume a straightforward case of ‘permission granted’. 

It’s a little more complex in Rosy Carrick’s solo show Musclebound, whose ‘also starring’ roster include an on-screen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren; Rosy’s teenage daughter Olive, referenced and quoted, but represented visually by screenshots of Courteney Cox, playing Masters of the Universe young heroine Julie Winston; and a crude faceless cloth dummy, playing Rosie’s various sexual partners, short or longterm (a ‘Guy’ we could say – penny for?). Which raises the thorny question that dogs all discussion of narrative non-fiction, be it in book form or on stage: what of other people’s ‘material’ is OK to include in ‘your’ story? I have no answer, I’m just raising the question..

Musclebound, much delayed due to the pandemic, follows on from her brilliant earlier show, Passionate Machine, This latest, similarly, has autobiographical material at its heart, and uses a creation process (not unlike that of Victoria Melody) of complete immersion in an exterior subject – in this case, the world of male bodybuilding and he-man films. Passionate Machine was also poignantly autobiographical, but there was a core to it that went beyond Rosy’s life – a quest to explore metaphysical conundrums around the nature of time and space/time travel, prompted by a visit to the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and philosophical ideas brought up by an exploration of the work of poet Mayakovsky. Musclebound is a far more self-focused and self-exposing piece, with that other roster of characters – from the mighty Arnie to her daughter Olive – all put to service to help Rosy understand her own complex sexuality, and liberate her to a point of feeling no shame in acknowledging and exploring her fantasies.

With what is undoubtedly a great deal of bravery and honesty, Rosy unpicks her longstanding sexual obsession with ‘tortured beefcake’, taking her questions right to the horse’s mouth as she travels to the USA to attend conferences and bodybuilding shows, covertly recording the questions she asks of her heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren don’t really give her the answers she wants – Dolph Lundgren because he doesn’t get it at all, and in the case of the formidably intelligent Arnie, it’s probably because she isn’t really asking him the right questions. Still, she does get to have her photo taken with him. 

Musclebound is built around confident verbal storytelling, taking us through Rosy’s sexual history, from early masturbatory fantasies to longterm relationships with ‘nice’ men who don’t quite cut the mustard. This is meshed with onscreen mash-ups of the aforementioned tortured beefcake, as we witness musclebound bodies stretched on racks, cut, stabbed or branded; and a relaying of encounters with boyfriends and one-night stands, played out in comic physical tussles with the squidgy, faceless dummy.

The show has a lot going for it, but needs some bedding down, so to speak, which will no doubt happen over a month-long Edinburgh run!

Rosy Carrick: Musclebound

Moving on from autobiography to biography: Carly Wijs’ Boy gives us the tragic story of David Reimer. It is a story that is firmly embedded in the public domain, with numerous documentaries, TV shows, and previous plays taking him as their subject. One of a pair of identical twins, David was born male but raised as a girl following medical advice after his penis was severely injured during a botched circumcision in infancy. Later, he reverted to living as a male, eventually marrying a woman who had three children, which he raised as his own. By age 38 he was dead, having taken his own life, following the suicide of his twin brother. These are the bare facts, and I am not giving you any spoilers, as all this is given to us in the programme notes or related to us in the opening minutes of the play.

So, like a Greek tragedy, we know the outcome of the story at the start. We know that it ends badly – but we are here to learn why and how. Relieved of the tension of worrying about outcome, we can appreciate the storytelling and immerse ourself in this terrible human story. 

Writer/director Carly Wijs previously brought us a similarly harrowing and terrible story in Us/Them, which took the 2004 Beslan school siege as its subject. The story of twin boys Brian and Bruce (David changed his name when he reverted back to his male identity age 15, preferring to ditch the ill-fated Bruce along with Brenda) is brought to us with compassion and a lack of judgement towards everyone involved – well, everyone other than the doctors, anyway… As with that previous work, Wijs demonstrates an outstanding ability to take a horrible true-life story and deliver it in a way that affects and moves, without assaulting or terrorising an audience.

Much of this is down to the cleverly entwined scenography and dramaturgy.  No less than 900 cuddly toys are brought into service, stacked up into a massive wall to serve as both set and props. The harrowing scenes from the twins’ childhoods – the botched circumcision, the re-assignment of little boy Bruce to little girl Brenda, the childhood bullying, and the appalling psychological and sexual abuse enacted upon the children by their ‘saviour’, Dr Money – are brought to us either using the teddies as crudely manipulated puppets or through the powers of verbal storytelling. 

This is all enacted beautifully by the two performers, Jeroen van der Ven and Vanja Maria Godee, who play the twins’ parents – an ordinary working-class couple who trust the authorities to know what is best for their children. The abuse of the trust this young couple put into the obnoxious Dr Money and others is another appalling aspect of this case. Both actors are excellent in their storytelling roles – completely believable in their innocence and optimism, despite the terrible circumstances.

There is an interesting switch in staging towards the end when we get to meet the real David Reimer onscreen, in an episode of the TV show Oprah on which he appeared with his mother. This perhaps to show audience members who hadn’t realised it was a true story that this was indeed the case. (The twins were born in 1965, and although initially anonymously documented by medical practitioners as the John/Joan case, David’s story exploded into the world when he went public in 1997.) The TV footage feels a slightly odd shift, but adds an interesting extra dimension.

Boy inevitably raises many issues around the topical and controversial subjects of gender, biological sex, and the question of nature versus nurture in the raising of children. Carly Wijs wisely steers clear of any judgement or viewpoint, preferring to tell the story and keep the focus on the abuse suffered by both boys by the medical experts; and on highlighting the sexism of the society that they were born and raised in. 

Carly Wijs: Boy

Featured image (top): Livia Kojo Aloura: Black Sheep. Photo Sarah Hickson

Livia Kojo Aloura: Black Sheep was seen at Assembly Rooms, 4 August 2022 

Carly Wijs: Boy was seen at Summerhall, 5 August 2022

Rosy Carrick: Musclebound was seen at Assembly Roxy, 6 August 2022

Victoria Melody: Head Set was seen at Pleasance Courtyard, 8 August 2022

All shows play for the three weeks of the Edinburgh Fringe, 5–29 August 2022. 

For further information and to book tickets, go to https://www.edfringe.com/ 

Girls and Boys Come Out to Play – Reykjavík Fringe 2022

Sex-bomb robots challenge notions of femininity, a trio of peacock men vie for the audience’s adoration, and an ensemble of women performers explore what it is to be male… Dorothy Max Prior samples some of the dance and physical theatre programme at the Reykjavík Fringe 2022

The opening night of the Reykjavík Fringe 2022.

There’s an air of expectation in the space – a lovely old theatre in downtown Reykjavík (Iðnó Culture House) with a conventional end-on raised stage /proscenium arch, and a wooden panelled auditorium. I mention the setting as its old-fashioned splendour contrasts so nicely with the stage picture – a futuristic scenario of coral-pink plastic furniture and purple lighting, embellished with a large rear screen and synths, and peopled with figures in flesh-coloured head-to-toe bodysuits, masks, foot-long acrylic nails, and thigh-high wet-look boots. 

Welcome to the planet Hold! (We can note here that the Icelandic word ‘hold’ translates as ‘flesh’.) We are in some unspecified time in the future, in a place where humans have sought refuge after destroying their home planet, Earth. The humanoid creatures are robots called Syzers. The Syzers simulate what love relationships might be like once having simulacrum robots in the home is part of normal daily life. The central characters in Hold: The Musical are a human male and a female robot ‘wife’. There is also a chorus of robots providing the live music (members of the band Holdgervlar). 

The music works well – a kind of retro-futuristic blend that channels electronic pop by the likes of Gary Numan/Tubeway army in numbers with ironic titles like ‘Pure Love’ which are sung in a kind of Gina X Euro-disco drawl. There’s also some cool disco dancing, particularly from the male lead, a ‘future man’ who is fetchingly clad in Mad Max buckled bondage wear.

The script gets a little lost in translation or delivery sometimes, but there are some fantastic moments. I love the female robot’s realisation that she will need to add in some flaws to her programming – deciding on biting her nails and adding filler words to her conversation to enhance her human femaleness /make her responses more traditionally ‘female’. She learns to laugh adoringly when ‘Master’ is talking; and muses after he leaves the room that ‘Master wants support not solutions’ after she has been admonished for trying to solve his work problems for him. Eventually, things blow up as the Syzer oversteps her boundaries. The ‘re-set, re-calibrate’ ending brings the piece cleverly full circle, as we realise that this particular Syzer has had many different incarnations…

Of course, we are on familiar territory here with a speculative fiction exploration of what it is to be ‘woman’ and ‘wife’, the notion of the less-cerebral/more emotional ‘female brain’, and the age-old question of AI sentience. There are nods (conscious or unconscious) towards Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, The Handmaids Tale, and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. Oh, and let’s not forget Barbarella for its cartoon sci-fi aesthetic… But there’s always room for more, and Hold: The Musical’s USP is that it is a darn good pop musical. There’s work to be done on the script and the delivery of the text, and the choreography in the chorus numbers needs more rigour. The use of moving image also feels a little token rather than integral to the piece – but it’s early days for this work, and there’s already a lot to admire here. 

Holdgervlar: Hold – The Musical. Photo Patrik Ontkovic

It turns out that the upfront theme in Hold  – the nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ and the relationship between the sexes – is something of a festival theme (unsurprisingly as the stated theme this year is Love) and explored in various ways in other shows I see at the Reykjavík Fringe 2022.

Triptych Men, also presented at Iðnó, is a dance-theatre-comedy show from Tel Aviv’s Sabotal Theater, in which a trio of male performers are in competition with each other for a fabulous hour of physical and verbal storytelling, breakdancing, boogie-ing and all-round vying for the audience’s attention and approval. It is choreographed and directed by the company’s founder Gal Sabo, and is a companion piece to her earlier show, Triptych Women.

The audience is seated on three sides, and on the fourth side are three empty chairs. Enter our three smiling and strutting heroes, who move from the stage down steps to the floor, claiming the space as they do, each making eye-contact and smiling flirtatiously with audience members as he passes by; then soon after taking a chair and seating himself facing one side of the audience. All three start in on a breathless whirl of stories – childhood reminiscences about getting lost on the way home from a friend’s house; worries about body size and dealing with ill-fitting clothes; or being in constant, alarming conflict with a bullying brother who keeps a baseball bat just for the purposes of attacking his sibling. At a given signal, each man moves on to the next audience group, all done with a neat choreographic precision. Of course, most of our focus is on the man right in front of us, but we can’t help being pulled into the other stories, which are not quite out of earshot. Then, the chairs are moved back to the starting position, and the three men sit in a line and work in chorus, their words beautifully marked and emphasised by precise physical gesture. We move on from childhood to adolescence, and the multiplicity of stories get whittled down to one narrative: the story of Sheila – the unattainable high-school crush, first desired in class, with the heartache and painful awkwardness building at the school disco, and coming to a head at a beach outing that ends disastrously…

The beauty of Triptych Men is in the excellence of the choreography and in the superb performance skills, with both the small movements and the big showcase dances given equal care and attention. Every walk, every move of a chair, every glance or gesture, every change of clothing is taken seriously, enacted with authority. Nothing is left to chance – every transition from scene to scene is smoothly executed. In the more obviously physical sections (although it is all physical acting, from start to finish), each man gets to showcase his talents as breakdancer or strutting and lip-syching disco-divo. The ensemble work is spot-on, utilising skills from physical theatre, contemporary dance, street dance, acrobalance, and contact improvisation. Verbal delivery (in a second language, to boot!) is powerful and precise. Although there is an upbeat and comedic tone to much of the show, the subject matter (male identity and coming-of-age experience, and all that this encompasses) brings forth many poignant moments. The story of the adult encounter that ties up the Sheila saga is full of pathos, and I particularly love a scene in which a length of stretchy material (think aerial silks or similar) is pulled out and toyed with and eventually wrapped around two of the men, turning them into a father with a baby in a sling. Oh, and there’s not only a brilliant Travolta parody, but also a great and authentically choreographed Charleston – which if I hadn’t already been won over, would have been the clincher. 

Unsurprisingly, this show is one of the great successes of the Reykjavík Fringe 2022, winning two different awards (one for Outstanding Performance, plus the Artists Favourite award). 

Sabotal Theater: Triptych Men. Photo Elin Bjorg

Another award-winner (for Best Ensemble) is Spindrift’s Them, which also explores masculinity, and is similarly driven by a female eye, although in this case it is the performers/co-devisers and not just the director who are female, offering their perspectives on masculinity. Another crossover with Triptych Men is the incorporation of true-life stories reflecting on masculine experience – although in this case, verbatim quotes taken from interview rather than the (presumed) autobiographical material of Triptych Men.

We start with a fabulous stage picture – a sculptural array of men’s suits and lamps suspended in the space, plus a table and chairs, through which the four-woman ensemble move with fluid ease: here, a chorus of female voices saying ‘sorry’ repeatedly; there, a row of four ‘men’ with their trousers pulled down to their knees. There is much playful send-up of male behaviour in scenes of apeish and boorish boozing and boasting – all enacted tongue-in-cheek with great physical presence and strong mimicry skills – although I do find myself wondering if they, as women, have the agency to do this. Would we accept men mimicking female behaviour in a derogatory way onstage? If not, should we apply the same ‘rules’ in reverse?  I don’t know. It’s a question, not a judgement… 

An early scene gives us a parodic take on a 1950s manual for new wives (prepare his dinner, fix your hair and make-up, clean up the toys, clean up the kids). This is cleverly enacted and funny, but feels a little jaded and over-familiar. I understand that it is a set-up for what is to come, and perhaps is trying to make a point that things haven’t changed as much as we might like. But the 1950s is now 70 years ago, and to me this scene doesn’t feel that relevant to the exploration of contemporary tropes and mores of masculinity at the heart of he piece.

But as the show progresses, focusing in on the verbatim texts generated from the interview research across many Nordic countries, the material becomes very much stronger – and by the halfway point I’m completely won over. We hear stories of men who are unable to cry at the death of a son, hiding away alone in a parked car to shed silent tears; men who find it impossible to show love to their daughters in any way other than offering to fix their cars or do their DIY; and men whose only currency in matters of love is money. In all of these snippets and small moments, the integration of the spoken text and the carefully-choreographed movement work is spot-on. Two long stories are played out beautifully, with a wonderful demonstration of classic physical theatre hero/chorus techniques: one is a horrific story of a nightclub beating, the other a heartbreakingly funny tale of an adolescent at summer camp who feels he needs to prove himself by embarking on a nigh-impossible early-morning run. The moment where, exhausted and with feet blistered and torn to pieces, he refuses a lift back to base from his camp counsellor, who has come out to look for him, is such a classic moment of young male pride holding out, brought to us with love not judgement. 

The piece ends where it started, with the chorus of female voices apologising and downplaying their own importance – thus bookending the piece nicely, and framing the work as a female-eye-view on masculinity. It is a pleasure to see a young company with such consummate ‘total theatre’ skills, playing here after six years of development, in the Reykjavík theatre (Tjarnarbíó) that the piece was always envisioned as the ideal stage, to a full house that gives them a standing ovation. 

Spindrift: Them

Also seen at Tjarnarbíó is Y Todavia Somos, by Spanish dancer and choreographer Julia Nicolau. And yes – it’s another award-winner! It’s a lovely piece, executed with great movement skills, but it is rather hard to get a grip on what it actually is. Essentially, an autobiographical solo dance work with spoken text – but one that also incorporates a sound-looping musical section using flute, voice, palmas (clapping) and castanets; a conversation with herself on video, interrogating her practice; pre-recorded verbatim texts, mostly with older relatives and members of the community; and a rather long section of monologue musing on her own life trajectory and intentions, fears and hopes.  

The publicity material describes the piece as ‘an exploratory process on how to go beyond the formal limits of the body through articulatory movement’ – and yes, skilful articulation of the body is a key element – Julia’s double-jointed movement work often goes beyond dance to acrobatic contortion skills. And there is more than one marvellous scene where her long hair, tossed over her face, becomes a kind of mask, turning her beyond-human into a marionette with sophisticated articulation. But it seems to me that the heart of the piece is less an exploration of the capabilities of a young and able body than an investigation into what it is to live in an ageing body: we are all dying, daily. The subject of mortality comes up again and again throughout the show. A lovely spoken word section reflects on the death of a grandmother, who passes away on a park bench. She, a woman who always avoided being the centre of attention, would (had she not been literally mortified) have been mortified to know that she had caused such a fuss in a public space! 

There is also a recurring motif of reflecting on the immediacy of the present moment. There is no fourth wall: we are addressed directly, and Julia constantly reminds us that we are here together in the here-and-now. When the looping section doesn’t work as well as she might want it to, it’s scrapped and begun again. At another point, as she winds the large rear-stage screen down, she remarks that she likes the noise it makes. Call-and-response is another key motif: in the looping section, of course, but also in sections where as dancer she responds to pre-recorded words, hers or other people’s; or responds to her own live words with gestures; or to her own image on screen. Ultimately, it’s a piece about being alone, even when not alone – we are born alone, and we die alone. 

These four shows, seen in the opening weekend, formed part of a strong strand of dance and physical theatre presented at Reykjavík Fringe 2022. 

Julia Nicolau: Y Todavia Somos. Photo Patrik Ontkovic

Featured image (top of page): Spindrift: Them

For more about the festival, see the Reykjavík Fringe Festival website.  For a reflection on this year’s programme and interview with artistic director Nanna Gunnars, see companion piece We Are Family.  

Holdgervlar: Hold: The Musical was seen at Iðnó Culture House Reykjavík on 24 June 2022.

Sabotal Theater: Tripytych Men was seen at Iðnó Culture House Reykjavík on 26 June 2022.

Spindrift: Them was seen in a festival preview at Tjarnarbíó Reykjavík on 22 June 2022.

Julia Nicolau: Y Todavia Somos was seen at Tjarnarbíó Reykjavík on 25 June 2022.

Reykjavík Fringe Festival took place 24 June to 4 July 2022. 

Reykjavik Fringe is the home of the Icelandic grassroots art scene as well as a platform for more established performers to experiment and play. Festival artists are a mix of local and international performers. The festival takes place at the height of summer, making the most of the long days and the midnight sun. Venues are all in central Reykjavík, a close walking distance from one another. Tickets are affordable and the atmosphere is always welcoming.

Dorothy Max Prior travelled to Reykjavik with support from Inspired by Iceland, brokered by Reykjavik Fringe Festival. She stayed at Local 101, central Reykjavic.

We Are Family – Reykjavík Fringe 2022

Dorothy Max Prior goes to the Reykjavík Fringe 2022 and encounters a thriving community of artists from Iceland, from other Nordic countries, and indeed from across the globe – a 90-show extravaganza held over ten days, all  lovingly pulled together by festival director Nanna Gunnars and her dedicated  team  

‘Mostly, I’m excited to be meeting people,’ says Nanna Gunnars, director of the  Reykjavík Fringe Festival. ‘A lot of the prep is spent on email. I’m behind a screen for hours thinking, why am I doing this? But now it’s coming together, it’s the day  before the opening, and the artists are arriving… And although I’ll be running  around like mad for the next 10 days, I’m going to be meeting so many people from  around the world, and seeing so many great shows.’  

We are sitting having a grilled fish lunch at Skál! in the bustling Hlemmur Matholl, a  former bus station converted into Reykjavík’s latest foodie temple – the ‘we’ being  me, Nanna, and ‘first mate’ Owen Hindley. It is Thursday 23 June, and it is indeed the day before the opening. We are watching the clock as Nanna needs to go across the road to the Galleri Fold to oversee the hang of the comic book art exhibition which will launch on Saturday; and Owen needs to power on with sorting out the technical needs for shows going up in the first day or two. This lunch might be their last proper sit-down meal for a while! 

Andrew Sim: Linda’s Freakshow

Native Icelander Nanna and her English fiancé Owen are part of a four-person core  team running the festival. The other two are festival co-director Olivia Finnegan, a  cheery and enthusiastic US American, who is, amongst other things, responsible for  overseeing the team of up to 60 volunteers staffing the 2022 festival; and head of  technical production Juliette Louste, a striking French woman replete with buzz cut and baby in a Snugli carrier.  

‘We all take on what needs to be done,’ says Nanna, talking of the core team’s shifting roles’. Except Juliette, who stays within her tech remit – she manages the  team of six technicians, and programmes and oversees all the get-ins and technical rehearsals. Owen is her right-hand man, but he also does the graphics and other  things… 

Then, there are the photographers and videographers – and although some are  dedicated to just this work, others are multi-tasking. Take ‘wee Scottish boy’  Andrew Sim, as he is called by his alter-ego Linda, a fabulously fractious old bird who will co-host the opening night party, and whose Freakshow is a returning hit. ‘He’s one of my favourite acts,’ says Nanna of Andrew, going on to comment on his multiple roles within the festival as typical of the sense of community that they have engendered.

‘We are like a family,’ Owen adds. The 2022 festival has plenty of artists who are returning to the festival, from across Europe and North America, and in some cases further afield – although there are many new faces, too.

Ari Eldjárn: Saga Class

Which brings me to ask about highlights of the 2022 programme. Nanna stresses that there is an application and selection process, rather than it all being curated around her taste as festival director, and that the aim is to provide an eclectic mix of work that includes theatre, dance, visual arts, and comedy from across the world –  so I can sense that she is reluctant to prioritise some shows over others, but I do nudge her to name a few she’d particularly like to flag up!  

At the more mainstream end of the programme there is Ari Eldjárn, a stand-up  comedian who is a Netflix star and a household name in Iceland – a coup for the  Reykjavík Fringe that gives them a reach into the wider community, and guaranteed full houses on the nights he performs. 

Somewhere in the middle ground – that is, popular and accessible, but breaking new ground – are shows such as Triptych Men, a three-man dance-theatre-comedy show from Israel that is a companion piece to Triptych Women, which had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. Both pieces are choreographed/directed by Sabotal Theatre’s Gal Sabo. ‘It’s essentially the same concept for both,’ says Nanna. ‘A trilogy of performers – either three men or three  women – in competition with each other; telling stories, dancing, vying for the  audience’s attention…’ It’s one that I have marked down as a must-see.  

Sabotal Theater: Triptych Men. Photo Elín Björg –elinbjorg.com

Then, there is Spindrift – an ensemble that developed out of Rose Bruford College’s BA in European Theatre Arts (ETA), formed by a mix of Icelandic and Finnish performers. They are presenting two pieces in the Fringe. Them is an ensemble piece performed by four women that explores gender divides, male self-image, and the ongoing ‘battle of the sexes’ (aka patriarchy and how women deal with it). Their other show, We’ll Dance on the Ash of the Apocalypse, is a climate-crisis drama performed in Icelandic by a real-life couple playing a fictional couple who are deciding whether continuing with an unplanned pregnancy is justified as the world collapses all around them.

Nanna (also an ETA alumnus) is the company’s producer and, speaking of their pre-Fringe premiere of Them the night before at Tjarnarbíó theatre, says ‘I felt a swell of pride. They have been working on this show for six years – six years! – and always wanted to perform it in this venue. To see it with the proper staging and lighting and set design, the full show as it was always envisioned all coming together, and performing to a full house – it was  magic!’  

Spindrift Theatre: Them

Nanna also flags up the inclusion of Líf, a show made in the north of Iceland by theatre group Umskiptingar, saying that it is good to show the world that there is more to the country than Reykjavík:

‘The show is about invented character Sissa Líf, who is an actor-musician and a (failed) former rock star. Basically, the character is a trainwreck and highly delusional about her own talents and capabilities.’

Lif, performed by Margrét Sverrisdóttir, goes on to win her the Best Character Actor Award – one of the very many Awards given out at Reykjavik Fringe!

Margrét Sverrisdóttir as Sissa Lif

At the more cutting edge end of this year’s programme are shows such as After, from Canada: ‘There are five performers and it is for an audience of just five people  at a time,’ says Nanna, ‘and I have no idea how it works… I’m keen to find out.’ 

Then, there is The Road, a multi-disciplinary project that brings together artists from South Africa, France and Sweden through 3D animations, virtual reality (VR) and live theatre. Nanna and Owen have seen the show previously, and are thrilled to be presenting it.  

Which leads neatly to a reflection on the couple’s own work as artists and co-directors of Huldufugl, and how that fits into the picture. VR work is very much part  of their own interests as artists. They aren’t presenting anything in this year’s Reykjavík Fringe, but it was their artistic work that took them through the door in  the first place. Nanna takes up the story:  

‘There was a small team putting together a Fringe in 2017. Owen and I applied with  our company, Huldufugl, to do a VR piece. We got in and thought, this is great. We  don’t have to find a venue or produce it, we present as part of the Fringe. Then, for various reasons to do with co-organisers pulling out and a lack of funding, the  festival didn’t happen. And I was like, oh what a shame – there was such great  potential here. But they said “postponed” not “cancelled”. So I got in touch with the organisers and said, can I be part of the team?’  

To cut a long story short, Nanna met the by-now sole Reykjavík Fringe trailblazer  and she says: ‘He gave me his baby: the concept, a Facebook page, a logo, a website  – and that was it.’ This was spring 2018, and with just a few months to go, she  found herself programming and running the first ever Reykjavík Fringe Festival. In  that first incarnation in 2018, 50 shows were presented.  

For the second one in 2019, there was a luxurious whole year to plan: ‘We  programmed 100 shows – and it was too much. We didn’t have the human capacity  to service the artists properly. But we got a lot of attention!’  

Then, in 2020, along came the pandemic. I presume you didn’t run the festival that  year, I say. But oh yes – they did. ‘We programmed 50 acts, live and online,’ says Nanna. ‘We ran our own TV station,’ adds Owen. By June, many restrictions had  lifted, and as long as gatherings were of no more than 200 people, they could go ahead. So they did.   

The Road

If anything, 2021 was more troublesome as the goalposts kept shifting, right up  until a week or two before the festival opened. ‘We didn’t know what to do – but we  made the call to go ahead and had record numbers of people attending, although  with very few volunteers as no one would commit ahead of time.’ So almost a  normal festival – and they even had people come from abroad. It was the  preparation that was hell, as Nanna recalls: ‘Oh, all the Europeans can come but the  Americans can’t… Oh no, wait, now it’s the Americans who can come but some  Europeans can’t… We ended up saying to artists: we can only update you as we go  along, no guarantees – get a cancellation policy on your flights and we’ll tell you two  weeks before if it’s happening.’ 

There were some shows planned for 2020 and 2021 that couldn’t make it, but they are now on the programme for 2022 – a programme bursting to the seams with good things from across the world. Nanna tells me that the festival has grown greatly over the past five years, and is now an integral part of the Nordic Fringe Network. Many of the shows seen here in Reykjavik will also be presented at other Nordic Fringes, such as those in Bergen, Copenhagen and Gothenburg; and the network has a Young Producers scheme, enabling its directors and producers to  travel around and assist at other festivals in the group.  

I ask Nanna and Owen how they find juggling their roles as artists and producers. They remind me that they are not showing work themselves in this year’s Fringe, as doing both simultaneously is truly difficult – but do concede that running the Fringe takes a lot of planning, and that does impact on their own work. Their company Huldufugl has two shows about to tour internationally – The Hidden People, which was developed in the UK with circus-theatre company Hikapee; and Parallel People, a virtual reality piece for five audience members at a time which grew out of their one-to-one VR work, A Box in the Desert. How they’ll manage to keep all balls in the air remains to be seen!

Huldufugl: Parallel People. Photo Patrik Ontkovic

The next day, Friday 24 June – the official Reykjavík Fringe opening day! It’s another lunchtime meet-up, and we are now at Iðnó cultural centre, a beautiful old theatre building close to the city hall, next to The Pond – Reykjavík’s city-centre haven for ducks and swans. Nanna and Olivia are eating their soup on-the-go, whilst setting up the welcome area for arriving artists. The door out to the wooden deck overlooking the water is open, and the weather is good (you get to really appreciate the days of sunshine in  Iceland – despite having previously visited the country in summertime I had come ill-equipped and had to go out shopping for gloves and scarf).  

Nanna sets up an Artists Speed Dating session, and we all get to have a five-or-ten  minute chat with a number of different people.

I speak to Ester Auður, aka Silver Foxy, who describes herself as ‘the oldest burlesque performer in Iceland’. She tells me all about the burgeoning burlesque scene in Reykjavík, and flags up the group she performs with, The Tutti Frutties. Performer Vice Versa, also in the Tutti Frutties, who I speak to next, confirms that burlesque is indeed a hot ticket at the moment, and tells me that she is running a queer burlesque workshop as part of the Fringe.

Burlesque performer and workshop leader Vice Versa

Musician and theatre-maker Cynthia Shaw tells me about her solo show Velvet  Determination, which weaves live piano playing and autobiographical anecdotes into an exploration of her childhood, coming of age and professional life as a  musician. She tells me that playing the piano is the easy part – talking whilst  playing is what makes the show a tour-de-force! I get to see it a few days later, and  enjoy it greatly – a very well structured and beautifully performed work, with highly  accomplished piano playing. Comedian and musician Nick Jameson, a US American now resident in Reykjavík, seems like a nice chap – we end up talking  about Cynthia’s amazing folding piano (not needed on this trip as the glorious old theatre space at Iðnó has a fine onstage piano), and about his own work as a musician and comedian – and how  both come together in his Fringe show A Crowd of One.

Cynthia Shaw: Velvet Determination

Another conversation is with an enthusiastic young man called Lee Apsey, who is bringing Your Flaws: The  Musical to the Fringe. It’s completely improvised from audience members’ confessions, so it is different every night. Later that evening, at the festival opening party, he teams up with female Icelanders Eldklarar og Eftirsottar (featured image, top of page) in a very funny and entertaining improv in which he speaks only English and the women speak only Icelandic – a fantastic demonstration of the power of physicality, gesture and tone of language, with the added bonus that some audience members spoke only English, and some both languages, granting different perspectives and responses in the room. And as Lee doesn’t speak Icelandic, his attempts to interpret and respond are hilarious. That opening night party also features turns from the aforementioned Vice Versa, resplendently costumed and working the crowd with great aplomb; and a  wonderful Spanish dancer and choreographer called Julia Nicolau, with a beatboxing cum dancing excerpt from her solo show Y Todavia Somos.  

Before the party, we see opening show Hold: The Musical, which introduces the  festival theme of love, being about a relationship between a man and a very sexy  female robot; and which also establishes the strand of musicals and music theatre  that, along with burlesque, is a motif of this year’s Reykjavík Fringe.  

That said, there is a lot more work at the festival that fits neither of these categories.  And although some acts get a slot at the opening party, Sunday night’s Preview event gives us a taster of a lot more.  

Panos Malactos: SADBOI

Of the shows that I won’t be around to see in my flying visit, the ones that I would really have liked to (based on the two-minute excerpts or trailers presented at the preview night) include The Playground, a charming and whimsical dance piece set in kindergarten and public playgrounds (a rare example of outdoor arts in the festival – perhaps the weather is just too erratic, or perhaps it is the age-old dilemma of the lack of box office for outdoor shows that makes them hard to programme into fringe festivals). This goes on to win the Best Children’s Show award. Then there is I Rummet.3, a dance performance and installation piece set in what looks to be a very lovely sculptural construction in an art gallery; two cabaret/ burlesque shows, Búkalú by ‘Iceland’s mother of burlesque’ Margret Maack, and  boylesque star Sadboi, who is ‘gay, sad and horny’; Sindri Sparkle, who has both an exhibition and an autobiographical show called You’re Lucky He Was Nice (which wins the Nordic Fringe Network Award); a dance piece called Birding, which going on the short excerpt seen promised to be  both funny and poignant; and a totally intriguing show called Dead People Are Liking Things on Facebook…  

Ansadans: The Playground

So a lot that will be missed – there are 90 acts or events in total, as festival  directors/presenters of the preview Nanna and Olivia tell us. This is a very  ambitious programme for an organisation run by four unpaid or low-paid people  and a whole host of volunteers.  

But I do get to see a lot in my long weekend at the Reykjavík Fringe, a fabulous  selection of work that includes some of the highlights of the dance and physical theatre programme, such as the aforementioned Triptych Men, which is as brilliant as anticipated, and wins not only the Outstanding Performance award but also the Artists Choice award. The aforementioned Hold: The Musical, Them (winner of Best Ensemble), and Y Todovia Somos are also much enjoyed. (These four shows are covered here.)

I also see a few of the comedy shows, including the highly entertaining Ari Eldjárn with Saga Class (which wins the Audience Choice award). Ari is always funny without ever resorting to cruelty or misogyny. There’s a great film about the Icelandic drag scene, No Make Up, directed by Polish filmmaker Monika Konarzewska, which brings us a genuinely moving portrait of half-a-dozen of Iceland’s top drag artists, male and female and those who prefer not to be pigeonholed by binary divides, including Faye Knus and Gala Noir, filmed onstage and backstage in the clubs, and out on the streets and beaches. A particularly poignant moment is when Mexican artiste Morning Starr performs live in front of his parents for the first time. And there is a very lovely children’s clown show called Clara and the Free Time about the need to slow down and the power of real-life interactions above screen time, which has great audience interaction and plenty of gentle humour.  

No Make Up, a film by Monika Konarzewska

On my final morning, I catch a truly inspiring exhibition by The Arctic Creatures, a trio  embracing a filmmaker, a visual artist and a theatre director (Óskar Jónsson, Hrafnkell Sigurðsson and Stefán Jónsson) who set up fantastic  (and fantastical) photoshoots in the wilds in Iceland, using only natural or found objects in that environment: thus, whatever the ocean washes ashore is transformed into art – colourful plastic, old shoes, bottles, and fishing nets.

My time in Reykjavík passes quickly, but is full of enriching experiences. An eclectic mixture of performance work from around the world seen at the Fringe; many wonderful artists met and engaged with at the various networking events set up, or just post-show at the bar; art exhibitions seen; numerous outdoor swimming trips, to municipal pools and lagoons; excellent soups and breads and smoked fish; coffee with old friends in Reykjavik’s great cafes; and many magical late-night walks home under the midnight sun. There was even a visit to a pagan temple in progress…

As I leave on my early morning flight, I’m thinking of musician-comedian Nick Jameson’s reply when I asked him why he had moved to Reykjavík. I just kept coming back, he said, until it became clear that this was where I needed to stay.

Reykjavík is certainly a city that seems to have that effect on visitors, especially if they are artists. People can’t help but come back. And the vibrant and welcoming Reykjavík Fringe is the ideal occasion for a visit, be it as participant or audience member. Look out for next year’s dates! on the website!

I may well be back…   

The Arctic Creatures

Featured image (top of page): Eldklárar og eftirsóttar

For a round-up of dance & physical theatre shows seen in the opening weekend of Reykjavík Fringe 2022, see companion piece Girls and Boys Come Out to Play.

Reykjavík Fringe Festival

2022 marks the 5th annual Reykjavík Fringe Festival. This year’s edition took place 24 June to 4 July 2022. 

Artistic director Nanna Gunnars founded the Reykjavík Fringe Festival, along with Jessica LoMonaco and Sindri Þór Sigríðarson, in 2018. 

Reykjavik Fringe is the home of the Icelandic grassroots art scene as well as a platform for more established performers to experiment and play. Festival artists are a mix of local and international performers. The festival takes place at the height of summer, making the most of the long days and the midnight sun. Venues are all in central Reykjavík, a close walking distance from one another. Tickets are affordable and the atmosphere is always welcoming.  

Nordic Fringe Network

The Nordic Fringe Network (NFN) is a collaboration of several Fringe festivals in the Nordic countries. The network was launched in 2017 and currently includes Fringe festivals in Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

NFN offers artists the chance to tour their shows between the Nordic countries, through one joined open call. It also offers Fringe organisers a chance to exchange ideas and learn from one another through regular meet-ups. Nordic Fringe organisers try their best to attend each other’s festivals, and act as jury members during their stay. This also means that artists get a great opportunity to network with foreign festival organisers and industry professionals at each festival. NFN also serves as a support system for other organisations wanting to establish Fringe festivals in their regions. 

Rose Bruford European Theatre Arts

The European Theatre Arts (ETA) BA (Hons) course explores different European theatre practices, centred on the notions of the ensemble and of crossing borders; training students in the processes of theatre-making (as performer, director, deviser, designer) alongside an understanding of how performance is shaped by its cultural contexts.

Dorothy Max Prior travelled to Reykjavik with support from Inspired by Iceland, brokered by Reykjavik Fringe Festival. She stayed at Local 101, central Reykjavic.

The Vibrating Body

A golden humanoid lion, an overcoat made of herrings, and drawing noses. Dorothy Max Prior profiles the work of visual and performing artist Jenya Stashkov

 Russian artist Jenya Stashkov is many things – a renaissance man, you could say. He is a visual artist and illustrator; but also a playwright, performer and director..

With his wife Elena Stashkova (aka Ionova) he creates surreal performances.

Their current main project is the Vibrating Body performance troupe, an ‘independent theatre troupe with a non-permanent cast’. Each project they create is unique and has ‘literary, theatrical, artistic and musical components’.

Jenya describes their activities as ‘[exploring] mysticism, the joy of creativity, archetypes, dreams, the paranormal’. A belief in pacifism is key to their work. ‘We condemn Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine,’ says Jenya. He and Elena are hoping to emigrate from Russia at some point in the near future.

On process, Jenya says they are ‘working with modern, mystical and avant-garde dramaturgy’. They work both on stage and on the street. The ephemeral nature of performance appeals strongly. In an interview for Round Lemon, Jenya says:

‘The Vibrating Body is engaged in performances in the urban environment, theatrical performances, video poetry and various cultural projects. Our performances are usually held only once. We like to compare them with the practice of drawing mandalas by Tibetan monks, who spread images of coloured sand for a long time, and then immediately destroy them.’

Dream About the Forest Ashes performance (dedicated to Anton Adasinsky) 2017, St. Petersburg, Tavrichesky Garden

Theatre work has included Plays Without Words and Action, created in Moscow in 2019 and performed at Praktika Theatre. The work is based on a play by Juno Hoay-Fern from Malaysia. This was followed, in 2021, by the creation of I Feel a Dream, created with Vladivostok, Primorsky Youth Theatre, and based on a number of short plays by contemporary mystical Russian playwrights.

The company’s street performances and performance actions in public spaces have included Pilgrimage Of Water (2017, Saint Petersburg), and Hatching (2017, Nizhny Tagil).

There is often a surrealist aspect to the work. Pilgrimage Of Water, for example, is a processional performance ‘dedicated to the embodiment of architectural archetypes, filling the missing water in the Fontanka River and walking a golden humanoid lion in the company of two plaster maidens’.

Unparted Shoot, performance (2016, Ekaterinburg, Youth Library

Jenya has also been implementing the Independent International Award for Improper Dramaturgy project for four years. In 2021, he was awarded the Neem ‘Turquoise edition’. The Neem award was created to support and identify ‘underground dramatic currents’. The Vibrating Body were awarded a prize in the category ‘a play that no one will ever agree to stage’ – which seems a pretty intriguing concept. Here’s a taster:

‘A man dressed in an overcoat of herrings appears on stage, lit by the backlights of ten million first generation iPhones. He sees two thousand Russian Roubles on the floor. “Oh,” he cries, using an Old English accent of Wessex dialect, “that’s equivalent to over twenty British pounds”. The paper money changes as we watch, from Roubles to Malay Ringatas. The herrings chant Handel’s Messiah in reverse, and then explode. The man is discovered to be a drunken Chihuahua. Curtain.’

In an interview for Round Lemon, Jenya was asked about the ease with which he crosses boundaries of artform. Ultimately, it would seem that it all comes down to the fact that it is the ideas that are paramount: the form then presents itself.

‘As a mystical artist, I’m generally interested in the process of embodying weightless invisible ideas. Ideas always lose their purity when they are embodied in our earthly world. Different types of art allow us to experience these losses in different ways – different media, different types of communication of the final result with the audience, different temporal processes. Psychologically, it’s easiest for me to do illustration and graphic work.’

‘Words Over the Mountains, performance based on poems by contemporary Ural poets (2016, Nizhny Tagil, ‘Egg’ art space

When asked where he takes his inspiration from, this is his answer:

‘I get a huge boost of inspiration from the realisation that inspiration comes on a schedule that is beyond human logic. I like to imagine creative energy (inspiration) as a person with whom I need to build personal relationships, like with relatives, a wife, children, or bosses. We can’t spend 24/7 with someone, not even with the person who we’d consider as closest to us. Therefore, I train myself to give inspiration a rest from me. This is my way of getting inspiration.

Jenya is also a talented illustrator: ‘I love flowing shapes, ornaments, noses, references to Sumerian culture and acid colours in particular,’ he says.

His maxim is ‘Only create what brings you joy’.

Like all true surrealists, for Jenya playfulness is paramount. And art for art’s sake is the name of the game:

‘Everyone who makes any steps in art is blessed. Spirits and gods support them (in non-obvious ways).’

Here’s wishing Jenya Stashkov and Elena Stashkova and their company The Vibrating Body much future success, be that within or beyond Mother Russia.

May the spirits and gods support them in whatever way they can. Blessed be!

Featured image (top): Plays Without Words and Action (2019, Moscow, Praktika theatre), performance by Vibrating Body based on a play by Juno Hoay-Fern (Malaysia).

Mermaids of White Earth, performance (2018, St. Petersburg, POLE festival)

More about Jenya Stashkov’s work:

Vibrating Body website:

https://vibratingbody.jimdofree.com/

For the cited Round Lemon interview, see https://www.roundlemon.co.uk/zest-archive/jenya-stashkov-interview

Theatre Work

PLAYS WITHOUT WORDS & ACTION (ENG) (2019, Moscow, Praktika theatre), performance based on a play by Juno Hoay-Fern (Malaysia)

I feel a dream (RUS) (2021, Vladivostok, Primorsky Youth Theater), performance based on short plays by Contemporary mystical russian playwrights

Street Performances

Pilgrimage of Water (2017, Saint Petersburg)

Hatching (2017, Nizhny Tagil)