Theatre…but not as we all know it

Source Western Mail
Author David Adams
Shows ImMortal2

A woman pushes an antique pram across a circus ring while trapeze artists canoodle and an accordionist plays.

An actor playing a stand-up comedian suffering from insecurity problems tells a series of increasingly obscene jokes.

A slight young woman with a man’s name contorts herself and does all sorts of things with videocams.

This is theatre today. Or at least, it’s performance. Perhaps not as you, or Terry Hands, knows it, and certainly not what regular audiences at Cardiff’s New or Swansea Grand would recognise as theatre, but it’s the sort of thing that you’d find at any theatre festival in Europe.

And it’s just the sort of thing you’ll find at the biggest and best theatre festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe, where the line-up for this year’s extravaganza in August has just been announced with a record 26,995 performances in 333 venues.

Every other year Edinburgh becomes even more special for UK performers, because there’s an elite programme within this year’s 1,799 shows, a carefully selected few productions that are deemed to be if not the best the most interesting work happening.

It’s the British Council’s Showcase, and it’s important not just because every performer in it has been rigorously checked out and approved by independent critics and observers but because the BC, the UK’s international organisation for educational and cultural relations, has invited events programmers from all over the world to see for themselves the wealth and breadth of theatre talent.

So to be part of that prestigious Showcase you have to be pretty special.

The show with the lady and the pram in the circus ring, the shocking stand-up comic and the high-tech performer are part of it – and they’re all Welsh products.

ImMortal2 is the latest from NoFit State Circus and Firenza Guidi, Hitting Funny is from Volcano Theatre and Fideotek is new commission from the amazing Eddie Ladd.

The British Council looks for new work for its Edinburgh Showcase and both Nofit State and Volcano had well-timed successes just as the BC was drawing up its list - Eddie Ladd had Fideotek in the pipeline and was included on the strength of her previous work, with her last showcase appearance for the BC, Club Luz, winning a major award two years ago.

Nofit State Circus’s ImMortal2 (last year’s cult hit ImMortal was the first draft, as it were) is a big, rambling show staged in a specially-made big top. There’s a remarkable bungee routine, an erotic aerial pas de deux, energetic trapeze tricks and a camp transvestite juggler alongside montage-style scenes involving prams and handbags, accordionists, manic laughter and nostalgic imagery, in a show that can appeal to everyone from kids to demanding theatregoers.

But this is no conventional circus, not even the natural successor to the likes of Ra Ra Zoo, Cirque du Soleil or Circus Eloize, who we saw as the opening show at the Wales Millennium Centre. but a bizarre meeting of physical theatre, new circus, performance art and intellectual European Third Theatre – not surprising if you know the work of its Italian-born, Cardiff-resident director Firenza Guidi.

Swansea-based Volcano’s Hitting Funny, written and performed by Philip Ralph and directed by Paul Davies, couldn’t be more different, a lament for the power of the comic as political subversive – but to describe it as a show about stand-up comedy barely hints at what Philip Ralph achieves in 75 minutes or so of non-stop monologue as he invokes the spirits of the likes of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, those controversial American stand-ups who changed the face of comedy by outraging audiences.

It should work well at Edinburgh, since it offers a critique of what a lot of the Fringe is about. On the surface it’s an aggressive, offensive comedy act that leaves few stones unturned in its attempt to shock and make you laugh, but what Ralph does is confuse, confront and confound us as to whether what he is doing is for real or pastiche as his jokes get ever more extreme.

Fideotek, from Eddie Ladd, is very much being kept under wraps until its Edinburgh premiere – but there’s little doubt that it will increase her reputation for innovative, challenging work that recently has incorporated new media.

Interestingly, her work is the only one of the three that is specifically Welsh. She’s concerned about cultural identity and all her performances are explorations of what she calls “the Welsh condition” – of the issues around living in a country that has clung on to its own culture and language despite aggressive cultural colonisation from the powerful neighbour.

Yet, despite being very political in intent, her shows are huge successes in countries where the dilemmas of what she calls “the colonised split brain” are remote and irrelevant.

All three Welsh shows will, I am sure, wow them at Edinburgh.

But will this trio raise the profile of Welsh theatre ? And, since Edinburgh is basically one big marketplace for new work, will they get bookings around the world ?

For NoFit State Circus, it’s only the second time at Edinburgh and the first under the aegis of the British Council, and co-director Ali Williams sees its appearance as helping raise the profile of Welsh theatre, and indeed sees NoFit State in the tradition of Brith Gof and other Welsh performance groups.

“It’s an important opportunity for the company at critical point of expansion, to raise its national and international profile,” she says.

“NoFit State is at the cutting edge of contemporary circus in the UK and is keen to be a flagship for Welsh culture - the touring NoFit State show has outgrown its roots and now needs to seen on a world platform alongside other contemporary circus such as Cirque Eloize from Canada, Circus Oz from Australia and Cirque Plume from France.

“So we hope that our presence in Edinburgh will generate some international interest.”

Volcano Theatre is an old hand at doing Edinburgh – “but,” says Phil Ralph, “it’s always a loss maker and you certainly don’t do it for the money.”

In fact he is slightly bemused that a play that is all words and deals with a very Anglo-Saxon medium in stand-up comedy should be so enthusiastically promoted by the British Council.

“The BC is very keen to break stand-up into foreign markets,” explains Ralph, “and it’s confident the show will get bookings.

“For the company, we think it’s an opportunity to get into two places Volcano has never played – Australia and the States.”

Being part of the British Council Showcase is a rare tribute to performers and all three Welsh representatives must find it somewhat ironic that they’re considered good enough to be seen as the best of British but struggle to get support at home.

NoFit State Circus celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year but has yet to secure regular funding from the arts council – its current project grant amounts to ten percent of the actual costs.

Volcano Theatre is regarded as Wales’s most successful export and appears regularly all over the world but still gets a miserly arts council grant – according the to latest published figures, less than a tenth of what Clwyd Theatr Cymru gets.

And Eddie Ladd doesn’t get any direct funding from the arts council, relying for her income on other sources.

#Touring Tent show