An ode to fringe festivals from the front row of the world’s second largest event, the Adelaide Fringe.
Fringe theatre is like quiet, spontaneous potluck dinner parties with complete strangers—the setting intimate, a babble of foreign languages, awkward small talk slip-sliding into passionate conversation, curio kitchen table straining under a ponderous, heady spread of mismatched platters and dessert (some more expertly crafted than others), a soundtrack of cheerful chatter punctuated by the occasional bad joke inviting well-deserved, prolonged silence, and diversion of eye contact.
A total mess. A beautiful mess.
Festival fringes (or fringe festivals, as the case may be) are wonderful things, a celebration of sheer excess. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the genre-pioneering behemoth, was host to a ridiculous 3000 plus shows in its 2014 programme. Whilst its progeny around the world tend to be smaller in scale, much of the unique atmosphere of fringe theatre is generated by the singular force of quantity. Once the stack of playbills reaches a critical mass, the host city erupts into one like no other: a kaleidoscope of posters and flyers everywhere, street performances of every kind, excited word-of-mouth gossip about obscure performances or must-see shows, the ebb and flow of cultured crowds and the curious. Walk into a random, non-descript pub or café or the occasional alleyway and you may just happen to be in time for a show: circus, poetry, dance, visual arts, pantomime, music, the peculiar, the avant-garde, the experimental, the perplexing… or, not uncommonly, a mix of these different things all at once.
Quality is a word bandied about: festivals are unjuried, and the selection is curated only by the audience—a satisfying week-long medley can involve some risk-taking and adventurous choices. Such festivals are a haven for amateur troupes and troubadours trying to introduce less polished material, but not at the expense of the audience: their open-access nature attracts performances catering to every cultural inclination, including loftier ones, and count both semi-professional and professional acts. The technical poverty of many shows and improvised venues give it a strong community theatre feel, with the caveat being that this is a global one in transience—an opportunity to be cultured in flamenco, bastardised Shakespeare and Chinese acrobatics all in one night. Class evenings at class performances could often be enjoyed for less than the price of a kebab (especially from the half-price booths), in intimate, improvised venues that can feel more rewarding than impersonal, even if grand, 2000-seated theatres.
As peripheral festivals that began in disdain of larger cousins that shun the unrefined, underfunded, and unconventional, a number have even grown to eclipse the main festivals in popularity.
The Adelaide Fringe—the second largest fringe event in the world—is a growing blockbuster in the Antipodes. Although missing the historical, highland grandstand of its Northern counterpart (all of Edinburgh is a stage in August!), Adelaide has the advantage of far more reliable meteorology, and a unique location sandwiched between sea and outback desert. What it lacks in olden charm and ruin-topped hillocks, Adelaide makes up with a gorgeous buffet of unique sun-drenched festival venues: swathes of the city’s parklands are transformed into carnival-themed tented venues brimming with character come March. Famously amongst these is the Garden of Unearthly Delights, an excuse for staving off warm evenings with ice cream, live music and a stroll amongst weird and wonderful. Just across the street is Gluttony, a conglomerate of spiegeltents and makeshift food places, and fifteen minutes away is the Royal Croquet Club, another pop-up venue, in the very heart of the city. Rundle Mall is a southern Royal Mile in the making, whilst in suburbia, Holden Street hosts shows in a converted church complex. Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is the potential for the festival to continue to grow: an alternative destination on this side of the hemisphere for lovers of art in all its form and degrees of excess.
The city this year is host to 1028 events, leaving the fleeting visitor spoilt for choice. I managed to squeeze in a few whilst on break from work and already-wintry Hamilton:
By Gandini Juggling (UK)
The Royal Croquet Club | Until March 15
The Gandini jugglers have been a festival circuit favourite since they first debuted a few years ago. Carefully navigating over neat rows of apples on the floor, they open to Little Jack Little’s ‘I’ve Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin’ in a hypnotic sequence of side-stepping, as graceful portents of apples float from their hands like magic. A series of skits keeps the audience entertained, although one performed to Tammy Wynnette’s ‘Stand by Your Man’—where two female performers crawl with apples in their mouths as the other seven males juggle on the women’s backs—felt a little bizarre and out of place. The brief show—a spectacle of juggling prowess amidst all manner of distraction and obstacle—lives up to its name with a satisfyingly chaotic conclusion of high tea gone wrong.
Mush and Me
By Karla Crome (UK)
Holden Street Theatres, Hindmarsh | Evenings, until March 15
Fresh from a successful run in Edinburgh, Mush and Me is a three-act exploration of the crescendo and decrescendo of a romance struck between co-workers Gabby, an agnostic Jew, and Mush, a smooth-talking Arab. For a show that sells itself as a story about a Jewish-Muslim relationship—evidently banking on popular inclinations in today’s socio-politics—Mush and Me flirts with careless, shallow caricatures of faith and questionable contextual references, a poetic license that feels made-up and stereotypical (if, at times, even a bit selfish). Weightier philosophical expectations aside, however, the script is witty, daring, intelligent, and compassionate. The two lovers are convivial and confessional, likeable from the start. Daniella Isaacs, who has played the role of Gabby since inception, is an absolute wonder on stage. This is quality theatre (albeit with flawed essence) that is a sure hit with little effort, and an impressive debut from actress-playwright Karla Crome.
Stuart Bowden: Before Us
By Stuart Bowden (Australia)
Tuxedo Cat | Run ended
An exuberant, polyphonic, strangely delightful one-man show aided by a measley keyboard and a plastic green costume, Before Us sweeps the audience into a nocturne world that is at once alien and familiar, darkly sentimental and humorous, through an eclectic mix of dance, song, poetic soliloquy, and slightly invasive stand-up comedy. Bowden plays a nameless creature who is the last of his species, and promises at the start that by the end of the show, “you will all die!” Indeed, the sporting audience finds themselves holding hands and gamely spread on the floor in a morbid chorus as the lights dim an hour later, together in tristesse: a wonderfully peculiar experience.