OVER the next few Edinburgh weeks, a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time looking at other people. In turn, those people will spend a lot of time pretending to be people they are not.
Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes/Fat/CountryBoy’s Struggle
So it is fitting that my Fringe kicked off with a show about both things: looking and pretending.
Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes is inspired by the true story of a convent-educated life model who, in the 1950s, served as a muse for Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Constantly on the move, she spent the 60s on the itinerant hippy trail, taking a lot of LSD and falling into petty crime. On her death in 1999, after an intimate relationship with the artist Maggi Hambling, one obituary put her profession down as “bohemian”.
Actor and writer Sue MacLaine relates Moraes’ life like a hazy poetic dream. We can’t quite work out how she switches from Soho beauty to addict to mother to drop-out, much as Moraes herself is quite uncertain about who she actually is.
“Steal my soul and show it back to me,” she says, a sentiment that carries extra weight here in the Whitespace Gallery where we, the audience, have been equipped with drawing boards, pencils and paper and told to treat the show like a life-drawing class. Repeatedly, MacLaine takes off her dressing gown, tells us she is about to hold a pose for a few minutes and leaves us to it.
I won’t be exhibiting my own efforts any time soon, but it’s a novel way to watch a show; one of those only-on-the-Fringe experiences that makes you look at theatre – or look at looking at theatre – in a completely different way.
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s too integral for that. At one point, MacLaine steps down from the stage to inspect our various drawings. It’s as if we have been caught out in the voyeuristic act of being an audience. Do our sketches contain her essence? Have we stolen her soul? Do we know her better than she knows herself?
Indeed, these are questions that can be asked all over the Fringe. Who, for example, is Pete Edwards, performing his own play Fat at the Pleasance? Like MacLaine, he spends much of his one-man show in a state of undress, while the story he tells has an even greater dreamlike quality. It’s an after-hours tale of a walk along the Thames that slips from innocuous descriptions of the rippling water and the empty walkways into sequences of wild invention. His comic surrealism is worthy of Vic and Bob, right down to the operatic ode to blood-covered spam discovered in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
From the midst of this free association emerges Edwards’ deepest sexual fantasy: to share a romantic night in with pasta, Coca-Cola and a fat male lover. While the fat man cooks Italian on the projected video, Edwards rolls naked in front of us over plates of spaghetti in tomato sauce.
As he revels in his delight, Edwards confronts us with an idea that should be obvious but feels radical. It is that all of us, however we define ourselves, are creatures of desire and imagination. For Edwards, who happens to be severely disabled, to give voice to his longings – and such a creative voice at that – is a political act.
Many identities, but not much politics in Maxwell Golden’s CountryBoy’s Struggle – in fact, that’s part of the joke. This hip-hop coming-of-age story is about a fan of rap music who escapes his backwater upbringing in Bude, Cornwall, for the bright lights of London.
Golden has fun with the idea that such an inner-city artform should appeal to a teenager whose greatest deprivation is killing time in an off-season amusement arcade. But he understands too that, whatever your background, artistic fulfilment and personal maturity go hand in hand.
As journeys go, CountryBoy’s Struggle is short on drama, but Golden is a charming and supple performer whose physical skills match his gifts for vivid characterisation and razor-sharp rhymes, creating an easy show to like.
Still Life: An Audience With Henrietta Moraes, Whitespace, until 27 August (not 7, 14, 21); Fat, Pleasance Courtyard, until 26 August (selected days); CountryBoy’s Struggle, Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 August (not 13)