Fringe reviews: As British as a Watermelon | Brownton Abbey Talk Show | Screensaver Series | Saved | Shamanic | Pashyanti on Guitar

As British as a Watermelon, by Mandla RaeAs British as a Watermelon, by Mandla Rae
As British as a Watermelon, by Mandla Rae
How does England’s new Horizon Showcase compare to Made in Scotland?

EVEN when operating at a fraction of its normal scale and vibrancy, the Fringe is still an important international platform. The Made in Scotland showcase for home-grown work is now long established, along with various regional showcases from parts of England, but this year sees the launch of the England-wide Horizon showcase, funded to the tune of £500,000 by Arts Council England.

Six finished performances, selected by a consortium which includes Battersea Arts Centre and Dance4, are being staged digitally in the Fringe’s final week, and a further selection of work in development is being shown to invited audiences.

In a line-up with an emphasis on dance and music, Mandla Rae’s As British As A Watermelon (****) stands out as a piece of solo theatre investigating the nature of memory. The Zimbabwean writer and performer presents elements of their story in fragments: a child at an airport in a new dress, a beating by a foster parent, a snatch of African song. Michael Honkin’s set frames the outline of a room containing only a table and a number of watermelons: one is cradled like a baby, another rolled like a football, another hacked to pieces.

Directed by Graham Clayton-Chance, it’s a story of flight, immigration and the gradual affirming of one’s own identity told through memories which are “non linear, never patient, rarely kind”. It can be frustrating, but that’s the point. There is no beginning, middle and end to this story, only sensations: the taste of sugar cane; the knock at the door; a scar for which there is no explanation. Memory is contradictory: even as we fear losing it, we also fear what it might reveal if we remember more fully.

The affirmation of black queer identities continues in Brownton Abbey Talk Show (***), a digital evolution of the pre-covid performance party nights organised by Tarik Elmoutawakil around the country focussing on queer people of colour with disabilities.

The Talk Show is a showcase within a showcase presenting four new pieces of performance interspersed with artist interviews. Sonny Nwachukwu’s dance/spoken word piece Re(Union) reclaims a sense of spirituality in the atmospheric shell of a church. Malik Nashah-Sharpe’s dance work All I Ever Wanted begins with meditative rippling piano and rises to a crescendo of anger.

Nima Séne as B2B presents A Meditation For When There Is No Sun, a sung performance inspired by a song by Sun Ra, and Lasana Shabazz’s Where Are You From takes issue with the all-too-common question through dance, spoken word and some spectacular costumes. At more than two hours in total, it’s a long show for impatient Fringe audiences, and the interviews could be shortened, but the works are beautifully filmed in a series of stunning locations.

Dance artist Janine Harrington’s Screensaver Series (****) might be just half an hour long, but in terms of fufilling its concept alone, it feels like a major achievement. In 2018, Harrington set out to create a movement sequence which echoed the qualities of the (redundant) computer screensaver, a visual sensation of continuous flowing movement and colour. The new digital version allows fresh appreciation of her achievement.

The five dancers never leave their line formation, at times seeming to operate as a single multi-limbed body, at times moving over and through one another in a continuous sequence of undulating movement. Their brightly patterned costumes create a fractal effect like a living kaleidoscope, heightened by Jamie Forth’s hypnotic soundscape.

Meanwhile, musician and composer Graeme Leak takes a deep dive into redundant technology with his show Saved (****), which is part of the Made in Scotland showcase. At the centre of the work is a pair of electronic organs from the 1970s (double keyboards, rhythm unit and a range of “authentic instrument” sounds). Their internal spinning speakers (which gave the sound its wavering tremolo quality) are mounted on the walls in his living room set.

Leak uses the organs (they have a basic programming capability which works a bit like an early sound loop) as the foundation for a retro musical soundscape which he builds using cassette players, AM radios and a variety of rescued and home-made instruments. Then he adds spoken and sung phrases in his eerie deadpan: “Would you like to go for a drive?” “Call your mother”. A reference to present day shop names strikes a wrong note in an otherwise unerring retro vibe. If you expected a cosy tribute to the Yamaha organ, this isn’t it, it’s altogether stranger and perhaps rather more interesting.

Shamanic (****), also in the Made in Scotland programme, is a collaboration which began in 2018 in which Edinburgh-based Russian painter Maria Rud works with musicians Fay Fife (The Rezillos) and Martin Metcalfe (Goodby Mr Mackenzie/Filthy Tongues) to fuse painting and performance, projected Rud’s images onto buildings (in this case the Pleasance Courtyard).

While the band riffs long anthemic tracks drawing on alternative rock, punk and electronica, Rud creates colourful symbolic paintings in real time, painting, erasing, transforming, her whole body infused with the energy of the music. The darkness, the candles, the pagan symbols, the actress Rula Lenska performing Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic poem The Raven, all this adds to the atmosphere. One can’t help feeling the only thing it’s really missing is a live audience.

Which is exactly what classical guitarist Simon Thacker’s Pashyanti on Guitar (****) gets in a series of live performances at Summerhall (there is a digital version of the show as well, featuring dancer Aishwarya Raut). This solo guitar project is the latest iteration in Thacker’s long-term project exploring ways to bring his knowledge and love of Indian musical traditions together with elements of western music. The title (Sanskrit for the meeting point between the waking world and pure consciousness) reflects his fascination with the nature and origins of inspiration.

The concert includes new compositions, improvisations, a reworking of a song by Rabindranath Tagore and a performance of La Catedral, by Paraguayan guitarist Agustin Barrios Mangoré. Each of Thacker’s own pieces seems to move through a range of moods and transformations, from rumbling rhythms to plaintive melody lines. If Shamanic is music on a big scale, Pashyanti brings the focus back down to the detail, to fingers moving across strings with seemingly impossible delicacy and dexterity. As darkness fell on the Summerhall courtyard, it wove a kind of magic which has live performance at its heart.

As British as a Watermelon on demand until 29 August, Summerhall; Brownton Abbey Talk Show, 29 August, 11am; Screensaver Series, digital performance, 29 August, 6pm. Saved, on demand until 28 August on ZOOTV; Shamanic on demand until 30 August, Pleasance Online; Simon Thacker: Pashyanti on Guitar, digital performance on demand until 29 August on Fringe Player.

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