New Fringe award aims to keep Filipa Braganca's memory alive

JOYCE McMillan on a new award that will celebrate the achievement of emerging female solo performers on the Fringe

Filipa Braganca. Picture: contributed

It only takes a glance at the Fringe programme to reveal how important solo performance has become, as part of Edinburgh’s annual celebration of theatre.

Often, the reasons are financial; in the fiercely competitive market of the Fringe, shows with just one performer help to cut costs, without necessarily imposing any penalty in terms of quality or audience appeal.

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Yet there are also creative and artistic reasons for the popularity of solo shows on the Fringe, not least in the special, high-energy relationship that develops between a lone performer and a live audience; and that was never more true than in Henry Naylor’s Fringe First-winning 2016 show Angel, about a young woman fighter in one of the famous all-female Kurdish units resisting the advance of Islamic State in northern Syria.

The role of Angel and all the other characters in that show was played by the remarkable young actress Filipa Braganca, with an intensity, flexibility and passion that remains unforgettable.

And when Filipa died suddenly in Australia last autumn, after completing a successful tour to Brisbane and Melbourne with the previous play in Naylor’s Middle East trilogy, Echoes, both her family and her colleagues felt that as well as mourning the loss of such a magnificent young woman and artist, they should also find a way to celebrate her short but brilliant life, shaped by a passion for theatre that would fully engage with the fierce conflicts and crises shaking the planet in this decade, and by a matching commitment – outside theatre – to the causes of peace, social justice, and a sustainable environmental future.

The result is the new Filipa 
Braganca Award, launched last month by Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon – who co-produces Naylor’s plays in Edinburgh – and by Henry Naylor himself, with the support of Filipa’s mother and brother.

The award will celebrate the achievement of an emerging female solo performer on the Fringe whose work reflects those same qualities of skill, passion, and commitment to the wider world that lit up Filipa Braganca’s performing life; and it will be presented by Henry Naylor at the Scotsman Fringe Awards Ceremony 2017, to be held at the Pleasance on 25 August.

“Right from the first moment I saw her, during the casting for Echoes,” says Henry Naylor, “I could see that she was just a terrific actor – one of those performers who tries something new at every single show, and just keeps improving the performance until by the end of a run it’s absolutely breathtaking. So it just seems essential to celebrate all that she achieved in her life, and the joyous spirit she brought to it, both as an actor, and as a young woman, a citizen, a campaigner for what she believed in.”

Filipa Braganca was born in Portugal but grew up in London, where her mother was a diplomat; and after university in Nottingham, she studied at the London Drama Studio, graduating in 2014. After Echoes premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, it toured successfully to Adelaide, Prague and New York over the winter of 2015-2016, picking up major awards along the way; and as they toured, Filipa and Henry Naylor were discussing the next show, Angel.

“She was a tremendous sounding-board for that script as it came together,” says Naylor, “so engaged with that story of a young girl who – like her – is a pacifist, but who finds herself at a moment in history where pacifism no longer seems possible.

“One thing that always struck me about Filipa,” Naylor adds, “was her ability to take theatre lightly, to have fun, to keep it in perspective, as well as performing with such intensity and commitment. She was so engaged with the world beyond theatre, as well as with her work. I remember her hitting the phones for Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum long before that was a fashionable thing to do, and demonstrating against BP’s sponsorship of the Tate Galleries – she felt very strongly about environmental issues, among many others.”

And Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon is equally passionate about the need to celebrate all that Filipa achieved during her life. “Filipa Braganca made an impact on everyone she met,” says Koren. “She was warm, bright, funny and beautiful, inside and out.

“She was destined for great things; her talent was boundless, and she cared deeply about world issues. And we all hope that this award will, in some way, keep her memory alive, as well as inspiring others to work towards Filipa’s kind of theatre – a theatre full of depth and sensitivity, and of real meaning, for the world we live in.”