With a broad program of new and experimental works, this year’s Melbourne Fringe is a playground for performance. By Daniel Herborn.
Melbourne Fringe Festival
A bright yellow, eight-metre tall swing sits in the forecourt of the neoclassical grandeur of State Library Victoria as pop music blasts across the space. The swing supervisors dance as they work, propelling riders higher and higher. Kids hoot, holler and chant their friends’ names as the swing builds momentum.
This installation, part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, is simply titled Swing. It might be a stretch to call it art, but it sets out this festival’s statement of intention – to celebrate play – with absolute clarity. It’s an inspired theme for an event that has long been a space for artists of all stripes to experiment, with an open-access policy that permits works that are more esoteric or embryonic than other festivals would program.
The play Two Fingers Up, by Northern Irish writer/directors Seón Simpson and Gina Donnelly and their production company SkelpieLimmer, is certainly at the accomplished end of the spectrum. Its impish tone and belligerence towards authority make it an ideal fit for this program.
The title, which alludes both to masturbation and the V-sign of defiance, trades in the kind of double entendre this likeable and direct work largely eschews. It focuses on three teenage girls, played with gusto by Leanne Devlin, Orla Graham and Sarah Reid. The trio yearn to understand sex and relationships but their school just provides heteronormative, abstinence-only sex education. While they need practical information and reassurance, they get a biology lesson that teaches reproduction by dissecting flowers. Frustrated, they look for clues in pilfered Sex and the City DVDs, video chats with creeps on Omegle, a trip to a sex shop and a lot of trial and error.
The play ends with a rousing condemnation of a sex education full of guilt and devoid of inclusivity. While this seems more like common sense than a truly provocative stance, the script’s unflagging momentum and the unforced chemistry between the three leads make Two Fingers Up a delight.
While Two Fingers Up breezily surveys puberty, Nicolette Minster’s one-woman comic play Boredroom takes place in the uneasy in-between space of her late 20s, when the actor and comedian had graduated from drama school but could only find temp work at a London insurance company.
Being on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder allowed Minster plenty of time to ponder her life, and she looks back to feeling at a loose end as a child while visiting a television production her mother was working on. “When you’re a kid, it’s somebody else’s fault when you’re bored,” she reflects. On that occasion, she relieved her boredom through mischief. In her dead-end temp job, she has to wait in isolation for the phone to ring, giving her the signal to deliver biscuits to board meetings. There, her attempts to escape drudgery – such as inventing different personalities for each biscuit – take on a darker hue.
Boredroom showcases Minster’s prowess as a performer: she wrings every comic nuance out of her script with timing and precision. Boredom is tricky to make compelling but side stories about her early forays into stand-up keep things moving despite the complete stasis of the central narrative. It’s an intriguing new work that could be further elevated with a little tweaking.
The festival also offers a slate of polished favourites in return seasons, such as Ben Knight’s The Parent/Teacher Interview. A towering man with a ginger beard and blokey ease, Knight is a natural performer and has plenty of observations and anecdotes from his time as a teacher. While every bit feels tight and club-tested, some of the most memorable moments happen when Knight goes off script, offering good-natured defences of the rare jokes that don’t land.
Through songs, audiovisual displays and freewheeling stand-up, Knight translates the guarded language teachers use on report card comments, unravels eccentricities of spelling and lampoons parents who use their child’s name as an opportunity for obscure cleverness, such as “Har$” (pronounced “Harmony”) or “JKMN” (“Noelle” because it has no “L”, get it?).
His sympathies inevitably lie with the children over their parents, and he has an affinity with the rascals and ratbags. One story relates how a kid got into the classroom at lunch, drew a phallus on the board in permanent marker, covered it with white marker and then disguised it under a drawing. When Knight erased the picture, revealing the obscene graffiti, he knew he should be angry but he could only applaud the prankster’s ingenuity.
The Parent/Teacher Interview is more a rollicking grab bag of tales than a serious treatise on education but Knight makes a few salient points along the way. He decries the parents who obsess over their children’s grades, prompting the youngsters to “view their self-worth as a letter”. He wraps up this crowd-pleasing hour with a montage of quotes around his idyll of schooling, including Albert Einstein’s dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.
A belief in the value of creativity and play also informs Tessa Redman’s physical theatre/dance hybrid LOVE/LOVE/LOVE/LOVE/LOVE. She introduces the mostly wordless performance with a quote from feminist author and activist bell hooks about searching for “that moment of rapture, or recognition where we can face one another as we really are, stripped of artifice and pretence, naked and not ashamed”.
What follows is a series of short pieces, each about something Redman loves: a crush, the medium of dance or her own body. A graduate of both the New Zealand School of Dance and Philippe Gaulier’s famously demanding clown school, Redman employs her expressive face and elastic-limbed physicality to convey everything from primal desire to deep serenity.
It’s a challenging but rewarding work for viewers that sits between different genres and features moments of stillness and repetition. Not everything works – I’m not sure a moment where Redman sits down to eat a banana and sip water conveys much more than her understandable physical exhaustion at that point – but there are many moments of offbeat humour, poignancy and pure joy. Whether Redman is thrashing about naked in a frenzy, holding a forced grin and crazed eyes for two whole hilarious minutes, or shimmying to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” with a surprise guest, LOVE/LOVE/LOVE/LOVE/LOVE feels like a performer mucking around, in the best sense of the phrase.
As with Redman’s show, circus two-hander Alienation splits the difference between gleeful, childlike play and veteran expertise. The simple set-up here sees performers/creators Jake Silvestro and Romain Hassanin suspended above the stage in a beautiful boat. When the vessel runs ashore on a deserted island, the pair explore their new environment with tumbling, synchronised breakdancing and parkour-like movements around the edge of the stage and its raised platform.
The piece hits a hypnotic crescendo with Silvestro’s solo routine on a Cyr wheel, an acrobatic apparatus that resembles a steel hula hoop but is taller than the performer and gyroscopically rolls and spins. Blending athleticism and artistry, the act demonstrates what kids know instinctively: a hint of danger – here, the prospect of the wheel toppling off the ledge – makes play more engrossing.
Mostly Alienation is an ode to the possibilities of creative collaboration. The plight of its unnamed characters seems dire, even more so when they discover a skull. But they have each other and it’s quietly moving to see how their circus skills and ingenuity allow them to transcend their surroundings and make their new home a playground.
The idea of a playground runs through many of this multifaceted festival’s shows, including Swing’s high-tech cousin at Federation Square, Volo: Dreams of Flight. This installation allows participants to wear a virtual reality headset that transforms a straightforward swing into a multisensory experience. Riders can choose from four settings, ranging from the gentle glider to a vertiginous re-creation of an ornithopter, an early aircraft that flies by flapping its wings.
But for all its technological achievement and complexity, Volo isn’t capturing the public’s imagination like the far simpler giant swing. One site seemed largely empty whenever I passed, while the other was vibrant even on grey days. Like the uneven but always fascinating festival around it, Swing stands as a testament to the uncomplicated and enduring power of play.
Melbourne Fringe continues until October 22.
FESTIVAL Liveworks Festival
Carriageworks, Gadigal Country/Sydney, October 19-29
OPERA La bohéme
His Majesty’s Theatre, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, October 19-28
CABARET Cabaret de Paris
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, October 18-19
CULTURE Windows to the World
Venues throughout Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, October 21-22
VISUAL ART Isaac Walter Jenner: A Feeling For Light
Queensland Art Gallery, Meanjin/Brisbane, until January 28
THEATRE Death of a Salesman
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Naarm/Melbourne, until October 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Swinging into play".
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