Johann Hari: Journey into the theatrical abyss

The real winners come from painfully sincere people offering Art, Art, Art
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The Independent Online

Ah, the joys of the Edinburgh festival. Some people flock here for the movie premieres, some for the wild street performances, some for the stand-up. Not me. Eight years ago, I invented a sport that can only be played in this manic town-on-a-hill in August. It's called Find The Worst Show on the Fringe.

The rules are strict: the terrible, terrible theatre that wins the game cannot be ironic in any way. Its performers must be entirely, blissfully, unaware of its horrors. That's why otherwise-tempting items in the Fringe brochure - like this year's Terrorist - the Musical! - are ruled out before we've even begun: too self-aware. No, the real winners are to be found in the obscure venues, the ones that serve as the town garbage dump or Edinburgh's abattoir outside festival time. They come from painfully sincere people offering Art, Art, Art.

This journey into the theatrical abyss has given me and my thespy friends almost infinite joy. You'll understand why if you come on a journey with me to join the audience of 2002's The History of Communism (as Told for the Mentally Ill), performed by the People's Theatre of Moldova. Entirely in Moldovan. With no subtitles. The show opens with a gaggle of actors - clad only in straitjackets - swarming onto the stage and babbling incessantly. One of them spits at the audience; another slips out of her straitjacket and begins to throw paper aeroplanes at your face and mine. One woman is poked in the eye and walks out.

At this, the cast falls silent. They begin to re-enact the purges and gulags - entirely through the medium of dance. This lasts two hours in real-time, but to me it felt somewhat longer than the 70 years it took the non-theatrical Soviet Union to collapse. By the end, everybody is dressed as Stalin and cackling wildly, before charging out on the Edinburgh streets and disappearing up an alley.

This might sound like a sure-fire winner. Oh, how naive you are. This game has many contenders; that year, it was trumped by a theatrical Hiroshima called Molly Bloom, a musical adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses. It was a one-woman show - and what a woman.

As the lights fade up on a venue slightly larger than my oven, an Italian woman in a pornographically low-cut top explains that "Eye haaave never pearform-ed in Eeenglish before, plees bear weeth me". She then snaps her fingers. The lights change and she crouches over a bucket, yelling: "Woosh! Woosh!" As she begins to sing, it becomes clear she is supposed to be miscarrying. This is conveyed through a song entitled "The Rap of Spunk", and in it she explains how she came to this state.

Alas, if you commit to the quest for gloriously, stupidly dire shows, you have to endure a lot of plays that are just plain dull. In 2001, a friend and I went to a show called Where is Father?, an insufferably long melodrama in which a family gathers around the bed of their dying patriarch and weeps. After two hours of this - played out in a relentlessly naturalistic style - the cast gets up and walk off the stage, including the patriarch who is supposed to be dead. They then return and stare at the audience. Only after a whole minute of a blinking cast standing stiffly at the centre of the stage did it suddenly hit me: this was the curtain-call, and we had all been so bored we simply hadn't noticed.

But for every 10 coma-inducing shows like this, there is a glistening, glorious piece of rubbish. Two years ago, there was Graham - The World's Fastest Blind Man, Eastleigh Youth Theatre's attempt (oh yes, a musical) to tell "the amazing true life story of World Champion Blind Athlete Graham Salmon MBE". In 1999, there was Crucifixion, a show about Jesus Christ being detained in Auschwitz. It was acted by three men: one was strapped into a whirling torture device that spun him round at high speed throughout the show until he vomited. The other two would hit him periodically with foam maces, yelling, "Repent, son of God! Repent!"

And this year? So many choices ... Do I want to see fringe favourite Shakti offering a "unique interpretation of Anne of Green Gables through the medium of dance"? Yes, please. Do I want to check out The Brighter Side of Alzheimer's, a totally straight-faced show about, well, the bright side of Alzheimer's? Oh yes. But my mouth only truly waters when I read - obsessively and repeatedly - the Fringe brochure blurb for a show called Me, Not I.

It reads simply: "Theatre at its purest! No script, only unique, repetitive everyday actions. An absolute Zen-like experience: actors as living instruments of the Orchestra - noises become music in the dramatic harmony of performed reality. Direct from Mos-cow." It opens at the Sweet Ego venue on the 19th. I'll see you all there: this one could go Olympic.