Death is stalking the Edinburgh fringe this summer. It’s odd that a festival where the work is predominantly – if not exclusively – made by young people should be so dominated by the grim reaper. Perhaps like Ionesco, who wrote Exit the King in order “to learn how to die”, these young performers are rehearsing for their own deaths and their own future griefs.
But nobody is really prepared for death, not even puppets. The grim reaper pulls the strings in Famous Puppet Death Scenes (to 26 August), a slice of jokey Canadian Gothic at Canada Hub which is performed by the neatly named Old Trouts.
Our host is marionette Nathanial Tweak, who looks like Einstein on a far worse hair day than usual, and who is unafraid to look death unblinkingly in the eye, as he presents a series of morality mortality plays in which puppets meet gruesome deaths.
It’s distinctive work and at its best there is a touch of both Edward Gorey’s The Gashleycrumb Tinies and Shockheaded Peter about the enterprise. But the jokiness is relentless and long before the 75 minutes is up death begins to pall.
Death is no laughing matter for Emmy who has terminal brain cancer in Kaisa Lundan’s All the Lights are On (Summerhall to 26 August) part of the Start to Finnish season showcasing the best work from Finland. It’s a slightly clunky but undeniably affecting play, and one that is brutally honest about how waiting for someone to die can feel worse than death itself.
The fissure that opens up between past and present and which accompanies a cancer diagnosis is delicately explored in Casey Jay Andrews’ The Archive of Educated Hearts (to 27 August) a 25-minute installation cum storytelling performance which takes place for an audience of just four at a time in a shed in the Pleasance Courtyard. The shed is tiny, but it is stuffed full of photographs and memories. It is a repository of love.
This is an unassuming, lofi show, inspired by Andrews’ own family history of breast cancer, but it is one which becomes a quietly inspiring meditation on empathy and sympathy, before and after, and how we might learn to interact meaningfully with those who have stepped across the fissure rather than simply waving wanly at them from the other side.
If you catch the Archive, it is just a brief walk up the hill to Zoo Charteris where what is almost certainly the shortest show on the fringe is taking place. Sit with Us for a Moment and Remember (to 27 August) is a tiny, fragile headphones show that makes us sit still and take stock of our losses and our gains and who we miss: the living and the dead. It’s the setting as much as the content that makes this such a bittersweet pleasure, and it is good to see these graduates from Lincoln matching the two so neatly.
The Backpack Ensemble are another Lincoln Company supported outfit, and The Search for the Black-Browed Albatross (Pleasance Dome, to 9 August) tells the story of Charlie (Samantha Miles) who has been unable to grieve for her deceased bird-watching father. So she sets off on a journey to find the one bird which always eluded him. This is very young theatre, exactly the kind of work which the fringe showcases so well. It is very much in a DIY mould, but the craft in storytelling and its ability to conjure something out of nothing using sheets and shadow puppetry deserves to be celebrated.
More substantial is Martin Zimmerman’s On the Exhale (Traverse, to 26 August) which was written in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. In Christopher Haydon’s exquisitely controlled production, Polly Frame is all coiled energy and tension as a woman – a single mother and university professor – who has always worried what will happen to her young son if she falls victim to a shooter on campus.
But while she regularly imagines the unimaginable what she fails to imagine is the unendurable – her son’s death at the hands of a school shooter. Grief does funny things to people. Anger – and sometimes revenge – are part of the grieving process. Here both grieving mother and play take a more unexpected direction when she buys the same make and model of gun that mowed down her child and discovers that “like a child, a weapon won’t be satisfied until it dominates your every thought”.
It’s powerful stuff, played out on a stage where lights sometimes spark like a bullet, and Donato Wharton’s sound design unobtrusively cranks up the tension. But Zimmerman’s script is always a little too calculatedly put together to make you really understand this woman’s obsession or fully embrace her terrible wounding grief.
There is no such issue with Dante or Die’s heartbreaking User Not Found (Traverse at Jeelie Piece, to 26 August). Terry, still not over the breakup with Luka – his partner of nine years – is surprised to find his inbox stuffed full of condolence messages. The first shock is that Luka has died in an accident, the second is that Terry is Luka’s online executor. But how can Terry deal with his former lover’s online legacy when his own memories are still so raw, resentful and painful?
Written with a chatty poetic restraint by Chris Goode, this show is a beautiful dance of love, death and grief delivered via a single live performer (the phenomenal Terry O’Donovan), headphones and mobile phones. That might make be distancing because, just as Terry is isolated by his grief, so the audience are isolated from each other by the headphones.
But oddly this technically superb and seamless show does the opposite. It creates and delivers a detailed on-line world via the screen of the phone in front of you, but it is the live element and the way Terry exposes his raw beating heart, that makes this such a visceral experience as it reminds that while we may embrace the digital we live, feel, grieve and remember in the real world. It makes you want to hug someone you love. Just in case death is lurking nearby.
Tickets for all shows 0131 226 0000; edfringe.com
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