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Dublin Fringe Festival 2016

Dynamic, diverse and politically right-on

More or less pulsating since its quiet birth in 1994, the Dublin ‘Tiger’ Fringe Festival has an unusually well-defined theatrical remit, stated in its Memorandum of Association as: “the encouragement and promotion of the development of new theatre companies, younger actors and directors and to encourage more innovative theatre and performance”.

While the Gate is just a little bourgeois and the Abbey statist and under pressure for its quality and its perceived overhang of gender bias, the Fringe exists to “challenge, subvert and invigorate”, and has been consistently lauded by the likes of the Irish Times for its fashionable diversity and indeed its quality. This September over 70 Fringe productions erupted across Dublin, desperate to address the difficulties of complex contemporary Ireland.

Fringe 2015 focused on celebrating its 21 years of existence in exuberant style, drunk on musical acts and the return of the Spiegeltent. In contrast Fringe 2016 had to sober up after the hangover the Abbey forced on the world of Irish theatre. The passage of the Marriage Equality Referendum and the stirring of Waking the Feminists, both representing formidable political movements with strong theatrical panache, escalated the iconoclasm expected of Fringe in Dublin.

Kris Nelson, Artistic Director of the Festival, pronounced on International Women’s Day 2016 on the New Politics: “even an indirect, implicit kind of equality is not enough. It’s important, now, to be explicit”. This explains much of the ambit of this Festival whichs styles itself a “riproaring festival” of the avant-garde. “We’re hosting experiences”, says Nelson, a Canadian, who took over the Fringe in 2013: “We want big nights out, we want to be taken to places we’ve never been before, we want stories that are bigger than ourselves”.

Inevitably, Village only got to a sample of productions.

‘Megalomania’, making real for its audience the slaughter in Syria and provocatively staged at the Coombe Women and Infants Hospital, and ‘Hostel 16’ starkly playing out the servile and monotonous daily routine of asylum-seekers in Direct provision, stuck it to the Irish State’s treatment of refugees and were tone-setting while ‘Eggsistentialism’ attacked judgementalism on female fertility.

‘RIOT’ which won the award for Production of the Festival featured a savage riff from Emmet Kirwan on the state of the nation and imagination. Panti Bliss, who technically starred, preached a message of “Activate, Articulate, and Farrah Fawcett”, vaunting her political and thespian cojones. Whether the message will be enough for a new Millennium is one question but Panti’s message is powerful and her reflections on the power she has now accreted – like Daniel O’Connell did – are surprisingly subtle.

‘The Aeneid’ by Collapsing Horse concertinaed the story of Aeneas’ journey to establish Rome and filtered it through the lives of a group of storytellers called Rhapsodes. Maeve O’Mahony as the actor Aenen assumed Aeneas’ identity and performed his story, tragically not her own. Her single moment of individuality was eclipsed as books stacked ever higher and higher in her arms, their pages falling around the stage, a visual representation of the burden of history.

‘Monday: Watch out for the Right’ gave a European context to political correctness, demonstrating (in distracting, subtitled Portuguese) how boxing poses the question of whether we should stay ring-side, or fight. Of course even in 2016 Dublin Fringe not every production had a right-on message; some were not even overtly political.

Aoife McAtamney’s ‘Age of Transition’ evoked an Elysian dream-pop slumber yard filled with the silent choreography of Berlin dance troupe Sweetie Sit Down. The conjoining of music and dance was sumptuous. Dancing automata to McAtamney’s vocals on a recycled stage, attempting to harmonise the contemporary world with the ethereal and challenging notions of individuality, when the music stopped.

‘BlackCatfishMusketeer’ probed the modern dating scene, dressing the embodied internet as a mid-twentieth century secretary and web pages, gifs and links as filing cabinets. Ultimately showing that the promise of love still relies on the exchange of letters.

‘To Hell in a Handbag’, written and performed by Helen Norton and Jonathan White, breathed new life into Miss Prism and Reverend Canon Chasuble of ‘Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest’ through the humorous exploration of corruptible authority. Humorously positing Miss Prism and the Rev. Canon Chasuble as liars, blackmailers and thieves.

There was comedy too: Deirdre O’Kane, Jason Byrne, Alison Spittle, Al Porter, Joanne McNally, Lords of Strut and Foil, Arms and Hog.

These productions are a snapshot of the Fringe Festival 2016, a staggering body of 72 works by hundreds of artists, organisers and volunteers.

In the year of steady but none too imaginative 1916 commemorations, the Fringe has cascaded, avalanched an ocean of new work, most of it overtly political – no doubt a reaction against the past, indeed against much of the present. It is a phenomenonal success in the encouragement of more innovative theatre and performance.

Fringe 2016 energetically sobered up from last year’s celebrations, rolled up its sleeves and dug amongst the empty cans and streamers to raise up a big filthy mirror.


By Matthew Farrelly