The fringe shouldn’t be playing it safe

Not I at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Not I at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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David Aula - director of the VAULT production of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden  – was recently asked “Is it impossible on the fringe to do risky things without completely bankrupting yourself?” It’s a valid question but I’d have gone one further because why do work that doesn’t involve artistic risk on the fringe anyway?

Straightforward fringe productions – where small companies try to emulate big ones resulting in obviously unflattering comparisons – are everywhere. At a recent press night a colleague of mine was bemoaning one such show for this very reason “why didn’t they do anything with it” he despaired.

Some people will shake their heads and claim we're being terribly European about the whole thing – demanding high concept versions of classics when polished ones will do. But when you’re on the fringe - with limited budgets and so on - imagination, innovation and verve are often more impressive than any standardised version could hope to be.

Any regular readers of this column will know my thoughts on pub Shakespeare that does nothing new with our most performed playwright. But this time it’s not only quality I’m discussing, but being surprised as well as impressed. The same critic who was railing above was also nonplussed about Samuel Beckett’s one woman, nine minute, monologue Not I at The Royal Court, which is – or at least once was - about as avant-garde as you get. It wasn’t the quality of Lisa Dwan’s performance, which was superb, it was simply that he’d expected it to be something and it was exactly that. Beckett’s meticulous instructions have crystallised Not I into a historical object and where’s the joy of the live act in that?

I was struck by a similar thought when trying to decide whether to buy tickets for the National Theatre’s production of King Lear. Of course, I knew it would be good - Simon Russell Beale always is and the opportunity of seeing him work with long-time collaborator Sam Mendes was undoubtedly tempting – but I felt I knew exactly what it would be like too – a polished first rate production but not one that was particularly ground breaking. Even if it revealed a new facet of the play I’d never noticed before it wouldn’t challenge me enough to deserve queuing for tickets. Instead, I decided on the mixed programme of Rhapsody / Tetractys - The Art of Fugue / Gloria at the Royal Opera House, because I would get more from it.

[pullquote]Artistic risks often mean risks at the box office too[/pullquote]

Of course finances come in to it, artistic risks often mean box office ones too. And of course there are many theatres that are programming unexpected and refreshing work. Blurred Lines at The NT Shed is a deliciously contemporary look at Robin Thicke’s eponymous song that both lampoons stereotypes and highlights the disturbing undertones that perpetuate them. All with a thumping pop soundtrack. Or venues like The Gate (where the blistering The Body of an American is currently playing), the Yard and Camden People’s Theatre. But everyone – both big and small organisations - need to be asking themselves if what they are doing is necessary, different and surprising – or perhaps more audiences are going to start going to contemporary dance instead.