Brighton Fringe and Festival 2019

In her director notes for the Brighton Festival, Malian composer Rokia Traoré reflects that it is our stories that make us human. It seemed fitting that my first show of the festival season, Silence by the Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy, depicted present-day migrants in a war-torn landscape reciting stories from The Iliad to their children in an attempt to reconnect with civilised values. The awful challenges people face amid guerrilla-led upheaval may evolve but our sources of emotional succour often go back to the ancients.

Silence features the company’s trademark use of fire, motorbikes and giants on stilts. The play depicts a group of refugees who have placed their tatty coach near a battlefield and are literally laying down roots by tending to the land. The piece uses mime throughout apart from the classical extract which has enormous impact as a result. As a further indication of this beleaguered group’s continued belief in Greco-Roman culture, a classical bust of a poet (presumably Homer) is dragged atop the coach. The coach is at turns prison, execution wall and funeral pyre.

You can tell that company founder Paweł Szkotak also has a background in opera. The staging has an operatic sweep and a principal feature is lush ethereal instrumental string music by Krzysztof Nowikow, a composer who worked predominantly for theatre projects and died this spring aged 44.

I hope Szkotak was around to observe his work; it has been performed worldwide but he will never see it in a more apt site-specific setting than the Brighton beachfront on the English Channel with its neighbouring ports and harbour lanes that see desperate real-life attempts at migration every day. Somebody in the festival’s programming department has shown foresight. If there was an artistic project of any kind across the Brighton Festival or Brighton Fringe that could speak to a wider demographic in simpler terms about the fundamental experience of being human, I should like to know about it.

 

Silence with its theme of statelessness acquired resonance by being performed at a port.
Photo credit: Krzysztof Kapica.

 

Silence. Photo credit: Krzysztof Kapica.

 

The Brighton Festival also featured an audacious genre-stretching project that defied unpromising expectations to not only qualify as a piece of theatre but prove riotously funny. True Copy begins with a staggering set depicting famous paintings from the last 100 years including work by Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Hockney. We are in the company of Geert Jan Jansen, a real-life art forger whose counterfeit work is so outstanding that Picasso himself unwittingly pronounced one of the forgeries as authentic.

A Dutchman, Jansen speaks to the audience in Dutch and we see a surtitle translation. He answers questions from a bi-lingual compere, shows us a mocked-up studio and shares forger’s secrets including his own contributions to the trade. There are droll anecdotes including how he was once told by a zealous museum security guard that he was standing too close to a painting when he knew it to be one of his forgeries that had spent three weeks under his doormat being trampled on by visitors in order to acquire an aged appearance. Jansen is similarly amusing when telling us that the forger always starts with the signature since this is the easiest thing to muck up.

The play asks a question that was reinforced during a lively Q&A session. If a forgery is of such intrinsic merit and so much in the style of the artist as to deceive him into authenticating it, why should the work not be respected as a creation? With live piano and cello accompaniment, Jansen performs quick-fire sketching feats including the creation of a Picasso dove and Matisse paper cut-out. He spent time in prison until it was decided that his ‘crime’ was victimless and reflects ruefully that a forger receives no recognition until he is unmasked.

I hope I’ve done enough to present the format of True Copy as fitting the criteria of being counted a piece of theatre. There is an additional element that is a clincher in terms of its genre, but revelation would be a plot spoiler. Many of Jansen’s works remain in major art galleries to this day. Is the forger an artist or criminal? Jansen is insistent; art criticism should not be a question of a piece’s provenance but merely an evaluation of quality. The next time we find a new Jacobean revenge tragedy we should not ask if Shakespeare may have collaborated with a younger writer but simply judge it as a play.

 

 

True Copy: Photo credit: Koen Broos.

 

True Copy: Photo credit: Koen Broos.

 

As a theatre-goer, my reservation about this year’s Brighton Fringe was the declining number of recognized texts being performed. The fringe has become dominated by devised projects, story-telling and physical theatre. This is perhaps healthy, but fringe festivals help young actors bolster their CVs with recognized roles. Of established works, my focus was a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Rialto Theatre directed by Roger Kay.

Betrayal must be one of the most subtle power dynamics in drama and it is explored with exceptional intelligence here. Most will know the plotline; a liberal intelligentsia love triangle is played out. With the exception of two scenes that move the action forward a few months, the whole sordid seven-year affair is presented backwards. In a bizarre example of the truism that knowledge is power, it is Duncan Henderson as Robert, the betrayee, who seems to hold all the cards even if his extra insight is knowing that he is a cuckold. Henderson is outstanding throughout but never more so than in the celebrated Venice scene during which he tortures his wife Emma (Sophie Dearlove) after an uncollected letter finalizes what may have been deep-held suspicions.

Dearlove is also superb here as she desperately feigns to be reading her book while being hauled over the coals. As the betrayer, Jerry, Neil James is adept at illustrating Pinter’s understanding of just how crass men can be over tiny things that crush a woman’s spirit and make her feel objectified. He strikes a familiar chord when being unable to remember if the adulterous bed has been bought or came with the furnishings. James is also subtle and resourceful when showing his character teetering on the brink of unintentionally letting slip information that he could only know as a result of the affair.

The cast are skilful in hinting or showing that the betrayals may be wholesale. Robert has probably been cheating on his own (unseen) wife with multiple women, the paternity of a child is discussed and there are intimations that Emma may have three or more sexual partners. Actors and director are almost subliminal in their techniques here.

All the gags hit their mark, notably Jerry’s chiding of Robert for not letting on that he knows everything. In a studio space, the design team are skilful in conjuring up the squalid rented flat used for the sexual act itself. There are props but no period details and you could assume that goings-on of this kind continue now of a weekday afternoon across suburbia though not perhaps in Kilburn. In the closing moments (which are of course the beginning), Kay directs Jerry and Emma with such precision that their smallest physical movements remind us how the pair will soon be whirling forward into irresponsibility, selfishness and deceit.