Strange Sensations

first_imgI wanna be like Osama/ I wanna bomb a path to fame across the earth!” Not a quote from Al-Qaida’s latest video release, but a song featured in Jihad! The Musical, one of the many shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival that sought to shock. And one of many which had, on the whole, failed to raise even a gasp by the time the curtain went down. ‘Stirring things up’ has long been one of theatre’s self-appointed roles but when the show’s title appears to have been dreamt up before its plot, the action itself is likely to be about as controversial as an episode of Richard and Judy. Sex, Politics and Religion were the hot buttons of choice for companies on the ragged edge of this year’s Fringe, issues guaranteed to generate exposure in the mainstream press. The Tony Blair Musical, Tony! The Blair Musical, Songs About Vaginas and a show apparently exposing the truth about Scientology all vied to court controversy. But for audiences inured to cheap shots at George W Bush and evangelical Christianity there seemed to be little, even on the Fringe, which could raise an eyebrow. As it happens the most offensive thing I saw this year was a swing version of Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ but the only controversy there, sadly, was in whether or not the offense was intended.Jihad! was the kind of Edinburgh show that announces itself in a blaze of un-PC glory, and promptly garners broadsheet comment. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that as a piece of theatre it was woefully defunct. As a musical parody, it ticked certain boxes, ‘The Jihad Jive’ being a musical highlight. But as a commentary on the modern world it was a non-starter, with politics so basic and unoriginal it hurt. (It’s overriding lesson: “The Americans can be corrupt too!”). Indeed, its most offensive element was that its white American writer, who looked – and sang – like a refugee from the cast of Fame, played the central young Afghan character, and seemed capable of far less expression than the play’s seductive, burqa-wearing femme fatale.Attempt 3.4, a show devised in part by an Oxford graduate, at least had some structure, and a real tension – none of the actors knew what was going to happen each night, though full-frontal male nudity does seem to have cropped up rather a lot. Because of the contained nature of the action, set in a post-apocalyptic city, despite its spontaneity the show had a natural growth. Meanwhile, in Raz-Mataz, the Ruskin School-supported performance piece, the audience could sit secure in the knowledge that truly spontaneous madness was unlikely to erupt, if only because Health and Safety would have had a fit and fake-blood-spattered audiences would likely sue.The main problem that beset so many Edinburgh shows that aimed at the radical market this year was that image was conceived before substance. Raz-Mataz was at times fascinating to watch, but a lack of any true passion or direction meant that its interminable shouting, counting, drumming, gallons of fake blood and use of a pantomime horse were generally greeted with mixed amusement and bewilderment from its supposedly-participatory audience. As another Cherwell critic put it, “I’d hate to deny the Raz gang the primal joy they’re obviously having. The show is, admittedly, fun to watch, much like watching a gang of nihilistic three-year-olds wreaking havoc in kindergarten art class. But it’s missing the charming innocence which makes playground anarchy redeemable. Instead the mood prevailing is that the Razzers think the “show” is in anyway shocking, controversial or original, while in reality their performance was an affront to the words ‘provocative”, ‘controversial’, ‘experimental’, and ‘theatre’.” At least the show could never be accused of eliciting a complacent reaction.Xenu is Loose!… The Musical was another Oxford production whose concept and posters were at least as much fun as the show- not least because it’s title was almost as long as the first act. Watching it one couldn’t help but feel -however charitably- that the production must have been cramped by the threat of the legal might of the Church of Scientology which it supposedly lambasted. The play’s only coherent comment upon the scriptural science-fiction lunacy it portrayed was to set it alongside an equally mawkish and ridiculous high school love story.Offensive material on the Fringe comedy circuit abounded as usual, but offense in the guise of comedy seems to have gone mainstream and is worth big money. Why else would Jimmy Carr be so ubiquitous on Channel 4? No theatre show could gain the celebrated notoriety of comics like Stephen Amos or the I.F. Award-Winner Brendon Burns. What seemed to be lacking among this year’s theatre offerings was a true passion for controversy that meant anything. Laughter can be a powerful enough weapon at the best of times, but not when the targets being satirised are patently absurd on their own. There was little that seemed likely to affect the audience’s perceptions once they’d walked out the door and into a flurry of ads for the hundreds of other Festival shows. Certainly few of the shows that attracted big audiences and the attentions of the press on the pretence of sheer daring could be said to fulfill the promise of a snappy or downright bizzarre title.last_img