Despite the corporatisation often associated with these events, fringe festivals are still obviously at their best when they enable unique, individual voices to find and engage with an audience.
One of the purist– and bravest – forms this can take is, of course, the solo show. While admittedly this can often be defined by a lot of lame stand-up and Fleabag manqués, there were two examples last week that demonstrated its potency in more subversive ways.
Written and performed by Anna Dooley, Endhoe took the audience on a personal journey through her experience of endometriosis, giving us rare insight into a life informed by chronic pain.
Dooley’s extremely clever script principally took the form of a pep talk or lecture to a nervous system that was beholden to “Endo”, personified here as a kind of a type A micro-manager who insisted on geeing up “the team”.
By exploring her lived experience through this wryly comedic set-up, Dooley brilliantly mined the tension between the hilarious and poignant.
Here, the various degrees of inadequacy she encountered, which canvassed everything from unsolicited advice to a would-be suitor (a ‘home-brand f***boy’) and medication (a Panadol made a nicely literal appearance), sat side by side with evocations of her excruciating, debilitating pain.
The alter ego ultimately became an effective expression of the intrinsic and seemingly intractable nature of the disease – a vividly real one, despite the scepticism she encountered (including from medical professionals) – and one to which she must somehow reconcile herself.
In doing so, Endhoe asked us for compassion and understanding – as well as demonstrating the kind of intimacy and subversive theatricality the Fringe so often claims it offers.
Written and performed by Anna Dooley
Endhoe was performed for the Sydney Fringe Festival at the Emerging Artists Sharehouse – The Living Room from 12-16 September 2023.
Perhaps a less obvious, and accessible, example of Fringe giving a platform to a unique voice was Kropka Theatre’s The Mother.
Jolanta Juszkiewicz’s absurdist piece expressed a dynamic that was seemingly as debilitating and intractable as Anna Dooley’s relationship to her disease. And, like Dooley, Juszkiewicz’s work evoked an intrinsic duality – albeit, in this case, a not-so literal one – which was enhanced by the use of a single performer.
“The Mother”, we are told, comes from an aristocratic family, but fell from grace through marriage (a “mésalliance”) with a “soldier of fortune” – which produced the son Leon, a would-be intellectual, over whom she simultaneously obsesses while also condemning him as pathetic “stinker”.
Mother and son are set in an apparently (metaphorical) vampiric relationship, a spiritual and emotional dependency, embodied by Juszkiewicz’s finely-drawn and multifaceted performance.
As the play was spoken entirely in Polish, subtitles were projected onto a wall behind the action – in quite large chunks, which often appeared to pre-empt the actor’s words. Whether deliberately or not, this effectively added to a sense of the piece’s warped timelessness and the intractability of the relationship, as mother and son took turns to address us.
It’s a rare take on the push-pull complexities of the mother-son dynamic – well, this side of Geoffrey Atherden’s TV show (and reboot). While it’s hard to discern anything as vividly coherent as Dooley’s very personal desire for compassion here (although of course a lot of meaning may have been lost in translation), it nevertheless represented a very unique and worthy take on the solo show format.
Such is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of the event, these two shows are, unfortunately, no longer on offer at this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival; however, we’re sure to see more of these two (literally and figuratively) singular artists.
In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that sussing out new and unique fringe solo shows can be the best way to discover the exciting independent spirit these festivals should be all about.
By Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
Director: Jolanta Juszkiewicz
Co-director: Anatoly Frusin
Music: Max Lyandvert
Performer: Jolanta Juszkiewicz
The Mother was performed for the Sydney Fringe Festival at the PACT Theatre from 12-16 September 2023.