Friday, July 24, 2015

'Festivus' at the Old Red Lion, 23rd July 2015

A music festival is a deeply strange place. For a couple of days a community forms with collective aim of drinking themselves senseless, gobbling drugs and dancing like morons. The rules of polite society are suspended; everyone is filthy, drunk, dressed weirdly and extremely sleep-deprived. Far from home, with phone batteries failing and increasingly bruised psyches, these places are pressure kegs of heightened emotion.

This makes it all the more surprising that hardly anyone has exploited it as a dramatic setting. In terms of documentary there's Michael Wadleigh's excellent Woodstock - but after 45 years it's more historical document than a reflection of a modern festival. A much more contemporary take is 2011's You, Instead, shot at T in the Park - but unfortunately it's a crap film.  

Enter Festivus. This production ambitiously seeks to recreate the music festival vibe on stage - dishing up a tragic-comic tale of four pricks having an absolutely awful time. They are: Nathan (Sami Larabi), laddish and violent; Tom (Jamie O'Neill), smugly condescending; Laura (Sally Horwill), a ditzy emotional vacuum; and Danielle (Rosie Porter), a bit vain (but actually not so bad). As they took the stage I sensed a collective crawling of skin in the audience - these are the worst kind of festival-goers.

Arrogant and posh, they wobble about the place in an amphetamine haze chucking plastic bags full of shit into people's tents, knocking over pints and wallowing in their own hedonism. It's bad enough when these people pitch up camp near you, but to be trapped in a play with them for 90 minutes? Annoyance beckons. Then everything starts goes wrong. As the narcotics scour away their inhibitions, secrets and lies surface. Under heaping dollops of schadenfreuden, misery reigns.

The characters' transformations dramatise the idea of the festival environment revealing your 'true self'. After all, with the bondage of society temporarily loosened you can play at who you really are. For many this means dressing like a twat and falling face down into mud, but for others it's a genuinely transformative experience. At a festival you don't have to worry about how you're perceived, you can take as many illicit substances as you can handle and you're surrounded by thousands of other hedonists. After all, Glastonbury Bestival et al are distant echoes of the ur-festival experiences: Bronze Age gatherings for the Solstice, the Viking festival of Mabon or the Roman Bacchanalia. 

It's the last that's most relevant here, where half the characters are dressed in Roman Centurion armour, the other in Greek Togas. It underlines the play's point of modern festival as Bacchanalia, that ancient quasi-religious miasma of "wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals". Festivus subtly dwells on these dark Roman origins, showing us that freedom to 'do what thou wilt' can rapidly descend into blood-red nightmares.

Sally Horwill as Laura
Writing like this can only be borne of direct experience, which this script has in spades. A cool naturalism runs through almost every interaction, the best (and funniest) moments being when Tom and Laura go through the motions of an argument, the bored Tom cycling through platitudes until he hits the right combination and Laura instantly cheers up. The darker moments also impress, particularly Sam Larabi's descent into the red mist.

Then there's the well observed nuances of festival life. The difficulties in finding your friends, rummaging through a messy tent, getting used to chugging down neat vodka, people doing bumps of MDMA off their housekeys, fretting over phone batteries and the distant bassy beat of the dance tent. These moments are part of the fabric the experience, familiar to millions yet all too rarely seen on stage or screen.

Festivus does quite a bit right, making its flaws that much more disappointing. Prime among them is the lack of an ending. The narrative structure revolves around revelations - everyone betrays everyone else to one extent or another. We're primed for the fallout of all this - but never get to see it. Characters reaching the pinnacle of their dramatic arcs just disappear off stage, never to return. Perhaps there's an argument that missing important moments is appropriate to a festival, but it robs us of emotional catharsis. When the lights go up at the end there's a feeling of "oh, that's it?".

But Festivus inarguably succeeds in bottling that strange, intense festival atmosphere. There's a sense of barely-controllable chaos sweeping across the stage, heralded by rustling waves of trash and booming bass. Okay, so there's the occasional duff line, the characters sometimes tip over into the genuinely infuriating and narrative is a bit stunted, but the spirit of the piece shines through. This alone makes it worth a watch; the show a kaleidoscope of frazzled memories that neatly captures a very particular kind of contemporary experience.

Also worthy of mention is a short, experimental film shown on an Oculus Rift VR set. This complements the main production well, and works as a decent proof-of-concept for VR cinema. If you go to Festivus be sure to check it out.


Festivus is at C. Nova, Edinburgh August 5-16, 18-31. Tickets here.

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