Edinburgh Fringe 2017
‘A Young Vic Taking Part Production. It’s small versus big. It’s pressures of the future. It’s everything being stacked against you and all options feeling equally terrible. James Fritz (Ross and Rachel) teams up with Genesis Future Directors Award winner Ola Ince (Dutchman) to bring you a show about occupation, revolution and the future of our youth. One step away from disaster, there’s only one instruction: start swimming. James Fritz won the 2016 Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award and his play Four Minutes, Twelve Seconds was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, Olivier Awards 2015. (EdFringe website.)’
I was impressed by Ola Ince’s smart, savvy and well-paced production of James Fritz’s biting and astute new political drama. An exceedingly talented ensemble of eleven young people delivered compelling and mature performances, transitioning between sparring and supporting one another with confidence and sensitivity. Polished and pertinent, thought-provoking and emotional, Start Swimming is a Fringe highlight.
Fritz’s piece has a message which is both maddeningly timeless and distinctly urgent. The ensemble of Young Vic Taking Part embody society’s disenchanted and disenfranchised voices. They feel alienated from higher powers which instruct and restrict them, but do not address them as equals. They are consistently pitted against one another, forced to talk each other down and out, to live selfishly. They are not aspiring or dreaming; only treading water, battling against the scary reality that, if everything says they’re powerless to change anything, is this tireless belittlement really living, and worth sticking out? Start Swimming is performed in a lecture theatre, an apt location for these young voices to protest. The ensemble questions what seems like a computer programme in the sky, which punishes them collectively when one person says the ‘wrong’ thing by delivering an electric shock. The question and answer on loop: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m standing on the grass.’
The arid appearance of the show displays a clever contrast to the repeated statement of the fact that each person claims to be ‘standing on the grass’. No literal green shoots were in sight, or the illusion of natural light: only metal and stone. All were dressed in shades of grey, and the set consisted of eleven blocks, resembling concrete, which the cast stood atop and manoeuvred. They began clustered in one corner, with the ensemble huddled together, as if on an island surrounded by water. Gradually, they dissipated, until each person stood on their own block. Transitioning between being part of a tangible collective, which at one point held hands, and an individual, stranded on their own private square foot, made manifest the dilemma at the crux of the text: whether it is better to stay silent and go it alone, or to collaborate and try to progress. Start Swimming does not offer an answer, but sparks a riveting debate.
Light and recorded sound were slick in delivery and dystopian in result. The boxes themselves lit up, reminding me of apparatus in a brashly-produced television game show. A nod on Fritz’s part, perhaps, to Orwell; and a theatrical acknowledgement of the conveyer-belt nature of the entertainment industry, which values nothing but the consumer’s continuing consumption. As the audience filed in, snippets of modern listening culture were played into the space, everything from the Wizard of Oz to generic sports commentary, punctuated by blaring white noise. After each ‘round’ of dialogue, of questioning the omniscient force in the sky, a segment from a contemporary pop song would blast into the auditorium, its juxtaposition darkly comic in effect. The ‘tick’ of an out-of-sight clock persisted, underscoring the whole production with slow urgency, and an ominous sense of dread.
Some innovative staging choices kept the formulaic text – and I do not mean that as a criticism – diverse and diverting. The physical effect of the electric shock on each person was every time unpleasant to witness, as all were so committed and entrancing to watch. Well-orchestrated physical theatre sequences helped vary the pace. One or two voices would rise above the rest, and the remaining company would respond by crouching on their boxes. Perhaps it would have been more effective to have all the cast beginning onstage whilst the audience entered, to establish their stalemate, stranded situation. But holistically, I was always interested by what was unfolding.
This production is sharp and professional, but it is also organically tender, and thus very moving. Live singing offset the pre-existing regimented chaos and, for a while, silenced the machine, and stopped the shocks. The extraordinary emotion in every single person’s eyes, every contortion of every limb and every strain in their face and voice could not have been programmed by a machine-operated system, because this was utterly raw and beautiful humanity. Start Swimming is a reclamation of language for oneself, the body as one’s own and, above all, a testament to the vitalness of love, trust and belief in one another. The voice in the sky without a backbone had taken libraries – but it couldn’t take thought. Communality is found in the compulsion to collaborate, the impulse to reshape and rebuild when all seems desolate. This is an unapologetic piece of theatre, expertly realised and brilliantly performed. It encourages audiences to take their frustrations and not give into futility, but have faith in the perpetually astonishing strength of uniting people to create and not destroy.