Edinburgh Fringe 2018
This two-hander of devised physical theatre affords the audience a rare glimpse of the difficulties that lie behind the curtain. While the initial pacing of onstage/offstage scenes might benefit from some future trimming, Offstage in its current incarnation is beautifully performed by the virtuosic duo who transition from clowning in the bright cheeriness of Barnum and Bailey to embodying the dark torture of Pagliacci.
Mental health is a hot topic in this year’s Fringe, both onstage and, as The New York Times aptly pointed out, off: the amount of stress foisted upon actors, scrambling to flyer, promote, fill houses, and glean reviews leaves precious little time for the actual joy of the craft, and even less time for self-care. Offstage, using a minimum of language, is a piece of devised physical theatre that investigates precisely this unseen reality, revealing to the audience the daily struggles that go into mounting a show, and the waning mental health that the stress of performance can build.
The show physicalizes the metaphor of the show quite literally: within the blackbox is a freestanding stage, complete with crushed velvet curtain, whose platform glides silkily around to transition from on to offstage at will of the performers, as well as a tiny version of the same stage that is utilised symbolically throughout. The set is integrated quite impressively, with the “backstage” comprised of myriad tools of the trade: costumes, chairs, props, all precariously dangling and fixed like delicate pieces of a music box are all used and replaced throughout during the madcap dashes to complete what appears to be some kind of zany vaudevillian act for the unseen other audience. The actors, Ramon Ayres and Rob Evison, are a perfect match, complimenting and mirroring physicality with seamless professionalism, embodying both comedy and tragedy with equal facility.
The show flips back and forth between clown-type slapstick comedy and darker moments of introspection and torment, and is at its strongest once it picks up its stride. The first ten minutes or so tend to linger a bit long of some of the “performing” scenes, which muddies up the storytelling somewhat. As a work of physical theatre, the show is more like a painting than a play, a visual work of art to appreciate and interpret individually, but I do believe it would strengthen the effectiveness of the whole to trim down some of these less impactful establishing scenes. Regardless, the pacing soon settles into a nice rhythm, whisking the audience briskly along through abstract scenes of mirroring, hilarious moments of clowning and private moments of secret pain. The underscoring was especially impactful in heightening the drama, music devolving into cacophony with the fraying of one performer’s psyche (played with touching vulnerability by Ayres) as the other (the equally remarkable Evison) desperately attempts to hold both performance and his friend together.
Offstage boldly commits to the world its created and is, on the whole, successful. Above all else, the core of this show–the relationship between these two men, clinging to one another as they create art together– is strong and compelling. As a work created in conjunction with PAPYRUS – Prevention of Young Suicide and L.A.S (Life After Suicide) charities, it also serves as a metaphor for the performances we play daily in our lives. With so much of modern communication centered in social media that encourages perfected and curated self-presentations, it’s important to remember the amount of suffering that goes unseen. Offstage reminds us that sometimes it takes the all the strength in the world to smile, and perhaps next time you’re deluged with flyers, you’ll just smile back at those buskers in the street.