Nottingham New Theatre’s “The Project,” which has just finished at the Pleasance Zoo, is my 47th and last play of the Fringe. I feel like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, completely stuffed with everything on the menu. But just one final after-dinner mint, huaffer thin….
Kaboom! In this play I suddenly face my nemesis: a young man who doesn’t see the point of theatre. He has never been to a play and he would rather sit at home and watch video clips on the internet. He is dismissing my entire vocation out of hand. Fortunately he is a fictional character, who is played by Richard Hill, and I am conciliatory and I put my arm around him. Bridie Rollins and Martha Rose Wilson’s “The Project” is an “interactive” play with the cast marauding amongst the audience and inviting them to participate. The audience’s role is so central to the performance that we should really be the subject of this review. I’d say that between us, we deserve two stars.
Amelia (the cast use their own names) is bereaved and her lips have turned yellow. She could not feel any grief at her father’s death. The purpose of the “project” is to encourage her to emote in front of the audience, thereby setting her on the road to recovery. We will help with her “rehabilitation” or, as the project leader puts it more darkly, she will be rehabilitated with our “complicity.”
Perhaps this is a peep at the future and in twenty years every Fringe show will be like “The Project.” Or maybe it is closer to the present. Having experienced this year’s “Nirbhaya,” in which victims of rape and physical abuse therapeutically recounted their stories to huge audiences at the Assembly Hall, I am inclined to think that “The Project” pales in comparison to the awfulness of its satirical targets. Yet this play is also characteristic of NNT’s productions in remaining glossy and predominately stylistic. With its lavish helpings of 1950s pop music and its earnest dancing, “The Project” at times reproduces the glamorous darkness of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).
But I have resolved to review the audience and we are ultimately too polite and sensible to make this play work. We dutifully nod and say the right things when prompted, so as not to disrupt the performance. When I am interacting with Richard, it is like a spider is spinning a web all around me and I am loathe to put an elbow through its brilliant fabric. Yet in retrospect I concede that the cast were probably prepared for troublemakers, with lines up their sleeves for any eventuality. The play ends abruptly, with the director thanking us for our assistance. They are gone before it occurs to us to applaud and then it occurs to us that the director has essentially applauded us.
“The Project” seems to end too soon, and perhaps it would have been longer and more exciting if we had made a bit of a fuss. The play offers a scenario which denies Amelia the freedom she requires in order to be human. Yet Amelia simply reflects our own condition as powerless and stupefied spectators who are planted in the middle of a nightmare, agreeing with everything that we are told. If “The Project” makes an obvious point, it also sadly proves it.
It is fitting that I end this year’s Fringe with Nottingham New Theatre. This is, after all, the sort of thing which I am put on the Earth to review. The Fringe is like a gigantic spectacular casino in which you only ever lose money. You gamble on every play and sometimes you lose your money, an hour of your life, and your good mood. On other occasions, you feel that you have lost only your money and that it is no great loss. For the first week or so of the Fringe, I saw too much bad political theatre, with “Chalk Farm,” “Anna” and “Diablo” ranking amongst the worst. I doubt that anybody left these plays wanting to go on to the internet and read more about them, and so I did not gain much by way of traffic from my ordeals. Student theatre, on the other hand, is often intriguing and mysterious; it attracts readers and inspires imaginative writing.
Most of the best shows that I have seen this year were student productions. I am being openly ageist here, but older people do not have the beauty, the energy, the culture or the necessary infrastructure to create wonderful theatre. Student theatre also tends to be far less pompous. The sum of its ambitions is to entertain the audience, rather than to assume the greater purpose of educating them about the London riots or oppressive foreign governments. Student theatre is characteristically liberated from profound responsibilities; it is simply more aesthetic. The stylish mischief of “The Project” is a worthy end to the Fringe.