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A Ship Of Fools
Published on Tuesday, 04 May 2010

This assignment caught me out of the blue. A passing mention that I wanted to see some experimental theatre and an open slot on FringeGuru's schedule found me sitting on a bus – in some glorious evening light – with a woman dressed as a ship's captain asking me for the sea conditions.  The bus driver was slumped at the wheel, a vampish woman in an eye-patch tottered down the aisle and a jutting-jawed accordion player (in safety goggles) serenaded us.

I was, through serendipity and destiny, aboard A Ship of Fools, an experimental ensemble performance directed by the irascible internationally-acclaimed performer Yael Karavan. I had no idea what to expect… and I never would have foreseen the bombastic, dramatic, melancholic performance I was about to enjoy.

A Ship of Fools is an unconventional, challenging, often magical show. The bus delivers us to performance space Coachwerks – a warren of rooms and corridors – for which this site-specific piece was designed. After Karavan offers a delightfully disturbing welcome, in character as a lecherous yet charming 'ceremony of masters', we enter a space where a buffet of individual performances are laid out for sampling before the main event. We must, we are told, let out hearts be our compass, as we move undirected through the spaces and places and have our own personal encounters with each performer's inner fool – coaxed out under Karavan's direction.

Here, each fool is alone, locked in a strange world of compulsive behaviour and craven inner demons. The programme tells us fools are characters that reside within us all; we could all allow our inner fools out to play. My stand-outs include Tama Daly as a woman entranced and confused by a variety of broken toys, and Bruno Humberto performing a shirtless roof top dance that is part Tai Chi and part tightrope walk.

During this section of the show, other cast members mingle with the audience, and overhearing glimpses of conversation between them is one of the show's highlights. Karavan's lecherous quasi-ringmaster yells at the eye-patch wearing vamp, 'Why you walk like you have a disease?' In return, she tosses, 'you love it,' over her shoulder, and Karavan, chuckling with desire, chases her into a side room.

At little later we take our seats to watch 80-something-year-old jazz singer Renee Ansell. Seeing Ansell perform Andrews Sisters and Louie Armstrong numbers, her voice quavering beautifully, is undoubtedly moving and captivating – and the cast's surreal dance performances are a delight.  But it also feels incongruous; it doesn’t belong in the show, and unbalances it. The danger with idea-laden surreal physical theatre like this is that it feels random – strange for the sake of strangeness – and the inclusion of something that didn't fit the overall theme of the show made the rest of the performance feel lesser. I can completely understand why any director would want to include the delightful Ansell in their show, but her appearance here can only be understood as a pleasant intermission.

After the musical interlude comes the main performance: a dance/physical theatre piece that appears to return to earlier themes of madness and melancholy.  Strands of depression, compulsion and hallucination wind their way through the individual segments, performed by the same company in new guises. Well-chosen costumes highlight the characters – from woman in a wedding dress to wide-boy. This piece culminates in a hilarious tussle between all the performers as they preen for an imagined group photograph, mercilessly shoving their co-performers aside until they end up in a heap on the floor at the front of the performance space.

The decision not to include Karavan in this part of the show is, on some level, a no-brainer. She is so charismatic that her performances – even the relatively simple dancing with members of the audience – make everything going on around her seem a little dimmer.  So it is fair enough to sideline her here, but I found myself missing her as this part of the show began to outstay its welcome.

Overall, A Ship Of Fools asks a lot of its audience. Sitting passively in the dark isn't on the agenda.  From the opening self-guided tour around the individual fools’ performances, to the demanding final piece, this is as far from popcorn viewing as it’s possible to get.  That's no bad thing – but it's not for everyone; this is the ultimate Fringe show, and you either love it for that, or you don't.

The end of the show offers and opportunity to join the cast, and eat the pizzas that have been cooking while we have been watching.  With a large table laid in the performance space, the fourth wall is not just broken but demolished, as the cast shed their costumes and characters and mingle with the audience breaking (cheese- and tomato-laden) bread.  As we all come together, we are reminded of the show's premise that all these characters – these fools – reside in us all; that we live with them in our daily life, hidden and suppressed, only sometimes emerging to play.  Dinner is served… and Karavan's show has made glorious fools of us all.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.