Up until attending Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, Lotty Holder was a huge skeptic when it came to physical theatre, but after watching Theatre Re’s Birth, her mind was changed forever.
Tremendously tender. An exquisite look at family, love, and hope, that casts a spell lasting far longer than the show itself.
When I saw Theatre Re’s Birth at Pleasance Beyond during Edinburgh Fringe 2019 I decided not to write about it. Not because I didn’t think it was worth writing about, in fact, the complete opposite. I didn’t know how to put what I had experienced into words that I thought would do it any justice.
Theatre Re describes the show as:
‘The story of Sue, Katherine and Emily, three generations of women from the same family whose lives are part of an invisible web they help to weave. It traces their journey of self-discovery, acceptance and hope.’
I feel that I also travelled on this journey with them.
Firstly, I was always a huge physical theatre skeptic. Coming from a dance background and not having access to a lot of experimental or Avant-Garde theatre growing up, I was of the surprisingly common and very ignorant mindset that physical theatre largely involved actors pretending to be items of furniture or foliage. I never truly believed that physical theatre alone could tell a story as clearly as ballet or cleverly written dialogue. I have never been prouder to call myself an idiot. This performance birthed a love and respect for physical theatre in me that I never thought possible. The fluidity of movement from the entire cast and seamless use of set was truly spellbinding.
Perhaps it’s because I am a member of four generations of strong women. One of my earliest memories is having a photograph taken of myself, my mother, my nana and my great nan: all four generations on one sofa. But whether this connection is the cause or not, I have never experienced a reaction to a piece of theatre, or any other art form for that matter, quite like the reaction I had to Birth. My poor friend will attest that walking out of that production, I looked like I had just experienced an extremely severe nervous breakdown, as I couldn’t stop hysterically crying or smiling. I wasn’t crying because the work was inherently depressing, I was crying because nothing had ever resonated with me as much as this show had, and still does to this day. The family on stage swept you into their lives and let you experience their highs, lows, and heartaches and you felt every beat.
I believe that pieces like Birth are what Edinburgh Fringe should be about: experimental modes of storytelling, narratives that tackle terrible subjects sensitively, plus a spectrum of emotion and passion from each member of the company. Many people travel to Edinburgh each year purely for comedy, which often takes centre stage, but it’s companies like Theatre Re that make the festival so special. Productions such as this open people’s eyes to the range of theatre on offer outside of the mainstream musicals and plays that tour to regional venues over and over again. Many students who travel to the festival with universities or colleges may never have had previous access to theatre company’s work like Birth or even understand what an independent theatre company can achieve. Birth proves that physical theatre can be beautiful, understandable and moving – opening mine and many others’ eyes to the wider world of storytelling on offer. I never imagined that a show of this style could move me at all, let alone to tears.
Reading this piece back today, it feels as though I wrote it in a completely different time, when in fact it was only six months ago. A time before we all knew what furlough meant and when masks were usually reserved for fancy dress purposes. A time before Covid-19 changed the face of the UK and British theatre industry dramatically. The tour of Birth I was so excited about, like so many other fantastic productions started but ultimately had to be postponed and the festival I first experienced it at, cancelled. This has meant that so many people have missed out on the experience of discovering new productions, comedians and ways of storytelling that sparks something within them, as well as meaning that young and emerging artists have had an even smaller pool of opportunities to fight for to show their work, if they still can.
While the loss of live theatre is great and I hope it returns swiftly and safely, lockdown has provided a rare opportunity for festivals like Edinburgh to assess if they are still serving artists, communities and audiences and how they can adapt to become better when the time comes again for flyers to be handed out and sets to be hauled long distances. Also, Fringe is where we can experience new and exciting methods of theatre making, like the work of Theatre Re, but lockdown may have done the same for some. As large productions from prestigious venues have streamed staggering productions of favourites and classic cannon works, smaller companies have also switched to creating new and exciting digital works that us as an audience can learn from, be inspired by and support just as we would at the fringe. While fringe traditionally is a space to experiment, explore and discover exciting theatre, lockdown may have done the same, even though for me, nothing beats the real thing and I’ll be back at festivals and in auditoriums as soon as I can, and hopefully watching Birth during it’s now postponed tour.