As we get ever closer to the return of Edinburgh Fringe, lots of exciting shows and new faces are pushing through what is traditionally a rather commercial affair. One such face is Phoebe Angeni who talks to us about her one-woman show, Ithaca.
The Edinburgh Fringe is set to return in a week, but like the rest of the world, it’s doing things slightly differently this time around. Following last year’s devastating cancellation due to the pandemic, this year the Fringe has opted for a more ‘hands off’ approach to art with a blend of in-face, streamed and pre-recorded performances. Phoebe Angeni is one such performer adapting to this strange new normal, with her one woman show Ithaca available to watch on demand throughout August.
I open our conversation by asking Angeni how it feels to finally be performing again after such a long break. “It’s wild as it’s a very personal play,” she begins to tell me, “The show had a short run on Broadway-on-demand for a test run and people would see my life for sixty minutes and that made it feel a lot more real.”
The heavily auto-biographical features of the play add a far more personal element for Angeni, and we discuss the strange paradox that the pandemic has placed us in. She tells me her feelings concerning having no live audience. “It was easier and more difficult,” she explains. “I made this show on my own in a 16ft room that I kitted out and it was intense but also less pressurized, as there was no one else giving thoughts and opinions. I could go with my own instincts.”
Angeni expresses how she misses the social side of a creative team and audience, “the best part of theatre is working with people, with the jokes and bouncing off ideas. I also miss the energy of an audience.” It appears for Angeni that no audience feels a lot like going in blind, “You can usually feel what the audience is picking up on but in recording it, I had no clue of how it would be received,” Angeni continues, “it’s strange to think of one run, usually I can think about what I can improve night to night, but this is just one version of it.”
The play itself, Ithaca, is directly inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey. This is not, however, Angeni’s first Greek inspired production and I’m curious to know what drew her to the ancient myths. “I’ve always wanted to do the Odyssey,” Angeni begins to tell me, “I first read it at 12, and I had a tough time growing up, so book friends were best friends, and I loved that story and his journey.” Being both female and Greek mythology fans, we could not ignore the irony of wanting to do a feminist piece on characters whose equality track records are less than stellar, “The classic Greek heroes are morally dodgy and that is cool to explore as a woman.” For Angeni however, beside the political nature of the piece, there is a deep love for the rich characters that Greek mythology has to offer. “Any woman I would be happy to play, same with any male character, the characters arcs are phenomenal.”
Throughout the play, Angeni confronts some heavy topics from gender equality, immigration to identity. Some of these topics have only appeared very recently in the popular discourse so I ask Angeni about what this speaks to in the lasting impact of such old stories. “There is something about mythology that is so universal,” Angeni begins to tell me, “the distance we have from it and the fantastical element of it allow people to put themselves into the story.” The simple yet powerful reasons continue, “they have such overarching themes that have united humanity, home, love and family and it makes the stories elastic enough that you can adapt them to suit your own story.”
Angeni discusses her reasoning for setting the play in the heart and arguably the most famous section of the poem – Odysseus’ infamous fight with the cyclopes and his taking on of the identity ‘nobody’. “Nobody was purposeful and with the Odyssey being classically male, I wanted to flip it on its head,” Angeni goes on, “in our patriarchal society, most women feel like Nobody. It’s how the world treats you as a woman who has faced lots of difficult obstacles.” Despite this potentially bleak outlook, there are glimmers of hope, “In Ithaca, Nobody discovers who she is, Nobody becomes somebody.”
As we continue, it becomes clear just how important such messages of inclusiveness are for Angeni and the importance in the arts taking on such difficult issues. “I call them important social issues,” Angeni considers. “I leave the feelings to the audience – it could upset some and not others.” For the performer, Ithaca and the arts in general are a way to connect people and to remind them that, whatever they are going through, they are not alone. “It’s super important to talk about those subjects, the ones that everyone is facing or can empathise with.” For Angeni, there’s also a more personal reason for the importance of talking about such important topics. “I grew up with people not dealing with struggles or it wasn’t talked about, I found it isolating so Ithaca is me speaking to my younger self.” We end the conversation on Angeni’s hopes for Ithaca and its effect on audiences. “If I’m open and talk about it, someone else may see me as a functioning adult and see that they can get through it as well.” A positive and welcome stance after what has been such a difficult year for so many.
Ithaca is available on demand from 6th August. Check out the Ed Fringe website for more info.