07 July 2010

Toronto Fringe Day 8 - "Kissing Swinburne"

Claire Frances Muir (Swinburne) Mark Huisman (Theodore) in Kissing Swinburne

I thought everybody had reviewed Kissing Swinburne and when I came back home to check the Fringe review bookmarks on my browser, I realised that, no, the buzz has almost purely been word-of-mouth. Tweets, patrons in pre-show line-ups and imbued ones at the beer tent. Glen Sumi, theatre critic for Now, attended the same performance I did and I am relieved the show will receive the attention it deserves. Because he will give it a great review. He simply must.

At the outset, I must admit that without the hype I wouldn't have seen this show. Firstly, I try to avoid any title that begins with a verb in the continuous form, Finding Forrester or Searching for Bobby Fisher. Yes, it is true, Being John Malkovitch is a good flick...  and with puppets in it. Hmm.

Secondly, the free for all of different worlds artists bring to the Fringe should know no bounds but do we need yet another Victorian tale, I asked myself as waited for Swinburne to begin. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about Masterpiece Theatre fare and this very blog was named after an Edwardian hero. And yet, the question of desirable Fringe content reminds me of an incident in my salad days in Montreal. The radio stations of the French CBC decided to ban music with English lyrics. The experiment led to unexpected discoveries, voices once muted by the sound cannons of Anglo-Saxon music were given exposure and, for the first time, scores of musicians from all corners of the world gained a Québec audience they would never have had otherwise. Thus were my cogitations whilst waiting in the BYOV (bring your own venue) at the theatre bar, Bread & Circus, . Perhaps the Fringe should be taken as an opportunity to turn away from British culture as it artistically still casts a dominion-sized shadow over us, I thought. I mean, I'd read the flyer, I knew this to be a LGBT positive show but I'm not sure that's any sort of excuse. I'm not advocating censorship here, only stating a preference.

That it took seconds for my defences to fall, you've already guessed. 

Swinburne focuses on the sadomasochist relationships in the life of the nineteenth century poet Algernon Swinburne. Actually, the creators of the show insist on describing the relationships as s&m but, fear not, we're talking small "s" and small "m". We're not exactly in internet-era kink territory here. 

The well-trodden idea of chains of characters who love those who cannot love them back is a tall order. The "message" could have been rather trite, yet we are moved and held in the claustrophobic world of Swinburne's room where he is haunted by former unrequited loves. The writers (wife and husband, Claire Frances Muir and Mark Huinsman who both star in the show) could have portrayed Swinburne's childhood memories as traumas. Instead, Swinburne reenacts them from his room with his puppet theatre, scenettes elicting complicit (not conflicted/ing) laughter from the audience. Appropriately, there is no conversation between the audience and the writing that is meant to go over the head of Swinburne's consciousness — beyond the obvious everyday abuse of Victorian children. Swinburne and/or Claire Frances Muir own(s) it, perhaps knowing that events from early life and love which have produced a tortured alcoholic have also produced an important poet.

There are several effective conduits that support the characterisation and emotion in the play. I don't know if actors realise to what extent audiences can detect their being "present". Muir (who plays Swinburne), Huisman (who plays his lover Theodore) and Mary Krohnert (who plays Mary, a cousin who toys with Swinburne and then discards him) are not just intensely "present", they are luminous. You can feel the energy focused and travelling from within them and each other and the audience. With Muir, you have the feeling she could take you anywhere dramatically in this play, and you would go there with her. Huisman telegraphs his love and need without falling into pathos, a real pitfall in traditional representations of homosexual yearning. Krohnert plays Mary gloriously, as she should be.

The language is believably Victorian but fluid and naughty in almost a wholesome way. And it really works. Throughout, the text is conversant with Swinburne's attitude, often whimsical and mischievous. Despite lifelong pain, joy punctuated this character's life.

The last element which makes Swinburne such a success is the one all who have seen it talk about: the use of puppets and masks. Don't allow yourself to hear about them in too much detail. This aspect of the theatricality of the show provides several surprises. Suffice it to say that the makers of this show understand that theatre at its best is about magic. In this case, faith in that concept brings deliciously innovative morsels of creative bliss.

After the show, I was engrossed in conversation with the stranger sitting next to me as the actors took the set apart for the next Fringe show. Bringing your own venue requires an even greater investment, determination and confidence than the average Fringe show. Well placed in my view. I believe in this show and suspect a wider public will get a chance to see it soon.

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