Prague is a beautiful city where the ghost of Kafka seems likely to appear from many of the magnificent and occasionally overwhelming buildings and where even the tuneless bellowing of the occasional English stag party (and alas, it always seems to be the English) cannot dilute the city’s sense of the sublime.
Annually to this city and its fringe festival flock nearly 50 small theatre, dance and comedy companies from throughout the world giving around 200 performances—mainly from the English speaking world, as all the festival productions are in English. This is one of the lesser-known English exports (and preferable to the stag parties) created 17 years ago by three committed theatre practitioners from the UK, Carole Wears, Steve Gove and Angus Coull, all of whom are still heavily involved. As is the technical director Giles Burton who journeys each year from New Zealand to be here.
People compare it to the Edinburgh Fringe back in the '60s, before that festival grew to behemoth size and before it was in thrall to famous stand-ups and TV celebs who are given all the top venues. Prague Fringe happily has few celebs (though no doubt many of its participants dream of becoming one). Also, unlike Edinburgh, it has a selection procedure (less than one in three applicants is accepted) which means standards generally are higher.
Against that, the Prague festival profile is tiny compared to Edinburgh and not only because of the much smaller number of companies. You cannot be in Edinburgh centre for more than a minute before the fringe slaps you in the face as hundreds of oddly dressed aspirants push their flyers under your nose or clowns and musicians strut their al fresco stuff. A nuisance at times yes, but part of the buzz.
No such street activity allowed in Prague. Plus most performances are between 6PM and midnight, whereas in Edinburgh the oddity of being able to see a piece of theatre at 8:30 in the morning adds to the sense of the unconventional. More daytime performances and more leafleting could be advantageous.
But there is a fierce loyalty to the festival. I met several people who annually travelled hundred of miles to catch the fringe. The small army of festival volunteers who gladly give up their free time even includes one member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Most of the nine venues are located in the quirky and atmospheric Mala Strana in the shadow of Prague Castle and there’s a distinctly underground feel around—not only in the material on view but the fact audiences are as likely as not to descend to ancient stone cellar clubs to see the shows. Our own cellar café was so hot that actor Dylan Mortimer needed to soak his shirt in cold water five minutes before each performance. And still he had to mop his brow every ten minutes.
But then the temperature in the city was in the upper 20s.
I managed to catch several other shows, first choice of which was the riotously funny Scotland performed by The Latebloomers at Divaldo Inspirace, one of the fringe’s biggest venues (most hold under 50 people). Totally dotty, fast-paced and infectious, this beautifully crafted piece of unpredictable mayhem managed to both satirise and celebrate its eponymous country, as the three Le Coq trained actors hurtled through at breakneck speed. Strangely enough, none of the three cast members is Scottish. The show’s billed as being for everyone "aged 7 to 70", a piece of ageism which would exclude your correspondent. I went anyway.
I also much liked Caliban’s Codex from It’s Not Us at Café Club Misenska. Emily Carding’s one-woman piece reinterprets the ‘monster’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a way that casts many more dark shadows onto the human race than it does onto the poor creature Caliban him/herself. It’s fiercely committed and done in-the-round, Carding’s scampering beast rising its head to eyeball us audience members with a succession of spat-out criticisms about our own species' mishandling of the planet.
Gavin Roach’s one-man show The Measure of a Man at A Studio Rubin was an exploration of one gay man’s sexuality. At its best it is funny, frank and even outrageous in the intimate detail and confessions and is a real insight into another world for us heteros. It begins to pall in the second half having already said all it has to say.
A show that rarely draws breath is Bump! from Buckle Up Theatre at Divaldo Inspirace, boy-meets-girl and onwards in a fast-paced combination or romance, comedy and physical theatre. It’s beautifully timed and choreographed, the script combining seamlessly with the rapid movement in a way that makes something which is meticulously rehearsed and timed seem to just happen by right.
Most of those involved in the fringe were a good half century younger than your correspondent and on Prague’s wonderful public transport system (the trams seem to go all night) younger people readily offered the likes of me their seat. I know I should be grateful…
The late night fringe club was always awash with theatre extroverts as young hopefuls bulled up their talents and their shows to anyone who would listen, hoping no doubt for a world tour offer. Few would arrive, but no matter. The eternal optimism and energy of the creative spirit is not daunted by such realities and what better place for such energy and optimism to flower than at the Prague Fringe?
Peter Mortimer’s play, A Parcel for Mr. Smith, was performed at the Prague Fringe by Cloud Nine Theatre Company.