The pleasure(pain), of seeing work quite regularly as a critic is that occasionally you will encounter the deadly(wonderful) combination of a show that hits you somewhere just around the midgut and a period of time in which that area is a little less defended than usual. Often this happens in Edinburgh; one month melting pot of all human emotion, alcohol and drama both behind, before and crashing through the fourth wall. Naturally, an emotive response to a piece of work can be experienced by any audience member, but it’s a little more dumbfounding when you have to go home and write about it, seeking anything less than a massively personal response which is somewhat anathema to traditionally structured criticism – unless you work in a mention that you shed a tear somewhere between praising the cast and name checking the set designer. But that’s the purpose of theatre, isn’t it? To change us? Are we allowed to value what we take home more than what was on the stage?
So, Fierce, Kathryn Griffiths’ often relentlessly paced one woman show about… love? Fulfillment? Desire? Art? Fear? Homelessness? Dementia? Loss? Wake up, wake UP before it’s too late? … is not conventionally speaking a 5 star rush home and tell all of your friends piece, but it got under my skin all the same.
It’s a freewheeling farce characterised by Griffiths’ remarkably deft range of performances – her physicality snaps electrically from character to character – that becomes increasingly absurd and frankly tricky to follow in the second half, owing to the sheer number of characters. A runaway girl who may or may not have murdered her stepfather; an upper class, drug peddling, homeless woman with Alzheimers and ambitions of opening a brothel; a laconic, any-more-laid-back-and-she’d-be-dead Australian barmaid; and Finn. Finn, around whom this ridiculous lot pivot; because amidst the noise and furore of this comedy is someone almost achingly real. Finn who hurts and hurts and hasn’t painted anything in years. Finn who fucks all of her models except her now-housemate. Finn who is adrift and angry and grasping and running on pithy cut offs and the fear of being real again – a real artist, a real person.
Because Fierce is a show built around a philosophy. And that (much like beginning two sentences with conjunctions) can seem like a terrible idea. But it works, because any comedy worth having is built around a small kernel of unavoidable, relatable truth. In this case, Griffiths’ belief that you should act more on your desires than your fears, be driven by fulfilment and not survival; which, as she so concisely explains in the programme, really all boils down to love anyway, doesn’t it?
Finn’s frustration with herself and her life are palpable; hounded by her manager and her patron, she carefully cultivates the persona of a difficult artist while all the while breeding the seeping intensity of the deeply unhappy. Felicity (teen murderess and brothel co-owning entrepreneur, fresh off the bus from Wales) ambles into her world and with an agency rarely allowed to be displayed by women and even less often by young characters in theatre simply decides “I want you” and pursues her. Relentlessly. To credit there being a massive coherence to proceedings would be disingenuous, but when the clouds of rhinoceros tranquiliser have subsided and the bodies have been carried outside, when you’ve taken the tube home and sat and thought about it for a while – Fierce is really about deciding to have the things(people)(life) that you want. Which is so astoundingly obvious a sentiment that it feels surprising that you should need reminding; yet there it is, like a little comedy lapel flower and suddenly there’s cold water running down your face.
Griffiths is clearly a fiercely intelligent creative force, and her knack for creating oddly memorable characters and crackling dialogue makes for an odd jumble with the more intensely heartfelt moments, so while ultimately this may not be the theatrical alchemy for everyone, Fierce has a settling weight that lends it more durability than you may expect when watching it (if ever there was a hymn to the precipice of self destruction that is making art then the exquisite keening of Hozier’s Arsonist’s Lullabye that echoes out across the final scene is it) and you may end up leaving with a puzzling, dull ache in your chest.