As any health expert will tell you, running is a tonic for many things – your physical health, your mental health, your emotional wellbeing. It is also, as is the case in a new Fringe play, a support through grief.
I Run is based on a blog by Danish journalist Anders Legarth-Schmidt, who used running as a way to cope after his daughter Ellen died at the age of 6. The blog struck a chord with readers in his native Denmark, which led playwright Line Mørkeby to meet him and build a play from his story.
“Sorrow is something we think we have to get through as fast as possible,” said Mørkeby, who was nominated as Playwright of the Year for the work in Denmark’s Reumert Prize. “The play discusses the merits of this, and looks at running as one way of dealing with grief. I don’t know if running works for everybody, but it’s a way to remind yourself your heart is still beating and you’re alive. I’m a runner, so I know what it’s like to run and to get to that place where you feel like you’re in control.”
The one-man play is being brought to the Fringe by Cut The Cord, a theatre company who focus primarily on new Nordic plays and inter-cultural collaboration. Danish director Camilla Gürtler and British actor Max Keeble are part of the team bringing it to the stage.
“When you’re running, you’re the only one who really knows what’s going on inside of you,” says Keeble. “When you push your body to go further and faster you start to relinquish a level of control and in a way life becomes bigger, things start to happen. These great, deep thoughts emerge. Running gives you time to explore those scary parts of your mind and sit with them for a while with the knowledge and safety blanket that your strong body will support and protect you.”
Keeble spends the play running on a treadmill, covering nearly 9km every performance, so he knows what running does to you. “Get some exercise” might be a familiar piece of advice dished out to Fringe performers who are prone to overdo it during August, but not many get their exercise quite like this. What’s it like to perform while running?
“It’s an amazing thing to do. In a practical sense you have to be on your game because if your breath isn’t in the right place then you get in trouble vocally, the performance becomes unclear and actually a bit boring. You can’t ignore your body just because it’s doing something unusual; there’s a story to be told physically and you have to honour that and not just run. Mentally, it’s really exciting because you can find that your thought processes actually speed up a bit, or at least the level of focus intensifies. Overall, it’s just a very satisfying challenge to master the practical aspects and use them to get to some really interesting places.”
Edinburgh audiences are familiar with the treadmill motif after Richard Gadd’s Comedy Award-winning stint on one in 2016’s Monkey See, Monkey Do, although this wasn’t what the Cut The Cord team had in mind.
“This is actually the first time the comparison has come up!” says Gürtler. “But I think there is a rise of exciting performers and companies exploring ‘extreme physical theatre’ at the moment and how exercise and exhaustion can make a performance more open and truthful. And that’s very exciting.”
“There is something about seeing a person run that theatrically is effective and engaging,” adds Keeble. “I can’t imagine I’ll get as many laughs as Richard Gadd but if audiences connect and listen in the way they seem to have done with that show then I’ll take that!”
“I think what makes I Run so special is the combination of unique elements,” continues Gürtler. “It’s a Danish play, so there’s naturally a different voice in the writing, a different way of exploring these themes through performance, and the Scandinavian ‘directness’ the culture is so famous for. But it’s also a very moving play about grief. It’s the honesty and the willingness to ‘go there’ about something so heartbreaking and impossible as losing a child that makes it a powerful and moving performance.
“The treadmill and running heightens that – it propels us into a physical world and space we all know, with the tempo of the run exposing things in the text we wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. We feel the beat, the exhaustion and enormous amount of work going into running with this loss for the rest of his life. We can’t experience this play in our heads. It has to be felt, and the treadmill allows that.”
After its UK debut last year, the play got an outing at London’s Vault Festival in March, so the team have some idea of how audiences respond to the piece. What are the messages they hope audiences will take away with them?
“We hope the audience will think about grief as something not to run away from but something to run with,” says Gurtler. “The play explores a man coping with grief in his own way – and it’s important that people are given the space to cope in a way that works for them – but it also shows a man who tries very hard to run from it, to control it, and who forgets his family in the process.
“We hope it will make people think about how we can support people who are grieving and how we can still enjoy life and celebrate the people we’ve lost.”
Keeble also has a take on it. “I want the audience to have believed the words I’ve said have come from me and that the story is a personal one yes, but also [understand] that death is universal. That even if it’s not happened to them in the same way, it makes them think ‘Right, What do I actually think happens after death? How would I want to deal with a loved one dying? How would I want people to deal with my death?’ These kind of questions I think are so important. We live our lives, whether we realise it or not, around the vision of what we think is going to happen to us when we die. If you can come to terms with that and understand it you can have a very rich life for you and those around you.”