Note: This review is from the 2018 Fringe

Last Wednesday, the Traverse Theatre announced the hotly-anticipated second half of their 2018 festival programme. Announcing another thirteen events – including a number of premiering shows – the news was confirmation for festival goers and Traverse lovers alike that the theatre will have some unmissable performances this August. Speaking to Artistic Director Orla O’Loughlin following the programme reveal, we spoke about what audience members should expect from the productions lined up.

Describing this year’s festival as a “celebration of stories”, O’Loughlin sees storytelling as a powerful response to the world today. “When times are tough, stories can be really helpful” – for both the artist and the audience. With the world currently in disarray, it is unsurprising that many of the shows selected to appear at the Traverse feature some pretty heavy material. Gun violence, the abuse of power, race and class conflict are just some of the themes addressed within the programme, with the Traverse’s intent being to respond “to the world as it is right now”. However, perhaps more important than what is said within these plays is how it is portrayed: there is some “brilliant storytelling” going on in each of productions selected, and that is at the heart of each performance.

What also stands out is the role of women within these plays. O’Loughlin is brilliantly unapologetic about having women “front and centre” this summer. Talking about the Traverse’s body of work in general, O’Loughlin admits that the creative team is always conscious of the female perspective within each work, with the festival being no different:

“We’re always really aware of whose story is being told onstage and how they are being represented, and it is predominantly from a female perspective.”

One rousing female perspective will come in David Leddy’s Coriolanus Vanishes. Originally written as a gender-fluid role (yet only performed by a male until now), the protagonist in this production will be portrayed by Irene Allan. A psychological thriller, Allan’s presence is sure to bring something very special to this individual’s descent into madness.

With the #metoo generation still expanding and sexual politics being as fraught as ever, word on the street is that the Traverse is not the only theatre that will be focusing on women. However, O’Loughlin is not concerned by this: “it’s right, it should be […] we can’t go backwards now.” Womankind’s refusal to remain repressed within society will be broached in David Ireland’s Ulster American, a play featuring Ruth – a playwright from Northern Ireland – who has an important story to tell. Tensions arise, however, when she meets with her male lead and director: according to O’Loughlin, “the play’s about the men who don’t want her to tell her story, and so it becomes about power, the abuse of power and consent”.

Gripping storylines are seemingly in abundance in the Traverse 2 programme, including Iseult Golden & David Horan’s CLASS and Martin Zimmerman’s On The Exhale. Within these two dramas, we will see two very different portrayals of parenthood. Set in a classroom, CLASS will see two parents come to blows with their son’s teacher over his wellbeing. Supported by Culture Ireland, it maintains a long-standing connection the Traverse has with Ireland and its theatre scene. Despite the serious nature of the plot, O’Loughlin assures me that it is hysterically funny at times.

On The Exhale, on the other hand, perhaps won’t have such a humorous side to it. Written as a direct response to the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012, the play follows one mother’s obsession with finding the weapon used during a school shooting. What appears to stand out for O’Loughlin is how Zimmerman depicts a mother’s response to the loss of her child, which in America is increasingly becoming “an eternal situation for so many parents.” What is more, it also aligns itself with the idea of contemporary theatre from the USA acting as a “protest song”, holding up a spotlight to the desperate situation of the country.

Thankfully, there is light among all the darkness shrouding these hard-hitting plays. Relief will be found in works like Ian Kershaw’s The Greatest Play in the History of the World… and Henry Filloux-Bennett’s Nigel Slater’s Toast. Occupying a “slightly different emotional space”, O’Loughlin admits they will still break your heart “but a bit more gently.” Then, of course, there is the project that O’Loughlin is directing herself. Written and performed by Cora Bissett, What Girls Are Made Of already sounds like a smash hit. The play depicts Bissett looking back at her youth and her time in the spotlight: “everything that happens in the play is true and people won’t believe it’s true because it’s so nuts.” While some moments may leave the audience incredulous, the stories have all come from the meticulous notes that were written by Bissett at the time in her diaries. Music fans will also be delighted to hear that live music will feature: creating a sort of “gig theatre”, as put by O’Loughlin, all of the songs will be performed by the actors onstage.

Once again, family has a prominent role within the work. Inspiration from the play came in the form of Bissett’s own daughter, and the musician, actor and director’s desire to have something to offer her. What Girls Are Made Of is both a refreshing and welcome change to the usual young-musician narrative, as it conveys her family life as an “overwhelmingly positive experience”.  While her music career came down almost as quickly as it sky-rocketed up, the support she had from her parents and siblings led to a great robustness in Bissett. Moreover, O’Loughlin sees the play as a “study of what makes us who we are”.

It’s the plays like What Girls Are Made Of which underscore how cleverly balanced the programme at the Traverse is this year. Talking about her role in the production, O’Loughlin sees the show as being that much-need counterpoint to all that is wrong in the world:

“It’s really lovely as a director to put myself in a space where there’s something euphoric and celebratory, because a lot of the work that’s out there – and that I’ve been dealing with – is really tough, it’s really distressing.”

By having uplifting pieces like this one, a reprieve from the chaos and mess of the world today (and very much present in the serious dramas), the Traverse will hopefully remind audiences that “all hope is not lost”.

There are many more delights in store at the Traverse this August, including the fresh writing talent showcased in Breakfast Plays: Youthquake and the powerful voices behind Theatre Uncut: Women on Power.

By having a far more compact programme compared to other theatres active during the festival, the Traverse Theatre has given its dedicated theatregoers the opportunity to see many – if not all – of what is on offer. Whatever you may choose, I’m certain you will not be disappointed.

Tickets are on sale now.