“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”, says a harried wife to her brooding husband as she looks out onto a small and scattered audience in an Edinburgh community centre. She doesn’t mean us. The couple are actually on a train platform with a mountain view, and it is on this same platform that we remain for the entirety of Blue Dragon. “Innocent enough”, I thought as I geared up for an Agatha Christie style romance-mystery, but Oisin Byrne’s play quickly devolved into Pinteresque absurdity with a heavy helping of black comedy.
Blue Dragon, we learn, is the name of a sort of euthanizing (or perhaps just homicidal) express train. Very good, except for some reason its passengers (a series of three couples, all played by Juliette Imbert and Lorenzo Allchurch) are stranded on the platform with ‘the Driver’ (Leah Aspden) and ‘the Artist’ (Katie Peachey). The play effectively follows each of the couple’s interactions with ‘the Driver’, while ‘the Artist’ comes and goes in an anxiety-provoking hurry: it is rather a lot to take in for a fifty minute Fringe play.
The highlight of the play was the character of ‘the Driver’, who dominates the stage. Aspden delivered this role with excellent comedic timing, perfectly pacing her character’s degradation from hubristic dominance to emotional breakdown.
The binary of player and audience is obfuscated by Byrne’s writing: ‘the Driver’ looks out at us from time to time, sensing the audience’s presence, and certain lines are delivered by Aspden to a sort of ‘onstage audience’ as she narrates her backstory. Harry Brooks’ direction furthers the confusion: the actors enter from a door behind the audience – we can tell they’re coming while the previous scene is still unfolding – and they sit in the back row between scenes. I charitably regard this as an artistic choice rather than a venue constraint – the effect is the same.
The play had an overbearing preoccupation with art, dealing with various forms (shadow puppetry, art writing, and aqua beads, to name a few). Indeed much of this was transmitted through the character of ‘the Artist’, whose main function was to bang on about, well, art. Peachey’s monologuing successfully drew minutes into what felt like hours, and touched on all the areas of theory that any respectable humanities reading list would. The success of this characterisation was only slightly marred by my unshakeable concern that this tortured artist was a sort of double for Byrne himself.
In search of a pithy statement to wrap up the review (and to tack onto the headline), I find myself at a loose end. For I, in all honesty, have no idea what Blue Dragon actually meant. Blue Dragon strategically trades meaning for sensory intensity – it is hilarious, somehow touching, and quite absurd.
An Exciting New Productions’ Blue Dragon had its initial run at Oxford’s Burton Taylor, and continued at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Just The Tonic, Nucleus venue.