What do we talk about when we talk about love? It’s a question that James Fritz, writer of Ross & Rachel, has been turning over and over. “One of the things I keep coming back to is the problematic nature of a lot of the language of love that we use,” he says. From One Direction crooning “she belongs to me” to candy hearts emblazoned with “be mine”, he says, “it’s all tied up in ownership and symbiosis and being two parts of a whole”.
Fritz—along with a host of other artists at this year's Fringe—wants to challenge these received ideas of romance. His title is a reference to that ultimate will-they-won’t-they fictional couple of the nineties and noughties, and a nod to his fascination with how love is presented on screen. Ross & Rachel poses the question of what happens after riding off into the sunset with The One, imagining the reality once the credits have finished rolling.
“If we’re supposed to believe that they live happily ever after, what does that feel like?” asks Fritz. “When your whole identity, your biggest success in life, is tied up in getting with another person, what does that do to you?”
Kate Goodfellow, artistic director of RedBellyBlack, the company behind Tumbling After, is less interested in the language of love than in what it looks like. The inspiration for the show came during last year’s festival, when she stumbled across an Instagram montage of a couple in different positions in bed. “I just started thinking about how so much can be told about a relationship by the proximity of their bodies,” Goodfellow remembers. From there, she began reflecting on her own relationships – both good and bad. “So much of the show is inspired by my terrible choices,” she confesses.
In an age of sharing and comparing, there’s even more pressure on those choices. “We live in a society of updates and upgrades,” says Goodfellow, “and we’re so quick to point out each other’s flaws.” Jess Latowicki, one half of Made in China theatre, agrees: “Now you’re not just living up to unrealistic expectations of what Hollywood is trying to sell us, you’re living up to the unrealistic expectations of what other people’s lives are. We publicise our private selves and they’re not our actual selves.”
Tim Cowbury, Latowicki’s partner in both art and life, stresses that their show Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me is not about social media or Hollywood movies, “but under the surface of it are questions about how we try and live up to the expectations those things might give us about how we should be”. The show uses aspects of Latowicki and Cowbury’s own relationship to explore bigger themes about how we relate to one another; Cowbury describes it as being “about how we make room for other people when we’re hell-bent on being the heroes of our own lives”.
On that list of expectations and pressures, marriage ranks pretty high. But why are we still so hung up on getting hitched? In light of equal marriage legislation, Moving Dust’s This Much (or an Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage) asks just that.
“Getting married is the thing you’re supposed to do to legitimise a relationship,” says writer John Fitzpatrick, “so we look at equal marriage and we go, ‘oh, we’re finally growing up as a queer culture’, but there’s a lot of worry about that because then you’re assimilating into a culture which not so long ago was excluding you.”
Fitzpatrick’s protagonist is a gay man who feels the pressure of fitting in, realising the hard way that just because he can get married doesn’t necessarily mean he should. And in the same way that Ross & Rachel deconstructs the language of love, This Much breaks down its symbolism – specifically, the cake and confetti of the big white wedding. Director Kate Sagovsky describes the show as taking place in “a perverted wedding disco where everything’s gone wrong and the whole set gets destroyed, but to an amazing wedding playlist”. Like Tumbling After, it also explores the physicality of love, looking at “how we form our relationships through our bodies”.
Similarly, Goodfellow hopes to use movement to cut through all the myth, cliché and pressure of modern love, aspiring instead towards honesty. She’s returned to that first image of a couple in bed, using the recurring stage picture of characters lying next to one another to communicate everything that words can’t.
“Rather than have my characters talk about the disintegration of their relationship in a really wanky conversation, all you need to see is their relationship in bed change,” insists Goodfellow. “Without them saying anything, so much can be read”.
For Made in China, interrogating relationships onstage comes with the added complication of their own offstage relationship. “We’ve started calling ourselves in the show ‘Show Tim’ and ‘Show Jess’,” says Cowbury with a smile, stressing the importance of separating art and life. Latowicki remembers another interview, in which she was asked if she had any tips for couples who want to work together. Her answer? “Don’t work together”.
But while it’s exposing to put so much of themselves on stage, the pair found that the subject of relationships became unavoidable. “To be honest,” says Cowbury, “if we could have made the show about anything else, I think we would have.”
The same impulse—the feeling that this needs to be talked about—animates all of these theatre-makers. At the same time, though, the old love stories remain seductive. “We’re loathe to criticise it too much or burst that myth,” suggests Fritz. “It’s the same thing when we buy a lottery ticket: we want to think that part of our lives will be solved by a thunderbolt.”
“I’m not here to demonise relationships,” insists Goodfellow, a statement that might speak for all of these shows. It’s more about puncturing that myth, emptying some of love’s uglier language onto the stage. Or, as Latowicki puts it, “it feels weird to love someone sometimes, and that’s not talked about”.