There are few performers humble, subtle and versatile enough to not only survive the avalanche of churnalistic pulp – that is to say, newspaper articles ripped from press releases – to which Mark Grist has been subjected, but to emerge the other side seeming more human for it. Getting the sort of headlines other acts would, and indeed do, pay good money for, Grist’s ticket sales are to some extent fuelled by media attention. However, the trick, subtlety and triumph of this show is that Grist’s story runs on that same fuel, in a set as uproariously funny as it is unflinchingly self-analytical.
Grist was thrust to fame by a viral YouTube video of him, adorned in teacher’s suit and tie, shooting his pistol mouth at a seventeen year old rapper in what has now become the most watched English-speaking rap battle ever. The media love it, framing Grist as the teacher-turned-rapper, putting a teenager in his place and going to Edinburgh to take on the world. But the show tells a different story, “a tragedy” Grist calls it, of his fall from the altruism of his secondary school job at ‘the most inspiring place in the world’, through the aggressiveness of the rap battle in which he made his name, to the stages of Fringe.
This narrative has interesting repercussions. It marries the telling of the story, the very fact of us all being in a room together, beautifully to its own conclusion. More importantly, it shows us how something fleeting and trivial to us – a viral video – can be momentous, lasting and emotionally turbulent for somebody else. It strips away a façade where we didn’t even know a façade existed: from across the ubiquitous, background constellations of online stars.
Formally speaking, Grist is strong but inconsistent. Sometimes his incessant use of couplets clumsily blindfolds the content, to produce meaningless, ill-chosen detail, such as the childhood crush who ‘gives me thrills’ whilst she ‘passed my window sill,’ but as he begins to talk about the influence of the Oulipo movement, and creation through restriction, we get some more ambitious work such as ‘The Fens’, the longest univocalism – a poem with only one vowel – I think I have ever heard on stage. There are few performers more dexterous at discussing poetry’s ethical dimension, at trying to answer the question of what it’s actually for.
This is a show about the struggle to make art valuable, about its social function and the status of the people who make it. It’s delivered with captivating sincerity and is at times painfully affecting. It’s a rare thing to find a show so introspective that also believes in something more than itself. Mark Grist: Rogue Teacher does, and it has the good humour to tell us so via the kidnapping of a Humphrey Bogart cut-out, a boy defecating on a beach and a famous viral YouTube video.