Activising For Change are an Edinburgh-based theatre group and the brains behind 2018’s emotive performance of 147Hz Can’t Pass, an intimate window into the experiences of living as a trans/non-binary person in the UK. Sad Eyes To Smile With touches upon similar themes but expands the discourse for 2019, brimming with barely-contained frustration at the everyday cruelties faced by so many in today’s Scotland (and England, thanks to a cameo or two from Mrs May). Prepare to make eye contact with these issues for an hour without blinking: fortunately, with arresting prose and a compelling performance, it is impossible to look away.
If we think the age of austerity and discrimination is over then we can think again.
Delicately poised one moment and hopelessly reaching the next, our writer and narrator Ink Asher Hemp’s restless energy delivers this stream of consciousness with a relentless heartbeat, from the swings of childhood playgrounds to the magnolia walls of their sheltered housing. Do not be fooled by the lyrical, undulating rhythms that wend their way throughout the performance – this is not comfortable viewing, nor is it intended to be, as each phrase brings a new wave of conflict for which there is no resolution. All action takes place upon a precariously balanced workman’s ladder, extended on the flat as an improvised platform which is threatening to collapse at any moment. As Hemp explains the need to keep a bag half packed, in case they are asked to leave their latest temporary accommodation, the metaphor is all too clear.
For me, one of the stars of the show is the use of a repurposed window blind, which serves here as a projector screen. Hemp’s words are thusly echoed behind them in a diarised scrawl, complete with occasional doodles, that not only seamlessly integrates the use of accessible closed captions but gives the chance to bring the prose centre stage where it belongs. Through these projections our performer has the freedom to “think in capitals”, but they also allow what is not said – the scribbled out, self-censored hesitations in the breaths between phrases – to hold just as much significance as those words that made the cut. Hemp does not hesitate to inform the audience that “this is not for your benefit” – and in the increasingly middle-class bubble of the Fringe, there is a painful truth here. An abrupt exit without a bow deprives us of the cathartic safety now associated with a production’s encore, leaving nothing but a lump in the throat and a shared moment of silence to process what we’ve just seen.
Sad Eyes To Smile With is a poignant reminder, with unflinching honesty and disarming beauty, that if we think the age of austerity and discrimination is over then we can think again. Greenside venues are a great place to discover hidden gems at the Fringe, away from the noise and the lights of the ‘big four' – and this is one of them. Watch it today, because in Hemp’s own words: “we’ll wish we were angry yesterday”.