Danish physical theatre and dance company DON GNU has become, not just a staple, but a highlight of my Edinburgh Fringe schedule. The company made its third appearance at the festival in 2019 with their most recent production Raiders of the Grey Gold at Zoo Venues, running just one short week, from August 4 – 10.
Previous Fringe presentations have included M.I.S. – All Night Long, an exploration of the masculine identities that company cofounders Jannik Elkaer and Kristoffer L.A. Pedersen grew up with, from Dirty Harry to Big Bird, and A Snowball’s Chance in Hell, an ode to silent film and the physical comedy that made it great. With Raiders of the Grey Gold, Elkaer and Pedersen tackle aging.
With each new show, it becomes more and more evident that DON GNU has managed to strike a delicate and enviable balance between humor and physicality. Each piece has a clear narrative that engages, not just because of the universality of the theme, but because it’s a comedic takedown of social mores. What’s most impressive is that they manage to do all of this without ever uttering a word.
DON GNU’s work is heavily theatrical and acrobatic, often cribbing from the dance-like nature of boxing and the martial arts. Pop culture plays a big role in setting the scene, its characters and their physicality. One need look no further than the title Raiders of the Grey Gold to know that Indiana Jones was a source of inspiration.
DON GNU’s two raiders are a couple of elderly men tucked away in a home for seniors. They’re slow moving, walker-dependent and rely on audience assistance just to make it to the stage. The character work is phenomenal, especially Pedersen, whose tremulous, jowly characterization is probably a little funnier than it’s nice to admit in polite society.
Not ones to settle quietly into a future of dull solitude while waiting to expire, the production’s protagonists soon clash over who controls the television, propelling the two old men, clad in white underpants and flimsy robes, into a universe in which age is no longer a factor and where their battle explodes into a full-scale action adventure. From here on out, the audience is treated to a hysterical barrage of movement and engagement that oscillates from the clever to the lowbrow.
Clever: the tableaus of famous works of art – including Michael Angelo’s The Creation of Adam and the cherubs from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna among others – that the old men’s dueling propels them into. Lowbrow: the clinking and clanging sounds discovered when aggressive pelvic thrusting causes each male characters’ masculine parts to spring forward inside of their droopy underwear.
Comedy aside, there are moments of dance with a surrealist bent that provide a sort of calming visual beauty. Elkaer and Pedersen dance in unison with lampshades over their heads and a green light illuminating their bodies, and dancer Petras Lisauskas, who plays an attendant at the home and acts a sort of neutralizing force that keeps the old men in check, performs a delicate and sensual belly dance that transitions into dervish-style whirling.
Raiders of the Grey Gold plays with the fine line between memory and imagination. Even when our bodies give out on us, we still have our memories and our imagination, and hopefully, a friend with whom to take an adventure, no matter how contentious the relationship.