Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for the stage and the independent and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.
It’s the start of the second week of the Edinburgh Fringe and all over the city shows are taking place in every possible space and place from garden sheds (the delightful The Archive of Educated Hearts in Pleasance Courtyard) and wooden benches (Sit With Us for a Moment and Remember outside ZOO Charteris) to cafes (DanteorDie’s heart-breaking User Not Found).
I have watched juggling (the mind-boggling Gibbon) in an outsize blue packing case perched outside the Assembly Rooms on George Street, and I’ve felt as if I was on a plane trip to disaster in a container outside Summerhall where Darkfield are playing with our ears and messing with our minds in the headphones show, Flight.
Headphone shows are quite big in Edinburgh this year, reflecting perhaps the way technology is becoming cheaper and easier to use. Even Silent Disco has taken to the streets with scores of participants making a spectacle of themselves all over the city as they pursue their leader like the demented followers of a Pied Piper gripped by the sound of something that the rest of us cannot hear. It could– unwittingly –be the sharpest comment on populist politics to be found on the fringe.
These shows may all be examples of theatre taking place in more unusual locations on the Edinburgh fringe, but with the exception of the Traverse, pretty well no shows on the fringe take place in traditional theatres. Instead, they are performed in church halls that have been temporarily converted into performance spaces, masonic lodges and even hotel rooms.
The provisional nature of the spaces often chimes nicely with the fragility of a great deal of contemporary theatre and adds to the sense of a generation of theatre-makers making work on extremely limited resources so lending it a DIY quality.
That DIY quality is also reflected in the on the hoof way with which so many theatre-makers are responding to the world around them. Yes, there are plenty of great shows here, including Mark Thomas’ Check Up: Our NHS at 70 (Traverse), which play to a particular anniversary, and the Trump and Brexit shows still proliferate. Sometimes in unexpected ways: Vincent Gambini’s magic show, The Chore of Enchantment at Underbelly, could be read as a reminder of both an audience and electorate’s willingness to be deceived.
But what many of fringe theatre-makers are able to do is respond to the state of the world with an immediacy and directness that traditional theatres—which programme so far in advance—often find far harder. Sometimes a play—let’s say Dennis Kelley’s Girls and Boys at the Royal Court earlier this year—accrue extra resonance because of unfolding events in the real world. But while playwrights often have one finger on the zeitgeist they often feel as if they need time to digest changing political realities before putting pen to paper. Even if they do, they are unlikely to get what they write programmed immediately.
The Fringe programme only goes to press in April, and in any case much of the work on display on the fringe will only have been made in the weeks immediately preceding the festival. It means it can feel as if it genuinely has its finger on the pulse. It is up to date, not out of date, pro-active not just reactive.
Almost a year after the Harvey Weinstein allegations it’s not surprising to find shows with a #MeToo theme or the many exploring toxic masculinity and male entitlement including several —Daughter at Canada Hub, Ulster American at the Traverse and De Fuut at Summerhall—which are controversial in the techniques they employ which encompass bad taste comedy and the seduction of the audience. There is a sense in plays from Penelope Skinner’s Angry Alan to Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch with Robert Bathurst of men bewildered to discover they are dinosaurs in a fast-changing world.
But there is plenty more looking at how we live now and the state we’re in with shows such as the terrific Queens of Sheba talking loud and proud about black female experience, Vinay Patel’s Sticks and Stones for Paines Plough probing the perils of not finding the right words and using the wrong ones, and pieces such as Breach’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True tackling consent, rape and the justice which women receive in the courts head-on.
Yes, there are still plenty of light, fluffy shows around made by young graduate companies still finding both their own and their theatrical voices, but this is an Edinburgh fringe where the word intersectionality is far more likely to pop up in shows than that once ubiquitous prop, the ukulele.
If this year’s Edinburgh Fringe proves anything it is that young theatre-makers have something to say and they are engaging with the uncertainties of the world with a fierceness and sometimes a theatrical flair which makes them hard to ignore. It makes me wonder whether political theatre and agit-prop may once again be on the rise in British theatre.
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