Negotiating the Fringe in Edinburgh

Actors spruiking their shows on the Royal Mile

Actors spruiking their shows on the Royal Mile

For sheerly luxurious immersion in theatre, a hectic (not to say frantic vibe), and theatre operating at all levels of competence (I’m not sure how much screening for quality of offerings is possible when 2871 shows are mounted over about a month – 2013 figures), the Edinburgh Fringe is probably way out in front.

We don’t lack for theatre in Melbourne, and indeed it would be possible most days of every week (except Monday) to get to 2 or 3 theatre events per day. I know, I’ve done it, but never intensively over a few days. In Edinburgh, if you’re much better organised and informed than we are, and people we met were doing just this, 4 or 5 show in a day is do-able. But even at a much more moderate intensity, 5 days of comedy, musical and drama rendered us paralytic, partly because of the effort of walking up and down the Royal Mile, with its many levels/stairs, and we declared the last day of our stay fringe-free, and opted for the Scottish Heritage houses. More walking.  We estimate that over 6 days, we walked 40-50k. No point taking cabs, or using the car, because the Fringe had taken over the streets.  In such a scenario, too much pleasure is to be had taking in the casual acts on the street, talking to the performer/buskers about their shows, and the grandiosities of Edinburgh’s 17th and 18th centurye streetscapes and skyline.

There seems to us, as Fringe virgins, no rational way of making choices, so we were thrilled to be able to sound out performers about what they were doing, and in that way we were able to make more informed choices than we could relying on the booklet alone. We struck only one dud show: an execrable comedy double, and with an audience of only 6, there was no way to or leave with grace.

We saw two highly polished Irish shows: Dermot Bolger’s adaptation of Ulysses (a must for a Joyce junkie), and the Abbey Theatre’s touring show, a three-hander, Quietly. Both were stunning and given full production values, complete with detailed (and underused – grrrrrr!) sets, custom lighting, and proper theatres.  Shows in Edinburgh have to share venues with other shows, so sets have to be very easily and quickly de-mountabel, so these highly detailed sets were a credit to their designers and to lighting designers as well. I refer above to the first of these as an Irish show, but technically, Ulysses was mounted first in Glasgow by the Tron Theatre Company, but by way of defence, the adaptation was by an Irishman and a playwright (Dermot Bolger) and most of the actors seemed to have Irish credentials. It was a sparkling production, and ran a generous two hours 20 minutes, with interval, and featured eight actors, four of each, who doubled and quadrupled roles, except for Molly and Poldy. The adaptation worked very strenuously to tell the story, and I think that in the process, it might have skimped on the poetry of Joyce’s text and its flamboyant stylistic experiments. However, the staging was pure theatre. Joyce inevitably drives the theatrical director into the territory of vaudeville, pantomime, and music hall, and the six supporting cast members were marvellous exponents of silly walks, or comedic moments relying on panto-style faces and gestures, and weird voices. Poldy was sad, more the Jewish victim than I’d have chosen, and Molly wonderfully overblown, and with a huge operatic soprano voice, so we got the full value of the trio aria from Flotow in Sirens. I was watching closely because Bloomsday in Melbourne is hard at work at our own adaptation, and  I noted that Bolger did nothing at all with Proteus and Scylla & Charybdis. Such silencing and choices are always fascinating. I really admired the treatment of Ithaca, though, which gave the impersonal interrogation of Bloom to the sundry Dubliners and cut very sharply to the main lineaments of the plot.  It was good common sense. If you get a chance to see this production, don’t miss it. It powerfully demonstrates that Joyce is for everyone.

Owen McCafferty’s Quietly (directed by Jimmy Fay) was a show of a very different kidney: realism, even hyper-realism, especially in the set, a bar richly furnished with operational Guinness-pump, varieties of spirits bottles, glassware and sports paraphernalia; just three actors, and a powerful historical narrative to tell about the bar. Set in Belfast, the story involved a pub bombing and two interested parties  (actors were Declan Conlon and Patrick O’Kane) on different sides of the sectarian divide: one a former teenage bomber now in his sixties, and the other, the same age, who lost his father in the bombing, and had massive amounts of barely repressed rage. The play enacted an unsentimental form of reconciliation. The barman, a Pole, played by Robert Zawadzki, stood as testimony both to the ways in which street life has changed in Belfast, and also to the ways in which tribal antagonisms have shifted. McCafferty seemed to suggest that fear of the Other might be an ineradicable part of the human condition. I hope he is wrong. I expect that this touring production might have an Australian season, so again, not to be missed.

These plays were brilliantly executed but were a bit atypical in their finish and polish. What we enjoyed as much were the very low-budget, almost set-less shows got up by student theatre or fringe groups, and the stand-out production in this class was the meatiest musical since Candide. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: The Musical broke every rule in the book: didactic, written by, and featuring as lead character, the ponderous and unreadable Harvard/Oxford political theorist, John Rawls; a cast of thousands in tatty costumes, including a drag queen; a different musical style for every number; a minute orchestra, featuring mainly a trumpet; appalling lighting, a plot that involved a love affair between Rawls and a fair dame called Fairness, and evil villains in the shape of competing don, Nozick, and Ayn Rand, imagined as Nozick’s consort. Despite these unconventional devices, it was a triumph of wit and exposition, had musical numbers good enough to buy the soundtrack, and what’s more has both of us reaching for John Rawls’ weighty tome. Its project was to define Justice as fairness, which proved more complex than one might expect, but the production was utterly memorable in arriving at its utopian principles. It drew on 2500 years of Philosophy, and focused on many philosophers of the past, including Plato, Socrates, Rousseau, the Utilitarians, the Feminists and as memorable climax, Kant as a Drag Queen. The student actors/singers were superb in their sugar-coating of philosophy, and gave the impression of having a ball doing it. Expect to see this one given full commercial production. Brilliant, funny, transgressive, educational: what more could one ask for?

I’d like to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe, but next time I’ll do my homework with a better understanding of how his complex juggernaut works, but no guarantees that pre-planning would be any better than our serendipitous methods this year. One never knows how much allowance to make for printed spin. Quizzing jobbing actors on the street as they desperately give away millions of dodgers might  not be the most rational basis for judgement as to what to see.

Frances is one of four editors of Tintean, has been a theatre reviewer of decades, and is the founder of Bloomsday in Melbourne.

One thought on “Negotiating the Fringe in Edinburgh

  1. A great review by an expert ! It must have been a wonderful experience for the two Ozzies and it gives us a vivid and entrancing image of an intelligent city in full action. Peter K.

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