Features Published 14 July 2014

City of Stories

Our writers attempt to pin down the joys of the sprawling, ever-mutating thing that is the Edinburgh Fringe.
Exeunt Staff

Fireworks, last Saturday of the Fringe, 2012. (There may have been wine).

William Drew: When I first came to Edinburgh, I was an amateur. A student in London for the holidays, I took the coach up to save money. It took about eight hours. I’d fallen asleep and was awoken by the driver announcing:

“We’re almost here. You’ll all be able have a pint of Guinness soon.”

I was briefly terrified, scanning the Georgian square we were turfed out on to and reassuring myself that I would have noticed crossing a sea but it was the tipple not the city that was out of place. Sipping a reassuring Deuchars shortly after this, my friend Alex cheerfully informed me that I had arrived the day after the Fringe had ended. He hadn’t mentioned this when I had planned the trip. “Pity” he simply said.

As the years have gone by, the city and the colourfully sexist Fringe brochures have become far more familiar. I’ve been hugged for longer than I felt comfortable, choreographed a performer out of a bookshop window, been very, very wet, eaten deep-fried Mars bars from Café Piccante on Broughton Street, stumbled down the Royal Mile at 3 am and supped in The Scotsman for the night workers shift.

Edinburgh is only ever a façade of its usual self during the Festival. It’s a well worn place though and it can take whatever is thrown at it for one month of the year. There’s even a moment when it lies quiet between the last bars closing at 4 and the Scotsman and the Penny Black opening at 5.30. The sun will probably come up at this time, as if to say “I see you there, you scumbags”. If you’re still up then though, you’re probably long past caring about the approval of a big star and instead you might, as I once remember doing, look out from the bridge as the house lights come up on Scotland’s capital, with Medieval and Georgian sprawl on either side and the Northern sky above and say:

“This fucking city though, right? This fucking city.”

…to nobody in particular.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERALauren Mooney: This August will be my sixth consecutive Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve gone every year since I was seventeen, and in that time I’ve performed, produced, directed, reviewed, been a paid flyerer and even – yes – visited just for fun. I’m pretty sure that if I ever missed a year, the autumn that followed it would sneak up on me out of nowhere; the Fringe has become an inexorable part of the rhythm of my life. Sometimes I’ve hated it. I’ve sworn I would never go back. But I always do.

As a teenager, I thought it was a fairytale place. I’m not even really exaggerating: it was where I had my first taste of freedom and adulthood, and even though I’m a proper grown-up now, and I’ve known for myself the mix of sticky tape and desperation that holds it all together, I’ve never completely lost that sense of wonder. It’s agony and ecstasy: it’s realising in the technical rehearsal, 23 hours before your show goes up, that the dimensions of your venue were recorded wrong in the plans they sent you and your single piece of scenery, your single major prop, will not be able to enter and exit the stage six times. (This happened to me. 2012. We lost most of our tech time hacking the wheels off a gurney, but my god we made it work.) Yeah, so, agony – but it’s also finding that thing that speaks to you and forcing everyone you know to see it. It’s running into people you haven’t seen for years, and crying with laughter, and Piemaker, and staying out late every idiot night, like you promised yourself adulthood would be when you were a kid.

I know better these days, but sometimes I still catch myself thinking of it that same old way: a fairytale place. I’ve still never found anything else quite like it.

Freddie Machin: I always feel like I am running to catch up with the ringe, not just tearing up and down the cobbles throughout august, squeezing in an extra show, but year to year. It took me its second or third visit to Edinburgh to finally catch the magnificent Fringe First winner Basic Training. Equally I only caught Bane for the first time recently despite the one-man film noir thriller having done the rounds for some years before I saw it. And even though most fringe regulars will have seen Derevo endless times by now, witnessing their hypnotic, ethereal Harlekin in 2010 was a profound theatrical moment for me – gutsy, theatrical and deliciously unsettling.

Heather Doole:

edinburgh-sketchLaura Jane Dean: This a photograph which I took after the dress rehearsal of Head Hand Head last year. I was in a tiny studio on the top floor of C nova, the window was all boarded up, except for one strip in the middle, and this was the view. I was lucky enough to have the studio to myself for the entire run, and so would spend an hour each day, before the show started, in there on my own. I would get ready, have something to eat and look out of the strip in the window, grateful for the peace and quiet, away from the noise and blur of people and shows and hidden from the persistent competitive buzz of the Royal Mile. Nervous, anxious and excited, I’d wonder how many people would turn up and how the show was going to go. This, on repeat, is what I remember the most when I think of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh 1

Catherine Love: I was tired. Very tired. The kind of tired that actually, physically hurts. It must have been about halfway through my time at the Fringe that year and I was silently berating past me for agreeing to see a show at 10am – 10am! – at the Traverse, a painfully long trudge from the grubby student flat where I was staying. It’s probably fair to assume that I’d been out late the night before. It’s also probably fair to assume that I had a slight hangover. In other words, by the time I arrived at the Traverse for the morning’s Theatre Uncut readings, my body was screaming “go back to bed!”

But then something extraordinary happened. The first few short plays of the morning were OK – roughly constructed, but plenty of ideas to chew on. Then Rosie Wyatt stepped into the small performance area that had been carved out in the Traverse bar and began reading Clara Brennan’s monologue Spine. The details are hazy now, but I remember that it was about an unlikely friendship between an elderly woman and a teenage girl, about the cuts, and about the creeping threat to our libraries.

And thanks to some strange theatrical alchemy, some brilliant combination of writing and performer, I suddenly found myself blinking back angry tears, close to bawling my eyes out over my breakfast. It wasn’t slick or dazzling or mind-blowing. But it was a perfect demonstration of how sometimes, with just an actor, a script and a few gathered audience members, theatre can charge the atmosphere of a room. More than worth getting out of bed for.

Stewart Pringle:

A collage of Fringes past: Edinburgh3

Dan Hutton: When you’re dashing from venue to venue, sneaking in a quick bite to eat en route, it’s easy to forget what a gorgeous city Edinburgh is. During my first Edinburgh, I remember walking onto Princes Street for the first time from St Stephens (I had got the bus there). It was a gorgeous day with a burning, slightly soggy kind of heat, and though I’d spent a lot of time over the previous few days hurrying along with my head down to surge through the crowds, something in me made me look up. I saw this and took a picture. It’s not stunning or breathtaking by any means, but every time I look at it, I’m reminded how important it is to keep your eyes open to the world around you. Even in Edinburgh.

edinburgh2Lorna Irvine: Ah, Edinburgh Festival. 

For over twenty years now I’ve been seeing you, my late-summer fling. I’ve seen parts of you nobody else has touched, peeled back your gaudy veneers. Heard ugly secrets. Didn’t believe a word of those rumours­ from the meretricious naysayers, who couldn’t understand the purpose of experimental Korean dance, let alone pronounce the title.

The good has been utterly amazing: Life­-changing transformative theatre and beautiful international dance which will stay with me forever; gorgeous food and drink, getting dragged on-stage and flashed at by one of my favourite performance artists, stunning venues, singing Ivor Cutler songs with friendly strangers, a room full of Warhol’s silver balloons, meeting people I will love forever, the obligatory blood, sweat and nudity of physical theatre, sweetly gracious performers not laughing at me when I got star­struck and gushed to them.

The bad has been truly, cringingly apalling: Performers outnumbered by the audience in a shithole of a venue; seasoned actors majorly fucking up their lines, bad experimental art, dodgy fish suppers, flat beer and wine,actors barely able to stand­ giggling at how drunk they were, crying my eyes out after a show I couldn’t emotionally deal with, staggering rudeness from a musician I once respected, wanting to go home and just sleeeeeeeeeeeep, drunkenly enduring bad cabaret in a club where it seemed everyone but me and my partner was on ecstasy.

You are always exactly the same, Edinburgh Festival, and yet forever mutating and expanding: tall, beautiful, stately, exhausting, seedy, embarrassing, noble, exciting, irritating. I love you now as always, yet heave a sigh of relief come September. You’re just too much, ya radge.

Salt and sauce over here, please.

The 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 1st-25th August.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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