Oh shit, it’s August already. June and July have flown by in a blur of parched grass, Strongbow Dark Fruit and increasingly inspired Three Lions memes. The last major London opening has been and gone. Latitude has drawn its usual niche crowd of gig-theatre lovers and baba ghanoush bloggers. Knights of the Rose has surely earned itself every Olivier going (they had a fucking horse outside on press night – that’s got to be worth something). It’s been one hell of a summer, guys, seriously. I’ve had a blast.
But now, the theatre industry’s eyes swivel towards Edinburgh once again. The circus heads north to the city it cheerfully ignores for the rest of the year, crammed into over-priced, under-air-conditioned Virgin trains, full of hope, expectation, and those gin-in-a-tins you can only respectably drink when travelling by rail. The streets of London are deserted. Empty crisp packets and tumbleweeds blow aimlessly down Charing Cross Road. Theatre doors hang loosely off their hinges. Chicago keeps running in front of an empty auditorium, and no-one seems to have noticed. There’s no monorail here and there never was.
But who is on these trains chugging relentlessly northwards (stopping only at Doncaster for four hours due to a mechanical failure)?
Well, there’s the performers and producers, enough of them for the 3548 shows and 50,000+ performances that are on offer this year – the most the Fringe has ever hosted. Students staging Shakespeare (all of it) using nothing but watering cans. Newly-formed companies “exploring” something socio-politically important, like the fate of the Nicaraguan narwhal, or why we’re all so anxious all the time, or how Tinder is contributing to climate change. Solo shows doing god knows what, but making sure whatever they do, they do it viscerally. As always, the variety is extraordinary, inspirational even. Do we really need as many musicals about Trump and Brexit though?
Alongside the this not-so-happy family of avant-gardes, enfant terribles and aging sitcom stars, most of whom have spunked thousands, possibly tens of thousands on taking their show north, are the critics. At the Edinburgh fringe, the term covers an ungainly rabble. Hoards of students writing for some obscure website with zero SEO and 14 hits per day, called something like FringeMelon, or FringeDonkey, or FringeTzatziki. Carriages full of bloggers who have to fund their own travel and accommodation and will thus spend the week they’ve got off work surviving off dry toast and water (much like the performers they are reviewing), churning out 17 reviews per day. Professional writers, some of whom deserve the label, most of whom can scarcely believe their luck at getting paid and live in constant fear of someone tapping them on the shoulder at press nights, telling them the jig’s up and escorting them off the premises.
A squadron of notepad-carrying, accreditation-sporting egos-on-legs, all claiming they’ve discovered the next big thing, or looping a few roughly similar shows together and proclaiming them the “theme” of this year’s festival (it’s bullshit – there’s no “theme” to 3548 shows). Plus Lyn. Ah, Lyn. Lovely, lovely, recently sacked Lyn. Listen to Lyn, guys, but for goodness sake don’t even dream of listening to any of the rest.
There’s PRs. The less said about them the better. There’s admin staff – the faceless, nameless bots that man the festivals bars and box-offices and always seem to be having a nicer time than you, the bastards. And apparently there’s punters as well. Presumably there is. Regular folk, who just go up on a whim to catch a few shows, without any connection to any of them. They probably stay in hotels, even. I’ve never met one of these, but they do exist I’m told. Just look out for someone without a lanyard.
If this all sounds a bit cynical, a bit cheap and reductive and belittling, then good. It’s supposed to. You see, you’ve got to get real. You’ve got to get some context. Once you’ve cut through all the crap, there are only two crucial things to know about Edinburgh. One, that 99% of people there are frauds, and even the few that aren’t probably feel like they are. And two, that none of it matters, because the rest of the country couldn’t give two shits about any of it. The whole thing is, in the words of Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf Of Wall Street, all one big fucking fugazi. It’s a fugayzi, fugazi, it’s a wasi, it’s a wuzi, it’s *whistles aimlessly* fairydust. It’s ridiculous, from start to finish, as is everyone there. And once you swallow that, the rest of it becomes bearable.
Because most people don’t have a good time at the Edinburgh fringe. Most people don’t get what they want. Most shows don’t get the glowing reviews they were after, most punters don’t like the shows they see, most stand-ups don’t make anyone laugh, and most journalists spend most of their time drunk, hungover, or both simultaneously. Almost everyone loses quite a lot of money. Absolutely everyone feels like a failure at some point. I bet even lovely Lyn, with her adoring public strewing her path with palm leaves as she hustles from show to show, occasionally wanders out of a one-man recreation of the Odyssey, presented entirely in Cantonese and in the dark at 4am, and thinks: what the fuck am I doing with my life?
That’s fine, though. That’s how it’s supposed to be. The fringe wouldn’t be the fringe without stressful, sweat-soaked sprints down Cowgate to get to your next show. Without 3am kebabs after eight pints of Summerhall’s boutique rhubarb cider. Without a festering knot of anxiety, resentment and heartburn gnawing away in your lower abdomen. Without that nagging, inescapable feeling that you should’ve studied economics after all and be making bank instead of making art right now. Those are the things that make the fringe the fringe. More than a PBH Blue Book and a waterproof raincoat, they’re the essentials. Embrace them. And read that bit by David Byrne on how to stay chill – it’s important.
Yes, you’ll probably have a shit time. You’ll probably have an existential crisis. But so will everyone else. So let’s have nice existential crises together. See you there.
The Edinburgh fringe runs from today until 27th August. Hooray. More info here.