After catching covid somewhere within its astroturfed, magical depths, I’ve spent quite a lot of time feverishly turning over why I went to the Edinburgh fringe this year. And I think that it came from a desire to excavate a lost part of myself – the self excited to see performances that aren’t tied to the same formats and modes and voices you get in year-round venues, but also the self full of 2019 energy and optimism that successive months crushed. Admitting it feels like a blow, because I’m as in thrall as anyone to the protestant myth of endless self-improvement: each year is a victory for self-mastery and self-actualisation, and things that don’t kill us magically add to our strength, with some age-defying fairytale logic.
But of course, things don’t get endlessly stronger, or better. In years gone by, a Fringe Society press release would each year trumpet the ‘biggest ever’ festival, more shows, more tickets sold, more audiences than ever, as though this artistic smorgasbord was growing in a vacuum, no possible checks or limits to its infinite expansion.
It felt unstoppable – but nothing and no one is. Frances Poet’s bleakly brilliant play Still, staged at Traverse Theatre, is a testament to the omnipresence of endings, of sickness and suffering that upend everything in a swirl of time-defying strangeness. There’s something so uncompromising and brave about the way that Poet layers on different kinds of pain – dementia, stillbirth, chronic pain, the loss of a father, the loss of a pet – and then plays these sharp strands like a harp, making them blend or ring out poignantly alone.
This is beautifully, rigorously structured writing, that manages to sketch five characters’ stories with economy and vividness – no synopsis I write could achieve its level of clarity. Gilly (Naomi Stirrat) is a young woman who’s at the kind of awful existential crossroads that comes for everyone, her pet and her father Mick (Gerry Mulgrew) both dying. Mick has dementia, which is sketched as a drunken reeling imaginative landscape that sends him capering from pub to pub singing folksongs, his parallel reality only occasionally (but unbearably poignantly) intersecting with that of his grieving daughter at his bedside.
In another part of town, Dougie (Martin Donaghy) is longing for the support of his mother as he and his wife Ciara (Mercy Ojelade) prepare for the arrival of their new baby. But Gaynor (Molly Innes) is lost in her own world of suffering: she’s a Cassandra-figure who can only respond to her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy with cryptic pronouncements about the inevitability of pain.
Director Gareth Nicholls and set designer Karen Tennent work together so well to create a place where these worlds and subjectivities can play out: this is a dream-like, purgatorial stage with a fully functioning bar on one side and a hospital bed on another, its characters drinking to health or drowning in sickness. Oguz Kaplangi performs his sound design live, using a silenced accordion to create the slow wheeze of breath, or launching into a vigorous folk song. It feels weird and cliched to say so but Still really is life-affirming, for the way it shows how pain is both universal and unique – taking the shape of its host, becoming responsive to touch and connection and love.
Watching it in Traverse’s thoroughly socially-distanced, chilly auditorium, my face covering found a new purpose as a catcher and concealer of tears – not the kind of socially acceptable little moist glimmer in the corner of your eye but a full flood. Like pain, crying is generally seen as embarrassing, something to be avoided – especially this summer, when it feels like people just want to have an apologetically, unhistrionic good time in this long-awaited window of freedom. Wisely, the show description on Traverse’s website describes Still as “a cathartic story of life, loss and joy”, safely sandwiching its misery with safer emotional territory.
After all, the fringe is a triumph of simple emotions over more complex realities: youthful optimism, excitement, a surging belief that whatever the obstacles, you are special enough to overcome them. It’s also a place run and attended by generation after generation of sleep-deprived young people relying on their health to see them through, even as they push themselves to their limits – and that reality feels more visible this year, where immunocompromised people can’t safely attend or perform in person.
I miss that unstoppable animal surge of energy and ambition, that crush of bodies on the Mile all moving and seeking to move and be moved, that now-forbidden collective experience which weirdly loses none of its intensity even as the crowd portions off into separate rooms to see studiedly different, unique performances. Still, there are other advantages. Normally, the fringe builds the kind of cynicism that comes with being exposed to a lot of something: you see enough to draw patterns and trends and wearying similarities. This year, I felt filled with a new sense of the specialness and beauty of the drive to be an artist and to perform and to share parts of yourself and the world with an audience.
A horrible little part of me found itself saying, as I sat down in Assembly’s velvet-draped spiegeltent for Styx, “oh yeah, another show about someone’s grandma”, thinking of La La Land’s perfect distillation of the standard-lamp-and-gentle-reminisces fringe show format. But what an unhelpful thought, especially when this grandma is such an interesting one. Styx is a kind of narrative concert that first premiered in 2019: this year, it’s returned to the fringe without most of its band (who were unable to leave Australia) but with a deep kind of poignancy in tow. Writer Max Barton structures his story around interviews with his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, as they try to resurrect the Orpheus Club, an underground nightclub she ran with his grandfather in the 1950s. There are surprisingly few traces of it, or of Barton’s grandfather’s own career as a musician, but this performance feels like a seance, bringing back lost things to the glimmer of flickering bulbs, against a dense backdrop of melancholy, beautiful songs. Barton’s topic is here is memory, and its science: the way that every time you describe a memory, you overwrite it, so that autobiographical storytelling becomes an act of destruction, the brute ‘I’ rubbing away at the past. But what shone out for me even more was how fragile a creative dream is. There’s such an irony to the way that so many people create (consciously or otherwise) as an act of defiance against their own mortality, only to find their entire creative output worn down by successive decades into a single half-remembered snatch of melody, hummed by someone’s grandma.
Traditionally, making theatre has meant making peace with that ephemerality. But 2021’s fringe is a hybrid one that reflects a new reality, where performances exist in both live and digital form. I don’t know how good digital archiving practices are for filmed fringe theatre – or if there’s even any formal attempt to preserve this films outside the walls of major venues – but 2021’s fringe has certainly left fewer physical traces than any year that has preceded it, and I returned home with a bag empty of physical souvenirs beyond a Piemaker bag full of nostalgia-filled pastry flakes.
This year, there is no programme to flick through, most tickets are digital, posters are few, flyers are non-existent – and I’m intrigued to see whether they’ll return, or whether a paperless fringe will be the future. There’s definitely something nice about skipping the fraught queue to pick up tickets in time. But Pleasance Courtyard felt so different – and a little more sombre – scraped clean of its customary mould-thick coating of flyers.
Staged with cabaret-style spaced seating in one of Pleasance’s bigger spaces, Eugene looks forward to a tech-centric future. It’s framed as a presentation to an audience of willing investors, one that’s initially robo-hosted by Eugene himself, a supercomputer with impressive comic timing. Then, once he’s joined by his hubristic, Elon Musk-esque inventor, he delivers wry asides direct to the audience’s smartphones. The technology works incredibly well here, with integrated captioning making the performance accessible to deaf audiences. And there are some interesting ideas – including the thought that humanity is so fundamentally environmentally unsound that if we put a supercomputer in charge, it might well just scrub us from the face of the earth. The problem is the old-fashioned one of plotting and structure: two thirds of the performance are spent just setting up the scenario, giving the audience ample time to guess the show’s eventual tech-dystopia conclusion.
The first time I ever saw a show that used your smartphone was at Summerhall: Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers. Something that started out as a bold decision has become something else – part of a palette of digital-era devices that artists can work with, like binaural headphones (as popularised by Simon McBurney’s The Encounter). Where a popular piece of movie writing urges: ‘Please, critics, write about the filmmaking’, the pandemic has plunged theatre in a world where questions of form dominate discussion. Form is newly politicised: making in person works comes with risks and presuppositions about who can and can’t attend, while digital works are caught up in complex questions of liveness. Reviews often foreground discomfort or ambivalence about form as a precursor: “It was strange being back in the theatre”, or “I’m tired of watching theatre online”, or “I thought I was tired of watching theatre online until…”
I’m interested in when we’ll get to the point where it’s taken for granted that in person and digital theatre co-exist, each with their merits, some works suited more to one than the other. It definitely feels as like a mix that works for the Edinburgh Fringe, offering the potential for productions reach audiences without funnelling huge sums into the pockets of various landlords, but there are so many unsolved questions: not least around audiences, critics and tour bookers ongoing willingness to navigate the online programme.
Although it was originally conceived as an in person event, Paula Varjack and Chuck Blue Lowry’s iMelania sits very naturally on screens, creating an ingenious interplay between two films, one playing on your laptop, the other on your phone screen. It plunges you into their creative process, playing videos from Melania Trump’s early modelling career (she even played the US president in a make-up commercial) alongside news articles and instagram posts that explore why and how ideas of foreignness are constructed. It’s a big, big topic that doesn’t find a satisfying resolution here: but there are so many moments of incongruous surround-sound power, like the naff QVC muzak that plays as Melania shows off her fancy carpets, while Trump’s supporters storm the Capitol.
It’s surreal to be back home yet still ‘at the fringe’, watching performances surrounded by a chaotic blur of half-drunk mugs of Lemsip and tissues, a bag that it felt too exhausting to unpack hanging out reproachfully by the door. I didn’t get back the bit of me I’ve lost, of course. I spent the weekend in a blur of memories and comparisons – a gigantic city-wide spot-the-difference. Natasha Tripney has written about how, over repeated visits, the fringe intertwines itself with your memory in strange ways: “with each passing year a new layer of memory forms until it starts to resemble one of those fancy Hungarian cakes: the city as palimpsest.” That couldn’t be truer and more heightened this year. I sat in Summerhall Courtyard and marvelled at a scene where sharp-elbowed crush of networking was replaced by stillness and the softly rounded leaves of hostas, the modest scattering of humans outnumbered by beautiful plants. I drank a cider on a picnic table in George Square and thought about all the heated post-show debriefs I’ve had there in front of an everchanging cast of marquees and inflatable cows. I walked down the Mile… I mean there, that should be enough, the fact I walked as thought it was nothing, no special hurry or obstacle course of flyerers to navigate, and thought about tormenting my family by buying them naff teatowels.
In short, it felt like an end to a certain kind of world and my particular part in it. But I also feel like I glimpsed a kind of future, one where the Edinburgh Fringe sits more lightly in the city. An older, wiser fringe that’s not bullishly fighting to be the bigger and best – perhaps one that’s happy to sit alongside other comparable festivals in other cities – and, like its audience, is newly aware and protective of its vulnerabilities and its specialness.