In Victorian novels, heroines who are dying of consumption generally become especially beautiful in their death throes: their eyes shine brightly, feverishly, and they glow with new intensity. I’m not saying that the Edinburgh Fringe is my fading 19th century wife (probably) but I have noticed a similar phenomenon this week. The festival feels livelier, more exciting, as the chances to spend time with it diminish by the day. Fortunately, Exeunt’s review team have some ideas about how best to spend the 2017 fringe’s death throes: read on for a round-up of what we’ve seen, and recommend.
There’s enough serious, intense, socially aware work at the festival that sometimes, there’s space for something that’s just a bit lovely. And two sparkling mermaid stories fit the bill. In her joint review of Siren and Meow Meow’s The Little Mermaid, Joy Martin explores the “serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows” of two explorations of ancient myths.
In the military style
Meow Meow decks out her venue in spangles and inflatable fish. A visit to this year’s newest fringe space, Army@Summerhall, couldn’t be more different. Way out in Leith, a territorial reserves base is hosting performances in a manor house that’s decked in tartan, pictures of the royal family, and staffed by uniformed officers. In excellent Scottish cultural website Bella Caledonia, Catrin Evans argues that it’s part of the cultural mainstreaming of militarism, making “little or no space for the narratives of the people affected by, or in opposition to, the actions of the armed forces”. The Edinburgh Fringe is increasingly becoming a place where soft power is exercised: showcases from individual countries have more or less explicit nationalist, diplomatic agendas, and the incursion of the Army feels like part of this trend.
But I’m never sure what the best course of action for an individual audience member is, faced with these disconcerting ambiguities. I think, perhaps, it’s attendance mixed with awareness, both of the space’s underlying agendas, and of the valuable support and opportunities they provide to artists. Crystal Bennes’ Exeunt review of Stand By acknowledges the weirdness of the setting, as well as the merits of this “smart, sharp and funny” narrative by a former police officer. And I’d hugely recommend Pauline Mayers’ What if I Told You – its gentle, participatory approach is undercut with a steely edge that points to the dangers of unconscious bias, and to the pressures on heavily policed black bodies.
Intimacy and heartbreak
Part of ZOO venues’ impressive, eclectic 2017 line-up, Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist is a “surprisingly tender theatrical experiment in forging intimacy” (Hannah Greenstreet’s Exeunt review here) that mixes extreme audience participation with care – exploring what we share with people we love, and how. Scene is a queer, interracial love story that offers an “intimidatingly clever”, metatextual approach to navigating racial politics in relationships (Eve Allin’s Exeunt review here). And On Ice is an exposing story of another kind. In it, Suzanne Grotenhuis explores why she bought an ice rink using the winnings from a theatre festival prize – and how we disguise emotional pain. Rosemary Waugh’s review for Exeunt here.
Explorations of mental health
One of the fringe’s weirder paradoxes is that it’s long been full of work talking about mental health – while being pretty terrible for the psychological wellbeing of the people involved. Jon Brittain’s A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) is “particularly acute at locating the terrifying disconnect between how you think you should feel and how you actually feel” – something that should resonate with anyone who’s struggling to buy into the dream of the Edinburgh Fringe as one long, endlessly joyful round of new experiences (Hannah Greenstreet’s Exeunt review here). In the same article, Hannah Greenstreet also recommends What if the plane falls out of the sky?, a “hilariously absurd” exploration of anxiety that gets to the heart of fear is – and [spoiler alert] gives out party bags. And The Humours of Bandon is just as relevant to most fringe-goers: it’s custom built “for all those who regularly over-commit to the point that they end up loathing what they were meant to love”. With Irish dancing. Read Rosemary Waugh’s Exeunt review here.
Requiring elaborate rigs, large casts and custom-built venues, circus hasn’t always had the strongest presence at the Edinburgh Fringe. But it feels like it’s making more and more of a dent on festival-goers itineraries, whether it’s vast spectacles or intimate comedies.. Chris McCormack’s Exeunt review of Cirkopolis is a hymn to a thrilling journey through the 1927 Expressionist movie classic, Metropolis. And he was equally taken with Tryvge vs a Baby (starring the performer’s own infant son) calling it a “a riotous buddy comedy” as well as a physical power struggle between two attention-craving performers: Exeunt review here.
It’s incredibly satisfying to watch an hour of theatre that manages to pack in more ideas than many full-length plays. Crystal Bennes’ Exeunt review of The Secret Life of Humans writes that it shows “all of human history nestled inside a family’s history nestled inside a one-night stand” – it’s a complex, devised look at the journey of the human race. Heather doesn’t reach quite as far, maybe, but it’s just as compelling, touching on fraught issues of author worship and prejudice in the literary world – it’s well worth a visit.
The roll of a dice
Genuine Dungeons & Dragons fan Lilith Wozniak called Adventurers Wanted “the most fun hour at the fringe” (full review here) and it sounds pretty wonderful: a durational performance, combined with a bid to demonstrate that tabletop gaming can be participatory theatre in its truest form. And maybe it’s also a reminder that there’s a whole fringe programme-full of unsung shows, outside the familiarity of Summerhall, Pleasance, and Assembly. In these final days of the festival, I’m determined to see more of them.
For more of Exeunt’s Edinburgh Fringe recommendations, read our Week One review round-up.