Six days, countless cups of tea and two free mojitos into my first fringe, it might be a tad early to start making any valuable observations about the small phenomenon that gobbles up Edinburgh for a few weeks every summer. One thing that is difficult to ignore, however, is the small army of reviewers who colonise the place, stamping our presence with ratings and pull-quotes as fast as they can be frantically stapled onto flyers. An exploded version of the national theatre ecosystem, the fringe is a beast that is fed and bloated by the star system.
So it feels strange to be sitting in a room, in Edinburgh, questioning what this is all in aid of. I’m at St Stephen’s, the theatrical haven crafted by Northern Stage within the stonework of the old church, participating in something of an experiment. This is the first excursion of Dialogue, Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s project to cultivate and curate discussions between critics and theatremakers. Making a change from the endless tapping at my laptop keyboard, I’m here not to write but to talk.
The loose theme of the morning is the things that we, as critics or as theatremakers, don’t tell one another. While the discussions open in a fairly free-form structure, with individuals posing questions about preparation, objectivity and expertise, this later moves into a series of provocations. In a striking display of honesty, Maddy and Unfolding Theatre’s artistic director Annie Rigby each write down and then read aloud the statements that they don’t talk about, statements that I’m forced to hastily read before running off early to get to a show, but that stick to me like barbs.
Despite emerging from the artist’s perspective, many of Annie’s points strike potently at my own concerns about how I approach and write about theatre. They speak not of anger or antagonism, but of an aching disappointment that we don’t do this better.
“How long do you spend writing a review? How soon after a show do you write it? Are you happy with this?”
“Can we make some space to talk about what you got right and wrong? Like, if you could rewrite one review, what would it be?”
“I’m giving your review 3 stars. Don’t be disheartened. 3 stars is a good review.”
“I know you’ve got a word limit, but now we’re together it would be great to talk about that sentence you wrote.”
But the statement that lodged itself most firmly in my mind was Maddy’s: “it’s not you, it’s me”. Much as it made me laugh, this also seemed to me like a bold and stark unveiling of a widely accepted lie within criticism, an extension of the fallacy of objectivity that I found myself speaking about earlier in the morning. Because sometimes, amongst all the other unacknowledged baggage that finds its way into the auditorium, a critic just isn’t in the right frame of mind to productively respond to a certain piece of theatre.
In Edinburgh this, as with everything else, is heightened. Schedules are tighter, word limits are shorter, synapses are more impaired. With perhaps as little as an hour to wrench out a review and slap on a star-rating, carefully considered analysis begins to lose its foothold. More and more superfluous stuff finds its way into the performance space: fatigue, an awareness of where to rush off to next, a creeping dread of the mounting backlog. It’s not a popular admission to make, despite the evidence of the voluminous bags under our eyes, but sometimes we’re just tired. It’s not the fault of the work, it’s a simple fact.
One of the few certainties that I do have at this early interlude in my fringe experience is a hopeless, head-over-heels, bad-poetry-writing love for the intense, bubble-like intimacy of Edinburgh at this time of the year. I love bumping into people I know, having the conversations about theatre that we usually put off, stumbling into real-life, in-depth discussions with people who I usually only engage with in bite-sized snippets of electronic communication. All of this I adore. It is only the writing, or rather my own writing and its occasional rushed inadequacy, that I am in danger of falling a little out of love with.
So there we are. It’s not you, it’s me. But I’m not ready to give up on this particular relationship just yet. Perhaps we can take a break, or maybe we can still be friends. Perhaps, as I felt in that room at St Stephen’s smashing down barriers and facing difficult truths, we can even start over.