IF YOU set out with determination mid-morning, cram the entire
day with culture, and head home as the fireworks splash the sky at
midnight, you manage to see just over one per cent of what is on
offer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It has no curator; so
themes that emerge do so informally, and the theatrical styles that
dominate are the first indica-tion of the direction that
performance will take over the coming years.
A dominant theme of 2013 was how we seek reconciliation in the
aftermath of conflict. Owen McCafferty's Quietly is the
finest play of an exceptional Traverse Theatre season. In a Belfast
pub that was the scene of a 1970s bombing outrage, it brings
together fierce, angry Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane) and severe,
guilt-ridden Ian (Declan Conlon). For an hour, their tense
conversation picks over the event that blighted their boyhood lives
in the hope of . . . what? Not forgiveness, but perhaps
acknowledgement of each other's humanity. Meanwhile, the presence
of an East European barman leaves us uncomfortably wondering
whether every resolution leaves a space that an alternative
hostility will occupy.
The Fringe is now as global as its decorous big brother, the
International Festival, with entire seasons from Brazil and
Belgium. From Cape Town came Solomon and Marion, featuring
a deeply affecting performance by Dame Janet Suzman. It is set in
an increasingly lawless South Africa, where young Solomon
(Khayalethu Anthony) walks from the township into the house where
Marion has wasted away since the pointless death of her son.
For ten years, Solomon has carried the burden of knowing the
truth about the murder, and he cannot become a man unless he takes
responsibility. Its painful honesty is made bearable by humour and
A theatrical style that reappeared joyously throughout the
festival was the use of low-key technology to tell simple tales.
The best place to view this was Summerhall, now in its second year
as a venue, and many people's favourite. In Tales of Magic
Realism, presented by Sonica, headphones enveloped you in
trace-like sound and story as you made your individual way between
images on Victorian zoetropes and magic lanterns, and finally
pedalled into a city of light on a real penny-farthing. Or, in
Tortoise in a Nutshell's Feral, you watched tiny puppets
and cardboard models drawn, manipulated, and projected on to
overhead screens, accompanied by live sound-effects.
This award-winning piece is at first beguiling, as a seaside
town is built from scratch, then turns dark as the arrival of a
hypermarket bankrupts old-fashioned shops and sparks a riot. It
goes without saying that the technology required to make both shows
look so homespun is immensely sophisticated.
All these plays sold out, and were endlessly discussed. But the
majority of the festival's shows were presented by students who
trudge the Royal Mile handing out fliers in the hope of an audience
of a dozen. Mostly, these were young actors of enormous potential,
performing material that did not live up to their emerging talent.
This was certainly true of, to take one example, Slaves of the
Kingdom. The tight live band and some gorgeous voices gave
everything they could to Changing The Scene's transposition of the
story of Moses to a modern-day totalitarian state. When the opening
lyric rhymed "feeling hollow" with "no tomorrow", however, you knew
there was only one way the next hour could go.
Another feature of the festival is its adventurous audience,
taking a chance on dance or physical theatre shows that would not
attract their attention at other times. Among these this year was
the uproarious XD, by the Italian company CollettivO
CineticO. In a piece about machismo and conformity, four dancers
wearing Adidas stripes and little else contorted with deadpan
precision, then competed in a toothpaste-squirting Olympics. It was
presented at Dancebase, which this year had transformed itself into
an island paradise, and offered an international programme of the
beautiful and the bizarre.
Newspaper reports made the comedy strand of the festival seem a
mirthless debate about the rise of feminist stand-up in response to
jokes about violence against women. This was far from the minds of
the laughter-seeking public, but it meant increased attention on
whether a woman would win the Edinburgh Comedy Award. At the
halfway stage the names discussed most often were Bridget Christie
and Aisling Bea. Established comedians are not eligible, but it is
impossible to resist mentioning the hilarious charm of Alex Horne's
hour about autobiographies and fibs. His show Lies was the
worst in Edinburgh. A significant part of that sentence is
All these themes came together in Leaving Planet Earth
by Grid Iron, the company that puts promenade productions in
unexpected places. This year their location was another galaxy
entirely, reached by a coach journey (cleverly disguised as an
intergalactic jump) to the International Climbing Arena at Ratho.
World War Three had made Earth intolerable, and millions were
encouraged to begin afresh on a morally unpolluted planet.
The play is about how we deal with our memories, good and bad,
when we attempt to put trauma behind us. The climax is a
technically wondrous spectacle, but it comes at the expense of any
resolution of the dramatic or ethical issues. An eye-popping,
For the second time in three years, the festival's glory was 15
Glasgow teenagers working with a thousandth of Grid Iron's budget.
Junction 25 presented Anoesis, a devised piece about the
pressure to succeed in education. Sitting at outsize desks, we
experienced our roles reversed, as we were put through an
examination in which the questions were increasingly
The young performers acted out in dauntingly physical ways the
crushing things that had been said about them in school reports.
Jack, for instance, had been repeatedly reminded of his poor speech
and reluctance to make eye contact. In the show's heart-rending
final minutes, he explained that he could only fully express
himself in music. With his back to the audience, he improvised
magnificently on a piano, while the cast read out the honest
reports that they would have given themselves if only they had been
I have seen the future. We are in safe hands.