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Zoetropes and other tropes

06 September 2013

Peter Graystone found this year's Edinburgh Fringe outstanding

Distillation: in Tron Kirk, a former (since 1951) parish church on the High Street in Edinburgh, on 20 August, Chris Rutterford works on his 15-metre mural intended to catch the essence of the Fringe.

Distillation: in Tron Kirk, a former (since 1951) parish church on the High Street in Edinburgh, on 20 August, Chris Rutterford works on his 15-metr...

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 tentative optimism.

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 completely untrue.

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, foot-wearying disappointment.

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 metaphysical.

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 asked.

I have seen the future. We are in safe hands.

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