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More artistic mileage in Yes

05 September 2014

Peter Graystone got into the politics

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YOU don't see the Edinburgh Fringe; you can't see the Edinburgh Fringe: 3193 shows sprawl across the city with unbounded variety, brought by companies limited only by imagination and recklessness in throwing away their life's savings. Themes invariably emerge, however, even in the fragment that any one person experiences.

Unsurprisingly, the referendum on Scottish independence was one of those themes in 2014. It was approached solemnly in the Book Festival and satirically in the comedy strand. But in all that diversity it was nearly impossible to find a performer anywhere in the city making a case for a No vote.

Rona Munro's trilogy of history plays about kings of Scotland, James I, James II, and James III, was the talking-point of the International Festival, not least because of a towering performance by the Danish actor Sofie Gråbøl as Queen Margaret. A bracing, climactic speech announces that fearing the unknown will accomplish nothing, and only by seizing opportunities can anything be achieved. "Tomorrow we can begin," is her rallying cry for the 15th century, or perhaps for 18 September.

John McCann's Spoiling is a tenth of the length of The James Plays, but even more unambiguous. It is set in the near future as the first Foreign Minister of an independent Scotland prepares to meet her Westminster counterpart. She is heavily pregnant and raucously free-spirited, and refuses to stick to the script. Gabriel Quigley's fizzing performance dared us to prefer controversy to conformity, and its teasing finish was full of love for Scotland.

About a third of Fringe shows were in the comedy strand. Among this year's high-concept shows, Josh Ladgrove dressed as Jesus, stood attached to a cross, and invited the audience to Come Heckle Christ. He improvised in response to whatever the audience shouted or threw at him. The laughter depended on the inventiveness of the audience, but Ladgrove's tendency to come out of character for an easy laugh when contentious issues were raised was disappointing to mockers and believers alike. In Adelaide, the show was picketed by churchgoers; in Edinburgh, it passed undis-turbed.

An excessive number of comedians this year created shows out of their own excess. In an imaginative response, The Comedy Agency presented The Clean (As Possible) Comedy Show. Andy Kind, who is a very experienced (and very clever) circuit comedian, hosted four acts who mostly had shows elsewhere in the city, and responded to the challenge of devising material suitable for an audience of older children as well as adults. Was it funny? Like any other showcase, it was variable, but it gathered a respectable mid-afternoon audience who (after I had been outed hilariously as a reviewer) were eager to tell me that they loved it.

The funniest moments on the Fringe came in the most unexpected place. At the age of six, the boy in Duncan MacMillan's Every Brilliant Thing is taken to hospital because his mother has "done something stupid". In an attempt to help her overcome depression, he starts to create a list of the world's brilliant things. It begins, of course, with ice cream. As the story builds, so does the list.

Before the play began, the actor Jonny Donahoe distributed numbered ideas to the audience, almost all of whom had one to call out by the end. They were funny, life-affirming, and recognisable; mine was "people who can't sing but don't know they can't sing". The play never diminishes the awfulness of depression, but creates a wonderful case for the worth of human life. It ended with the audience cheering and uplifted, many fighting tears.

A number of plays this year dealt with the mysteries of the mind. For many people, the outstanding event of the International Festival was Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a play presented by the Australian learning-disabled company Back to Back. On the surface, this was about the elephant-god being dispatched to Nazi Germany in order to redeem the swastika symbol, which belongs to Hinduism. But flashbacks to the rehearsal process challenged the audience by asking directly the question we would be too embarrassed to ask: did the actors fully understand the work they were creating?

In actuality, the piece is about redeeming disability from the presumptions attached to it. It had moments of shimmering beauty, and moments that were painfully awkward. Who has the right to tell a story? None of the advance publicity mentioned that the actors were disabled (as the first-night audience audibly observed while leaving). If it had, would you have bought a ticket?

Dance Base always offers a wide-ranging international dance programme. A highlight this year was the Welsh company of Karol Cysewski, who danced 13 million years of evolution to the soundtrack of a lecture by Professor Brian Cox. Presented by three men in 1970s flares, who progressed from the Big Bang, by way of amoebae and dinosaurs, to disco kings, Wonders of the Universe was as comical as it sounds. But every movement, precise and nuanced, was delightfully elegant.

The ambitious objective of the Art Festival was a retrospective of a quarter of a century of Scottish artists, occupying all the main galleries of the city. It was exhilarating to be reminded how firmly Scotland has shaped this generation's understanding of what it is to be an artist. Jim Lambie filled the Fruitmarket Gallery from floor to ceiling with brightly painted ladders. Mirrors occupied the spaces between the rungs, so that every visitor was reflected endlessly - up, in, and out to infinity. "Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland" notably shows us what is still possible with paint, from Alison Watt's calm and suggestive folds of white fabric to John Byrne's portraits, rich with friendship, colour, and splendid moustaches.

But, as so often, the most compelling voices came from the young. In Tales From the MP3, the Liverpool company 20 Stories High allowed eight young men and women to tell their stories, and the charm was irresistible. Their verbatim piece was also technically inventive. They had recorded and edited conversations about race, love, and Christianity. But in performance they said each other's words, complete with every stumble and inflection, as they heard them through headphones.

We watched a boy, playing the role of a girl, listening to his own account of being beaten by an overbearing father spoken back to him. The line between acting and genuine emotion trembled. The audience poured out love and admiration. We were hugged and high-fived by an elated cast as we left: only in Edinburgh!

Spoiling and The James Plays both have London runs during September. Every Brilliant Thingwill tour, beginning in the Isle of Wight. "Generation" is on show throughout autumn. The company 20 Stories High is developing new work to have its première in Liverpool.  Ganesh Versus the Third Reich continues its international tour.

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