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
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
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.