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Performing arts: Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2023

01 September 2023

Peter Graystone looks back at his experience of the Edinburgh Fringe

fiona mcpherson

A scene during the Baxter Company’s The Life and Times of Michael K

A scene during the Baxter Company’s The Life and Times of Michael K

ONE of the themes emerging from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival was how we are to express our spirituality in a society where, for most people, church no longer offers the meaning and comfort that they seek.

The acclaimed Belgian experimental company Ontroerend Goed generated the year’s most coveted ticket with their secular ritual, Funeral. And very beautiful and moving it was. Some audience members sobbed. In pools of subdued light, there were processions, memories, fountains of multicoloured confetti, and the intonation of names. At the end, we sang together: “May we remember what needs to be remembered; may we forget what needs to be forgotten.”

The most striking thing, though, was how many of the actions had been borrowed from the Christian tradition and then secularised. We passed the Peace, we lit candles, we even sat afterwards drinking tea and making awkward conversation. Maybe these are human instincts, not merely religious ones.

Near by, the quietly uplifting Without Sin offered a similarly post-Christian approach to the confessional. You sit in a box, comfortably designed, with headphones and a microphone. You hear the voice of a stranger whom you never meet, save the glimpse of a hand, who happened to buy a ticket for the same performance. You take turns to ask a question from a deck of cards: What are you healing from? Who looks up to you? When did you last give in to temptation? Finally, you write a message for your fellow “penitent”.

What makes it so interesting is that this is an exchange of restorative words between two equals, although the structure is recognisable to anyone with the merest association with a church. Theatre is doing precisely what St Augustine did 15 centuries ago, but in reverse. The Christian tradition is being unbaptised. A sad thing . . . except that, a week later, I can’t stop thinking about the kindness that a stranger spoke into my honesty.

But why explore post-Christian spirituality when there is plenty of drama to be found in the Church of England as it is? In Sit or Kneel, a young, female vicar, newly appointed to a rural parish, finds herself disintegrating into loneliness. Mimi Nation-Dixon, who wrote this debut play, acts with great wit and charm. But it is going to need a lot of work to make it a great play. Themes of suicide and eating disorder fly by unexamined. And some unfortunate directorial decisions punctuate the piece with blackouts that undo any momentum that was building.

The vicar, Margot, is ministering to a congregation of eight in a single-parish benefice in Wiltshire, which requires a monumental suspension of disbelief. She is right, though, about wildly inappropriate thoughts arriving while you’re leading Morning Prayer. Or is that just me?

When Kurt Met Thora riffed on the intriguing fact that Thora Hird and Kurt Cobain met in a BBC green room in 1991. They talk (and misunderstand each other) about God, sadness, and family. The performances were believable (particularly Kellie Gamble overflowing a Salvation Army uniform as a kindly Thora Hird), and there were insightful moments. The tone was frustratingly inconsistent, clunking between conversation, monologues, and the recorded voices of absent characters. But Thora’s final prayer went straight to the heart.

I was the last person to leave Sophie Swithinback’s play Bacon, grilled in my seat by its sadness. Mark and Darren (Corey Montague-Sholay and William Robinson) form an unlikely friendship at school, too young to recognise that the emotions they can neither resist nor embrace are a gay attraction. In an almost unbearably tense scene, they wreck each other’s lives.

Such was the credibility of the writing that, when they met again four years later, the audience urgently willed the pair towards a conclusion that we knew full well would be disastrous for them. The director, Matthew Iliffe, and the designer, Natalie Johnson, set the play on a giant seesaw, which was the perfect metaphor for this painfully brilliant drama.

After watching Bacon, I found myself thinking, as I often do, how the Church of England could speak into the lives of these characters, both, in their own ways, seeking value and hope. A great deal of change will need to happen before it occurs to a gay, teenage, working-class couple to look to the church for help. At this year’s Fringe, there were five plays whose theme was an LGBT+ person escaping the toxicity of a religious upbringing. Five! Even in a festival with three thousand shows, that is a disturbing number. I have vowed never to see another. I have already got the message.

Her Green Hell is shocking in a different way. It tells the true story of a 17-year-old girl who fell from an exploding plane into the Amazonian rain forest and survived for 11 agonising days. Sophie Kean played the extraordinary survivor, scrambling across the set — three revolving plane seats. The piece was underscored by an eerie soundscape, and the poetic (maybe slightly over-written) text by Emma Howlett made this not merely a gripping story of survival, but an almost mystical reflection on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The audible sigh when rescue arrived was the audience members realising together that they no longer needed to hold their breath.

One of the fascinations of the festival is the opportunity to learn from genre-redefining work from overseas. The Polish company Song of the Goat presented Andronicus Synecdoche: Shakespeare’s grisliest play, Titus Andronicus, performed as a choreographed song cycle. The Eastern European keening was musically ravishing, but the brutality was unrelenting and rendered it grim rather than tragic.

This year, two South African companies caused a stir. The Baxter Theatre Centre teamed with the Handspring Puppet Company (of War Horse fame) to present The Life and Times of Michael K, based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel. The story of a man fleeing his home with nothing, to rescue his mother, is also bleak, but the glimpses of compassion and the interactions of the three-quarter size puppets (usually tender) and the human actors (usually brutal) left a single spoonful of hope at the downbeat conclusion.

The expense of bringing a play to the festival had escalated this year, mainly owing to a startling increase in the cost of rented accommodation. The result was that 60 per cent of shows featured one person in an uncomplicated set. So, it is no surprise that people flocked to a maximalist spectacular by the Fit & Foxy Company, Dark Noon.

It began with the audience sitting on three sides of an absolutely vast, earthy stage. The predominantly black cast appeared and caked their faces in white make-up, with close-ups projected on to a high screen. Wearing cheap blond wigs, they related the history of the west of America, from pioneers to white supremacy. As the play progressed, buildings were constructed across the stage: prairie homesteads, bars, a church, a railway, and shockingly, penitentiary reservations for indigenous tribespeople. The piece was unremittingly violent.

In a plaintive epilogue, each of this South African company had the opportunity to tell their own distressing family story. This was history related not by the victors, but by the vanquished, and the result was shaming.

The American absurdist Bill O’Neill wasn’t one of the winners in the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, but his show, The Amazing Banana Brothers, certainly pushed comedy up an alley that it had never dared visit before. The premise was a world record attempt to get a thousand laughs from slipping on a banana skin. O’Neill’s lacerating approach had no jokes, but constant laughter. It spiralled, barely controlled, into a howl of pain about suicide, desperation, and brotherly love. It was dark, deviant, and compellingly dangerous. Dozens of bananas were sacrificed!

The funniest show, in my view, was the beguilingly self-effacing Daniel Kitson, whose early-morning play, First Thing, had people setting their alarm clocks to queue for returns. Set in the round, it was a show where everyone had a script and a line to read. And what was it about? It was about what it feels like to be in a show where everyone has a script and a line to read. The self-referential cleverness was breathtaking. Kitson was wonderful company. My one line got a huge laugh. I have never been happier.

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