There was a time in my life, in the mid to late 1990s that I would spend about a week every early December in Nice, in the South of France. The climate was mild, the prices reasonable, the bar and restaurants quiet. Good for Christmas shopping and for several years host to an eclectic European Theatre Festival, that gathered experimental thought provoking and physical theatre and presented it with something of a flourish to discerning audiences.
One particular year a piece from the National Theatre of Slovenia, loosely based on some of the absurdities in Shakespeare, and challenging our relationship to the printed and spoken word through exquisite physical theatre, stood out. At the end of the performance a live camel was led onto stage where it sat down and surveyed the (largely jaw dropping) audience with an absurdist non-challence that was as eloquent as it was relevant to the piece that had preceded it. Half the audience absolutely “got the Camel” the other half didn’t. And since then I tend to divide the world into people who get, and are excited by, challenging concepts, philosophies, and art forms. People who are happy to look at the world differently, who are not content with being spoon fed their theatrical or life experiences. As you might imagine, I got, and continue to get, The Camel.
I’m just back from another long weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe, seeing work from artists I know and much from people and groups that are new to me. I have seen outstanding work and some that is OK. I haven’t seen anything dire, but then I like to think I have a pretty good radar. Some of the stuff that was OK had large audiences, some of the stuff that was outstanding had small (let’s say intimate) audiences. Some of the performers faced with that intimacy are theatre makers of such experience, sensitivity and confidence in their theatre making, that they can adapt the tone to develop a conversation with a smaller audience, one that leaves you feeling special and privileged that only a few people have had such an experience. These are the theatre makers that deserve the larger audiences. But while that’s nifty for the punter, it’s less rewarding for the artist: it doesn’t put pounds in their pockets or beer on the table. And as the Fringe runs on and money runs out, a prodigious amount of beer is drunk
It’s fair to say that this year, I think more than ever, intelligent theatre is being squeezed out of the Fringe. I have friends who are openly saying they may not bring back challenging, well made, pieces to try out in Edinburgh, but instead go for the more popular option: a spoof, a parody, a ripping yarn, something guaranteed not to scare the horses. Or worse not come back at all. With even a modest show requiring a budget of between £15,000 – £20,000 to mount, including accommodation and living costs, you can begin to see why. But that would be a huge tragedy. Not only is the Fringe, when it’s working properly, a chance for writers, artists, actors, directors and producers to showcase their work to venues which might lead to a tour (to offset the inevitable losses incurred by a month in Edinburgh), it also means that if that work is being developed outside of Scotland (and the vast majority of shows of course are conceived furth of these borders) then those of us who don’t have easy and regular access to other parts of the UK, Europe or even the States are denied seeing new and innovative work.
So what is to be done? Once again I find myself (against my natural instincts) thinking the Fringe is too big, with not enough quality control and with too much of an emphasis on the popular and the comedic. While it is absolutely not true to say that there is no quality control; some venues are after-all very sniffy about whom and what they will allow in. The general “come one, come all” approach benefits no-one except the venues. Looking in the giant fringe programme for an idea of what to see is the artistic equivalent of going to Niagra Falls to get a drink of water. And the absurd star review system so meaningless to be almost laughable or even a turn off. Audiences are short changed with more bad shows than good and at an average of £10-£12 a show that’s a lot of change. Performers stand to make substantial losses, have their confidence kicked out of them and decide the whole thing is just not for them. Venues that say they don’t make a profit on the shows – but only on the bars and food – are just fibbing. The split house percentage deals means the house always wins.
The ridiculous quick get ins and get outs, to maximise the number of shows for each venue, and the fact that shows often use house technicians, mean that many shows present with the minimum of set or soundscape. I yearn to see a well dressed, well set designed fringe show. After all there’s only so many black boxes a girl can take in a weekend. And ALL the main venues have to stop this crazy and self defeating curfew on theatre after 6.00pm. Who decrees that only comedy should rule the evening? It means local people and by local I mean people within a 60 minute commute of Edinburgh, can’t see much, if any, theatre, on the Fringe, during the week if they are working.
There needs to be something of a revolution, either a new venue with new rules and a new model of collaboration between artist and venue needs to emerge, (It’s been done before in Edinburgh) or stalwarts who every year see their returns diminish need to boycott or demand change.
But one thing is certain the Edinburgh Fringe needs too see more Camels on its stages than comedians and cabarets.
If not Edinburgh might find that there are other places in Scotland which will grab the mantle of intelligent theatre and give the Fringe a run for its money.
So if you are looking for decent challenging and thought provoking shows with performers of high calibre then amongst the shows I have seen and can highly recommend are:
Venue Zoo Sanctuary: Nicholas Collett, Nelson a Sailor’s Story; Gavin Robertson, Crusoe
Venue Assembly: Guy Masterson, Under Milk Wood (semi skimmed); Rebecca Vaughan, I Elizabeth; Le Gateau Chocolat: Black
Venue Traverse Theatre: The Christians
Venue Summerhall: Key Change (part of Northern Stage collection); Moon Fool, Titania
Venue Gilded Baloon: Sex Rated G