Jeremy Malies in Midlothian
30 August 2019
Coming out of my first play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I calculate on the back of an envelope that having seen a single show I’ve covered 0.026% of the 3,841 productions on offer. How can one correspondent give a coherent view of the Fringe? It’s clearly impossible and the best I can hope for is to shed a little light on how writers and performers are dealing with an individual topic.
So what are the popular themes? Images depicting plays about true crime, fake news, mental health and human trafficking abound in the posters on the Royal Mile and Princes Street. Climate change predominates as a topic but however laudable, watching a week of such shows doesn’t appeal. Footage of Greta Thunberg as her carbon fibre yacht enters New York is just a little too widespread on the big screens. Feel free to remonstrate with me by letter care of my editor but I’m convinced that she is the pawn of big-business hucksters with a stake in eco commerce.
As in recent years, young people are proving consistently amusing and able to confound my expectations with ingenious ways to market their shows. But the age of the flyer distributed by the thousand has gone. In these print-frugal times, there is a blank sheet in the Fringe brochure. If a show impresses you, the organizers invite you to write the title down and pass it to a stranger.
The other topic screaming at Fringe visitors is Brexit and, having the benefit of a week or so of hindsight, I find myself typing now as UK politics appears to have finally gone mad. With the word ‘Europe’ in the title of this magazine, I settle on what I hope is a sensible theme and zeitgeist, Europe in flux.
Now That’s What I Call Brexit is playing opposite the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Blowfish Theatre Company deals with multiple time schemes, covering the political posturing prior to David Cameron’s announcement of the referendum and then fast-forwarding to how they envisage the eve of the UK’s departure from the EU.
The source material is a dream for scriptwriters and we see fertile incidents such as Michael Gove’s outmaneuvering and eventual backstabbing of Boris, Theresa May’s ill-advised snap election and the recent Conservative leadership contest. The company’s main challenge is to make the climactic scenes of the musical script come anywhere near the dramatic qualities of what is being acted out now in Parliament. Their show is literally song and dance but this rarely rises to the current level of actual farce through an exception is a demented Jeremy Corbyn (Laurence Peacock) doing a garage house solo.
The quality of the impersonations dwarfs the modest musical compositions, with Polly Bycroft-Brown perfectly catching the tortured, confused, treacherous soul that is Michael Gove. Much of this is gender-blind and Kyle Williams barely bothers to disguise luxuriant chest hair while still nailing the essence of Theresa May’s desperate lurches from lassitude to entering a party conference while dancing to an Abba track. The piece is admirably non-partisan and no faction emerges unscathed though the gross lie about £350m-a-week savings for state health services advertised on the side of a bus does dominate the set.
Skilled as they are, an hour of Blowfish goes a long way and I don’t hang around for their Trump the Musical though it might be fun to watch the Brexiteers lobbying for the lucrative post-Brexit trade arrangements with Orange Man which their real-life counterparts see as a done deal.
Now That’s What I Call Brexit. Photo courtesy of Gilded Balloon.
Brexit in a Pirandellian mode with characters peeling away from the narrative and discussing the authorship proves a surprise in The People’s Boat on Infirmary Street. There’s a limp gag in the title that does nothing to serve the high quality of the writing and the intelligent conceit of this piece by Moaning Toad Productions.
Four recent graduates from Newcastle University toy with our sense of prescience as they symbolically cast off from land and begin a journey that simply has to be the United Kingdom cutting ties with Europe though the word ‘Brexit’ is not mentioned once. The characters are trying to drag their country further away from a larger landmass. Constant despairing discussion of where they are headed and an inability to navigate make you think that the cast are Remainers who feel directionless and fearful for their economic futures. The symbolism is elliptical and never clunky. Unlike many of the political shows in the city, this likable group appears to be fine-tuning their script daily in response to current events which are indeed stormy weather.
Beyond the Fringe this group ain’t but their discussion of national consciousness and use of a state-of-the-nation format are subtle. They cheerfully confront the fact that they are all white and privileged in a front-on manner, using sharp self-deprecating humour and treating diversity cleverly. The cast voice contradicting viewpoints and you come away from the show with more understanding as to why both sides voted as they did in the referendum. I’m sufficiently interested in the group to want to see the next project and follow their careers.
The Trojans at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
Photo credit: Alan Simpson.
From political satire of Brexit to Scotland as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing a war-torn dictatorship is quite a stretch but productions in Edinburgh cover every aspect of European nationhood and inclusivity. I’ve had some of the biggest theatrical moments of my life in this city and The Trojans at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre is one of them. The piece sees a cast of Syrian refugees now resident in Glasgow perform Euripides’ 2,400-year-old text (The Trojan Women) in a mixture of Arabic and English. It’s the product of a psycho-social support drama programme by William Stirling and Charlotte Eagar of the company Terra Incognita. You don’t need to be a classicist to see the contemporary relevance of a story about displaced people after a siege, a battle and war crimes with most of the survivors being women.
For one day only the piece was brought to Edinburgh and it’s hoped that there will be a tour of other Scottish cities. The healing potential of the project is massive just in terms of therapy for the participants but it should also be noted that one of the Syrian participants is a clinical psychologist who will soon begin practicing in Scotland. ‘Worthy’ has become a debased adjective but you can claim it back for this extraordinary undertaking. As I notice that the children are speaking their English with a distinct Glasgow accent complete with glottal stops I break into tears. I’m hardly alone and when Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, is asked to speak after the standing ovation he proves fluent and engaging but distinctly moist and croaky.
The Trojans is urgent, relevant and thought-provoking. Above all, it has not a shred of artifice since the cast’s backstories are so similar to the Greek text that they are almost playing themselves. Director Victoria Beesley (a Glasgow resident) will have been among the first to realize this and what minimal stagecraft she uses is diaphanous. The stage is predominantly white and the little colour is muted. The cacophony of war is hinted at but the sound design is generally spare. A crisis of prodigious proportions that might simply overwhelm (and has become complicated by the proxy wars of other nations) is rendered scalable through accessible individual stories.
Beesley makes sure that despite the wealth of personal detail, nothing is anchored too tightly. Think of this as a camp and with the menfolk having been butchered and you could be pardoned for seeing parallels with Bosnia. Brexit is indeed relevant here; several of the Syrian refugees speak of their relatives having ended up in other European countries and being separated by borders. If a truly independent Scotland ultimately joins the European Union it might somehow be able to align itself with the freedom of movement enshrined in the Schengen Zone. And take this as one thing I learn from my trip north, indyref2 is coming like a freight train. But amid a little Westminster-bashing, it should be noted that the scheme to resettle vulnerable Syrians is UK-wide with significant hubs of activity across England as well, notably in Yorkshire and Hertfordshire.
C Venues, Summerhall and Assembly are major destinations where Edinburgh fringe theatre-goers are offered programmes that have been curated in advance for quality. Of course, this presupposes a consensus of taste among the venue administrators who assess the offerings. With my narrow focus of European politics, I’m prepared for a few shockers but to find one at the prestigious Assembly Roxy surprizes me.
I Believe in Merkels is billed as ‘razor-sharp burlesque’ from Lolly Jones. Yes, the show is every bit as dire as the woeful play on words in the title. Jones’ act is to dress up as Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen while footage of some of their famous public addresses is back-projected. She lip-syncs to the words with a high level of competence. But that is about it and there is no great wit in the choice of speeches and soundbites; a sharper scriptwriter could have chosen material that would have allowed the women enough rhetorical rope to hang themselves. The artist obviously sees her approach as subversive but even in the case of Le Pen, you don’t feel that the footage is enough to skewer the subject.
Our focus is consistently distracted by a pair of young burlesque dancers who appear to be on work experience and cavort in the background to no purpose and little effect. The only serious (and undisputed) point I could detect is the assertion that women in politics are asked a disproportionate amount of trivial questions about family and fashion. But this, the sole observation to find its mark, is widely acknowledged and hardly spears journalism as a trade.
David Edgar in his show Trying It On. Photo credit: Arnim Friess.
Brexit discussion comes whistling in from left field as an unexpected theme in David Edgar’s formally inventive Brechtian one-man show Trying It On. In his debut as a performer, the veteran playwright compares his current 71-year-old self with his 20-year-old soixante-huitard self in the epochal 1968. The backdrop is the Paris student riots, Prague Spring, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, My Lai Massacre and Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Edgar’s most insistent question is: “What happened to the Sgt Pepper generation?” I pass on that but know that like the playwright, they all experimented with form throughout their careers. Edgar also questions the audience by way of straw polls as to our voting habits and a few send shock waves through the Traverse Theatre by admitting to having voted Conservative. All this with the house lights up throughout!
Finally, he asks how we have come from 1968 to Brexit. The given, which few argue about, is that there is a preponderance of Brexiteers among the over 65s. Edgar wonders if the anti-authoritarian rebelliousness of his generation of students equates in any way to the search for national emancipation and escape from the yoke of Brussels expressed in Vote Leave. I can’t get away from the suspicion that he (or part of him – he admits to multiple often contradictory strands) is falling into the trap of believing that Brexit divides along lines of left-right, north-south, social class and educational attainment. Of course, Brexit does not necessarily equate to the current wave of populism elsewhere in Europe. If Edgar is skeptical about UKIP voters, his reflections are sufficiently fair and nuanced to make a clear distinction between the civic nationalism of hard Eurosceptics in his own country and the extremes of Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and the recently ousted Matteo Salvini.
Presentation methods are unusual; Edgar’s honesty prompts him to acknowledge that he is reading from an autocue which few would have noticed and had certainly gone unseen by me. He is surrounded by a wall of his writings and clippings housed in cardboard boxes and filing cabinets as well as some Russian stacking dolls which strike me as overkill. Nobody needs to be told that the viewpoints are multi-layered. Occasionally the younger self can be heard through a tape recorder and there is scrutiny of recorded interviews with several journalists and public intellectuals. Edgar even holds up subject cue cards (more Brecht) exactly in the manner of Dylan in the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video whose counterculture topics from three years earlier resemble those of 1968.
The piece is often confessional; the most intense moments are when the youthful Edgar probes the present-day Edgar as to whether all his writing has amounted to or achieved anything. I also warm to the playwright when he traces lineage between les évènements of 1968 and genuine crusades for gender and racial equality while expressing skepticism about the crasser forms of current identity politics.
Chris Thorpe in Status. Photo credit: The Other Richard.
Wasn’t it Thomas Paine who said his country was the world? Paine certainly had a ringside seat on history having been an active participant in both the French and American revolutions. Notions of civic and ethnic nationalism are to the fore in Status, a one-man show in which Chris Thorpe portrays a character (based on himself to an extent but patently fictional since there is much magic realism) who wakes up on the morning of the Brexit referendum result determined to test the notion of citizenship. We see a Theresa May quote on the set: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Thorpe feels guilty because his UK passport has gotten him out of trouble after he was involved in a fracas with police in Croatia. The narrative, accompanied by Thorpe performing some peculiarly discordant songs reminiscent of Billy Bragg on a bad day, sees the central character try to bury his two passports in the US on land owned by the Navajo only to be accused of littering, have a conversation with a talking coyote who says he hails from east Berlin, and hang out with a plutocrat in a Singapore skyscraper who claims to be stateless. It’s all seeped in an odd dysphoria; Thorpe simply cannot bear to be seen as hailing from a country so misguided that it could vote to leave. Yes, it’s allegorical but it’s also psychedelic and makes a Hunter S. Thompson road trip look like a Sunday school charabanc outing. If there were a term for not knowing one end of a guitar from another I would add it to Thorpe’s shortcomings.
At 80 minutes, Status is long enough to make audience members who have imbibed nothing stronger than coffee and Golden Virginia leave in droves. Perhaps they don’t empathize with Thorpe’s extreme national dislocation or are confident that we can still find a route map out of the Brexit mess? There is a serious point to the play: many of our ills stem from a sense of entitlement while drawing lines across maps, be they a division of Berlin or the ludicrous Sykes-Picot line which has created two artificial countries in Iraq so giving people false national identities wholesale and contributing to dictatorships and wars. This theme, and it takes some digging out, deserves a more skillful and thoughtful treatment. The play is tricksy and insincere, hitching a ride on the Brexit debate, belittling Leavers without real analysis and ducking the major issues.
A cynic, I unfairly expected discussion of Brexit at the Fringe to prove a Remain echo chamber. I leave Scotland impressed with the variety of viewpoints presented in the shows either through straightforward argument or satire. (The current crop of Tories are of course ripe for lampooning.) Many writers and performers prove willing to confront their own prejudices and test their positions. I’m a big fan of verbatim theatre and it’s surprising that nobody uses this genre as a vehicle for discussing Brexit from either side of the divide. Use of speeches, meeting minutes and broadcast footage might have seen a play almost write itself.
It would have been interesting to know what Edinburgh visitors from EU nations other than the UK thought of these shows but asking for combined aesthetic and political opinions mean most people clam up when I approach them. I don’t think I’ll make politics my focus next year and Brexit will be played out though I fear populist right-wing movements across continental Europe will be further eroding the union and creating their own high drama.