At this time of year, it seems as if the world has descended upon the great city of Edinburgh. The Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, is an impossibly dense celebration of theatre, comedy and everything in between. Taking place in venues across the city, the thousands of fliers for the cacophony of shows must have cost at least a square mile of forest to make.
Foreign Radical was a dark, provocative play. It was all about prejudice and surveillance in the age of terrorism. The audience were led through a series of dimly lit rooms, where they were asked a long list of seemingly arbitrary questions about their lives. Based on their answers, they were split into smaller groups, in which they had to solve ethical dilemmas. The compare was like a spritely Japanese gameshow host, ironically undercutting the tension with catch phrases and quips. At one point the audience were told to rummage through the contents of a suspect’s suitcase, to determine whether or not he was a religious extremist.
Last Resort dealt with Guantanamo Bay detention camp, through a combination of shocks and laughs. Punters were given a Cuba Libre cocktail on their way in, and invited to recline in deck chairs as they watched the show. There were even small bags of sand for them to put their feet in. The comfortable environment led festival goers into a false sense of security, before impressing upon them the horror of the torture and interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo. They were asked to hold an extremely tiring stress position for thirty seconds, before being told that detainees at the prison are forced to do so for four hours.
Stealth Aspies was an insightful show about Asperger Syndrome. A small group of actors took turns performing short monologues based on the experiences of people living with the condition. They came from all walks of life, challenging stereotypical notions of what someone with Asperger’s is like. The show concluded with the players, who were aspies themselves, giving their personal testimonies. They were charismatic and engaging, offering a rare window into neurodiversity.
Edinburgh is home to the renowned Traverse Theatre. This year a play called The Whip Hand left a big impression on its stage. A jovial family gathering is turned upside down, unleashing old conflicts and tensions hidden just beneath the surface. It’s a complex, brilliantly written piece, with more than one thrillingly unexpected turn of events. Elsewhere, a play called Not About Heroes, about the close relationship between the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen was sensitive and compelling. I found it unfathomable that Owen voluntarily returned to the battlefield multiple times, putting his life at risk in order to immerse himself in the subject of his writing.
Famous standup comedian Mark Watson took to a venue smaller than he is accustomed to, to perform a work in progress. It’s commonplace for comics to test drive new material before they take it on tour, to gauge what results in belly laughs and what just results in tumbleweed. He is a likeable guy, with a sharp, energetic wit, straddling the mainstream and more leftfield comedy. At no point did he resort to jokes about advertising, air travel or any other cliché topics. Offbeat funny man Tim Key offered a more surreal approach. At times it was difficult to determine why the things he said were funny. It was all in the timing and his subtle, poetic choice of words. He managed to insult the crowd, but still keep them on his side, asking one man to pour beer into his mouth for him at regular intervals.
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything was a glorious fusion of music and theatre. It followed the lives of two youngsters as they struggle to compete in the world of education and careers. They learn not to measure their lives in relation to other people’s’ financial prowess, or other such empty achievements, but to live for the moment. The play avoided being corny or tripe, reaching beyond the basic YOLO sentiment, to deliver something which left a genuine substantial impact.
Having just turned 70, the Fringe still has a powerful capacity to alter minds and change lives, through the performing arts. Most importantly, it beats the military tattoo, which runs at the same time, hands down.