Aug 31, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different: Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I went to Edinburgh specifically for the Book Festival, and initially the thought of attending a Fringe play or two while I was there was only the cherry on top. But I have to say that it was the Fringe that I truly fell in love with: the Book Festival was great, but I’d gladly go back every year for this alone. The energy and enthusiasm involved really spoke to me, and I loved that, unlike the charming but self-contained book village at Charlotte Square Gardens, the Fringe takes over the entire city. It's the world's largest arts festival, and it's simply impossible to be in Edinburgh in August and remain unaware of it.

The Fringe is an open access or unjuried arts festivals, which means that anyone who can pay the registration fee can put on a show. This approach has been criticised, and yes, the lack of any selection criteria does mean that the quality of the program will inevitably be uneven. But then again, that's very much part of the appeal. The Fringe has been described as an "open forum for ideas", and that's exactly what I loved about it. Not every performance will be outstanding or meet professional standards, but the enthusiasm involved and the number of passionate and creative people (many of them incredibly young!) working together to make something like this happen more than make up for it. I was actually very lucky – though some of the performances I saw were better than others, all had more strengths than weaknesses and none felt like a waste of money or time. It was amazing to be able to witness so much creative energy in action, and I left feeling inspired, revived, and reminded of some of the things I love the most about life. After a very difficult summer on a personal level, this was something I really needed.
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The first Fringe performance I saw was the Uwe Drama Society's adaptation of the classic computer game The Secret of Monkey Island.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The play was nothing but 45 minutes of unapologetic fun, and I enjoyed it for what it was. I imagine it wouldn't exactly appeal to anyone who didn't grow up playing LucasArts adventure games, but as both my partner and I did we had a wonderful time. The acting was fabulous, the humour was spot on, the script did a great job of condensing the story of the game into less than one hour, and the production turned their low budget into a strength and elevated amateur stage designs to an absolute art form - there was someone at the back of the stage holding up hand-drawn panels that mimicked the game's backgrounds, which only added to the humour. One thing I wish is that they had kept the original story's subversion of traditional gender roles more fully, but other than that I have no complaints. It was a very fun way to start my Fringe experience.

Next I went to see Not Cricket Productions' inevitably abridged but nevertheless very faithful stage adaptation of Joan Aiken's novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Somehow I had missed it when browsing the Fringe program, but as soon as I saw the leaflets announcing it I knew I wouldn't be able to resist.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase about to begin. I love this photo because of how well it captures the mood of the production.

As you might be able to guess from the picture, this was a very atmospheric production - it took place in a dark, fittingly derelict room, and the cast welcomed the audience as we arrived, encouraging us to grab chairs and place them wherever we pleased. They then walked around and interacted with each other and with their fantastic goose puppets, and then sang until it was time for the play proper to begin. I was slightly reminded of the fabulous production of Hard Times I saw earlier this year, and that's high praise indeed. The sound effects, the light, the smoke, the puppets, and the brilliant use of the space all contributed to creating an incredible Gothic atmosphere that really suited Joan Aiken's world.

But unfortunately, the remaining elements of the production didn't quite live up to the atmosphere. The young actors were all good in their roles, but their lack of experience showed in how they often failed to project their voices - if whoever was speaking wasn't standing right in front of me, I'd often miss the dialogue. It's a good thing I'm familiar with the novel, or else I might have felt quite lost. Still, it was a good attempt to bring Joan Aiken's novel to life, and more than worth it for the atmosphere alone.

The set for The Girl With the Iron Claws.

The Wrong Crowd's The Girl with the Iron Claws
was my almost-favourite thing I saw at the Fringe (and I only say this because I really can't decide between it and The Boy James). It's an adaptation of my favourite fairy tale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", and if on the one hand this immediately endeared it to me, on the other hand it also made me extra fearful that they would somehow Get It Wrong. Fortunately I had absolutely no reason to fear. It was a wonderful play: sensitive, smart, superbly acted and very atmospheric. Like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, it combined live acting with puppetry, only the puppets were used to better effect in this case. A small cast of four plus a few puppets managed to populate an entire fairy tale world.

The story is narrated by an ironmonger who encounters our heroine later in the story and makes her the iron claws that give it its title; this framing device helped create the perfect fairy tale feel. The production uses the bare minimum in terms of stage design, but with their brilliant use of light and shadow, music, and sound effects they really brought a fairy tale forest to life. What I loved the most about it, though, was that the story was all about girls wanting and doing things and not being punished for it. This is of course also what I love about the original fairy tale, but all the original elements about female agency and desire were very much highlighted in this adaptation.

I had to include this wonderful photo from the performance. Credit.

The Wrong Crowd have actually made a trailer for the play, which you can watch here. It does a brilliant job of capturing the feel of the production, so do watch it if you want to have a better idea of what it was like.

The Boy James The Belt Up Theatre's The Boy James was my other favourite. It's a play based on Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie - or rather, on what might be called the Barrie myth. There are many conflicting accounts of Barrie's life around, but what matters isn't really how true this particular version is to the facts of his life, whatever those may be. What matters is that what this story has to say has been true and continues to be true of many people in many circumstances - people who for one reason or another have been forced to step into roles that requite them to annihilate a part of themselves. I don't think this is an inevitable part of the process of growing up, but when it does happen it's absolutely heartbreaking to see.

Perhaps the fact that I've been up to my neck in readings about hegemonic masculinity for my dissertation all summer helps, but I think there's a lot to be read in the play in regards to prevalent ideals of manhood in the Edwardian era (and today), and also in regards to the consequences of not conforming to them. The same goes for heteronormativity; the sexuality angle is highlighted, and it only makes the play more chilling. Again, it doesn’t matter whether or not this applies to Barrie; only that there have been and continue to be people suffering in very similar circumstances. There is another uncomfortable side to all of this: the play has three characters, all of which are in one sense imaginary. Although none of this is stated explicitly, the story can be read as taking place inside a single character's mind, with the remaining two being representations of his fears, expectations, or past selves. The problematic bit is that the one character who represents the intrusions and demands of the world is the only woman in the play, and this ties into a long tradition of women being portrayed as menacing and destructive.

Although I was not at all a fan of the playwright's response to these critical readings (to me, the idea that if you're not sexist nothing you write could ever be sexist just doesn't hold, and don't get me started on the whole authorial intent angle), I personally read the play more complexly and generously than some reviewers did in terms of its portrayal of gender and sexuality. I thought that although it did allude to a tradition of female sexuality being presented as dangerous and threatening (and acknowledging this and having these conversations is always important), it could not not have placed a different character in the same role. In this particular context, nothing but a woman could have stood for societal expectations of heteronormativity. The play can be read as problematising these concepts rather than merely representing them - the very same social structures that impose hegemonic masculinity and a single model of heterosexuality are responsible for the idea that female sexuality is dirty and dangerous, after all. So my final verdict is: complicated and worthy of being discussed, but that's never necessarily a bad thing.

But let me tell you a little bit about the production itself: it was a completely immersive theatre experience, with no conventional beginning or ending and no barrier between the performers and the audience. We were welcomed into a small room by the protagonist of the show, who then invited us to play a game of tag and share his adventures until things took a dark turn. The play has a very small cast of three, and they were absolutely astonishing. I had already seen them reading poems at the Neil Gaiman ninja reading, so I knew they were good, but not this good. And the ending - I don't want to give it away in case any of you ever have a chance to see this performed, but it was dark and devastating and left me (and much of the audience) teary-eyed.

Private Peaceful about to begin.

Simon Reade's adaptation of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo was, much to my surprise, a one-man show. A single actor, Finn Hanlon, not only plays Tommo but also embodies all the other characters with whom he interacts - and he does so with amazing versatility. To those who haven't read the book, Private Peaceful is a WWI story in which a soldier is waiting for dawn for reasons that only become clear as the story progresses. This all-night vigil is intermingled with memories of Tommo Peaceful and his brother Charlie's childhoods and lives before the start of the War.

If you have read the novel, you'll know that Morpurgo does something clever with the point of view, and I was very curious to see how a stage adaptation could possibly deal with this. Simon Reade's simply doesn't - it avoids the whole issue by changing the roles played by certain characters in the original story (and more than this I cannot say). Although this threw me off at the time, looking back I realise it was the best possible choice, and the only way to make the story work as a one-man show. The result may surprise fans of the novel, but it's moving and feels absolutely right.

The set for Swamp Juice

Finally, on my last day in Edinburgh I was lucky enough to find last minute tickets to the sold out Swamp Juice, a shadow puppetry show by Jeff Achtem. As the title indicates, Swamp Juice is set in a swamp, and it tells the story of a man who plays his cruel tricks on the swamp's creatures on a regular basis - until one day he comes across something bigger than he is and has the tables turned on him.

Swamp Juice is visually stunning - not only are Achtem's handmade puppets gorgeous, but they're extremely expressive. This isn't exactly something I expected from shadow puppetry, but by making his creature's eyes moves he manages to convey every emotion. Finally, not only is this gorgeous shadow puppetry, but by act four it turns into 3D shadow puppetry - yes, with glasses and everything, and much more impressive than the movies. The audience simply could not stop OOOHing and AAAHing. My one complaint about the show is that although it was visually amazing, there wasn't really much here in terms of narrative. I had a wonderful time, but I left feeling that I had witnessed something astonishing in form but somewhat lacking in content. A similar show with a stronger story behind it could easily have been my favourite Fringe performance.

The Swamp Juice poster, which gives you an idea of what Achtem's shadow puppetry looks like.

Many of the theatre companies and performers I mentioned here tour at least the UK; others actually tour the world. So if you ever have the chance to see them, do go! If I wasn't jobless at the moment I'd add some sort of you'll-enjoy-it-or-your-money-back guarantee, but hopefully the thought counts anyway.

The last thing I want to say about my Fringe experience is that I wish I hadn't ignored the most frequently given out bit of Fringe advice and played it so safe. All the things I went to see were very me - fairy tales, plays full of literary references, adaptations of works I've enjoyed. Next time (there will be one as soon as I can make it happen), I'd like to take more chances: go see a musical, a play I know nothing about, some stand up comedy, something else I've never tried before. After all, that's what the Fringe is all about.

Again, I'll leave you with a few more pictures:

The Royal Mile during the Fringe.

Shop window all dressed up for the festival.

The cast of Diamond Dick, a Fitzgerald-inspired play I really wish I could have seen.

They were advertising a stage adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher". Again, I wish I had been able to see it. I could happily have gone to twenty other shows - that's the Fringe for you.

Street surgery!

Believe it or not, this was a production of Hamlet. Again, I wish I'd seen it. It might have been terrible for all I know, but it made me curious.


  1. I am overwhelmed just looking at these pictures! Major mental stimulation. I would love it if we had something like that near me, but we are culturally lacking. Not to mention how I would love to visit the city itself. Totally awesome highlights here!

  2. I was able to attend Fringe back in 1995 - wonderful! I would love to go back. It looks like the number of street performers have really grown since I was there!

  3. Wow, the Fringe looks totally amazing! I think Sandy and I need to plan a cultural exchange trip there for next year! :--)

  4. Although I read your whole post (with interest) I kept harking back to The Wolves. Did they have my favorite scene, where Bonnie tosses bits of cheese to the hungry orphans? "Oh, Bonnie! Wonderful cheese!" :P

  5. Monkey Island! OMG I would love to see that play as we loved the game in all its incarnations. This made me smile... a lot. :-D

  6. We actually have a Fringe festival here in Orlando that happens every year in April. It sounds like it's a lot smaller than the one you attended, but the idea and the way that shows are put on are the same. We have seen some amazing pieces of drama and comedy. A few of the best shows I have seen feature a set of monologues that vary year to year from a performer named T.J. Dawe. He is brilliant and swoon worthy, and just has an amazing presence about him. I wonder just how similar these two festivals are?

  7. Thank you for such a great write-up of the Fringe. My one regret from living in Edinburgh is that I didn't take more advantage of the opportunities it offered. I was usually to tired and to sick of tourists to do really take advantage of it. Like you I will be back.

  8. Wow, this looks and sounds like so much fun. I don't think they have anything similar in my area...too bad!

  9. Oh, it looks like you had so much fun! There is no Fringe festival in Nashville, but I can't wait to one day be in a city where there is one! The idea of a Monkey Island play is so fab! I loved those games growing up! Guybrush Threepwood for the win! ;)

  10. I haven't heard about this festival, but it seems great.

  11. Sandy: It was a bit overwhelming, yes, but so worth it! Also, sounds like Heather ought to introduce you to the Orlando festival next time it happens!

    Elisabeth: Yes, they were all over the Royal Mile!

    Jill: Indeed you do!

    Mumsy: Sadly no! But on the bright side, the actress playing Bonnie was perfect and just as I'd imagined her.

    Pretentious Wombat: It was definitely a treat to fans of the games :D

    Heather: Sounds like the concept is very similar! From what I've read, the Edinburgh Fringe was the first, dating back to 1947. But since then the idea has spread and there are Fringe festivals all over the world!

    Zee: You lived in Edinburgh! Somehow I didn't know that. I'm green with envy here - SUCH a wonderful city. But I completely understand not taking full advantage of what a place offers when you actually live there. You always think you have more time...

    Kathleen: That's indeed a shame! Sadly there's nothing near me either and I know I won't be able to afford another trip anytime soon... I guess I'll just hold on to my memories :P

    Steph: Indeed ;) I wondered how many of my blogging friends shared my love of Guybrush :P

    Carolina: It was a lot of fun!

  12. Oh wow, the Edinburgh fringe festival sounds AMAZING. But then, I shouldn't be surprised: the fringe festival here in Dublin is my favourite art festival of the year. It' so diverse, experimental, fun and often interactive. I'm looking forward to this year's. And maybe next year I'll have enough money to afford a trip and tickets, and might join you:)

  13. This sounds like such a blast! And great pictures. :)

  14. I'm in awe. Seriously. Just from reading this delicious post. Can't quite imagine how extravagantly wonderful it must be to actually experience it. I'm so very, very happy you had the chance to! :D

  15. Wow. Just wow. You made the Fringe experience come alive, and for the first time I understand what the Fringe festival is about. Thank you! Of course, this only makes it imperative that I get there one day! the fact it happens to be in one of my favourite cities in the world - ah, yes, I have to go for it one day. Thank you, Ana!

    I'm really happy you had such a good time, too. Even if you saw what was to you 'your thing', it will still be inspirational and watching the living word grow and mutate.

  16. I have always wanted to go the Fringe but have yet to go. And somehow, while making a last minute addition to travel plans to the UK, I arrived in Edinburgh the day after Fringe closed this year. Looking at your pictures brings back happy memories of my few days there. It is neat to see the Royal Mile all decked out like that.

  17. Once again, I loved the pictures! Very festive. Thank you, Ana!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.