The Edinburgh Fringe, ironically enough for an event meant to be a companion to the original Edinburgh International Festival, is now the world’s largest arts festival. With nearly 3000 shows to choose from at the 2013 Fringe, it is hard to see what they could possibly have in common. Yet having spent a week there this summer, I noticed a recurring emphasis on interpersonal relationships as being present in the most notable and enjoyable performances. The best acts do not just tell us about themselves, but also the people behind them too.
My Fringe journey starts with David Baddiel’s “Fame: Not the Musical”. This is Baddiel’s return to the Fringe, and as stand-up comedy it is certainly an enjoyable diversion for an hour or so. His exploration of fame is refreshingly nuanced, such as his poignant observation that once famous, one is reduced to a mere narrative than a human being. It is not, however, an explosive introduction to the Festival. At times it can feel more like a funny lecture than comedy and although Baddiel invites us to listen to him, he does not ask us to engage with him. Although having said that, there are some very warm moments when he talks about his family, after an evening characterised by his plea to be seen as a human being. This idea of how fame affects his relationships with others, particularly his loved ones, is the entire point of his whole act.
In William Gaminara’s The Three Lions, directed by Philip Wilson, we are once again invited to be spectators rather than participants. Ostensibly about Britain’s failed bid in 2010 to host the World Cup, the play tellingly chooses not to focus on the machinations that were engaged in in the run up to the bid (all of the various discussions with other delegates are left off-stage), but rather the interplay between David Cameron, David Beckham, and Prince William. The constant theme throughout is of Cameron’s overt condescension towards both Beckham and the Prince. The surprising aspect of the production is the relatively better relationship between the Prince and Beckham than any other characters in the play, all the more surprising considering that they come from backgrounds that under any other circumstances would be unlikely to meet. The Three Lions is set in the context of football, but it doesn’t need to be.
In terms of engagement with the audience, it is not just the performances that count; important though they are. The defining feature of the Fringe is the street fair located around the Royal Mile, which is the least advisable place on the planet to visit for those suffering from agoraphobia. When not being bombarded by the thousands of Fringe tourists around you, you will be bombarded by desperate performers, all trying to plug their latest show. This is understandable for two reasons. The first is that most shows will lose a large sum of money because of the sheer cost of staying at the Fringe, and getting a large audience is a financial necessity. The second reason is that the Fringe has no adjudication panel. The Fringe is the opportunity for anyone to have their big break- as long as they get noticed. In one sense it is the world’s longest contest of rampant exhibitionism that makes Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs look comparatively unassuming.
Racing Minds’ Aaaand… Now For Something Completely Improvised is amongst the most joyous comedy I have seen in my lifetime. The performers invite us to suggest a story title, a main character’s secret, and a setting, and then run from there on a madcap journey that involves eager parrots, poisonous sweets, and a transformation into a Norse god. Often not just breaking the fourth wall but completely demolishing it, the four members gleefully point out the absurdity of the improvised situations they have left themselves in. You are left with the impression that this is about four mates having a good time by telling themselves farcical stories rather than trying to create an immersive atmosphere for the audience- but this is so brilliantly done that you can’t help but join in the fun, and you leave having had a fantastic time anyway.
The one exception to this rule that the best Fringe performances are characterised by some sort of exploration of interpersonal relationships would appear to be Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts’s Tubular Bells for Two. The staging is certainly intimidating; around twenty different instruments are littered around the stage, with the eponymous tubular bells taking centre stage. The performance is a faithful and almost note-for-note retelling of Oldfield’s 1973 classic, but it is the staging that brings the piece to life. Whether it is the constant motion of the performers from instrument to instrument, never leaving a moment without sound, or the glorious spotlight that bathes the tubular bells in their solo towards the end of the first half, you are left with the impression that this is how Tubular Bells is meant to be; not just listened to, but also experienced.
The Fringe is an experience that nothing in the world could possibly rival. You are not just invited to watch art, as you might be in the International festival- you are invited to experience it, to be involved in the performing arts and to engage with both amateurs and professionals in a way that most of us would have last experienced at the last school play. Maybe that is the reason for its enduring popularity. It brings out the exhibitionist in us all. More than that, however, each performance in some way tells us something about the human condition, and humankind as a social animal, in a way that doesn’t need a PhD in English to deconstruct. Anyone could go to a Fringe performance and come away with something new- and that is what good art is about.