Edinburgh cocoon

The fringe avoids the city’s darker reality
August 24, 2011
Performers on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Is the fringe too cut off from the world?

While the riots raged in London, Manchester and Liverpool, the Edinburgh festival fringe discussed such pressing matters as the record contracts of Doris Day, the history of freak shows in American vaudeville and the private life of Liberace.

For several weeks each August, the festival blooms in a bubble as comedians peddle their wares, the Traverse theatre becomes an epicentre for new British playwriting and the International Festival brings the world’s greatest musicians and theatre and dance companies to the city’s major venues.

There’s barely time to eat a sandwich, let alone absorb what’s going on in the world outside. And yet there is a paradox about festivals which can justify this self-absorption: the madness is always part of a defiant assertion that life goes on and will improve. Like many great European festivals, Edinburgh’s first festival, in 1947, was conceived as a postwar sign of hope: “to provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.”

Even plays about Doris Day can fit this bill, but you probably have to sit down and think about it. This year, the Edinburgh fringe underwent a geographical upheaval as the busiest labyrinth of activity, the Assembly Rooms, relocated from George Street in New Town to George Square in the bustling university area by the Meadows. Here, it joined the other three heartbeat fringe operations that also operate out of unlovely academic headquarters and improvised art deco and plastic tents: the Pleasance, the Underbelly and the Gilded Balloon. This area has now been termed “a fringe village”; it turns its back not only on the world outside, but also on the rest of the fringe.

And yet. One play, Sold, presented by recent graduates of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, really shook things up. Well, it shook me up. Most reviewers were too busy deconstructing Russell Kane and Benet Brandreth (television personality and ex-MP Gyles’s son, making a creditable debut as a wacky, posh storyteller).

Sold is a verbatim play based on true stories of the modern slave drivers, and their “employees”—often children—working in the human trafficking business. At least 80 children in Scotland were “trafficked” in the past 18 months, according a new report by Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people. This is a £20bn international industry in which the average cost of a slave—a child, a sex worker, a domestic drudge—is £55. Why do our leaders worry so much about regime change in Egypt and democracy in Afghanistan when such inhumane practices continue on our doorstep, 200 years after William Wilberforce supposedly abolished the British slave trade?

Well, that’s what I thought as I left the show and dived into yet another cheery comedy monologue about a nice middle-class chap in glasses losing a girlfriend and buying another tube of toothpaste.

If you walk down Nicolson Street, away from the fringe village, you pass someone with a bruised face and a helpless stare almost every ten yards. Poverty is much more visible in Edinburgh than in London. There were more Big Issue sellers than fire-eaters on the Royal Mile this festival. And yet the fringe, mostly, perpetuates itself as if nothing was untoward, or even happening at all, on the streets around it.

Which is why I look forward, this autumn, to visiting theatre festivals in Dublin and Belgrade. In Dublin, new plays by Colm Tóibín, Marina Carr and the new company Brokentalkers (offering a piece on recently revealed stories of childhood abuse) will take precedence over comedy. And Sinéad Cusack leads a revival of Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Abbey, still a crucible of the national conscience.

British theatre does not live so near the skin of our history. In Belgrade, at the annual Bitef festival, I’ve seen new work and classics that pullulate with the political atmosphere of the city, and the festival ethos pulls all of that into sharp and often painful focus. Back in 1980, shortly after the death of Tito, I saw a Hamlet that cast the play, prophetically, as one of a crisis of succession in a political vacuum. In 2000, I was borne along the crowded streets, like Woody Allen participating in history in Zelig, as a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters coincided with the night of the elections when Milosevic was defeated. An official pop concert was drowned out by improvised speakers blasting the Rolling Stones.

Maybe we shall never see similar scenes in Edinburgh. Perhaps the escape into the cocoon is a good thing; we can only take so much reality, after all. But a festival that throbs with its own local habitation is always more poignant and life-changing, I feel, than one which caters to what passes for popular entertainment these days.