[published by the Hindustan Times, 6 September 2007]
Never watched a play set in a portable loo? Or seen Macbeth on trampolines? Well, clearly you haven’t been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the bizarre is mainstream, writes Kate Hodal…
Let’s be honest: Shakespeare’s been quite accommodating, really, over the years. The centuries have seen countless, and sometimes quite odd, adaptations of his works – Chinese triads replacing the Montagues, and Hawaiian shirts the requisite chain mail.
So what’s to stop us now from casting Macbeth with inflatable fruit and trampolines?
Four hundred years after he wrote the famous tragedy, Shakespeare’s latest contender for weirdest adaptation – “Bouncy Castle Macbeth” – took place entirely upon an inflatable purple castle, replete with skulls and crossbones; was cast with amateur actors all aged 20; and was just one of five Macbeth renditions at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
And in true Fringe fashion, there was typical kitsch: inflatable bananas for daggers, actors ad-libbing their lines, Banquo played by a blow-up doll on a fishing rod, backflips for stage exits and fox-howling sex scenes. While it didn’t win over reviewers (“One of English literature’s greatest tragedies,” said one, “reduced to children misbehaving at a birthday party”), it did personify the spirit of Fringe.
And what a time to celebrate. This year marked Fringe’s 60th anniversary, a music, dance, comedy, art and theatre festival born from the ashes of WWII. What started out with only eight theatre companies’ gate-crashing on “the fringe” of the city’s brand new (and very organized) International Festival, the Fringe has now become the largest arts festival in the world. It alone more than doubles Edinburgh’s population of 500,000 and generates £75 million a year for the Scottish economy.
As, perhaps, the most successful rags-to-riches story ever, Fringe has inspired quite a few spin-offs, most notably the Adelaide Fringe in Australia and Canada’s Fringe in Edmonton. But here in Edinburgh, Fringe is just one of 17 festivals taking place in the self-proclaimed “City of Festivals” over the summer. Its closest rival, the International Festival (which focuses on classical music, opera, theatre and dance, and operates solely on an invitation-to-perform basis) jockeys for attention with other festivals ranging in focus from books to film, jazz, science, art, the internet, the military, politics, swing, television, and, even, spirituality and peace. That means that on any given weekend, you’re as likely to see a photo exhibition as dance in a cabaret, learn why Blair was a terrible PM, or watch a film about cyborgs in love.
Of all the festivals, Fringe is the most popular – and undoubtedly the most bizarre. This year saw plays set in portable loos, comedians doing stand-up entirely in the nude, and a pornographic cabaret about Auschwitz. Highlights included a Silent Disco – essentially, one’s only lifetime opportunity to don headphones and dance along with tone-deaf people singing at the top of their lungs – and a percussion show consisting of a deaf woman slapping herself across the face and arms, all for the sake of sound. Politics, however, seemed to play the most central theme, with shows on US foreign policy (“Jesus: The Guantanamo Years”), the war in Iraq (“Jihad – The Musical”), youth violence in Britain (“Chav! It’s A Musical Innit”), apartheid in South Africa (“Truth in Translation”) and suicide bombings in Israel (“Dai”).
There aren’t really any rules at Fringe, which explains why potentially inflammatory shows about jihad or Auschwitz are given the go-ahead. In fact, almost anyone can perform any kind of show, as long as he pays a one-off registration fee of £280. But with additional costs to rent a venue, publicize the show, pay for accommodation and survive for three weeks on a diet of booze and baked beans, life as a performer can be hard.
“There’s just too much talent around, too many shows,” sighs Jan Fairley, former director of the International Book Festival and producer, reviewer and visitor of shows at Fringe for the past 30 years. “And the risk is the festival itself. It’s the people doing the shows that put the money up: no one’s paying for them to perform here. At best you can just hope to pick up work elsewhere after.”
Monty Python members reportedly played in student troupes at Fringe in the 1960s, and Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson and Steve Coogan got their first real breaks here, all of which lends the festival a sort of Hollywood-of-the-North feel to it that that draws in most performers. But there’s also the attraction of doing something different. “I’m reading math at uni,” laughs Marc Vestey, 20, who played Lady Macbeth in “Bouncy Castle Macbeth”. “None of us are actors. We’re just having fun.”
Which isn’t to say that Fringe can’t be stressful – and not just for the performers. With over 2,000 shows to see in 250 different venues around this seaside city, it’s easy for the visitor to develop show overload. The Fringe Programme, the bible of show times and places, clocks in at 288 pages and reads more like a phonebook than a guide. And the Royal Mile – Edinburgh’s normally quiet, cobblestone boulevard with its gothic cathedrals and little alleyways – becomes a de facto publicity gauntlet come August. With so many performers to compete against (there were 18,000 this year), people are desperate to sell their show: one comedian paraded up and down the Mile in the pouring rain in nothing but a thong, handing out fliers that guaranteed a show to “laugh your ass off”.
Perhaps because of its exponential growth over the years – it’s doubled in popularity over the past decade, Fringe has come under fire from critics in recent years for becoming too expensive, too big and too corporate. Shows cost an average of £10, with four or five-star reviewed performances often sold out days in advance. And the reviews themselves can be patchy: no single publication can cover all 2,000 shows on any given year, meaning that the reviewed shows are often the most-visited shows, even if they’re not very good. Then there’s the overall problem that the big names also performing at Fringe – Ricky Gervais, Interpol, Henry Rollins, or the Foo Fighters – seem out of place amongst amateur theatre troupes. But, then, where else in the world could Shakespeare actors on a trampoline ever mingle with Dave Grohl?
Only, perhaps, at one of the many other fringes across the globe that this Fringe has so helped to inspire.