Once more with feeling at the Edinburgh Fringe
The comedy strand at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe has swelled, but it’s leavened with plenty of poignancy and a sense of hope
‘The gift of feeling” is something Mark Thomas ends up giving his difficult father in Bravo Figaro! at the Traverse Theatre, and it is something he passes on to the audience, at a time when there is raw acknowledgment of the brokenness of things: families, the heart, economy, the mind, society. This is a heartening development in a time when there are discussions about whether the Edinburgh Fringe has become too commercialised. Stewart Lee, writing for the Guardian a few weeks ago, recalled his first time at the festival in 1987, sleeping in a church hall with no running water but nourished by the “jokes, experimental theatre, and a lot of fried food”, and suggested that the swelling of the comedy strand has strangled the spirit of the Fringe, reflecting the “cultural bankruptcy of late capitalism”. Yet he ends his essay by insisting that “the spirit” is still there, you just need to look harder.
There is an Irish presence: established comics such as the ever-creative David O’Doherty, and those who have been gaining some attention over the last few years, such as Abandoman and Foil, Arms Hog. There are also two different explorations of Irish dance: the pop-culture influenced Up and Over It and the National Folk Theatre of Ireland’s What the Folk!. There’s also Donal O’Kelly’s solo play Joyced! (performed by his daughter Katie), and Barry McGovern reprising his performance in Watt, the distillation of Beckett’s novel, at the International Festival. There are those who have left Ireland but whom Ireland has never left – something that came to mind when watching Sean Hughes’s show Life Becomes Noises, about his late father, which flits between moving and madcap, with his sense of grief punctuated with moments of whimsy, most notably involving a politically incorrect stuffed elephant named Jonjo.
Loss is a definite theme this year, but there is redemption to be gained. While some venues, such as the much-loved Forest Café, have gone (though set to return), other imaginative spaces are being used (Arthur’s Seat, for example), and there is a dialogue between older and newer traditions. The Underbelly is showcasing new writing in a project with the Old Vic and Ideas Tap, and the Traverse’s programme is probably the most eclectic – there are so many beacons of imagination.
Mark Thomas’s show, a Fringe First winner, is an elegant, earthy portrayal of his father, a working-class builder, Tory supporter and opera lover – a complex personality that Thomas has learned to live around. The personal becomes the political in another Fringe First winner, All That is Wrong, from Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed company, the final part of their trilogy. It centres around an 18-year-old girl (Koba Ryckewaert) exploring life as a young person in today’s affronting, conflicted world, where information is more accessible, but overwhelming. There is a sense of freefall, captured in her feverish spirit, which wants to coalesce meaning and action, recalling Hans Weingartner’s 2004 film The Edukators. Blackboards, laptops and projectors – old and new ways of communicating – meld to make a poetic point about the usefulness and uselessness of technology: nothing is useful unless it advances deeper human understanding. It is exciting theatre, because it reminds us to reappraise certain received wisdoms.
This is also at the core of Daniel Kitson’s show As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show has No Title, which is deeply wrought, involving a narrative about an endearing elderly hospital patient, Maximilian Cathcart, and his nurse, Connie, folding into other narratives like treacle, revealing poignant human truths along the way. Kitson is possibly the best comic in the world, but beyond that, he is an acutely reflective writer, more concerned with challenging his own limitations. This is a play within a play within a play that isn’t really a play, more a presentation on loneliness, truth and the epic nature of ordinary lives.