Welcome to Edinburgh Fringe: ‘It’s a meat market’
So says playwright and actor Stefanie Preissner of trying to get your show noticed at the Fringe, which, like negotiating the hilly city itself, can be an uphill slog or a freewheeling delight
Donal O’Kelly in Fionnuala, a one-person show about the Shell Corrib gas project
Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan in These Halcyon Days
Stefanie Preissner in Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend. Photograph: Maciej Staroniewicz
Declan Conlon in Quietly
Anybody who visits Edinburgh in August will experience a daily combination of ease and struggle. That is the natural condition in one of the hilliest cities in Europe, where even the most modest journey may involve a steep ascent or a breezy, gravity-assisted shortcut.
For performers partaking in the biggest arts festival on earth, life on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can seem similarly insurmountable or blessed with seemingly effortless momentum. For many, fighting for the attention of sympathetic critics and audiences, it’s an uphill struggle. For others, a couple of rave notices and coveted awards mean it’s all downhill from there.
Competing among 2,871 shows, spread between 273 venues in the Scottish capital, is like entering a huge art casino, where both audiences and artists are inclined to take big risks. This year, the gamble already seems to have paid off handsomely for Irish work at the festival, some of which is visiting with the support of Culture Ireland, which presents an annual Irish showcase during the festivals, and some of which is operating with no safety net.
In the first week of the festival, two Irish productions received the Scotsman’s influential Fringe First award for new work: the Abbey’s excellent production of Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s intense drama about the afterlife of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, performing at the renowned new writing venue, the Traverse, and Fionnuala, Donal O’Kelly’s one-person show about the Shell Corrib gas project, in Hill Street Theatre.
On Friday, Landmark’s production of Deirdre Kinahan’s bitter-sweet play These Halcyon Days joined them, earning another Fringe First for a drama of a friendship that flowers in a nursing home.
The star ratings for those shows resemble constellations of approval: five stars for These Halcyon Days from the Times; five for Fionnuala from Three Weeks; five for Quietly from the British Theatre Guide; while smaller Irish shows such as The Edge of Our Bodies from new company PenKnife and Stefanie Preissner’s solo performance Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend have received creditable reviews and had healthy audiences. Still, none of it comes easy.
Preissner describes her experience of the festival with equal parts enthusiasm and concern. “It’s all jovial, and that’s great,” she tells me, “but the crowds of people really make the simple things so difficult – like licking your elbow. I tried to cross the street; a simple thing, no? No.”
The experience of performing in Edinburgh has made her see her show – a piece that addresses a generation slipping away from Ireland in the ebb of emigration – differently. “I guess I’m starting to understand that the people who leave, maybe they’re not abandoning their country, maybe they’d much rather stay at home with all their creature comforts, but right now it’s just not possible. Like me over here.”