Irish shows conquer Edinburgh’s hilly terrain
In the largest international festival on earth, artists from Ireland have proven themselves disproportionately successful
Olwen Fouéré in Riverrun. Photograph: Jeremy Abrahams
Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: The Blockbuster
Lippy, Bush Moukarzel’s unsettling meditation on interpretation, death and meaninglessness
John McCann’s play Spoiling, which tackles the contentious topic of Scottish independence
‘Edinburgh is the worst city in the world if your show is doing badly and it’s the best city in the world if your show is doing well.” These were the helpful, fortifying words for Bryan Burroughs, a first-time visitor to the Scottish capital in August, given by an Irish veteran of the festival city. Burroughs, the solo performer of Beowulf: The Blockbuster, must have every reason to consider it heaven.
This year, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – already the largest arts festival in the world – had not so much grown as metastasised: from 2,871 shows last year to 3,193 in 2014. In a town where finding a good show can feel like searching for a neutrino in a haystack, and where good reviews really matter, Beowulf early emerged as the show to see. It had six five-star reviews from credible sources, and was the number one show in any of the city’s seven concurrent festivals on Edinburgh’s events website, The List.
“This is his first experience,” says director David Horan, with an affectionate chuckle, shortly after another sold-out performance in the Pleasance venues. “I feel very fortunate that they’ve come to us,” says Burroughs of the audiences, noticing that people now respond differently to this story of a father and son exploring storytelling and mortality through an epic tale and innumerable movie references. They sit forward, full of expectation. “If you’re meeting people like that, it’s very easy to meet them in return, and just take off.”
It would be tempting to consider Beowulf a quintessential Fringe show: economically designed, 70 minutes long, told with physical dexterity, pop-cultural gags and unabashed sentimentality. But Horan, a regular visitor and participant, points to a diversity of aesthetics and scope among other Irish participants, including the virtuoso performance of Olwen Fouéré in her Joyce-inspired Riverrun or Dead Centre’s challenging Lippy, both at the Traverse; Fishamble’s endearing Swing and CoisCéim’s impassioned Missing, both at Dance Base; Gare St Lazare’s wry Title and Deed; Collapsing Horse’s Human Child and Bears in Space; and Gúna Nua’s Pondling, the third and most recent Irish recipient of a Scotsman Fringe First award. “I think there’s a lot of different Edinburghs,” he concludes.
The critical success of Irish productions at this year’s festival has been gratifying and revealing, but this is only half the story: a tale of one city. For many participants and audience members negotiating its competition, its cobbled streets and daunting hills, Edinburgh can be an uphill struggle. Riverrun initially struggled to find its audience but an effusive five-star review from the Scotsman’s influential Joyce McMillan, a Stage Award for Acting Excellence and a recent Herald Angel Award have given the work a cumulative force.
Lippy, Bush Moukarzel’s unsettling meditation on interpretation, death and meaninglessness, also earned great reviews, and scooped a coveted Fringe First, a Herald Angel award and a nomination for a Total Theatre Award. In Dublin, Lippy had just five performances at last year’s Dublin Fringe, making it one of the best shows you’ve never seen, and Moukarzel and Ben Kidd’s production deserved a bigger audience – if only to divide them. It returns to the Abbey’s Peacock stage in January, and the theatre may currently be looking at its two-week run and wondering if it should be stretched.
“It’s the fuel in our tank,” the Traverse’s artistic director, Orla O’Loughlin, says of such accolades. As Scotland’s new writing theatre, that will provide the Traverse with good mileage for the year to come: its programme has taken five Fringe Firsts and two Herald Angels so far.
Play that seized the day
That seems to be present in the programme too, a model of international collaboration and formal ambition, where Belfast writer Owen McCafferty’s new play, Unfaithful, has been produced by the theatre, while another Northern Irish writer, John McCann, has approached Scotland’s most urgent and contentious topic, Scottish independence, in a new play entitled Spoiling, directed by O’Loughlin.
“Spoiling is a play that is rewritten by the audience every day,” says O’Loughlin. An early version was greeted as an out- and-out comedy, but the approach of the September 18th referendum has brought it a more satirical edge, perhaps even gravity. “We had to do a play that seized the day, as Scotland’s new- writing theatre.”
Artists can be cagey about Scottish independence, and with some reason: polls are tightening, with the Yes vote at 43 per cent and the No vote at 57 per cent; pressure from UK-supporters and the Better Together campaign is mounting, driven either by beseeching letters from celebrities or fearful speculation on issues of currency, strength and even freedom; and JK Rowling, who came out for the No side, was savaged online.
Spoiling imagines the foreign minister of a newly independent Scotland preparing to deliver a speech about its new relationship with the former UK. It wonders whether Scotland will be truly self- determined or muzzled by old alliances, and it does so, saliently, through language. The minister is keen to be assertive but her new party adviser tries to make her meek; it becomes a battle of words.
The problem with you lot
“You know the problem with you lot?” calls out Queen Margaret as the house lights rise in the Festival Theatre. “You’ve got f*** all except attitude. You scream and shout about how you want things done and how things ought to be done and when the chance comes, look at you. What are you frightened of? Making things worse? According to you, things couldn’t get any worse for Scotland.”
It is hardly a subtle moment, towards the end of Rona Munro’s trilogy, The James Plays, which explores the rise and legacy of the Scottish monarchs beholden to England while testing ideas of culture and kingship. But Sofie Gråbøl’s exasperated delivery draws immediate applause.
“It’s as close as I will formally acknowledge the political realities of the 18th of September,” says festival director Jonathan Mills, now delivering his eighth and final programme. “Where I think a festival has a role is not to be explicit, but to be implicit. At its best, what an arts festival and an artist can do is to get people to think, to challenge their views.”
The James plays are an impressively epic undertaking, but, in bluntly demotic dialogue and occasionally banal sequences, feel overstretched. The festival’s more affecting offering may be Exhibit B. Brett Bailey’s performance installation recreates the “human zoos” of African colonialism, delivering horrific historical details of imperial torture, while performers of African heritage stare at the audience from frozen tableaux. Based at the University of Edinburgh’s grand Playfair Library, a totem of empire, it is provocative to say the least.
“There are those that are upset about it, either moved to tears or who find it very affronting,” says Mills. “There are those who think it moves their culture to the point of victimhood.” But Mills sees the role of a festival as initiating conversations, and you suspect his often divisive programmes have made Edinburgh seem like the best and worst city simultaneously. “Sure,” he says, by way of parting, “it’s been fun.”
LUCKY DIP: FIVE IN THE FRINGE
- The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland It might sound off-putting: experimental theatre that summons the experience of schizophrenia. But this show from Ridiculusmus, which allows real and delusional worlds to bleed into one another, is sensitive, sophisticated and discomfiting.
- Huff Shona Reppe and Andy Manley’s installation piece for young audiences (but with a disproportionately adult attendance), inspired by The Three Little Pigs, is playful and witty.
- Lippy Nothing else resembles Dead Centre’s haunting depiction of a suicide pact in Leixlip and an ensuing act of trespass: firstly by a lip-reader looking for explanations and secondly by a theatre piece, putting words in their mouths.
- Cuckooed Mark Thomas has a reputation as a clenched-fist comic activist, but recently he has allowed more personal stories to infuse his work. This riveting real story of how his anti-arms trade activist group was infiltrated by a spy is a cleverly structured report of personal betrayal that opens into a reflection on the difficulty of sustaining political ideals.
- Bears in Space This very well-attended show from upstart Collapsing Horse Theatre Company, and Fringe veterans Aaron Heffernan, Jack Gleeson and Eoghan Quinn, may be everything that is right and wrong with millennial performance: a frenetic and imaginative no-frills puppet show, daubed with spry jokes and fuelled by unabashed sentimentality.