Performers on a rescue mission

 

EVERYBODY LOVES Edinburgh, but Edinburgh doesn’t love everybody. In August the population of Scotland’s capital doubles, accommodation rates soar, the world’s paper and ink stocks seem to migrate to the capital in the form of fliers and posters, and the cobbled street of the Royal Mile swells with hope and desperation.

For the arts, this is the world’s marketplace, descended on by audiences, critics and international producers in search of hot tickets and new discoveries.

With some 2,500 events at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performers seek every godsend or advantage: an elusive Fringe First award, a coveted four-star review from the Scotsmanthe vague but earnest promise of transformative experiences or at least partial nudity. Last week those sales pitches began to sound more desperate. “Free comedy!” “Six free comedians!” “Free show! Free biscuits!” Perhaps this is an effective strategy in the world’s largest arts festival. Maybe it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

All of which made it more incongruous, in Camille O’Sullivan’s sold-out performance at the Pleasance Grand, to hear the Irish cabaret supernova say a thank you from the stage to Culture Ireland as effusive as the one for her band. State agencies for the promotion of the arts abroad don’t usually command public displays of affection.

Of all the Irish acts and artists that made up this year’s Culture Ireland showcase, its sixth, O’Sullivan seemed least in need of governmental assistance. As an icon of the fringe, however, she did inject star power into what was unofficially known as “team Ireland”, a carefully assembled group of dance, theatre and music performers, along with 14 heavy-hitting authors at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, who have been cannily deployed by Culture Ireland’s director of showcases and communications, Madeline Boughton.

Team Ireland may be smaller this year than before, yet the stakes seem somehow higher. Where the challenge of Edinburgh is always to defy the long odds against promoting a career or opening up doors (usually to other festivals), this time the risks were mitigated by judicious selection and carefully cultivated relationships with quality-assured venues such as the new-writing theatre, the Traverse, or the similarly curated venue Dance Base. Instead there is another political pressure on the arts: to help restore a nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world.

It begins with success. Druid Theatre Company have won successive Fringe Firsts and secured international tours for Enda Walsh’s three recent plays at the Traverse. This year, Irish theatre-makers have repeated that success both within and beyond Culture Ireland’s rubric. On Friday, Minute After Midday, Ross Dungan’s monologue play inspired by the 1998 Omagh bombing, became the third piece of Irish writing to receive the Scotsman’s coveted Fringe First award this year. With no agency backing, it is a heartening underdog triumph for a no-frills production that debuted in Trinity Players and took a gamble on the world’s stage.

Fishamble, which was part of the Culture Ireland showcase, went one better, winning both a Fringe First and a Herald Angel for Pat Kinevane’s irreverent take on homelessness and mental health, Silent. (Kinevane has taken to calling the second award “Harkda”.)

“I think you have to be careful to bring the right kind of production to Edinburgh,” says Fishamble’s artistic director, Jim Culleton, “as it can be a harsh and cut-throat environment. However, if you have a production that strikes a chord there, it is the best place to showcase it, as Edinburgh attracts all the major international presenters and promoters.”

Once the awards came in, so did those presenters, and Silent has already been invited to the Irish Arts Centre in New York and the Nu:Write Theatre Festival in Zagreb. Several other theatres are interested and negotiations are moving forward.

“This is where the movers, shakers and opinion-makers gather each year,” says Jane Daly of the Irish Theatre Institute, which, along with Culture Ireland, co-hosted a networking breakfast where artists and international presenters traded contact details over coffee and bacon butties. “This is where we let them know what is happening in Irish theatre.”

At the event, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, praised the value, vibrancy and – refreshingly – the youthful challenge of the Irish arts, while also sounding businesslike. “The Arts Council and the Government help develop the product back in Ireland,” he told the delegates, “and [Culture Ireland] are like our board of trade.”

Later, the Minister spoke of the arts as playing a number of different roles, seeing them as a means of generating employment, of fostering creativity throughout the nation, of aiding recovery, of stimulating cultural tourism and even of repairing our tarnished image in the US. “If our country is to recover its confidence, if we are to be more creative than other countries, then I think the arts will play a vital role in that. That’s my job.”

It seemed like a heavy burden of expectation for a historically underfunded industry to carry, one that more frequently questions than trumpets a national image. “Maybe that’s an exaggeration,” Deenihan added. “But I can see the artists playing a very critical role.”

For all the good-natured branding of the showcase (each delegate received a shamrock lapel badge), the Irish arts in Edinburgh didn’t conform to cultural stereotypes or traditional forms. With five Irish productions (out of 15) programmed at Dance Base – one of which, Siamsa Tíre’s What The Folk!, sadly fell through – the buzzing venue’s artistic director, Morag Deyes, talked about the characteristics of Irish physical performance.

“There’s nothing about the dance vocabulary,” she said. “But it’s certainly got something to do with not taking yourself too seriously. It’s a playfulness, a humanity, which is shot through everything I’ve seen coming out of Ireland.”

Indeed, The Ballet Ruse, in which Muirne Bloomer and Emma O’Kane take a comedic hatchet to the brutal mechanics of classical ballet, has a distinctly Irish energy, pirouetting between subservience, self-parody and rebellion. Meanwhile, CoisCéim’s Swimming With My Mother, an exquisitely tender duet between David Bolger and his mother, is a specifically Dublin story with a deeply moving theme that resonates universally.

“It seems there are resonances between the two countries,” said Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Traverse, which has hosted the Abbey, Playgroup, Gúna Nua, Druid and Corn Exchange during the festival. “Also, stylistically, there’s more similarity between the work that is coming out of Ireland, which has a storytelling tradition, than the kitchen-sink tradition you associate with London.”

He points out, though, that Corn Exchange’s well-received Man of Valourdoesn’t contain a single spoken word.

Under Hill’s direction, the playwright Lynda Radley (who performed The Art of Swimmingat the Traverse in 2007) this year premiered her new play, Futureproof, at the theatre. It was garlanded with a Fringe First, further evidence that the reach of Irish storytelling and the influence of the showcase seem to have extended further than anybody could have hoped.

Irish writers appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival ranged from established heavy weights (Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín, Michael Longley) to new voices (Belinda McKeon, Eoin Colfer, John Butler, Kevin Barry), but festival director Nick Barley saw them all within the overarching theme of his programme, “revolution”. “Inevitably,” he explained, “because they are writers who operate in the world. Whether or not the recent difficulties in Ireland represent a revolutionary change in the country is a question to which I don’t know the answer. Nobody could deny that the last five years in Ireland acted as a kind of symbolic representation of a much bigger globalised picture.”

Barley is not reductive about the characteristics of Irish work (“My question would be: what is it about the work that speaks beyond the borders?”) and, like Hill, emphasises the cultural affinity between Scotland and Ireland. While Radley lives in Glasgow and Kinevane refined his work during a residency at Dance Base, Barley points to the writer Kevin Barry’s time living in Edinburgh and the influence it had on his style. “His writing connects with dystopia and angst and everything about this revolutionary time that we’re operating in. Oh, and he’s Irish,” he says.

Reflecting on Culture Ireland’s display, chief executive Eugene Downes said that Edinburgh was still as lively a hub as ever, though he was aware that it was mainly a conduit to the English-speaking world. (This year’s Edinburgh International Festival tellingly addresses itself towards Asia.) Significantly, in form and meaning, Irish arts showcased this year began to transcend linguistic barriers.

“The challenge that’s out there is how we can work to develop both the artistic links and the presenting opportunities into continental Europe and China,” he said.

During the networking event, Downes, a consummate diplomat, alluded to the scale of Culture Ireland’s achievement with limited resources: “We have seven people in charge of the world.” So when Camille O’Sullivan was invited by the Minister to sing at the event, it might have seemed like another Edinburgh incentive: free show, free breakfast. Yet the gathering thunder of her a cappellaperformance of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdammade its own journey: from Ireland to Holland, via Belgium, and back to Scotland. It put the case most persuasively for Irish arts.

Seen from Edinburgh, the world looked like a much smaller place.

Edinburgh encounters: Hot international tickets

When Black Watchopened in 2006 at the Edinburgh fringe it was more than just a sensation; it announced the intent and passion of the non-venue-based National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). It has proved a tough act to follow.

David Greig’s ingenious new play at the Traverse, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,may be a more modest affair for the NTS, but it is likely to have the same effect. For a start, the production is not so much undertaking a Scottish tour as conducting a national pub crawl. Performed in a bar by a cast of actor-musicians using homespun props and winningly conscripted audience participation, it’s inspired by Scottish border ballads, written largely in verse, and spins a dowdy academic into the arms of the devil. It’s a blast and a sweetly moving meditation on the place of folk tradition in our lives.

I performed so much in it that I wouldn’t be surprised to find I am now eligible for Scottish Actors’ Equity.

The Wheel,also staged in the Traverse for the NTS, is Zinnie Harris’s meditation on war, in which Catherine Walsh finds herself touring the battlefields with a motley crew of children in tow. The intrigue unravels towards the end, but fans of Bertolt Brecht might have thought this was an attempt to reboot his classic as “Mother Courage: The Early Years”.

At this year’s Asian-oriented Edinburgh International Festival, Hanan al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nightsgot disappointed reviews, while The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Stephen Earnhart’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s diaphonous detective story, seemed unable to match the suppleness and mystery of the author with either multimedia or puppetry.

Previous fringe darlings Ontroerend Goed, Belgium’s masters of “intimate theatre”, were too provocative for many with their goading show, Audience, but the fashion for one-on-one theatre encounters has not fizzled out. David Greig reportedly dismissed such exercises as “decadent” in straitened times, and perhaps that’s why You Once Said Yes,a late Fringe First winner for London’s Look Left Look Right company, seemed like such an exciting indulgence. The production was a series of individual experiences that whisked its audience through the city.

The hottest ticket was perhaps Hotel Medea,a Brazilian/British co-production that plunged its audience into an immersive experience which threaded the spine-tingling Medea tragedy through nightclub, hotel and breakfast at dawn. A modest and gravity-defying one-man German show, Leo, won more hearts, however, not to mention a Fringe First and the Carol Tambor Award.

And the other main talking point? Gary McNair’s Crunch, in which audience members are invited to feed their own cash through a shredder. Regular ticket buyers in Edinburgh may not have found the sensation all that unusual.