Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Beyond the Fringe

The startling power and grace of Circa.

The thing you must understand about the Edinburgh Fringe is that it is impossible. You tell yourself there cannot really be over 300 venues. There cannot be over 1,000 performances a day. There cannot be hundreds of thousands of visitors. All that is impossible.

And yet there are, there are, and there are.

And so it's appropriate that this impossibility takes place in a fantasy of turrets and towers, a kind of stone coral grown from the ridge running from the crags of Edinburgh Castle to the lawn of Holyrood Palace (the Queen's crib when she's in town), with hundreds of buskers and performers swimming through the arches and "closes" and "wynds" like so many pilot fish in a gothic barrier reef.

You must also understand that this is all addictive. I was scheduling myself for four shows a day (things get going around 10 am and don't stop till after midnight). But still I found myself thinking, "I have two hours and a half hours between Merrily We Roll Along and Death of a Samurai - if I hustle, maybe I can squeeze in Faust!"

But what you must realize is that everywhere you go in Edinburgh, you will encounter stairs. Everywhere. And they all go uphill. So dashing from one venue to the next is the equivalent of a turn on a Stairmaster. With a mime by your side. Thus exhaustion begins to track you like a phantom, no matter how much you really want to see that rap version of Origin of Species. You must eventually rest.

The witches from an unconventional production of Macbeth take to the streets.

And, of course, eat. Which brings us to what you must also understand about Edinburgh: the Scots do not view food the same way we do. Not for them the four basic food groups, or the nutrition pyramid, or your average daily requirement of those effeminate abstractions known as vitamins. This is, after all, a land where men go commando in wool skirts, god bless'em, despite daily high wind. So it's no surprise the Scots do not have a diet; they have an attitude. There are six things available to eat, and these things are: 1) Haggis; 2) Whiskey; 3) The local stout, but no other; 4) Scones with butter; 5) Smoked Salmon; and 6) Haggis. What more could you want? If you do not like these things, simply do not go to Scotland (as you won't last long). Although even if you do like them, you may sense a growing vitamin deficiency over the time of your stay. So pack your 1-a-Days, girly-man.

Although there may be a full complement of iron, at least, in some of the single malts available, due to the "peaty notes" one constantly hears they conceal. Yes, peat = dirt, but never you mind. Aren't you used by now to wine that tastes "grassy"? So drink up.

And btw, you have until dawn to do so. During the Fringe, the pubs stay open till 5 AM. (Normally that cruel last call is at 3!) In Boston, of course, this would be a recipe for overturned cars, smashed windows, dead students, and other mayhem. In Edinburgh, it leads to college boys, arm in arm, slurrily singing in the street at 2 AM. Perhaps they save their aggression for soccer matches; or perhaps they're just more good-natured than we are - certainly in Edinburgh I sensed that the level of distrust and paranoia that is all but constant in the States had mysteriously lifted. Strangers chatted in the street; when I was caught in a sudden downpour, a lady offered me her extra "brelly"; when a friend was jostled in a pub and spilled his drink, the guilty party happily bought him a new one.

Jane Austen's Guide to Pornography, a show I wish I'd seen!

I suppose it may be silly to link this sociability to a habit of theatregoing, but it's a tempting thesis, particularly when one perceives that at the Fringe, audience participation - even of the ribald sort (!) - was an eagerly indulged constant. People expect to make contact, they expect a forgiving spotlight may be turned their way, they don't want to have a mediated experience, they'd rather have an actual one. They don't want to relate to a screen or a site or a brand or a fucking rock band, they want to relate with other people in a communal fashion. And I immediately understood why the A.R.T. was famously booed at their one Edinburgh Festival appearance ("a torrent of jeering, derisive, mocking laughter issued from the stalls" - ah, if only that could happen here!). There is some seriousness at the Fringe and Festival (though more comedy); but there is very little pretension.

Perhaps because there's just no time for it; or perhaps because of the overwhelming atmosphere of practicality. Seeing a show at the Fringe goes something like this: first you find the venue on your tattered map of Edinburgh, with its 300 different little markers; sometimes you discover it is one of several tucked under the arches of an ancient bridge (as at the Underbelly, at left), or at the end of a back alley. Then you find your queue and get in it, grabbing a beer first if you have time (the Fringe runs on alcohol as well as adrenaline). At the last minute, the door to the venue suddenly swings open, and the previous audience files out. Then you file in - filling the seats up row by row. When the last person is seated, the door to the venue closes, and the house lights dim. And another show starts.

Under these conditions, it's true, I saw a lot of crap - that Merrily We Roll Along quickly ran aground, Faust in a Box should never have been opened, and there were other disappointments. In general I learned not to check out the weird classics-with-wild-new-angles, as the texts often had to be trimmed mercilessly to fit into the hour-and-a-half slots at most venues. I likewise learned to sniff out collegiate groups masquerading as professional ones.

Not that the local papers (or the Web) were much help: many of the Fringe reviewers turned out to be untrustworthy (just like the ones here!), although it was fun to become re-acquainted with purple pronouncements like "I don't think I could ever love someone who missed this show!" Word of mouth, however, was generally trustworthy, particularly about comics and physical theatre (so if you go, ask around in the line for tickets). And the powers-that-be were straightforward about content: "warning: extreme nudity" meant two naked people (above left) bumping uglies inches from your nose; "some nudity," by way of contrast, meant the occasional bare bum or boob safely up on stage. "Adult language" meant blueness deeper than the deep blue sea; the average f- or c-bomb didn't rate a mention. The only real surprise was the overweight Greek dude in skin-tight swim trunks (and wing-tips) who did some impromptu crowd-surfing and tried to kiss the guy in front of me.

The Royal Holloway Theatre production of Crave.

There were a few triumphs. The Australian troupe Circa (at top and left) took Cirque-du-Soleil-style gymnastics into genuinely troubling emotional territory, and climaxed with a squirm-inducing sequence in which a woman climbed over her near-naked paramour in spike heels. The Fall of Man, from Red Shift Theatre Company, smashed the banality of a squalid affair against Satan's rhetoric from Paradise Lost, to often unsettling effect. A one-man version of The Odyssey was a dazzling display of Lecoq training, even if it didn't quite limn the depths of Homer's masterpiece. Likewise a worthy production of Sarah Kane's Crave (promo above) opted for a too-too solid set (a diner, in fact) which in the end didn't illuminate much of this goth classic's darkness. Meanwhile Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen's "dark" cabaret act, "Dead Men Tell a Thousand Tales" was a macabre hoot - sample "dark" lyric: "Sodomy ain't just for animals, and human flesh ain't just for cannibals." (As an added bonus, these "Transylvanian troubadours" donned Mexican hats and deftly skewered the doomy whistling that always accompanies Quentin Tarantino's Taco Bell existentialism.) John Hinton's folk-rock take on The Origin of Species (Darwin's a local hero) was likewise charming - I'm still humming the number about the sex lives of barnacles, in fact. So what's that, six hits out of twenty tries? Not too shabby, I'd say. And will I be back next year? God willing.

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