Edinburgh 2017: Reflecting on big questions & storytelling

When people get to a certain age, it seems right that they contemplate life, their decisions and why we are placed on this earth. And so it seems with the Edinburgh Fringe in its 70th year – or at least for the performers in the shows I picked. From falling in love to divorce, from our identity to what motivates us, from personal injustice to social justice, there seemed to be a questioning, existential element to this year’s festival.

Politics – but with a small ‘p’?

Before arriving, I had expected the General Election, Brexit and Trump all to dominate the comedy and theatre at Edinburgh this year. And in some cases it did: NewsRevue had Theresa May singing “Among the fields of Barley” (or wheat, in her case), Macron claiming he was sexy (and he knew it) and Nicola Sturgeon asking the UK government not “Let us go” (to the tune of “Let it go” from Frozen). But, even this political satire ended by taking a broader view of world politics with a mash up of SClub7 songs condemning and undermining extremism in all its forms.

Remaining with the obviously political, there were a couple of attempts to explain and understand the financial crisis nearly 10 years on. Alistair Darling & Matt Forde discussed, amongst other things, the realities of the financial crisis and how close things came to total disaster back in 2008, highlighting that some of the underlying issues have not been tackled. Meanwhile, £¥€$ (Lies) at Summerhall took you back to the banking crisis, making  you banker for a night, thrillingly making you take risks then panic as the crash happens. Again, the piece left many with the thought that this could all happen again.

Other than these, though, there seemed to be an aversion to be overtly political, even with a small “p”. For example, 2 years ago Daniel Sloss spoke wittily and engagingly but in a non-partisan way, about disability and the tampon tax. Yet, at his new show, he claimed not to be political. And his comedy was thinner, I think, as a result.

Existential Edinburgh?

Instead of political or social commentary, I encountered stories from those around my age who were questioning life and what they were here to achieve. It was as if our current crises are forcing comedians and performers to ask more fundamental questions in order to provide insight (or humour) at this time.

A collection of emerging comics all took there own perspective on their malaise at growing older: Dimitri Bakanov talked about his race/identity, Lucas Jolson told stories about growing up a geek, Jon Pearson explained how it is hard to make decisions, Chris Washington told us to manage our expectations and Adam Rowe shared how he is trying to be a better person. Meanwhile, in Thunderbards, a disembodied voice representing the festival selection panels asked why all the fast-paced sketches represent failure in life and love. In a couple of cases, it even felt that comedy was acting as therapy for some of the performers, particularly when Smug Roberts joked about his failed relationships and Bobby Mair about his adoption. In all of these comedians’ sets, there seemed to be an air of personal reflection and trying to work out where they fit in to the grand scheme of things. Or perhaps that is just where I am in my life and spot my own questioning in other peoples acts.

In a few cases, there was an attempt to link the personal with the world (and politics) we currently inhabit. In Not a Show Yet, Mark Watson is working on empathy – how understanding other people would make our lives better whether in our relationships, in the school play ground or in world politics – and this should be a good show when it is finished next year. In a world with so many people shouting, being reminded to listen and feel may be a good thing.

Coping with life and death

Just as the comedians tackled existential questions, theatre asked them to a varied extent, as well. Tape Face was like a 1920s French film with charming vignettes about love & life which loosely held together with plenty of fooling around. Suspicious Minds used radio sound affects to help the audience realise how we internalise problems such as the end of a relationship; whilst No Miracles Here used a high-energy 24 hour dance-athon to convey the ongoing, exhausting struggle against depression. These were clever shows but each failed to quite emotionally engage me but did provide some perspectives on being human in the 21st Century.

At the same time as encountering questions of life and how we live it, there were also shows about the final few years and death. Among the shows tackling dementia was Cockamamy (which means ridiculous) telling the story of a granddaughter caring for her aging grandmother and tries to convey the confusion, frustration and sadness of those suffering from alzheimer’s and their carers. One of the most powerful shows at the Fringe was Bright Colours Only, where you are initially welcomed to a wake with tea, sandwiches and whisky before listening to a series of recollections and perspectives on death as well as lives unlived. It didn’t quite hold together for me but the powerful performance by Pauline Goldsmith have left me thinking about death in the days since.

Yet, despite asking these big questions of life and death, there was little serious discussion in the role that God or faith organisations could play in supporting all of this. God Ltd was a sketch about failed office bureaucracy by angels in heaven but added little of substance to any debate. Todd & God told the story of a man who was led to believe he might be a chosen one but the last 15 minutes turned God into a slightly unkind, manipulating being which just didn’t ring true for me. Unlike in 2015, when there were several shows seriously questioning faith in the modern age, it felt like the Fringe was not looking for a response beyond this mortal life.

Identity & Social Justice

There was, at points, an intelligent discussion about social justice.  In the year of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, there were few (though, surprisingly, not many) pieces look at the last 50 years. Let me look at you gave a potted history of gay rights interwoven with a personal story; from Wolfenden & secret liaisons to Equal marriage & ChemSex, the show shared familiar ground but reminded us that social progress had to be defended.

At the same time, the Traverse theatre had a collection of plays about looking at issues around the trans experience. Jess & Joe Forever started slowly but built to a tear-inducing, affirming conclusion as we follow 2 young people growing up and falling in love. Eve told the story of Joe Clifford as she grew up John, becoming Joe and despite beautiful music & visuals, did not quite pivot to wider issues beyond the important but immediately personal story. Elsewhere at the fringe, a hit from last year’s fringe returned this year, How to win against history recounted the largely erased story of the cross-dressing 5th Marquess of Anglesey who loses the family fortune through a lavish and camp lifestyle. I found it deeply moving in the simple way it was told through music and dance.

All of these plays looking at LGBTQI stories are welcome and, in parts, powerful but felt a little bit like preaching to the converted. The people watching them already believed in LGBTQI rights – the key to extending awareness and maintaining new rights will be making sure they are seen by as wide an audience as possible.

But issues of social justice and identity feature in other pieces, too. The excellent Labels questioned racism, migration & identity through one man & his family’s experience in the UK. He physically put on each of the names he has been called and managed to tackle a complex subject with both nuance and humour. Another take on some of the cultural divides in the UK is provided by The Believers are but Brothers which tried to explain online radicalisation with visually impressive technology, whatsapp and, above all, well written monologues. The play showed how the need for community is initially met online but then becomes something far more unpleasant. At a time where migration and racial intolerance is on the rise, both pieces challenge senses of identity and belonging. And both are, again, worthy of a wider viewing.

Community & Story Telling 

There were works which looked at the more positive elements of community, though and some were remarkably moving. For my first visit to the CircusHub I saw Kin which showed 5 men in a gymnastic talent show for a lady. Their physical performances were breathtaking & beautiful. But who really won? I (surprisingly) cried when kinship won over love & lust.  It reminded me of some of the big, life-changing questions I have been asking recently as I moved away from my old home and community to be with the man I love.

As with so much of this fringe, at its best comedy and theatre used good story telling to create situations and emotions with which we empathise. The best stand-up I saw was from James Loveridge as he told stories about happiness, life & getting married; it was not particularly profound but well-written and made us feel better about the world we inhabit. In the same way, the best theatre I saw showed Gary McNair’s prowess in story telling. Letters to Morrissey tells of one man’s love for Morrissey which helped him cope with growing up, personal crises and becoming confident in his individuality. Beautifully told with the full story only gradually, and movingly, becoming clear.

At the end of a week in Edinburgh, I was left with hope for the future. We live in a creative country and have festivals that ask questions about our very being and purpose. Indeed, perhaps the most enduring message of this year’s Edinburgh fringe is not only to ask questions but listen to the varied, imaginative stories that people give as answers.

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