Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The best of Northern Irish theatre and international performance at the world's largest arts festival
If I am to believe all the reports from Edinburgh, the Fringe Festival is in crisis and very possibly one wheezing breath away from its last.
Rogue venues are joining forces to create their own breakaway comedy festival, there's a ticketing system that doesn't seem to know how many seats it can sell in a venue and, for the second summer in a row, there's so much rain that one venue actually flooded.
And there are times during my Edinburgh weekend when it is eerily quiet. You can walk the Royal Mile and not have even one flyer thrust in front of your face. Having in previous years walked that distance at 5am and even then been offered a flyer, it is a unique experience.
And yet when I step inside the venues, the audiences are there. And why not, when there is so much to see? When you open the programme for the first time, you want to cry from the 288-page information overload. The Fringe is as it always is. The quality of shows varies wildly but there are still gems to be discovered in random makeshift black boxes.
When you are part of the Fringe, you live the Fringe. Every day for four weeks, you work in a theatre, see a show in a theatre or drink in a bar and talk about shows you saw in a theatre. The performers, day after day, turn up and perform whether their show has one person in the audience or one hundred.
It can break a performer. And yet so many of the shows that I see this year tell very personal stories. To offer up such raw subject matter for others to judge in a potentially cruel way, you have to ask what it is that drives performers to keep going.
The first show on my list is Confessions & Obsessions of a Thirtysomething Divorcee. I'll leave it to your imaginations as to what drew me to this play. In it, Xara Fox is preparing to attend the wedding of an ex-boyfriend. She's recently divorced, pushing 40 and all alone except for her mute vibrator.
This one-woman show from writer/performer Melanie Sherwood promises to be an interesting story of a woman who's been there, done that and come back to tell us how not to screw up our lives. Sherwood admits that this is a thinly-veiled biography. But the story also lacks many distinctive details and becomes merely a catalogue of the concerns of every single woman in their thirties, as told routinely in women's magazines.
All concerns are dutifully mentioned. The fear of growing old alone, of never having children, or of having children and all the previously pert body parts slowly heading south. But I want to know more than that. I want to glean some truth from her experiences.
If a lack of detail is the problem in Confessions & Obsessions..., the complete opposite is true of Tracy Emin's first UK retrospective, Tracey Emin: 20 Years, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I come away from the exhibition feeling pummelled and a little raw.
Emin confesses everything. Everything and more. The rapes, abortions, deaths, lovers and pain. It's more than I think I needed to know. I have to admit that these revelations and truths affect me much more than the work itself. But then again, in Emin's case, there is no distinction between her work and her history. They don't exist without each other.
There were haunting moments. The repeated image of the hastily-drawn outline of a woman's body, upside down, legs spread precariously as if waiting to be snapped like a wish bone; the serrated edge on a scrap of notepaper that contains her most intimate thoughts and feelings; the scream echoing throughout a room from a film entitled Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children. Emin is childless and has been open about her multiple abortions. There is such a pervading darkness in this exhibition that I hold my breath throughout and only exhale when I come across the very few light-hearted moments.
After such opposing experiences of other people's personal confessions, I am grateful for Maggie Cronin's gentle and generous one-woman story Greenstick Boy. A tale of soul-mates, lost love and addiction, the show premiered in Northern Ireland before travelling to Edinburgh.
M and D were once best mates, growing up in Dagenham when punk was smashing up the state. But M still had to go to her Irish dancing competition every Saturday.
M, played by Cronin, replays the history of her relationship with D, her lost love. As she packs and unpacks the litter of her life, we sense that inside M something has broken and never quite healed, the greenstick fracture of the title.
The same can be said of the absent D, whose own hidden injury (his addiction to heroin) could be the death of him. Both characters have habits that they can't give up and which finally define each of them more than they should.
Each character in Cronin's story is fleshed out and given a satisfying physical life onstage. She has such a great love for the characters – lost and broken though they may be – that the play is at its best when the focus is on them.
Here, Cronin shares with us her confessions and obsessions but with insight and growth, emotional depth and a sense of what love is. M's journey to acceptance of her past is a story that I hope shows in Northern Ireland again soon.
From confessional shows that focus on individual truth to one that tell us something about the truth of the wider world in which we presently live.
Absolution by writer/performer Owen O'Neill is directed by Rachel O'Riordan of Ransom Productions. It is the story of Peter, someone who kills priests to avenge the children who suffered abuse at their hands and to terrify the communities which failed to protect them.
The central question in Absolution seems to be whether acts of violence, enacted to avenge other acts of violence, can ever bring justice or peace.
Peter tells his story with clinical detachment. He flexes and stretches his arms and body with the skill of a martial arts master. So cool, restrained and deliberate are Peter's actions that when he does act, when the violence does occur and control is lost, the suddenness and chaos is shocking and disturbing.
This show is elegant in its staging and performance choices. O'Neill and O'Riordan have made simple and evocative choices to bring clarity and tension to the story. Catholic symbolism is littered throughout, from the ritual washing of hands, hands pressed in prayer or in supplication, to the delivery of lines in a low drone that evokes a congregation at mass.
Absolution questions the simplicity of the idea that sins can be overcome by confession. Mere confession, taking penance and seeking forgiveness does not mean we are free of the destructive effect of our sins.
In a wider way, O'Neill and O'Riordan are asking audiences to think abouit our complicity in acts of violence, and how or if a cycle of violence can ever end. These are questions that leaders both at home and abroad should perhaps be asking themselves.
The final play in my Edinburgh Fringe Festival tour is Finished with Engines by Alan McKendrick. Presented by Scotland's Arches Theatre Company, it is performed in collaboration with New York's Riot Group ensemble.
Hemingway and Megan are officers on an observation platform with potential nuclear capacities, watching as the inhabitants on whom they spy literally tear themselves apart. They wait and watch - the black and white of their uniforms denote the simple morality of their universe.
Megan, a self-confessed zealot, seems excited by the prospect of being involved in the next big act that will blow their enemies away. An act that could become as infamous as Nagasaki.
More interested in the grandness of the story she's telling than the accuracy of facts on which the decision to act will be based (Brussels being located in France is one example), Megan is disciplined and a believer. Actress Stephanie Viola's eyes shine with anticipatory delight as the tale unfolds.
Hemingway (played by Drew Friedman) is Megan's subordinate and only companion. He's a man-child slacker who doesn't seem to belong. He was recruited in a college recruitment drive. He lacks his colleague's motivation. He is a writer and reassures himself that the time he spends observing provide him with material for his book. He is neither a believer nor a dissident – just going along for the ride.
As the war that they watch intensifies, both characters seem unmoved. It is only when their favourite shore leave haunt, Benny’s, is burnt down that they feel aggrieved enough to act.
This act of arson, combined with the overwhelming boredom that has set in, they decide to take action. They act just to see if they can, and what the consequences will be. The glimpse we are given of the results is brief but telling.
The performances here are playful, tight and restrained. However, while there is much that is a topical reflection of actions by the US, the UK and their allies following September 11, the boredom felt by the characters in the endless hours of watching is also felt by the audience.
The script is at times too obtuse and the hard work that the audience puts in to following the action isn't paid off by the play's resolution. In its brevity it seems an anti-climax and the sharpness of the satirical comment is blunted by the slow pace of the narrative development.
Such are the confessions and obsessions of the men and women that I see at the Fringe. Whether we look inward or outward to find our truths, the truths are there. We don't always have to look too hard to find them, but our artists are always willing to help us on our way.