The Edinburgh Festivals: Some Whiskey With Your Program?

A visit to the world’s biggest annual theater bash

The Traverse's big success was The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a rhyming drama by expert wordsmith David Greig (The American Pilot), staged in an actual pub. The gleeful tale of an academic on a ballad-worthy adventure into the underworld punches hard with its gorgeous musical interludes, but it still has a soft belly that needs toughening up. (It's dangerous, especially after plying your audience with whiskey, to introduce a section that literally drags on to the end of time.)

Everywhere you looked in Edinburgh there was another bit of inventive audience-implication. Sometimes, we cooperated, so in Prudencia Hart, we flung paper in the air to make snow for the blizzard-trapped scholar-heroine. At the other extreme, Ontroerend Goed, the Belgian scamps who brought New York the Under the Radar hit Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, made a surprisingly aggressive show called Audience, in which the company turned the cameras on us, and then turned us on one other. In a bit of Handke-style cruelty, performers transgressed normal boundaries—going through the bags we'd left on the cloakrail, then singling out an attendee for harassment. Of course, once word got out, theatergoers were ready, and the intended discomfort (everyone waiting for his neighbor to object) became the discomfort of seeing a show come under attack by a prepared group. Still, the production maintained an instructive thorniness, even if it did muddle its early, strong portrait of audience passivity with a batch of videos about political rallies. Audiences and crowds are different animals after all.

Straight-up site-specific: David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Drew Farrell
Straight-up site-specific: David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
An audience with Malvolio, courtesy of Tim Crouch.
Matthew Andrews
An audience with Malvolio, courtesy of Tim Crouch.

Details

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh International Festival
Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.

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There was quite a bit of this sense that form was momentarily outstripping content, that experiments with alternative viewing strategies had thought about how to say new things but not necessarily what to say. The young London-based innovators Look Left Look Right staged one slim show (You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas) in a New Town flat where attendees Skyped live with an audience in the States, and played another piece (You Once Said Yes) on the streets, where seemingly chance encounters amassed into a production around a single reeling theatergoer. And here, at last, in a show I didn't get to see but only read obsessively about, the festival finally blew my mind. Scotland has no trespassing laws, at least not as we would recognize them, and the country values and protects a statutory right of access. This freedom has penetrated deep into the British mindset, and so You Once Said Yesfelt exciting even simply on principle. U.S. artists have delicately stuck a toe in these waters (see the Woodshed Collective), but as yet we can only goggle at the complexity of Britain's roving, immersive, environmental productions—because they are the kind only those truly accustomed to liberty can dream of making.

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