The Edinburgh Festivals: Some Whiskey With Your Program?

A visit to the world’s biggest annual theater bash

Edinburgh in August feels like the Berkshires in October—chilly, wet, and extremely lovely. Dashing from show to show in the city's yearly culture binge, the diligent Fringe-goer still has time to stare out over the city's dividing gorge, supernaturally green in the veils of falling mist and gray light. Central Edinburgh sits on two perpendicular saddles: one is the Old Town, a spine slung between Castle Rock and Holyrood Palace, the other is the New Town, a gentler hill covered in Georgian rowhouses that overlook the Firth of Forth. Both sides are stone—the Old Town honeycombed and medieval and close, the New Town a testament to elegant, Enlightenment order.

In August's hurlyburly, festivals move like a loose, bright coat over these lovely bones. The crush of people along the High Street might rival Times Square on a Friday night, but a corner two blocks away will be momentarily deserted. It's best when attending the Edinburgh International Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe to adopt the same loose attitude, shrugging yourself occasionally free of the cultural overload, no matter how exciting. This year in the Fringe there were more than 2,500 shows vying for attention—not to mention the other festivals (get an idea of the smorgasbord at edinburghfestivals.co.uk), the street performers, the bagpipe-a-palooza called the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and a soon-to-be-evicted venue (the Forest Café) fighting for its life with nightlong jam sessions. It's nuts. It's thrilling and exhausting and centerless. It seems like a mad idea. And for artists, it must be like finding an ecosystem niche populated almost entirely by your own kind: all grasshoppers, no ants.

What it's not, though, is chaos. Despite some grumbling overheard in line, most shows do run strictly on time, whisking themselves out of the way so the next show can arrive. Anyone can come here and perform, but much of the presenting has been curated by one of the big “venues” (often a collection of venues) like the Pleasance, Assembly, or Underbelly, which are like the great houses in the feudal system. They even have their own colors and sigils, so if you pass a venue with a purple sign (or giant inflated cow), you can be sure you're looking at something affiliated with the bovinely inspired Underbelly.

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.

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

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The programming ethos of Underbelly in particular seems to be deliberately non-theatrical, or, at least, theater for people who want a break from Shakespeare and Schiller. Within that, there's a range, so the pseudo-fierce parkour performance Free Runamused those who like boy acrobats flipping around in front of bad ’80s-style video—there were teen girls absolutely adoring it—while poignant object-theater shows drew in the adults hankering for something sweet. In one of its danker theaters, Underbelly welcomed two of the festival's most buzzed-about productions: The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik and Swamp Juice, which were both lovely and environmentally elegiac, but thin for all their creativity. Sputnik has already orbited New York's way last year, so we've had our chance to see Tim Watts's mixed-media puppet show about a lovelorn deep-sea diver, and indeed, we have already forgotten it. Swamp Juice's immensely clever Canadian puppeteer Jeff Achtem, making shadow puppets out of unprepossessing bits of tinsel and cardboard, finished with a bit of 3-D puppetry, making it seem as though birds were truly sweeping over us. The audience cried out with happiness, sounding like children given a new toy. In fact, they sounded exactly like children. At the Pleasance, a more sophisticated set of games went on in The Table, Blind Summit's display of the company's puppeting virtuosity. The bunraku techniques were delicious, but still...these wonderment-of-childhood, content-light delights prove fleeting.

Too much at the Fringe obeys a certain kind of coziness, a beautifully crafted smallness—like Miranda July pieces without the gut-wrenching introspection. As a respite after something heavy, we need just this sort of short, embracing stuff. The only trouble comes when we try to make a diet of it. Many of these undemanding shows must make a wonderful sorbet; a week full of sorbet, though, and you're left feeling sticky.

But to be fair, just as I was hankering for something that stretched past the hour mark, I found myself staring in horror at director Tim Supple and writer Hanan Al-Shaykh's seven-hour One Thousand and One Nights. This clumsy plod through Scheherazade's tales was in the Edinburgh International Festival proper, organized this year around an Asian theme. Such joyless sensuality! Such a palpable sense of a duty done! Despite (or because of) years of research and workshop, the initial project has been milled down to an edgeless imitation of Mahabarata-era Peter Brook. It sent me shrieking back into the wilder, less derivative arms of the Fringe.

There I found much to like, if nothing to love headlong. Analogue, a young British company fascinated by things scientific, made a grave and thoughtful 2401 Objects about HM, a famous epileptic-turned-amnesiac. New York's own Banana Bag & Bodice roared around a Spiegeltent with their monstrously funny rock-musical Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, which suffered a bit from its badly lit (because never fully dark) venue. The Traverse Theatre, Scotland's most important site for new writing, fielded a whole season's worth of stuff, all impeccably produced. Some of it was shipshape but rather tame (Roland Schimmelpfennig's blackly comic look at immigration The Golden Dragon, David Harrower's hyperlocal two-hander A Slow Air); some of it was ambitious (Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell's indulgent song-cycle Ten Plagues, Zinnie Harris's noble Brechtian attempt The Wheel); some of it was international treasure Tim Crouch in his own unpack-the-classics monologue I, Malvolio, in which he scolded us whenever we snickered at his crossgarters.

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.

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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