Saturday, 20 July 2013

No Way To Read The Fringe

I am going to take some time out from the Giants in the Forest and my attempt to put together a Fringe timetable. Instead, I am going to whine about criticism, about the impossible task of putting together any survey of the Fringe that isn't either wilfully obscure (I've been seeking out the Live Art, again, and have a line-up that includes The Wau Wau Sisters starting off naked and then getting dressed)  or just repeats the same golden names that dominate every magazine's coverage (Traverse, Summerhall, the various rising Scottish writers).

This isn't going to be an attack on a perceived establishment of artists - although I do think one exists, and it seems important to avoid simply including them 'to make sure I have covered the basics.' For the record, I think that the names who are turning up in every magazine (Hurley, Bissett, Greig, Harrower) are talented and intriguing - to the extent that, if they do something I don't like, I am willing to wonder why and not storm off in a sulk.

This won't be much use as a guide for the Fringe punter, either. I'll mention stuff, give a few links, but there is more about criticism. File it under self-indulgence or frustrated artist: that gives a flavour of my mood.

The clue is in the title. It's supposed to be the Fringe - the margin, the bit outside, the playful, the adventurous. Having spent too much time reading queer theory lately, I'm worried that the Fringe is another word for Trade Fair or Alternative Establishment. There are a fair number of big names in the programme - the Assembly and Traverse have performers who are the closest thing that theatre gets to celebrities. To be blunt, the Traverse doesn't really run a Fringe season: its August bookings are effectively an undiluted series of the sorts of work the venue runs during the rest of the year.

Knowing that this is the sort of thing that I know can offend people, let me re-iterate: that's okay. The programme is good. There are real highlights in their list - inevitably Ontroerend Goed (Fight Night) and the new Harrower (Ciara) are at the top of my list. Between them, they'll give me rough, tough political debate and sensitive characterisation in a language both recognisable and poetic.

But I am trying to find out where the surprises are going to be. I am excited about Gecko's Missing, but I know that they are good: I saw them do The Overcoat a few years ago, and The Guardian gave them four stars. 

There are smaller venues that I trust. Zoo has always mixed up the idiosyncratic and the confident - a day at Greenside is always a treat. But having done 'venue of the month' for the past five years, I'm reluctant to lend more weight to the curatorial model of festival experience. 

I might go and read Mark Fisher's book for a few clues, but I am worrying about two things. First of all, do the critics create a vision of the Fringe that privileges artists who are either officially emerging (that is, funding bodies are interested in them) or are who already part of an establishment? There's great stuff going on at all levels - Mark Ravenhill is doing a cabaret style show, a bold move for the man who started off as one of those pesky neo-brutalists. But the madcap stuff at the bottom gets eased out.

Then I am concerned that smaller artists are getting lost in the mix. I'll be unpleasant and say that I am not that keen on seeing forty student productions this year. Again, it is not that I don't like them, it just feels as if they belong in another place. I'm pondering (outside of the Fringe) how youth theatre and community theatre can be critiques (and my answers are brilliant, revolutionary). Setting them toe-to-toe with the NTS or Gecko is a bit pointless. 

But there are professional companies who are working on a scale that means it might be difficult to spot them between the University companies - since the youth companies do take risks, there might be a profound difference between the two gender-blind versions of Hamlet. One might be by students, the other by the revolutionary director who is a celebrity in her homeland, but gets no reviews in Edinburgh because no-one knows her name. 

Next Blog: I find a way to blame comedy.

Finale note: all the artists mentioned in this piece are worth the price of admission. There is no suggestion that the Traverse is anything less than a major venue, and that all of their shows are quality. You might not like them, but that's taste...

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