Culture theatre

Fringe Days Gone By

Jaya Rana

Oh to be back in summer 2017, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed with a group of my best mates, frantically running around Paddington station trying to find the platform for our train to Edinburgh. Despite anticipating an excruciating 7-hour train journey, the mixture of line learning and excited chatter made the time fly by. We arrived in Edinburgh, suitcases in hand (read: suitcases, speakers, strobe lights, projector, and a variety of other heavy objects required for our rather unconventional retelling of Spring Awakening). The long and exhausting walk from the station to our hostel was made much more palatable by the picturesque surroundings; I still maintain that Edinburgh is the second most beautiful city in the world, rivalled only by our own humble abode, Oxford. The cobbled streets and sandstone buildings may not excite many of us anymore, but for a 16-year-old Londoner it was certainly a sight for sore eyes.

After having a few hours to settle in, we walked into town for our dress run, and the atmosphere was electric. Every alley and crevice of the city was buzzing with artistic energy; from musicians, to comedians to actors, the city was transformed into a theatrical wonderland. There is something inexplicably special about being in an environment full of people who share a love for creativity in all its wonderful eccentricities. Perhaps my favourite thing about the Fringe is its dedication to providing an artistic outlet for productions of any size and level; while there were huge productions such as Showstopper going on every night, the festival also allows space for small school-based companies such as ours. Not only that, but of the 55,000 performances which are put on over the month of August, almost all of them are less than £10 to see. It’s a theatre-lover’s dream; every day we watched at least three productions, and it is at this festival that I have come across some of the most innovative and ground-breaking theatre I’ve ever seen.

The stand out production for me has to be Darkfield’s four-dimensional play (experience?) Flight. David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s flight simulator, whilst not ideal for anxious flyers, poses some fascinating psychological and philosophical questions in a sheer ten-minute performance. The ten-minute show simulates Flight 3H170 (a flight which disappeared, with the state of its passengers still unknown). We as audience members become Schrodinger’s cat, beings trapped in a box entirely unremarkable to the outside world, with no way of outsiders knowing if we are dead or alive – and this becomes a central theme in the show. Housed in a large shipping container, Flight’s hyperrealism is perhaps the most impressive yet uncanny aspect of the entire production. The dedication to complete accuracy, down to the functioning overhead lockers and rounded windows, to the pilot’s voice over the intercom and the safety pamphlet in the seat pocket was astounding. It felt almost wasteful that the moment the production started we were plummeted into total darkness, but the nature of headphone theatre would insist it be so. The lack of visual stimulation elevates your other senses, and the attention to detail provided by the Darkfield creative team was admirable. The faint sound of a baby’s cry, to the breathing of other passengers in your ear, to the opening of bags of peanuts; the experience became entirely indistinguishable from sitting in a real plane. What impressed me most, however, was the fact that, even on my fourth visit, I still fell victim to complete and utter terror, and, from a production with no live cast and no visuals, I think that’s pretty remarkable.

Anyway, as well as seeing some rather bizarre productions like Romeo and Juliet set in 90s Brazil and a gender-flipped Antigone, having the opportunity to actually perform at the festival was amazing; even the hours spent in the freezing cold handing out our flyers are some of my fondest memories. There’s something particularly exciting about peering out through the gap in the curtain from backstage, counting as audience members arrive to hype up your mates about to go on stage whilst singing and dancing along to the opening number. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful; a thirty second dress change from my Ilse costume to my Ina costume was not ideal, but the scrambling and group efforts backstage definitely bonded us all somewhat. 

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is nothing short of magical, and I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t enjoy it; there’s just something for everyone – even my very un-theatrical father has been back several times for the stand up! August in Edinburgh is the month where performance becomes the beating heart of the city, and, for a short while, every nook and cranny, every street corner and dimly lit pub becomes a stage.

Mitch Marshall

Mitch with Ronny Chieng after his show at the Fringe.

The Edinburgh Festival is a magical, bewildering spectacle. A city already steeped in history bubbles up to boiling point with the arrival of thousands of performers and tourists from across the world. This cauldron of comedians, poets and playwrights alongside masses of eager punters can hardly be contained by the designated ‘fringe’ spaces that pop up all across the city. 

The latter of these multitudes, for over a decade, was me. Since I was as young as I can remember, and frankly even before that, I was among those who traipsed around the Edinburgh Festival in search of the elusive show, joke, or song of the year. For the joke of the year, in fact, there has even become an official award. One could say that I grew up at the ‘Fringe’. I no longer yawn at the prospect of a late night at one of the event’s many specially set up beer gardens, but have come to delight in the smorgasbord of people you come to meet around tables and under improvised rain-shelters, usually pint in hand. Picking a piece of so many fellow cultural citizens’ minds can be hugely rewarding, and often downright hilarious. By the end of each night, the air is almost tangibly filled with a heady mixture of curiosity and alcohol. Even the erratic Edinburgh summer weather rarely succeeds in extinguishing the crowds’ spirits until the wee hours of the morning.

Then there are the shows themselves. The performance rooms are wonderfully diverse, ranging from tiny sweatbox seminar-rooms to inflatable upside-down cows. I’m not joking. Just as much of a lucky bag are the contents and talent on display in the shows themselves. While there are such a range of shows, the actual quality of any remains a mystery until you actually attend. However, what one can never fail to be amazed by is the enthusiasm of the performers; indeed, there is often greater charm in amateur productions than in those given by, say, comedians who see the Festival as just another set of tour dates. Nonetheless, the innumerable shows available to choose from provide plenty of laughs and original material. One simply has to learn to take each performance at face value and try to find amusement in even the worst – although an early escape can never be absolutely ruled out.

One of the most satisfying parts of the Festival is to see these acts hone their work year after year, a process which can result in their being catapulted to stardom later on. Just try not to be too smug about having seen them ‘before they were cool’. But while comedy is a major part of the Edinburgh Festival each year, many of the shows that have dwelled in my mind, resurfacing intermittently to remind me of their power, have been much more serious or dramatic. Brilliant stagecraft used to evoke the underground tunnels of the battlefield, or the terraces of a burning sports arena, defies the sometimes poky venues and allows the frequently spellbinding actors to flourish in front of amazed or tearful eyes. The effect of emerging from the dark of a venue and into the light of the outside world can be a striking, ephemeral one after such theatrical experiences.

Naturally, a festival where sweaty bodies come together to bond over the joy of performance couldn’t go ahead right now. While the beer gardens that typify the Fringe are all the rage, to invite the world to condense into one city for a full month would be outrageous. Nevertheless, what the perseverance of the arts in spite of the virus shutdown shows is the thing that makes the Fringe so special: the intrinsic desire in all of us to share common pursuits, in person or at a distance, even when this involves logistical difficulties. Just as comedians, actors and musicians circumvent technical roadblocks to perform for intrepid audiences at the annual Edinburgh Festival, so they are doing so now to bring relief and emotion to our homes. Long may it continue.