As the Edinburgh Fringe Festival hits its home stretch, we select the weird and wonderful highlights
Edinburgh Fringe 2017 highs and lows
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has been celebrating a significant anniversary this month. It’s 70 years old. The world’s longest-running arts festival, which is three weeks into its run, still claims to be pioneering and provocative. This year’s Fringe slogan is: “Defying the norm.”
But has it? Several shows boast that they have been running for more than two decades. Shakespeare for Breakfast is in its 26th Edinburgh run. But although well-established, it still manages to be anarchic and remains the best way to begin a Fringe day. This year, the play that’s being butchered by the young actors is Macbeth. The killer-hard croissants aren’t only handed out to the audience on arrival (along with tar tea), but also feature in their wonderful reworking of the play’s weaponry.
Being a bit bonkers has been a theme of this year’s festival, with clowns of all sorts and traditions enjoying a comeback. Wereldband, whose show is called Släpstick, are a Dutch band, but they don’t perform world music (which is what their name means in Dutch) nor are they Slapstick. They play on 99 musical instruments, dance in boaters, mime and sing Scaramouche in German for no reason at all, in the tradition of musical clowns. They are wonderfully difficult to put into a single art-form category.
Comic clown Spencer Jones is also impossible to place in any one box. He is not a stand-up (he is far too physical); he is not a clown (he relies on spoken language); he is not physical theatre (he is too silly). But he is definitely brilliant, using nothing but a case of oranges and a vibrating platform for props while performing in a basement where the ceiling is so low that he nearly hits his head on the lights. In his white tights and doctor’s coat, he evokes a Shakespearean fool, as do his wise words mixed with mad gesturing.
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman also refuses to fit into a preconceived category – part academic lecture, part film, part performance art and even a bit of fire-eating and hair-hanging by a ferocious tribe of female artists. This surprising show celebrates the power of women’s bodies, and their magic in such unexpected ways that you will gasp, laugh and wonder, sometimes with your eyes squeezed shut.
Mashing up art forms is one way in which the Fringe has continued to challenge this year. Powerful political theatre is another. In Salt, artist Selina Thompson takes an account of her recent cargo-ship voyage, tracing the Transatlantic slave route from Ghana to Jamaica, and turns it into a one-woman show. Thompson, who is 26 years old, is black and from Birmingham, England, and wants to scream when people ask her where she is “actually from”. Using voice recordings and extracts from her essays, she leads us through her memories of the voyage.
Like many Fringe productions, we’re seeing work that feels as if it’s yet to be finished. But that’s what the Fringe does best – it lets us in on the process of making a performance before it’s polished and perfect, as if peaking through a keyhole into the artist’s creative process. As ever, the rawness of so many Fringe productions is not a weakness, but the festival’s great strength.
Another tradition is to involve the audience. Trumpageddon, one of several shows about the American president (none complimentary to him), is staged as a press conference where the audience get to be the journalists and ask the questions. And although the Fringe has a reputation for being politically left-leaning and hard-hitting, “Where do you get your fake tan?” was the most popular query.
The Fringe prides itself on showing things other festivals can’t. Its growing strand of circus performances does just that. Where else would you see a man in a Velcro suit being hurled through the air until he sticks to almost anything? In Attached, two world-class circus performers – one tiny man with a big beard, one moustached gentle giant – are disastrously, hilariously connected to each other. They fly, flip, slide and stick to each other – and the audience.
In Humans, Brisbane-based company Circa, probably the finest contemporary circus company in the world, astound audiences with physical feats that they make seem utterly natural and humanly impossible at the same time.
And where else but the Fringe can you start the day with mashed up Macbeth for breakfast and end with a late night messed around with The Little Mermaid? Cabaret artist and diva Meow Meow gives Hans Christian Andersen’s bittersweet aquatic fairy tale a raucous contemporary makeover, blending it with her own misadventures in love, using original songs. She seeks to complete her story, as we all do, with a happy ending. Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is in the main Edinburgh International Festival (which is also marking its 70th anniversary, but making much less of a song and dance about it).
Perhaps next year, Shakespeare for Breakfast – for their 27th year and the Fringe’s 71st – will meddle with the bard’s Anthony and Cleopatra. And when they come to the lines “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”, it will be as if they are describing the festival itself. This year, via hits and misses, it has proved that you can still defy the norm at 70.
Last chance to catch...
Attached, Underbelly, George Square, until August 27, www.underbelly.co.uk
Circa: Humans, Underbelly, until August 26, www.underbelly.co.uk
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, Pleasance Courtyard, until August 28, www.pleasance.co.uk
Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, The Hub, until August 27, www.eif.co.uk
Salt, Summerhall, until August 26, www.summerhall.co.uk
Shakespeare for Breakfast, C Venues, until August 28, www.cvenues.com
Spencer Jones: The Audition, until August 27, Monkey Barrel, www.edfringe.com
Trumpaggedon, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until August 28, www.gildedballoon.co.uk
Wereldband: Släpstick, Assembly George Square Theatre, until August 27, www.assemblyfestival.com