JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.8.10
ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, with a dozen other people, I am whisked in a minibus bus through the streets of Edinburgh, to a flat five minutes from my own home. Onto the bus, at the last minute, come two girls from Nigeria, one in her mid-twenties, the other barely more than a schoolgirl, excited, friendly, expecting a holiday with her “auntie”. What happens at the flat, through, is something else; an immediate, brutal rape by her “auntie’s” handler, imprisonment in a permanently darkened basement bedroom, and a parade of male clients – ten, fifteen, twenty or more each day – whose demands turn this 14-year-old girl’s life into a living hell.
This is a show called Roadkill, created by the young Glasgow companies Ankur Arts and Pachamama with the support of the Traverse Theatre and the Scottish Government’s Made In Scotland Fund. It is by a long way the most powerful so far of the many shows on this year’s Fringe that try to deal with the subject of sex-trafficking, the modern form of slavery that increasingly disfigures our society. And it is difficult to count the number of ways in which the existence of this show, and its presence in Edinburgh at this moment, is a good thing.
At the deepest level, it shows Scottish-based theatre artists trying, with responsibility and skill, to get to grips with a problem which exists in our society, and which needs to be addressed. In the quality of its imagery, its writing, its acting, it brings credit to everyone involved, and does it on the international stage of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. And along with 2,400 others, the show is part of the Fringe Festival that sweeps through Edinburgh at this time of year, famously bringing not only the kind of artistic experience that can change lives, but also visitors and money and vibrancy and colour, through good times and bad. This year’s Fringe is 17% bigger than last year’s, ticket sales are up again, and the city centre is jumping with life; and this almost before the official Edinburgh International Festival has even started, bringing its own layer of excitement and prestige, and a whole new tranche of theatre and concert-goers.
Cities across the world try to imitate this magical combination of Festival and Fringe, and very few succeed: mainly because, 63 years ago, Edinburgh was first in the field with an international festival designed to heal the wounds of war; and because as soon as the Festival started, the Fringe came too, not planned by anyone, but simply self-organised by performers who wanted to be in Edinburgh at Festival time. The Fringe has grown vastly since 1947, of course. At its heart, though, it is still a rare, spontaneous and magical thing, an unprogrammed festival of immense size and variety, containing a range of work that dazzles the mind; some of it nonsense, and some of it as exciting as any creative work on earth.
So it’s worth asking why – in a word full of real problems which urgently need action, and of people constantly complaining about the bureaucracy and control-freakery of modern western governments – so many people around Edinburgh seem unable simply to let the Fringe be. Every year, it works its magic; and every year, it is greeted not by roars of welcome, but by the joyless whimpering of those who think that it’s now totally dominated by comedy (completely false), that the big venues have wiped out the rest of the Fringe (also false), or that it’s just “too big”, and should be shrunk or reshaped; although they fail to explain how, in an allegedly free society, companies can actually be stopped from coming here, and doing their thing.
Of course, the Edinburgh Fringe is far from perfect; like any event which roughly follows the principles of the free market, it contains elements of overcharging, exploitation, cynical opportunism and blatant injustice.
Yet in the end, this is not – except in the rarest of accidents – a matter of life and death. This is not the health service, or the education of our children, or even the infrastructure of our year-round cultural life, none of which should ever be left entirely to market forces. This is a four-week summer festival of fun and occasional genius, which – instead of bearing the mark of some artistic director or some city regeneration policy – simply defines and arranges itself, with a little supportive help from the light-touch Fringe administration.
And those who constantly assert the need to “do something” about it therefore need to take a long, hard look at the assumptions about control that lie behind that idea. For perhaps one of the things we learn from the Fringe, along with the specific lessons taught by mighty shows like Roadkill, is that despite all our talk of freedom, our western societies are often far more rigid and conventional than we think; and that when we see a genuinely free event – not cheap, not fair, not always nice, but free – our first reaction is often to slap it down, create some policy framework for it, and get it under control.
The day we do that to the Edinburgh Fringe, though, we can be sure that the party will be over. 63 years ago, the Edinburgh International Festival, and its Fringe, came to the city of Edinburgh as great unsought gifts from the communities of artists and musicians who wanted them to happen; over two generations, the synergy between the prestigious international event and the booming, anarchic Fringe has helped transform Scotland’s capital from a dingy postwar backwater into the beautiful, glamorous, outward-looking international city we see today. And if we cannot, for a month in each year, muster the courage, grace and wisdom to welcome that great rush of energy through our grey streets, and to relish it for the unique thing it is, then we are poor people ideed; and what’s more, we will deserve to be.