JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOT ALL COMEDY: GETTING SERIOUS ON THE EDINBURGH FRINGE for Scotsman Magazine, 27.7.13.
THE EDINBURGH FRINGE of 2013 rolls over the horizon, bigger and more spectacular than ever; 6.5% bigger than last year, and featuring a total of 2,871 shows. And in a couple of weeks, across Edinburgh, various groups of judges will begin the task of trying to identify the truly great shows of this year’s Fringe. 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Scotsman’s own much-prized Fringe First Awards, set up in 1973 by our late, great arts editor Allen Wright, to encourage new work and new writing on the Fringe; and today, there are at least a dozen other major award schemes running in Edinburgh in August. One of my own favourites – celebrating its tenth edition this year – is the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, designed to recognise a show which, as well as being great theatre, exposes injustice, or gives a voice to the voiceless; over the years, the judging panel on which I sit has recognised a series of blisteringly brilliant shows, from The Exonerated in 2005 – a searing, beautifully-written protest against the death penalty in the United States – to Cora Bissett’s wonderful 2010 show about human trafficking, Roadkill.
Yet if you were to glance at most UK media coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe, you would think that there was only one award that mattered; the Edinburgh Comedy Award, once known as the Perrier. For despite the huge diversity of the event, the idea that the Edinburgh Fringe is all about comedy – plus some street-clowning and unicycling, to amuse the passers-by – is an oddly persistent one. It’s true that there have been some huge historic surges in the amount of comedy on the Fringe, notably during the 1980’s, when a brilliant new wave of alternative stand-up artists emerged in Britain; and since solo comedy is relatively cheap to stage, the performers involved are often much more famous than the average Fringe actor, offering an attractive and recognisable option for Fringe-goers baffled by choice. And above all, the comedy element of the Fringe exists in a particularly close trade-fair relationship with the London comedy market; on the last weekend of the Fringe, a huge tranche of the British broadcasting establishment traditionally arrives in Edinburgh to attend the International Television Festival, and to scout for new talent.
The statistics, though, make it clear that despite the occasional eagerness of the Fringe itself, in the past, to market itself as a kind of non-stop circus of street theatre and comedy, theatre remains a huge and equal part of the programme, growing steadily through the decades, and now finding a new voice in emerging venues like Summerhall and Northern Stage at St. Stephens. In 2006 theatre represented 32% of the programme, and comedy 27%; and although comedy is slightly ahead this year, the figures tend to vary around this 30%-each mark.
Yet even if there were twice as much comedy as theatre on the Edinburgh Fringe, the event is so mind-stretchingly vast that it would still remain the biggest theatre event in the western world; its biggest rival, in Adelaide, is only about a third of the size. It is true that the economic pressures on the open market of the Fringe are huge, and biased towards the wealthy and famous; there are certainly many people presenting silly and pointless shows, in Edinburgh, simply because they have the cash or the clout to do so. Yet a festival of this scale, and this unruly oppenness, can accommodate both huge amounts of trash, and vast treasure-troves of brilliance. And surprisingly often, it succeeds in doing what theatre does best; creating a show that takes the world we live in by the scruff of the neck, makes us face unpalatable truths about its injustice and its silences, and thrills us with the explosive energy of art that breaks that silence, and makes us think again.