On the fringe of psychic liberation: it's not all about stars and money

This article is from 2018

On the Fringe of psychic liberation: it doesn't have to be all about stars and money

Theatre editor Gareth K Vile finds and celebrates the dramatugical moments that make August in Edinburgh great

The relentless internal logic of the Fringe – perform, market, perform, market and repeat – can hide the fundamental questions about the purpose of all this theatre that stops traffic, make money for landlords and fills inboxes with cries for attention. Philosophical queries about the purpose of art, or the consequences of building a life around the consumption of performance are set aside for September, when they are so urgent there is less cash at stake. Moments like Mistero Buffo's accusation of Christ's compassion (Rhum and Clay), the slaughter of the Lu-ting (Horizon), or the tracing of oppression across history in Freeman (Strictly Arts) are subsumed by irritation at slow moving North American tourists or the state of the drunks on the last train back to Glasgow. The whole Fringe becomes camouflage for the importance of theatre, disguising it as a series of commodities.

Reviews are opinions, informed at best and personal at least: the point of making art is the art itself, the need to articulate experience. Every artist – even those who have been the victim of two star reviews and sabrous wit – deserves a nod of the head, a mark of respect and a sharp reminder that the results are irrelevant. It's the bravery of doing that counts.

It is still possible that moments can happen that reframe the Fringe, not as the world's largest arts market, in the disgraceful language of commerce, but as a reminder of how theatre might change culture. There is a lack of meaningful diversity in the arts – searching for an Islamic perspective is difficult, but not impossible, and plenty of performers mistake finding an accomodation with the patriarchy for feminist or queer liberation – and sport, maligned as focussed on masculinity, is better at multi-culturalism than the supposed liberal bastions of performance. Yet the gravitational pull of what has been established is strong, making critiques of Trump far less important than those brave souls who take on theatre's own failures.

Blind Summitt do it in Henry, How to Act did it in 2017, questioning the self-satisfied white males who think they have been inclusive or moral. Staging Wittgenstein went further and depicted the history of human experience of language through the Austrian thinker's works and a few big balloons, and Wild Boar cracked open the male bias of dramaturgy itself. Critics inevitably paraded their own ignorance and prejudices, boasting that they could not understand the pieces – as if the fault lay in the production and not their own pitiful intellects. A recent show in Birmingham by OCD, The Cave, perfectly explicitated the mighty myth of Plato – that accounts for the way that the human experience is chained by performance and power – yet was greeted by a confused audience who mainly wondered why they kept singing in Greek. The forced laughter at a worthy joke, the hoots of approval at a witty play that was, nevertheless, about a conspiracy by the state against the working class (Ed Edwards): the audience encourage even those artists driven by desperation to keep everyone smiling.

The world is a grim place, and another Trump impersonation won't change that and, for all of the goodwill in those many plays about #MeToo, as soon as it becomes a fashion for theatre companies, there is a danger that it becomes the equivalent of a Guardian opinion piece. A tut, a shake of a head and a recognition that some people just aren't awake yet, and the consensus rolls over and goes back to sleep. The Fringe is, in the words of Glasgow's late and wonder Ian Smith, a pit of venality, but it doesn't have to be. Those embers of resistance, of passion, of hope, can be blown back into life as soon as the chained citizens stop looking at the shadows and realise what can really happen on stage and in the audience.

Gareth K Vile is The List's Theatre Editor.


  • 4 stars

Strictly Arts presents a dramatic tale inspired by the story of William Freeman, a man in 19th century New York who becomes the first person to raise 'insanity' as a defence in an American trial.

Lu-ting the Merman

  • 5 stars

Theatre Horizon (Hong Kong) A mythical merman tribe in ancient Hong Kong, the Lu-tings, is oppressed by another dominant culture. They learn the language of this culture and end up revolting against them. This is a touching story told in a theatre style encompassing dance, mask, live music and poetry. ‘Reminding the…

Mistero Buffo

  • 4 stars

Rhum and Clay Theatre Company Award-winning and critically acclaimed company Rhum and Clay bring to the stage Dario Fo's seminal master piece, Mistero Buffo – a daring and explosive rallying cry for the disenfranchised. A travelling storyteller, another employee of the gig economy, rushes from his last delivery of the day…