As the Edinburgh Fringe Festival wraps up, David Cottis provides an overview of Wales’ artistic offerings and the ways the festival has changed post-pandemic.
At the first full-scale Edinburgh Fringe for three years, how much has changed? On the surface, not a lot. It’s still the largest arts festival in the world, run on optimism and overdrafts. You can still go from seeing a school company in a converted Masonic hall to the National Theatre of Scotland ‘s Medea in the same afternoon, or spend an entire day at certain venues, like Summerhall and the Pleasance, just selecting shows from recommendations and word-of-mouth, and the streets are still full of leafletters and discarded publicity material – the latter more so than usual, as a cannily-timed refuse collectors’ strike gives the overflowing gutters the feel of a zombie apocalypse movie.
Underneath there are subtle changes; more programmes area available via QR codes, more venues have gone to paperless tickets, and a post-pandemic drop in audiences for live events mean that marketing departments are trying a bit hard – a lot of shows have clickbaity titles like I Hate my Penis or A Duchess Does Not Scratch Her Crotch. Economics and Covid, though mentioned less often than you might expect, form part of the subtext of many shows, particularly in comedy – the Penarth-born comedy songwriter Frank Foucault (Mash House) explained his move from stand-up to songwriting, – ‘I haven’t had a comic thought in eighteen months’ – and his songs, though often very funny, are also quite melancholic, about his frustrations with family, softboys, and Generation Z. The trend for one-person shows has continued, often autobiographical, and focussing on a moment of crisis in the performer’s life.
One such is Still Floating (Summerhall), Shon Dale-Jones’ revisiting of his 2006 magical realist monologue Floating, in which Anglesey comes loose from the UK and floats around the Atlantic. Of course, a story in which the UK, or a part of it, becomes detached from the larger body has gained an extra resonance in the last fifteen years, and Dale-Jones acknowledges this, intercutting the original show with the narrative of his childhood friend Dylan, whose wife has recently decided to move back to Germany. Dale-Jones is in a longstanding Edinburgh Fringe tradition of digressive raconteurs, like Ken Campbell and Ben Moor, and the show runs on his engaging charm, effortlessly incorporating a couple who arrive halfway through the show, just as he’s changing into a swimming costume covered with plastic oranges (it makes sense in context) and advising critics that ‘if you can’t follow the plot, just chill out’.
Similarly engaging is Welsh dancer and choreographer Jo Fong, whose morning show The Rest of Your Lives (Summerhall), devised with clown George Orange, deals with the question of what dancers and clowns do once they hit their fifties. It’s a playful, optimistic show, full of little routines set to a great soundtrack. Orange rips off his tee-shirt like a rock star and does a pas de deux with a stackable chair, Fong lip-syncs ‘Killing in the Name’ as the surtitles announce ‘Age against the Machine’, and the pair constantly involve the audience, equipping us with table-tennis bats to send balls across the space, and getting us onstage to boogie down to ‘I Feel Love’ – an ideal, if rather surprising, start to an Edinburgh day.
Straitened financial circumstances have meant that the Fringe is even more socially restricted than usual – though fiercely inclusive and international in some ways, it’s always been very middle-class and mostly white, a fact highlighted the year by the company Nouveau Riche, who wrote an open letter to the Stage describing their experiences of racism at the Festival. Common Wealth’s Payday Party (Pleasance) is an attempt to lean on this a little, and bring some less privileged voices to the Fringe. Darren Pritchard’s framework, which has been used to create and tour shows in other parts of the country, is based on the Harlem Renaissance concept of the ‘rent party’ in which musicians would put on a show for their neighbours, passing the hat round to pay their rent. Here, four performers, from a mixture of working-class South Walian backgrounds, sing, dance, and share their stories, linked by the charismatic Stuart Bowden, who tells his own story of growing up mixed-race in Manchester.
Certain themes emerge – casual racism from peers and teachers, knockbacks from Billy Elliot-ish gatekeepers, the inspirational importance of Disney princesses. The Harlem connection is made explicit when Yasmin Goulden dances in a spangly version of Josephine Baker’s belt of bananas and, after each act, we’re asked to contribute from a pile of tokens we were handed at the start. In a mostly young, glitzy cast, the performance poet Jude Thoburn-Price stands out, with her almost-raps about having to work till 67 to get your pension, and the indignities of wearing bargain-shop ‘Pound Pants’.
Like many of the narratives in Payday Party, Dirty Protest’s Double Drop (Summerhall) is a kind of origin story. A play with music, written by Lisa Jên Brown of folk-rock group 9Bach, it tells the story of the 1995 summer where our teenage protagonist Esni finds herself torn between being inducted as a Bard at the Eisteddfod, for which she’s been preparing all her life, and the neighbouring charms of an open-air rave (the title refers to the simultaneous necking of two tabs of ecstasy). With Mirau Haf Roberts as Esni, and Emma Stonelake as everyone else (including Iolo Morganwg, who explains to a loved-up Esni how he invented the traditions of the Eisteddfod, a moment of narrative bravery that was probably lost on an Edinburgh audience), it’s a show with a lot of ideas, possibly more than can comfortably be fitted into a hour-long Fringe show in an unsympathetic space – it’s what my companion called a ‘just-add-water’ show, one so condensed to fit a Fringe slot that it had little time to breathe.
As ever, it’s a mixed bag. The perennial Welsh themes of identity and community peep through in almost everything I saw – where Peter Gill once suggested, in Cardiff East, that the only people who want a community are those who never had to put up with one, the current Fringe suggests a society where people are trying to find ways of living together, whether it’s getting on with your Anglesey neighbours, using music and dance to shine in Ely and Pontypool, or looking for connections between an imagined past and a drug-induced present. Theatre, especially when viewed in blocks like this, inevitably reflects the mood of the times, and the shows I saw this year suggest a country, and a nation, that’s asking a lot of questions, and not too sure about the answers.
David Cottis is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.