Sep 5, 2005

burn the festival

A note on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest festival of dance, theatre and comedy. This year (like every year) it it spread its bloated gut a little further across Scotland's ancient capital. Myself and my friends descended into back into the belly of the beast this year and have only just come back out for air.

Two of these friends of mine told me of a show they went to see a show called Paul Merton's Impro Chums. Not a remarkable show, or a remarkably bad one. It was improvised comedy, so in the words of the 'chums' themselves the show takes audience suggestions to create 'cascades of fantastic tumbling laughter'. So what you get for your money is several people, including the celebrated television comedian of the title, acting funny on a bare stage in a converted room of the edinburgh student union. And here we get to my problem, the price my friends paid of this (the concession price) was £13 each. This, in my mind, is vastly too expensive.

And this is by no means extraordinary. This is now the norm. As an example, here is the list of Scotsman newspapers acclaimed 'Fringe First' winners and the full ticket price.

East Coast Chicken Supper (traverse) - £15.00

Switch Triptych (Assembly) - £14.00

Children of the Sea (botanic gardens) - £12.00

The Devil's Larder (Traverse) - £12.00

Give Up! Start Over! (C venues) - £7.50

Total: £60.50

Now when you factor in the price of a pint at one of the venue bars (Hoegaarden at Traverse theatre bar is £4.30) or the Spiegeltent (same beer £4.70), plus food, accomodation and such like, sixty pounds is a lot to pay for only five short shows of greatly varying quality.

Some people would argueout that people pay that for a single show in London's West End, but in that case you know what you are getting. you are getting a spectacle, not theatre, and in that respect you are guaranteed quality spectacle, if it is spectacle you desire. (Mamma Mia will deliver plus two hours in a beautiful theatre listening abba hits sung well by a large cast) . if thats your thing then thats your thing. but it ain't theatre. at the fringe the one thing you are assured of is that you're not going to get spectacle. so you'll have to hope that theatre is good. and that is where your troubles begin.

The fringe is a vast, ugly (and indeed noisy) haystack in which finding enjoyable needles is very difficult.

whereas in normal circumstances reviews at least can give you some indication, the size of the festival generates a gravitational pull that attracts an almost infinite number of reviewers, (threeweeks, fest, guardian, scotsman, herald, metro, scotsgay, edinburghguide, edinburgh evening news, observer and the independant to name just a few) most of whom spend the rest of the year nowhere near theatre. thus almost any show can and will get an adequate review. And as for the 'acclaimed' fringe firsts, the folk at festbitch more than adequately demonstrated the self-indulgence and snobbery that they represent, in essence nothing more than a scotsman newspaper review with delusions of grandeur. reviews pile up at the fringe like the abandoned flyers and newspapers in the darker corners of edinburgh's ancient streets. to use them as a guide is hopeless.

my own opinion is that the fringe is vastly, vastly too big. a bloated behemoth that is slowly eating itself. People come to town, get swallowed by the royal mile, chewed for ten minutes and spat out the other end covered in show flyers and feeling slightly violated, still none the wiser as to where to go to spend the little money they have left after inflated accomodation prices and inflated drinks prices. still lost as to how to find one good show with which to fill the brief time they have.

And so people have stopped coming for the theatre. they come for the event. the carnivalesque absurdity of a city crammed with actors and students and shameless buskers plying their hackneyed acts. people (even those performing in the ever increasing number of awful generic shows that drown the city in mediocrity) come for the noise and miss the beautiful little shows that the fringe should really be about. like enola. the fringe should be about shows like that. it should be a chance for hoplessly talented young people who wouldn't have one in a regular theatre. people who really care about theatre should be able give everything they have to people that want to see it.

People often mention that Tom Stoppard's Rosengrantz and Guildenstern are Dead premiered at the fringe. it was i believe a production done by students. it is the romance of this idea that still inspires the spirit of the fringe (as manipulated and abused as it is). the idea that you can come and see the beginings of something so great. a ragged ultrasound of the future of theatre (or even hollywood). but you can barely see this any more. enola is one of the few diamonds in an increasingly messy rough. it and others like it arent at the big showy venues. you'll find them in the small places, the places that can still take chances on shows by young groups, the venues that those young groups of talented folk can still afford to be in. that's where they'll be, at the bottom of the fringe pile, hidden under the weight of so much hype and so many paul mertons.

1 comment:

Devil's Kitchen said...

Excellent post, and very true. I, obviously, was involved in Enola; however, that doesn't stop me from pointing out that it is probably the most satisfying show that I have seen in 10 years at the Fringe. Young cast, new writing, small venue (and the play was written for that venue) and a great show to boot.

I really enjoyed the Festival this year; however, that's because I threw myself into the event and deliberately didn't go and see... much... um... theatre. So, yes, you're right, and duly blogrolled (when the guys at Blogrolling sort out the error that I keep getting).