Originally written for Exeunt.
As theatre implicitly recognises, our experiences in life are typically defined by the stories we tell after the event. The heightened experience of the Edinburgh Fringe is no different, from the startling encounter in the street to the performance that stole a little bit of your heart, or even just the slurred poetry of intense discussions in the early hours. We package our experiences in small, select slices, reassembled into a mangled but recognisable version of reality.
Perhaps this is why, as we pack away our deflated enthusiasm and file that inevitable late copy between jolting sips of lukewarm East Coast Trains tea, it becomes obligatory to overlay the mad anti-narrative of the fringe with some grand, overarching tale of political or artistic significance. The annual Edinburgh round-ups are scrawled over with trends and a theme inexplicably emerges from the shapeless nebula. Even coffee-fuelled discussions with fellow theatregoers and makers gradually, almost subconsciously slip into comparisons of what the work we have seen is “about” and how it interconnects.
Of course, no piece of theatre exists in a vacuum. Threads can be traced and there is a wider context in which all work sits, comfortably or otherwise. Context is particularly significant to a festival which has itself played host to smaller festivals, miniature curated or partially curated seasons that have carved out shapes within the amorphous whole: Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, Escalator East to Edinburgh, Old Vic New Voices and, arguably, the impressive, internationally-flavoured programme at Summerhall. Each of these programmes has had a distinct identity that has coloured its work – a narrative of sorts.
Yet the kinds of narratives we find ourselves imposing on our festival experiences are unavoidably subjective and essentially arbitrary. As an exercise, one might pluck a theme out of the air, sit down with the now dog-eared fringe guide and quickly circle a generous clutch of shows fitting the bill. Political protest, sexual politics, athletic prowess, urban decay, environmental disaster, eating disorders, the riots, childhood, adulthood, life, death, zombie apocalypse. Take your pick and build your story.
So I could insist on the triumphant glow cast by the Olympics on theatrical stories of sporting achievement, or point to numerous damning indictments of modern politics. I could even make an irritatingly ironic point by dreaming up a ridiculously idiosyncratic theme and using it to battle a pathway through the dense jungle of the fringe. But I won’t.
Instead, I’ll surrender to subjectivity in another way by falling back on one particular show at this year’s fringe which neatly illustrates my point. What I Heard About the World, a collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe, is all about stories, employing these as a way to understand the world around us. Gathered from the far corners of the globe, their odd little fragments of narrative are both amusing and revealing, but what the show is always aware of is its incompleteness. Any story it constructs from its many splinters of smaller stories must be limited and selective. A similar point was made by Thorpe’s serving up of exotic tales at Hunt and Darton cafe; you place your order and you taste the dish of your choosing.
If the Edinburgh Fringe could be distilled into any written structure, it would be a sprawling, web-like poem, replete with spiralling references and veering tangents; probably written by T.S. Eliot, with annotations by Roald Dahl. It has stories, sure – it’s overflowing with them. But the beauty of the experience lies in its messy, democratic multiplicity, its stubborn resistance against the narratives that we insist on vainly saddling it with. There is no overarching story, but we still have the stories that each of us tell.