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Edinburgh Fringe festival: angry to the end

A hard-edged political note dominated this year's gathering.
In this National Theatre of Scotland photo made Aug. 1, 2006 and released Aug. 24, 2006 are seen actors Emun Elliott, left, and Paul Higgins in the theatre's production of \"Black Watch\" at the Edinburgh festival. The story covers the time spent by the famous Scottish Regiment in Iraq.Manual Harlan / National Theatre of Scotland via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s a gray morning along Edinburgh’s cobbled Royal Mile, and a street sweeper is cleaning up the detritus of another raucous, chaotic night. A bronze statue of philosopher David Hume sits capped by a yellow plastic traffic cone.

The Edinburgh Fringe arts festival, which wraps up Monday, is a three-week bacchanal of performance, standup, theater and music — and like any party, it leaves a hangover. This year, audiences are digesting work that often had an angry, political edge.

“I think people are very angry,” said John Tiffany, director of the hit play “Black Watch,” about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. “You can go on marches, you can vote, but using theater to address the things that are going on in the world — I think that’s very exciting.”

An annual overload of performance that bills itself as the world’s biggest arts festival, the three-week Fringe includes more than 1,800 shows put on by 17,000 performers in 260 venues, from theaters, tents and churches to the Udderbelly, a 300-seat theater shaped like an upturned purple cow.

The festival’s selling point is its democracy — anyone can register, pay a fee, find a performance place and put on a show.

The results, as usual, were wildly eclectic: from a stage adaptation of the 1960s film “Midnight Cowboy” to “Bouncy Castle Hamlet” — Shakespeare’s tragedy performed on an inflatable Elsinore — to South Korean puppet shows to two separate productions of “Urinetown: The Musical.”

Amid the diversity, politics were rarely far away. In “Jesus: The Guantanamo Years,” Christ fell foul of the war on terror. A California improv troupe outlined a nation’s ills in “We Smell Like America,” while “What I Heard About Iraq” compiled politicians’ statements and grim statistics about the war.

The runaway hit of the Fringe, generating more buzz than any other show, was “Black Watch,” an exhilarating drama that uses dialogue, movement, song and pyrotechnics to tell the story of Scottish soldiers serving in Iraq. By turns tough, lyrical, bawdy and angry, unapologetically Scottish in its dialogue and dialect, Gregory Burke’s play sold out its run in Edinburgh University’s drill hall. The play evokes empathy for the soldiers and anger at the war that sent them to Iraq.

“We knew we didn’t want to do a piece condemning the war, because that’s so dull,” said director Tiffany. “We wanted to do something a lot more complex. I would call our play less a piece of political theater, more an urgent story.”

‘A brilliant atmosphere’Politics and the war on terrorism also flavored many standup comedy acts at the Fringe.

Danish Muslim comic Omar Marzouk took on the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, while British-Iranian standup Shappi Khorsandi drew on personal experience for her show, “Asylum Speaker.”

One of the biggest standup hits was Doug Stanhope, a blisteringly angry American whose tickets came emblazoned with the words “not for the easily offended.” Stanhope’s — alas, unprintable — screeds against employment, religion, anti-abortion groups and even Edinburgh itself found a large and receptive audience.

The Fringe is the biggest in a group of arts festivals that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Scottish capital every August. It runs alongside the book festival, the film festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the high-culture, invitation-only Edinburgh International Festival, which inspired the breakaway Fringe in 1947.

The Fringe now dwarfs its sister festivals — last year 1.3 million tickets were sold for Fringe shows, and, as ever, there have been gripes that the Fringe has grown too big, too chaotic or too complacent for its own good. Meanwhile, the biggest Fringe venues announced last week that they were uniting as the Association of Independent Venue Producers to address government’s “marked lack of official support” for the festival.

But for thousands of theatergoers, writers, comedians and actors who flock to Edinburgh each August, there is nothing like it in the world.

“It’s such a brilliant atmosphere,” said Emily Heywood, 20, performing at the Fringe with a young company from Bedford in central England. “By this time next year, I’ll have forgotten how tired I am.”