DEA BIRKETT: The real Fringe

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p>This year at Edinburgh, Dea Birkett finds that theatre has given up on merely imitating life...


This week I’m going to a wedding, attending a funeral and gawping at a new baby.

Even though these are events that I usually flinch from, I’m looking forward to all of them. They’re shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Immersive theatre no longer means being plunged into the fantastical, demonic, frantic world of Punchdrunk. We’ve been there rather too often. At this year’s Fringe, the landscape we’re being immersed in is real life. At The Wedding Reception I sat at a table in the wedding suite at the George Hotel – white flowers in the centre of the table, rolled white linen napkins, those strange white cloth coverings smothering the chairs – being bossed around by the wedding planner Marvin and his clipboard, listening to appalling speeches, small talking with the fuchsia-clad mother of the bride, and eating the same chicken meal you’ve eaten at every wedding you’ve ever attended. It’s the best wedding I’ve ever been to. Today I’m off to a funeral – Outside the Box. A Live Show about Death performed by Liz Rothschild, a burial manager. I hope it will be as amusing. Tomorrow I’m going to see a new baby – just look at them, talk to them, admire them. Come Look at the Baby offers nothing more than that. This new wave of immersive theatre examines our everyday behaviours and rituals, making us first laugh at them, then think about them. Which is what the best theatre should do.

Real life is a trend at the 2016 Fringe; "inspired by real life stories" is the most common phrase on the press releases. Memoir shows have always been popular, but usually confined to older faded performers letting us know about their younger escapades – Lady Colin Campbell, jungle explorer and author, in her solo show A Cup of Tea with Lady C; Rodney Bewes’s Whatever Happened to the Likely Lad, Part Two. But this year, memoir matinees are more about the traumas and challenges of life – from being a recovered addict to losing a leg. Dear Home Office is written and performed by a group of young asylum seekers. In Sweet Child of Mine, Bron Batten chats on stage with her parents, having that ‘Why did you decide to do that for a living!’ discussion in front of us. Even late night cabaret queen Lady Rizo appears with her 8-month-old baby in her show Multiplied (pictured).

Reality also frames an alarming number of plays looking at the refugee crisis. If the programme is to be believed, every emerging director with a drama degree has paid a trip to the Calais jungle on a quest for tragic authenticity. There must be more thespians than Syrians camped there. Owltime takes the stories of a girl refugee, introduces her to Virginia Woolf, and has her sailing the oceans rescuing children. It’s theatre that smacks of worthiness with a missionary zeal. The Church of England even funded the verbatim piece Still Here, based on a Christian Eritrean Calais camp dweller’s experience of being persecuted for his faith. I expect them to rattle a collection box as we leave.

Circus continues to fly high at the Fringe, with a soaring line up of companies from around the world – Australian Driftwood, British The Hogwallops, Canadian Attrape Moi, New Zealand/Finnish The Pianist. All blend traditional skills with new approaches, making us gasp, laugh, cry, stare, wonder. As the 250th anniversary of circus approaches in 2018, never before have there been so many startling, exciting, inspirational new shows. And the magical aura of circus is spreading beyond the ring; songstress, storyteller and cabaret artist Camille O’Sullivan’s The Carny Dream is inspired by circus.

O’Sullivan’s show is set in a spiegeltent at the Circus Hub on the Meadows. I’ve seen Fringe performances in every sort of space, from tiny hotel rooms to public toilets. So it’s good to see that museums are at last opening their doors for more than one night to performers. The National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street has teamed up with the Gilded Balloon to host 18 shows, from Shakin’ Shakespeare to Rory Bremner Meets, and a pop up bar.
Let’s hope all Edinburgh museums open up as venues next year.

In the meantime, I’m off to a funeral.

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