Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

From Feminist Comedy to Transformative Rap Poetry and Everything in Between – A Report from The Edinburgh Fringe Festival


Spirit of the Fringe – street performers at Edinburgh from Manfred Lentz on Flickr reproduced under a Creative Commons licence

Every year I kick myself for not seeing more of the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe. Living in the city that is home to one of the biggest festivals in the world – not to mention the numerous other festivals: book, television, visual arts etc – I really have no excuse not to take in a suitable amount of culture to last me the rest of the year.

This year the Edinburgh festival was blessed with quite the best weather we’ve had in years. For the first time I can remember, the Book Festival did not contain putrid pools of muddy water rotting the grass at Charlotte Square. The sun was out, the heat in some of the venues, was almost worrisome.  And the fringe carried on with the conveyor-belt of commercialism it seems to have been set on for the last ten years or so.

Comedy predominates with large commercial glossy posters everywhere you look advertising semi-familiar faces from the television. The more relaxed vibe I used to enjoy as a student has long gone. The fringe is dominated by large conglomerate venues – with whole areas stuffed full of pop-up food stands, boards and outside drinking establishments.

Perhaps if I were a student still, I’d enjoy this more. But along with the noise, the crowds, the superficial gloss and the screaming posters, have come prices to match. People used to talk of “doing” the festival. When I was a student I could come for a few days and see a wide variety of shabby, unglossy and occasionally absolutely brilliant pieces of theatre that I would see no other way. Now, you can only “do” the festival if you’re able to spend some serious money. Noone on the Culture Show on the Traverse’s 50 year anniversary, talked about the extraordinary hike in ticket prices. I managed to get two – at £17/£18 a head. (And this doesn’t include booking fees!) Surely this is seriously prohibitive to most of us ordinary folks for a piece of what is supposed to be “fringe” theatre. It makes you wonder who fringe theatre is for anymore. Who is this well-heeled audience who can afford to “do” the  Fringe? They are probably less “Fringe” and more establishment than the audience at any other time of the year.

So – gripes over, what did I see?

One of the main stories of this year’s Fringe was comedy – and the rise of the Feminist stand-up. Commercial comedy and stand-up has taken over Edinburgh to such an extent that many – myself included – feel it has rather dented the whole Fringe experience over the last number of years. This year, however, there was (according to the Herald anyway) a female backlash against the rise of the misogynist set and prevalence of the “rape joke” as a score of female comedians took over the headlines instead. The name that was on everyone’s lips was Bridget Christie. So I hoofed along to see her show A Bic for Her, luckily, before her show managed to totally sell out for the rest of its run.

This was the kind of gig I really like – in the small venue of The Stand (Edinburgh’s traditional comedy club) – it was cannily on at 11 in the morning, capturing a different kind of audience (including the grumpy fed-up-with-the-commercial-rubbish types like me). An unusual time for a one hour show…about Feminism.

All the articles were keen to reassure that Christie isn’t that strident or off-putting…I began to worry about what I was going to see and whether it was going to be one of those cutesy fey comedians who doesn’t really deal with Feminism at all. I needn’t have worried. A wonderfully sharp routine about Formula One driver, Sir Stirling Moss, falling down a lift shaft and breaking both his ankles (his “brittle sexist ankles”) and a brilliant joke about landmines, showed this was a show that did not pull its punches, whilst Christie herself has such a good rapport with the audience and is so fun and – well – likeable – whether mock-ranting one minute, or even getting serious for a while towards the end that she had the whole audience lapping out of her hand. I loved this show. As apparently did nearly everyone else, as Bridget Christie managed the sweep up the Fosters Comedy Award.

In my crusty old-age, I’ve become quite bored of most stand-up, and I’ve decided I only want to see things that are about something. So when I read about Mark Thomas’s 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – I decided this was the one for me. Mark Thomas can be heard frequently on Radio 4 notably on a programme that I enjoy called The Manifesto, where he travels around the country discussing with local audiences what policies they would like to see including gems of ideas like handing the Isle of Wight over to Argentina.

It’s clever stuff that is funny whilst allowing us all to think more (and vent more) about the world we live in and the systems that control our lives.

Mark Thomas live is even better. A ball of inspiring energy  raging about the stage – he’s 50 he says and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him anymore. And he hates Capitalism, he tells us. He really hates Capitalism.

Along with his friends and co-conspirators, Mark is setting out to commit 100 Acts of Minor Dissent over a year. If he makes the full tally -the whole thing will become a major art exhibition. If he doesn’t? He has to pay a forfeit. And this is no token gesture- he has to pay a hefty contribution to UKIP. (And we all know what this would mean to him.)

As I said, Mark Thomas is funny and makes you engage…but more than that, he’s strangely inspiring. A rabble-rousing cockney with rage to burn, but with a moving connection to place and his community. He makes me want to be 50 and using the same barber shop since I was 15. He makes me want to run into an Apple Store with a brass band. He makes me want to get creative with pornographic magazines, inserting subtle messages about the consumer culture into girliemags and smuggling them back on the shelves…

Perhaps rather than “Feminist” or “Activist” stand-up, both these shows are part of another phenomenon – a new kind of firebrand “middle-aged” stand-up.  The roar of the “I don’t give a stuff” middle-age.  Mark Thomas is 50 and fuckit. Bridget Christie is younger and barely middle-aged really, but frequently mentions the fact she over 40 as though conscious to place herself apart from the many 20-somethings that dominate the Fringe. Neither drone on about the cosy domesticity of their lives. These are not shows that relax into the kind of dull and nicey-nicey middle-aged comedy of giving up and passivity – nor does their “going bold” consist of the that oh-so-well-trodden personal territory of the oh-ho-ho embarrassment of prostate examinations or the imminent arrival of HRT. These are both people who are fully engaged with issues and the outside world and their shows are not really about them. They have something to say about the world and have enough experience and confidence to have sorted out what they think and why they think it.  These were both my comedy picks of the fringe.

Despite my VL credentials I did not do much of the book festival this year. However, I did manage to catch an event chaired by VL’s own Eve Harvey, with two American writers of dystopian teen fiction. This was a thoughtful event, discussing powerfully imaginative ideas such as how do future societies deal with nuclear waste or the currency of dreams. I came away clutching two newly purchased books, so I hope to be looking at some of these issues further in a future post for Vulpes Libris. More anon.

Every year I decide I want to see some theatre. Each year I say to my boyfriend that I want to see something I couldn’t see any other way – something preferably obscure, in Greek, or maybe Japanese,  perhaps an ancient play translated by another culture entirely, with lots of wailing, or chanting and gnashing of teeth. As usual I failed to see my dream play, but on seeing a suitably obscure poster for Le Foulard (English title: The Veil) I decided this might satisfy my arty longings.

Unfortunately, I hated it.

One woman with a long scarf.  At first (to my horror) I thought it was mime. Then, thank goodness, she started speaking. About 20 minutes later I rather wished she hadn’t as the over-stylised and irritatingly empty statements added nothing to an already-grating experience.

I feel really bad writing a negative review of this show. The performer is clearly very skilled and there were some funny moments towards the start that seemed promising. I should also point out that this show has been inundated with rapturous reviews from newspapers and online. All I can say is that it didn’t do it for me, neither did I “get” what it was trying to do or say. For me, this show was the opposite of all I have been discussing earlier. A show that was evidently trying to mock or pastiche the pretensions of performance art and “Act-tors” and “Arrtists” (with a capital A and lots of rrrrs) but it failed to lift itself out of the tedium and obscurity that was the very territory it was trying to undermine. I have to admit, whilst I stayed a long time, I did not stay to the very end and some reviews  indicate the end redeemed any failures of the rest so I cannot comment on that beyond to say that – for me – the journey must be interesting too. At least some of the time. And whilst the reviews for this work worldwide have been glowing, I sense a hesitancy in some of the UK reviews  which – whilst positive and praising her obvious talent – seem less certain about telling us what we are looking at or why it is all worthwhile.

Perhaps this show makes more sense to those with stronger traditions of physical theatre. The following review makes the interesting point that it is this sort of slightly unsatisfactory, weird and partial experience that is the fringe.

And to some extent I might have been inclined to agree in the past – but at such a high ticket price (£11), I’m not so prepared anymore to sit through something I am getting little from anymore.

Prices and expectations are interesting things to think about in relation to the Fringe these days. If you are going to part with hefty amounts of money, are you so tolerant of poor production values or shows that don’t seek to give you “value-for-money”?  With this in mind, I set off to my final shows – Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, a touring production from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Kate Tempest’s Brand-New Ancients – both at the Traverse Theatre.


Quietly at the Traverse Theatre

McCafferty was a safe choice. After seeing a number of things of patchy quality, I wanted something straightforward – a play. With a script. About something. With concrete characters who talk to each other. With decent production values , well-directed and with a good set! Quietly delivered on all these fronts. The director (Jimmy Fay) is one I rate. The playwright ditto. Even the actors I’ve seen before. Quietly is a curious play, though. Ostensibly about peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, it does exactly what it says on the tin with a plot so straightforward it is almost simplistic. Two men agree to meet in a bar. They are in their 50s. One is Catholic, one is Protestant. Over the course of the second half of a football match (the play takes place in real time) they discuss  something that happened many years before when they were just in their teens…

The play made me think how unconventional it is not to have your “expectations subverted” or “preconceived notions turned on their head” these days. This play is not about that. In a way it is so searingly simple I wondered if this was a weakness. And then I thought again. Because there is something very complete about the experience. And perhaps sometimes we forget – in our hurry to overturn expectations, add plot twists or turn everything on its head – that theatre, or the coming together of people in a space, can have another powerful purpose. To bear witness. To recognise something. To look at something simply and acknowledge it. Perhaps sometimes we need to stop and just recognise events, just that, no more. Quietly – very quietly and without fuss – does this. And in a strange humble way ended up subverting some of my own expectations about the role of theatre whilst it did so.

Kate Tempest I got a ticket to see because it was the last day of the Fringe, I wanted to see something and it was one of the only tickets left at the Trav. I’m very glad I managed to see this. Distressingly young and achingly confident (or so it seems), Tempest is a poet who is so cool and street and hip and all those alien youthful words that I really shouldn’t have “got” this at all. But she is also a very good poet of universal appeal and talent. This show is hard to describe, but perhaps the only reference I can think of to compare it to is Under Milk Wood – in terms of the presentation (and empathy and understanding) for a range of ordinary  characters in the ordinary world in which we live. Part-performance poetry, part-rap, there is a band, but often the musical contribution is sad and orchestral, more than driving rhythm or raptastic.

Tempest is a phenomenon. She is quite brilliant at what she does as she shambles about the stage with a strange rapperish gait. At other times, when  dramatising the angst of her characters trying their best to battle the troubles of their lives, she has a powerful inspirational quality – almost preacher-like.  She introduces us to her characters and makes us care about them, she shows the difficulty of people’s lives and marries this to an ambitious over-arching idea.

This show is all about words and text and Tempest is a brilliant writer. I am tempted to buy the playscript to read it in-depth. Ultimately, as a piece, I felt it could have been more cohesive in terms of overall structure – the abrupt fragmented ending came out of the blue and left me slightly yearning for a more satisfying conclusion. But really, I feel churlish even saying that as what I feel for this show – its vast ambition and its originality and its huge heart – is just complete admiration. It’s all the more startling that it’s been created by someone so young. If I get the chance, I will definitely try to see Kate Tempest again and if there is a meteoric rise about to happen – I think it will be hers.

6 comments on “From Feminist Comedy to Transformative Rap Poetry and Everything in Between – A Report from The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

  1. Jackie
    September 5, 2013

    Oh my, what a banquet of a piece! You manage to take us readers along with you through the festival and your comments on what you saw were almost like asides to a friend.And there was so much to see!
    I must say that I sat up straighter with pride on fellow Book Fox Eve chairing an event. I can imagine how good that was.
    I don’t understand why they are using the word “fringe” to describe something that is now so corporate. However, I do applaud the spotlight on female comedians. Over here there are plenty of working female comics, they just aren’t featured on Tv or comedy shows. I recall many more famous ones in the eighties and nineties, so in the US at least, we’re going backwards(in more ways that one, but I digress).
    Thanks for such a cornicopic review and for all the links so we can sample some of the people you saw.

  2. Kate
    September 5, 2013

    Loved this, it catches up with the things I felt when I was there, and now I don’t feel that my objections to ticket prices are out of place.

  3. Lisa
    September 5, 2013

    This was brilliant, Rosy. Really wish I’d been there to see these. All that’s missing from this piece is a picture of you with a stern expression on your face, holding a ticket and pointing to the price. I would have loved that 🙂 The tickets do sound very expensive and I can see how the cost would soon become unmanageable, especially if there were a number of family members that also wanted to attend. I hope the artists get a big cut of the ticket price, but alas I know that doesn’t always happen. Anyway, great article! Really enjoyed it.

  4. Moira
    September 5, 2013

    Fabulous, funny and thoughtful piece Rosy. I’m always torn between wishing I lived in the Edinburgh area, and being really rather glad I don’t, because while I’d love having so must stuff to choose from, (a) I couldn’t afford to see much of it and (b) I wouldn’t even know where to start.

    The complaints about the price grow louder every year. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone but I know that at least some of the performers do it all themselves – hire the venue, pay the cast and crew and then take anything that’s left. Frequently, there isn’t anything left. Alan Davies stopped going to Edinburgh for that reason. He played to consistently packed houses but made a loss of several thousand pounds. Hard to say whether it’s financial necessity that make the venues so expensive, or just plain greed.

    Berkoff is of the latter opinion … he was quite trenchant on the subject.

  5. Peta
    September 5, 2013

    Thanks for writing such a great article although I’m with Moira – not sure if it’s curse or a blessing having it all on your doorstep! I have checked out everyone you have mentioned and just bought tickets to see Mark Thomas when his tour gets to my home city of Norwich. If only Bridget Christie had more dates on her site!

  6. rosyb
    September 6, 2013

    Thanks for the comments. I have been very lazy in this article and casually talk of the “festival” (as everyone does) in relation to the whole shebang. Actually there is a main festival which is smaller and contains mainly classical music concerts, dance and some theatre. And there is the Fringe which is supposed to be the more rough and ready stuff circulating around the edge but has now become so enormous and so commercial that it dwarfs the main Festival The Fringe contains thousands of shows and huge amounts of comedy, stand-up and all those semi-famous or famous faces I was talking about. The Traverse Theatre occupies a strange place at the top of the Fringe in terms of the way it laps up the awards. On the other hand, in a way it is less real Fringe in that it is often taking quite established offerings and putting them on (for more money) at this time of year. The Fringe season gives the Traverse a huge chunk of its income though so I never know whether to be annoyed by this or not. I would like to see more real Fringe-type stuff. The sheer amount makes it almost-impossible and there is a much less casual feel about everything – the queues are massive. I think that next year I make do it a different way and concentrate on different venues – I’ve heard great things about the SUmmerhall venue this year and so I will check that out first next year as it’s a bit more up-and-coming. This might be a way of tackling some of the problem of how to see things.

    The other thing I notice is how rarely I see productions iwth loads of people anymore. I have a memory of the most brilliant production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw in the dim and distant – with about 8 people performed in a cupboard (or so it seemed). Now you seem to pay a lot…for a lot of shows with one person in. And whilst these can work, it does feel samey.

    Peta – thanks so much for commenting and i do hope you enjoy 100 Acts. It will be interesting as it will have grown and changed by then too as the number of acts will have increased as the year goes on – let us know what you think, won’t you?

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This entry was posted on September 4, 2013 by in Entries by Rosy and tagged , , , , , .



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