La Femme Est Morte, or Why I Should Not F%!# My Son /
Six Women Standing In Front Of A White Wall / Subway

Various venues, Edinburgh
, 2007

Just as every year brings "West End in crisis?" stories, the corresponding annual phenomenon up north each August is "Has the Edinburgh bubble burst?"  And every year figures are adduced to show that International Festival and Fringe alike are doing better than ever, if not in numbers of visitors then in numbers of tickets or amount taken at the box office.... whatever index is handiest. This year, though, the spinmeisters may be harder pressed than usual to find triumph.

From major venue managers to cabbies, the word is that despite a record 2050 shows in the Fringe programme alone (never mind late additions), this year has been perceptibly quieter. Weekend business has been solid, but the drop-off during the week has been marked; I personally noticed a palpable shift in gear, far greater than expected, between last Sunday and Monday evenings in the same venues. William Burdett-Coutts, who runs the Assembly venue empire, has gone public about the slowdown in his own fiefdom, which last year attracted more visitors to its shows alone than either the entire Edinburgh Book Festival or the Military Tattoo, and this year has added three new addresses to its sphere of influence. Some attribute this effect to a decrease in American visitors as the dollar continues to give poor value against the pound. Many cite ticket prices, whose increase has outpaced that of the size of the Fringe; at £10-£15 a show now, they are approximately double those of a decade ago. It is much harder either to dedicate yourself to paying for several shows a day, or to steel yourself to take punts on unknown shows, with such amounts at stake.

Another frequent complaint is that the Fringe, and in particular its comedy component, has become a huge trade fair. I do not think that in itself is necessarily a problem, but it has contributed to an increasing corporatisation. The "supervenues" hold greater sway than ever; when they can add no more performance spaces to their central sites, they spawn Mini-Mes elsewhere around the city. As I write this column, I have seen upwards of 70 Fringe shows in more than 30 different spaces, but every one of those has been run by one of six venue empires: the Traverse, Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon and C. Established venues at Hill Street and the powerhouse of physical/visual theatre, Aurora Nova, have this year come under the Assembly umbrella... partly, perhaps, because much of Burdett-Coutts' main George Street venue is under threat of being redeveloped into shops by the city council in the next couple of years. But the overall effect is to concentrate Fringe-going as a whole, and in particular media attention, on to a handful of enterprises.

To be frank, it can be hard to get away when there is so much in those locations that demands attention, whether because of quality or perceived importance, and you only have one pair of eyes. In little more than 24 hours I have caught up with three remarkable offerings. La Femme Est Morte, or Why I Should Not F%!# My Son [sic] (Pleasance Dome) tells the Greek tragedy of Phaedra's infatuation with her stepson Hippolytus using text from Seneca, Georges Bataille, General George S. Patton and others as well as original dialogue. The Shalimar company locate the story firmly in a contemporary American culture where numerous conflicting idioms and values jostle up against each other: honour, duty, country, celebrity, power, image. Just as all kinds of fame are now being reduced to a common level, the Greek-style chorus comments on the action by singing rock and pop numbers such as "2 Become 1" and "Back For Good". It is satire that fires on all cylinders, and makes The Shalimar the most exciting young American company I have seen up here so far this century.

Six Women Standing In Front Of A White Wall (C soco) is exactly what it says, is also described as a "living installation" and is one of those weird shows that make London sub-editors shake their heads in pity and mutter about "the Edinburgh bends". The women – in red dresses, hair dishevelled, stark white-and-red make-up, looking like half a dozen drag versions of The Cure's Robert Smith – stand, writhing in slow agony or near-catatonia, until members of the audience finally respond to the notices in front of them proclaiming, "Please Do Touch". Then they begin to smile, to respond physically, perhaps play mirror-games, even embrace the punters who have given them such energy simply by perceiving them. This 30-minute piece by Australian company Little Dove Theatre Art is like watching flowers bloom, or like an exaggerated version of the way we all respond to the attention of another, any other. It is joyous and a little heartbreaking.

Vanishing Point's production Subway (Traverse 3) is one of the gems in an otherwise disappointing Traverse year. Accompanied by a live Kosovan band, performers Sandy Grierson (as Patrick Dougan) and Rosalind Sydney (as everyone else) evoke an Edinburgh twenty or so years from now. It is a dystopia, but one barely a breath removed from the present: spot fines for smoking in the street, gentrification and commercialisation driving residents out of their own neighbourhoods, rising sea levels and so on. And amid the grimness, the eternal relationships persist: the son and father who cannot quite communicate, the old friends growing reluctantly apart, even the different walks adopted depending on what kind of signal you want to give off. And running through it all is a deep and passionate sense of place: of Edinburgh present and future, Scottish and international.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2007

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage