Edinburgh 2002: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 1st September, 2002

The overall impression is that 2002 was not a classic year for the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. Having said this, there were many very good productions and some real pleasures to be found by those who knew where to look.

The obvious place to look for the very best shows on the Fringe is always the Traverse Theatre. There are many who claim that it should be regarded as part of the International Festival as the quality of productions is so high and it hardly fits in with the street entertainers and shows performing to two men and a dog in a church hall.

This year, arguably the two best shows in Edinburgh were both put on there. David Greig and Anthony Neilson are Scottish playwrights whose work has already travelled far and wide. Greig’s Outlying Islands was already destined to travel to the Royal Court in London and is likely to sell out in the small Upstairs Theatre for the whole of its run. It is a beautiful tale of young men's coming of age at the time of a historical watershed.

Nielson's 2002 contribution, Stitching, keeps up his reputation for shocking, in-yer-face theatre and could be equally successful at the Bush, during the autumn.

It is much to the credit of the Traverse that, as well as these two must-see shows, they also produced new plays by Gary Owen and Rona Munro each of very high standard, the latter containing the performance of the Festival by actress Sandy McDade.

Part of the attraction of the Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival is the wide diversity of countries that provide entertainments. Staying with the Traverse for a moment, they presented a Bollywood musical that was regarded by some as more entertaining than Bombay Dreams and also a Canadian contribution from Catalyst, a company that is always original and produces physical theatre that haunts long after one leaves the performance.

Around the city it was also possible to see shows from America, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa and, in the International Festival, Norway and Germany, not to mention Scotland and England. This really is a unique opportunity to find out what is good and sometimes bad in contemporary theatre.

The most professional productions away from the Traverse are generally at the bigger venues. The International Festival tends to produce slightly unusual plays and Douglas Maxwell's Variety was strange in erring towards the traditional. It showed a marked development from his earlier work and should be shown on the BBC at some time in the future. The avant-garde was well represented by The Girl on the Sofa, an unusual piece from Norwegian Jon Fosse, translated by Scot David Harrower, and wonderfully directed by German wunderkind, Thomas Ostermeier.

A special word for the Pleasance and the Assembly, both of which managed to come up with two of the best produced shows this year. The Al Hamlet Summit (Pleasance) is travelling to Egypt after Edinburgh and should not be missed by anyone with an interest in either Middle-Eastern politics or Shakespeare. Diarmuid and Grainne by the Irish company Passion Machine (Assembly), was a strange but exhilarating mix of 21st century dynamic theatre and Irish myth.

On a smaller scale, Julian Garner's Silent Engine was a moving tale of loss that took a similar starting point to Stitching and almost matched it for dramatic tension.

For one-man shows, the star, under the banner of the National Student Theatre Company, was Wolf Rahlfs with Eric Bogosian's Notes From Underground. He is a young actor to keep an eye out for and will be appearing at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London playing Shakespeare during the autumn.

While the main themes of this year appeared from the hype to be football and September 11, it was very apparent that young companies were keen to produce plays by top contemporary playwrights. Neilson was well served not only by his own production of Stitching but also by a production of his earlier play Penetrator by the young Teddy Machete Company. This was the most dangerous play on the Fringe, as the maddest actor out had to teeter on a coffee table holding a big knife over the front row of the audience. If this wasn't bad enough, one night he managed to put his foot through the table, almost decimating the audience.

There were also revivals of two plays by Martin Crimp, one by Timberlake Wertenbaker and one by Caryl Churchill. This makes a change from rehashes of Shakespeare, Wilde, Godber and Alan Ayckbourn. To be fair, those were around as well.

One of the great pleasures of Edinburgh is to come across something that looks like it will be a disaster but turns out to be a joy. This year it was a Newcastle Girls’ Schools Company production of The Love of a Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Coming into a theatre and realising that the company consists of a group of young schoolgirls is enough to make the heart sink. However, this production showed incredible invention and a combination of good directing and solid acting produced a real success.

There were also some unintended funny moments this year. A play about the nature of sleeping was entirely successful for one critic who proudly wore his reviewer’s badge as he happily nodded off in the front row. At least he didn't snore loudly, unlike one man at a late night show. To give the latter credit, he applauded as loudly as he had snored, much to the amusement of the rest of the audience.

Mobile phone discipline is improving as the first interruption took place at show number 37, a record since they became popular.

The size of audiences varies greatly. This year, one company, at least, managed 0 on two occasions but regarded this as a source of amusement and pride, much to their credit.

Finally, a word about Jon Spooner of Unlimited. Having given the British Theatre Guide an exclusive interview along with his wife Liz, he was knocked down by a car travelling at 30 mph the next day. It is very pleasing to report that he suffered no greater injury than a damaged tooth and was fighting fit by the end of the Festival. There are no prizes for guessing what Unlimited’s next production is likely to be about.

And the best show in Edinburgh this year? By a short head, Stitching.