One of the big trends at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe is shows focusing on true crime stories. Emily Jupp speaks to some of the performers whodunnit
The huge success of the Serial podcast in 2014 sparked a revival in the true crime genre and now it is spilling across art forms.
Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes launched on Netflix in January and the Hollywood version, starring Zac Efron, was on the big screen in May. This year has also seen TV documentaries about the Yorkshire Ripper, the murder of Jill Dando and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, plus there’s now a deluge of true crime podcasts, such as Criminal, Crime Junkie and My Favourite Murder to fill our ears.
This August, theatre is getting in on the act – the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe has the highest number of shows involving a true crime theme ever. A quick search of the fringe website provides 189 hits for true crime and the fringe press team confirmed it has seen a huge bump in true-crime-themed shows.
Just one of these is The Incident Room, co-directed by New Diorama artistic director David Byrne and Beth Flintoff, about the Millgarth Incident Room, where the 1975 investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper was conducted.
“Until recently there hasn’t been a theatrical vein in true crime – it was always in print,” says Byrne. “I used to work in libraries and the Crime section was full of little old ladies taking out Catherine Cookson books, but now crime thrillers are back in popular culture.”
Byrne believes we’ve seen an increasing interest in true crime because: “We are re-examining what we know about the world around us and true crime stories tell us about our society and culture and what our values are.”
Police investigating Peter Sutcliffe – the Yorkshire Ripper – largely believed he was only targeting prostitutes, and when Sutcliffe began to rape and murder women who weren’t prostitutes, they thought it was an anomaly, so the crimes mounted and went unsolved for years.
“Joan Smith wrote a book called Misogynies – in direct relation to this five years of history,” explains Byrne. “It unearthed societal issues we still haven’t discussed, like this idea of innocent and not innocent women – how women who are divorced or go out drinking or anyone living outside societal norms can be seen as not innocent and how quickly any societal progress evaporates under pressure.”
Janet Moran is the writer and director of A Holy Show – also playing at the Edinburgh Fringe. In Ireland, where the production is set, the phrase means making a fool of yourself. It’s the true story of an Irish ex-trappist monk who had a wild plan to hijack the pope to obtain the ‘third secret of Fátima’ – a Catholic secret that pertained to the end of the world.
Moran has a more straightforward answer to why we’re craving true crime. “With the messy times we are living in, it’s reasonable to want the satisfaction of a good story that’s told well. It’s useful to have some mysteries answered for us,” she says.
Jessica Ross, the writer of Drowning, has yet another theory – that our society has reached an interesting point, where we are both calling out discrimination and taking note of how little progress we’ve made in some areas – and true crime is a vehicle to reflect this.
Drowning is directed by Steven Roy and executive-produced by Matrix star Carrie-Anne Moss. It is based on the true story of four Austrian nurses who were charged with murdering 49 patients in their beds in 1991. The true number of killings may have been closer to 200.
“The story is useful as a platform to discuss deeper issues and show what lengths women go to when they are pushed over the edge – and, particularly in today’s political climate, we are all capable of being pushed over the edge in some way or the other,” says Roy. “So it’s about feeling compelled to do certain things, how we justify them and where they stem from.”
The Afflicted, meanwhile, is a dance-theatre piece coming to Summerhall, led by co-directors Finn den Hertog and Vicki Manderson, who previously worked together on Fringe First winners Square Go and Light Boxes.
It’s about a mysterious illness targeting young women in small-town America. This piece really messes around with the true crime podcast format – at first sticking to the conventions and then twisting them so the audience never quite feels in safe territory.
Manderson and Den Hertog listened to a lot of podcasts such as Serial and S-Town to achieve the tone of the show.
“We were interested in the lack of agency the subjects of true crime stories usually have, so that the narrative becomes about the hero of the story being the plucky journalist or the investigator – and the listener puts themselves in that role,” says Den Hertog.
There is some data to show that listeners, readers and viewers of true crime are more likely to be female than male. The UK audience of the Sony Crime Channel are predominantly female, and the audience of the All Killa No Filla podcast, about serial killers, is 80-85% female. A 2010 study also found women enjoy true crime books more than men.
“That says something about empathy,” says Den Hertog. “Generally women are seen to be more empathetic and there’s a thing about brain empathy we are exploring – the empathy that listeners have is raised exponentially by listening to things that are inspired by real events or have real people in them.”
There is also the idea that though women are far less likely to be the target of crime than men, the most violent types of crime and the most notorious are crimes where the offender is male and the victims are predominantly female.
Caitlin McEwan wrote Bible John, based on one of the biggest unsolved cases in Scottish history about a serial killer who quoted the Old Testament and killed women he met at the Barrowlands club in Glasgow.
In preparation for the show, McEwan interviewed a lot of people about their interest in true crime.
“There are a few schools of thought,” she explains. “True crime has all the hallmarks of a really good story because there’s intrigue and high stakes and a puzzle to solve. There’s a safety element and a curiosity about what is the worst thing that could happen to you? It’s also so amoral that there is a fascination there – it’s so hard to understand what happens to someone to want to kill a load of people. It’s really psychologically difficult to comprehend.”
Bible John deftly examines how we might ethically look at a story that has horrific violence against women at its centre.
“It looks at the idea of providing entertainment that has the victimisation of women at its heart, and how we can safely and sensitively tell a story that’s about that and a story that has no neat conclusion and no justice in it.”
Similarly, the context for The Incident Room, set in the 1960s, is the Women’s Liberation protests, but in Yorkshire this progress was ripped away when enforced curfews were put on women to keep them off the streets at night.
“What is fascinating is not the murderer himself, who was actually very boring, but what this did to women and society and the way the rest of society ignored [and trivialised] it,” says Byrne. “There were football chants at the time saying ‘There’s only one Yorkshire Ripper’ and a tune called ‘Killer on the Loose’ was in the charts.”
Byrne has also chosen to focus not on the perpetrator, but on the lives of those investigating the Yorkshire Ripper.
“We as audiences, and as a society, are done with stories that dramatise violence of abuse for dramatic titillation – so there are questions about where you put the weight of the drama,” he says.
So, rather than glamorising events, does this new wave of true crime stories put the reality of the victims at the heart of the stories?
“We have used crime and drama as comfort food for hundreds of years,” says Byrne. “It’s always about how something terrible happens and a detective restores order, but that is not what really happens – the police are normal people and they are affected by it – it can define an era and echo down the ages.”
Drunk Women Solving Crime: Underbelly Bristo Square, August 3-11, 19.20
One of the most talked about new comedy podcasts of the year makes its fringe debut. The panel welcomes a special guest each night to solve true crime cases.
Hitler’s Tasters: Infirmary Street, August 2-24 (except 11, 18), 18.35
Based on true events, this dark comedy is about the girls who had the “honour” of being employed as Adolf Hitler’s food tasters.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True: Underbelly Bristo Square, August 16-26 (except 17), 13.00
A hit at last year’s fringe. Theatre company Breach returns with this retelling of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
Father of Lies: Sweet Novotel, August 2-25 (except 5, 12, 19), 21.3o
For lovers of horror, this is the story of a mysterious satanic cult and a real unsolved murder in West Germany, 1973.
The Staircase: An Evening with David Rudolf from Netflix’s The Staircase: The Stand’s New Town Theatre, August 6-10, 21.00
If you couldn’t get enough of The Staircase on Netflix, you’re in luck because it appears to be rinsing as much as it can from the publicity. You can see David Rudolf, defence attorney for the accused Michael Peterson, talk about that owl theory some more.
Bonnie and Clyde: Sweet Grassmarket, August 5-17 (except 13), 20.15
The ill-fated love affair of the notorious American crime couple is set to Frank Wildhorn’s gospel and blues-inspired score in this musical retelling.
Go to edfringe.com for more information