Richard Jordan: Has protest become commoditised at Edinburgh Fringe?

Is Donald Trump doing a campaign speech, or stand-up in Edinburgh? Photo: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock, Inc
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Seventy years ago, eight companies who had not been included in the inaugural Edinburgh Festival pitched up with their productions in protest. The fringe was born.

Seven decades on and the Edinburgh Fringe has grown into the largest arts festival in the world, with other successful fringes globally spawned off the back of it.

This year, there is a focus is on this legacy, with “The Spirit of ’47” used as one of the season’s slogans by the Edinburgh International Festival.

There was once a time at the fringe when there were just 50 shows playing and there still would have been people complaining that was “too many”. In 2017, that number exceeds 3,300. Nonetheless, the original principle of open access is a defining feature of the fringe; Edinburgh still provides a platform for discovery and for new voices to be heard – even if those voices now need to shout considerably louder to be heard.

The fringe was founded as a result of protest at a lack of inclusion. From that foundation, and throughout its history, it has been a hotbed for all kinds of protest.

But, while the essence of its founding spirit remains, the fringe has also become a big commercial business. Bringing a show to today’s fringe is far from cheap, which naturally makes it less conducive to experimentation and risk.

As I look through this year’s fringe programme, I’m concerned that in some quarters the very concept of “protest” upon which the fringe was built is year-by-year becoming ever more commercialised.

When Osama bin Laden was at large, there were so many fringe performers dressed up as him and flyering for their associated productions, I became convinced that he was probably holed up hiding out in Edinburgh during August performing in a fringe show. President Trump had not been inaugurated by this time last year and the 2016 fringe brochures were already printed several months before Brexit. This year, though, the fringe is making up for lost time on both counts, with musicals, plays and stand-up shows on both these subjects.

Political satire and protest have always been important and valued parts of the fringe, but some works hijack this concept without any genuine belief in the subject and without having something new to say, or protest about. Instead, they just think these topics will sell more tickets.

The fringe is a business, but it becomes devalued if there is no substance behind the work being produced. These kinds of show undermine the fringe’s reputation as a significant platform for genuine, heartfelt protest.

That does not mean that things have changed irrevocably. The grandaddy of protest – Mark Thomas – is back again this year, while companies such as the excellent Sh!t Theatre have shown how new and vital voices can break through.

Roundabout and Northern Stage are also both back again at this year’s fringe. They provide a vital platform and continued support for other guardians of protest and debate such as Daniel Bye and newcomers with urgent voices to be heard.

But what artists such as Thomas, Bye or Sh!t Theatre demonstrate is that the fringe today should be played as a long-term game; get it right and you can explode on to it (and everyone at the fringe loves discovery), but you then have to work hard to build up a continued presence.

Voices of genuine protest can still be found amid the sea of commercialisation, Trumps and Bin Ladens – you might just have to look a bit harder to find them.