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Richard Jordan: Does being ‘on theme’ at a fringe festival help or hinder a new work?

ThisEggs's Dressed at Underbelly. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli ThisEggs's Dressed was one of many shows addressing #MeToo at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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Next month it will be a year since The New York Times broke the news story about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. It exposed a toxic culture of predatory behaviour in the entertainment industry affecting women and men working within it, and saw the launch of the #MeToo movement.

Despite the relatively quick turnaround, this urgent issue was addressed by a number of artists, writers and companies on the stages of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. In fact, so many addressed these issues, that some journalists referred to it as the #MeToo fringe.

Among the stand-outs were Dressed, which saw a line of tap-dancing masked Weinsteins, Kate Dye’s work Baby Face, which attacked the male sexualisation of children in an outpouring of screaming, and David Ireland’s divisive new play Ulster American, in which one character asked the question: “Do you think there are any circumstances where it is morally acceptable to rape someone?”

The Canadian work Daughter, written and performed by Adam Lazarus, dealt with male sex addiction. Early on during the fringe, The Guardian used the line “toxic masculinity” in its review of the play, and there it was: the banner slogan which stuck for the remainder of the festival.

The number of times I subsequently heard people reference this expression during the month began to take on a troubling familiarity:

“I’ve just seen this play.”
“What was it like?”
“Another piece of toxic masculinity.”

It felt as if it had become a worryingly throwaway description of works dealing with such big and complex issues.

The domination of gender politics at the 2018 fringe highlights its urgency. However, it also meant that with the resulting volume of coverage, there was not much space for works that didn’t deal with the topic to get much attention.

Those not at the festival, but reading about it, could easily have been forgiven for thinking Edinburgh 2018 was a one-topic event. Of course this was not the case – how could it be with over 3,000 shows? – but those dealing with one of the most urgent issues of our times (certainly for our own industry) were inevitably going to overshadow other works around them.

The issue will continue to be explored in many works long after Edinburgh Fringe 2018 is a distant memory. But unless works appear in a curated season, will it help or hinder shows that get bannered together under a slogan such as “toxic masculinity”?

Every year, as the Edinburgh Fringe progresses, the question is asked: “What’s this year’s theme?” There is a need to identify connections that can tidily sum up the festival, especially within many associated articles published. The thematic rubber-stamp usually gets applied to whatever the driving issue is at the time, whether that’s about transgender people, Brexit or Scottish independence – all which have been deemed previous fringe themes.

Labelling a theme allows the fringe to project credentials of remaining on the cutting-edge, as an alternative and reactive platform for protest. That’s true even though large parts of the fringe now operate just as commercially as many of its counterparts elsewhere. As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that with many fringe audiences, these shows are already preaching to the converted.

Christopher York’s excellent new play Build a Rocket – which tells the story of an abandoned mother in Scarborough whose son makes it to university despite the tough circumstances of his upbringing – finds hope in a bleak subject matter. However, before watching the play, a colleague described it as being another example of “toxic masculinity”. This was because the teenage female character became pregnant and was then abandoned by the male protagonist.

In fact, toxic masculinity did not reflect the overall piece at all. However, in the context of the dominating theme of this year’s fringe, some clearly felt it necessary to frame works, which didn’t necessarily fit, in those terms.

Next week Build a Rocket plays London’s Pleasance Theatre where, as a stand-alone production, it may gain the greater attention it deserves. However, in Edinburgh, York’s play – along with other well-made new works such as Blackthorn, Tremor and East Belfast Boy that all also boasted superb performances – was largely overlooked. Although they had strong subject matters, maybe this was because they were not defined by the driving issue of the moment.

So, in some instances, is the issue being rewarded over the work itself? In a saturated marketplace such as the fringe, is there a risk that works will be made around a current issue with the deliberate aim of securing media attention and selling tickets?

Real care is needed to ensure such a possibility neither diminishes or overshadows the power of actual groundbreaking work that’s being made on this subject. Particularly coming at a time when those done well urgently need to be seen and heard.

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