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David Edgar: I once swore never to return to the fringe – 47 years on I’m back

David Edgar in Trying it On. Photo: Arnim Friess David Edgar in Trying it On. Photo: Arnim Friess
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So, I thought I’d done my time. Over six consecutive years I participated in 15 Edinburgh Fringe shows, as actor, director and writer: including in 1967 playing two small parts in Feydeau’s Hotel Paradiso, in 1972 writing and directing an agit-prop chronicle play called State of Emergency, about the industrial uprising against the Edward Heath government.

Having slept on too many floors, handed out too many flyers and clambered up the vertiginous steps of the first Traverse, at Lawnmarket, at too many unsocial hours, I decided: never again. I’ve taken 47 years to break that oath, returning to the elegant Cambridge St Traverse this year with a solo show, and asking, what’s changed?

Some things haven’t. Then as now, performances were round the clock, audiences queued, there were instant shows, verbatim drama, nudity and innovatory formal devices. I was involved in shows with audience plants (and indeed audience voting). The Traverse’s U2 was the first ever show designed to be performed to an unknowing, single audience member.

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Beyond the sheer size of the thing – nearly 4,000 shows in over 300 venues – the (excellent) online booking system, halloumi burgers, the exponential rise of stand-up, gender-fluid loos, and acres of astroturf (alongside, this year, a welcome and I suspect novel concern for the mental welfare of participants), I’ve tried to get a sense of the character and ambition of the fringe now.

From my inevitably partial experience, there are – obviously – many shows that address the environmental crisis (including, partially, mine) and questions of mental health, as well as powerful issue plays about subjects ranging from homelessness (Cardboard Citizens’ Bystanders) to the care system (Lung’s Who Cares).

But, overall, the most striking thing is the number of different forms of human interaction and inquiry that are presented within what is still – overwhelmingly – a performative, theatrical environment.

Stand-alone lectures and demonstrations have become regular, if not commonplace, in theatres over the last decade. But the fringe is a defined event in which political interviews, TED talks and discussions happen on stages, rubbing shoulders with performances (including stand-up) which consist of autobiography, commentary, argument and journalism.

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What does this cohabitation tell us about these two, supposedly distinct, types of communication? Would this have happened had politics and political debate not become increasing performative? Ironically, as politics has become more theatrical and emotion-driven, hasn’t performance become – increasingly – a medium for journalistic investigation and rational analysis? What are these two forms of communication telling us about each other?

For me, the Edinburgh Fringe I’ve returned to (in a show in which an allegedly analytical and rational 70 year old is in conversation with his passionate 20-year-old, emotive self) feels like a huge and rich conversation between these two forms of communication, in which our presumptions about how theatre, comedy, biography, pedagogy and journalism work are challenged by proximity; a proximity that relies on its participants and its audiences being – often – the same people, in one place, experiencing this conversation live. Long may it so remain.

Trying It On is at the Traverse Theatre until August 25

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