The ‘Edinburgh bubble’ is a very real phenomenon. The relentless 24-hour mania of the Scottish capital during festival season provides almost total insulation from the goings-on in the wider world. From the 2011 London riots to the Olympics via actual wars, there’s almost no important global event I haven’t been able to cower from there in years past.
Something weird has happened this year, though. Glancing at the newspaper headlines and it’s the rest of the country that feels stuck in a bubble, cursed to endure endless hysterical speculation and disingenuous rhetoric about no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh is heaving with hard-edged eco dramas talking about the stuff Westminster’s endless paralysis simply won’t allow.
In fact, Brexit is the great topic that never-quite-was. There’s the odd show still, but whatever zeitgeist Britain’s imminent departure from the EU maybe once have had is no more. Last year there was a modest smattering; but that would seem to have been the peak.
Ironically, Brexit shows may have themselves been victims of Brexit uncertainty: a year ago we were due to leave the EU in March; it’s still not a given that we’re leaving in October. It’s difficult to plan a snappy response to an indeterminate delay months in advance, and it’s understandable that in any case the will to do so has largely drained away. Maybe there will be more work when (if!) we leave. But it’s just not something gripping theatremakers’ imaginations.
If Brexit is a pointless, self-made, ultimately very silly crisis, then Edinburgh’s own distortion field feels like it’s protecting us from it: this bright, buzzing, young, international festival city simply feels like it has different priorities. And the main one? It feels like a dam has burst with regards to shows about climate change.
There’s always been a handful, but rarely very many. There’s a long-held truism – possibly reinforced by the National Theatre’s infamous 2011 flop Greenland – that it’s very difficult to write theatre about the subject.
But the 2019 fringe absolutely blows that theory out of the water: from Alanna Mitchell’s devastating performance lecture Sea Sick via Mechanimal’s Vigil, a show about the sixth mass extinction, and on to Ontroerend Goed’s dazzling Are We Not Drawn Onward to New ErA, climate-based work is omnipresent and unavoidable.
In the basement of Summerhall, Extinction Rebellion has an art residency. Over near Holyrood, there’s a new theatre, the Greenhouse, which is zero waste and has an all-eco themed programme. Even shows superficially about something else – Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids or David Edgar’s Trying It On – touch significantly on the subject. There are multiple shows about it on the comedy programme. And so it goes, on and on.
Of course, bubbles of reality can burst too, and in a month this work will have dispersed or disappeared. The UK’s theatres have announced their autumn shows, and the environment does not figure large.
But across a generation, the appetite to make work about the real crisis of our day has suddenly skyrocketed: the nation’s theatre would do well to pay attention.