Sometimes I think almost everything I know about the world, I know from theatre. Of course, I read books, listen to the radio and podcasts, watch Netflix documentaries and have my own lived experience of the world, but there are loads of things I only know because I go to the theatre as often as I do.
Take this year at the fringe. So far, courtesy of Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum with Expats, I have learned that the egg section in Maltese supermarkets always has a shrine to the Virgin Mary (I do so hope this is true – although I failed to turn anything up on Google).
Thanks to Like Animals, I know about a scientist called Irene who invested years teaching a parrot how to express love, Styx explained the neuroscience behind how memories are made and just how unreliable those memories are. Sea Sick has informed me that the oceans are turning to acid and we need to act, and we can act if we have the will, it’s not too late. Art Heist has given me some really nifty tips about how not to go about robbing an art gallery. (You never know what will come in handy one day).
Looking back over more than 30 years of going to Edinburgh, I know that a great deal of the international work – both in the official festival and on the fringe – has given me a window on the world. Back in the 1980s I found out through theatre what it was like to be black and live in South Africa or what it was like to be living under communism in Poland and other Eastern bloc countries.
This year’s festival has seen large numbers of artists baring their souls and their trauma. Bryony Kimmings is here with the lacerating I’m a Phoenix, Bitch which charts her post-natal depression and relationship breakdown. Demi Nandhra’s Life is No Laughing Matter and Caroline Horton’s All of Me are just two shows artfully dealing with depression and suicide using very different forms.
I am not working class, but Scottee’s Class gives me some sense of his lived experience of growing up on a Kentish Town housing estate, just as Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz gives me an inkling of the level of threat experienced by trans people when they are out and about on the streets.
Caroline Horton begins All of Me with a series of apologies including one that goes: “I apologise for making another show all about me”. I have heard some people dismiss this kind of work – not Horton’s show particularly, but the genre more generally – as self-indulgent, as if autobiography is not as valid a form as the fictional play. I saw one journalist dub this year’s fringe as the festival of “Me. Me. Me.” As if these shows were all just some kind of millennial attention seeking.
I have heard others bemoan the way the original play has been sidelined by personal testimony in some venue programmes. It reminds me of the days when some critics (generally male) divided plays into those that were political (almost always written by men) and those they dismissed as domestic (almost always written by women).
I have seen some shows this year where the subject may be true, but really isn’t that interesting, and I’ve also seen shows where the trauma being recounted seems so raw and painful that I worry whether those presenting it have the support they need to perform to the end of the fringe. Those like Kimmings, who are mistresses of the art of the excavated self, know that the power of such work is not just in the experience, but the way you tell it, and frame it and craft it. Richard Gadd’s exquisitely put together Baby Reindeer is proof of that.
The autobiographical show is no less a valid theatrical form than any other. A show that lets us know what it is like to be in someone else’s head is as useful as one that tells us what it is like to live under an oppressive regime, or how not to rob an art gallery.
Theatre, brilliantly, allows us to briefly put on someone else’s shoes and feel what it is like to walk in them, or to spend an hour seeing the world through their eyes. It makes the viewer empathise, and at a time when it feels as if we have never been so divided, so certain that our own world view is the only right one, a theatre that puts empathy in the foreground is not self-indulgent but essential.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner