Darting between the fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival, the difference in resources and scale is striking.
The gloss of some EIF shows can feel almost obscene compared with the fringe, where almost everyone is operating on a shoestring, a wing and a prayer. Sometimes it feels that what separates great theatremakers from the rest is simply the size of the budget.
Of course, the two festivals – which complement rather than detract from each other – are not and should not be involved in some kind of beauty contest. The best work in the International Festival reminds us exactly what money can buy in terms of complexity, access to resources and production values.
On whatever scale artists work, money allows artists to eat but also gives them time to dream. Mind you, news that EIF performers are rejecting sterling payments because of the plummeting pound may not win huge sympathy from those who are spending August not getting paid at all, and in some instances incurring substantial debt for the pleasure of being here.
When Andy Field said that the fringe can make artists produce the kind of work that fits a black-box space and lasts an hour it “inevitably means it is less formally inventive,” I agree to some extent, but small can be both beautiful and inventive. The evidence is all around us in hundreds of shows.
I was struck by the similarities – thematically but also in execution – between Milo Rau’s La Reprise produced in the EIF, and Cardboard Citizens’ Bystanders at Summerhall, which will have been produced on a fraction of the budget. Both are great, unsettling shows in their different ways and on very different scales, and it made me wonder what Cardboard Citizens’ Adrian Jackson might do with Rau’s budget and vice versa.
When I talked to Jackson about socially engaged practice and Cardboard Citizens’ work with homeless people, he pointed out that “people’s lives being used as props is problematic and increasingly frequent” in theatre. Theatremakers need to take care about how they use other people’s lives for the purposes of art.
I had heard the word ‘prop’ used a few days earlier. “He is not a prop,” said Daniel Bye, “and he’s not a toy.” This was on the night I saw Arthur, the show that Bye performs with his baby son Arthur in his care.
Over the past few years there has been a fashion, satirised in Ella Hickson’s The Writer, for using babies on stage as props. (Though I think this year might turn out to be the year of the dog as prop on the fringe. Can dogs give consent?)
But as his dad makes very clear, Arthur is very definitely not a prop, and his presence and well-being are central to the piece and thesis. Sitting on his dad’s lap he is a living reminder that how even when we are genetically the same, we can turn out different depending on the circumstances in which we grow – just like hydrangeas, which can be vividly different colours depending on the whether the soil is acid or alkaline.
Like all Bye’s work, this is a show that makes connections – as if what you are watching are the artist’s synapses firing live. At this show’s heart are some very hard questions about inequality and opportunity. Arthur, only five months old and definitely not a fan of the fourth wall, introduces a pleasingly unpredictable element into the proceedings.
On the night I saw it, Arthur was recovering from a chest infection and the performance had to be abandoned because he wouldn’t settle. Quite rightly, his needs came before those of either his dad or the audience.
Because however cute he is, Arthur is definitely not a prop.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner