Every year, the cry goes up: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is in mortal danger. It has sacrificed its soul on the altar of perpetual growth. Venue rates have rocketed. Corporate sponsorship has proliferated. Publicity has become an arms race and ticket prices are twice, thrice, four times what they were. Rents are through the roof, fees are through the floor and the entire event exists on the back of everyone’s self-exploitation. RIP Edinburgh: da fringe is wiv da angels now.
All of that is true – as true as it was last year, as true as it will be next year. Also true, though, is the exact opposite. For all its fundamental structural flaws, the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t just bigger than ever. It’s better than ever too.
It’s seven years since Stewart Lee sent up a strongly worded warning signal in the Guardian. It came a year after the ‘Big Four Breakaway’, when four dominant venues branched out on their own as the self-anointed Edinburgh Comedy Festival. “The fringe entered the deregulated free-market stage of late capitalism,” Lee wrote, and everything he worried about – escalating costs, tripling rents, mounting debts and “an increasingly grotesque Philip K Dick-style wasteland of alcohol-banner festooned architecture around Bristo Square” – has since come to pass and then some.
Call him Cassandra. Call him King Canute. And yet, and yet… In spite of all that, perhaps even in part as a result of it, there’s more work of real promise than ever before. As the fringe expands exponentially, so too does the festival’s quality. Audiences are increasingly spoiled for choice.
A decade ago, a committed critic with stamina to see 120 or so shows could feel confident of something like comprehensive coverage – missing something great, inevitably, but not too much. That’s no longer possible. There’s simply too much good stuff to squeeze into three and a half weeks. Publications used to pick a few dozen highlights ahead of August. Today, several are flagging 50 or more. Indeed, my spreadsheet of titles to keep tabs on runs to 250 rows this year – way more than I could hope to cover.
True, there’s more of everything – more mediocrity in more damp church crypts, more students playing to audiences of two, more aspiring comedians in more and more debt – but far from swallowing itself up supernova-style, the fringe keeps on keeping on. Established artists are still going – Lee included. Emerging artists are still coming through. There’s more experimental and international work than ever.
The festival’s growth brings benefits too: more promoters, more punters, more possibility. It’s harder – undoubtedly. The risks are bigger, but so are the rewards. It’s hard to admit that without seeming to admit defeat in the face of the festival’s substantial structural flaws. But then, the fringe isn’t as straightforward as that. It’s a shapeshifting organism; self-replicating in some places, ever-evolving in others. Forest Fringe changed the festival for the better, Summerhall too. In time, something else will in turn. Because just like life, as Jeff Goldblum would say, the fringe finds a way.
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman