Want to write an op-ed on the lacklustre Traverse season?, runs the commissioning email.
I mean yes, why the heck not – there’s no avoiding the fact it has been a topic of conversation among critics at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
For those unaware of the fact, the storied Traverse – also known as ‘the Trav’ – is Edinburgh’s premier new writing theatre and as such takes pride of place among fringe venues. It has two studios, each of which hosts five or so shows on rotating daily time-slots, with a couple of extra pieces usually entering the mix as the festival wears on. And the most practical way for the Trav to get critics in in an orderly fashion is to invite them to attend two ‘press days’, whereby we see all the smaller Studio 2 shows on the first Friday of the Fringe, and the larger Studio 1 shows on the Sunday.
It tends to dominate the start of a critic’s festival: you can see the odd show elsewhere on the preview days, but the first official day of the Edinburgh Fringe is invariably entirely spent watching five shows in a row in Trav 2, from 11am to 11pm, with a decent likelihood of not catching any daylight if you go for the usual option of writing in the subterranean bar in the gaps between shows.
And it has been a lacklustre start: a dearth of star ratings from the national press affixed to the show posters in the building is fairly apparent. Al Smith’s very free, Edinburgh-set adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman has had good notices. But that’s kind of it for the theatre stuff. The straight-up plays in Trav 1 have been pretty iffy – Kiwi play-with-songs Daffodils was very uneven, and Milk was a shambles. In Trav 2 the work has been more average than bad: Expensive Shit, In Fidelity and Greater Belfast are all really interesting, formally diverse works, they just happen to not be great.
And watching five average shows in a row when you know there’s stuff out there you’d enjoy more can be pretty gruelling. So I had a lot of sympathy for a colleague who said she might not bother with the full Trav days next year, that she might prefer to start by diving into the glorious, sprawling chaos of Summerhall – which has sealed its ascendency this year by bagging three week one Fringe First Awards, with just a single one going to the Trav (for Expensive Shit).
But I’m torn. The Traverse is one of the country’s great theatres, that has in recent festivals facilitated modern classics from the likes of The TEAM, Chris Goode, David Greig and Simon Stephens. But I’m not sure there’s ever been a year where I can remember everything being faultlessly brilliant, nor would it be particularly likely that any one person would think that given the theatre’s commitment to eclectic programming from a wide array of visiting companies.
There’s a real danger of hopping off the train to Edinburgh, taking your seat with all the expectations of a fresh year at the fringe upon you, then grumbling at the fact your mind hasn’t been immediately blown. Even a ‘good’ year is unlikely to churn out an entirely flawless programme of work. And there have been ‘bad’ years before – I seem to recall a fair amount of grumbling in 2010 (so long before current artistic director Orla O’Loughlin took over).
But nonetheless, I can see why you might not think the press days are entirely helpful. For starters they don’t necessarily contain the best stuff. Panti Bliss’s joyously shit-kicking High Heels and Low Places didn’t begin its run until the Tuesday after press day; Alice Birch’s incendiary Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. doesn’t start until the Tuesday after that. And a rare clash with the Edinburgh International Festival on the Sunday meant many critics left after Milk and Daffodils to see The Glass Menagerie, and missed strong shows from Mark Thomas and Daniel Kitson (with Kitson further complicating matters by refusing to offer comps).
There’s also a question as to how healthy it is for experimental works that have only had a single preview to all be seen by almost every reviewer at the exact same performance. For instance, Rob Drummond’s dating show-cum-lecture In Fidelity may have come across better if the two audience participants on the press day hadn’t basically hated each other. And the vagaries of the rotating timeslot system don’t always bring out the best in plays: the energetic, nightclub-set Expensive Shit opened the Trav 2 day while the soft, dreamy Greater Belfast closed it. Maybe the two ought to have been swapped.
Ultimately, the problem is surely the weight of expectation placed on a single theatre with a relatively small programme of work. It’s almost inconceivable that any other fringe venue would be accused of having an ‘off year’, because how do you judge that of somewhere that has dozens of shows, none or few of which it has developed itself, that no single critic is likely to see all of?
It’s journalists’ fault as much as anything: the press days are simply a suggestion, with no incentive for going beyond being it being your first opportunity to see the shows. But we do, because of the Trav’s stature, often to work that we wouldn’t have picked out as the first thing to see otherwise.
And therein lies the rub: the Traverse has less good years, but it’s achieved enough that it’s probably the only place at the fringe where I’ll see work purely because of the venue. It’s worth noting that two of those Summerhall Fringe First winners, Kieran Hurley and Ontroerend Goed, were afforded a national profile thanks to previous shows of theirs that were staged at the Trav.
Aghast as I’m sure those who do the whole festival might be to read this, but for national critics like me, who essentially swan up for 10 days to see stuff that we broadly expect to like, the Fringe can be like a big, exhausting stagger through your comfort zone. In its own way, the Trav takes us out of that. And that’s why I’m sure I’ll be back on press day next year, if I’m invited.