Edinburgh Fringe: 8 shows flirting with the apocalypse

It might be the apocalypse, then again it might not, but whatever it is, it's an opportunity for change, or maybe not.

The Populars, Summerhall (Venue 26)
The Populars, Summerhall (Venue 26)

Comedy60 Minutes to Save the World – Vladimir McTavish, The Stand’s New Town Theatre * * *Until 25 AugustSpoken wordA Poet’s Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse, Laughing Horse @ The Place * * * Run endedCABARET AND VARIETYPolly: A Drag Rebellion, Greenside @ Nicholson Square * * Until 24 AugustTheatreJammy Dodgers, theSpace on the Mile * * *Run endedTheatreUnicorn Party, ZOO Playground * * * *Until 26 AugustTheatreThe Populars, Summerhall * * * *Until 25 AugustTheatreTrevor Lock’s Community Circle, Summerhall * * * *Until 25 AugustCabaret and Variety The Creative Martyrs: Kabarett DysUtopia, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Fingers Piano Bar * * * *Until 25 AugustIn these days of crisis and uncertainty, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world is nigh. No surprise, then, to find numerous Fringe shows flirting with the apocalyptic, the dystopian and – tentatively but vitally – the utopian. It’s natural, and often valuable, to resist the end of life as we know it and beware calamity. But it’s worth recognising that great change might also open up space for worlds better than this one.

Some shows invite us to stare straight down the barrel of the end times. In 60 Minutes to Save the World, veteran Scottish comic Vladimir McTavish spins a gameshow-style wheel of catastrophe and takes amiable yet strident swipes against the horrors in store, from Brexit to terrorism to the Scottish football team. McTavish is particularly biting about austerity, drily noting how gig-economy jobs combine miraculous futuristic tech with Dickensian working conditions.

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Meanwhile, A Poet’s Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse showcased work by Emma Ireland, Spike Pike, Sophie Sparham and Mike Took to give a guided tour of society on the brink. Framed by various survival rules (“recognise your reality”, “feel the rage”), the poems were mostly impassioned invectives against structural ills, such as consumerism and militarism, and defences of social justice and the NHS. The forms were conventional but with some nice turns of phrase and witty satirical thrusts: compulsive social-media use was “rubbing the belly of capitalism” and a scathing, breakfast-themed jab at petty nationalism was entitled ‘Full English (Thick White)’.

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There’s even more incisive critique in Andrew O’Neill’s goofy yet radical eco-anarchist stand-up set, We Are Not in the Least Afraid of Ruins; We Carry a New World in Our Hearts. As the title suggests, O’Neill isn’t one for centrist romanticisation of the status quo. As well as attacking the “toxic nostalgia” and “fetishisation of privation” contributing to the UK’s current predicament, he targets longterm overpopulation and overproduction (“we’ve definitely got enough mugs”) and comes clean about his own failings too. These shows nod at potential sources of hope – generational change, collective action, love – but are overwhelmingly critiques of the present. Others consider the future and potential change – though, judging by two youthful productions, the late critic Mark Fisher might have been right that, for a generation weaned on Thatcherism, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a viable alternative to capitalism.

In the gig-theatre solo show Polly: A Drag Rebellion, Joe Strickland appears as Polly, supposed embodiment of the radical potential of drag and the “spirit of progress”, whose pledge to demolish the system and bring freedom turns out to be hollow. It’s a self-consuming production, sceptical of utopian ideologues but itself struggling to conceive of a politics beyond individualism and ego.

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Jammy Dodgers, meanwhile, took a science-fiction approach. This University College London Drama Society production centred on two characters – one privileged and entitled, the other exploited and jaded – who join a mission to create a new off-world society. Here too, the promise of change turns sour amid authoritarianism and surveillance. These shows feel like adolescent kicks against the pricks, deeply unimpressed with business as usual yet also cautious, even conservative about the possibility of real change.More intriguingly ambivalent is Nick Field’s Unicorn Party. A sort of dystopian live-art performance lecture with video, cookery and a splash of mythical semen, it combines a fascinating history of the unicorn with a sociopolitical critique of the uses of fantasy. Field traces the unicorn’s cultural connections to scarcity, control, power, purity, magical thinking and money – including links to the economy of sugar that long predate the unicorn frappuccino – and questions how it came to symbolise both LGBT joy and Brexit. So would a unicorn party today be the kind you have fun at or the kind that governs a nation unopposed? Field offers a queasy commingling.

Unalloyed attempts to chart a course to utopia seem thin on ground at the Fringe, then. One such attempt was Rose McGowan’s Planet 9, a rendition of her experimental album that, while somewhat awkwardly staged, was moving in its vulnerable, sincere attempt to conceive a “superior place” of understanding and peace. Interesting than an older performer seemed more open to wholesale transformation than the younger cohort.

Enough about the world – what about the Fringe? In parallel with global catastrophising, there’s an increasing sense of a festival on the brink too. The inequality crisis plays out here through the unsustainable marketisation of Edinburgh accommodation and exploitative employment practices of the big producers. And the Fringe remains overwhelmingly white, able-bodied and middle-class, both on and off stage. While some organisations try to engage these issues at a structural level – such as Fair Fringe, Fringe of Colour, the Accessibility Gala and the various free-fringe models – the sense of crisis also plays out provocatively on stage.

Rather than preaching platitudes to the choir, some productions challenge seemingly liberal audiences to confront their own privilege, however uncomfortably. Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz demands that cisgender people take responsibility for the current epidemic of transphobic violence, for instance, while Scottee’s Class takes aim at poverty tourism within theatre-making. Tricky Second Album, meanwhile, is a dirty protest of a show, lashing out at audiences and major venues to express the confusion, entrapment and exhaustion a young company like its makers, In Bed With My Brother, ostensibly feels at the career conditions and expectations a Fringe production can bring.What kind of world, though, might the Fringe want to be? And might new ways of thinking about performance help get there? The utopian hope – the sense of making something better from the rubble – might come less from subject matter than from formal innovation. Maybe the future won’t be found in the models of scripted, fourth-wall theatre or individual-with-a-mic comedy that currently dominate but rather in participatory forms capable of modelling new ways of living.

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It’s easy to scoff at audience participation, especially if you’re self-conscious about public speaking or (less excusably) consider TV appearances inherently superior to live performance, or hold the people who actually make up audiences in disdain. But participatory forms are where it’s at. They can enable people to encounter themselves and others in new ways – not just to think of themselves as consumers of cultural products but to experiment, in fun, low-stakes ways, with forms of agency and community, and thereby try on new ways of being for size.Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, for instance, isn’t at all utopian or dystopian in its subject matter. It’s just a room full of people – us – waiting for an unspecified community event to get going. The amusingly curmudgeonly Lock leads us through funny bits of interactive admin and preparation while various audience members are asked to note and share their impressions of proceedings. It all feels like a humorously absurd waste of time yet, beneath the surface, it’s also a sly reminder of the contingency of subjective experience. Even in the same room at the same time, we experience the world differently from one another; acknowledging and foregrounding that starts to open the door to empathy, understanding and change.

This approach plays out in a more boisterous way in The Populars, an immersive dance-based show by Welsh company Volcano Theatre. After an ice-breaking dance-party warm-up in the open, seatless space, four performers orchestrate a range of funny and moving scenarios including personal reminiscences, engaging character work and participatory larks. With repeated attention to regional identities, the show is haunted by Brexit without directly engaging it; instead, its animated hour of humour, intimacy, vulnerability and joy exemplifies a more open way of being.

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Free fringe settings suit this kind of work because they already feel less transactional. The Creative Martyrs’ Kabarett DysUtopia is a great example, with the deadpan satirists embracing the low-stakes, mutant potential of such situations to mine their back catalogue and make a different show every night. Proposing that we’ve reached “peak human”, they envisage a world of collective questioning rather than top-down orthodoxy, buoyed along by jaunty songs about ailing bulldogs, lovelorn fascists and rightward lurches. Other free shows modelling better worlds through fun and connection include interactive drag cabarets Jock Tamson’s Bairns and Meatball Séance.

This isn’t the apocalypse, then. It’s just a time of change, bringing instability and violence but also opportunities for renewal. At the Fringe, those opportunities include embracing the performance event as a space not only of transactional entertainment but of collective experience, agency, self-criticality and – most promisingly– care.