Portrait of a nation: what do the Scottish shows on this year’s Fringe say about Scotland?

For those of us living in Scotland, it’s easy to forget the Edinburgh Festival Fringe encourages two-way cultural traffic. Yes, it’s a chance for us to see the world’s artists on our doorstep (for those three weeks, it’s really hard to miss them), but it’s also a chance for our own artists to reach an international audience. The opportunity isn’t for everyone; building-based theatre companies, for example, tend to keep their powder dry for the autumn season and give the Fringe a miss. But, especially since the introduction of the Made in Scotland programme, funded by the government to encourage cultural exports, homegrown artists frequently use the Fringe as a showcase for the world.What, then, is the impression they are creating? What will the cultural tourist discover about this country as they work their way through the 50-odd Scottish theatre productions?

Islander: A New Musical
Islander: A New Musical

The easiest place to start is with work on a specifically Scottish theme. Visitors on the tourist trail won’t be surprised to see Burns: A Lost Legacy, Burns For Brunch, Robert Burns The Musical, Haggis, Neeps And Burns, A Man’s A Man and Armour: A Herstory Of The Scottish Bard – some taking a keener interest in the poet’s politics than others. They might also be intrigued by Hamish Henderson: On The Radical Road, about the father of the Scottish folk revival, and the return of Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand, performed in the economist’s home of Panmure House.

A less expected subject for biographical study is Gordon Duncan, bin-man by day, bagpiper by night, celebrated by David Colvin as one of Scotland’s great musicians in Thunderstruck, named after his idiosyncratic cover of an AC/DC song. Telling his own story as a musician abroad, Stevie Creed appears as

The Brooklyn Scotsman with transatlantic tales of sex and drugs, while Glasgow theatremaker Eve Nicol turns Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister into a romantic heist musical.

Other shows that could have come from nowhere else include Islander: A New Musical, a modern-day folktale set on a Scottish island; Ane City, a Scots-language journey of discovery on the streets of Dundee; and Blood And Gold, about Scotland’s uncomfortable legacy of slavery and colonialism. If you need to dial down the tartan after that lot, you can join Kevin P Gilday’s focus group for those Suffering From Scottishness, a send-up of nationhood and patriotism which, ironically enough, could only have come from Scotland.

Theatre isn’t an arm of Visit Scotland, however, and artists have interests that range further afield. In a disputatious nation, politics are never far from the stage. That includes some of the shows mentioned above, notably Blood and Gold, and extends to discussions about refugees, class, race, global heating, feminism, sectarianism and homelessness.

We live in an interconnected world and Scottish theatre is as outward looking as it is rooted in place. Recently in this column, Joyce McMillan wrote about playwright Nicola McCartney and How Not To Drown, the true story of Dritan Kastrati and his journey across Europe as a refugee and then through the British care system. It promises to reflect on social attitudes at large, much like Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece, another Traverse show, which is set in Edinburgh but has wider observations to make about

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an exclusionary British class system.

Women’s voices are prominent in A Brief History Of The Fragile Male Ego, in which Jordan & Skinner satirise the men’s movement, and This Script, in which spoken-word performer Jenny Lindsay argues in favour of feminist solidarity and against in-fighting. Women returning after big successes in previous years include Cora Bissett with her autobiographical piece of gig theatre, What Girls Are Made Of, and Apphia Campbell with the Nina Simone tribute Black Is The Color Of My Voice and the civil-rights themed Woke.

The range of political themes is broad. The young Boxed In company is running a whole green-themed venue at Dynamic Earth, hosting nine environmentally minded plays. Scotsman Fringe First winner John McCann is returning to the scene of last year’s DUPed with Come Out From Among Them about supporters and representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party. And the charity Raised Voices is putting on a play of the same name looking at how people become homeless.

Neither is Scotland short of formal invention. Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison is involved in two shows: A Game Of Death And Chance, performed through the ancient rooms of Gladstone’s Land, and The Brunch Club, staged in a real-life cafe. Add to this the cross-artform playfulness of Drone by Harry Josephine Giles, the circus-for-babies experiment of Little Top by Starcatchers and Superfan, the dance-video-theatre mash-up of The Afflicted by Groupwork and the surreal phone-in send-up of Moot Moot by Cade & MacAskill and you have a very modern range of artistic expression.