Last year, when the festival was half in and half out of lockdown, the actor and playwright Tim Crouch gave a talk as part of the online SHEDx programme. His theme was the future of the Edinburgh Fringe and the possibility of making it better after the pandemic.Thinking about the festival's inordinate size, he made an analogy with industrial farming. He compared the millions of cobs of corn being harvested from the fields near where he grew up with the thousands of shows ripe for the picking in August. "The industrial scale of the Fringe now makes it difficult for delicate organic material to thrive," he said. "The deeper nutritional value is denied us by the pace of the market."
He hoped the festival would benefit from the fallow period imposed by the pandemic and would return with healthier produce. Today, though, he wonders if his optimism was not misplaced. "A lot of people are trying to will it back to how it was and it can't be how it was," says Crouch when we meet in the Royal Lyceum's rehearsal room. "If we have these last two years and don't actually change from it… I worry that we haven't taken this opportunity."
His own contribution to this summer's 3,171-show harvest is a one-man play, Truth's A Dog Must To Kennel. Like so much of Crouch's work, it is as bold in concept as it is simple in execution. Take, for instance, his 2005 play An Oak Tree, in which one of the characters was played by an actor who had never seen the script. Or consider 2009's The Author, in which the actors sat among the audience as they talked about a play they had supposedly performed in.
Then there was 2019's Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation for the National Theatre of Scotland, in which the audience sat in a circle reading a book that foretold the fate of a messianic cult leader and his acolytes. "The form is as central to the play as the story," he says.
Similarly stripped-back in presentation, Truth's A Dog Must To Kennel requires Crouch to spend much of the time wearing a virtual-reality headset, a portal to action happening elsewhere. That action is taking place in an altogether grander theatre where a production of Shakespeare's King Lear is in progress.
"It's the idea of one thing inside something else – this other theatre inside this theatre," he says.
Crouch is fascinated by the scene in King Lear in which Edgar pretends to take his blinded father Gloucester to the edge of a cliff. Edgar's description, and the old man's leap of faith, is like an act of theatre: it is not real but the audience implicitly agrees to believe it. "That's a piece of virtual reality without any digitalisation whatsoever," he says. "It's using a mind, words and imagination. That's where the root of theatre exists for me."
He says it is not necessary to have a knowledge of King Lear to follow Truth's A Dog Must To Kennel, but he is fascinated by the play's modern-day parallels. For some of the time, he takes on the part of the Fool, a character who departs from King Lear before the interval and misses the tragedy's bleakest moments.
"The Fool disappears from a world that is increasingly becoming unliveable," he says. "It has the potential of a civil war, the dismantling of governance – all those things that feel acutely contemporary. If I write about the schism in Lear – the deposing of a leader and the arrival of a lawless, ego-driven, reckless tyranny – we're quite close to that now."
In the Fool's early departure from the play, he also sees a connection between all those in the performing arts industry, from actors to carpenters, who were forced to make an exit when the pandemic threatened their livelihood. "This is about leaving," he says. "It's about the last two-and-a-half years, wondering what we're doing, how we carry on, how we re-engage, how difficult everything is, where is theatre in all of this and the invasion of the digital. This play celebrates the fact that we are all together – and that in each one of us sits an alternative one of us."
Tim Crouch: Truth's A Dog Must to Kennel, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 6–28 August.