It’s half past ten at night, in the vast Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Morrison Street; and in a huge lecture theatre with more than 500 seats, the Armazem Theatre Company of Brazil are preparing to present their award-winning Fringe show, Water Stain, to an audience of perhaps eight people.
They are part of a high-powered season of Brazilian work at the EICC, featuring four shows from across that vast country. And although Water Stain suffers particularly from the fact that it’s playing late at night, at a time when most Fringe-goers have moved on to comedy or cabaret, none of the shows is attracting much of a paying public, despite the high quality of the work; later in the week, Water Stain – with its terrific musical score for guitar and multiple accordions – easily wins one of The Scotsman’s Fringe First Awards, for work receiving its British premiere in Edinburgh.
Yet still, audiences remain small; and the Brazilians were not the only major international group struggling with tiny audiences on the 2013 Fringe. At the New Town Theatre in George Street, the great Tumanishvili actors’ studio of Georgia presented three shows, one in each week. But after a series of administrative disasters, their presence in Edinburgh went almost unnoticed; and when I finally caught up with their terrific production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano – featuring the kind of mature and brilliant ensemble acting almost unknown elsewhere on the Fringe – their superb work was being watched by three or four people from the company itself, and me.
Now in both of these cases, there are specific reasons why the companies could have done better, in terms of publicity and marketing. The Brazilians had no visible marketing effort at all in advance of the Festival, despite the scale of the season, and strong support from their own Ministry of External Relations. And the Georgians committed the cardinal Fringe mistake of missing the publication deadline for the main brochure, and of accepting the graveyard performing slot of 10am.
Yet all the same, I wonder whether there isn’t a deeper shift behind this increasing marginalisation of non-English-speaking theatre from a Fringe that depends increasingly for its international profile on work from the anglophone world, from the United States, Australia, and English-speaking South Africa. Even leading companies from Belgium and the Netherlands – such as Ontroerend Goed of Ghent, who scored a success at the Traverse with their latest show Fight Night – now routinely perform in English, to overcome the resistance of English-speaking audience to any show with surtitles. There was a time, a generation ago, when sections of the Fringe audience would flock to see shows in Polish or Russian or Serbo-Croat, as the old barriers in Europe began to fall; whereas today, the coming of the internet age seems to have reinforced the dominance and insularity of the anglophone world, to an almost frightening extent.
Yet if we want the Fringe to remain truly international, the sound of other tongues, and the rhythm of other cultures, has to remain present in Edinburgh, not only in physical theatre and music, but in drama as well. Perhaps the various agencies around the Fringe – including the Fringe organisation itself – need to think about stepping up the already substantial support available for international visitors, particularly those working in other languages, in order to overcome what seem to be ever-higher cultural barriers between them and Fringe audiences.
And if The Scotsman Fringe Firsts – which celebrated their 40th anniversary this year – have been outstandingly successful in encouraging the presentation of new work on the Fringe, then perhaps this would be the moment for some imaginative sponsor to step forward with a new award; one that would celebrate the best non-English-language show on the Fringe, for reaching out to audiences over a growing barrier of linguistic resistance and indifference, and making the kind of vital connection that opens minds, and sometimes changes lives.