LIKE Topsy, it just goes on growing; this year, the Edinburgh Fringe will sell two million tickets for 50,000 performances of 3,314 shows, a figure that puts it so far ahead of any other arts festival on earth that those who have not experienced it struggle even to imagine its scale and intensity.
So it’s hardly surprising that one increasingly popular way of navigating this vast forest of events and performance is to pick up the thread of a particular theme. These days, the sophisticated Fringe box office computers can help you to find shows about the First World War, or Jane Austen, or climate change, or your favourite music star and least favourite politician; this year will be a big one for Nina Simone fans, and also features at least one play about Boris Johnson, as well as the enticingly-named UKIP The Musical. And the Fringe administration has even begun to encourage the trend; this year’s launch press release helpfully highlighted at least eight major themes shown up by the Fringe algorithms, ranging from father-and-child relationships to the all-embracing “women’s experience”.
In truth, though, the pattern of themes and obsessions in the Fringe theatre programme is so complex that even a list of eight themes can barely begin to untangle its strands. Some themes are obviously driven by a response to historical anniversaries, which occasionally bring funding, as well as greater audience interest; it’s easy enough to trace, in this year’s programme, the impact of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice In Wonderland, or the backwash from last year’s huge surge of work commemorating the First World War. Other themes reflect long-term changes – both positive and negative – in funding patterns; if there’s been a gradual increase, over the last 15 years, in the number of UK shows dealing with scientific subjects, from medical dilemmas to climate change, that may have something to do with the comming in 1998 of Nesta, the UK government foundation that links creative exploration in science, education and the arts.
Other themes, though, simply seem to emerge from the zeitgeist of their own accord. This year, from the less comfortable edges of affluent western culture, there are notable surges of work about transgender experience and issues – led by Jo Clifford’s Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven, and Paul Lucas Productions’ Trans Scripts, from New York – and about poverty and debt, with shows like a new take on Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris and London, or Atiha Sen Gupta’s Counting Stars taking us deep into the experience of poverty and low pay in Britain today. Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, and the intense debate it provoked, there will be some high-profile shows about freedom of speech, including the multi-authored Walking The Tightrope at the Underbelly; there will also be many shows about the experience of migration, from Rough Magic’s How To Keep An Alien, at the Traverse, to Bloody East Europeans at the Quaker Meeting House.
And then there are the shows that reflect, with varying degrees of success, on the last few agonies that those of us lucky enough to live in the west, in reasonable comfort, still cannot avoid. Mental health problems, bereavement, illness, ageing, and the scourge of dementia remain strong preoccupations on this year’s Fringe. At the Traverse, for example, you can see Vanishing Point’s beautiful 2014 show Tomorrow, which faces up to the idea of ageing as a kind of gentle nightmare; or Bryony Kimmings’s latest show Fake It ’Til You Make It, about her partner’s struggle with depression. Some of these themes tell us more about our society and its priorities than it’s comfortable to know; others represent theatre at its best, exploring new worlds of experience, giving a voice to the undervalued and unheard. Each one of them, though, offers a powerful way in to the rich world of serious – and funny – drama on the Fringe; so fire up your laptop, and start searching.