Notoriety has been a constant hallmark of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since its earliest incarnations. It was an event born out of a protest during the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, when eight theatre companies – six Scottish and two from England – arrived in the city uninvited and decided to perform anyway. The offshoot of the prestigious cultural celebration had grown so popular by 1959 that an official Fringe Society was created to co-ordinate what The Scotsman was describing as an “official unofficial festival”.
Two years later came the first complaints that the Fringe had become too big – when theatre director Gerard Slevin argued that it should be restricted to ten venues. By 2019, it had recorded an audience of three million for the first time, with a record 3,841 shows staged across 323 venues.
In between times, hardly a year has gone past without a headline-grabbing controversy rearing its head. And the death of the Fringe has been predicted so many times it has almost become a cliché. The arrival of the first “super venues” in the 1980s, the first £10 tickets going on sale, and comedy taking over from theatre as the biggest art form were all accompanied by death-knells.
But it was not until 2014 that protesters managed to shut down a Fringe production, when the plug was pulled on an Israeli theatre company targeted over its government funding, prompting serious questions about the Fringe's long-standing “open access” ethos. The Fringe Society underlined that principle last year in a new blueprint pledging “anyone with a story to tell and a venue to host them is welcome”, only for it to be completely undermined within weeks when comedian Jerry Sadowitz had a show cancelled.
Although deliberately provocative material has been at the heart of his act for decades, his continued presence at the event had gone virtually unnoticed until he had the second of two shows cancelled last year by the Pleasance. Seasoned Fringe-goers were baffled at its condemnation of Sadowitz’s act as “extreme” and its suggestions that he had crossed a line with his content, while the Pleasance gave the impression it had no option but to respond to an “unprecedented number of complaints” over his act.
The Stand Comedy Club is embroiled in a similar situation after cancelling an in-conversation event with Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry, after a number of staff raised concerns over her vocal opposition to the Scottish Government's gender recognition reform plans. The venue operator, co-founded by fellow SNP MP, Tommy Sheppard, is facing the prospect of a costly legal battle. It would appear to have been entirely avoidable had it stuck to an original stance that “people should have the right to express views that others might find controversial or strongly disagree with”.
It is somewhat ironic that as Ms Cherry ramps up the pressure, the return of Jerry Sadowitz to the Fringe has been announced – albeit in a different venue run by another operator. However that scenario falls well short of what Ms Cherry and her legal team are demanding.
Given that they had already sold tickets and promoted her event, the onus would seem to be on The Stand to seek some kind of compromise to avoid any more damage being done.