Edinburgh Festival Fringe offers fewer laughs

By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland arts correspondent

image captionRhona Law and Brian Paterson tackle serious issues in The Lockerbie Bomber

The Edinburgh Fringe, which officially begins on Friday, will this year see 2,871 shows performed by 24,107 artists in 273 venues across Scotland's capital city.

It is easy to assume the Fringe is all about comedy. Or at least, focused on fun and frivolity.

But this year, there's been a drop in comedy (from 36% to 33%) and there's a marked increase in the number of theatre shows - from 751 to 824. Among them, some of the most gritty real subject matters the festival has ever tackled.

Take Nirbhaya, a new play by the writer and director Yael Farber, whose controversial Mies Julie was one of the most talked about shows of last year's Fringe.

Originally based on a workshop in which Indian women shared stories of sexual exploitation, it gathered momentum with the brutal rape and subsequent death of a student on a bus in Delhi last December.

Nirbhaya - Hindi for "fearless one" - was the name given to the woman who became the figurehead for protest about the more general treatment of women.

Yael's dialogue is delivered by five actresses onstage. She said she was determined to bring the show to Edinburgh when the subject was still in the public eye.

And she's not alone. Anna is a new piece about the life, work and assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The drama features specific events that Politkovskaya reported during the second Russian-Chechnya war and its aftermath and takes place by a lift shaft, just as her death did.

The company Badac Theatre were also responsible for another hard hitting show on the Fringe, The Factory, which imagined audiences in a Nazi death camp.

image captionNational Theatre of Wales are rehearsing The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning

Writer and director Steve Lambert says the fringe is an obvious platform for challenging work like this.

"There's a lot going on politically like immigration and people maybe think there are real stories to be told that are really interesting and don't require much dramatizing," he says.

"If people go home and Google her and find out about Anna and her bravery and the stories she tried to tell, that's enough really. What more do you want from a play?"

Another play examines the story of Ukraine's first female Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - currently in prison after being found guilty of abuse of office when brokering a gas deal.

Her daughter Eugenia will be in Edinburgh for the premiere of Who Wants To Kill Yulia Tymoshenko, and hopes it raises the profile of her mother's case.

Inside at the Gilded Balloon is a one woman show about kidnap victims - given even more relevance in the wake of the recent release of three women in Ohio after ten years in captivity.

'Compelling theatre'

Some shows deal with much older topics. The Lockerbie Bomber raises questions about the events leading up to the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Playwright Alan Clark has staged the play elsewhere - it will be performed in Malta later this year - but he says it was important to bring it to the fringe.

"I've got two hopes. One is that it makes compelling theatre and that it makes people think again about what happened that terrible night. 25 years on we still don't know what happened.

"What we do know is that there's been a cover up and sooner or later I hope the truth will come out and that my play in a very small way helps that come about."

But being topical can bring challenges. The National Theatre of Wales is staging its play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning at the Fringe, just days after Manning himself was convicted of leaking US military secrets.

The play, written by Tim Price, is about Manning's teenage years in West Wales and was originally performed in his former school in Haverford West.

"Apart from anything else the audience has a very different level of knowledge about the play now," he said.

"When we first did the play, most people didn't even know who he was. Now it's the first thing on the ten o'clock news. Also the context in Wales was very particular.

"In Haverford West a lot of his family turned up for the show. In Edinburgh, it's going to be an international audience so that's going to feel quite different."

And that, says Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland, is why shows like this keep on coming to Edinburgh.

"What theatre does really well, and the fringe does in particular is hold a mirror up to society. People know the fringe for the comedy and the light-hearted entertainment but also for really serious thought provoking theatre and theatre that really reflects some serious issues not just in this country but all around the world," she says.

"That's a really compelling offer for an audience."

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