Auld Reekie and the fringe of the Fringe

Our theatre blogger offers her verdict on this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

If all the Fringe is a play, then Edinburgh is a stage set par excellence. Robert Louis Stevenson's "dream of masonry and rock" is as beguiling and romantic a backdrop you could hope to find, and the fact that theatre is seemingly blooming out of every crevice in that masonry only adds to the appeal of what is arguably the greatest show on earth. And if the scenography is courtesy of Auld Reekie itself, the metteur en scène must be the rain: a pluvial Prime Mover, which changes the scene from the sublime to the soggy, and directs and controls the flow of people in the city - we coalesce, we disperse. The fug and steam of the cooling cagoule fill the auditoria. And just as well something is, because the average audience size on the Fringe is just nine.

At two and a half thousand, the number of shows this year is nearly a fifth up on 2009. But unless punters multiply by the same logarithm, your average audience size is only going one way. Not helped by a theatrical Darwinism, where the super-venues get bigger and fatter at the expense of the one-woman-and-her-overdraft sound of one hand clapping majority.

Then there's the vexed issue of the household names, the so-called "parachutists", one of whom even parachuted into an improvised musical I was rather enjoying. Nicholas Parsons is urbanity itself, but his presence at Showstopper! was just that. (That said, the company created some delectable moments out of his chat - the Rocky Horror Show version of his two marriages rather sticks in the mind). The crump of celebs jumping on the bandwagon could be heard right across the city: Alan Cumming, who has conveniently come over all Caledonian, seemed to be on the cover of every local rag. " I have never felt more Scottish!" he whinnies. This, despite living in America, and taking US citizenship.

However, the deep-keeled Fringe is something of a self-righting machine: as soon as the organism senses it's too mainstream, it germinates Fringe fringes: Forest Fringe, Free Fringe, and this year, The Living Room. And there are a huge number of performers for whom a stage is a bourgeois luxury: a loo, or the back of a van will do. If you want the up and coming, and not the been and gone and got the TV show, these are your hunting grounds.

But the pursuit of this ignis fatuus can be wearying. Where to start? Iranian poetry or Russian clowns? On one production-laden afternoon, the very names of shows and companies seemed to forge a queasy objective correlative: Ad Infinitum, then The Dreadfuls, rounded off by Beautiful Burnout. It can seem like the craic is just elsewhere: it's in the nature of Edinburgh's pop-up venues that you can often hear what's going on around you, and during the Emma Thompson-endorsed Fair Trade I could hear Flawless, Chasing The Dream and their West End transfer. Other people, I fretted, were having more fun.

Every year a political anxiety flares and spreads, like a chant in a football stadium, across Edinburgh's productions. A few years ago it was Blair, but now sex trafficking is the issue that has sparked several shows and crossed into stand-up with Keith Farnam's How Much is that Woman in the Window? (How Tony might feel about being bracketed with sex trafficking as a societal ill can only be imagined). Fair Trade may have felt like dressed up agitprop, but there were other shows, lacking the imprimatur of an A-lister, which packed a greater punch: Roadkill, for example, bussed spectators to a tenement flat, and immersed them in the truly horrifying "business" of slave-rape.

2010 also saw the rise of the viral star: the performer who has achieved their rep and their access to the platforms of Edinburgh on the net. The brightest of these has to be scabrous teen joker Bo Burnham (60 million hits), but I followed my own star in the form of "You Tube Sensation" The Unexpected Items, on the strength of Gap Yah (2 million hits) who have a posh totty charm all their own. And the buzz about shows spreads like a contagion, too: blogs, tweets on the Fringe ("twinges") and the most reliable of these viral modes, word of mouth. My street tipster was right on the pulse with his recommendation Meow Meow: never mind the politics; it was cabaret and Glee Club escapism drawing the crowds.

I left Edinburgh as some Chinese acrobats were carefully preparing their own stage on Princes Street. A man dressed as a penguin wandered by. I reached the cover of Waverley as the heavens cracked open and the rain swept these visions away: another scene change in the greatest show on earth.

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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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