Another year, another fringe

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

Armaggedapocalypse: not Fox Newspeak for England's riots, but one of the 2,542 shows on the Edinburgh Fringe this year (and one of the 2,532 I missed). For a different take on Britain's yoof, turn that telly off and head north! Here they do theatre, music and comedy, not Curry's.

While London burned, Edinburgh drowned: the Fringe was both bigger and wetter than ever before. This time round I was in the company of reluctant bipeds, or "teenagers", and duly found that you do not propose shows that are a half-hour wade away, in the rain. This pointed up sharply the sagging concentration of venues in the dripping crypts and cellars of the Old Town, leaving the New Town (new, that is, to George III) relatively beleaguered. The sodden punters are sticking to the shows in the super-venues rather than chancing the diaspora across town. Having hacked up heart-attack hill, you stay where you are. Even the Assembly Rooms, grand old dowager of the empty Hanoverian boulevards, are closed for some sort of retail-based refurb.

Doubtless one of the themes to be picked out of the fractal Fringe chaos is the rise of cabaret (though this is perhaps down to a new taxonomy in the Fringe programme). In truth one always experiences the "fringe" in the lower case, as a highly personal experience. It's perfectly possible to remain entirely ignorant of the existence of any cabaret at all.

Last year my "fringe" was theatre-rich, but this time the inbetweeners nixed the Malkovich Pinter, and the Oedipal Berkoff. By and large, we also avoided all celebs, and spawn of celebs (the Brandreth, Rosenthal and Stourton scions were all trying their luck). It goes without saying that the travelling circus that is Neil and Christine Hamilton, who are now a freaky Fringe staple, were also verboten.

Instead we headed for teen-friendly Sheeps ("imagine Morecambe and Wise meet Sheeps. Then Morecambe and Wise go away"), an archly surreal young sketch troupe that really whack the comedy piñata with characters like their stage-frightened singer (obscene rap at excruciating odds with shaking hands). The sick lyrics of Amateur Transplants: Adam Kay's Smutty Songs also found favour. This former med student wreaks marvellously pointless, punning havoc on pop songs - Katy Perry's well-known chorus, for example, is twisted to "I kissed de Gaulle, and I liked it."

Then there was Shlomo Mouthtronica: World Loop Station champion. (You know, loop station! The recording device cum mixing desk?) The rangy, rabbinical-looking beatboxer appears to conjure an entire band out of his mouth. Shlomo, whose genealogical roots are Iraqi-Jewish, mixes his wizardry with chat about his family, as though we're guests in his front room; when we saw him, the sweetly soulful Randolph Matthews was guesting.

And Free Run, to my knowledge the first time that "parkour" (you know, parkour!), or the urban art of jumping over stuff, has been staged. Imagine a gymnastics display of simian grace, which is literally off the rails, in that the runners spring off a bar encircling the auditorium, above our heads. Sadly, pantomime choreography involving masked villains was apparently necessary to jolly up all this jumping about. One runner's trousers ingeniously start out as boxers at the waistband and turn into jeans: just like the show, it's an over-designed simulacrum of the real, grungy thing.

In Edinburgh, just as in London, youngsters are using technology to mobilise, but to entirely different ends. Show tips are exchanged via Fringe tweets, or "twinges", and there's a hit parade of shows that generate the most noise. It was through such a tweet that we caught the Fringe's only deaf comedian Steve Day ("if there's another one he hasn't heard of them") in fine raconteur form in Run, Deaf Boy, Run! This year new apps were launched to assist with gold-panning the slew of shows, which helped unearth a morning performance from zany clown-musicians Varieté Velociped. Their Czardas finale, played on a found object down their trousers, certainly brightened the day.

Theatre-wise I didn't see too much to inspire: Curious Directive's Your Last Breath left some of us sanguinely anticipating theirs, and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain seemed a little spindly after the robust verbatim theatre of Alecky Blythe in London Road. Fittingly, it was left to Glaswegian youth theatre Junction 25 to restore faith in both theatre and youth in I Hope My Heart Goes First.

Never mind the comics, frantically scribbling emendations to include the shopper-riots in their sets, here was the real riposte to the events in London: kids producing thoughtful, funny and, at times, beautiful work. Creativity pure and simple, as Cameron might have put it.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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