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Only in Edinburgh

Reassuring signs of resurgence at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The benchmark of my Edinburgh Fringe will forever be a 1994 late-night Ukrainian production of Othello in a public swimming baths. In Russian. I will never forget the magical scene in which Desdemona entered by diving into the pool and performing an underwater length; or the snores from one of my less enthralled teenage friends. It was an ambitious choice for a 17th birthday.

In recent years the Fringe has become bloated by stand-up and theatre-lite, with the big main venues leaving anything more edgy trembling in their heavily sponsored wake. But I love cabaret and comedy as much as the next Fringe goer and this year I saw some glittering examples: the alt-drag genius Jonny Woo at Assembly in his best, most personal show to date, with hilarious Mary Portas rap; unnerving, Weimaresque chansons by Bourgeois and Maurice at Underbelly; the exhilaratingly original Up and Over It – two ex-River Dancers liberate the dance form from the kitschness of perms/Michael Flatley; the seriously funny and suprisingly filthy Shappi Khorsandi; Amy Lamé’s gross-out tribute to Morrissey.

Aside from the Traverse’s play Morning, a pitch-black, acutely acted take on youth nihilism, we mainly got our highbrow kicks from the International Festival. 2008: Macbeth in Polish, staged at the hulking Lowland Hall updated the play to a high-tech modern conflict with claustrophobic, brutal and literally explosive effect, though the sinister power of the witches got lost along the way. Deborah Colkers’s Brazilian version of Eugene Onegin, Tatyana, pushed the boundaries of ballet with acrobatic movements and gothic costumes. NVA’s Speed of Light night-hike up Arthur’s Seat was a visual treat, even if the droney summit-soundscape was underwhelming.

Most encouraging is the emergence of a new venue, Summerhall, in the grand old vet school, hosting art and experimental theatre. It was here we got our Othello-in-pool moment with the excellent Future Tales by the Polish physical theatre group Komuna. This examination of left-wing politics in Poland focusing on the young intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski managed to be funny, head-scratching, charming and brilliantly innovative all at once. If this is the future of the Fringe, I’m excited.


Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?