The best of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018

Moral debate and questions of the right to offend dominate this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

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At the start of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, “great acting” meant making oneself heard above the emergency air con that thundered in every venue. Then the weather tempered to a more familiar drizzle, although the best productions did raise a heatwave of moral debate. Ulster American (Traverse Theatre) – a world premiere certain to travel extensively – is the latest play by David Ireland, a Belfast writer who established himself as a theatrical standout (and potential walkout for some customers) with Cyprus Avenue in 2016. In that work, Stephen Rea played a Northern Ireland Unionist who, meeting his granddaughter for the first time, sees imposed on the baby’s face the bearded features of Gerry Adams. This vision of the Antichrist (for Ulster Protestants) was most likely triggered by mental illness, which allowed the writer provocatively to explore the border between political dogmatism and insanity.

Ideological identity is again a driving subject in Ulster American. Leigh, a dripping wet English liberal theatre director, invites to his London apartment Jay, a bombastic Oscar-winning Irish-American actor. There, they meet Ruth – a young Ulster dramatist, in whose play about her homeland Jay is about to star. Both actor and director identify Ruth as a brilliant new “Irish” voice: the Hollywood star is keen to channel into his “theatrical Michael Collins” the sufferings of his Catholic ancestors at the hands of the “Brits”. They are bewildered, then, when Ruth insists that she is “British” and that her play is in part a justification of violent loyalist resistance to the dreams of Jay’s grandfather.

A prominent programme credit for a “fight director” hints at where the magnificent actors (Darrell D’Silva, Robert Jack and Lucianne McEvoy) will end up. The sexual politics are also explosive – a subplot involves an astonishingly toxic comment that the actor makes about rape. Many around me argued that this second dramatic line of attack is unnecessary, but, beyond exploring Ulster Protestantism, the play’s other dominant concern is the right to give offence, which also seems personal for the writer.

At the Royal Court performance of Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue I saw two members of the audience, upset by a scene featuring simulated violence to a child, walk out to argue loudly with the usher that plays should have trigger warnings. The theatre subsequently introduced these to a limited degree – customers can phone up to ask whether a production touches certain subjects; but most dramatists reject giving any more formal pre-show warnings on the grounds that drama depends on suspense and surprise. In this context, the blisteringly funny Ulster American feels like a defence of the right to offend and unsettle an audience.

That feels like a chosen cause for Traverse director Orla O’Loughlin, whose slate this year also includes the New York import Underground Railroad Game, an improvised two-hander about race, racism, sexuality and the crossing – politically and theatrically – of the lines between them.

For those seeking a show that doesn’t risk relationship-threatening arguments, O’Loughlin has also scheduled a production likely to have most of us nodding in agreement. In Check-Up: Our NHS @ 70, Mark Thomas extends his brand of stand-up reportage (previously applied to arms dealers) by subjecting the state medical provider, and his own body, to a simultaneous MOT. Tension arises from whether Nye Bevan’s ailing baby will be able to treat, in the future, Mrs Thomas’s baby.

As with his Channel 4 investigations, Thomas has talked to various experts, and on stage he physically and vocally ventriloquises his sources. His findings – ageing population, market-deranged health secretaries, staff too demoralised to serve their vocation – are familiar, but freshened by his energetic delivery and personal anecdotes, especially one involving a granny who remembered the birth of the NHS. Given that health is devolved in the UK, Thomas may be asking Scots to care more than they possibly do about the death rates of the English.

Henry Naylor, previously a TV comedy writer, has recently become the Fringe’s unofficial star writer-in-residence. Since 2014, he has brought north each year a geopolitical drama dealing – usually in the form of contrapuntal monologues for two women – with aspects of the post-Isis Middle East. The Collector, Echoes, Angel and Borders variously explored the ethics of intervention by western professional soldiers, volunteer jihadists and philanthropists

Changing direction and location, Games (Gilded Balloon Teviot) is Naylor’s first fully historical and Europe-based script, dramatising the biographies of two Jewish German women, fencer Helene Meyer and high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, who both sought to qualify for the home team in Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936. Naylor shows impressive psychological empathy, vividly embodied by actresses Avital Lvova and Tessie Orange-Turner, and a gift for resonant metaphor: the masks and feints involved in fencing serve as a thoughtful meditation on when and whether you can justify being false to yourself.

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s play Brexit (Pleasance Beyond) is so popular that the pre-show queue for its venue has to be divided into four sections to prevent it clogging up the Pleasance Courtyard. Timothy Bentinck plays a fictional Tory PM – a twittish ditherer seeming to combine the worst qualities of Cameron and May – who was chosen finally to resolve the tug of hate between Leavers and Remainers. The date is given as 2020, but the characters claim that the “transitional period” has been running for “three years”: as any interim period would date from March 2019, not the triggering of Article 50, this suggests that the writers are showing a Boris-like sloppiness about the details of leaving.

Another problem is that, while the politicians on stage are fictional, this kind of political satire tends to include topical sideswipes. Jokes about the interviewing style of John Humphrys, or the number of Dimblebys at the BBC, barely feel current now, and would hardly be among the first concerns of the political classes in another four years’ time. The fact that the pretend PM’s political contemporaries include Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Jeremy Corbyn also leaves the script curiously stuck between futuristic comedy and topical editorialising.

With stand-up comedians stacked like lorries at Dover in a post-Brexit UK, Sugar Rush (Sweet Grassmarket) helps the selection anxiety by offering each mid-morning a few comics doing a teaser for their shows. I got Jinx Yeo, Aatif Nawaz and Alice Fraser, whose backgrounds – Singapore Chinese, British Pakistani, Australian Jewish-Catholic-Buddhist – give some sense of the international range of gagsters available.

All were impressive, but I was struck that each act incorporated a double running commentary: first on the acceptability of the material (“shouldn’t use that lazy racial stereotype, but hey!”), and then on how the stuff was going down with punters. This is presumably a consequence of Twitter, but the monitoring makes impossible the relentless, hammering momentum of classic stand-up comedy. The jokers might learn from the Traverse playwrights the art of saying dangerous things without fear.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad