Neema Bickersteth in Century Song by John Lauener_MG_0918
Neema Bickersteth in ‘Century Song’ John Lauener © John Lauener

The cover of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe programme ushers us “Into the Unknown”, an appropriate slogan for a festival that’s predictably unpredictable. Tying its line-up of over 3,000 shows into any one single theme is a struggle. But one inescapable strand is embattled masculinity in a post-#MeToo society, and narratives of female independence.

On at the Traverse, Penelope Skinner’s Meek is an unconvincing story of a woman rebelling against a fictional gendered dystopia. Her other play at this year’s festival, Angry Alan , has more topical bite. Built on intensive research into the world of men’s rights activists, it introduces us to a thwarted man who gets sucked into their world. It’s full of intriguing, often hilarious insights into “meninism”, but ultimately shies away from the real-world harm these keyboard warriors do.


It might be set in 17th-century Italy, but the consistently exciting Breach Theatre’s new show It’s True, It’s True, It’s True feels equally, uneasily current. It follows the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who at the age of 17 is facing down her rapist in court. Three women re-enact a trial that’s weighted against her, their narrative given furious momentum by a soundtrack of songs by The Breeders and Patti Smith. There are more period-accurate cultural references, too. In one deeply powerful sequence, Gentileschi plays Susanna and the Elders (the subject of one of her paintings) from two perspectives. First, she’s Susannah as painted by her male contemporaries, all coy, bubbling, look-at-me flirtation. Then, Gentileschi portrays Susannah as she sees her, arm held up in defence, furious at the male attention she’s desperate to repel. Being looked at isn’t something Gentileschi can escape, but her paintings give her control over her own narrative.


Century Song is another work which puts a woman in control of how she presents herself, in a way that’s unclassifiable but entirely beautiful. Soprano Neema Bickersteth explores different facets of the 20th-century African-American experience by singing wordless songs as she shape-shifts from 1930s cabaret singer, to 1970s protester, to present-day businesswoman who hurtles over rooftops. She wears her virtuoso performance skills lightly, winking at the audience as the giant video screen behind her fills with flickering avatars of herself. But that lightness never undermines the show’s emotional power. It’s made rich by the weight of the forgotten black women’s lives she’s embodying, and by the ennobling beauty of her voice.


Jess Love’s Notorious Strumpet & Dangerous Girl is a similarly genre-crossing show. She’s a cabaret star who has toured with the likes of La Soirée and Circa, but this piece gives her a chance to sprawl out from the trapeze turns that made her name into something messier and freer. It’s about alcoholism, with the whole show styled as an AA meeting where the audience are given tea and biscuits. It’s also a moving exploration of family and genetic inheritance, as Love tries to make sense of her family’s convict past in Australia. One section contrasts the brutal punishments given to her great-grandmother’s great-grandmother with the torments that Love’s addiction has put her through, a century-spanning connection made physical.


Coming to the Edinburgh Fringe after opening in London, Isley Lynn’s witty, tender play Skin a Cat is the story of a body that rebels against its owner. Alana has vaginismus, a condition that makes any kind of vaginal penetration almost impossible, but both she and her male partners are determined to overcome it. Pretty much since its beginnings, people have been keen to paint the Fringe as a home of fevered wall-to-wall nudity, but what’s impressive about this play is how its awkward, vivid sex scenes rely on less intimate body parts: a fist stands in for a penis, enmeshed fingers for a vulva. It’s both effective and fitting for a performance that focuses on Alana’s psychological distress and recovery, rather than the physical realities of her body.


Despite the name, Ed Edwards’ The Political History of Smack and Crack is basically a love story, tracing a Manchester man and woman’s relationship as it’s crushed and sustained by their shared addiction. The play’s politics come in quietly, as they remember a climactic day: the 1981 Moss Side riots, where the city erupted against the police. And then they talk about the policies which penalised the drug users rather than the gangsters who flooded the city with heroin. Eve Steele and Neil Bell’s performances are agonisingly realistic: this play takes their lives seriously, showing their dizzying highs without shying away from the grimness of their world.


There’s something deeply political buried in Sam Ward’s [insert slogan here] too. It’s a riff on the seduction of advertising, specifically the Volvo adverts that Ward fixated on as a kid. Now, he searches their shiny surfaces for deeper meaning, exploring their reflections on love, freedom and fulfilment by re-enacting them with audience members. This is a strange, moving homage to the most polished, ambitious kind of car adverts, showing how they can make viewers feel that their deepest longings will be satisfied with one, four-wheeled purchase.

Ward’s show feels like an arch comment on a festival where there’s a constant pressure for attendees to buy more tickets, and see more shows. But it’s also this kind of experimental, subtly disruptive work that makes diving into Edinburgh’s festival of the unknown feel so worthwhile.


Until August 27,

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