Unlike the rest of my thespian friends, none of the shows I was in at University at Cambridge ever made it to the Fringe.
Six years after graduation, and having moved from England to Bombay in 2005, I left the country in the hands of our able Anna, battled my way through the London riots and finally got myself up to the renowned Edinburgh Festival in August.
Over the years friends who’d taken their shows to Edinburgh had assured me it was an absolute must-do for a performer. They’d also unanimously said it was of utmost importance to book early since the good shows got sold out fast and it was entirely possible to be in Edinburgh watching other Cambridge University shows. Alas, I wasn’t going as a performer, but for some unadulterated fun with a couple of friends. And I had decided to be super organized about the whole thing. So we started to plan our trip and the subject of our collective email read: ‘Edinburgh Fun’.
As an Edinburgh virgin, it took me a couple of Google searches to fully grasp that there were in fact multiple Edinburgh Festivals running somewhat but not entirely parallel to each other. A main festival, called the Edinburgh International Festival, an International Book Festival, and the mother of all performing arts festivals, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The International Festival, consisting mainly of large-scale classical dramas and operas from China, Taiwan and Japan this year, was easy to navigate. I quickly turned my attention and enthusiasm to the Fringe website and downloaded the full program. Five downloading minutes later, a staggering 350 page online booklet with up to 9 listed shows per page of comedy, theatre, musicals, children’s shows, music, and dance lay threateningly before me. In the vast ocean of 2542 shows playing in 258 venues at the Edinburgh Fringe over 3 weeks in August, where was I to begin? How was I to choose? I felt I needed a separate holiday to plan and ensure I was going to have a jolly good time on my five-day break in Edinburgh.
Lost, confused and very much at sea, I turned to The Guardian newspaper only to find some rather scanty, hardly comprehensive reviews. I had been told time and again to book the ‘good shows’ in advance - just how one got to know about these ‘good shows’ was a complete mystery. After several hours over several days spent trawling through the infinite brochure and the internet for clues, trying to make head or tail of the whole thing, I decided to throw in the towel and do damn all.
It’s unheard of, but I landed at the Fringe without having booked a single ticket.
The city – cold, wet and quiet for half the year – was all a buzz and brimming with every brand of weirdo your brain can conjure up. It’s the one time, if you have a penchant for wearing bizarre fancy dress that you could walk down the street and not get a second glance. Every street corner had actors in full costume aggressively charmingly weirdly marketing their shows. In contrast, I realized, though the Scots aren’t so into the festival themselves, they’re nonetheless incredibly courteous, warm and obliging to the hundreds of thousands of invaders who swarm their city each summer. Every time we got lost - which was often – there would be 3 locals who’d jump at the opportunity to direct us. Residents said ‘hello’ as they passed us in the street, ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’ at every turn. One bus driver rather precariously waved goodbye to me while pulling away from our stop. Really, the only reason why anyone would not want to live in a place where everyone seemed so damn genuine might be the lousy weather. It was the end of the Scottish summer, we were walking around in jackets to protect us from the chill and drizzle, and only on occasion, when the sun struck the ancient castle high above the city, did it hit me. Yes, Edinburgh was a charmingly enchanting little place indeed.
And it’s a good thing the charm came in high doses because attending the festival, I realized, was actually about two things: luck and running. It’s not charming when you get stuck seeing your first cringe-worthy amateur show, having paid a pretty price for wasting a precious hour of your life [BAD LUCK]. Nor is it charming when you dart half way across town with your lunch hurling around in your stomach, only to be not let in for a show you really wanted to see, (particularly as you’d already paid the £10 per head admission fee) because you got lost, were actually on time, but were eventually thwarted by the Scottish disposition to being somewhat pedantic [RUNNING].
I’ll skip over the reviews of the shows where luck was not our side. Word of caution no. 1: choosing a show because you liked the name, write-up in the program, or the hot actor who ‘personally’ invited you is not the formula for a fulfilling Fringe experience.
It might seem as though the Fringe is a Woodstock-like fest for theatre and performance art - one trippy artistic smorgasbord of hippy economical fun. Word of caution no. 2: the Fringe actually has a thoroughly controlled, centrally organized system in place. I realize being sensibly methodical doesn’t really indicate a downside. But that you can’t pick up your online tickets from the actual theatre is not always convenient. Upon purchasing your ticket from the website, you then frantically search for one of three hotspots in the city, stand in a queue while your show is about to start in ten minutes on the other end of town, print your tickets from a computer and then sprint and pray you’ll make it just before time. All because you tried to be too damn prepared.
Word of caution no. 3: there is nothing economical about attending the Fringe. From the stay (nearly impossible to find as the hotels start demanding £300 a night) to the actual tickets, which start at £7.50 (Rs. 550) and go up to £25 (Rs.1900) for the main festival shows, it’s a highly expensive proposition for someone on a budget holiday. To spell it out, if you see the obligatory 2-3 shows a day that one does in a festival, you’ll end up spending anywhere from Rs. 1500 – Rs. 3000 per day, per person, on just the shows.
Unlike previous years, where pre-booking was apparently a must, landing up totally unprepared this year turned out to be the smartest move as the ground reality seemed to indicate a rather interesting change. My confusion started to lift once I chanced upon a really handy review website called www.fringereview.com which gave me all the needed low-down on the top shows. I rushed online to book up and was amazed to see even the 5-star reviewed shows had ample tickets left. In fact they were going half full. What else could this mean but that cash was truly tight this year?
I didn’t cram in as much as I could have into my 5 days in Edinburgh. But it’s safe to say out of the ten shows I did see, three have probably left an imprint for life. One of them was a phenomenal drama called Release about the life of three ex-convicts as they come out of prison in the UK. As the play highlighted, 50% of ex-convicts go on to re-offend as they struggle to get jobs, maintain relationships and lead any semblance of a normal life. Just the previous week, the London ‘riots’ had finally been contained and up to 3000 youths were going to be getting a prison record. It felt all too topical and all too sad. The actors in Release were beyond outstanding. Shane Shambhu, who many of us saw at the NCPA as Ramanujan in Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, was fabulous in a double role as a hardened London criminal and a bharatnatyam-dancing software engineer. Verity Hewlett is one actress who ought to make it really big – her grasp of detail, her nervous energy and her ability to create such believable and sympathetic life on stage were awe-inspiring.
One of my most exquisite experiences was at Request Programme, a 1970s German play. A tiny audience was ushered into a studio flat where 16 stools lined all four sides of the room. A few moments later, a woman walked into the flat after a day’s work. We were witness to the mundaneness of her evening routine as she put away her shopping, made some dinner, undressed in our presence, washed the dishes with an unnerving precision, turned on the radio to listen to the ‘Request Programme’. In a wordless piece of performance art, the radio provided the only sound-scape for the entire hour and fifteen minutes. Curiously intimate, starkly naked, and discreetly tragic, Cecilia Nilsson captivatingly drew us into the minutiae of her world only to rebuff us in the final moments of the play by deciding to swallow a lethal number of sleeping pills to take her own life in her empty room. We were all present however, all sixteen of us, and it felt as though we were in some way complicit in her suicide. We sat there and watched, and we did nothing. It was startling and raw and I yearned to perform the piece in Bombay one day. (So before you go to Amazon to order yourself a copy, I’m sorry, I’ve called dibs on this one).
Slight digression. We learned from a friend that comedian and actor Vir Das was performing at the festival and decided to go along like true Bombay fans. I had of course seen and liked Vir in Delhi Belly and had recently paid Rs.1000 per head to bag the last two tickets for his hit stand up show, History of India VIRitten, at the sold-out 818-seat Sophia Bhabha Hall one Sunday in July. In Edinburgh, on the other hand, 14 people showed up for his gig that evening. Vir counted us, and then got to know us all! Word of caution no. 4: this happens in Edinburgh. No matter how big you are somewhere else in the world, you might get only 5 people coming for your show one evening. You’re competing with almost 300 shows in the same time slot. And that’s just the Fringe. So, yes, it was awkward and humbling to watch Vir brave through the meager titters. As a performer, I felt his struggle, so I laughed loudly and merrily and allowed him to massacre us in the first row. I’m glad I saw that show. I felt we communed on some level that day.
Word of caution no. 5: the Fringe has a lot of ‘experimental’ performance art, and it can get tiresome, fast. Just as I was beginning to overdose on the avant-garde, my last night served me up a grand dose of the traditional in a good old-fashioned gold-ceilinged theatre with stalls and a balcony. We were invited by HSBC to watch a Peking Opera performance of Hamlet, The Revenge Prince of Zi Dan. It was the one chance I had to get all dressed up in the only designer dress I own, and I wasn’t feeling too well by the time the pre-show cocktails kicked off. I had never watched opera, let alone opera in Mandarin. Having absurdly studied 3 years of Mandarin at school, I also have a puzzling personal aversion to the language. My reasons are clear. Why wouldn’t I have? I was so terrible at it that I was led to cheat in every single exam. Who starts learning Chinese at the age of 12 anyway? So when the oddness of the nasal-toned singing, over-exaggerated movements, and shrillness of the instruments began to surpass my feeling of nausea, I was surprised to be spellbound by the whole thing. The vibrant costumes, graceful acrobatics and deliberate melodrama were so different to all that I had absorbed in the days before, and yet strangely familiar to the traditional forms of theatre and performance I knew from India. It was dazzling. And magical. And an impeccable finale to a rather perfect trip.
In retrospect, my reaction to hearing something so wildly ‘other’ in The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan was amusing in light of why I was returning to Bombay so soon. On the day I arrived from London I went straight into a rehearsal for Stories in a Song, a wonderful new musical play conceived by Shubha Mudgal and directed by Sunil Shanbag in which I play an English ‘Mem’ learning Hindustani classical music for the first time from a Khanum at the turn of the 19th century. It’s a delightfully funny and heart-warming piece written by the talented Vikram Phukan. For someone who has trained in Hindustani classical music my whole life, I get to have fun pretending I know nothing about this ‘exotic form’ with its ‘shrill’ instruments and ‘skirling’ voices. I also get to burst into an operatic aria in French at the very end.
I carried so much of my trip to England, Scotland and Edinburgh into my performance at the Tata Auditorium on August 25th so when a packed audience gave us an unprecedented 10-minute standing ovation (almost as long as we gave The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan) the performing artist in me felt newly full, and truly alive.
Pia Sukanya is a theatre actor, a singer-songwriter and filmmaker living in Bombay.