Whilst international artists and audiences are preparing to descend on Edinburgh en masse this summer, and Londoners are balking at the already sky-rocketing cost of the Megabus Gold from Victoria, there are some visitors who won’t have to travel quite so far. Scottish theatre-makers make up some of the most exciting entries to this year’s Fringe programme, with form-challenging shows that reflect both the UK’s crisis-hit political landscape and our determination to seek love and human connection amid the chaos.
Glasgow-based playwright Kieran Hurley is at Summerhall with Heads Up, a three-hander about a city facing the prospect of an imminent apocalypse. Hurley is best known for Beats – a solo show featuring a live DJ set which looked back at nineties rave culture in the Scottish town of Livingston, and the government’s crackdown on the scene through a notorious piece of anti-public gathering legislation. He’s since written Rantin for the National Theatre of Scotland, which blended live music and storytelling in a modern take on the Scottish folk tradition, reflecting on the narratives that shape national identity.
In Heads Up, Hurley continues to foreground music, with original live accompaniment by Michael John McCarthy, who has previously worked on Grid Iron’s Fringe First Award-winning Light Boxes. McCarthy scores a play centring around a doubt-stricken priest, a rebellious banker and a woman on her way home from a night on the tiles, each preparing for armageddon. Amid Britain’s post-referendum uncertainty and a bleak political climate across Europe (not to mention impending environmental catastrophe), the show presciently asks how we might handle the news that the world as we know it is on the brink of total collapse.
There’s more potential doom and destruction in Jenna Watt’s Summerhall show Faslane, also at Summerhall, which unpicks arguments around the UK’s controversial nuclear deterrent, Trident. Watt was last seen at the festival in Made in China’s Gym Party in 2013, a live gameshow in which she competed in a series of increasingly sinister contests with Jess Latowicki and Chris Brett Bailey to win the audience’s approval and avoid humiliating, painful forfeits. Watt’s own work has similarly straddled live art and traditional theatrical forms: her acclaimed two-hander How You Gonna Live Your Dash (“dash” being the line between birth and death dates etched into a gravestone) illuminated testimonies of life-changing decisions with strikingly smokey pyrotechnics. Flaneurs, which she performed at Summerhall in 2012, won a Fringe First for its touching take on urban violence and the complicity of bystanders – inspired by a real-life incident involving a friend of the artist.
Faslane shares this personal slant on political matters, as Watt interviews members of her family who have worked at the naval base. She also speaks to activist friends who have protested outside the compound, MOD personnel, and other interested parties. Taking these multiple perspectives into account, she traces her own complex and changing relationship with the much-debated Scottish navy headquarters, which employs many local people. Watt was mentored by Chris Thorpe at various points in the project’s development, whose outside eye has no doubt helped her fine-tune the balance between rigorous research and theatricality.
Over at the Traverse, Rob Drummond presents the ostensibly more upbeat In Fidelity, about the neuroscience of love. Drummond’s Bullet Catch, a white-knuckle, theatrical twist on a magic show, has recently toured internationally since its acclaimed Edinburgh run in 2012, where the performer recruited audience volunteers to restage the trick so dangerous that Houdini refused to perform it. He has also trained as a wrestler for Rob Drummond: Wrestling, taking up the contact sport in a multimedia show that broke with his family history of religion and pacifism. In the surreally unsettling Quiz Show at the Traverse in 2013, Drummond drew on the Jimmy Savile scandal to delve into the psychology of sexual abuse beneath a garish television format veneer.
For In Fidelity, the writer has reinvented himself yet again – this time drawing on evolutionary theory to consider how Darwin’s On the Origin of Species might help us understand contemporary love and relationships. The show combines TED Talk-style presentation with a live date featuring two volunteers, and promises a feel-good serotonin hit for singletons and the coupled-up alike.