Edinburgh Fringe: Performances beyond Racial Identities

Takehito Mitsui*

Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 2023, Edinburgh, Scotland.

In 2023, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest part of the Edinburgh Festival, sold nearly two and a half million tickets, making it the fifth largest attendance in its seventy-five-year history. However, this number was almost twenty percent lower compared to 2019, the pre-pandemic year. I attended the festival for just four days, starting on August 11, and saw thirteen shows in total. These shows included a musical, dance, puppetry, immersive experiences, one-person plays and international productions. In this short review, I will focus on two shows that have left a lasting impression on me.

Dark Noon trailer from Fix + Foxy

Dark Noon (Pleasance at EICC Lennox Theatre) is produced by the Danish theatre company Fix + Foxy and co-directed by Tue Biering and Nhlanhla Mahlangu. The production explores the founding story of the United States of America. While this might sound like a familiar theme, what sets the show apart is its ability to challenge the audience’s conventional understanding of American history by presenting it from the perspective of marginalized minorities. The audience sits around an empty square stage covered in red soil with a large screen occupying one side, occasionally displaying close-ups of the performers and events on stage. It gradually becomes apparent that this empty stage represents the land of North America before the arrival of Europeans. As the settlers build a house, a shop, a bank and a church, they disrespectfully displace the Native Americans from their original lands.

Joe Young and Siyambonga Alfred Mdubeki in Dark Noon. Photo: Soren Meisner

The narratives of Western settlement prosperity have traditionally been presented through the lens of powerful, authoritative white men, often seen in classic Western movies. This production features one white male and six other white-faced black South African actors who portray the settlers and various American minorities, including Native Americans, Chinese immigrants and enslaved Africans, whose individual stories have often been forgotten. In so doing, the absence of white male performers playing the roles of the main protagonists irresistibly creates an alienation effect that increases agitated feelings for the audience witnessing racially abusive incidents in American history. This choice not only creates a unique perspective but also employs humour to illustrate the heartbreakingly dark moments in American history. For example, the brutal displacement of Native Americans is depicted as a commercialised game of American football in which the white settlers and supporters show off their joy for the overwhelming victory over them. In other words, this scene serves as a stark reminder of how even innocent citizens can readily become the ones who exploit the vulnerable for their own gain.

A white-faced reporter in Dark Noon. Photo: Soren Meisner

Another clever theatrical device used is audience participation. One of the striking scenes is the human auction, another dark side of American history, in which several audience members are randomly selected and brought on to the stage. The performers rub a small black mark on their faces to indicate they are forcibly brought from Africa. (When I saw the production, the most popular or highly-priced slave was a young white female audience member.) Such audience participations create a comic atmosphere from time to time in the auditorium.

A bank robber fires a gun in Dark Noon. Photo: Soren Meisner

While it seems to have become taboo for white performers to portray characters from different racial backgrounds in contemporary theatre, having fellow audience members, mainly white, take the roles of the historically marginalized ethnic minorities, who are brutally exploited by the white male characters played by the black actors, creates a strong sense of solidarity and responsibility for the racially abusive incidents taking place on stage. In the final scene, the video projected on the screen shows one of the black actors saying that the classical Western films he has grown up watching always represent the victories of the muscular white men. It profoundly reminds us that our mindset has been constructed by our culture and society, which praises the strong winners while ignoring the vulnerable.

Michael with putter puppeteers Craig Leo and Carlo Daniels in JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. Photo: Fiona McPherson

JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (Assembly Hall Main Hall), based on the South African Nobel laureate’s novel of the same title, is adapted for the stage by Lara Foot. It is a joint production of Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and the Baxter Theatre from Cape Town. In the midst of Apartheid, Michael struggles to obtain a travel permit for himself and his mother, who wishes to leave Cape Town for her birthplace, the country farm in Prince Albert, seeking refuge from the violence fuelled by the civil war. Seeing no improvement in their life-threatening situation, Michael embarks on a perilous journey on foot, carrying his ailing mother in a handmade pushchair. With the collaboration of the Handspring Puppet Company, the main characters, Michael with a cleft lip and his frail mother, are portrayed by handcrafted wooden puppets. Michael is harmoniously operated by three visible puppeteers, similar to the Japanese traditional puppetry theatre, Bunraku, in which one main puppeteer is fully visible, and two others, known as Kuroko, are dressed in black from head to toe. The other characters are performed by human actors who hold positions of power. Although the dialogues between the powerless and innocent Michael manoeuvred by the puppeteers and the atrocious real human characters does not create incongruity nor absurdity in terms of its dramaturgy, the contrast in physical abilities between puppets and humans accentuates Michael’s social and physical vulnerability and the tragic path his life is destined to follow.

Michael carries his mother in a handmade pushchair. Photo: Fiona McPherson

Furthermore, the absence of other puppet characters, except for his mother and animals (including birds and a goat) that bring him solace, symbolizes his lack of genuine companions he can rely on. However, given the fact that he is a puppet, his will is always dependent on the visible puppeteers, who can be regarded as his loyal supporters, fully committed to Michael throughout the performance. Notably creating a contrast to the cruel human characters, their cordiality raises questions about what distinguishes between good and evil people. In so doing, it also appears to stir the belief that there may be no insurmountable barrier preventing any individual from transforming into a virtuous one. Overall, this dramaturgical choice of combining puppet characters, puppeteers and human actors establishes a profound sense of compassion and hope within the mise-en-scène, cleverly balancing the despair and loneliness depicted in the drama.

While the hardships Michael faces in this dystopian story, such as racial abuse, forced labour, physical brutality and mistreatment by military personnel, may not all occur simultaneously in real life, many marginalized individuals continue to experience some of these cruelties in any society. The use of a puppet to portray Michael without affiliating him with any specific ethnic group subtly suggests the disquieting possibility that anyone could become a target of racial insults, much like Michael, while also having the potential to become a vicious perpetrator, akin to the human characters in the story.

Michael queues up to buy the train tickets. The members of the ensemble. Photo: Fiona McPherson

Choosing which performances to attend from the extensive list, including hundreds of lesser-known shows, can be a daunting task for anyone visiting the Edinburgh Festival and its Fringe, and I am no exception. The cost of accommodation in the city during the festival has skyrocketed since the pandemic, leading visitors to prioritize well-reviewed productions lauded by prominent news media with enthusiastic adjectives like “magnificent,” “intriguing” and “compelling.” This often means missing out on discovering equally magnificent, intriguing and compelling independent shows in small yet cosy venues. While there is no easy solution to reduce hotel prices, the festival must remain accessible to all, including both audiences and performers, to uphold its great tradition of supporting emerging artists with the help of warm-hearted, diverse audiences. 

*Takehito Mitsui is a critic and Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Informatics at Kinki University, Japan. He embarked on his academic career after briefly working as an assistant producer for an international theatre company. While teaching English at various universities, he consistently publishes theatre reviews in both English and Japanese. He is currently serving as the Secretary for the International Association of Theatre Critics Japan Centre.

Copyright © 2023 Takehito Mitsui
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