Confessions of a Vulnerable Nerd at the Biggest Show on Earth

Edinburgh. The Royal Mile. Amidst throngs of people several teenagers lie in the street with their eyes closed. They're dressed like Elizabethan peasants. One of them is poking the tip of his tongue out the corner of his mouth, the universal expression for playing dead. One of them is standing, very much alive, thrusting flyers out in all directions. Nearby, a man in a suit, coffee in one hand, flyers in the other, booms, with well trained projection, about his one man show. Behind him, a stage. Some fresh faced young people sing and dance, their cheeks aglow with pure earnestness.

¨Welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe,¨says my actor friend. ¨The largest gathering of vulnerable nerds in the world.¨

That's awfully cynical, I think, trying to block out his bad vibes This is my first time here. There's a vibrancy in the air, excitement, the streets charged with creative energy. This is the largest arts festival in the world. Ever. There are a thousand shows a day. I want to watch them all, to imbue all the wonder, to grow puffed up and sparkly with inspiration.

We drink pints served casually by a middle aged man in drag. Brilliant, I think, how delightfully weird and artsy. I grab my friend by the elbow. “Show me what we need to see!” And we pore over the listings. “This should be good,” he says, “surreal comedy. Starting now.” Before I have time to express my approval he hustles me out of the door.  

“Usually this place is completely different,” explains my buddy as we zigzag through the crowds. “It feels like a sleepy town the rest of the year.” It's hard to imagine. Last year the festival issued over two million tickets for shows. The city transforms into a surreal Wonderland, not just for theatregoers and vulnerable nerds, but for the thousands upon thousands who descend upon it to see the military Tattoo where the city's most emblematic structure, the castle, turns into just another stage. It's difficult to retain any sense of normality. Do any of these people live here? Everywhere you look, posters, flyers, banners, shows. Shows everywhere.

there is no time to process it. None whatsoever. We must quaff more art, more culture

My first one takes place in a tiny cavernous room underground. A hushed murmur of excitement floats in the air as we take our seats. The show is called Sea Men. and it's performed by a duo of comediennes known as Let Luce. One is dressed as an old-timey Captain and she struggles valiantly to reel in the other, a giant talking fish with a Northern accent. It's difficult not to fall in love with them. The story is hilarious and sweet, even when they goof up the lines they manage to play it off in such a quick witted and endearing way that it only adds to the enjoyment. Despite nearly allowing my dangerously distended bladder to become a source of serious embarrassment, we emerge back out at street level, joyously entertained.

But there is no time to process it. None whatsoever. We must quaff more art, more culture. We move on to the next show, 64 Squares. Exploring themes of memory and identity, the play is based on the work of Stefan Zweig, a Jewish writer cast out of his native Vienna on the eve of World War II. Zweig was stripped of his culture,shipwrecked in South America where he finished his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, before committing suicide with his wife.

After the show there is a brief window for discussion. Over drinks with the cast, we talk excitedly about how great the show was, how deft the physical performances were, how nuanced and clever the writing was. This is the energy and excitement I was looking for. Little do I know, that this also marks a peak for me. After this moment, I will not be sober, in any sense, for four days. There is another show to see. Now. It dawns on me that the Fringe is just a frenzied binge.

Riding a giddy wave of intoxication, we roll into a giant multicoloured circus tentRiding a giddy wave of intoxication, we roll into a giant multicoloured circus tent. Barrel chested strongmen appear on stage dressed like bearded hipsters. A woman on roller skates darts around them. They grab her by the ankles and spin her about recklessly. The crowd cheers. A band chugs along in the background. Dressed in outfits that span various historical eras, they pour out a torrent of relentless throbbing and pounding noise. A tempest is brewing. Figures appear from the shadows armed with trays of shots and we down them. On stage, the men fling each other about, somersaulting dangerously through the air while a mysterious middle aged man with the gaunt bony face of a Gothic villain, lurks behind them. The band leader begins to chant in French, a deep, disturbing baritone. A man's penis is out, flapping in the wind like a mainsail. The woman on roller skates contorts herself around a giant silver ring, dangling from the roof. Then she gets her tits out.

We're staring into the dark maw of the storm. Some Australians in front of us swallow more shots and roar violently. A thunderous crescendo of noise descends on us. More bodies are flung haphazardly. The shadowy old man chants and prances about and, with the storm building to it's terrible apex, is bundled into a body bag dangling from a hook, head poking out like a turtle. The muscle men circle and subject him to a weird ritualistic beating. And then, a final burst of nudity. Old man included. His wrinkly buttocks the lasting image burnt indelibly into my psyche.

Bloody Mary's for breakfast. Black clouds linger menacingly over the city. There has been no time to recover. Lost in the maelstrom, the only option is to ride it straight to hell. We smoke weed from a pipe and drink pints then head to yet another show. This one is in a storeroom next to the toilets in the basement of a Mexican restaurant. A vulnerable nerd talks about how vulnerable he is. We laugh at him. The vulnerability gets too much, it feels voyeuristic. I go upstairs to the bar and drink San Miguel under the benign rhythms of generic Spanish music. Huddled in the doorway, on what feels like the deck of a rolling ship, I smoke cigarettes and look up through the mist at the castle. What does it mean? What is it doing there? It looks like a carefully constructed bit of set, totally empty, ready to be dismantled.

Shows. Shows everywhere. On the street, in gardens, on buses, in cafés and bars, in wooden shacks, universities and flatsShows. Shows everywhere. On the street, in gardens, on buses, in cafés and bars, in wooden shacks, universities and flats. We watch Blam! A piece of explosive cartoonish absurdity, where office workers indulge in action film fantasies. Dull office furniture is blown to smithereens, and a mundane water cooler becomes a sentient being with feelings. We laugh ourselves stupid at the absurdist ramblings of the Pajama Men, swilling whisky at the back of a lecture hall-cum-theatre. In between, more drinking, more weed from the pipe, and more hurried discourse on staging, narrative and physicality. Even conversation starts taking on the feel of a performance. How can it not? Every moment is spent watching, observing, analysing speech and movement under an ever present spotlight. We're in a field but it feels like the middle of a carnival. Everyone around us is drunk, bellowing, stumbling, cursing and guffawing. Something about Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque floats out of the murk in my head, but I'm too wasted to do anything with it. I stagger to the bar for more. It has been built like a set with endless rows of pendent light bulbs.  

Fatigue sets in momentarily. At A Gambler's Guide to Dying, a candid, brutally honest one man show by Gary McNair, I count three middle aged men completely asleep. They all have their arms crossed, heads resting heavily on their attentive wives' shoulders, mouths slightly ajar. They start suddenly when there's a drastic change in pace and lighting. Bemused and self-aware they try to piece together what the fuck is going on as they're abruptly confronted with a stage bathed in blue light and an actor standing on a chair, shrieking.

You begin to question everything, and search desperately for a thread, however fine, that might lead you back to reality

Shows. Shows everywhere. There, that homeless man strumming a three-stringed guitar, is that a show? A pastiche of the itinerant medieval troubadour? What about that dog shitting in the street? A postmodern slam against gentrification in our cities? The mind reels. You begin to question everything, and search desperately for a thread, however fine, that might lead you back to reality. You try to ground yourself in architecture, yes, Edinburgh, with its cobbled streets and it's medieval closes. But it's useless. Men piss in the streets like animals. There's talk of going to the castle, but after several frustrated attempts, you never make it. A Kafkaesque nightmare. Endless corridors of makeshift bars, overpriced beer, and Brazilian gluten-free crepes. You go under. The waves fall on you, your limbs accept the futility of struggle, and you let yourself sink.

I open my eyes like a ragged castaway on the shoreline, to a clear sky. It's time to go home. The air smells clean. The storm has passed. Down in the valley, the train station is nestled reassuringly, a beacon. From there a train will set forth on its voyage, bearing us to the relative normality of London. Sloping towards it, the tourists pass. Wave after wave of them, trundle up and down with considerable delight, past the myriad souvenir shops with their cheap novelty kilts, snapping pictures of the castle from every angle, shuffling around behind tour guides dressed as Harry Potter. They're all here for a show.

Once on the train, I try to make sense of it all. When you're in the thick of the festival, it's almost impossible to look on it with any firm objectivity. It contains everything that is both repellent and alluring about culture today. Architecture and the history it contains is decontextualised completely. An entire city is redefined. And, predictably, at every corner you see the encroachment of commercial interests and corporate branding. It's an intensified version of what all major cities and cultures are becoming. There is also a touch of our society's desperate obsession with being seen, with performance and attention, but luckily this overridden by a wondrous, endless stream of creativity, of disarmingly honest self expression. For the most part it feels earnest.

As the train hurtles past Newcastle, I take stock. My head hurts, I feel pallid and drained of all vitality. I need water, vitamins, and a hug. I'm also quite sure that I don't want to see another show for at least a year. Days later, I'll wake up and regain some semblance of clarity. Only then will I look back on the experience and feel strangely excited whenever I speak of it, telling anybody who'll listen that amidst the superficiality that surrounds us, there exists a magical time and place for all us vulnerable nerds.

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