It's good to see that the fringe hasn’t given up on 2021, but if it's the “fringe experience” you are looking for, then this year's festival is likely to be an outlier. In 2019 there were 3,800 shows; last week the fringe society announced 170 shows, many of them online. There will be more added, and well-known venues including the Traverse will be opening their doors. But even though the Scottish government's Covid-19 restrictions are due to be fully lifted from August 9, the Fringe Society’s Shona McCarthy has said she is not expecting hordes of people from over the border, and has suggested that this year’s fringe will be a largely local event for local people.
Trying to Covid-proof the Edinburgh fringe is tricky, but I’ve always wondered why during August I spend so much time watching shows ill-suited to a sweltering cellar or an upside-down plastic cow when the city has so many beautiful outdoor spaces. This year Summerhall and the Pleasance will be making use of their courtyards for performing rather than just for drinking, and spaces from Silverknowles beach to the multi-story carpark on Castle Terrace will be utilised. It can only be a good thing if the fringe became spread out across the city rather than colonising the Old Town, where the streets become so congested in a normal year it is impossible to keep on the pavements.
That kind of congestion is unlikely to be seen this year and fewer tourists will mean that accommodation should be easier to come by and not be so exorbitant. Will that be the “fringe experience” you are looking for? I’m inclined to say that small can be beautiful. It may be that what we think of as the “fringe experience” will turn out to be an anomaly, reflecting only 30 years or so of Fringe history from the late 1980s onwards, when more growth, ever more shows, and ever more tickets sold seemed to be the watchword.
2022 will mark the Fringe’s 75th anniversary. If it returns bigger than ever next year then I would say that little has been learned from the pandemic. The past year or so has provided the fringe with what might be its only opportunity to reset and rethink what it does, and work on creating a fairer and kinder festival experience for artists and all fringe workers as well as audiences.
You could head North this summer, but the fact that so many fringe shows will come in digital or hybrid form means that it will be possible for audiences to enjoy a significant proportion of fringe shows from wherever they are in the world. Besides, London in August this year is stuffed with theatre openings including Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt returning to Wyndham's, Kae Tempest’s Paradise at the NT, Josh Azouz’s Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia at the Almeida, and a whole season of new work at Park Theatre. That’s just for starters. Add to that a slew of shows from fringe favourites such as Queens of Sheba (at Soho) and Rhum and Clay (at New Diorama) and you might not feel the need to travel and instead support the fringe by watching shows online. Your choice.