Edinburgh Festival: If you've got a life, act it out

A real Croatian general up on stage? In `lived' theatre, experience is more than art. By Dominic Cavendish
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If you have ever fancied taking a show to Edinburgh, but have never had the requisite flash of inspiration, take heart from this year's Fringe. Some of the most high-profile productions have a "genuine article" tag - where "lived" experience rather than "lively" invention provides the raw material. They may bear superficial resemblance to the average confessional riffs of the stand-up comedian, but generally these acts of premeditated self-exposure have a loftier aim than laughter.

Here are a few current crowd-pullers: Donna Jackson's Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love is a meditation on this Australian's double love-affair with smooth-bodied cars and a sleek, over-refined woman, set against a backdrop of oxy-welding and blasts of gelignite. The actor Stephen Powell's one-man-show, Tooled Up, is an imagined confession by his father, an erstwhile East End crim, while The Wrestling is billed as an insider's guide to the decline of the sport, courtesy of Scott Bradley, a former Golden Belt champion who claims he needs the cash to emigrate to America.

From Cyndi Freeman's chronicles of her three-year search for silverscreen fame in Greetings from Hollywood to performance artist Ursula Martinez's live coming out session with her mum and dad, no life story is too kooky or too commonplace to be barred a platform.

The most striking example of theatrical authenticity at this year's festival is Soldiers at the Traverse, a play trading on the fact that much of its material is devised and performed by two military men: Nick Glasnowic (the former commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Croatian army) and Frank Gillan, an ex-member of the Scots Guards. It has been mounted by the Edinburgh-based Grassmarket Project, a company specialising in creating work using the skills and stories of ordinary people. The company has been much praised since its set up in 1990, particularly for a trilogy (Glad, Bad and Mad) that gave voice to local homeless men, young offenders and women with experiences of the mental health system.

Soldiers sets out to illustrate "what happens to a man when he kills". It does so through a very simple framing device - getting the soldiers to speak as though they were volunteering anecdotes for a TV documentary being made on the same subject by Jane Kokan, a well- respected and widely travelled war correspondent. The information divulged is not easy to stomach. Gillan has kept a photograph of the headless torso of an Irish terrorist as a memento of his youth, and his description of an 18-year-old new recruit being torn apart by snipers along the Falls Road is as bloodcurdling as is his admission that he was seconds away from wreaking vengeance on an unarmed crowd. The carnage outlined by Glasnowic, who talks us through the 15 months his twin brother spent at the hands of his Serb captors, is similarly distressing: a catalogue of arbitrary slaughter, starvation and torture.

As a piece of drama, it's easy to level criticism at Soldiers. It could be said that the "actors" are not up to the task of conveying what they've been through. The effects of war on Gillan and Glasnowic, and on a third British soldier, "Dave", played by a professional actor, are shown to be markedly different (Gillan has remained as mentally upright as his posture; Glasnowic, with his American accent and crewcut, is all jokey bravado; "Dave", however, displays very obvious, violent symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder). None the less, there is a stiffness about Gillan and Glasnowic's delivery styles, not helped by the lecture set- up of some of the addresses.

Jeremy Weller, the artistic director of Grassmarket, is unapologetic about that quality of reserve, dismissing the idea that he would ever have made his recruits - plucked from the 20 or so who responded to the ads he placed in papers - "perform": "When you've got a general, a man who has been in charge of thousands of soldiers, there's no way you can ask him to roll around on his hands and knees. He's far too dignified for that." More importantly, he believes that the show's limitations touch on the limits of theatre: "When you hear what they have been through, you test the boundaries of art. When you go and see a show, usually the attitude is: `Don't worry, you won't be too concerned, relax'. I try to turn that upside down. You do have to worry. Go in there and let it hurt you, this is your responsibility, too. I believe audiences hunger for the authentic, that which touches them to the very core."

Communicating an authentic experience need not necessarily have anything to do with a realistic playing style, as Tooled Up or The Wrestling will show. Tooled Up attempts to put the experiences of Stephen Powell's father in Brixton prison through a stylised filter (much of the monologue is flights of fancy as the inmates stage Chekhov's The Seagull in a gangster style). The result is that you feel robbed of seedy underworld anecdotes. Watching The Wrestling, on the other hand, you slowly realise that Scott Bradley, the former Golden Belt narrator, is the persona of actor Alex Lowe, who has taken his "lived experience" from Simon Garfield's book of the same name. Rather than leaving you feeling cheated, however, the confusion about whether the show is for real or not mirrors the suspicion that killed wrestling - that the whole thing was rigged.

There are more stylistically accomplished real-deals than Soldiers on this year's fringe. But Weller's rough-and-ready approach both strives to an appropriate playing field for his subjects and throws down the gauntlet to other directors - more matter, less art.

`Soldiers', Traverse (0131-228 1404); `Car Maintenance', `Tooled Up', `The Wrestling': Pleasance (0131-556 6550); `Bondage: Ursula Martinez Presents a Family Outing', Assembly Rm (0131-226 2428); `Cindi Freeman: Tales from Hollywood', Gilded Balloon (0131-226 2151)