Performers claim rules are killing the Fringe

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BITTER ROWS have broken out at the Edinburgh Fringe amid protests that its radical spirit has been bowdlerised and its anarchic street theatre stifled by over-regulation.

A banner declaring "What's happened to our Festival for God's Sake?" summed up a demonstration yesterday by street performers angered at new regulations saying that they must be registered, receive timed street slots and be insured.

During the protest on Edinburgh's Royal Mile - Mecca to street performers - a man held an apple in his mouth to demonstrate the performers' contempt for the insurance requirement. "Stay very still," said Jim Rose, as he approached the apple-holder with a whirring chainsaw and carved "No" to the regulations into the fruit.

The changes mean that Edinburgh's traditional August anarchy has been tamed and the Royal Mile looks more like Covent Garden in London. Last year, there were reports of people going around with guns to publicise their shows and of bystanders having fake blood thrown over them. This year the streets are comparatively empty.

Daniel Patino, 26, who has travelled from Bolivia to perform, has been told not to paint in the Royal Mile. Jimmy McLean McRae, a well-known Edinburgh piper, can no longer play where he likes. "These restrictions are terrible for ordinary people living in council flats," the latter said. "This street is their festival. It's free. They cannot afford to pay pounds 20 for some high-falutin show."

Yesterday's demonstration also reflected wider disillusionment with what critics say is an over-controlled Fringe that smothers raw talent. Earlier this week, Richard Demarco, co-founder of the Traverse Theatre, who has attended every Fringe for 53 years, said pioneering, risk-taking theatre was a thing of the past with few actors and writers of high-calibre now performing.

Today, Diane Dubois, one of the festival's most controversial playwrights, will argue during a Fringe debate that artistic licence has been sold out to secure corporate sponsorship. But the most frequent complaints are the lifelessness of street performance. "The street is normally teeming," said Charlie Guest, 57 who has been watching the Fringe for 20 years. "Now they've thrown the baby out with the bath-water with all these regulations."

Jim Rose, a veteran of the Fringe since 1979, added: "The problem is that the young people cannot afford to pay for this insurance. If they do this, then next year there will be none of them. Yet 90 per cent of the big acts start out as buskers. The organisers say this is about safety, but they will not be able to point out a single injury since the Second World War."

Martin Davies, 29, the nervous man holding the apple in his mouth, agreed with the chainsaw-wielding Mr Rose: "I was frightened. But it was worth it. I was stopped playing my accordion in the street.."

Edinburgh Council, which has empowered the Fringe organisers to police the Royal Mile for the festival, yesterday said it was happy with the regulations. "They promote public safety, reduce noise disruption and increase access to acts," Bob Cairns, a councillor, said.

However, to Fringe veterans, the chaos was part of the event's unique attraction.

Festival, Review, page 9