The festival, starting Aug. 2 and running for more than three weeks, has at least 15 shows, ranging from comedies to darker material. “Bible John” looks at the unsolved case of three women believe to have been murdered by a serial killer in Glasgow in the late 1960s, and “The Incident Room” examines the police investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who was convicted of killing 13 women in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At the Edinburgh International Festival, which coincides with the fringe festival, Swiss director Milo Rau will stage “La Reprise,” which explores the murder of Ihsane Jarfi, a young gay man, in Liège, Belgium, in 2012.
As for the lighter fare, comedians Anna Drezen, Matt Price and Rhys James will tackle true crime in their stand-up sets. In addition, true crime stars are also making appearances: the “Drunk Women Solving Crime” podcasters will have a residency in Edinburgh, while Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin, lawyers featured in “Making a Murderer: Part 2,” will discuss the case.
But questions remain about the ethics of making entertainment out of murder. Do producers and consumers risk glamorizing these crimes, and possibly exonerating the perpetrators? And how much can we trust podcasts and TV shows to stick to the “true” part of the true crime label, knowing viewers’ thirst for well-paced, satisfying narratives?
As an art form, theater may be well-positioned to interrogate such questions. In “La Reprise” and “Bible John,” for instance, the actors directly address the audience and remind them of their shows’ artifice. The plays invite viewers to consider the power, and the limitations, of theater and storytelling as a way of making sense of human brutality.
In “La Reprise,” the murder of Jarfi can be retold simply: he was murdered by drunk, homophobic young men. “But then you go deeper,” Rau said, “and the play becomes a reconstruction of what happened in five acts and, in parallel, an essay about the tools, the methods, we use to make theater.” He added, “It starts with the questions: How can you understand something that is (not) understandable? How can you represent the emotions but also the violence itself onstage?”
The show features a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors who introduce themselves to the audience. They also restage conversations they conducted with Jarfi’s former partner, parents and one of his killers.
Rau rejects the idea that he is turning tragedy into cheap entertainment or using it to shock. Jarfi’s family “completely understood” his intentions, he said, even though he graphically restages their son’s murder. “I’m an artist, I believe in the power of art to heal, by repeating the trauma itself,” Rau said.
Caitlin McEwan, a Scottish playwright, also said she was not interested in making a “straight play” about true crime, but in producing “something that speaks to the audience and does something formally inventive,” she said. In “Bible John,” four women start off by playing present-day true crime podcast enthusiasts. Later, as their obsession deepens, the characters begin to reenact scenes from the case, taking on the roles of victims and police officers.
The play examines how the true crime genre leaves us craving neatly structured stories and solutions. This is particularly pointed in the Bible John case, which was never solved. “Narratively that is really interesting,” she said. “How do you tell a story as a theater-maker that doesn’t have an ending?”
McEwan also wanted to explore another thorny issue: gender. True crime is much more popular among women than men. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are obsessed, and I was really interested in why it’s always women,” McEwan said. “There are a lot of women who feel really conflicted about it, but won’t stop listening.”
Drezen, a “Saturday Night Live” writer and stand-up comic, had a theory as to why. “It’s like we’re preparing, we’re studying: obviously I’m going to get murdered at some point,” she laughed, darkly. In her show “Okay Get Home Safe!!” she explores her love of true crime, how we’re sold the idea that the world is dangerous for women, and the times when she actually has found herself in danger.
“True crime is so centered around white, cis, straight women, and femininity being this unassailable virtue,” Drezen said. “White women are in less danger than a lot of other populations — people of color, trans women — why is it that we’re so scared?” Her show will look at why violence against women is so “marketable.”
Drezen also comments on how strange it is that such a topic has become “fun and fluffy” entertainment. “I’ll take a break from political analysis podcasts, and turn on something about a woman who died while screaming ... why does this feel relaxing?”
The creators of “The Incident Room,” David Byrne and Olivia Hirst, said that ethically they did not want to use “the murder of a woman as a dramatic foundation,” and to find other ways to make the show thrilling.
The Yorkshire Ripper case has been dramatized on British television several times. But in this version, the murderer is not depicted. Instead, the action is entirely set at the police station, where detectives on the case were often completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Byrne met with real officers, and had access to the archive of investigative journalist Michael Bilton, to uncover the challenges of catching a suspect in the days before DNA testing or CCTV footage.
They also wanted to look at the story through a gendered lens, Byrne said, and the play is told from the perspective of a real police sergeant, Megan Winterburn. This also opened up the issue of sexism in the police force, and how the case affected the everyday lives of women in Yorkshire at the time. (The police told women not to go out at night.)
“There were more women running (the investigation) than men, but they’ve not been represented in any of the dramas about the Yorkshire Ripper,” Byrne said. “And obviously these are crimes against women. So dramatically as well as socially, that felt interesting.”
Byrne found himself as gripped by the case as by any true crime podcast. “I’ve been terrible at parties for the past two years, because it’s all I talk about,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.