Sunday, 19 September 2010

Edinburgh 2010 diary - memories / cry thoughts / theatre

image: Operation Greenfield

Last year, I went to Edinburgh Fringe Festival again after a break of five years or so. I was there for my birthday, which in accordance with cosmic law, must always ends in proper crying. In 2009 it was silent unstoppable weeping at the poetic, unflinching horrors spoken to us in Palace of the End;  followed by I-can't-actually-breathe-now actual crying with laughter at Daniel's Kitson's stand up; topped off by uncontrollable, almost adolescent bawling at the most romantic gesture I could ever have dreamed of at Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight from the Heart. It's a show I've seen four or five times, and one which never fails to move me; though it's never made me cry before.

So this year, I kept the visit fleeting, avoided my birthday and brought my boyf along with me so he could make any romantic gestures he felt the need to make, in private.

Thursday 12 August: 7.30am train from Bristol. No window. Long journey. Almost nostalgic already. Like fucking clockwork, it started raining almost as soon as we started walking round Edinburgh. LOVIN' IT. Braved the Royal Mile to pick up tickets and got the hell out as fast as possible.

Went to Black Bo's for a drink before the first show. Tim and I had what we could speculatively call our first date there; speculative given that we didn't start going out till 8 months later-ish. I ended up having to pay for dinner, but then he had got me top whack tickets for Pina Bausch's Nelken as a birthday present. Now there's a show to see on your birthday. Tears? yes.

Fifteen years later, I'm no longer vegetarian so we stuck with a drink. One of the few UK bars where you can get a bottle of Furstenberg. We talked about Freiberg and good friends we haven't seen for a long time.

image: Pedstrian
First show up is Tom Wainwright's Pedestrian at the Underbelly. The Underbelly is amazing building, but most of what I see there gets overwhelmed by the space, because no-one has the get in time to work site-specifically. Today, the venue left a MASSIVE FAN running for the first 20mins of the show. Tom has to cleverly weave it into the text 3 times before it gets turned off.

The piece has been trimmed by 20mins since I last saw it, and it's caustic cynicism is more striking and funnier for the tighter pace. It's a mashup of sharp satire, surreal grotesquery and self-deprication delivered with so much precision, energy and charisma that you can't stop looking. The lovely details of the sound and animation reflect the sort of modern-day bling and crapness that the monologue speaks of. It's an impressive piece of work. After seeing it a couple of times now and thinking about it again over the last few weeks, I realise that my problem with the show is that the story is presented as a dream. It's all fine and good being inspired by a dream, but presenting this mundanity and misanthropy as merely a dream, deeply undermines the satire for me. It lets us all get away with it; Tom included.

Then we hoof it over to Zoo Roxy for Little Bulb's Operation Greenfield. Little Bulb put a big fat smile on my face with Sporadical last year and I was well looking forward to whatever unpredictable magic they'd have up their sleeves this year.  It's Stokely, middle England: the annual talent show approaches and this year they're determined to win... These teenagers meet at Stokely Christian Club, bands are formed, friendships are forged and skewed, the school year comes and goes. Desperate, gawky, incomprehensible desire and rampant adolescence all over the shop. Some reviewers have been critical of the storytelling in the show, but I think it's clear and clever. Yes, the story progression skips between the layers of straightforward narrative theatre and the more arch, "performance" modes; but I never felt that one mode was contradicting or undermining the other. In fact, it was this ease of slipping between the 'truth' of the uncool Christian folk stylings and the 'metaphor' of the pop fantasies in the likes of David Bowie and the Arcade Fire (culminating in that final alt-folk-post-rock-annunciation-tableau) that sold the show to me. I do think they could shave 15mins out the middle where some sections feel more about the gags than keeping the story going; but aside from that, it was filled with charming, funny performances and a warm nostalgia without getting mawkish. And it was proper laugh out loud funny. It shouldn't work, but they're such incredible musicians and their work is filled with such heart: if you don't find something to love in it, you're probably not human.

Then a coffee before the last show of the night. The only place open, that doesn't have some sort of Salsa/Bagpipe/Bongo night going on is Starbucks. We get a coffee 10 minutes before they chuck us out and close up. We're sitting in the window and I think I spy Richard Dufty walking by at pace. It turns out it is Richard Dufty. Dufty, Tim and I were at university together (though none of us were in the same year). Funny that we're all still making theatre. And funny that we randomly booked into the same slot of a show with such limited capacity.

image: Sub Rosa
This show is David Leddy's Sub Rosa. We're gathered on George Street and walked over to the Mason's Lodge on Hill Street. The usher tells us, museum-guide style, about the history of this building, about the uses of the spaces, about how we must respect the artifacts in there even if we do not understand them, and about how we must stay silent for the duration of the piece. Rather than instructions as such, the tone of the intro leads well into the show which follows.

We're led through various rooms in the building. In each room we hear a fragment of story, from a different character's perspective. It's a theatre company, under the tyranny of a sadistic, misogynist manager. As we move up through the old lodge from room to room, we hear of the brutal abuse and murder of a young female performer, before we're finally released back into the night. This was a proper shocking, violent tale delivered through (in the main) perfectly pitched, sinister and weirdly intimate monologue performances. But the space felt overly theatricalised, lit up all magenta, rainbow and green, and accompanied by typically "spooky" soundscapes. I wish it had gone for a more cinematic, ghostly, shadow horror aesthetic - which I think might have helped it feel more attuned the site, rather than a show created for a theatre and then rammed into a resonant, but nevertheless non-theatre building.  But then drawing our eye to the nooks and crannies, making us suspicious of the shadows, could well have pulled focus away from those mesmerising performances and the gothic drama of that story.

We left by the fire escape. Suddenly I recognise this place... I've done warm-ups in this car park... Turns out it's the venue I performed in on that one time I was actually in a fringe show. Not a good show. An important experience. Totally teenage angsty tears.

Friday 13 August: Dropped by the Fruitmarket gallery. Failed to catch the Martin Creed show, but successfully caught up with Iain Morrison, who Bristol has recently lost back to Edinburgh. Iain made working behind a box office an actual fun activity. Sometimes he laughed so much he'd have to lie down. I'm sure his smiley chops encouraged many a newbie to take a punt on Arnolfini's galleries back in the day.

Then to Forest Fringe for too short a time. James Baker has not yet reached space. We've arranged to meet Kate Yedigaroff in the cafe, but in no time at all we've gathered Duncan Speakman, Jo Bannon and Ed Rapley in some kind of magnetic force of Bristol-ness.  Tim's never been to Forest Fringe so FF Co-Director Andy Field very kindly takes him up top and we get a sneaky peek at the Non Zero One piece, which looks really fun but is all booked up. The sheer amount of work at the Edinburgh fringe (and the fact that it's largely uncurated) makes it feel like a shouty, atomised context in which to see work; but FF offers a real antidote to this. There's a genuine sense of generosity with ideas, response, time that makes it feel communal.

image: 30 Days to Space
Some people have suggested that James Baker's 30 Days to Space would have been braver programmed in a 'bigger' venue, but I can't imagine it being anything but sidelined in a more mainstream venue. Aside from the practicalities of how you resource non-ticketed durational work at Edinburgh rates, FF encourages you to spend time, to move away and come back, to find your own relationship to the work. FF isn't perfect, and perhaps more than anything it needs to think harder about how it welcomes in audiences who are not yet experienced roamers, but it adds something uniquely precious to the fringe experience. Not least because Andy and Debbie work hard to get it at least some of the media coverage it deserves.

Then Molly Naylor's Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You at Zoo. A lovely show which was full of warmth and genuinely surprising. Starting with her experience of being caught up in the 7/7 bombings, we're guided through moments of what if, what happened, what didn't happen, and what happened next. It was beautifully observed and delivered, sincere but not overly dramatic, and funny. It wasn't angry. It was filled with humanity (at one point she discussed the fact that 'her' bomber was almost exactly the same age as her), and the impossibility of rationalising it - neither why it happened nor the value of her being caught up in it. There was a deftness to her observations that allowed us right in (or as close as we could possibly get) to the moments she described - tactile, visceral, skewed moments. Very occasionally, she'd slip into a couple of lines of obvious poetry and this would shift her delivery slightly, alienating me for that second, but other than that it was a subtly absorbing and compelling show.

Then to the Traverse for Shared Experience/Sherman Cymru's Speechless. This was premiering here, so I'm sure some of its unevenness will iron out, but to my mind there were core problems with the script that no amount of running in will resolve. It's based on the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, the "silent twins' who, already ostracized as West Indian Immigrants in rural west Wales, stopped speaking to anyone but each other, falling out of society and eventually being committed to Broadmoor High Security Hospital. I was expecting something uncomfortable - possibly tragic - but instead it seemed to be all explanations and statements. I swear to god, one of the characters ONLY spoke in exposition (seriously, the phrase "as you know" in a script has got to set off mega alarm bells, never mind the rest of what that poor actor was faced with...). For a play about silent twins, there was an awful lot of noise and talking (including from the twins). My main problem was that an explanation was offered for everything, and as a result the whole thing felt patronising, pompous and boring. I hate to be harsh, but the wikipedia article on June and Jennifer Gibbons sparked more in my imagination than the show, and I didn't have to pay £17 for the privilege.

As usual, there's nowhere to sit in the Traverse bar. Someone has left an iPhone on one of the sofas. No-one nicks it. I suppose that's either because we're in a theatre, or because we're in the north.

image: Freefall
Next is Dublin Corn Exchange's Freefall. It's not bad. Michael West's script has some nice, natural dialogue rhythms and the performances are strong and in tune with each other. The design is impressive and bold and it's all very slick; but basically, it was like an episode of Holby City and for all its high production values, I just kept thinking that it's too small a story for theatre. I didn't care about any of it. It never made a claim to its place in a bigger world. My other bugbear was that it was really inconsistent with when it did and didn't break the theatrical illusion. From time to time an actor would break from character, come to the edge of the stage and visibly create the foley sound - but not for every sound effect. That sort of inconsistency smacks of smugness and showing off. Be more rigorous.

It's late now. Tim and I find this tiny Spanish restaurant down by where we're staying. It's no bigger than our dining room at home and the clientele looks like a mixture of festival accidentalists and couples waiting for the right moment to propose. Despite being literally a 5 minute walk from our hotel, we decide to take a cut through which gets us lost round the back somewhere, through streets that look more like northern france than anywhere in Edinburgh. 45 minutes later we back round the corner from the restaurant and nearly home.

Saturday 14 August: Last year, I went went to see Power Plant at the Botanical Gardens. There was some proper sci-fi wonder in that installation because of the way it worked so fabulously with that extraordinary site. This year, I was determined to spend some time in the Botanical Gardens without any art getting in the way. That place is ACTUALLY AMAZING. It takes us 4 hours to get round all the glasshouses. Then we look at the world's longest hedge.

We go to the Filmhouse and have an afternoon beer before going into Melanie Wilson & Abigail Conway's Every Minute, Always. I have fond memories of the Filmhouse. Back when the Edinburgh Film Fest coincided with the theatre festivals, the Filmhouse was where I first saw work by the phenomenal Russian Animator, Yuri Norstein. It must have been 1996? or 1997? He gave a talk about his work, which continues to influence me; comparing working under soviet rule to enslavement to the dollar in modern Russia. He was extremely humble and full of humour. The Hedgehog in the Fog is my favourite. It's at once fairy story and existential coming of age tale. And I've never looked at the stars the same way since. Yes, there were tears. And it still makes me cry every time I see it.

image: Every Minute, Always
Every Minute, Always has a lovely tone and is happily unafraid to play sentimental. A headphones piece for many couples at a time, it's lovely to be able to watch the couples in front of you in the choreography of small gestures we make. It's perhaps not long enough yet to forget how instructional it all is, but it has the potential to be fragile and moving.

We find this crazy Chinese restaurant round behind the Lothian Rd. It's massive, but half the signage has fallen away and it looks like it's been shut for ages... something vaguely Spirited Away about it... we have a great meal and then hoof it across to the Royal Lyceum.

Elevator Repair Service: The Sun Also Rises. Tonight is its world premiere and I'm loving that an experimental theatre company from New York has pulled such a full, eclectic audience for an almost 4-hour long untried show, half a world away from home. It's an astounding, mindblowing show. I can't describe it better than to say that the experience was somehow exactly like the experience of reading a book. It's utterly a live experience in the moment, but it's absolutely not a drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from Hemingway's book - as is the narration, given by Jake, played by Mike Iverson who is on stage for the entire show, reciting the words just the way it would sound in my head if I was reading the novel. These are flawless, charismatic performances. And it's laugh out loud funny at points. There's no attempt to be realistic in style. This is the way the world of the book would look, in your head: endless bottles of booze...  modern day cultural references creeping in (the dance routines come from youtube)... the occasional rereading of a line... and suddenly somehow we're no longer in a bar, but at a bullfight, so the bar tables morph into a raging bull... It sweeps from slapstick to the height of sentimentality without jarring. The sound and light design is full of subtlety, infiltrating the auditorium from all around us. The staging is gorgeously cinematic in the way it fills the frame, 'irrelevant' actions by 'insignificant' characters at the edge of the principal action, making the world of the show deeply rich and compelling. It felt surprisingly intimate as an experience - like reading. They made it so easy to be absorbed in a world conjured so vividly from those words.

image: The Sun Also Rises

But I don't know how to recommend this show to anyone. It's not a straightforward piece of theatre and unsurprisingly, it gets a mixed response. Essentially The Sun Also Rises is a story of mid-war American dilettantes who come to Europe to get pissed up and find themselves. It's not a story I'd normally gravitate towards - but then neither is The Great Gatsby, and that's one of the best books I've ever read. Like The Wire, it requires you to 'lean in' to get the full effect, but unlike The Wire, you can't just lend someone the box set and insist that they make it to episode four before pronouncing on it. I'll have to think up another strategy...

We walk back in a sparkly haze; our world exploded.

Sunday 15 August: Get up. Eat breakfast. Check out. Get to the Traverse for Daniel Kitson's show at 10am. It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later intertwines the stories of two people, Caroline Carpenter and William Rivington, but "it's not a love story; though it does have love in it". One story is told from birth to death, the other from death to birth. For 90 minutes, Kitson bombards us with tellings of small moments - moments of realisation over breakfast or in front of the television or at a funeral. A hundred lightbulbs hang over the stage like stars. With each moment recounted, one bulb glows just that tiny bit brighter for the duration of the story. It's a hyperballad to the magnificent (extra)ordinariness in our lives. A wonderful, humane, paean to the value of just being here and living your life. It's deceptively simple, but the intricacy of Kitson's writing is unbelievable - what sounds like a stand-up style throwaway gag will crop up half an hour later as a resonance in one of the character's lives - and he performs with relentless conviction, never letting us get dismissive of Caroline Carpenter or William Rivington or anyone they held dear. He starts talking, he barely stops for breath and then he stops, and that's it. At last Edinburgh 2010 has made me cry. It is a sad and a beautiful world. And funny. And sometimes a bit rude.

Miraculously, there's a table free in the Traverse bar. We have coffee.

And then the final show of the trek: While You Lie by Sam Holcroft. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Having just written about Kitson's show, I don't actually want to spend too much time dwelling on While You Lie. The script should never have got near an audience in that state. Lazy cliches and shambolic politics. It was like when you have an idea (inevitably a vaguely political one) when you're really drunk and instead of waking up in the morning to feel sheepishly embarrassed about it, you find you've written a script and which then goes and gets produced in front of a bunch of probably not very drunk yet people who've paid nigh on twenty quid for the privilege. Structurally, I think it might have been trying to be a farce, but it was so seriously messy in terms of how the plot was driven, and the characters' motivations, that it was hard to tell. Written and directed by women, it was nevertheless riven with a frightening skein of misogyny; its female characters dependent on male attention (no matter how fickle or violent) and its male characters only interested in manipulating the women. It just kept lurching charmlessly from scene to scene, the parameters of its world so unclear that it was impossible to understand any moral position or question from it.  I genuinely can't think of a single positive thing to say about this piece as it stood. Sorry.

And then to the station. We have a window for the long journey back. Best start saving the pennies for next year.

image: The Hedgehog in the Fog