Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Edinburgh 2012, day one: Inheritance Blues, Luminous Tales, Hunt and Darton, Strong Arm, Dead Memory House, Caesarean Section, Monkey Bars, Beats

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

9.15pm, Tuesday Aug 14 It takes 20 minutes of staring at my higgledy-piggledy Edinburgh timetable to figure out a time to see Red Like My Room Used To Feel. I'm not sure the show itself lasts that long. Summerhall box office staff are blessedly patient.

9.45pm Amy Letmen, the Underbelly. We talk about Project 9, its vulnerability and sensitivity, the scariness and rawness of honesty. I feel as though Chris, in having someone reflect on his work in this way, is making something possible. Dialogue. Openness. Change, however subtle. Is everyone he works with as ready as he is? What can I do to reassure them?

10.20pm Even after all these years, I still miss the skate boys on Bristo Square.

10.30pm DugOut Theatre's Inheritance Blues, Bedlam Theatre. The girl sitting next to me assures me that, as long as I can commit to three full weeks, I'd easily get a job reviewing at the fringe. Manage not to giggle.

This was on my definitely see list, partly because good people (including magic Lucy Ellinson) recommended it, partly because it has a late start, and therefore doesn't clash with a million other shows, which is exceedingly smart. The show itself is pretty smart, too, a story about a band that shifts into a story about three brothers, reunited at their father's funeral. I'm not sure how keen I would be to see this group do a straighter show; as it is, the acting feels too straight, too male, too university, to me. And ordinarily I wouldn't feel much for the white-boy-blues of the band. But when the two strands mesh, something ignites. There's a terrific scene in which the band and the brothers re-enact the father's pre-marriage, life-changing trip to New Orleans, the young whippersnapper stumbling across ornery old blues men, earning his spurs in a saxophone battle with a jazz great who gives him his sax before croaking to death. The balance of irreverence, romance and pathos is delicious. And I loved the way a bash at the percussion could trigger a narrative freeze, allowing the storytellers to comment on proceedings, edit the language, reconsider how a line was spoken or received. Shifty are the workings of memory.

What resonated with me as I walked home, however, was the quiet thinking around inheritance in the piece. The three brothers are chalk, leather and cheese, one boarding school and university educated, one a grafter struggling to make progress as a chef, one a wide-boy with an eye for a get-rich-quick scheme. Who is most like the father? Who knows the truth about him, or about his troubled relationship with their mother? Is there a truth? Beneath the gig and the gags, Inheritance Blues communicates the frustrating mystery of parents, the impossibility of knowing or guessing. The eldest son believes he knows what his father would have wanted the boys to do with their inheritance, yet he couldn't be more wrong. Of course he couldn't: he's trying to live up to an idealised version of his father, to a correspondingly warped sense of his father's ideals. I've lost count of the number of mistakes I've made in my life by doing the same.

11.35am, Wednesday 15th Luminous Tales, Pleasance Below. There is a point, about 15 or 20 minutes in, not long after I'd been thinking smugly to myself how nice it is to have children who prefer theatre to cinema, when my smallest smally says, in his usual speaking voice, which seems to ricochet off every empty seat in the room to bounce on to the stage at agonising volume: “I'm bored.” It's what he said watching The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists on Monday, too. That was fine. This is excruciating.

I think, in the Polka in Wimbledon, our usual haunt, he might have started fidgeting at the same point, but would have been generally more absorbed. There are more children at the Polka, and we can sit snuggled together on the floor, and I can less self-consciously whisper encouragement in his ear. At the Pleasance we are stuck in raked seats that aren't even comfortable for grown-ups, adults outnumber children and the room is nowhere near full. Of course he's fed up: in no way does this event seem to be catered to him.

The show itself is slow but sweet: two earnest retellings of creation tales that explain the darkness and the waxing-waning moon, framed by the gently comic story of a bumbling woman who plots to eliminate night so that she can live always in brightness and day. There's a lovely, skilful display of shadow puppetry: to show a crow stealing a gleaming jewel of sunshine, or a little girl encountering the hares who live on the moon, or the woman making a casserole of stars. And Zannie Fraser is an amiable, gentle performer; both my littles giggled every time she sang her deluded ditty to the joys of fun and sun. But it was hard to shift the feeling that we were watching theatre-because-it's-good-for-you, not theatre-because-it-makes-your-heart-race.

Still, there was a moment to cherish early on, when the woman listed everything she hates about the dark, and top of the list was: “I don't like the shadows.” I gave my big smally, aged five, a squeeze: despite my best efforts, she is, like me, afraid of the dark, and what frightens her most are the shadows that form on her bedroom walls.

12.40pm On my way to the Hunt and Darton cafe, I stop off at Summerhall and attempt to buy a ticket for Flaneurs for Thursday 23, at a time when I'm travelling home. The Summerhall box office staff, who are blessedly patient, don't bat an eye as I faff and fumble.

1.15pm In accordance with the Fringe programme map and listings, I circumnavigate the St James centre looking for Hunt and Darton. I vaguely remember the address as St Mary's Walk, so when I pass St Mary's church, which is permanently tattooed in my memory with a great banner reading HOPE and makes me think of Godspeed You Black Emperor, I feel sure I'm on the right track. Seagulls circle overhead, and their cries sound like raucous laughter. I fail not to feel intimidated as I pass 20 builders on their lunch break. I look at the map again. Inside the St James centre? Maybe.

2.15pm By the power of Andrew Haydon and Hannah Silva, I discover that Hunt and Darton is on St Mary's Street, near the Pleasance. At the Traverse, I discover that I'm not seeing Daniel Kitson in 15 minutes, but a week from now. This is turning into a very bad day.

2.50pm From the moment I walk through the door at Hunt and Darton, I feel I've found my Edinburgh home. In front of me is a table piled with fondant fancies, Tunnocks tea cakes, slices of Battenburg: 1970s tea-party heaven. The two women waiting tables wear A-line dresses made of cheesecloth pineapple print, and have pineapple tops on their heads for hats. To the left of the room is a huge blackboard on which takings, profit, loss and other sundries are there for all to see. Behind the counter, a man lays a slice of meat, a hunk of Paxo's stuffing and a spoon of cranberry sauce between wonky doorstops of white bread. Later I see a man in a lycra monochrome body-suit sit at a table and read punters' tea-leaves. Almost no one looks like they've come here for the performance art; almost everyone looks blissfully bemused.

I'm here for Paper Stages. I could do almost anything on the list of 20 volunteering options, but quickly rule out: writing a review, because that feels like cheating; washing dishes, clearing tables, mopping the floor, or any menial tasks, because I'm on holiday thank you; scouting the local charity shops for china, because that would require leaving the building; and winking at passers by, because I could not keep that up for an hour. Out of making a Spotify playlist, carving a pineapple, teaching someone a new skill and making rice crispy cakes, I plump for the last, which also feels like cheating, but oh so restorative.

It doesn't take the requisite hour, so for my next task I write a quote for the day on the blackboard and sign it Miss Corvette. (Laugh and sing and dance and play and write and draw and make everything you do a small act of revolution, in case you're wondering.) Add good chats with BAC's David Jubb, CPT's Jenny Paton, and my husband all lonely in London, and the hour whizzes by. Walking to the Underbelly, I feel that curious invincibility of elation.

4.10pm Strong Arm, Underbelly. Felt honour-bound to see this, because Finlay Robertson saw God/Head when I did it with Chris Goode, and squawked with laughter when I talked about the waters of Louisville, Kentucky. I can feel Chris' influence in the writing, in its tautness, its unexpected swerves, its startling imagery. In the initial humbleness of Finlay's character, too. Roland Poland – think about the abbreviation – is haunted by playground taunts, by muscle memories of fat, and by the image of the buxom girl who sat next to him on the school bus, who would share her confidences but never her breasts, her lips. What starts out boyish, puppyish, gets leaner and more fiercely masculine by the minute: not for nothing does Roland's transformation start with the sight of a slavering staffy being trained to fight.

I wonder how I would feel about this piece if I hadn't had that chance encounter with Finlay. I don't know how much the testosterone, the abundance of wanking and spunk, would have repulsed me. I hope I would have felt the same reassurance from his performance, which has a softness that invites sympathy in equal measure with nauseous fascination, and makes the utterly insane – Roland's carefully detailed high-protein diet, for instance – sound almost reasonable. That split reaction is written into the piece: it's voiced by Cassie, the woman Roland briefly dates, when she tells him how frightened she is by him, and how much she cares for him, a scene I found acutely poignant. Perhaps my favourite thing about this show, though, is that Finlay spends all this time talking about a man obsessively building up his muscles, then strips off at the end to display his own flabby tummy and wobbly abs. The joy of the ordinary.

5.50pm My Flaneur ticket now clashes with Daniel Kitson, so I have to switch it to another day. The Summerhall box office staff – have I mentioned their blessed patience? – don't even flinch.

6pm The Dead Memory House, Summerhall. One that appealed from the Fringe programme. At first sight, it's exquisite: the door opens and we're ushered into a parlour and invited to make ourselves at home. The table is laid with wine and grapes; the sideboard and bookshelves are enticingly crammed with stuff: a row of blue Pelicans, delicate china thimbles, an array of jam jars stuffed with black-and-white photographs. I could spend an hour just looking at the set. I've forgotten now which character was which, so let's make it up: Bea, solicitous, old before her years, serves us cheesy snacks and party rings; Anna swigs wine and whines about the man who left her; Sylvia, slight as a ballerina, crawls beneath the clothes maiden, a shadow in her own life. They do some lovely things, these girls: swirling bits of dance, a sweet interactive game whereby we're invited to recall something (for my group, it was the first school dance), and later the performers read out memories collected in this and previous shows. But I can't help feeling that the company are borrowing tropes, not truly inhabiting them. This would feel less pronounced if the characterisation were stronger, if the women's desires – Bea for a child, Anna for a lover, Sylvia for womanhood – were not so limited, and the performances less heightened and hysterical.

6.45pm There are still tickets for Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide (also Summerhall). If it starts on time at 7pm, it will end at 7.50, giving me 25 minutes to get to the Traverse for Monkey Bars. Tight, but possible.

7.08pm Caesarean Section starts. My heart is racing with anxiety. Rain pounds relentlessly on the roof of the tent. In the darkened room, the sound of smashing glass. To the left, a man attacks a window with a hammer. To the right, a woman hurls wine glasses to the floor. Running the length the stage is a fault-line glittering with more glass. It feels dangerous and bloody and agonisingly tense. And beautiful. Just beautiful. My heart is racing. Exhilarated.

Image after image dances across the stage and I keep my eyes wide to drink them all in. Crimson wine spilling across a throat, staining a white shirt, gleaming in puddles on the floor. A dangled noose, a broken heart. A man and a woman kill each other with unkindness. A woman carries a bag of oranges; it splits and she plunges into despair. Glass showers over her face and sticks to her cheeks. Diamond tears. The fetish of pain. At a cinema we see people attempt suicide and survive and it's funny and it's awful and I laugh and cry. The indefatigable hope of the body when all hope of the mind has gone.

And through it all there is song, extraordinary liturgies, deep and strong and luminous. I know it's the women sitting with cello and violin on the stage who are singing, the men at the piano and percussion box and accordion, and yet the sound might be coming from somewhere else entirely, from the driving rain and the mud far below, from the lost souls who tried, who failed, who succeeded. It ends and I hurl myself into the rain, running to Monkey Bars, but also running for the relief, at this moment, of being alive.

8.20pm Monkey Bars, Traverse.

I didn't expect this fluttery feeling. I've been watching Monkey Bars rehearsals since day one; not every day, but enough to feel very connected to it. And maybe it's just that I'm nervous, but they look nervous to me, fiddling with their costumes, huddled protectively at the back of the stage. Sound nervous, too: there's a tremor in Gordon's voice, and Gwyneth is oh so quiet. Angela is more stern, her nostrils flare. I'm being mother duck-ish; I'm not even sure I can hear the show in this state. I scan the room, looking for Lyn Gardner. She's inscrutable as ever. AndrewHaydon sits almost opposite me. I see him throw his head back and laugh, when a woman is interviewed by three people about her favourite sweets, starts confident but soon flails; and when two politicians describe the one thing they would do if they could change the world. I think it's going to be OK. Some scenes are strong, stronger than they were at the run-through last week. Some scenes that soared a week ago barely even raise their wings. I catch an in-joke: Boz, attempting to flick cards into an ashtray, genuinely astonished when one almost gets in. I notice when Gordon forgets to form his fingers into a T, when the bubble machine fails to work, when Jacquetta sounds unnaturally girlish.Will anyone else notice?

I can't write more now, because I'm not finished with Monkey Bars yet, but something became very clear to me, watching rehearsals for this. The more the actors allowed themselves to simply be themselves on stage, the less they tried to impose artificial characters – even in the scenes where character types were implied, situations constructed – the more powerfully they communicated. Vulnerability and sensitivity, the scariness and rawness of honesty. I want you to hear this loud, world. We need more playtime to get to know people. But we can never get to know people if we are afraid to be open.

10pm Matt Trueman, Filmhouse Cafe. He buys me a salad. I don't want to tell him anything I think about Monkey Bars, but I'd love to hear what he made of it. He isn't sure it achieves anything more than what's written on the tin: it's just a bunch of grown-ups saying the words of children. I an't tell him, but I feel really deflated by this. I feel as though he's listened without hearing. We talk star ratings, report on other shows. I lift a piece of salad from my plate and beneath it is the corpse of a fly.

11pm Beats, Traverse. So this was the plan. I was going to hang around at the Traverse for maybe 30 minutes, give everyone from Monkey Bars a hug, then go home and get good sleep ready for Dialogue at St Stephen's the following morning. So this is what happened. Honour Bayes had a spare ticket for Beats. It doesn't finish until midnight. I already have a ticket for Tuesday 21. I have a crush on Kieran Hurley. I take the ticket.

I feel naughty just being here. So transgressive I don't even catch the implication of Kieran's description of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which bans gatherings in public places at which music is played wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats. Every member of the audience is effectively breaking the law.

I didn't do rave when I was younger. I was an indie kid, funny about the music (this is chronologically flawed but: yes to Little Fluffy Clouds, no to Born Slippy; yes to Primal Scream's volte face and afternoons with Come Together blaring out of the open window, no to the Shamen; yes to mad squonky melodic-in-surprising-places experimental stuff, Aphex basically; no to house, acid house, techno, anything with, you guessed it, a succession of repetitive beats); plus I'd already seen enough drugs go into my brother not to want to touch them. I remember the shiver that ran through me as I watched girls at school snap the chunky heels from their shoes to reveal bags of tiny white pills. Disappointment tinged with envy. I have no nostalgia for rave; it's a reminder of how desperately uncool I was. Am.

But this isn't just a story about a teenage rebellion, about Ecstasy or ecstasy, about illegal gatherings in muddy fields. It's a story about a mother not knowing how to communicate with her son, and a son desperate to share his fears about growing up but unable to find the words. It's a story about a middle-aged man burdened with disappointment, unable to free himself from the voice of recrimination – his father's – echoing like tinnitus between his ears. It's a story about the ways we choose to make societies, form communities, fight for what we believe in: at raves and on picket lines, in riots and the quiet of friendship. It's a story about how we damage people, with varying degrees of intention.

The storytelling itself is unexpectedly conventional: as soon as Kieran introduces little 15-year-old Johnno, you know what kind of night he's about to have; a few minutes later he introduces Johnno's mum, and you know what she's facing; a few minutes after that he introduces the policeman, and his meeting with Johnno is inexorable. Narrative like this skates perilously close to predictability and cliche; I knew lines were coming before Kieran spoke them. But I knew they were coming because the emotional truth of this piece is absolute. Each character is so fully formed, so precise, I half expected them to materialise on the stage, shove Kieran out of the way and take over. It's that good.

That conventionality is both unsettled and reinforced by the staging. Kieran starts by establishing the theatre space, introducing the DJ on stage with him, flagging up everything that's real in contrast to the unreal of the story. Of course it's unreal: in 1994, when it's set, Kieran would have been about nine years old. Yet when he takes his place behind a microphone at a wooden desk and the story begins, he looks as though he's standing trial, and you'd swear that everything he says is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God.

A little behind him, stage right, Johnny Whoop at the DJ booth soundtracks Johnno's bedroom, his earphones, his mum's radio, the policeman's radio, the car on the way to the rave, the rave itself, the comedown. Behind them both, projected on the back wall, a technicolour film of Johnno's estate, street lamps, ravers and protesters and police in riot gear, steel works being demolished and high streets in disarray. Our world falling apart and the dream world we escape into. The idealism that has failed, the cold hard facts of Tory Britain then and now.

You could read Beats as an indictment of a society and a politic that is repressive, that will crush every attempt to change the status quo. You could read it as a depressing acknowledgement of the inevitability of conservatism/Conservatism, of the ease with which we conform. You have to, because that's real.

But: doesn't mean nothing. That's what Johnno's friend tells him – I've forgotten exactly when, but I think it's at the rave, when little Johnno is blissed out on acid and wants to tell his friend that he has learned something about people and friendship and love. Doesn't mean nothing. Johnno repeats it again and again, driving home from the police station, his furious, silent, adoring mother unable to forgive him just yet. Doesn't mean nothing. Negative: doesn't mean anything. Or double negative. Doesn't mean nothing. Means something.

Double negative makes a positive. Out of the double-negative horror of obscene capitalism and Conservatives in power, what positive could we make? Kieran frames Beats with a line that sounds cheesy when he first says it, but that made my heart sing when he repeated it, through Johnno, at the end. No one has found a way to arrest your imagination yet. In Beats, he invites us to imagine a world, three worlds, the worlds of Johnno, his mum, and the policeman who beats him. He invites us to give that picture flesh, to really think ourselves into it. No one can arrest your imagination. And if you can imagine that world, what else could you imagine? A world unlike this one. Future positive. Here we go.


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