Wednesday, 3 October 2012

edinburgh 2012 day three: talking criticism, the price of everything, paradigm, flaneurs, mess, red like our room used to feel, amusements, monkey bars, paper stages

3am, Tuesday 21 August, 2012 I wasn't going to write this festival. I haven't taken a single note. Tonight I was supposed to see The Shit at Summerhall. Instead I sat down at the computer at 8.30pm and typed. Six and a half hours later, I'm jangling. All weekend I've been snappish with the kids, nauseous with frustration. I now know why. Oh god the exhilaration of writing.

7.13am Computer back on. Two minutes later the kids tumble in: they can't believe I've woken before them. It takes another two hours of editing, linking, music searching, for Edinburgh day one to go live. My right arm, wrist, fingers, are clenched with RSI. It's totally worth it.

10am A round table on theatre criticism, organised by Tom Martin of Fringebiscuit, with Tom, James Fritz and the 10 Fringebiscuiters, Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon and me. For the first time ever, I experience the agonising realisation that I'm old enough to be the mother of the majority of the people around me. A fairly young mother, but that's beside the point. Worse still, when Andrew and I talk about how we started writing about theatre, we are reflecting on an alien world: a world pre-internet, pre-blogging. We sound so old, I tell him. We sound so fucking old.

Key notes from the discussion: the National Student Drama Festival is an exceptionally good place to start writing about theatre. Even though it often feels otherwise, you don't have to see everything, or write about everything you see. People scouting for new writers aren't looking for people who can copy the newspaper review format: they're looking for striking thought and precise articulation. Writing about theatre is the easy bit: getting paid for it damn near impossible.

11.30am The Price of Everything, Northern Stage at St Stephen's. Arriving at this show in a taxi feels so wrong.

It feels wrong because it's a show about money and value, about the things we are willing to pay for and the things we aren't. Are we willing to pay for the arts? Of course I say yes – but for 15 years now I've been blagging my way into theatre and gigs and the last time I bought a CD with cash money was several months ago. When I do pay for these things they are allowable expenses that I use to reduce my tax payments. I haven't even paid to see this show. My moral standing is non-existent. Is it enough to support the arts with love, and time? Certainly I value both more than money, but tell that to the artist struggling to pay their rent.

It's lovely to see Daniel Bye on stage having met him at D&D and been persuaded by him to join twitter. There is an awkwardness, a sort of gawkiness, to his performance that I really like. Some of the material comparing attitudes to the arts and the NHS feels a bit repetitive, some of the satire feels unnecessarily emphatic. And as someone quietly grateful to Thatcher for ending perhaps the greatest misery of primary school, the necessity of drinking too-warm milk lumpy with cream each day, I have mixed feelings about the gimmick at the heart of the show, in which Dan pours out a third of a pint of milk for every member of the audience – the equivalent in price of an adult's weekly contribution through taxes to the arts. Love it as multilayered protest, regretful that I actually have to drink it. (Not to would be a waste: I don't do waste. Thank goodness it's homogenised.)

Being a gullible fool, I believe every word of Dan's outlandish stories about selling preposterous stuff on ebay: the air guitar played in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; an invisible friend. Does everyone else? I'm not sure if the piece quite works if they don't. It works for me, because in the second half of the show, when Dan spins a lengthy tale that starts with a few small acts of kindness, most of which go unappreciated or are viewed with disdain, and ends with the establishment of a free milk bar in the centre of Nottingham (maybe: I have no memory for place names other than London) (sorry), I want to believe it all but can't. So when Dan excoriates us for finding it easier to credit that people would behave like idiots than with generosity and humanity towards others, I feel horribly chastened.

12.45pm A lovely, conspiratorial conversation with Chris Goode, about Monkey Bars and other shows we've been seeing and reviews we've read and the end of Project 9. Walking away, I remember for the umpteenth time watching him on stage a decade ago and thinking he was the best thing ever. It is still astonishing to me that that magical person is part of my life.

1pm A homeless woman sits huddled outside Starbucks. Two people are giving her coffee, talking to her. I wonder if they've seen The Price of Everything too.

1.20pm Paradigm, Collective Gallery. Reasons to be grateful to Chris Goode, part 8402: no way would I have stumbled across this short film in a side-room of a gallery on Cockburn Street, which I almost never use, without his tweet describing it as an unexpected Edinburgh must-see. That said, it's not Chris' recommendation that makes me rush there: it's my fascination with Paradigm's maker, BS Johnson. Albert Angelo and the terrifically disturbing House Mother Normal are on my shelf of novels I will aspire to if I'm ever grown up enough to write novels. I'm saving Christie Malry and The Unfortunates: as with Richard Brautigan, I (idiotically) want to feel there is always more to read.

Paradigm is like the prose: schematic, inventive, funny, compelling, unnerving. Its five scenes, each little more than a minute long, show a writer progressing from youth to age, speaking a language of his own devising that is unintelligible yet strangely comprehensible. In his 20s he is radiant with confidence: naked, enthusiastic, words pouring out, and only the slightest hesitation, when he momentarily repeats himself: “chup chup chup chup chup”. He shakes it off, embarrassed; he beams and expounds again. With every passing decade he wears more and speaks less. In his 30s he is abominably smug: he has found a style, a manner, an argument. By his 40s, those “chup chup chups” have become unbearable: he is beginning to face the prospect that he has nothing new to say. In his 50s, he struggles to say anything. In his 60s, he may as well be a corpse. By his 60th birthday, Johnson himself had been dead 20 years.

The whole thing is abysmally, brilliantly acute. I start watching again, this time gripped by the use of eye contact. In youth, the writer eagerly meets our gaze; the older he gets, the more he avoids it. The 60-year-old is hunched, shabby, neglected, a shell of his former self. When he finally raises his eyes, the despair in them is gut-wrenching. Walking out, I wanted to call every writer I know and tell them to see it.


I'm standing at the corner of the Meadows waiting for the green man and every breath is full of the smell of cut grass and I'm alone and I'm in Edinburgh and I'm high on crazy no-sleep adrenaline and I'm actually, helplessly, dancing.

2pm Flaneurs, Summerhall. I already have a badge for this: Matt Trueman gave it me. Sure enough, Jenna Watts' thesis is one I would gladly identify with: that we can be crushed by our surroundings, by every moment of violence embedded in the paving stones, by the fear of being mugged or attacked or raped that stops us walking down certain streets at certain times of day – or we can remake positive, re-map the city we live in by colouring every street with a memory of happiness and kindness. I love the idea of becoming a secret army of alt-flaneurs, people who wander the city not detached from its inhabitants, but embracing the idea of community as a human imperative, and the responsibility that engenders for others, especially others feeling vulnerable, needing help. I'm totally with the argument. But it's an argument I would happily have read on a blog. There is lovely stuff in the staging: the use of maps and projections, the little giraffe standing in for Jenna's friend, the absorbing interviews with people talking about being attacked. And I still wonder why I'm seeing it in a theatre. I suspect this has as much to do with the theatre space as anything else: Summerhall's Demonstration Room – the demonstrations involved dissection; it feels clinical yet dirty in here; the dust-streaked walls seem stained with blood – is gruesomely atmospheric but staggeringly uncomfortable, with vertiginously raked wooden benches so high my feet barely reach the floor and so tightly cramped that even crossing short legs is tricky. Forget re-mapping the city: let's reconfigure this seating.

3.15pm Mess, Traverse. I wasn't going to see this. I was going to see Curious Directive's After the Rainfall like everyone else. But then Lyn Gardner happened to mention in one of her Edinburgh blogs that she had encountered a gender divide in audience reactions – men mostly pro, women (including herself) mostly anti – and that kind of thing is a gauntlet to me. So here I am.

It's the smile that finishes me off. That unnatural rictus grin, stretching Caroline Horton's mouth so wide, each lip might split. “If you smile like this, it releases chemicals in your face, and the chemicals help you relax.” Like fuck. That isn't a smile, it's a mask. False and rigid. Like any mask, it doesn't conceal the eyes. Desperate, terrified eyes that say: I am a lost and broken thing. And part of me hopes you will never, ever know.

Mess is that rictus grin stretched across the Traverse stage. It's designed (by Fiammetta Horvat) to look cheerful and bright: there is a princess tower topped with a pink umbrella, and a flowing carpet of fluffy white bathmat, and a glitzy music corner, and the mood is silly and playful and fu... No, not fun. Painful. The white bathmat is shabby grey and no matter how far it reaches, it can't cover the cracks where sadness seeps through. Horton's character, Josephine, is a recovering anorexic. Not recovered: you never fully recover. Her friend Boris is her witness, because what else can he do? The tears of the clown are a cliche, but one that Horton and Hannah Boyde (and their director, Alex Swift) use effectively: the more gung-ho jolly they are, the sharper the poignancy.

It's probably worth saying here that I've never been anorexic, but feel a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god lurch about it. I'm sure a big reason I find Mess so affecting is an awareness of its truth. Its truth for Horton, who was anorexic herself, and the truth of everything her description of anorexia crystallises: the anxiety, the longing for control, the desire for self-oblivion. Order within the mess of life. Listening to Boris tell Josephine that “seventy percent of life is going to be average and pretty good really, fifteen percent will be excellent and maybe fifteen percent is going to be an awful nightmare” was like listening to my (pessimist-realist, rarely depressed, almost never ecstatic) husband trying to prise me from a gloom. It doesn't work. What I've always clung to is the possibility of a sense of grace, the sense of grace Josephine achieves at the end of Mess, the grace in the very existence of this show. The grace that makes it possible to carry on.

I leave Mess feeling unexpectedly wobbly and with a sharp need to talk to my daughter, my bright and funny little girl who already displays terrifying signs of emotional hyper-sensitivity. On the phone she doesn't sound like my child at all, just a generic little girl. We talk about her new haircut and the animals in the National Museum of Scotland and my heart quakes with the knowledge that it's down to me to protect her. I walk across the Meadows to Summerhall, one foot after the other, trying not to think. Inside, I fall apart.

5pm Red Like Our Room Used To Feel, Summerhall. I'm standing outside the door with Ryan van Winkle who is giving the most absurdly over-extended explanation for how his show operates and it is exactly what I need: a stream of information so banal it's soothing. Ever since booking the ticket for this show I've had a song in my head, Pink River by Retsin: “I can feel blue in my blue room.” So already at the back of my mind I'm in a slightly romantic place: in Louisville, Kentucky, a time of travel and aloneness, with people who seemed like the right people but whom I haven't seen in a long time. Entering the room feels like walking into that lost world: the details don't quite match but the aesthetic is perfect. Open shelves cluttered with books and bric-a-brac. A bed, crumpled. On the wall there's a scratchy drawing, and it's just like the drawings made by Tara Jane of Retsin, the woman I then most wanted to be. Ryan pours me port in a glass yoghurt pot and I slump on the bed between a teddy and yesterday's shirt, eat stale biscuits, wince over the port, and listen.

He's reading me poems, but I'm not hearing the words exactly, more the timbre of his voice. Which I don't hear so much as feel, like drizzle on a slate-grey Edinburgh day, or the electric charge of winter shifting into spring. I find myself drifting, to the night with Jason when we lay on my bed and I read him The Waste Land, to the heart-breaking night when David left London for Glasgow and he told me stories of Derek Jarman and read to me from Mark Doty. Any small thing can save you. By the time Ryan is reading his third poem, a small part of me wishes he'd lean over and kiss me.

He leaves and I look more closely at the room. A bag of almonds, poems by Fernando Pessoa, twinkling red lights, a hard-backed suitcase, a typewriter with hair where the ink should be. The details don't match. The spell is broken. Outside, the brightness makes me blink. I see Ryan on the patio and we chat about writing and Paradigm and Forest and Paper Stages. I decide not to tell him what I really thought of his piece.

5.45pm Amusements, Summerhall. The room is dark and everyone in it is listening to a woman's voice through headphones. Her voice is a little bit sultry, a little bit accusatory. The sound flicks from left to right. Any minute now, I think, Amusements is going to do something brilliant. Except it doesn't.

As I say, I took no notes, so this is what I have failed to forget. It's loud, too loud, irritatingly loud, but there's no way of turning it down. The woman standing before us wears a suggestive red dress and has her knickers round her ankles. She talks about sex, and rollercoasters, and how we think we're so powerful as an audience, sitting there gazing at her. She laughs at us. She can read our minds, right? She looks straight at me: you're thinking about putting your hand up my dress. Actually, I'm not. What I'm thinking is: why are your knickers round your ankles? Why is this so loud? Am I just too old for this? Am I more prurient than I realised? Do I even like performance art? Can I leave now? Please?

7pm The Hunt and Darton cafe is quiet tonight. I tuck myself at an unobtrusive side table and carve a sculpture out of pineapple, ticking off my first half hour towards a second Paper Stages book. It feels like cheating: mostly this is an excuse to eat some fruit. Before long my tongue is scorched with acid burn. I can't hear what's playing but it sounds like swing. I'd want to dance if I were less depleted. I love it here.

8pm Monkey Bars, the Traverse. This is the fourth time I've seen the show and I find myself distracted by the vagaries of acting. Everything is exactly the same, and yet so much is different. All the laugh points have shifted. There are new, temporary emphases and inflections in the delivery that I find mildly perplexing. A woman sits in the front row with her guide dog, who gets very excited by the red balloon that flies across the stage at the beginning. I wonder if Chris feels the same about dogs wandering across the stage, being absorbed into the performance, as he does about cats. Further along are a group of people in, I'd guess, their late-50s or early 60s. I find myself drawn to them during the wonderful scene in which two 10-year-olds, played as old codgers passing the time on a park bench, complain about the state of their generation, about girls rioting, about the fear of even leaving the house. The group's absorption and laughter are gorgeous.

10pm I've been slowly crashing since Mess and hit the bottom around now. I read back over what I wrote about Monkey Bars yesterday and realise how repetitive it is. I read back over what I wrote about Beats and realise how much I forgot to mention: the ricochet of the word beats across the text – the beat of the music, the beat of the policeman's truncheon, the pulsing beat of each character's heart. How much I wanted to hurl myself on to the stage and dance and dance. Nothing is ever good enough. I was going to see Beats again tonight; instead, I work on Dialogue projects. The grace of looking forward.

1.30am Resolutions for tomorrow: read Gemma Brockis' Paper Stages play at Hunt and Darton, and find someone to read Kieran Hurley's play, intended for Arthur's Seat, with me. A stranger on the Meadows, I think. Even if it's cheating.

[An aside: like most resolutions, none of that happened. In the end, it was Saturday 15 September when I read Kieran's piece, sitting on a bench outside BAC with my beloved friend Eliska, to whom I gave the second copy of Paper Stages. And it was delicious: I played A, she played B, and the whole thing might have been written for us. The street outside BAC, with cars drifting past and the light slowly fading and the glass building opposite glimmering and the billboard glaring down at us, felt like an appropriately cinematic location. A good sense of drama is very me. She was tagging along, when maybe I wanted solitude. I had a dark secret and actually, yes, it was good to have company. We held hands. We thought about being stoned teenagers. It was beautiful.]

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