Wednesday, 3 October 2012

edinburgh 2012, day four: paperbelle, bigmouth, as of 1.52pm gmt, a thousand shards of glass, hunt and darton/five minutes to move me + bingo with scottee, dieter roth, the curious scrapbook of josephine bean

6.36am, Wednesday 22 August, 2012. Five year old. “Mummy, I know it's not morning time, so we're just going to stay in bed.”

6.51am Five year old again. “Mummy, I need a poo.”

10.10am Paperbelle, Assembly Botanic Gardens. It's like a treasure hunt, or a game of hide-and-seek: from the gate to a building nestled within the gardens we follow a trail of paper dolls, attached to signposts and trees, beckoning us along. Inside is a giant wendy house constructed of paper, the door closed to us, which makes it triply enticing. This is how you get people excited about going to the theatre.

Inside the house is a black-and-white world, a beautiful cartoon rendering of a sitting room with a radiator and a radio, a painting and a window, and a guitarist in the corner (Ben Talbot-Dunn) playing like he's a member of Vampire Weekend. We sit on creamy coloured cushions and giggle as Paperbelle flutters about like a will-o'-the-wisp, disappearing into drawers, sliding between secret cracks in the walls. When colour starts to erupt across the room, spilling out beneath the fish bowl and beaming behind the alcove door, it's impossible not to compare it to Catherine Wheels' White, one of the best kids' shows I've seen. Paperbelle is less intricate than White but more buoyant; my littles are less hypnotised by it but more entertained. At the end, we have to leave behind the cushions, now a riot of red and blue and yellow and green, but can take away our very own Paperbelle puppets. I hope she's as cheeky when we get her home.

12pm Bigmouth, Summerhall. Hoisted on the back wall of the dreaded Demonstration Room is a chalk board – I don't at first realise it's electronic – on which are scrawled a sequence of names and dates. Socrates, Pericles, King Bedouin. John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. Osama Bin Laden, George W Bush, Ann Coulter. It's not until two have been scrubbed off that I realise these are the speakers; Flemish actor Valentijn Dhaenens is simply their conduit. Even though I have started writing about Edinburgh, I'm still not taking notes, so what follows is mostly what I scribbled down that evening, the brightest bolts of lightning in an electrifying performance.

Socrates, embracing death, asking only that his sons, should they embrace the government he rejects, be abused. King Bedouin of Belgium, abdicating – sorrowfully, tenderly, respectfully – because he cannot bring himself to ratify the legalisation of abortion, even though both houses of his parliament have voted in favour of the new law. Snap straight from there to Patrice Lumumba declaring the independence of Congo from its colonial rulers, Belgium, in a speech whose shimmering hope, for peace, unity, a future without violence, is devastating. (And that's before I knew Lumumba was assassinated, on Belgian orders, six months later.)

Goebbels addressing the women of Germany in a voice so sickly soft it's disturbing, spliced with George S Patton's diametrically opposed, no less disturbing, assertion that all American men are fighters, ready for war.

And now it's the 1960s Americans and it's civil rights and it's civil strife and a gun keeps firing, pow pow pow. They all sound the same. Whatever it is they're saying, whatever their argument or standpoint, these men all sound the same. So by the time Dhaenens reaches Bin Laden, and he talks about seeing Israel attack Lebanon and innocent children being killed, his hatred of the Americans who support Israel begins to sound almost... reasonable. And that is terrifying.

Bigmouth's potency as an investigation of political oratory lies in its ability to be contradictory things at once: subtle yet rich, sly yet overt, light yet dense. It's an impeccable performance: Dhaenens' accent and facility with language are exquisite, the selected texts searing. But the best, the very best thing about the show is the musical soundtrack he creates between and around the words. He slides from one microphone to another, discovering a slightly different resonance with each one, looping his voice for percussive melody, underscoring it with the harsher rap and tap of fingers and knuckles on table. And when he sings, his baritone resonates across your skin and thrums in your veins.

2pm The lost half-hour. I should be writing. Instead, I'm sulking. Even though I bought the ticket weeks ago, I don't want to see Daniel Kitson. I could be seeing so many other things now. The List, for starters. I'm only seeing him because I feel I should, because people I love rave about him in a way that makes me think I'm missing something. The last time I saw him was some years ago, just at the moment when he was making the shift from stand-up to “theatre”, and all I remember was feeling bored. And before you ask – and I know you're going to ask, because everyone else has – I can't remember if it was the one with the armchair or the one with the C90 tapes or both. Either way, I don't remember him saying anything illuminating. Grump grumpy grump.

2.30pm As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, the Traverse. Of course it's brilliant. The first five minutes, in which Kitson tells us about all the bits of set he can't have on the stage because he was too late finishing the script, and all the actors who aren't performing alongside him because he didn't have time to audition, make me think of the production team at West Yorkshire Playhouse bristling over Chris Goode's 9. There's lots of sparkly ad-libbing: he spots a 12-year-old boy and asks his grown-ups, entirely reasonably, what on earth made them think a piece of self-obsessed meta-theatre would be suitable for him? He looks cheerfully around the audience: “If you're bored, have your own thoughts, that's what I'd do.”

Contrary to expectation, I'm not bored at all. In fact, I can hardly keep up with him: he races through his script, commenting on it as he goes, quoting his own reviews with a little snark each time. The whole thing ought to be horribly naval-gazing, but I find it blissful, because what it's really about is the appalling insecurity of writing. It's like the 30s chapter of Paradigm yesterday: a demonstration of being consumed by the fear of repetition, fraught with the desire to challenge yourself, yet seduced by the possibility of just cynically giving the punters what they already know. There's a big explosive speech in which he says all this explicitly, but what makes it so winning is that he expresses it throughout, in every characterisation and every small aside. And the best, the very best thing about this show is the phrase “mixed-ability tautology”: the excessive use of adjectives, some smart, some dumb. My writing suffers from it too.

4.20pm A Thousand Shards of Glass, Northern Stage at St Stephen's. It's such a delight to be back in a room with Lucy Ellinson after the joy of Oh the Humanity. But this time, I'm much less sure about the material she's delivering. She's such a gentle performer, it feels as though she's holding our hands through the story, guiding us tenderly across its fraught terrain. Which is odd, because that's not who her character is. But who is her character? A freedom fighter, a terrorist, a member of the secret service, a revolutionary, a spy? Enemy, or friend?

About 20 minutes in, I realise what I'm actually watching is an action movie, re-created in sounds (Lewis Gibson) and words (Ben Pacey). It's really exciting to see a woman perform that – better still, a woman wearing a lovely pink jumper with blue branches embroidered on it, and not a video-game cartoon with a cinched waist and a balconette bra. (A woman, Jane Packman, has directed it, too.) As helicopters hover menacingly overhead and she races from a bustling desert city to an office block I don't know where, as she passes from three dimensions to a fourth, I find myself thinking about Christopher Nolan's Inception, and how I couldn't decide if it was the worst film I'd ever seen (which it probably was, for the first half) or a work of staggering genius (which it just might have been, for the second half). I feel similarly, but not precisely, inconclusive about this.

5.30pm Outside Northern Stage are Kieran Hurley, Daniel Bye, Lucy Ellinson and Chris Thorpe. I could hardly be with a nicer group of people. But I feel so agonisingly self-conscious I run away hardly saying goodbye. For the first time in Edinburgh I have a proper conversation with Lyn Gardner, only on the phone but better than nothing. We talk a lot about Mess, and about Monkey Bars, especially how the latter makes us think not so much about children but about adults, and what adults fail to articulate. Walking across the bridges, “chup chup chup” ricochets through my head. Ouch.

7.10pm Back to Hunt and Darton to do my final 30 minutes of Paper Stages volunteering. I don't know whether it's because I feel rotten, or if homesickness is kicking in, but when Hunt or Darton asks me to help with the washing up, I think: yes, that's exactly what I want to do. Even so, it feels an absurd way to access theatre. Rinsing a handful of cutlery, I find myself thinking: the things I do for the love of Andy Field.

7.50pm As part of tonight's performance package, Five Minutes To Move Me, Rachael Clerke is running her own debating society. I propose the motion that we should be radically changing our behaviour for the sake of the planet and future generations. She argues fuck it: she loves swimming, so doesn't care if British shores go under water; shopping at Primark cheers her up; and kids don't appreciate anything grown-ups do for them anyway, so why bother? We laugh, agree to disagree, and score it a draw.

8.40pm This is why Hunt and Darton is so brilliant. I'm sharing a table with three young Edinburghians, who have just wandered in because the door is open and they can get a beer. They're busily gossiping about this person and that when Hunt and Darton join them at the table and start performing. There are poems: “Mum's getting married, Dad's getting divorced, my sister's pregnant. Hmmm....”; “Someone threw a potato at my head. Cunt.” And there's a physical piece, Jockey, for which the two women bend over like horses, whipping to the finish. The three young Edinburghians find it all deeply discombobulating, which only adds to the fun.

9pm Bingo night with Scottee. Bingo, it transpires, is stupefyingly dull. This would be, too, apart from two things: I'm sitting opposite the very wonderful Amy Lame, and Scottee is calling the numbers, from the bingo app on his phone, to the style of whatever happens to be playing on some ropey compilation on Spotify that includes songs by B*Witched and Sinead O'Connor. He's dressed in gold sequins and tosses his head imperiously and the person who accidentally calls bingo too early has their card confiscated and he keeps shouting rude things at Amy, who wins a box of Ritz crackers. I still haven't seen The Shit. But right now, this is just what I need.

Scottee finishes and Five Minutes To Move Me starts again. I can't remember what Tom Marshman called his piece, but it was dedicated to Anna Pavlova, Russian ballet dancer and, more importantly, inspiration for one of my favourite desserts. Pleasingly, there's a plate heaped with meringue, cream and raspberries on the table between us. Marshman tells me a little of Pavlova's biography, then gives me a set of headphones to listen to the Swan Lake theme while he feeds me spoonfuls of pavlova. At first I have the giggles, it's all too silly. But something about the swoop of the music and the tenderness of being fed gets me in the heart. I find myself thinking about religious ceremonies, the consuming of bread and wine in church, the body and blood of Christ. I'm having a religious experience to meringue and Tchaikovsky. It is insane, but utterly magical.

And then there's Greg Sinclair's performance, A Piece of You. Before us is a blank sheet of music manuscript paper. Greg asks me questions and starts to fill the staves with marks: a tick for how I feel, “Naughty” for my favourite word, a sun and three stick figures for a favourite memory. And these marks become the musical notes for a fragment of cello music that makes me feel, just momentarily, like I'm levitating.

10am, Thursday 23 August, 2012

This is a stupid way to see art. This is my final morning in Edinburgh – we leave on the 1.30pm train – and the plan is this: start at the National Gallery for Van Gogh to Kandinsky, swing by Collective for one more look at Paradigm, fly through the Fruitmarket for Dieter Roth, all in time for The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean at 11. It shouldn't work but does, for two reasons. A lot of the art in the Van Gogh to Kandinsky show is not very good, which means it's easy to whizz round but still have time to marvel: at an odd, jittery Mondrian landscape I haven't encountered before; an unexpected, icy landscape by Strindberg; a murky Whistler. And: Dieter Roth's show either needs several hours or a few minutes. Several hours would allow you the luxury of becoming part of the life he documents on a bank of television screens, each one recording a quietly mundane day in his final year alive. You would be the silent guest at his kitchen table, the quiet observer in his studio, the companion at his bedside. The films are so immediate and tender, even in a few minutes you feel that sense of kinship with him.

11am The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean, Traverse at Scottish Book Trust. This is supposed to be a children's show, for 7s-up, but adults outnumber small people by approximately 5:1. This makes me uncomfortable. Not that my children are here: they're too small. I'd thought about bringing the five-year-old but I'm glad I didn't: this is an incredibly intricate show, and I wouldn't have wanted to miss a detail.

It's sort of a detective story: Shona Reppe plays a scrapologist, someone who creates biographical histories by hunting through scrap books. What can she surmise from the scrap book of Artemus J Mood, with its collection of train tickets and seaside detritus, its peculiar photographs and solitary raisin? Is he delusional, a fantasist, a sad and lonely man? Or does his collection of flotsam and jetsam hold the key to the beating of his heart? The trail from clue to clue is mesmerising: there are false starts, misconceptions, ungenerous assumptions. And slowly, the truth emerges, of a fairy-tale, impossible love. It is the perfect end to a whirlwind Edinburgh: tender but sharp, funny but sad, and, above all, achingly romantic.

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