Bad theatre can be painful; bad comedy is excruciating. Judging by this year's Edinburgh, though, there's much to celebrate on the modern British stageby Mary Fitzgerald / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Every August, the population of Edinburgh doubles in size. During this month alone, seven festivals take place across the city; this year some 2.5m tickets were sold for nearly 40,000 theatre, music, arts and other events. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I’ve enjoyed some of the best live performance experiences of my life here; I’ve also sat through productions wishing the building would burn down around me. To fully enjoy Edinburgh, one must take risks.
Speaking at the city’s 26th book festival, the distinguished director Richard Eyre also confessed to the occasional fantasy of a playhouse engulfed in flames—usually while sitting through tense rehearsals of his own work. Discussing his new book, Talking Theatre, Eyre took on the big questions about the art form today, arguing that the digital age, far from liberating us, is making people feel more “lonely and oppressed” and actually enhancing the appeal of live events, be they theatre or pop concerts. There is a growing desire, he said, to “witness things directly.”
If, as Eyre believes, this is leading to a revival of the British stage (something also discussed by Michael Coveney in our September issue’s lead arts story), this year’s Edinburgh fringe festival seemed to be at the forefront of it. Perhaps the most intriguing piece on offer was Daniel Kitson’s 90-minute monologue, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church. A self-confessed “emotional hoarder” with a “weakness for glimpsed lives,” Kitson—a veteran standup comedian—has crafted a show based on the partly true story of his discovery of a suicide note in an attic. Because the deceased had no surviving family the authorities could track down, Kitson was able to acquire the letters stored in the man’s home—more than 30,000 in total, both sent and received—and over the course of two and a half years he read them in chronological order. The result is an extraordinary piece of theatre, tenderly assembling the fragments of the life of a “self-confessed miserabilist” in a work that is at once charming, honest, bleak and life-affirming. Confirmation, if ever it was needed, of how the best art is often gleaned from the seemingly ordinary.
Ordinariness was also the emphasis in Judith Thompson’s The Palace of the End, a three-part drama about the Iraq war as seen through the eyes of Lynndie England, David Kelly and Nehrjas al Saffarh, a bereaved elderly Iraqi woman. England is a fresh-faced, brash…