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 but fragile kid, brutalized and manipulated from a young age by those around her, who likens Abu Ghraib to a kid’s camp or a farm. If her remarks are shocking in their casualness—“Is there a girl in America who hasn’t been taped doing the you-know-what?”—they also play to the assumptions of a British liberal audience. David Kelly conforms to some such expectations too, calling himself a “mousy scientist” afraid to speak out until it was too late. But then the play moves away from the popular theories about his death: “the only way to defeat them is to disappear,” Kelly says, and therefore to remain always “invisibly present.” This is the prevailing theme in the last act too, by far the best crafted and performed, featuring a woman about whom we know nothing, who outlines the gruesome details of the suffering inflicted on her family at the hands of Saddam, but whose dialogue also deftly explores history, fiction, language and faith.
It would be hard to fault the play’s writing, acting and direction, yet it was hamstrung by some unavoidable drawbacks: it’s a perennial challenge to make characters in this type of political theatre convincing, and this subject in particular, although powerful, has been so well-scrutinised that it’s nearly impossible to dredge something original from it.
Originality is, of course, much easier to achieve when the focus is smaller, as was evidenced by a short duologue staged at the Pleasance this year called His Ghostly Heart. Set in a bedroom entirely in the dark, a young couple finish having sex and start having a conversation. The lack of visibility allows their words to acquire an added weight which means that although one, if not both, actors lacked the maturity or range for the piece, the quality of the writing made it a deeply affecting experience. As Richard Eyre had put it the day before, it is first and foremost the playwright whose “soul is at stake.”
Another production at the Pleasance Courtyard that stood out if not for originality than certainly for imagination was Ernest and the Pale Moon, the work of the small, innovative theatre company Les Enfants Terribles. Borrowing inspiration from Poe, Hitchcock and possibly Tim Burton, it’s a dark tale about obsession and murder told in the most delightfully camp, vaudeville style, making creative use of xylophones, cellos, water bottles, pots, pans, umbrellas, and almost anything else to hand—both a funny and convincing theatrical answer to film noir.
And over at the Assembly Rooms, the casting Linda Marlowe as the one-woman lead in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife was another act of imaginative brilliance. True, the raw material was excellent: Duffy’s poems themselves are rich territory, exploring love, delusion, disappointment and betrayal through the subversive eyes of the wives of famous men. Enter Mrs Freud, Mrs Quasimodo, Mrs Darwin, Queen Herod, Queen Kong, Delilah and so on. But the piece places extraordinary demands on a single performer, who must rapidly metamorphose between playful, coquettish, old, wise and animal. That Marlowe (who turns 70 next year) pulls it off with such deceptive ease is astonishing, and does full and satisfying justice to the buoyant, rebellious spirit of Duffy’s work.
On the comedy front, the risks are always higher. Bad theatre can be painful; bad comedy, where one feels unable to laugh, excruciating. While occasionally producing gems, the comedy roast show Late n’ Live, which kicks off every night at 1am at the Gilded Balloon, is generally best avoided. My visit left me yawning as former if.comedy award-winner Brendon Burns (responsible for stellar performance a two years ago when he won the award) belted out dull jokes about anal sex, while others like Stephen K Amos did little other than let us know how drunk they were.
But if you do your research and avoid the bars so desperate for punters that they lay on free comedy, there is much to reward. Hailing from Albequerque, New Mexico, the Pajama Men may well have been the best sketch act anywhere in the Scottish capital. Between the two of them, they manage to conjure caterwauling redneck mermaids, camp train attendants, Tarantino villains, dead people, teenagers, bitchy and middle-aged ladies, to name a few—as well as one extraordinary creature who eludes any definition at all. With an ingenious script that sends up action films, romance novels and even—bravely—bad comedy acts, they contort their faces and bodies into an astonishing sequence of expressions and exchanges. Most impressive of all was their dexterity at going off-script, vying, even, to even trip each other up, and at the same time exhibiting a creative chemistry that seemed almost telepathic.
It was American standup act Jamie Kilstein who struck the right note when it came to political comedy, taking most of his allotted time to passionately yet sharply dissect the racism, homophobia and sexism still rife in his home country (Obama’s election hasn’t changed everything, folks)—before aptly reminding the British of their own reverse bigotry. “Just because your McDonalds looks like a modern art museum doesn’t mean that it’s not McDonalds,” he told the audience that had, until then, been laughing comfortably at the potshots he’d been taking at Americans.
And as far as musical comedy went, Ireland’s Dead Cat Bounce was the best on offer, with a repertoire of rock ballads, Rn’B skits and sketches that included the inimitable “Sleepy Joe the Narcoleptic” and the unforgettable “Overenthusiastic Contraceptive Lady.” While their writing is sharp enough to warrant their primetime slot in one of Edinburgh’s leading comedy venues, the Gilded Balloon, they are a decent enough band to consider “going straight”—though one suspects they’d have much less fun doing so.
Of course, theatre and comedy represent only a small slice of the pie. Edinburgh’s international festival has a robust lineup of dance, music and opera events, as well as visual art. But in its origins and at its heart, Edinburgh is about what’s on stage, and such it’s still the litmus test for the more general state of theatre. During his interview at the book festival, Richard Eyre declared British theatre to be in “rude good health.” Yet outside the genteel, tented compound in Charlotte Square where Eyre was speaking, many of the best standup acts I saw were American, and much of our own creative talent is still looking backwards; navel-gazing over vexed, tortured issues like Iraq. This does not, however, mean that Eyre is mistaken. The fact that an event of this scale exists in Edinburgh at all, that it still has such a wide creative reach and that so many people line (and pollute) the streets to experience it is evidence enough that Britain’s stage is still, at the very least, fighting fit.
For more information on all of Edinburgh’s festivals click here