Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Death and the Poet

Review: The Events by David Greig, Traverse Theatre

Review: The Poet Speaks, Philip Glass and Patti Smith, Edinburgh Playhouse

I took my first Edinburgh festivals trip along the M8 this year to take in Patti Smith and Philip Glass, but before that managed to squeeze in a visit to the Traverse to see David Greig's new play. On a late summer evening Edinburgh was looking very handsome I have to say.

The Events deals with the aftermath of a mass shooting, where a survivor, played by Neve McIntosh looks for answers to the inevitable question - "Why?". There appears to be an understandable searching for a reason after these events (I'll use his word), people asking "why did it happen?", desperate to understand, to find some meaning in a pointless act. On Channel 4 just now the drama "Southcliffe" follows the lives of the perpetrator and the victims of a mass shooting in a fictional English market town. However when we get specific in this fiction, the close up attention to the detail of their lives in this TV drama, it begins to feel unreal, manipulative and fake as many real people have gone through these terrible incidents in the real world in their own individual ways. You end up thinking "that pub looks too busy" or "would you really say something like that?". You cannot help but think that the feelings that people affected do experience are unique to them and just unimaginable to someone who is not them. I'll watch Southcliffe to the end but it seems unsure what story it is trying to tell.

Rather bizarrely David Greig took a trip to visit Norway, researching the aftermath of the Anders Breivik shootings whilst writing the stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This led to some alarming (and incorrect) reports that he was writing a musical of the events which occurred in Utoya that day. What he did write was this play, The Events, which is showing just now at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London. It does feature singing, but in the form of local choirs playing a Greek chorus to the story. The Events used similar devices to Southcliffe with flashbacks and different characters, played with gusto by Rudi Dharmalingham, flitting in and out. However the story here was more focused than the TV drama and the amateur choristers gave a stumbling feeling of real life to it all. The play worked well whilst walking a tight-rope of the sensitivities around the issues raised within it.

As Allen Ginsberg said in Father Death Blues,
Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn
The many faces of Neve McIntosh
One last aside. Neve McIntosh's twitter profile reads "Actress and part time Lizard Queen!!!!". Is she at risk of being typecast? One minute she's tortured, guilt-ridden, lesbian vicar, Claire. Next she's Victorian sword-wielding, crime-fighting, lesbian Silurian, Madame Vastra who she plays in Doctor Who. Well, maybe not.

The other performance I'd specifically wanted to see in Edinburgh tonight was Philip Glass and Patti Smith's "The Poet Speaks", an evening in tribute to Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. He died in 1997 and was a friend to them both. They've been doing these evenings together for a while now and it was the concept rather than any of three constituent parts (Glass, Smith and Ginsberg) that drew me to this show. The work of Philip Glass I have enjoyed without ever feeling particularly engaged by it, since I first heard it in Glasgow in 1990 (1000 Airplanes on the Roof - the projected backdrops is about all that I remember from that night). The "Beat Generation" is no more my generation than the flappers and Anita Loos were the generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac and William Burroughs. Their work has never grabbed me particularly and I find their books a bit self-obsessed.

Likewise, Patti Smith I think you either get or you don't get and I'd probably put myself in the latter camp (in much the same way that I "don't get" Jim Morrison). I struggle to see her as the "Godmother of Punk" that she is sometimes painted as. I like "Because The Night" as a Bruce Springsteen song rather than as a Patti Smith song and wouldn't be surprised to hear "People Have The Power" on a soap powder advert. It just doesn't seem to have any fire in its belly, the way a Gil Scott-Heron song or poem just does. My personal perception of her is more of a rather humourless, self-important individual who was in the right place at the right time to be part of a scene which on the whole generally leaves me a bit cold.

Patti Smith and Philip Glass

So I came to the Edinburgh Playhouse, which was filled to capacity, hoping to be proven wrong. Despite Ginsberg looking down on us from the projected photographs of the backdrop this was mainly about Patti Smith and Philip Glass. The meaningless, shamanistic ramblings of the shooter in The Events were rejected by Claire's choir for the gibberish that they were. Patti Smith however is someone who still appears happy to embrace the shamanistic affectations and eastern mysticism. She started the evening with her own poems which meandered through vague Earth-mother and Buddhist tropes (Notes to the Future, The Blue Thangka) whilst Philip Glass accompanied her on piano. Ginsberg's Witchita Vortex Sutra had more bite to it. She then read some of her favourite poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Never can The Land of Nod have been read with such portentous earnestness. It ends with the line "The curious music that I hear" echoed in the line "Some strange music draws me in" in the verse of her song Dancing Barefoot which she followed it with. She repeated this trick with two other RLS poems (eg Looking-Glass River leading to her singing Pissing In A River with some gusto). Dedicating John Lennon's Beautiful Boy to Kate and William's wee George was a bit "yeuch". What was striking was the rhythm and pace Stevenson's poesy demonstrated in contrast to the earlier free verse.

Allen Ginsberg
More rhythmic again was Philip Glass who came back for an impressive run through excerpts from Metamorphosis and Etudes. Then Ginsberg's poems got a look in again towards the end with a rendition of the touching poem Aunt Rose and the strident anaphora marching out in Footnote to Howl and On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa. The night was finished off with Tony Shanihan on guitar, Philip Glass on piano and Patti Smith singing her soft rock anthem People Have The Power, definitely a bit of a curio.

She certainly has a stage presence, but her serious, humourless, declamatory style (even when reading children's poems) I found a bit wearing.

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