Saturday, 19 August 2017

Edinburgh. One Day at the Festivals.

Edinburgh Festival Reviews

Every year I try to have a quick run around as much as I can in a day at the Edinburgh festivals. Every year I underestimate how long it will take me to get from venue to venue when the pavements are all choc-a-bloc with people dragging wheelie suitcases or trying to hand out flyers. So as usual I tried to squeeze in too much.

Here are some quick reviews of the shows that I managed to catch, in case you are planning to take in a couple.


Issues of refugees are being discussed in several shows at the Fringe this year. The Sleeper (by Henry C. Krempels in a pokey space in the top floor of the Jury's Inn Hotel) starts with the testimony of real Syrian refugees. An Englishwoman on an overnight train across Europe returns from the bathroom to find "a pair of eyes" in her couchette. Reporting it to a world-weary staff member on the train he asks her to decide if she wants him to deal with it. They replay the confrontation, to see what choices we can all make in such a situation. The person who seems powerless to determine her fate is Amena, whose voice we struggle to listen to in all this (well played by Aya Daghem with a startled air of confusion). A quick wake up call to your brain in its 10.30am slot in the fringe programme. (Their shows have a later 11.40am time for the remainder of the run).


It is difficult doing a stand-up show at noon, when your more sobre audience requires a bit more work to loosen them up, but Eleanor Morton at The Stand gives it a good go. In a show titled Angry Young Woman, she is angry about most things. Particular ire is aimed at the everyday sexism in our world which, funnily enough, female comedians (or comediennes if you prefer) are exposed to on and off stage. It would be good to see more of her, but as TV panel shows already meet their one woman per show quota, you probably won't.

Also apparently very angry is Lucy Porter, with her show Choose Your Battles at the Pleasance Courtyard. However it is the middle-class rage of losing the keys for the Volvo that is the subject of her show. Where Eleanor Morton was earlier talking about faking it by going about on public transport with a yoga mat prominently displayed under her arm, Lucy Porter was talking about her yoga classes. All a bit cosy.


The one name that jumped out at me when I saw the programme for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, was James Kelman's. With a new collection of short stories released this month (That Was A Shiver available now - go buy it at your local bookshops). He was on top form, and I was delighted that instead of reading from his new book he decided to talk to us about his thoughts on literature in general and the position of artists in Scotland today. TV's Brian Taylor was a good host, reflecting on his university studies of Descartes as they talked. Kelman talked about his own learning, starting from the Realism of Zola and moving on to Camus, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and so it goes on. A curious mind exploring his world, and finding his voice in trying to express the subjective experience of his characters. Nobody else in Scottish (or British) literature comes close to this existential ventriloquism. Good painters start by first observing people and the world around them, and Kelman is a master of his art because of his ability to observe, and to listen, to people.

I bought a ticket for The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk as it is based on paintings I like by Marc Chagall, who often pictures himself and his wife floating over the town. Thinking of Chagall's paintings gives me terrible flashbacks, as my then 2 year old daughter all but managed to crash straight through a 10 foot painting of his when we visited the Musée National Marc Chagall. Thankfully no damage was done to either her or the painting. The play, by Kneehigh theatre company, is a two-header with Marc Antolin as Chagall and Audrey Brisson as his wife Bella, accompanied by two musicians. The fantastic choreography and Marc Antolin's floppy-haired physical similarity to Chagall does make the paintings appear before your eyes. Clever stagecraft throughout manages to carry a love story and a turbulent historical period, without distracting from the storytelling. A lovely way to spend an hour and a half.

Over the Town 1918 by Marc Chagall


Written by Sabrina Mahfouz (whose essay was one of the stand out's in the excellent book The Good Immigrant) and Hollie McNish, the play Offside benefits from the poetry that both writers excel at, with a rhythm and beat to the script that matches the muscular physicality of the story. On stage Daphne Kouma, Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher tell the real stories of Emma Clarke, a black footballer who played for Scotland in the 1890s and of Lily Parr from the 1920s. Flicking back and forwards to the current day the play tackles issues of prejudice, sexism, mental health, intrusive journalism, body image matters and more, but manages to stay on track by having a story that you want to follow weaving through all of this. The melodrama that real football can generate sometimes translates badly to film or theatre, but my problem  was that Emma Clarke's life sounds so interesting that I wanted to hear more about her, playing in Glasgow in the 1890s, than the imagined England players of the modern phase of the play. If it's true drama that you area after, the Scottish Women's Premier League is about to kick off again after a short hiatus for the Euros there. Glasgow City FC's next home game is against Hamilton Accies on Sunday 3rd September.

Goalkeeper Emma Clarke, in the back row here of Mrs Graham's XI in 1895


Described as an "experimental opera" and written by Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with Faith No More, I found Sasquatch: The Opera a lot of fun. As a rock-opera the live music from Bottum himself on keyboards, accompanied by electronic beats, timpani drums and brass was very impressive, and far more dramatic than the story playing out in front of the musicians. I did not ever expect to see an opera where a drug-addled hill-billy family con tourists with their fake Sasquatch, before the chained up daughter of the family flees into the woods and falls in love with the real beast, who it turns out is a real pussycat with a falsetto voice. The surprising chorus working the forest meth lab in the second half of the story help hunt down the beast and...well you can go and see it if you want to find out what happens. Bass-baritone singer Joe Chappel should have his own show on at the fringe whilst he is here, as he has a great voice. It's a strange hotchpotch of ideas and maybe needs stronger direction and better acting to knock the story into shape, but if you want entertained you should see it now in case it gets the rough edges knocked off of it.


Part of the official Edinburgh International Festival, Had We Never, Robert Burns: Chains and Slavery, was a late night concert performed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The museum currently has two fascinating exhibits that offer a dialogue between Robert Burns's idealised character as demonstrated by the white marble statue of him in the main hall here, and the truer, more flawed character, who was on the verge of heading to Jamaica to work on the plantations before his poetry took off. Douglas Gordon has copied the white marble statue, in black marble, and as a literal iconoclast, has thrown its broken parts onto the hall floor at the feet of Burns. Graham Fagen has a video installation of reggae singer Ghetto Priest singing a new version of Burns's The Slave's Lament  by composer Sally Beamish.

Reflecting on these works an evening of Burns's poems and songs was promised, with new works by Jackie Kay and a live performance by Ghetto Priest and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. It was a terribly Edinburgh affair, stilted and old fashioned. Instead of trying to see Burns differently much of it was based around old fashioned, churchy performances of Burns's works from bass singer Brian Bannatyne-Scott and counter-tenor David James. Away from the Caribbean angle, the international works were a bit dry. I like Avro Part's version of My heart is in the Highland's but like much of his work it feels very religious and churchy. I know the Shostakovich Burns stuff in Russian as I heard many earnest renditions of them at the Scotland-USSR Friendship Society, but again that took me to the late 1970s/ early 1980s. Jackie Kay brought fresher moments with her playful poems on Douglas Gordon's sculpture and on Burns, such as Resume The Plough, where she spoke of Burns getting "Awa frae polite society/ And Edinburgh literary soirees". I bet she was thinking the same thing. I have never been to a Jackie Kay reading which wasn't filled with laughter and applause and I have never, ever heard such a fussy rendition of A Man's A Man, in which I seemed to be the only person wanting to join in. All in all it was a very strange programme.

I was maybe getting a bit tired by midnight when it finished, but I was now ready to go back to Glasgow, where audiences are a bit more bawdy.

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