I only realised a couple of years ago that the Edinburgh Festival is a whole pile of festivals all happening at the same time. The fringe, the art festival, the book festival, the gardening festival (I made one of those up). The main Edinburgh International Festival has a much more focused and normally highbrow atmosphere. This year the world of alternative popular music has elbowed its way into the International Festival with Mogwai, Young Fathers, Sigur Ros, God Speed You! Black Emperor and Karine Polwart in the programme alongside the likes of the Russian National Orchestra and Scottish Ballet. Several of these concerts it was impossible for me to get to from Glasgow and others were sold out very quickly. I made do with a couple of Edinburgh jaunts to wonder around the galleries, catch some fringe theatre and book readings. There is only so long I can join the Edinburgh festival-going crowd before I want to scream though. There is a particular demographic that fills the city in August, and it feels like a good proportion of them will all trudge to the Henley Regatta and Glyndbourne at other times of the year.
I did make it to two International Festival events at the Usher Hall. A concert by a Swedish Orchestra and one by a Senegalese superstar.
Beethoven Piano concerto No. 1 in C major Op 15 Mahler Symphony No. 9
English conductor Daniel Harding, led the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall on Friday night. First up was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, which was actually the third piano concerto he had written, but the first to be published. Written by the 26 year old Beethoven he performed the piano himself on the first performances of the piece. As you would, he has written the best parts for himself and Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov took this role. His performance was mesmeric, without being overly showy and flamboyant. At times hunched over the keyboard with his face inches from his fingers I fear he has an old age filled with back pain ahead of him if he keeps that up, but his playing was fantastic.
After the interval the orchestra had to pause for a while until someone silenced an electronic alarm (getting a round of applause when they managed). Mahler's 9th Symphony is often described as a contemplation on death and the first movement was indeed very dramatic. I found the rest of the evening rather colourless after that and a bit disjointed. Beautiful crisp playing throughout, particularly the strings, but the music didn't sing out to me.
One of the greatest figures in African music, "Senegalese superstar" Youssou N'Dour was in the incongruous setting of the stuffy Usher Hall on Wednesday night. His appearance was like a slash of light and warmth in a cold, wet Scottish summer. His audience were a refreshing change from the majority of Edinburgh crowds that I've been sat amongst this week, with many black and younger people dressed up to the nines mixed up with the usial Edinburgh Festival white, middle class, elderly audience.
I have seen him play once before, but that was 26 years ago now, a brief set in a Wembley concert for Nelson Mandela, so I was greatly looking forward to seeing him here tonight with his band in full flow. The band were impressive, 10 musicians and an acrobatic dancer and two singers backing him. With four of them on percussion rhythm was to the fore.
Youssou N'Dour at the Usher Hall
Youssou N'Dour himself is a slight figure, out front in his shiny white suit, with a voice that's uniquely his. A few songs in we were given a piece of impromptu Scottish cabaret as ushers tried (ineffectually) to usher an obstreperous man away from the front row, where he had planted himself. They needn't have bothered as Youssou soon had sections of the crowd on their feet and dancing at the front of the stage and in the aisles. He slowed things down for a bit with "7 Seconds" before whipping the crowd up again as the tumbling dancer started jumping over the head of the djembe player, who was now draped in a Senegal flag from the crowd.
A captivating performance. Would love to have seen him in a more relaxed venue. Maybe next time.
Look. Youssou even brightened up the Edinburgh weather
I've come all the way to Edinburgh and the first two things that I saw were set in a Glasgow school and a Glasgow night club toilet. Quick reviews of a few of the theatre performances I saw at this years Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Produced by National Theatre of Scotland Glasgow Girls, by David Greig and Cora Bissett, is based on the story of seven Glasgow school friends from Drumchapel who stood together in 2005 when their classmate and her family, seeking asylum in Scotland, were taken from their home to be forcefully deported. Based upon true events the song-filled play has been touring since 2012 but I have only now caught up with it. It is being shown in the Assembly Hall on the Mound at present, and the hall doesn't do it any great favours - a room filled with multiple restricted views and echoey acoustics, which made some of the speaking a bit difficult to discern.
Assembly Hall on The Mound, Edinburgh
The story is probably very familiar to most people now and is told with energy and enthusiasm. I am not a great fan of musicals I must admit, so would generally rather be shown things than told them through song. However when Terry Neason takes centre stage as Noreen, one of the women who organised look-outs for Home Office vans doing dawn raids, the whole story suddenly feels more real and visceral, largely due to her acting abilities and phenomenal voice.
First General Assembly, Edinburgh
"Did he just say that the cheesemakers shall inherit the Earth?"
An uplifting piece of theatre, which passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, still reaching a wide audience as it tours again. Later this month it will be returning to Glasgow at the Citizens Theatre.
Written and directed by Glasgow based Adura Onashile, Expensive Shit at the Traverse Theatre takes place in the women's toilet of a nightclub. If it hadn't already happened recently in the real world, you would think that the idea of having men getting kicks from staring through two-way mirrors into this private place was an over the top theatrical device. The Shimmy Club in Glasgow was shut down in 2013 after men were found to be paying to leer from behind the glass at women using their toilets. In the play we, the audience, sit in their place, voyeurs to a place people feel they can relax and be themselves.
If you have ever felt uncomfortable with unpaid, often African, toilet attendants in night clubs handing you paper towels, a skoosh of deoderant or a lollipop for tips, then you will recognise Tolu as that character. Nigerian toilet attendant Tolu, (Sabina Cameron) works in the toilet of a Glasgow nightclub, talking to the women and gets paid extra to encourage them to linger at the mirrors or leave the cubicle doors open. The story flits back and forwards between the present and the past where she lived at Fela Kuti's Kalkuta commune, hoping for a better life dancing at his Afrika Shrine club.
Fela Kuti was an inspirational and controversial figure, married to umpteen of his dancers and singers. The title of the play, an elegant word play for their stories, takes its name from a Fela Kuti album, an Afrobeat classic. The ideals of the commune, the freedom the women hoped to gain by coming to it, is questioned when the women have to face the reality of what they are being asked to do. The four Nigerian women rehearse, talk and argue in the sanctuary of the women's toilets there.
It is an arresting play, with excellent performances from Sabina Coleman in the lead role, Teri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary and Diana Yekinni. Their dance moves are slick and their arguments swing back and forth like the cubicle doors. The audience here in Edinburgh was very white and middle aged, complicit maybe in looking at the African woman in the corner of the room, but perhaps not noticing her.
Gogol's novella, Dairy of a Madman, is transferred to modern Scotland by writer Al Smith and Gate Theatre. In the original a lowly civil servant driven mad by his unrequited love, eventually believes himself to be able to understand the language of dogs and that he is the next King of Spain. He gives a proper, early description of delusions and symptoms we would now recognise as schizophrenia. (Everyone knows that Gerry Britton, former Partick Thistle player and manager, now in charge of youth development, ins thee true King of Spain). I am a big fan of Russian literature and have been to visit Gogol's house in St Petersburg. So I was looking forward to this re-imagining of the story.
Visiting Gogol in St Petersburg
Instead of Arksenty Poprishchin we have actor Liam Brennan playing Pop Sheerin, a painter maintaining the family tradition, painting and repainting the Forth Rail Bridge. The first half hour is witty and quips pass back and forth between father, daughter Sophie and her mouthy pal. The arrival of English chemical engineer Matt White (boom, boom) as Pop's apprentice lays the foundation for Pop's future redundancy, at work and at home. Matt's burgeoning romance with Sophie upsets Pop's ideas of manliness. As he descends into madness the plot takes a strange turn, with wrong-headed ideas about Scottish nationalism and history shoehorned in. Pop Sheerin becomes increasingly unhinged in a cartoonish fashion, dressing as Mel Gibson's Braveheart to stand against the foreign, globalisation pressures of new-fangled American paint, Qatari share ownership and English nobility.
The portrayal of mental illness in the style of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the women's roles ("kingmakers" through sex with men or as passive wife, who inexplicably doesn't phone a CPN) and the ideas of manliness all felt clichéd, old fashioned and the political jibes were ill-informed. Matt's put down, that the Forth Rail Bridge is "no more Scottish than I am" because it's constituent parts come from elsewhere is so upside down and flawed as to be offensive. I'm quite embarrassed that this play is going on to be performed in England and give people the daft impression that people in Scotland think like the characters here. Surely it's widely accepted that once you're here, you're here and you are part of the country, whether you are a bridge or a dinner lady? Anyway, now I'm nit-picking. It started well, then went off in several strange directions.
Yuri Gagarin and rocket designer Sergei Korolev are two heroes of mine, which has led me to drag my kids to see the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow to pose under Yuri Gagarin, and drive to London to see an exhibition on the Cosmonauts. In this theatrical piece in Edinburgh Yuri sits on the launch pad, expecting death, but hoping to orbit the Earth. Our attention shifts to an African who has traveled with smugglers across the Sahara and stands on a beach in Morocco about to launch towards Europe.
These are the starting points for this performance/ sound installation designed by Kai Fischer and the National Theatre of Scotland. The five performers and musicians on stage are lined up in a row facing the audience, and we all don headphones to hear their amplified utterances, mixed with radio static and sound effects. Silences are exaggerated in this environment, as we fall below the waves of the Mediterranean or enter radio silence on the dark side of the Earth. The performers hold our gaze at the front, with excellent performances from Edward Nkom, Kimisha Lewis, Michelle Cornelius, and musicians Tyler Collins and Gameli Tordzro. The parallels are clear as we flit back and forth between those about to embark in a toy dinghy and our Cosmonaut about to launch into the darkness of space. The crackled back and forth between Vostok-1 and mission control contrast with the refugees' attempts to make re-assuring mobile phone calls home. The real transcripts used of Yuri Gagarin's communications with mission control are phenomenal. He is the epitome of calmness, reporting "mood buoyant" and "Let's go!" as the launch arrives. Both of our travellers are brave/ foolish pioneers. We only know that one of the trips will definitely end in glory.
Actor, singer, lawyer, campaigner Paul Robeson is the inspiration for Tayo Aluko's one man performance (with piano accompaniment), telling the story of the great man's life. Paul Robeson's booming bass voice was a familiar sound in my childhood home from an old album that my mother often played, a mixture of his singing, reading poetry or Othello's speeches from Shakespeare. He famously attended the Glasgow May Day parade in 1960, and in the play his dealings with striking Welsh miners featured prominently in the play.
I knew a bit about the life of Paul Robeson, but learned a lot more, particularly about the extent of the hostility he faced from the American state. The tireless efforts made to deprive him of his passport, of his ability to work, even of his health, was remarkable. Tayo Aluko doesn't have the bone rattling quality to his voice that Robeson did (who does?) but his singing earned applause throughout and evoked the music that Robeson used to such powerful effect protesting against the injustice that he saw. Back home to dig out my mum's old Paul Robeson album that I've got in a box somewhere.
Orla O'Loughlin of the Traverse Theatre Company directs Ross Dunsmore's first full length play, Milk. A trio of couples riff on a theme of nourishment and sustinence. Steph and Ash aged 14 (Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega), their teacher Danny Doig and his wife Nicole (Ryan Fletcher and Melody Grove) and elderly couple May and Cyril (played by Tam Dean Burn and Ann Louise Ross). Steph's body image fixation and self-confidence issues lead her to chase after her teacher. His pregnant wife feels crushed by her inability to breastfeed when the baby comes. The old couple play the most touching scenes, with their electricity cut off, ex-soldier Cyril is too fearful of the outside world to go out and buy food. Although all the ideas don't always gel, I found the later scenes incredibly moving. It made me think back to people I know who struggled to breastfeed and were given increasingly unhelpful advice from people who should have known better. I'll admit that I was a wee bit weepy in the final scene. It brought back a moment I'd completely forgotten, the most supportive thing I ever heard for a stressed parent. Dashing around a supermarket with a screaming baby when an old man leans over and instead of moaning, says "that's the most beautiful sound in the world, the cry of a baby". Try it next time you see someone looking stressed.
Anyway, really enjoyed the play. Nicely paced direction kept things flowing along. I finished up at the Traverse and ran across to Nandos for some grub. (It only got about 10 mentions).
Edinburgh Book Festival now runs for two weeks each August in Charlotte Square, and get 220,000 visitors in that time. Their bookshop is always worth a visit as it tends to be a bit different from the usual set up, and if you aren't coming to the ticketed events, the Square still makes a good place to eat your picnic on a sunny day during the festival. I saw three events during the festival this year (for £39 in total, before you buy the books). Here are some quick reviews of a couple of book festival events that I went to.
I enjoyed Alice Oswald's previous book, Memorial, an unusual invocation of Homer's Iliad. It starts with a list of the 200 soldiers who die during the Iliad, then recounts their fates, from Protesilaus to Hector. She read from her new collection Falling Awake, which features poems reflecting her education as a classicist to her observations on the minutiae of nature from her work as a gardener. For Alice Oswald poetry is a serious business and her reading was earnest and full of portent. The rhythms of her poems were clear in the rhythms of her reading, and death was an ever present part of life. She then revealed that she does have a lighter side, which her editor kept out of the latest book, reading Living Under the Digestive System. I hope that this brighter aspect of her poetry gets room to breathe in the future
A full house awaited James Kelman, including Liz Lochead, Tam Dean Burn and other well kent faces, as he read from his exceptional new novel Dirt Road. He gave us a passage from early in the book, that told of 16 year old Murdo and his dad settling into a cheap motel for the night on their travels to meet American relatives, a break from their travails in Scotland. They are both recently bereaved and alone, after the death of Murdo's mother and sister. As Murdo heads out to the local shop to seek breakfast for them both he comes across Queen Mozee-ay, her music and the music of the south that will drive him and the story onwards. Like Alice Oswald it was good to hear the rhythm of Kelman's reading, the rhythm of the music that Murdo has a drive to make. There are clear echoes of Kelman himself in Murdo, the artist as a young man. I hadn't realised that as a 17 year old Kelman traveled with his family to America as they planned to emigrate there. Immigration/emigration and the mixed up origins of America and American music, from the Gaels to Mexicans feature as a background to the personal journey Murdo and his dad make in the book.
I have seen Kelman talk many times before and every time he gently shares his knowledge with the audience, on subjects as diverse as the Clearances, Russian literature, the co-operative movement, the Newport Folk Festival or the history of the Gaelic language. Whether you notice it or not you will always come away from one of his books or his talks having learnt an awful lot of stuff, mostly about people.
He also revealed a lot about his writing technique here, and talked about scenes he had written then cut out of the final book - a "director's cut" of a James Kelman book would clearly be a fascinating read. I hadn't noticed the name of the elderly Creole singer, Queen Monzee-ay, hints at her Menzies hinterland and in the book various tiers of Scottish immigration to America are apparent. When asked about his ending for this book he said that "the best type of ending takes me by surprise", then when he looks back at it there is not any alternative ending. It just fits.
As well as being renowned for his own works as a poet, Edwin Morgan was also a translator of the works of Mayakovsky, Racine and Pablo Neruda among others. Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky is a controversial and complicated figure. He lived through the Russian Revolution and worked as a playwright, poet, artist, propagandist and was a prominent Futurist. He committed suicide in 1930 aged 36. His poem "Talking With The Taxman About Poetry" gave its title of Billy Bragg's third album. I have read some of his works before, but like many poems in translation, you are never sure how much of the original sense and feeling you are getting reading it in English. The book I have has the Russian version on the page opposite the translation, and it was clear that there were rhythms and shapes, repeating sounds that you could see in the Russian, that weren't happening on the other side of the page that I could read. Edwin Morgan felt the power of the poems evaded him, translating them into English, so for his translation he brought them into the Scots language.
Try these couple of lines as an example and I think you can see that this was a good decision. In English the lines are rendered as...
Pineapple, pheasant's breast,
stuff till you vomit, for that is your last feast
or as Edwin Morgan has it in his Scots translation...
Stick in, douce folk.-Pineaipple, feesant's breist:
stuff till ye boke, for thon is your last feast.
Already you can hear the sounds and anger missing from the first version, and to me this feels more like an angry Russian revolutionary's voice. To celebrate the re-printing of Morgan's poems we had Tam Dean Burn and the improvisational musicians of Ferlie Leed (double bass, harp, electric guitar and keyboards) taking us through a selection or poems from the book. With an energy and enthusiasm they brought the words off of the page to be looked at in a new way. If this had been a standard poetry reading, somebody standing up and reading from the page, this would have had niche appeal to these fluent in Scots. I had read through the poems in the days before attending this, using the glossary in the book to get the sense of the poem then reading through the sounds and feelings on the page. As Edwin Morgan is no longer with us to read his own words, this performance was a great way to give them a novel force. Tam Dean Burn definitely read them wi' his haill voice, and with all of his body. I am very sure Edwin Morgan would have whole-heartedly approved.
Tam Dean Burn gie'ing it laldy
Edwin Morgan's beautiful book, now re-issued by Carcanet is well worth getting. I managed to find another piece of Edwin Morgan's poetry on show at the Edinburgh Festival. I made my first visit to the Scottish Poetry Library, just off the Royal Mile. They have a small exhibition of concrete poetry, including some of Edwin Morgan's concrete poems, alongside those of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Vaclav Havel. There's a nice wee shop and, of course, their lending library for all your poetry needs.