Thursday, August 22, 2019

Are we not drawn onward to new erA - this Belgian production is one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen on the Fringe or elsewhere for some time.  It opens with light slowly rising on a small tree right of centre and a hunched body lying up left.  The body is a woman.  She rises slowly.  A man enters from the opposite side.  They meet centre stage.  The man plucks a fruit from the tree and offers it to the woman.  We're thinking garden of eden.  The apple is bitten and things start going downhill.  The tree is torn to pieces, plastic bags flood down from the sky and with the help of the cast cover the stage, a golden statue is raised, actors brandish hosepipes that issue clouds of smoke.  All the while the cast speak to one another in gibberish, make strange gestures and frequently walk about backwards.  The curtains close.  We get the message.  Mankind has destroyed his beautiful world.  That's where the show gets really interesting.  Like the title it's palindromic.  Think about it.

Understanding China - two books that explore the recent history of China in quite different ways.  One is a novel, The Promise by Xinran Xue, that follows the lives of a family over several generations against the background of turmoil and change that has characterised the country since the emergence of Mao.  The other an academic work, Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell, examines the impact of Mao's ideas and actions on places as diverse as Peru and India as well as on China itself.  The discussion, led vigorously by Paul French, was fascinating and brought back memories of how I eagerly followed the UK press coverage of the cultural revolution.  I didn't understand China then and despite this enjoyable and informative session I don't believe I understand it any better now.

The Rite of Spring - it's amazing.  It looks beautiful.  The dancing is astonishing. Perfection or maybe a tad long, maybe a touch ott, but not to be missed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Looking Back Over My Shoulder - two novels that without being overtly biographical spring from family connections with the British Empire, in one case (Dignity by Alys Conran) inspired by tales of her granny's days in India and in the other (The Wild Wind by Sheena Kalayil) a childhood spent between India and Africa.  Both explore identity, the notion of home and of belonging.  The stimulating discussion in the spiegel tent has added them to my growing list of books to be read.

Before the End - my first and only visit to Summerhall this Fringe provided a delicate and thoughtful work.  Centred on the final moments of his life Catherine Graindorge performs a loving tribute to her father, a prominent left wing Belgian lawyer.  She uses a mix of music, spoken reminiscence, recordings of his voice, family photos and documents, video footage of news reports and private videos to convey both his admirable and humane attitude to life and her love for him.  The performance ends with a beautifully caught moment of home video.  The family are disposing of his ashes in a little country river and are disturbed by some riders.  As the riders move off a child's voice is heard saying "the horse drank some of grandad".

Bull - I saw a production of this earlier and expected this older, more mature cast to inhabit the characters more convincingly than the younger set I'd seen.  To an extent they did but gave a rather more austere and clinical performance than I think the play requires.  The actors playing Tony and Mr. Carter were too similar physically, and to a degree in their performances, for my taste.  I'd have liked a much more venomous Tony.

Inverkeithing Community Big Band - several of my saxophone chums are in this band and they all played terribly well.  As did the entire band.  They were absolutely together and accomplished that most difficult of tasks - playing quietly when required to.

Scotland's Role in Slavery - this billing is somewhat more extensive than either the event or the book being presented deserves.  It's a most interesting and informative study but focuses on one man, Lord Seaforth, a Highland estate owner who became governor of Barbados and a cotton plantation owner in Dutch Guiana.  The author, Finlay McKichan, argues that Seaforth was an exception to the general run of slave owners in that he was concerned for their welfare and to a degree for their legal rights from both a humanitarian and a commercial point of view.  He had, it is argued, displayed the same qualities in how he treated his Highland tenants.  While admitting that Seaforth's attitudes and behaviour were not always consistent McKichan pointed out that we live in complex and complicated times today and that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century period in which Seaforth lived while different, was probably just as contrary.

Remembrance of Things Past - it was a chastening experience to be in a full to bursting spiegel tent to hear an author of whom I had never heard.  I believe myself to be reasonably culturally aware and what's more a francophile yet was clearly one of the very small minority in that tent who wasn't there to endorse the proclamation of Annie Ernaux as a modern day Proust and her novel Les AnnĂ©es as a more than worthy successor to A la recherche des temps perdus.  It was a delightful session and while I've never managed to finish Proust (even the graphic novel version) her book is half the thickness so there's a chance I'll redress my cultural lacuna.

Perchance to Dream - wandering around the festival bookshop I lingered over The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner wondering why with my interest in the brain and in sleep I hadn't picked that out.  In fact I had.  It was the next session I was going to.  The author runs a sleep disorder clinic at Guy's hospital and his book deals with a number of case studies at the extreme end of the spectrum, from the woman whose sleepwalking includes riding around on a motorbike to the man who falls asleep and collapses when he laughs too much.  Extraordinary cases and so far to go in understanding their causes.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Rebellion in the East - unusually I'd already read the book that was being promoted at this session, Japan Story by Christopher Harding.  It's a cultural history of Japan since it opened up to the west in 1850 to the present day.  This festival session didn't try to cover the entire territory of the book but focused on what the Japanese see as the specificity of their society and the stories they like to tell about themselves, the myths of the nation as it were.  Not everyone buys into those myths and that  also formed part of this interesting presentation. 

Low Level Panic - an Arkle production of a play that deals with women's concerns over body image, relationships and pornography.  It's not a new play (first seen in 1988) but these concerns have proved to be enduring.  In the play they seem more like obsessions.  It's set in a bathroom where three flatmates alternately argue the toss, squabble and commiserate.  An effective set marred I thought by the positioning of a stand where the girls gaze into a mirror (not actually there) as they make themselves up.  Down centre it brought much of the action close to the audience but it obscured quite a lot.  The actresses did a fair job of representing their characters.  It's a sad play really, the most telling line for me being "I'd rather be with anyone than alone."

The Taming of the Shrew - In the cut down form in which Shakespeare's plays generally appear on the Fringe there is a danger of losing something.  That surely happened to this production.  The representation of Kate's shrewishness at the beginning of the play went no way to suspending my disbelief at the extremity of Petruchio's taming tactics.  For me the cross dressing and false beards typical of the comedies have outlived their hilarity and I'm afraid that overall I didn't much enjoy the production although the cast made sterling efforts to entertain me.

Red Dust Road - In her EIF programme note Tanika Gupta says that adapting Jackie Kay's moving memoir about her upbringing as a mixed race adopted child in Scotland and her search for her birth parents was no easy task.  Unfortunately it has proved too difficult and resulted in a lack lustre production enlivened only by Elaine C. Smith's splendid portrayal of her feisty warm-hearted adoptive mother and Stefan Adegbola's cameo as her bible thumping Nigerian father who dismisses her as a sin of his youth when "everyone was having a good time".

Growing Old Gracefully - something close to the hearts of most of the audience who had gathered to hear Sue Armstrong and Daniela Mari talk about their respective books Borrowed Time and Breakfast with the Centenarians. They were both reassuring about progress in research into ageing and the possibility of enjoying later life whilst admitting that so far no silver bullet has been uncovered.  Moderation in consumption, exercise, maintaining an active interest in life and avoiding loneliness are all important factors.  In answer to a question from someone worrying about forgetting words Daniela quoted a contributor to her book who said that the time to worry is not when you forget the word for keys but when you forget what keys are for.

The Djinns of Eidgah - you could hardly be more up to date than to present a play about Kashmir and this one opened promisingly as actors with very real looking machine guns barked orders at the audience as we entered while an atmospheric soundtrack rumbled on in the background and our eyes took in a stage dressed with banners of grafitti and slogans.  It was a downhill slide from there.  The student cast didn't rise to the challenge of knitting together the story of a boy footballer (played disconcertingly by a girl in a headscarf) intent on being selected to play in the world cup while demonstrations are taking place against talks with India, Indian soldiers are enforcing a curfew, the boy's sister is suffering trauma from an attack in which her father was shot, psychiatrists are squabbling about the rights and wrongs of peace talks, footballers have their feet cut off and graveyard spirits hover about.  Who can blame them.    

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Words Without Borders - two books about language.  Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gancel was frankly too French intellectual for me.  My eyes glazed over.  Four Words for Friend by Marek Kohn was more my level but I thought he spoke a fair amount of tosh, no more so than when declaring that we had in some way expropriated words like chutney and bungalow so that they are no longer Indian.  He seemed to object to their assimilation into English, a process that has gone on for millenia between pairs of languages.  It doesn't stop them being perfectly good Hindi words as well as being English.

Love in the Time of #Metoo - one of the authors didn't make it so we had an hour of undiluted Ayelet Gundar-Goshen talking about her novel Liar, and an enthralling hour it was.  The novel deals with a false accusation of sexual assault.  The discussion ranged widely from the incidents that had led her to write the book through the ambiguities that it examines to the responsibility or not of the writer to champion or not the society they live in.  A really stimulating hour from a practicing psychologist who happens to write or is it vice vera and does that duality apply to all novelists.  Can't wait to read the product of her clever and compassionate mind.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Hitler's Tasters - a signal sounds, a trio of flaxen haired girls stand by their chairs around a table, they extend their arms, darkness, two dark clad girls highlight the scene with torches, darkness, lights up, the girls are seated and miraculously food has appeared in front of them.  This is the snappy beginning of the story of young women who have the honour of tasting food from Hitler's kitchen before it's served to him in case it's poisoned.  The show is never less than snappy. While they wait to see if they are going to die and while they wait for the next meal they chat, they bicker, they take selfies (one of the delighful anachronistic touches in the play), they dance and discuss forbidden dreams of Hollywood film stars.  One of their number disappears (suspiciously Jewish looking nose), she's replaced, another one goes (father is reported to have deserted).  Ecstatic delight at a rumour that the Fuhrer will visit.  Will he bring his dog Blondie?  Will they be able to take selfies with him? It's a bright and lively production with bundles of energy, super costuming, great performances, great fun.

Dreamtalk and Devotion - twenty years ago Sheena McDonald the journalist and broadcaster was hit by a police van and suffered severe brain injury.  In collaboration with her husband Alan Little, also a journalist and broadcaster, and Gail Robertson, the neuropsychologist who shared in the task of her rehabilitation she has written Rebuilding Life after Brain Injury.  The discussion of the journey from intensive care to fully functioning was fascinating.  Recovery was clearly very difficult and placed great strains on those around her, not least Alan but the discussion was enlivened by numerous humorous anecdotes.

Analysing the Brain's Functions - Ever since reading Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind at university I've been fascinated by the workings of the brain and its products, our minds and personalities.  This session dealt with two books pandering to that fascination, Unthinkable by Helen Thomson, a science journalist and The Heartland by Nathan Filer, a former mental health nurse.  Both offer examples of the problems people live with.  Thomson focuses on odd and even amusing  case studies whereas Filer I think is more concerned with how we "normal" people should look on the schizophrenics amongst us.  I'm already reading Unthinkable.

Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand - a dramatisation of the life and work of Kirkcaldy's greatest son performed in the house he spent the last decade of his life in.  The 17th century building has been beautifully restored to commemorate Smith and to act as a learning centre.  The play is performed in an elegant room suitably furnished for the purpose.  The room was full.  Indeed the show had been overbooked so that extra chairs were dragged in before it could start.  The stage lights were strong, The room grew hotter.  I lasted through Smith's early years, his meetings with Rousseau and Voltaire and then dozed my way through the rest.  It was probably first class.

 Steve Reich Project - a solitary dancer, tall and elegant, creates angular shapes as she ranges  athletically over the stage while a string quartet plays Reich's wonderful music.  A microphone hangs over the centre of the stage dangling close to the floor.  The dancer uses the mike and its cable, sings into it, sets it swinging and limbo dances under it as it sweeps across.  The string quartet who are initially ranged in a line down one side of the stage become part of the dance.  They are moved by the dancer into different formations.  She picks up a music stand and drives the player forward with it.  So simple, so elegant, so precise.  The whole show is wonderful. 

Novel Views of Africa - another of my fascinations is with Africa.  Chigozie Obioma discussing his An Orchestra of Minorities and Namwali Sepelle her The Old Drift.  The latter seems destined to be the great Zambian novel.  It combines the intertwined sagas of three white, brown and black imaginary families over three generations with historical truths, magic realism, and a dash of science fiction. The story is fequently narrated by a swarm of mosquitoes.  Obioma's novel too uses a non human narrator, in his case a traditional Ibo spirit called a chi.  I've added both to my mental wishlist. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Bull - a bleak tale of three office workers awaiting the arrival of the big boss. Two of them taunt, harass and bully the third, revealing to him that the meeting is to choose which of them the company will "let go".  He, who can least afford to lose his job, duly gets the push and they are even nastier to him.  The curtain falls on the play and on his life.  A competent production of an unsettling story which shows that man's inhumanity to man is not limited to the torture chamber or the battlefield.

Level Up - Jimmy want to marry Natasha but in the brave new world in which the play is set that cannot be because the state does not sanction marriage between high scoring individuals like her and humble drones like him.  Jimmy determines to raise himself up to the necessary level and in the process shafts his brother and his best friend and fails to realise that he is destroying all that Natasha found loveable in him.  Engaging performances from the cast of five and an ending if not quite happy then optimistic.

After the Fall: Crisis, Recovery and the Making of a New Spain - the author, Tobias Buck, was the FT's correspondent in Spain for a number of years.  This book is the result and its presentation kicked off my Book Festival programme.  Buck traced concisely and knowledgeably the course of recent Spanish history through the building boom, the financial crisis, the Catalonian secession attempt and the current state of the parties. On my list but by the time I get around to reading it Spain will have moved on.

Wine and Words - subtitled A Taste of Basque Culture this Book Festival event was in essence a wine-tasting.  Some music was played and poetry read.  The music was folksy and  the poetry in Basque (though subsequently translated) and the wine was Rioja. Pleasant but not riveting.   

Kalakuta Republik - an EIF dance show which I ultimately enjoyed once I'd decided that there was no good reason to worry about finding meaning in the show (or not) than there had been at the acrobatic circus a few days previously.  I was wrong of course about lack of meaning.  The EIF blurb tells us " becomes a symbol of transformation, a ceaseless march towards ultimate freedom.  Kalakuta Republik is a carnival of insurrection."   I saw it as a colourful, noisy, celebratory feast of rhythmic joy.  Should have bought a programme.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

As they say a week's a long time in festival going so here are brief notes before it all fades from my not very retentive memory.

The Crucible - My first EIF show and it's a cracker. Beautiful choreography beautifully brought to life by the dancers, lovely music, excellent staging.  The essence of the story clearly told and helped by making explicit from the start the relationship between Proctor and Abigail.  No wonder dates have now been announced for Autumn performances in Scotland. I expect a world tour thereafter.

Trainspotting Live - billed as immersive it certainly was.  Two rows of spectators on either side of a long tunnel under the conference centre.  Fast and furious telling of the tale by a brilliant cast of four running up and down in between and often amongst us.  All the filth and squalor and the humour of Irvine Welch's masterpiece brought to throbbing life.  Not for the fainthearted.

Super Sunday - under the big top in the Meadows out of the rain half a dozen Finnish lads jumped, tumbled and generally threw themselves about on seesaws, trampolines and spinning machinery.  Impressive acrobatics and not so impressive horse impersonations.

Being Norwegian - a short, delicate and touching tale of two incomplete human beings coming together finely performed by two excellent actors.

Solitary - in a performance space seemingly made of four shipping containers bolted together a man's confinement alone, his numbingly repetitive routine, his occasional conflicts with his guards, his anguish, his release and subsequent failure to re-establish relationships or to find employment, his final retreat into a living space uncannily similar to his prison cell.  All are effectively and silently presented by five talented performers.

Big Bite Breakfast - after coffee and croissants a packed house were entertained for an hour by excellent players who performed five sketches.  I found three of the five first class.  Top marks must go to the witty deadpan parody of the encounter between private eye and femme fatale from the  black and white movies of yesteryear.

Anguis - the setting, which is a set building success, is a recording studio where Cleopatra (visiting the land of the living for the purpose) is being interviewed for a radio programme.  Interlaced with her interview responses she sings, accompanying herself on the guitar.  So far so mildly entertaining as she displays her queenly strength and mocks the legend of death by asp. Fake news apparently. So further so still mildly amusing.  The interviewer we learn is a virologist and clinician.  She hears sounds that neither Cleo nor the studio engineer do and becomes increasingly distracted.  The play morphs into being about a medical negligence incident she's been accused of.  Whistle blowing is mentioned and probably metoo and feminism and other miracles of modern life but my attention had spanned its span.

Bleeding Black - growing up in rugby mad New Zealand.  Stop playing or harden up is the mantra.  Obsession, in this case with rugby but it could be with anything else can lead to doom.  That's what is put before us in this well constructed and performed one man show.  Rugby fans may get more out of it than others but it's a timely lesson for us all.

Parasites - great performances, especially from the lead actress in a dynamic, sometimes trite but always honest story of a girl with issues.  Expelled from school she spirals downwards.  Bad company,  abusive boyfriend, a spell in prison for assaulting her mother, pregnancy thanks to now junkie boyfriend, child in care, attempt to break the cycle and get a menial job in her old school, rejection.  I left with tears in my eyes.  Five stars from me.

Antigone - a novel and delightfully fresh presentation of the play.  All the drama and all the conflict of ideas, all the debate over loyalty to state or to family, all the themes are there but wrapped in what you could truthfully descibe as a joyous party atmosphere.  Indeed it begins with a party to celebrate the victory of Thebes where the lively cast of eight dance and throw balloons about.  The balloons are central to the show, burst as laws are discarded or trust broken.  Members of the audience are brought into the action from time to time.  The whole enterprise is steered to its heartbreaking conclusion with a deft lightness of touch.  Very impressive from this young cast.  

The Merry Wives of Windsor -  or in the Grads production, of a steamie nearer home.  It's Shakespearian comedy in all its glory.  The cast romp energetically through the twists and turns of Falstaff's plot to have it away with one or more of the eponymous wives and their counter trickeries.  A jealous husband disguises himself, a Welsh parson and a French doctor almost come to blows, an unwanted suitor is fooled, true love conquers and all is forgiven.  It's going on to Stratford with all my best wishes for success.

Pool (no water) - for the Grads other show a piece from the pen of the redoutable Mark Ravenhill.  Played with intensity, staged with imagination, directed with formidable skill.  Could not have admired it more.