Monday 9th August: As in life, so in Edinburgh: the phrase "day off" is enough to make a bad cat hoot with laughter. Sure, Ol' Cap'n Jah knows, it's not unwelcome to have a little time away from The Author, which, even as it slowly gets easier, doesn't become any less difficult. But even without a performance, today feels as throbbingly full as any other over the past week.
It begins with scrambled eggs and the simple pleasure of a 5* review in the Scotsman. Together we do exactly the nifty footwork you'd expect: no no, of course it doesn't mean anything -- stars? pah! what does that even mean? -- but we all know well enough that this does make our lives for the next few weeks marginally easier, our immediate prospects brighter and the air a little roomier. To see Tim's reaction, of genuine pleasure and delight, is pretty darn lovely in itself. I guess it's easier for the rest of us, who can more easily pop our heads out of the vortex from time to time, to feel confident that the quality of The Author as a piece of writing and imagination is bound to be recognized by serious critics.
The day also brings a much more sceptical review from poor old Gerald Berkowitz in The Stage, who, not uncharacteristically, produces some choice instances of the manoeuvre that's becoming my increasingly avid bete noir -- that one where the critic, on seeing that a piece produces effects that he finds unsatisfactory, assumes that the intention was to produce effects that he would find satisfactory and the piece or its execution has failed in that intention. It is inconceivable to them that the intention might have been to produce exactly the effect that was produced, for specific and through-thought reasons that might, who knows, with a little interrogation, be divined. No quibble with the Mighty Berk, or anyone else, finding aspects of the piece unsatisfactory, but the level of unexamined assumption is a bit depressing given how hard -- and how clearly, on the whole -- the play is at least partly about the importance of identifying and reflecting on those assumptions. -- I do, though, feel a bit sorry for people with a professional obligation to write about The Author. It's so hard for critics to write confusion, to capture a not-knowing that's deeper than ambivalence and/or more complex than what does or doesn't "work". General audiences, punters off the street, have the luxury of not knowing what to make of The Author, finding it disorienting -- and finding their disorientation in itself disorienting: after all, how can a piece which keeps telling you, essentially, "you are here", "here we all are", wind up making you feel like you have no idea where you are, or which way is up and what just happened to the floor you were standing on? Perhaps Gerald B. genuinely experienced none of that tumbling sensation; maybe it's harder when you have a pen in your hand. At any rate, not much sleep will be lost.
A slightly stressed hurtle through town, in the midst of a robust impromptu performance of Cage's Precipitation no.1, to make it to the Traverse -- where else would I go on a day off? -- in time for the first of the season's Encounter events, which features Tim Crouch and Martin Creed, along with Fiona Bradley of the Fruitmarket Gallery (where Creed has his retrospective this year and Tim showed England in 2007), Emma Gladstone of Sadler's Wells (where the Creed ballet work was originated), and Katherine Mendelsohn, the literary manager at the Traverse; Joyce McMillan chairs. The focus of the discussion is the notion that Crouch and Creed have both made work outside the forms for which they're best known -- England, for gallery performance, and the ballet work respectively. It feels like a weirdly forced topic: for one thing, they'd both reject the premise (and they do, during the course of the discussion) -- England is a play, it's just intended for gallery spaces; and Martin Creed could hardly be clearer that he considers all of his works to be formally of a piece -- moving dancers around on-stage is no different than arranging cacti in a gallery. For another thing, it's curious that as a result of this oddly straw-clutching theme, more time is spent talking about England than about The Author. Actually Creed's point of view -- "it's all the same thing", he says, simply -- is worth closer inquiry (it recalls for example William Forsythe's description of choreography as simply the practice of moving elements in space, a definition that makes the formal descriptor available to wide, even promiscuous, application), but like many interesting things in the discussion, it's not really followed up. This is partly, to be fair, because Creed himself is not much of a talker: his gentle, informal tone signals thoughtfulness, but, in conversation at least, he doesn't seem to like to go deep. But also there are perhaps too many people on the panel; and anyway, even when this kind of discussion produces good things, you always lose the will to live a little bit. But, a few highlights:
One of the most radical and interesting comments is made within the first couple of minutes by Fiona Bradley, who expresses very plainly something I've often thought (especially in relation to poetry) but never really heard anyone echo in public, at least not in these terms: that the Fruitmarket's dedication to access/ibility is, she says, absolutely not about making art easier, and is often actually reflected in a drive towards complexity. That the complex, the demanding, may in some ways be more "accessible" to a general audience than whatever is elsewhere reduced in the name of accessibility. This feels absolutely right to me, though in this respect at least the gallery and the theatre are two distinctly different contexts in which to encounter work, not least because -- as is discussed later during the conversation -- in a gallery space, you're usually much more in control of your own journey, your own time management, the rate at which you meet ideas. At any rate, it's fresh air to hear it. We talk a lot about the simplicity of The Author; my own instincts are a little distrustful of simplicity (especially as a value in itself), but it's fascinating to watch and feel, day after day, the apparent simplicities of The Author reverberate so interferingly with each other that it becomes a piece of uncontainable, irreducible, irresolvable complexity. Simplicity and complexity are not each other's opposites. Simplicity and complexity are both the opposites of the insufficiently thought-through.
I rather like Creed when Gladstone describes how he was insistent that, in preparing the ballet work, he didn't want to meet or talk to choreographers and he didn't feel he wanted to 'understand' dance. "The dancers are all just people living their lives," he says. It just happens that the job they do involves putting their arms and legs in certain positions at particular times. I suppose I might not feel as OK with that if people I trust weren't coming away from Creed's piece reporting feelings of great warmth and tenderness and celebration and humanity. As it goes, later in the discussion, Bradley asks a splendid question: do the dancers in the ballet work feel that they're in a piece of dance? (Some of them are in the audience and affirm that they do; that, moreover, and contrary to what a lot of the huffers-and-puffers who walk out of the show have been saying, there's no doubt in their mind that it's ballet.)
Tim explains very clearly and cogently that the reason for placing England in a gallery setting was simply to do with the "quality of seeing" he hoped to engage -- "we look differently in a gallery", he says, and England was an inquiry into how we look at a piece of theatre given those gallery conditions for seeing. (Those who've come to The Author will know how much that too is a piece about seeing, and looking, and watching. "Can you see all right?" is the play's refrain, becoming ever more loaded.) He sums up his theatre in a brilliant nutshell: he's interested in the shifts that happen inside people, and in how little we need to do to engender those shifts. So: no set, no costumes (our designated laundry basket at Traverse wardrobe stands empty day after day), no props: just people, people encountering people, and the theatre that's going on inside them.
The walkouts that have taken place in relation to both The Author and Ballet Work No. 1020 are touched on, and Fiona Bradley observes that you can't walk out of a gallery in a huff in quite the same way. (And, as the man says, if that's too soon...) I like what Bradley says right at the end, too, when Joyce McMillan poses an interesting question about how the current fluidity of form and category, the instability of distinctions between different areas and modes of artistic practice, everything that bears out Creed's assertion that it's "all the same thing", might ramify in, be reflected in, the experience of younger practitioners, in terms of training and their sense of a tradition or inheritance in which formal distinctions have mattered. Here, Creed and Crouch are, I think, in slightly different places, though both argue for the importance of craft. Bradley's statement on this is a nice one, I think: "You've got to be good at it," she says. "But I don't know what 'it' is."
I'm glad to have heard this conversation, for all its incidental frustrations. (May I just say: it's obviously part of Joyce McMillan's brief to make sure that questions and comments are taken from the floor, and that's OK, but it's horrid to hear her apologise at the end for the panellists having talked too much and left too little time for our contributions. With a line-up including one of the most significant playwrights and one of the most significant artists currently at work in the country, I really honestly don't care very much about the bees in the respective bonnets of the punters just along the row from me. We can have that conversation in the bar afterwards, if we want it.)
In a way there's an unspoken missing link in the conversation as a whole, which I find myself pondering afterwards. We've been talking about the presence (ongoing, despite everything) of those border patrol guards, many of them embedded within institutions, who police crossover activity with an entrenched scepticism, and the existence of those formal custodians within a whole apparatus of signs to do with form as territory. And we've been talking about individual experience, particularly experiences of dissent and refusal, but also those internal shifts, private shifts in a semi-public context, of which audience experiences are composed; about the possibility of collective experience, and everything that promotes and illuminates and everything that blocks and obscures that possibility. It strikes me that somewhere unspoken in the middle of this is that revolutionary and sadly slightly pernicious notion of the 'empty space'. Brook's effort to help us imagine ourselves free of a burdensome inheritance of stultified conventions and null signifiers ended up creating an implicit model in which a conceptual tabula rasa 'space' was taken to be somehow achievable, realisable as a real-world encounter in which artists and audiences would be able to see each other more clearly. But the empty space is not a place, not a populated arena. What people bring in with them is unknowable (often unknown to themselves), unpredictable, an unstable mix of uncertainty and entrenchment, the mundane and the irrational, the deeply personal, the self-consciously performative, and it's all, all of it, incredibly volatile and totally contingent on a thousand variables that we can never begin to control, even if we were antitheatrical enough to want to. In a sense, the notion of the empty space is an attempt to exert exactly that measure of control, by eliminating the excesses of noise. It's a betrayal, ultimately: a coolly seductive betrayal: and as such, part of the baggage that this generation is still struggling to shuck off, while we're told all the time that it's not really baggage at all...
No such emptiness in my first show of the season, Jammy Voo's A Corner of the Ocean at Underbelly, which I'm at specifically to support my old pal Jamie Wood who's its director. (NB I've made a little pact with myself: I'm going to try and discuss theatre stuff I see in a single paragraph, as a way of making myself not blah on forever. Hold me to it, grapple fans!) It's a lovely, sweet, ever-so-fringey devised piece, following four female characters in moments of personal crisis, whose individual narratives touch just once, briefly, without them even knowing it. Some delightful performances, some good lines, and wonderful music and songs performed live; lovely puppetry too (and some less lovely), and a sequence deploying shadow that had my eyes prickling with tears -- which is great, as I'd mostly have said that wouldn't be my kind of thing at all. I can't say I think it's quite there as a show -- there are some very nicely conceived set pieces, but it never really earns them, especially in the builds towards them: the dynamics are often hard to read (or feel): partly because the stories are so slight that the characters never become more than glimpsed shadows themselves, so it's not easy to invest; partly because the way the piece sits in its space never really goes anywhere once it's established, so we don't feel the sense of a journey or a variation in our own understanding. But it's a good-natured, big-hearted show in which the personalities of all the performers come through beautifully. It could conceivably be a sleeper hit this year; certainly, it might well be just the ticket later in the month when appetites are more jaded and hearts have become a little stonier.
A lovely chat afterwards with Jamie, and I realise what a good place I'm in, how surprisingly open I feel, how happy Edinburgh -- and The Author in particular -- is making me, somewhere way down beneath happy and sad and excited and apprehensive and all of the above: just open, open to it. Jamie's exactly the right person to be in a good place with, and by the end of our drinks, we're beaming at each other like beautiful idiots.
Tuesday 10th: So, for those who don't know, the timeslots for shows at the Traverse change daily. About the only start time we never have for The Author is 8pm! Almost every day before the show we sit in the dressing room saying, Wow, what a funny time to be doing a show. (Don't worry, it's become a running joke already: at least we're that self-aware.) But today is one that I think we've all been a little anxious about -- our first at 10.15am. I suppose if it's a hard time to do a show as demanding and ultimately dark as this, we can at least spare an even bigger thought for the audience, who at 11.35am will just have seen it, and will spend the whole rest of their day in a post-show state that many people find pretty uncomfortable even for the few hours of the evening after a 6.4pm performance.
Actually, the performance goes surprisingly well. The audience are awake and attentive, and if the pace and lightness we've been aiming for are a bit of a stretch this morning, I think we do a pretty good job of getting there. It helps that I sit between two interesting and thoughtful punters: a research scientist called David and a student called Ed, who sit with me very beautifully and generously and engage lightly but deeply with the questions I ask them. Funny how fond you can grow of people in the odd two minutes of interaction that we have. -- I don't notice, but somebody says Kirsty Wark is in the audience, too, which possibly suggests that Newsnight Review, or whatever it's called now, might be taking an interest.
I head home for a bit of downtime and then it's back out for the day's two shows.
First Love by Gare St Lazare Players Ireland in Pleasance 2 comes very highly recommended by one T. Crouch, and it would be an understatement to say I can see why. It's a solo performance by Conor Lovett of Beckett's 1946 novella, and I was held in a state of high agogness throughout every one of its 75 minutes. It's just an extraordinary piece of acting, executed on a bare stage, without set or props: but also without holiness, not an instant's self-regard. At a couple of moments I wondered whether it wasn't perhaps a little locked-down, whether if I saw the show again tomorrow it might be perfectly identical; but almost straight away after that thought had formed both times, there was some little disruption, a sneeze, a walk-out, and the subtle fluidity of Lovett's thought and response was gently, marvellously evident. In fact there were, weirdly, three or four walkouts -- more than The Author today! I guess it just requires a level of quiet attentiveness that, for some people, at festival time, is a bit of a stretch: you're certainly aware of the hubbub of the rest of the Pleasance Courtyard Cavalcade of Bullshit continuing outside. It's a miracle that the intrusiveness doesn't overwhelm the delicacy of First Love, for all the robustness of the text. When we found ourselves, at the public dress rehearsal for The Author, having to contend with a lot of sound spill from Martin Creed's Ballet Work in Traverse 1, I found I was content to make friends with it -- not a bad thing to be reminded of all the spaces, theatrical and otherwise, that abut the room we're in, and from which we are only meagrely insulated; but I hate that we're so ready to shrug at the damage that can potentially be done to some work by travelling noise and other avoidable interferences -- in other words, what we're really talking about is the casual contempt in which that work is apparently held by venue managers. We too quickly shrug and say that that's the way it is in festivals: but it's not some natural law, it's a result of specific choices made by specific people, and I'd really like to sit down and talk with the person at the Pleasance who ultimately decides that it doesn't matter that while Conor Lovett is performing with a level of craft and refinement that any arts festival should honour, revere and protect, I am simultaneously being asked to listen to "Acceptable in the 80s" by Calvin Harris coming from outside. Somebody thinks that's fine, fine enough to sign off on it. For all I know, Conor Lovett thinks it's fine too; I'm just speaking for myself, in the audience, dealing with the dissonance. Because that's the point: it's not about extraneous noise -- someone will always pop up at this point and remind us about the lively conditions under which Shakespeare's plays were first heard, and about how recent our sense of the theatre encounter as an insulated meeting is and how deleterious that attitude can be -- actually the someone who pops up and says those things is often me -- but it's not about extraneity, it's about a dissonance that produces nothing salutory, that speaks of nothing but the treatment of theatre as tradeable commodity: and if ever a production deserved better, it's this one.
From there, via a little breathing space, into Frantic Assembly's Beautiful Burnout for the National Theatre of Scotland. On the whole I'm not the world's greatest fan of Frantic Assembly -- we don't quite want the same things, I guess -- but for as long as I've been thinking about theatre they've been one of the most significant forces to be reckoned wth and I always look forward to seeing what they've been up to. I really like this new show in its opening minutes -- it seems to be playing to their strengths: this will sound a bit contrary but I've always thought they've been great at lyricism, at softness -- so my misgivings about the potential for Beautiful Burnout to be too uncomplicatedly wham-blam macho are assuaged. I like what the production, and not least Bryony Lavery's script, seem to be reaching for initially. But pretty soon things start to go awry, for me at least. Increasingly, the text and the movement don't seem to be interested in each other. The poetry in the script recedes as the show gets bogged down in a pretty hokey plot -- moreover I'd hoped for some fresh insight into the world of boxing, and there's nothing here, no room for it; the only sustained register shift is towards a metaphor around 'seeing stars' that really doesn't feel specifically secured. The movement annoys me: not tight enough when it's at its most stylised, not clear enough when it's not; the movement language is clearly developed out of its topical world but still doesn't feel specific. I guess I want it to look less like a Frantic Assembly show, be less covered in those now-familiar signatures. The low point is a sudden change of heart for the character Dina, a teenage girl determined to hold her own in this man's world, who weirdly experiences a moment of self-revelation that seems to come out of nowhere and ends before you even know it -- for what feel like reasons to do with expediency within the play; it's an unplayable moment, and it feels painfully weak. There are good things, for sure, some wonderful moments in the writing, effective design, a lot of commitment to the performances -- the excellent Henry Pettigrew on particularly fine form. I guess in a way the most curious thing for me is how dated it all feels. Frantic Assembly have always made a big deal out of being at the cutting edge -- or, I suppose I should say, a big deal has been made out of that by others commenting on their work; but almost everything about this show, its look, its style, its story, its single-minded insistence on telling you what you should be feeling at every fucking moment -- this is exciting! ha ha this is funny! this is the sad bit! -- as if it were plastered with emoticons: everything feels ten years adrift. It's telling that the soundtrack is by Underworld -- and it's great, I love Underworld, but I'm aware that at the best of times my relationship with their music is at least partly nostalgic. I freely admit that everyone around me seemed to be having a wonderful time -- it felt like only Ian Shuttleworth, sitting opposite, and I were a bit grumpy, in the whole room; Ian's since Tweeted to give the show a four-star thumbs-up, which only shows how expertly inscrutable his face is, and what an outlier I am. Well, OK: I guess we're back where I began: Frantic Assembly and I do not quite want the same things: and the refrain that goes round my head as I'm walking away is, admittedly, no less redolent with nostalgia:
Burn down the discoHang the blessed DJBecause the music that they constantly play
Wednesday 11th: A lunchtime show, a pretty good one I think; Paul Morley is in one of the back rows -- looks as if he's concentrating really hard, though I suppose not necessarily on the show -- so I guess we're collecting the Review set one-by-one like a part-work. More interestingly, there are some fine fellow performers in today, including Melanie Wilson and Nigel Barrett, both of whom I rate very highly indeed, so it's a little nerve-wracking. I do my best, anyway, and Nigel gives me a lovely cuddle outside the theatre afterwards.
Then I'm off to Forest Fringe for Artsadmin's Future Editions event: a sort of human library in which people can sign up for 10-minute conversations about the future with people from various fields of endeavour and inquiry. For an hour, I'm the borrowable theatre 'expert'. When I signed up for the project, I didn't realise that the borrowers would be randomly assigned a 'book', and I feel beforehand that this is slightly a shame, in that it removes the element of electivity, of their wanting to have a particular conversation with a particular person -- though I appreciate there would be a really unfortunate picking-the-school-sports-team element to that which doesn't help anything or anyone. And anyway in practice it all works fine. It really matters that it looks so lovely -- eight or nine different stations, each slightly different, some comfy chairs, nice lamps: all very Foresty. The other thing I hadn't anticipated: I'd been looking forward to talking about theatre with members of the public who wouldn't necessarily have any professional interest in it themselves -- I'm not sure why I thought that would happen; as it was, my partners in conversation were three performance artists (the first being Mamoru Iriguchi, designer and maker, who I've slightly known for years) and a lighting designer. So, not much outreach value there. But it was good, it felt great, to have a little pod of time and space within this great and terrible trade fair that Edinburgh has become, in which to talk about our commitments beyond the immediate (and not-negligible) concerns of selling tickets and securing coverage. We talked about the task of responsiveness that makes any sense of theatre's future, even a few years ahead, feel totally unknowable; we talked about theatre's role in helping us to reimagine the ways in which we live together; we talked about how much times have changed and are changing, in the past decade, even in the past couple of years, and how what we do as artists is changing, and can change more; we talked about whether it's our job simply to reflect change, or to help shape it, to agitate for it. I liked the listening more than the talking, but it was good to talk too, and good to be listened to. The whole thing felt like a great project, one that made me value all over again the conversations that I have all the time with people who are smarter and wiser than me and help keep me -- one way or another -- alive.
Odd to go out of that and straight into Andrew Clover's show Love Rules at Pleasance Below. I've been interested for years in what Andrew Clover does; in particular I fondly remember a little programme he used to have on Radio 4 called The Storyman where he'd guide a minor celebrity or public figure through the shared improvising of a fairy tale -- an ingenious and weirdly profound show in which I thought he was kind of brilliant. At one time Clover looked like a major star in waiting -- there was a Perrier nomination one year, I think -- but, a bit like Ben Moor in a slightly different neck of the woods, that stratospheric moment hasn't quite happened yet. And I don't think it's going to this year, sadly. Gosh, I'd forgotten what a small space Below is, and Clover is sort of busting out of it from the get-go: there's just too much of him, and it's like being a bit too close to a very happy clown -- you laugh along but you slightly wish you had pepper spray in your bag. He's impeccably friendly and quick-witted (though he makes a clumsy start to this show today, as he himself admits) but I'm just longing throughout for something a bit less fake-jolly, a bit lower-key, where his obvious natural warmth could come through without us feeling as though we're having a tube of bonhomie squeezed at us in anger. There are glimpses of great writing in the set-pieces (and, for that matter, in the improvised stuff too -- he can really conjure a choice phrase on the hoof) but the material is way too thin to really captivate: some of his stuff on relationships makes Michael McIntyre sound like Kafka. At the moment he's 90 per cent force of personality and 10 per cent stuff; at closer to 50/50, he might be really on to something, but first he needs to notice how small the room he's playing is and how close he is to us. It all feels a little bit old-school, when actually, in a less happy-happy-japes-japes atmosphere, in which he could be our friend without having to be FRIENDLY!!!!, his mastery of quick-thinking interaction with an audience that he'd then find less guarded could clearly produce something rather radical (as The Storyman was in its way) and possibly very special indeed. If I could (in a spirit of Unbelievable Fucking Arrogance) set him one challenge, it would be this: come back next year with a show that goes in the 'theatre' section of the programme, not 'comedy'. Sell slightly fewer tickets and change some lives. (A second challenge, for this year: go and spend some quality time at Forest Fringe, where real conversations are to be had, orchestrated and not.)
Thursday 12th: Dear Jonny: I wanted today's entry to be in the form of a letter to you, for lots of reasons, or perhaps for one big reason. A little -- not so little -- reason would be that I've felt shadowed all day by the Skype conversation we had last night, with you already half-, no, not half, but maybe a quarter destroyed by your new labouring job; feeling the depth of your fatigue, the hardness of your anger at the way you and your comrades are being treated, the sadness of knowing that all this will keep you from coming up and being here as we'd hoped. I want to write something so you know how present you were today, in my thoughts, my imaginings.
Setting off for the Traverse this afternoon, I left the house at exactly the moment that an unexpected performance began of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Sturm und Drang (1971) for thunder, lightning, heavy rain, traffic sounds and imaginary orchestra. Kind of cool -- don't know why it's not played more often. The show went OK, a bit mid-afternoon sluggish, though I found some new surprising new stuff in Act 3; all in all though, my favourite part was watching Stella watch it -- she's like Lucy: there's more art in her spectating, in the rigorousness of her involvement, than you'll see on stage in almost any of the shows in town.
Immediately after the show, before I'd even left the auditorium, a man came up to me, looking somewhat exercised, wanting to ask me a question. It turns out to be the one that you and I have discussed before, about why we say we're at the Royal Court theatre rather than at the Traverse. "Surely if you want us to be here and now...", he says. I do my best to answer but don't quite find the words, until later, talking about it with the others. Like almost every play you'll ever see, The Author "happens" in two places at once. It is here and now, and it wants you to know, to be constantly reminded, that you're here and now; but it also has a fictional frame (or several of them), and as a fiction it's a play set in the auditorium of the Royal Court Theatre in London. Like almost all plays, it asks that you keep two places in your head at once, the what is of here and now, and the what if of somewhere else. And of course, like all plays without exception, where it's actually set is exactly there: in your head. So many of these great, thorny questions that arise around The Author end up boiling down to the same answer, simultaneously unsatisfactory and totally satisfactory: it's a play. That's all it is. Sorry everyone. It's a play.
I was a bit early for my first booked show of the day so I whiled away a half hour in Blackwells -- which... hm, I was going to say it was foolish, given that I ended up spending money I don't have on yet more new books. But maybe that's not so foolish, or at worst it's foolish in a way we can use. They had a lovely American Penguin edition of Keith Haring's Journals (one of those American books with appealingly rough-cut pages) -- Haring's a lot on my mind at the moment, and I didn't know these journals had been published. So I did my opening at random thing, and -- well, this is when I texted you that quote from Cocteau, which Haring had copied out in his diary for October 6th, 1979: "Appreciation of art is a moral erection . . . I believe sexuality is the basis of all friendship." ...So, um, yeah, I thought of you, blud. Prince of the moral erection. (Funnily enough, that's also the name of an Adam and the Ants B-side.) So I bought the Journals, and also a new book by Tony Benn, which is a bit slight and stocking-fillerish -- funny how he's become such a bankable brand, having been Public Enemy Number Whatever in the 70s -- but which will be easy to read on any of the six hundred train and plane journeys that await me between now and the end of the tour.
And then I went to the show I'd been a bit early for: Inside, a dance piece by a choreographer called Jean Abreu whom I'd slightly heard of. Dance on the Fringe gets so little attention -- or maybe it gets loads, and it's me who doesn't pay enough attention -- that I kind of expected to show up and be one of twelve in the audience: but the queue at Zoo Roxy went round the block -- two hundred people, maybe? Lots of young people, in groups; a nice buzz. Can't say I was all that excited by the piece -- but not sure why I thought I might be, really. Summary: five guys in prison, plus live band. Hm! I mean I'd read a favourable preview that compared Abreu to Alain Platel, so I guess that had made me curious. Could hardly see the Platel thing at all -- echoes I suppose in the shifts between individual and unison group passages, and in the use of translated signing and fractured or idiosyncratic text: but what Platel-like complexity there was was tame and largely fruitless. It certainly had nothing original up its sleeve in terms of exploring the experiences of incarceration or confined, pressurized masculinity -- partly because the band (a workmanlike industrial group called 65daysofstatic -- amazing drummer) was so emphatic: no space for doubt or queerness (in a broad sense) inside this soundscore. Having said which, at least the band had the virtues of passion and precision, which were only fitfully evident in the dancers. (Two really good dancers out of five: not enough, mostly, to keep the keepy-uppy up.) So, there were good ideas, but not enough of them, and when those ideas came through, the execution of them tended not to be quite strong enough. The kids in the audience went wild at the end, a full-on standing ovation, and I wondered what you and I would be saying to each other. I thought that I would complain to you that when the dancers had touched each other, especially in the more lyrical moments, I didn't believe it. And I thought that -- as usual -- probably just as I was about to say this, you'd say it before me: How funny, and annoying, that whenever the piece really rocked out, the way the band were moving, in their dry ice and half-light at the back of the stage, looked way more interesting than the choreographed movement the dancers were doing.
And then I went off for my first proper evening at Forest Fringe, and, o Jonny, o boy! I know sometimes you and I chunter about some of the ways that Forest Fringe presents itself, talks about itself, seems to want to place itself, some of the ancillary stuff that seems rigourless, depthless; but also we've been talking so much of late about who, and where, our allies are, and, o, man, there was no mistaking it tonight.
So mostly I was there to see Kieran Hurley's show, Hitch. I didn't know much about it, other than that it's been going down well with people I trust, and that it was a sort of documentary piece about his journey to L'Aquila in Italy last July to be part of the protests against the G8 summit there. That's all there is to it, really, just him telling this story; there's live music (lovely), some video, some voiceover bits that are more poetic or less straightforward... Other than that, it's kind of like being in someone's bedsit while they tell you what they did last summer. The structure's simple but clever -- it has the best opening of a solo show I've seen in Edinburgh for years (probably since Ben Moor's exceptional A Supercollider For The Family --the start of which can be read here) -- in that it goes from zero to incredibly touching in about six seconds -- and it has the virtue of being (as far as one can tell) completely true, as well as totally real in the telling. It speaks directly, clearly, about anticapitalism, but threads it through testimony around personal fear and bravery, about the risks that go along with action. I found a final video clip from Italian tv in which Hurley describes the scene of the protest to a reporter incredibly moving. In every way the show is enhanced by being in the ambience of Forest Fringe; I can't imagine it being quite so compelling anywhere else -- but it wasn't anywhere else, it was brilliantly and inspiringly exactly where it was, and nothing else I've seen so far this year has made me quite so happy. I was talking to Andy Field afterwards and he said what a pleasure it was to see something so earnest on stage, and that's perfectly true: it's not earnest as in solemn, but it's totally, totally straight. You know, Lucy's been curating this series of one-minute manifestos that are 'performed' for the queue waiting to go in to the 8.30 show, and Andy says her own contribution just finished with her saying emphatically into the mic: FUCK IRONY. FUCK IRONY. How great. I mean I feel like I've been wearing that badge for ten years or more -- I remember how Signal to Noise was launched on an artistic statement that would have quite easily boiled down to exactly that phrase -- and you were certainly already totally signed up to that sentiment when I first met you. But it feels like an idea whose time at long last is very urgently upon us, is now, or half past now: and is alive in this building, among at least some of these people. I think you'd have loved Hitch. I think you'd have gladly given your heart to it.
Leaving on a high, I run in to Tom Frankland and his dad, and Ed Collier too, and decide to stay and see Polarbear, which in all the excitement I'd totally forgotten I'd booked for as well. Polarbear's a charismatic performer, telling a story in the form of a sort-of unproduced Shane Meadows screenplay about the return of a man to his home town. Initially it's a little confusing, with lots of the story taking the form of dialogue which is hard to follow: I zone out a bit, quite happy to be there but as if the radio's on in the room and I'm not quite paying full attention. But there are enough great sentences and arresting linguistic images in Polarbear's story (including some fantastic projections) that I gradually get drawn in, almost without noticing, and by halfway I feel like I'm eating out of his hand. It's a lovely way to end the evening. Outside the venue I run in to Melanie Wilson and Chris Thorpe; Chris gives me a bearhug and tells me I'm looking good. I tell him I feel like I'm in a great place. And I do. I really do.
Crossing over from North Bridge onto Leith Walk, I plug in my iPod and it serves up another uncanny shuffle bulletin from among its more mainstream contents. Firstly "Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen, ha ha, which makes me laugh out loud, the way I'm feeling. And then, of all things, "Super Trouper" by Abba. Jonny, I wonder if you've ever really paid attention to the lyrics of "Super Trouper", the narrative it traces? Let me remind you. She -- Anni-Frid, I mean -- she's on tour -- she's away on tour in fucking Scotland! -- and she's sadly missing the person she loves. And then she finds out he's coming to that night's show, and she cheers up. Because she knows that "somewhere in the crowd there's you."
So I'm dedicating that silly song to you tonight, my bro, my compadre, whom I miss so much in these long and various days. In the sun and the rain, the thunder and lightning; in the touching of bodies, choreographed or otherwise, and the rocking-out of guitarists; in the moral erection of art and the FUCKing of IRONY; in the impulse to real anticapitalist action and the slow faithful seduction of the homecoming story; in all these places, in all the times I've lived in today, in the choked streets, the packed auditorium, this great and improbable festival gathering: somewhere in the crowd, Jonny, there's you. And my longing for you contains my hunger for everything; and in my longing for everything, right now everything, is contained my hunger for you.
with all my love, from elsewhere in the same crowd xx