Monday, August 16, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #5


Friday 13th August: A lovely quiet morning in the house. I take a bit of time out from the work I'm doing to intervene in a blog discussion over at the Guardian, with Charlotte Higgins thinking respectfully through some misgivings about The Author. No beef with Higgins personally, though a temporarily low Gruntle Factor after a poor-ish earlier piece on interactivity and the role of the audience, which lumped The Author and Forest Fringe together with the concertedly atrocious BADAC (brand essence: "Without violence we have nothing.") and offered readers no argument or throughline by which to navigate or distinguish between what's going on in those three very different locations. (Incidentally, BADAC's blog of their experiences on the fringe so far this year is, at least for those who know anything about their work, tear-inducingly funny -- read it in chronological order for the full effect. Pardon my schadenfreude. By which I mean, please don't beat me up, fellas; or, if you must, at least go to the back of the queue.) I was in two minds about saying anything on the more recent Higgins piece -- attempting a nuanced comment on a Guardian theatre blog is sometimes a bit like essaying a pirouette in a crowded vomitorium -- but actually I seem to have gotten away with it this time. Soft huzzahs.

I'm mostly trying to give myself Fridays off from theatre-going, so as to make sure of preserving space for other kinds of expedition. Today, that meant Joan Mitchell at Inverleith House, which I mentioned looking forward to in a previous instalment.

In a way, it's hard to assess exhibitions at Inverleith House: it's such a beautiful gallery, in such an appealing setting (the Botanic Gardens), that you could probably mount a show of work by, hm, Mrs Jackson, say, or Neil Buchanan, or Sarah Lucas, and it would look pretty stunning. A benefit of the location is that by the time you reach the gallery you've probably spent ten minutes or more walking through the gardens, and after even just a couple of weeks of Festival furore, it's like attaching an oxygen mask directly to your brain. You arrive at the gallery really ready -- and able -- to see.

Never having knowingly looked at a Joan Mitchell painting or drawing in my life, except for the black-and-white promotional photo I posted in diary #3, what I wasn't remotely prepared for in this exhibition was the colour. My God! This show must be a synaesthetic's dream banquet! (...or symphony, I suppose...) Upstairs, Cypress, from 1980, a large-scale evocation of a cornfield -- or, rather, like all Mitchell's work, more an evocation of the sense memory of a cornfield -- bursts in your face like an explosive shower of citrus; an untitled late 60s canvas downstairs (and below this paragraph) is more florid, and a little sour rather than sharp -- vivid, but a grown-up taste. I would guess it's Mitchell's confidence and reach as a colourist, more than anything, that has led to her chronic undervaluing as a child of Abstract Expressionism; critically it seems she's more often situated in the classic European tradition: there are certainly strong notes of Van Gogh and I was reminded a little of some of (Raoul) Dufy's landscapes too. But her voluntary exile in France shouldn't dislodge her from a proper appreciation of her place in American painting, because she seems to me American artist first and last. In a way she feels like a more sensationalist cousin of Twombly, probably less technically gifted, certainly less interested in the line as a technology: but oh boy can she sock you in the eye. It's a marvellous exhibition, not big, but ample and spacious and there are half a dozen straight-up-and-down thrilling paintings and works on paper.


Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1968-69), oil on canvas
From Joan Mitchell, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh


Down in the basement, a documentary film on Mitchell is continuously screened: she comes across as likeably warm and playful, though rather guarded for all that, and exceedingly formidable. Something she says kind of stuck in my head (though I wish I'd written it down so I could quote it verbatim) -- asked by the interviewer to comment on the work of her more monumentalist, masculine peers, she says something like: "The only feeling I get from them is that I don't exist." Pause. "But that's OK, because I don't want to exist in their world."

Back in town, the evening performance of The Author is OK, not great, a bit of a slog: my voice is sounding a bit tight, a bit strained, a rather effortful lightness again. I have an old lady in front of me -- I'd say a 'battleaxe' if it weren't so stupidly ageist and misogynistic :) -- who talks back a few times -- as people do, of course; at one point, her intervention really throws me and I find it hard to recover my footing, particularly because I can't quite pick up where I left off, so I have to wheel back a bit in the script and enter back in through something I've already said. She annoys me a bit, she's clearly very pleased with herself: but to give her her due, she obviously knows a bit about public speaking and her timing's very good. 

The most interesting moment comes when she asks Tim straight out whether he's actually Tim Crouch. He answers brilliantly, with much more fluency and composure than I managed in a similar situation the other day [see Friday 6th]. He says something like: "Yes, I am Tim. And that's Vic, and this is Chris, and this is Esther. We are the actors in the play. The play is set in the Royal Court Theatre. And all the words you're hearing, apart from these, have been written." Laughter and applause. She seems satisfied, the room seems relieved. Lots of people welcome hearing this disclaimer, I think. I almost wish we could embed something similar in the script every night. Certainly it's interesting that people struggle to comprehend the play-ness of the play, that they find the references to the Royal Court jarring and awkward to assimilate; but I don't know that it's that interesting, their confusion. I don't know for sure that it's a productive route for them into thinking more critically, more expansively about the questions that the play is asking. I think for some of them, those snags may even prevent them from thinking hard about those questions. I wonder a little bit about whether my character could address that stuff at the very beginning so that it's not a 'reveal' -- I don't know what we gain from it being a reveal as such. Not that saying something earlier would stop it being a reveal anyway. But these are bathtub ponderings, nothing more.

On the idea of critical thinking, incidentally: I like very much how in Crack Capitalism (which I'm enjoying hugely, I think it's a beautiful book -- and if it doesn't appeal to old-school Marxists, well... good!), John Holloway re-pairs the connection between "critical" and "crisis". The task of critical thinking, of critical theory, is to develop routes for action within a crisis. Which, if nothing else, reminds us of the urgency of those modes of thought and inquiry, and the necessity of their constant extrapolation into instances of activity, of movement, of surge.

I want to think more in colour. In more colours, I mean.


Saturday 14th: The day begins with breakfast in my room in front of last night's BBC2 Review Show on iPlayer. We were, after all, discussed, as part of a pretty brisk survey of theatre work on the fringe this year that (here we go again) establishes unusual relations with its audience. (Nice to see dearly beloved Brian Lobel's testicle finally getting the national exposure it deserves.) On the whole the chat is fairly positive. Others connected with the show are enraged by A.L. Kennedy's bizarre complaint, right at the end, that The Author doesn't work because it fails to reach any conclusion; I'm more bothered -- and, actually, I really am, this really fucking bothers me to be honest -- by Kennedy's suggestion, which the normally rather acute Natalie Haynes astonishingly agrees with, that the play continues to refer to the Royal Court because we were too "lazy" to be bothered to change it. I mean, holy titclamps, Batman. Whether or not you think The Author works or doesn't work (whatever those things mean), whether you admire or detest what it sets out to do, whether you enjoy or are displeased by its slipperiness -- and all of those are positions I think we would all of us on the production contentedly accept as valid -- it is inexplicable to me that anyone with breath going in and out of their body could imagine that the show is the work of lazy people, the work of people who would disdain to make three or four rudimentary textual modifications to the script to reflect the fact that it's no longer being performed in the place in which it happens to be set, for no other reason than that they just couldn't be arsed to deal with it. Dear Natalie Haynes, is that actually what you think the likeliest explanation is? Or did you just say it on telly because it might sound amusing? Dear Natalie Haynes, what was it like being you in that moment? Any information gratefully received.

Pshaw.

So the Jean Abreu piece I blogged about on Thursday 12th seems to have been pretty universally hailed as the big dance hit of the Fringe, which presumably shows how much I know about dance, or about the Fringe, or both. In which light, I don't know whether the makers will be pleased to know that I think Roam by Tom Dale Company at Zoo Southside is absolutely superb. I'm a bit puzzled beforehand by a little small-print on the programme which insists that Roam is an "abstract" piece which is intended to be "not read but experienced"; this bugs me a little, because (a) though I understand what he/they are getting at, I'm not sure artworks, created encounters etc., can be experienced without some level of 'reading', even if we only read relationships, vectors, dynamics and so on: and to aim to not read is kind of like not thinking of a brown bear; and anyway (b) don't bloody tell me how to watch your piece, you scamps! You can have a crack at teaching me how to watch it, from within its own operations; but don't fence me in, bros, that ain't cool. In the event, though -- I mean actually in the event -- it achieves a very satisfying mode of activity which, on the whole, doesn't ask to be interpreted (I think this is what they actually mean by 'read'), but holds us in a very striking encounter with some exciting and productive movement. By productive, I mean that, unlike the Abreu piece, I find Dale's choreography lean and undecorative, unelaborate; it uses only the means necessary to do the work it came to do, no more, no less: but nor is it grouchily minimalist or unexpressive -- it's full and searching and endlessly self-refreshing. It's slightly surprising to see such confident, fluent, unpredictable dance here; even more surprising to hear such fantastic sub-bass coming out of a Fringe venue sound rig! Actually the rigorous electronic sound score is extremely fine, and the two halves of the work both have a remarkable integrity and coherence to them, whilst letting the individual skills and personalities of the five exceptional dancers come through. Particularly in a year when the International Festival has little to excite in its dance programme, work like this is incredibly welcome and I was not far off blown away by its best moments.

Dance of an entirely different order, though to possibly even greater effect, at Martin Creed's Ballet Work No. 1020 at the Traverse, which I finally saw this evening. It is a glorious, gorgeous piece of theatre -- that's how I relate to it. Dancers and visual artists and architects and butchers and great-grandmothers and puppydogs will all see it through different eyes, and I won't speak for them; I think it is one of the most inspiring pieces of theatre I've ever sat with. The components, as most readers will by now know, are: five ballet dancers, arranged in order of height, and given a very limited movement vocabulary -- the five positions of classical ballet, plus a bit of walking, running, lying down, standing up; Creed's band (really excellent); a few films, including the wonderful Work No. 670: Orson and Sparky, which I wrote about last Sunday, and another (don't know the serial number) of a penis quite quickly becoming erect and then not erect again; Creed himself, amiable, uncertain, likeable, annoying, boring, hilarious; and the basic apparatus of theatre: lights, a stage, an audience. From combinations and permutations of these elements, Creed, the "informal formalist", conjures an expansive, joyous hour's worth of entertainment (distributed across about 70 minutes). The set-list is more like a menu to be dipped into according to taste -- tonight, for example, musing on how ending is even more difficult than starting, which is difficult enough, Creed decides they should begin with the part of the piece that usually comes at the end. Possibly this has all been worked out in advance, but I sort of doubt it -- when he subsequently says, in his sweetly agonised way, "What shall we do next?", it seems pretty real to me. His attention, it appears to me, is on two things, or two sets of things: things as they are, and things as metaphors -- in other words, that quintessential theatrical double of what is and what if, which The Author is built out of too. Things as they are: bodies; geometry; numbers; the alphabet; musical tones. And then the way that these relate to each other, in ways which are both actual and metaphorical: so, for example, each of the five ballet positions is assigned a note in the key of C, which means that the 'dances' we watch can all be played on the piano. (And therefore can all be written down, too.) So: this is this, specifically and particularly; but also, this can be translated into this, which can in turn be translated into this, so that all apparently different specific things are also connected with each other, and with rudimentary concepts that underwrite all of their particular forms: hence Creed's averral on Monday that "it's all the same thing". The piece is like someone -- someone you like, and someone you are like -- cheerfully conducting a census in a room that eventually turns out to be a departure lounge. With these 26 letters and 100 numbers in your pocket, with 5 positions that enable you to travel left-to-right and forwards and backwards, with your own bigness and smallness in relation to other things, with the idea of something and the idea of nothing: with these few bits of kit, you can go anywhere, do anything. The human scale of it, the lifesizeness of it as a piece, is ultimately immensely moving and -- what's the word? ...Kindly, I suppose. It's a really kind piece of work. The musicians and the dancers all like each other, the audience likes the dogs, and we all like Martin Creed, even (perhaps especially) those of us who came to Edinburgh quite prepared to not like him very much at all. Ballet Work No. 1020 is hugely likeable, but it's more than that: it's a profound work of art, and I can already tell that it will be, for me, a landmark. "I can't move," Creed sings, in the best song of the night; it's pretty much the only thing he's wrong about.


Sunday 15th: After what felt to me like a nice, breezy, but occasionally volatile performance in the late evening slot last night (more difficult for the two actors on the other side of the room, who spent most of the show being scowled at by one unhappy chappy who apparently couldn't get past his anger at not getting an answer to a question he'd asked early on), I don't think we're looking forward to going straight back in to today's early morning show -- the one drawback of the rota system, that every five days your latest show is followed the next day by your earliest -- but actually it turns out to be, I think, probably one of our best so far. Rather a curious audience, a far from cohesive mix, hard to read tonally: but we meet each other pretty successfully, I reckon. Immediately after the end, when I'm still in the auditorium, I'm tapped on the arm by an older woman on the row behind, who's been sitting next to Molly, who I spoke to a little during the performance. "I feel absolutely shattered," says the woman -- and then, before I can express any concern, she follows on: "I mean I thought it was wonderful. Beautifully written. But I feel absolutely shattered." I put my hand on hers and we just spend a little moment together; what she's feeling is so close to the surface, but it won't go into words, or we don't want it to or need it to. Don't want to be corny but this moment, with our hands touching, is everything that The Author is about, for me. (Yesterday's scowling young man would beg to differ, presumably. Still...) A lovely note on which to embark on approximately 50 hours of free swim before our next performance.

A quick cup of tea over the road, with a fascinating trio of comedians at an adjacent table (Andy Zaltzman looks more and more like Robert Lepage in a bad character wig): and then it's back across to the Royal Lyceum for Elevator Repair Service's The Sun Also Rises (The Select), which is sort of headlining my International Festival experience, since The Wooster Group sold out in seventeen seconds. You may already know that this show is very long -- 3 hours 40, I believe. My experience of it was not that long -- in fact it was about 1 hour 45, and even that was a struggle. Nothing would have compelled me to return after the interval. Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing. You want some glorious reputation-shredding invective? OK, hang on to your hats, here we go. It was... Actually, it was fine. You know? It was fine. It was ingenious and smart and amusing and elegant and witty and playful and charming and it was fine. After ten minutes I was so bored of its ingenuity and smartness and elegance and wit and charm and fineness that I wanted to cry. I wanted to bite the guard-rail. I have hardly ever felt that my presence in a theatre was less important. Not important to them; not important to me; not important to the world outside, where the sun was shining and people were moving around. I was absolutely unable to develop any interest in the story, incapable of settling back and enjoying it in the way that I suppose you might enjoy a nice long Sunday afternoon DVD. I wanted something to pay an active, interrogative attention to; that impulse was so absurdly superfluous I started to feel weirded out by it. Have I finally forgotten how to go to the theatre?, I thought. And... In all this overzealous watchfulness, am I totally, hopelessly missing something, the thing that places this company in the vanguard of American experimentalists? I dunno. Judging by the other reviews I've seen so far, my experience is not that uncommon, though perhaps I've taken it a little harder. Everyone else seems to have managed to stick it out -- apparently the second half is better; and anyway, there's probably some value simply in seeing it through, in experiencing a show that long. I just found that, after 105 minutes of it not giving a toss about me, I really didn't give a toss about it, about where it might be going, because it clearly wasn't even interested in going anywhere, other than the end. It was entirely delighted with its own ingenuity and smartness and elegance, and it had no room for anything else. The lights were on, and everyone was home, and no one was answering the door. I hope they made better use in the second half of Frank Boyd, the best actor on stage (whom we last saw here in The TEAM's superlative Architecting -- a ten times better piece of theatre in every way). I'm sorry if, coming so late to Elevator Repair Service, I've missed their best days.

Anyway: home earlier than expected, then, and a beautiful afternoon gives way to a beautiful evening; a long, long, eye-wateringly expensive phone chat with Jonny; and a few quiet hours, reading, writing, thinking, a little snooze... Just a shade of toothache to keep me on my toes. It's good here. It's really good.

All is full of love. -- No, seriously: