Monday 16th August: A precious day off, and I'm determined not to cram too much in. A gentle morning catching up on long-neglected emails; then lunch in town with an old, old friend, whom I rarely see these days, so that in my mind's eye she's kind of still who she was 13 or 14 years ago when we saw each other a lot more often -- then when we meet up there's always a little wobble, not at all unpleasant, of going, Oh, wait!, actually you're you, and all these things have happened in our lives, and look who we are now...
It's an interesting frame of mind in which to go to and see a work-in-progress sharing at Forest Fringe, of an inchoate piece by the brilliant Tom Frankland in collaboration with his dad John, a retired drama teacher, and his dad, Len, who died in 1972. The show centres on a cache of letters and other effects left behind after Len's death, letters written over many years by Len (or, in full, Thomas Leonard Frankland -- which actually is Tom's name too) to his wife Winnie. Actually, only a few minutes of today's showing are given over to readings from the letters; around them orbit a whole range of fascinating thoughts and reflections around intersections between the recorded social and political histories of the last century and the personal narratives that weave in and out of those public stories, and around generational differences in attitude towards war, nationhood, and family. It's going to be an absolutely terrific piece of work, and it's already a very lovely way to spend an hour; moreover, like all the best true stories, there's a totally sensational plot twist near the end which had us literally gasping with amazement. At the moment the Franklands seem to want to downplay the letters and their own family history, hoping instead to use them as an entry-point into these bigger conversations in which we are all invited to participate and to see ourselves reflected. Actually, as I said to them after the showing, for me it's the story that's most specifically about them that is most compelling and involving; I can happily infer a level of universality from the story of Len and Win and the relationship between John and Tom, and what's most interesting to me is not being asked to place myself within the bigger social narratives, but being asked to help hold their story, to listen and empathize and accept. It's a really fulfilling role to be asked to play. -- Anyway, it's already a very lovely thing and I look forward to watching it develop and grow.
It seems like a while since Greg McLaren, prime (or primus inter pares) mover of Stoke Newington International Airport, had an actual show to share; I've been thinking about him a lot this past fortnight, remembering his wonderful performance as C.C. Rugg (named after the name-tag in a discarded vest Greg found somewhere), the unravelling and lovelorn psychiatrist in my show Napoleon in Exile, which was the last time I worked at the Traverse, back in 2003. (Check out young Andrew Haydon's grumpy-ass review here! The sourpuss!) I wrote a diary piece about Greg for the Guardian the following year, which was appallingly subedited so as to make a reference to that vest story completely inexplicable. Anyway, that's all ancient history: what of Greg's new show? Again, gosh, it's going to be fantastic. It's already delivering heaps of stuff. It's called Doris Day Can Fuck Off and it's a sort of impressionistic dispatch from the frontline of a social experiment Greg's been conducting, of singing, rather than speaking, everything he finds he has occasion to say. Lest we mistake this for mere caprice, he begins by asking all of us in the audience, one by one, to sing our names -- and he sings comments back to a few; it's an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing to be asked to do, and a brilliant way of reminding us of the measure of real self-exposure in his singing-only policy. The show itself is entirely sung, a mix of musical musings on his experiences and replays of audio footage from his singing adventures on the mean streets of Birmingham. A couple of effective passages use sample loops to draw out the melodic lines of everyday un-sung speech: a manoeuvre familiar from Steve Reich's oeuvre, in pieces such as It's Gonna Rain and Different Trains (which the Kronos Quartet are playing at the Usher Hall later in the festival), but here more redolent of the darkly off-kilter audio-fixated work of John Moran, or the sweetly quotidian songs of Julian Fox. Greg is an amazing, confounding performer, with the unguarded inventiveness of a Phil Kay, say: you will follow him anywhere, even though you can well imagine him taking you somewhere very peculiar indeed, possibly even somewhere painful. And indeed the briefly exposed emotional hinterland of this show feels disarmingly raw. As it stands, it's kind of a cheerfully reverberant mess, and it will be interesting to see whether he feels he wants to structure it more cogently as he gets used to performing it, or whether its haphazard slideshow quality is something he's keen on in itself and wants to preserve. For now, it's a great testament to his skills as an artist, a performer and -- dare one say -- a critical thinker, that it already has a lingering half-life in my head that feels larger and more dangerous than almost anything else I've seen up here this year.
Back to the house afterwards to get a bit of work done, and to meet the rest of Tim's gorgeous family, who have now arrived. Funny, and very lovely, to meet Jules at last, having heard so much about (a fictional version of) her from The Author. Feel just a little sore too, to be honest: with the Family Crouch reunited, and Vic's kids here and his partner back shortly, and Esther's smashing boyfriend Lee visiting, I confess I have a bit of a lonely moment, exacerbated by the difficulty Jonny and I are currently having in connecting via Skype (the internet here is not great, especially if anyone else is using it) and even by phone (bad reception at both ends). We'd hoped he'd be coming up next week to see Dick Gaughan and Stewart Lee and other mutual heroes, but he won't because of his new job and the pennilessness that the job will soon solve but hasn't yet. So I feel a bit thwarted; and though I'm having an amazing time here this year, I can't help myself: for the first time, I count the days left to cross out on my Edinburgh planner. Still. We're past half way already. Coming down the hill.
Tuesday 17th: For some reason I find the 1pm shows the hardest to do -- doubly hard after a day off. I woke up more tired than when I went to bed; slept too long, maybe. Dreamt I was caught up in an incident in a shopping centre that ended with people getting shot. Later, in the shower, it occurs to me that I hardly ever dream shootings. Knifings, yes; bombings, yes; meteorites, and nuclear war, frequently; tsunamis, endlessly. Perhaps because one sees people getting "shot" all the time in films and stuff, the inquisitiveness of the unconscious mind doesn't so much need to go there.
Anyway, I head off into town quite early, in the hope that the walk and some breakfast will properly wake me up. In fact, by the time I get to the Traverse, I think they've done the trick, but as soon as I open my mouth at the top of the show, I know I'm not quite in the right place. (I don't mean I'm doing the wrong bit of the script! -- although, as it goes, I do have a pretty boinky journey through the authorised text today. Will have to remember to do a little private line-run next Tuesday morning, after our next day off, and just make sure everything's where I left it.) It's a funny sort of performance today: the others are on good form, the momentum feels good, but the audience don't feel as switched on as some have. (This is not to blame them -- as Peter Handke says, or something a bit like this, in The Long Way Round: "If a child looks at you strangely, you are the cause.") We have some fascinating contributions from 'the floor' -- "Would you describe this as postmodernism?" -- and, for the first time in a little while, a couple of angry walkouts near the end. "That is disgusting!" one woman says as she goes. I feel for her a bit: she's brought a lot of stuff into the theatre with her (I mean literally, not psychologically), so the process of gathering all her bits and bobs so that she can leave takes about thirty seconds, in which time she's probably heard more stuff that she didn't want to hear. But then, who wants to hear it? I meet a friend of Tim's afterwards, who has just seen the show for the second time, and she says something very interesting: this second time, she's had a quite different experience, of feeling -- I think these were her words -- that "I don't need the lesson that the play is trying to teach me. [. . .] I don't need these images put in my head." I swallow my immediate response, which is that, I suspect, the moment when you think "I don't need to be told all this" is exactly the moment when you most need to be told it all.
I also want to reverse backwards through the last part of that paragraph and posit an alternate ending, because the answer to the question "But then, who wants to hear it?" is not, or not only, "None of us." I hope I'll never forget, either through familiarity or in the obscuring blizzard of other people's beautiful honest reactions, the intense gratitude, the relief, I felt when I first heard Tim do his final speech, at the end of that dress rehearsal at the Royal Court. Thank God, I thought: for this act of speaking something unspeakable, and speaking it so truthfully: this act of giving us a picture that is so complex, so dimensionalised, the very opposite of the kind of militant reductionism that we're accustomed to. Sometimes it's the hardest thing for us to acknowledge -- including in the serious task of listening to and sitting with this play as a whole: that at the most difficult, the most upsetting moments, love has not fled the scene, love is not absent, care, tenderness are not absent. Love is right there: real love: distorted perhaps, abstracted perhaps, but present, and totally real, and utterly entangled in the terrible logic of harm.
Wander back to the house post-show to get a little work done, though I barely do: I have a spot of lunch, can't get excited about work, try reading some Haring, fall asleep instead, blah-di-blah, the internet, the internet, blah-di-blah-di-blah, where does the time go. At one point I remember that I have a ticket to hear Elevator Repair Service 'in conversation' this afternoon. Get quite a heady rush of pleasure from not being there.
And then, in the evening, to David Bann's for a meal with my old pals Chris Thorpe and Finlay Robertson. Not sure we've all three sat down together since Fin's wedding, and we have a good chat about the work we're all doing, and about stuff we've seen and people we know, and how things change, how we change, as we all watch each other and ourselves getting older. I've known Chris for ten years now and I still remember vividly the person he was, or seemed to be, back when we first encountered each other: such that who he is now -- quite different, tonally, behaviourally, in lots of ways -- is a kind of presence that I find constantly surprising and captivating. In all that time, the number of occasions on which we've sat down and really talked could probably be counted on the fingers of a butcher's mittens, and yet he's someone I'd walk into fire for without a moment's hesitation, and I suspect he would for me. Funny where those feelings come from. It's a good evening all round, the food is as exceptional as the company. I walk back home with Fin and we talk about my experience of The Author, which he'll be seeing tomorrow, and about his new piece Test for Protein which I'll be seeing tomorrow; and we talk about the first time we came up here, in 1994, and how we were a little wary of each other, and what everyone who was in that show is doing now. A lovely end to the evening. Back at the house I'm introduced to yet more new visitors. They seem terrific. It feels like there are 60 people here at the moment and yet the house still feels weirdly deserted...
Two postcripts. Firstly, I want to mention how very much today was enhanced by releasing my iPod from its presumably exhausting shuffle function and instead allowing it to play all the way through both discs of the extraordinary Kate Bush album Aerial. Karl and I were talking about Aerial a couple of weeks ago and it just popped back into my head. It's a long time since I've heard it all the way through and I think it's just the nuts. (Is that OK? "The nuts"?) So open, so playful, so delighting. I dislike exactly one word of it -- I wish she didn't sing "twixt" on 'Somewhere In Between': it's way too Fotherington-Thomas even for Kate Bush. Don't say "twixt", folks, it's not nice. But everything else is basically perfect. The way she sings the phrase "washing machine" so that you feel you've never really heard anyone use those words together before. Oh, and the cameo from Rolf Harris! Beautiful beyond measure. (Yes, I absolutely sincerely believe that -- not the merest dimple of fork in my tongue -- and I dare you to believe it too.)
Secondly: at the end of this gloriously warm and sunny day, may I just make the following announcement: Teenage boys of Edinburgh, whose names I will never know! You looked very beautiful without your shirts today! Thank you for the generosity of your presence on the streets of the city! You did great!
Wednesday 18th: Wow, such a weird day: up and down like Long Distance Clara. Woke up feeling crappy again after a night of bad dreams. Insect dreams, this time. I need to sign a piece of paper and ask for something to lean on; my dad hands me a large bumpy object covered over with a teatowel. As I press against it, it explodes into life: it's a wasps' nest. Wasps are everywhere suddenly, flying into my mouth, lodging at the back of my throat and making me choke. Later I discover my mother asleep in an armchair in an otherwise deserted apartment, with ants crawling over every surface, including her skin, her face. I get a lot of insect dreams. Partly inspired on this occasion, I suspect, by the wasps that keep flying in through my open window from the back garden and can't find their way out again; but also, I think insect dreams are about anxieties around chaos, aren't they, the fear of being overwhelmed, of being unable to control events. I get up early and check emails. My head is thumping, I feel like I've been kicked in the brain. Everything feels jangly and unsettling. Everything in my inbox makes me jumpy, shaky. I probably feel like this at some point every year in Edinburgh but this has come out of an empty sky.
Except that I realise how odd it is -- and this must build up somehow, I think, at the back of the mind or stored somewhere in the body -- that almost everyone who I talk to about The Author -- nearly all of them exceedingly complimentary about it -- will nonetheless express themselves in visceral or violent terms. "I feel like I've been knifed. It was brilliant." "That was amazing. I feel like someone just punched me in the stomach." "It's such an amazing play. I feel sick." At one level I know this is what the experience of The Author is like for some people, because I probably would have described it in similar terms when I first saw it. At another level, it's weird because I know they're talking about their experience of an act to which I was at the very least an accomplice, and they're both talking about it as if it were an act of violence and at the same time forgiving me, hailing me for my involvement in it. And on occasion, especially in the mornings, going right back to the beginning of rehearsals, I too feel very raw and upset and unsettled, as though I might have been involved in a fight the previous night, but maybe I've been too drunk to remember the details clearly. Just remembering the adrenalin, maybe a scuffle, maybe a very clear face illuminated in the darkness. So strange. An odd kind of paranoia, I suppose. I mean if somebody came up to you and said, That was quite a scrap you got into last night, you'd think, Nah, you can't mean me, I was at home, I was asleep in bed. But if twenty people said it, you'd start to wonder.
But I mustn't go on about all this. The Guardian has linked to this blog again, my visitor stats must be going menkle, I'd better not have a breakdown in front of everyone...
I leave in a bleary, tearing hurry to get to Forest Fringe for 12pm, where Fin is doing a one-off performance of a brand new piece, Test for Protein. I'm scared I'm going to be late, but I bump into Fin on the way, so I guess I don't have to worry. I arrive a shade before 12 anyway (having had an appallingly inappropriate breakfast on the hoof -- I need to get back to eating better than this, no wonder I'm going cuckoo-pops) and it's great to be one of the select handful of folks in attendance. I'm not going to post a review here as F. is very clear that he's still at first draft stage, and -- even though I can only imagine wanting to say positive and encouraging things -- that compels a certain etiquette of restraint. But let the record show nonetheless that Fin's an immensely talented writer, as well as of course a performer of great deftness and technical skill, and it's a gripping hour in his company, which leaves me fascinated to know how this piece will develop.
After a delightful spot of lunch with Matt Trueman, catching up on Edinburgh thoughts (Matt's great at the big picture thinking that a lot of critics don't like to involve themselves with, except in so far as it relates to 'trendspotting' exercises) and some intriguing personal tales, I head over to the Traverse for today's performance. Having been able to unwind a little bit with Matt, I'm feeling slightly better than when I woke up, and I'm quite glad of the show today as a focus for gathering myself. It feels like we have a really good one; I feel bouncy and confident, and everyone else is bright and dynamic. My fellow audience cohorts are a delight, too; in particular, a lady called Ann, who, when I show her the (invisible) traces of (fictional) damage to my eye, touches my cheek and gently strokes my face. For me, and I dare say for some others watching, it's absolutely heart-stopping. Every day; every day, something surprising. The resources of people! The stuff they bring in with them that we have no idea about. -- Also, an early walkout today, right at the end of my opening section. Poor guy: I don't know what was going on for him, but he clearly didn't get what he bargained for. A couple of grown-up colleagues from different places congratulate me, and us, afterwards, which is lovely, partly because I hadn't realised either of them was in, and partly because neither of them says it was like I'd driven rusty nails into their eyes or ripped their fingernails off.
The evening is Silver Stewbilee at the Festival Theatre, a big event to mark the publication of Stewart Lee's new book. Mostly it's a fun evening, no more no less: there are guest spots by Kevin Eldon, Paul Putner, Simon Munnery, Bridget Christie; an intervention by Richard Herring, which I assume was planned though it pretends not to be, and I suppose it's possible that it really wasn't; Stew himself is on good form but this isn't his sharpest material, and I anyway think what I most admire about his work is his genius as an architect of a full-length set, the sculpting of an implicit argument across the span of an hour or whatever. And then in the last twenty minutes or so of the evening, all bets are suddenly off. Eldon reappears as Tony Rudd to sing "Machadaynu" (hooray!), and mentions his musical accompaniment, and suddenly there before us are Franz Ferdinand! I have to admit I basically really couldn't care less about Franz Ferdinand but it's still quite a thrill to have them revealed as surprise guests, and they certainly know what they're doing with the playing-in-a-band-together and everything. They do a couple of songs and it feels like the natural end of the evening... and then Stew reappears and -- hold on to your hats -- introduces the legendary Frank Chickens, who are about to win some daft comedy award due to his agitation. Never thought I'd see them live, and they're amazing, amazing, joyous and uproarious and terrifically good-natured. Odd to see Kazuko Hohki in that context now that we're so used to seeing her in rather lower-key performance formats. The roof is raised; Stew finishes off belting out a Mission of Burma song with Franz Ferdinand; good job well done. I'm still looking forward very much to seeing his proper set at the Stand in a few days, but I wouldn't have missed this either.
Post-show, it's a mountain of nachos and a molehill of nattering with Fin and Emma, talking about The Author and about Fin's new piece and about, y'know, stuff. Stuff. Walking back home together we reminisce about the show we did here in 1995 (which featured the great Rufus Jones, who we've just run into at Stewbilee), which was overrunning its slot: our brilliant solution to which was to play the last two scenes simultaneously. Fin then reminds me -- I'd completely forgotten -- that when my solo show Puckerlips was running too long when we did it at Roman Eagle Lodge in '97, our even more brilliant solution that time was to have Fin and Corrin emerge from the audience about ten minutes before the end and have them start the get-out behind me while I was still finishing the show. It worked beautifully, actually, I think -- it was a really messy space by that point, being cleared until, by the end, there was just me, sitting on a stool, alone on a bare stage. So, there you go: sweet are the uses of adversity, or something: and I'm a little sad to think that I almost certainly wouldn't come up with a wheeze like that now. I'd just cut the script. Actually I'd probably write the script to the appropriate length in the first place. Boo to craft skills, a bit.
So that's how it all is today. And then I'm back home and crashing back into myself and the kinds of thoughts I seem to be having of late when I'm left alone to ponder. But I'm tired, I should just go to bed. What can I tell you? That ten minutes ago, this paragraph was far longer, and had a lot of things in it that are probably better off deleted -- not work things, personal things, though, Xt, what's the difference anyway. And that the only sounds I can hear right now are the tenor hum of my laptop and the fits and starts of my typing, and, above my head, with depressingly implausible circularity, a wasp bashing its brains out over and over again on the lightbulb. Mate, I know how you feel.