I sit down in a dark room and I am handed a blindfold.
First time round I miss Barrel Organ’s play, Some People Talk About Violence.
I saw the company’s debut show Nothing last year. I had enjoyed it but felt guilty at seeing it after a night out that turned into an expedition to climb Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and then powering through to the next day. So in part I felt I had to see Some People Talk About Violence while fully awake to make up for last year. But I manage to miss it by completely forgetting I had booked a ticket and end up double booking with Manwatching at Summerhall.
So we’re standing outside the Roundabout at Summerhall, oblivious to the fact that I’m wasting eight valuable pounds on the production I’m missing. Then I see him. My favourite playwright. The man I have watched every interview of and read every word of. Nick Payne. My Beyoncé of theatre. I do that kind of excited whisper where everyone around you can hear what you’re saying and explain to my friends how much I love this man. They tell me to talk to him and I’m debating it but he’s turning away so I start to run.
I should have said I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to let you know how much I adore your writing.
I should have said I just directed a section of Constellations at University where we used three couples on stage at once with three AV screens and occasionally the actors would cross over from one to the other a bit like characters in a Harry Potter painting.
I should have said ‘If you give me a balloon I will fucking garrotte you’ is my favourite line in the English language.
I should have said that I really want to direct one of your plays fully but have been told the rights were not available and why is that and please could you make an exception?
I should have said would he feel like making a trip up to Bristol and writing a play for us and we would repay him by feeding him with BTP scones and taking him on scenic tours of the harbourside and buying him fish and chips to eat on the Clifton Suspension Bridge at sunset.
Instead I ramble and say the word ‘love’ about fifty gazillion times and don’t explain anything properly and when I say I’m seeing the same show as him the thought probably crosses his mind to abandon his ticket altogether. (He doesn’t. He laughs a lot. I totally don’t watch him more than the actor on stage, shut up).
I have another fangirl moment as I see Andrew Haydon walk past at Forest Fringe, where Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola is taking place. ‘He’s the Beyoncé of theatre criticism’.
My friends won’t let me have two Beyoncé’s.
I’m not with a show and I’m not reviewing. Being in such a productive place for more than a week without being productive has left me feeling incredibly restless. When I go home am I actually going to have achieved or learnt anything from my time in Edinburgh? Yeah I’ve got some good shows to talk about, but other than that? I don’t feel a particular sense of revolution or the desire to be braver. So many shows have left me cold, bored, even asleep. I haven’t seen my life-changer, my this year’s version of Men In The Cities.
And then, just as you stop waiting for a bus to arrive, or the kettle to boil, or the perfect partner to come along, *BAM*, I see three shows in one day that are simply brilliant.
- Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ
I rebook, my guilt of almost nodding off in Nothing due to lack of sleep still playing on my conscience. Barrel Organ tell a story of a girl who breaks into a stranger’s house. They tell it through the viewpoints of different people involved in the story. The casting is chosen by the audience at random (not entirely at random, they stay within the same genders). Every so often the story is broken up with games or challenges, a bit like Secret Theatre’s A Series of Impossible Acts. These are violence portrayed as fun. We laugh as they say ‘yesterday’s show was…’ and add on the most gruesome thing they can think of.
‘…when I chopped all your balls off’
‘…when I set fire to the bus going to Forest Fringe’
‘…when I pulled all your fingernails off one by one and ate them’
When one is too tame they are made to sit down. There is the wonderful feeling in this show that there is so much more than just the text and what we see. You can feel the ideas and discussions bubbling beneath the surface.
- 887, Robert Lepage (International Festival) and
- The Encounter, Simon McBurney/Complicite (International Festival)
Before I go to these I don’t really have a clue who either of the men are. Turns out they’re pretty important.
Both shows are part of the International Festival and both have the ability to turn everything inside my brain to jelly. Seeing these two shows back to back is a bit like having dessert and then being given free ice cream with sprinkles. And a flake.
In 887 I was definitely inside Lepage’s memory palace and then outside it and then in his dad’s taxi. That definitely all happened. Just as I was definitely in the jungle seeing that monkey holding the camera and being whispered to telepathically by the tribesmen in The Encounter. I can see it all and feel it all just as well as I can smell the macaroni cheese from downstairs or feel the breeze on my foot as I’m still too tired to get out of bed and close the window. I went to the jungle, no doubt about it.
887 is as spectacular in set design as The Encounter is in sound. Together they are like a fuck you to anyone who thinks theatre is easy or dull, or that theatre technicians are not important. It felt like genuine magic when I closed my eyes and listened to hundreds of people in the jungle right in front of me, then opened them to see Simon McBurney standing alone on a littered grey stage.
We walked forever to a comedy that almost seemed further than Arthur’s seat. We walked in to stand at the back as all the seats were full. We snuck out of the fire escape after the first sketch consisted of the audience roaring with laughter at the suggestion of cheese induced flatulence. It seemed as though that was as risky as the night was going to get.
‘I can’t be rude about that play because it’s about rape.’
After a run of ‘meh’ plays that deflating feeling creeps back in. But then you go to see a play that reminds you that actually everyone is great and friendly and lonely and feels things too, so everything’s going to be okay in the end. Here are ten of those plays.
- Blind Cinema (The Filmhouse)
The concept of Blind Cinema is that you go to the cinema, are blindfolded and have the movie audio-described to you by a child. Everyone comes out of the cinema having very different understandings of the story of the film. I had been told at one point there was a gorilla with red eyes, which another friend had been told was a girl (there was a discussion about whether our misunderstanding came through our lack of knowledge of the Scottish accent. If you try whispering ‘girl’ and ‘gorilla’ in a Scottish accent they do sound remarkably similar.) But it wasn’t about the story. I’m not entirely sure what it was about, but it was great.
The feeling was one of such intimacy with this child sat behind me and the stranger sharing the listening funnel. No one else would have been told exactly the same story, although we could hear sections of other whispers copied when our child was searching for the right words. The surrounding whisperings created a buzzing atmosphere and you could feel the excitement of the children and their rush to get through the words to the next description to keep up with the film. I don’t know if the film is an existing film already or of it has been made especially for this, but there’s a new one for each performance, I think, so it’s new for the children too. At first I thought it might be something famous like Pulp Fiction. Then I realised, what the hell was I thinking? Who in their right mind would get children to describe Pulp Fiction? Edinburgh has actually made me mad.
- The Beanfield, Breach Theatre (theSpace on the Mile)
Breach Theatre’s on stage documentary is about their path to staging a re-enactment of the police attacks on visitors to Stone Henge at Summer Solstice in 1985. It’s interwoven with the cast reliving their experiences of going to Summer Solstice. What makes it different from everything I’ve ever seen is that they show the process behind the formation of the play, from writing letters to historical re-enactment societies to learning how to stage fight to being turned away from the field they wanted to film in and saying screw them, let’s do it anyway.
This company seems to have a genuine eagerness to discover. It’s infectious.
There is one moment I can’t get out of my head. One girl describes the sweaty, maddening, out of your head dancing while a boy dressed as a police officer mimes bludgeoning someone. To strobe lights and thumping music, this moment booms. Everything fades after the heady climax and leaves the sound of panting, of exhaustion, of horror at the realisation of violence committed. In the context of the Warwick Uni riots last year it is incredibly moving.
- Manwatching (Summerhall Roundabout)
An anonymous woman writes about her sexual fantasties and for every performance a different male actor/comedian reads it, for the first time, to an audience. I wasn’t entirely impressed by the particular actor we had, but I liked the awkwardness that was inflicted upon him by the author’s deliberate absence. In the text she brings up the point that men have more command in their voices. If a man says something you’re more likely to believe them than if a woman was to say exactly the same thing. I think about this for the rest of the festival.
- Brush (Assembly Roxy)
This is storytelling without words where Korean compny ‘Brush’ paint the set in front of you. It shows children the importance of physical creation in front of them rather than on a screen. The joy of the rustle of the paper or a light held to illuminate a window in a house. They interact with the paper as if it’s a living thing. The experience is enhanced if you have a very cute baby sitting next to you.
- Swallow (Traverse Theatre)
This play has a joyous absurdity to it but is also incredibly dark. Three interwoven stories switch from monologues to dialogue as we are swept into their world of pain. Reality mixes with madness to create a Peter Pan-esque sense of wonder. In the moment that the feathers fell I felt like crying.
Also that swively light box is super cool.
- The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne (Pleasance, Queen Dome)
This play doesn’t just acknowledge the awkwardness of sex, it shouts about it. It destroys Hollywood ideas of sex and uses such gross, squelchy language that everyone is squirming uncomfortably in their seats. It’s wonderful. As it’s by the company Graeae, it also embraces disability. She is deaf (‘I think he liked the deaf thing a bit too much’). He has an arm that ends at his elbow. We couldn’t care less. We are too busy being grossed out by their words. Jack Thorne beautifully interweaves descriptions of orgasm and stillbirth. I can still hear (spoiler alert) the sound of child’s laughter at the very end.
- Pippin, Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society (C)
When Pippin says he wants to find something bigger and better and meaningful in his life, I understand him completely. I think Pippin struck a chord with me because I can see my brothers in him, particularly the oldest one who has been switching between jobs and internships in an attempt to find something that satisfies, challenges and enchants him. Pippin makes you question what you actually want and how to know if it’s the right thing.
(Also my friend directed it so I was very proud of him).
- Butt Kapinski (Liquid Room Annexe)
Deyanna Fleysher ushers us in and shifts our seats as far apart as possible so we are not protected by the closeness of our friends. Annoying Americans who don’t quite get the sense of humour nearly ruin the show but she holds it together and takes control of the narrative.
This play, relying so heavily on audience participation, dances along the fine line of ease and discomfort. Fleysher, dressed as detective Butt Kapinski, makes a film noir with us as the characters, the blood and the sound effects. It is at first ridiculous but has darker undertones. Everyone laughs when the men in the audience are cast as prostitutes and have to give lap dances, while all the women are paying customers and have to sit and wank off, but the feeling of discomfort rises swiftly. This play questions gender stereotypes and expectations but is presented in a way that could easily just be taken as idiotic fun.
At the end she strips out of her Butt Kapinski outfit and puts herself in the role of a damsel in distress. Her saviour, a member of the audience now dressed as Butt Kapinksi, stands with her in the sound effect of rain. They stand huddled in the lamplight. She says something about him saving her, kisses him on the cheek and smiles up at him. He hesitates then kisses her on the lips. I don’t know if it was because he felt it was required of his character, or because he felt he was allowed to, or just because he wanted to.
How much is improvisation and acting up when you’re picked on, and how much is taking advantage?
- Roaring Accordion (Sweet Grassmarket)
A wonderfully mental show where he gives us whisky and teaches us that we should get a standing ovation even if we go wrong because it’s important to know that people still love you when you fail.
- Traces (Assembly Hall)
This circus act shows us just how incredible humans are. How are so many of us wasting our bodies?
As I’m on the train back to London I make a list of all the shows I’ve seen. I am disappointed by how little nudity I’ve seen onstage this year. My trip to Edinburgh last year began with Stripped Down’s Productions’ The Curing Room, but this year almost everyone has kept their clothes on.
Then I start counting. I realise that out of the approximately 217 actors (excluding Blind Cinema because I didn’t see them for very long) I reckon onstage, 8 of them were non-white (6 Asian, 1 mixed race, 1 black). (*I will do more exact count of this, but this is very close to being right*)
So I put my headphones in and try to ignore it.
Then I realise that ignoring it isn’t going to change anything. So I decide I’m going to make a change in what I see. But I’m seeing a wide range of things in Edinburgh and it all seems to be the same people doing it. If I can’t find see diversity in the biggest cultural festival in the world, there isn’t much hope for when I go back to my very un-diverse University city of Bristol. Edinburgh should be the most inclusive place in the world. It doesn’t reject anything. There was literally someone walking round the city with a bush on their head. How is that commonplace but non-white skin seems a rarity?
Only two of the actors I saw were disabled, and all but one of the one-person shows I saw were men (and I didn’t particularly like the one-woman one).
I’m going to actively try and see a more diverse range of people onstage because what an unfair world it would be if the only people on stage were white men with all their arms and legs. Edinburgh has such a rich diversity of themes but diversity as a theme doesn’t get enough coverage.
My brief time in Edinburgh has taught me a lot. I’ve realised I need to make a conscious effort to alter what I see to see more BAME- inclusive theatre. It has taught me that obsession is a great thing, that finishing projects matters and that persistence is key. So I am going to go home. I am going to finish Infinite Jest, I am going to run a half marathon, I am going to learn how to do a handstand and I am going to read and see and make more stories. And I am going to properly learn about the Labour leadership to the point where I can have a conversation about it and genuinely understand what I’m saying. So thanks Edinburgh.
The children sit behind us in the cinema and hand us the blindfolds. My boy beams proudly, looking so smart in his pristine school uniform and tie that is nearly as big as he is. Just before I put it on, my friend leans over to me and whispers, ‘I’m so glad you do theatre’.