Friday, September 4, 2009

My Take On Edinburgh

What an afternoon. I just failed my driving test for the third time. Sometimes I just hate England so much. But my free-form ramblings on that topic can take days. They draw upon such a number of probably-astonishingly-inaccurate observations I have made in my seven years here and employ a number of dubious theories of political philosophy, personhood, psychology, hermeneutics and geographical determinism, which is something I made up.

My time is limited and so let's focus on the non-England UK, the good part, and particularly the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. If you don't know, this is the annual August clusterfuck of the arts on an epic scale that I totally love.

I have seen some of the best plays I have ever seen at the Fringe: The Walworth Farce and Black Watch. I saw the Jerry Springer Opera, Demetri Martin at his sweetest and most magical in his one-man show. I've seen Dave Gorman, Simon Munnery, Phil Nichol . . . I saw the Soweto Gospel Choir and the Vienna Philharmonic . . . one of the best things I saw this year was a singer, Patti Plinko. Last year I didn't go to the Fringe, I took my child to a flower festival in Hungary. That was a mistake.

This year we kicked off after the train ride from London with A Rap Guide to Evolution by Baba Brinkman. This guy is an English professor who wrote a rap version of the Canterbury Tales so that his students would pay attention. A biologist asked him to do for Darwin what he had done for Chaucer so he studied evolutionary theory for a few months and then wrote this show. It was funny and absorbing and I really liked it. He not only rapped, but he explained competition among males of a species according to principals of evolutionary biology and then showed a gangster rap video that illustrated them. It was thoughtful and sweet and completely sincere niceness from a Canadian. He was so open about his feelings and his life, it sort of made me worried for him, I almost wanted to warn him about how English people brutalize you for showing your feelings. But I needn't have worried because one of the themes that emerged over the next nine shows was precisely this authenticity. This great ungroomed by Simon Callow, who-gives-a-shit-whether-this-makes-money-this-is-what-I-want-to-say rawness. Brinkman, like Plinko had this raw edge and its mesmerizing. Brinkman stuck it to creationists but good. Plinko sang songs about rape and suicide.

Next stop was a circus called Circa, recently in residence at a theatre in London, but the show was stopped ten minutes in when a fire alarm went off. Then the haul out to Pleasance for a show called Four Poofs and a Piano. Which was exactly like Just Jack from Will & Grace except with four camp gay men instead of one

That night was Plinko.

The next morning I hit a yoga class which was taught by this nasty mysoginist. This was a mistake as my other workout choice was a masterclass in Krunking at an Edinburgh dance studio. Krunking. Who in Scotland is teaching Krunking? I should have found out.

Then Sociable Plover. This was the surprise hit. It was the only thing available at that time slot. It's a phenomonal one act play. A twitcher is in a bird watching shed out in the marshes and a filthy guy in a suit with a gun wanders in. Expectations are elegantly reversed and the humanity of the characters shines through. The ending may need some work, but still, I adored it.

From Sociable Plover straight to Orphans, the hit at the Traverse. This play did not live up to the hype but it was still really good - a solid drama. And the acting was great. Is it me, or does the Traverse always have the best actors? The play opens with a couple having dinner and the wife's little brother walks in covered in blood. Great opening. The interaction between the three characters is mesmerizing. My fellow travelers where unenamoured with the very Mamet/Pinter repetition. It didn't bother me. Unlike Sociable Plover it had a great ending.

We then went to see a guy do a show called F*ckonomics which was billed as this ingenius explanation of relationships using economic principles but was not ingenius. I hate it when people do one-man shows and in telling stories of their lives they expose so graphically their failings as a human beings but they have no idea they are doing it. One sees so clearly the limitations of the person - their degree of self-knowledge -- in these one hour comedy shows. And it is awful. I think the guy's name was John Gordillo but it's not worth a Google. His observations were not at all insightful nor were they funny. I felt sorry for him but you know something? He has my eleven pounds to comfort him.

Next was a great show, another really sweet one, Tom Wrigglesworth's Open Letter to Richard Branson in which he recounts a true(ish) story of watching an old lady ripped off by a nasty conductor on a UK train journey. Wrigglesworth takes up a collection for her and is promptly arrested for begging. The show full of warm observations about the characters on the train and I felt oddly encouraged by it. There are good people out there. Wrigglesworth is funny, too. And I learned an interesting lesson about the reviewers at Edinburgh. I sat next to a very sweet one. He was crippled by a hangover to the point where he couldn't really carry on a conversation. He also seemed to be about 21 years old and had virtually no experience. Interesting.

Next was PowerPlant, a strange but wonderful installation of lights and sculptures and laser oddness at the Botanical Gardens. Our tickets were for nearly 11 at night and the installations were spread out over this huge, dark park. Inside greenhouses Bamboos exploded with neon as air induced vibrations buzzed your whole body. There was an organ that worked with bursts of fire. There was a smoke and laser creation - hovering UFO/flowers. Walking through them was disorienting and enchanting. Spectacle. Disorientation of the senses. It was great. I was really down on a spectical-based show a couple years ago called Fuerzabruta - again, not worth a Google, do not go. Fuerzabruta was a spectacle masquerading as theatre. This was pure spectacle.

The next morning before the train we were at another Traverse creation: Palace of the End. This was a Canadian playwright's take on the Iraqi war, three monologues: the woman pictured torturing the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib (Lyn England??), David Kelly and the wife of the leader of the Iraqi communist party at a time before Hussein was ousted.

I had strong feelings about this one. One one hand, it was sloppy theatre. The audience's relationship with the characters was never clear enough to understand why they were talking to us. And then there's the anti-war thing. I am hugely sympathetic to any theatre that condemns the was in Iraq. As long as it's good theatre. Don't just run with a topic and keep beating up the United States with sensationalist torture porn disguised as theatre. That's what I felt like I got instead of a story line in the first and third monologues. Despite this serious shortcomings, the ideas provoked by the monologues were so interesting. England and Kelly - it is very interesting what led each of them to do what they did. Kelly's was the best monologue but even that was marred by a gratuitous scene where U.S. soldiers rape a girl and kill a family.

Look, I am not saying there shouldn't be plays soldiers raping and torturing. I absolutely think there should be. But the torture has to have theatrical value and contribute to telling the story, not just be grafted on for the horrible dark thrill and creation of distress in the audience.

And what absolutely infuriated me was watching these idiot 20-somethings in the audience cry and cry - allowing themselves to be cheaply emotionally manipulated. Lord. Whipping up anti-American sentiment like that is easy. Let's see this Canadian woman write a real play instead. That is hard.

Then it was the train home.

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