In my first despatch from Edinburgh on Saturday I was saying that one should be always try new experiences up here – something The Observer put to the test yesterday by sending their star interviewer, Lynn Barber, to experience the entirely new experience of being here at all — something that will put a triple threat of what she calls her “biggest phobias” to the test, “going to the theatre, staying up late, encountering bagpipes”.
She admits in her very first paragraph, “I’ve spent most of my journalistic life complaining about the amount of coverage that national papers, including this one, devote to the festival – page after page of reviews of shows you’ll never see, performed by people you’ve never heard of.” That much she’d managed to surmise – and dismiss — without even having been here. But two more pages of such coverage to add the mountain of words written (and space therefore presumably wasted) on the festival – including, of course, these ones, but at least we’re not cutting down trees to read or write them – see Barber, who is probably the most incisive and brilliant profiler in national newspapers, reduced to an attack of ordinariness.
Gosh, she notices, there are a lot of shows to see! (“I have a Fringe Programme, which lists over 2,000 shows at about 250 venues”). Golly, anyone can come and put on a show here! (“There is no quality control. It is open to all-comers. Anyone who can find the money to book a venue and put an ad in the Fringe programme can mount a show.”) My, some shows have trouble getting audiences! (“I don’t know if it’s true but several people told me the average attendance at a Fringe show is two. I do know there were only nine people at the second performance of Night Time at the Traverse, and the Traverse is reckoned to be one of the best theatres in Britain.”) The Pleasance, she tells us helpfully, is “a courtyard surrounded by performance spaces”, where “in theory you could spend the whole day… watching shows continuously from midday to 2am.”
She intends to go to the opening Fringe procession down Princes Street – but stays home because “a) it was pouring with rain and b) there was a threat of bagpipes so I stayed indoors whimpering instead.” And yesterday, whimpering as I read this while it was indeed pouring with rain outside, I thought what a pity it was that someone who I’ve long thought of as one of the best journalists in Britain should use this journalistic opportunity (no doubt all expense-accounted) to sneer instead of cheer at one of the most astonishing events in the world. Yes, there’s a lot of rubbish; but as she reports Stewart Lee telling her, “all the most interesting people are here. Not necessarily the best or the most successful but the most interesting… I’d rather see anything here — anything out of 2,000 shows – than anything in the West End, which has had all the life sucked out of it.”
Barber is finally jolted into life by the Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s Macbeth: Who is That Bloodied Man?, “even though it started after 10 and was outdoors, i.e. freezing”, which she finds “one of the most exciting things I have ever seen: stormtroopers on motorbikes roaring up ramps with flaming torches, men on stilts as the witches, Macbeth dragging a naked man in a cage, a wonderful singer warbling away on a high platform, and occasional gobbets of Shakespeare, though luckily without the tiresome Porter.”
Of course, it’s the kind of thing you can only see in Edinburgh – or maybe outside the National in their annual Watch this Space Festival, but not inside it. When Barber goes to a 9.30am performance the next day (“let me repeat, 9.30 in the morning” – she now reveals an aversion to mornings as well as late nights, so wants to be cross about both) of Mark Ravenhill’s bold experiment to write and produce a brand-new play for each of 17 days this Festival, she calls what she sees “one of those plays meant to ‘shake us out of our complacency’ – as so many contemporary plays are, in my (admittedly limited) experience – but why doesn’t someone try to shake contemporary playwrights out of their complacency and tell them that putting static actors on stage to utter liberal pieties at tedious length does not actually constitute entertainment?” (And writing observations like this at even more tedious, self-confessedly ill-informed length constitutes journalism?) It makes her declare, “I would make it a rule that all contemporary plays from now on have to be performed on stilts, preferably with motorbikes and flaming torches, so at least there is something to watch when the words are too boring.”
Those last five words say it all: it’s fine for her to write dull words, but not for others to try expand the world (or at least themselves) with theirs. And Edinburgh sees playwrights like Ravenhill stretching their own creative envelopes as they do so: as he said in an interview in the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times yesterday of this particular project, “It’s production line writing. But it’s a great discipline. Edinburgh makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do because you need to stand out from the crowd. So I thought, ‘I’ll write a play for every day of the festival.’ As a playwright, you are usually looking at a subject every year or so. For this I have to find something new every day.”
As it happens, I started my own six-show day yesterday by attending one of these yesterday; and it was wonderful to see not just Ravenhill or his actors (yesterday, borrowed from Dublin’s Rough Magic Theatre Company) experimenting in this way, but also seeing a packed house also ready to take a risk on supporting it. (It has been proving so successful that from this week it is being moved from the small basement Traverse 2 to the larger main house Traverse 1).
But what I love about Edinburgh is the parallel universe you sometimes feel you are inhabiting; to be sitting in a full theatre, at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, shows that there is both a hunger and an appetite for something different and thoughtful, beyond the stiltwalking sensationalism of “event” theatre that so much of Edinburgh is also about. In fact, in a festival where plays have to be shoehorned into fitting slots that maximise the number of performances that each venue can accommodate so that many run for barely an hour or so, the Traverse continues to be a bastion for the unfashionable full-length play as well as these 20-minute experiments. I stayed on after the Ravenhill to see Rona Munro’s Long Time Dead — a two-and-a-half hour play that thrillingly takes us on a journey to scale mountaineering heights as well as the gentler slopes of human dramatic interaction. How amazing to be watching this at any time of day – but at 11 in the morning, you’re not just being transported to a different world but are already in one.
So what if, straight afterwards, you’re sent crashing back to earth, as I was, with a feeble commercial comedy about male mid-life crisis like Certified Male starring Les Dennis? And awful though it was, the same producers behind it were also responsible for the last show of my day yesterday, Eurobeat – Almost Eurovision, a brilliantly-sustained and hilarious recreation of a mock-Eurovision Song Contest, that could transfer intact to the West End tomorrow, and should.