A railing in Laurieston Place carries a peremptory sign, ‘No idling’. All right, the sign is not a Calvinist edict against sloth, but a bureaucratic, hypermodern warning against leaving the car engine running, and yet during the Edinburgh Festival only the dull of imagination could fail to see some deeper moral-metaphysical undertone. And of course everything connects. I saw the sign en route to Peter Straker’s Brel, which turned out to be a high energy, entrancing performance of Jacques Brel’s best numbers, with a lively backing trio. Wise epigrams pronounced by the Belgian singer flashed up on a screen, one of which announced that there was no such thing as talent, only endeavour and determination, while another declared, ‘Idleness is stupidity’. The connection with the notice on the fence induces a ponderous sense that uncanny forces beyond mere coincidence are at play.
Idleness cannot be tolerated at Festival time, and while endeavour and determination are much in evidence, they are no substitute for genuine talent. On that day in Laurieston Place I was coming from the Assembly Hall in an already reflective mood induced by the glowering statue of John Knox, a continual reproach to frivolous idleness, a mood deepened and darkened by the work on offer there, An Actor’s Lament, written and performed by Steven Berkoff, who will never be accused of idling. It is a sobering, not to say toxic, hors d’oeuvre for anyone about to embark on a round of theatre-going. Mercilessly and arrogantly, Berkoff dissects the inadequacies of those bereft of talent but who make theatre or prowl around it. Critics, ‘who crawl across the page like ants’, are obvious targets, but he also savages the egos of fellow actors and the power games of directors. However, if at times this rhymed script is an indulgent, closed glimpse at backstage life, at others it attains Pirandellian status in its questioning of the reality of theatre and the sham of life, and of the toll it takes on the personality of actors who don and cast aside the personalities of fictions. Berkoff himself performs with panache and majesty, strolling about on stage and speaking with authority, ably assisted by Jay Benedict and Andrée Bernard in all the other parts.
So, where is the talent and what is theatre, asks Berkoff, anticipating weighty questions raised in the courtyards of Summerhall, the Pleasance or in George Square near closing time. Better to skip that issue, and be prepared for various, vicarious experiences on offer around the city. It is not all beer and skittles. The determined theatre-goer will be invited to contemplate the dilemma of a randy threesome whose sexual experiments end with them involuntarily swopping gender and identity (Daniel Jackson’s Threeway), the chronicle of a Prussian lesbian who marries and joins the army but is executed when outed (Executed for Sodomy, by Danny West and Ben Fensome), the tribulations of two Irish brothers at the hands of a tyrannical father (Morning and Afternoon, written and sparklingly performed by Andy Hinds).
There are other trials which have no evident savour of pleasure, for instance with Anna, at Summerhall. Anna Politkovskaya was a brave, campaigning Russian journalist, eventually murdered for her courage in exposing outrages committed in Chechnya. To make audiences relive her experiences, Badac company forces them to stand pressed against the walls of a white-washed corridor, while commissars walk, run, taunt and hound Anna, shouting relentlessly at an intolerable pitch. It is uncomfortable, as it is meant to be, but after a time the production becomes self-defeating, for it is a fiction and it is reasonable to ask if this is the best technique for communicating the stifling fear dissidents suffer, and to wonder if some variation might not be dramatically more effective. Overall, the admirably ambitious and cosmopolitan Summerhall programme was a great platform for talent.
The weather this year helped create the mood that more blessed festivals like Avignon’s can effortlessly generate, but there was still some carping. It was suggested in some quarters that there are maybe just too many critics wandering about (including this one.) Some managers objected to the lack of experience of scribes taken on by the dailies, and at the proliferation of amateur online sites. Inexperience expresses itself not in scathing reviews but in ecstatic columns peppered with words like ‘visceral’, ‘raw’ or ‘ingenious’ and ‘a marvel’. One show was able to list eight separate four-star reviews. The annual meeting of the Fringe Society expressed concern over ‘the cancer of high costs’, meaning that companies and individuals risked being priced out. A speaker proposed that the Fringe venture into territory currently unaffected by Festival activity, an idea mooted, to general derision, by a pre-Blairite Labour Party when it first came to power in Edinburgh.
And then there’s the Scottish question. Stands Scotland where she stood? Afraid so. On the wings. Curiously, I have never before been struck not just by the spontaneous cosmopolitanism of the Fringe or the conscious internationalism of the Official Festival, but by the extent to which Edinburgh in August has become an artistic and national showcase for so many countries, so that coming to Edinburgh receives official national backing. It would be possible to identify, for instance, separate South African, Irish, Italian festivals, all promoted by their national cultural organisations. Florence now runs a competition called Florence for Fringe in which the prize for the winning company is a subsidised trip for the three weeks. This year’s winner was a powerful one-man performance, Fists of Sulphur, by Maurizio Lombardi, depicting the plight of sulphur miners in Sicily. The intense heat of the mine added to the misery of the labour, so Lombardi, bent double in a narrow tunnel, appeared dressed only in underpants, and deftly switched voice and demeanour to double as one of the boys as young as seven who were compelled to work underground.
Underlying this political decision in foreign ministries lay another debated issue, on the role of arts in society and on theatre as forum for discussion of the issues that affect society. In any other place, this discussion would be about means, but this being Scotland, the very issue is contentious. With Scotland facing next year the decision which will shape its future, it was an odd time for Director Jonathan Mills to announce that he would not create a space for this debate in the 2014 Festival programme. Surprisingly, the SNP minister Fiona Hyslop defended the policy, albeit in a wordy statement that twisted and turned to the far reaches of comprehensibility. The National Theatre of Scotland, on the other hand, has announced that it will be sponsoring a series of events from both sides of the argument, the one arranged by Dave MacLennan, for nay-sayers, and David Greig, for the aye ayes. This year, the NTS limited itself to putting on a Fringe show, Ménage a Trois, a delicate dance fantasy, executed by Claire Cunningham, who is herself, astonishingly, disabled and uses crutches. Crutches and words and images projected on curtains are her only props, but with these she created an inner world of longing and desire. Crutches for Scotland? No, that’s not what she meant.
There was a curious silence on the referendum this year, although there were angles on the Scotland question in works at the Traverse, which had a good festival. David Harrower’s play Ciara was not, he said, about Scotland but about Glasgow, ‘and its mythic, scarred proud history’, as he put it in his foreword. It is an engrossing enough tale of aspirations, disappointments and warped sexual desire, featuring a woman who is determined not to be a victim, but who gets dragged down. It could unfold in Liverpool or in the Bronx, with no special insights into Glasgow.
Scottish critics loved it, moving Lyn Gardiner in the Guardian to wonder whether they ‘are protecting their own?’ It is easy to counter attack and dismiss this as another instance of the closing of the metropolitan mind, but she might have a point. Initially it seems to present a different image of Glasgow and its folk, since Ciara is middle-class and lives in a pleasant suburb, rather than in some mean slum. She runs an art gallery, and has used her space to promote Torrance, an aspiring artist with a high conceit of himself and a displeasing personality, but in the background lurks Ciara’s Dad, a man with a violent past and thus a recognisable type from Glasgow’s literature. There is also Dad’s friend Bobby, equally violent, a potential rapist, or abuser. The woman is played by Blythe Duff, and there is no doubt that her magnificent, deeply felt, perfectly timed one-woman performance will silence any doubts, for the duration of the play. She wears a long, violet dress which makes her look as though she was attired for a Greek tragedy, or myth. She commands the stage, and when she moves to lounge against the concrete pillars, she makes the spectator believe these could be columns of a temple as much as wreckage in Glasgow.
The Traverse was also the venue for the production of I’m with the Band, a play by Tim Rice about the issue of Scottish independence, put on by a Welsh company. There were four members of the band, an Englishman, a Scotsman and … no need to go on. The titles of the individual scenes were listed on a screen, the first one called We’re all in this Together, and if one of the cast had come forward with a banner reading METAPHOR, the drift of the play could not have been clearer. The Scottish guitarist wants to leave the band, causing dismay among the others, especially the English member. The Irish player has a fondness for intoxicating drink, while the portrait of the weedy Welshman would have been the subject of legal proceedings if the production had not originated in the Principality. It will surprise Scots to discover how indispensable their presence is, since once the guitarist leaves, the whole thing descends into mayhem, with players battering each other ferociously. ‘People would die to be in this band, and we’re fighting over what?’ says Damien, the Englishman. There is nothing here that would clarify that point, or any point.
The Traverse also staged The Secret Agent, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, and created by Theatre O and Matthew Hurt. I could not make out whether it was actually intended to relate to today or whether it was an exercise in stylised play-making. It included a Charlie Chaplin episode, a musical number and puppetry before settling for melodrama. David Greig’s The Events was an altogether deeper, more powerful attempt to struggle with the problem of human malice evil which has been at the core of drama since the Greeks. The central event, although never referred to specifically, is plainly the slaughter of the young Norwegians by Andrei Brevik. Claire (Neve McIntosh), a priest and a good woman, a rare creature on the stage, struggles to comprehend the murder of her partner in that massacre, but carries on with her duties, notably with the choir, who fill the stage. The only other actor, referred to as The Boy (Rudi Dharmalingam), plays the other parts and if the discussion between the two has the tenour of Shavian debate, the Boy also takes the work to the threshold of myth. He wonders what he would do if as an Aborigine he saw the first European ships arrive. ‘Kill them all?’ Where does the impulse to hurt spring from, or as he suggests to Claire, ‘What if bad things just happen?’ Greig is amazingly prolific and his reputation grows with every play he writes.
Many bad things do happen on stage, and some times it is easier to take refuge in a wonderland where only gentleness rules. That seemed to me the case with On Behalf of Nature, by Meredith Monk, puzzlingly listed as theatre in the Festival programme, although it was a work of music and dance expressing an aspiration for a greater ecological balance. The performers were identified only as voices, since they wordlessly intoned sounds, but the work was insubstantial and drifted from mind when the music stopped. The Chinese Coriolanus received some astonishingly negative notices from critics disconcerted by its mixture of modernity, with the rock band wheeled on during the crowd scenes, and tradition, with a style of acting and delivery which seemed of the Laurence Olivier school. Brecht rewrote this tragedy to emphasise the class struggle in Rome, but the Bejing People’s Art Theatre preferred to focus on the clash between the Roman and Volscian heroes, as well as on the encounter between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, after he had gone over to the enemy.
Volumnia, if Mr Mills permits, could be the symbol for next year’s festival. Debate in theatre, when conveyed with talent, can change minds, unless of course they are irretrievably idle.