When I came to prepare for my first Fringe as a writer, rather than as a visitor or critic, I started reminiscing on social media about the 40 years of Fringes I had attended, since my first in 1977. And then I thought perhaps I should pull them all together in one place in case anyone’s interested. It’s not a scientific one per year sort of thing because a) I didn’t come every year (I missed 1978, 1980, 1981, 1997 and 2013) and b) I just wanted the first 30 things that came into my mind. So here goes.
WHAT: The Loved One
WHERE: St Mary’s Hall
WHO: Oxford Theatre Group
The Oxford Theatre Group pulled together all the Oxford University activity at the Fringe. They rented a Masonic lodge at the top of Johnson Terrace as a kind of dorm for many years as well; I remember a row of camp beds under the all-seeing eye. I came to see what they were up to, to see friends – and this was the first show I saw, a musical based on the novella by Evelyn Waugh about a pet cemetery in Loas Angeles. Music by Howard Goodall, script by Richard Curtis, direction by Frank Doelger. All in their 2nd year at Uni. Oh yes. Wonder what happened to them? (for info, Frank, an American, is executive producer of “Game of Thrones”, so sunk without trace…) The pic is a still from the film (couldn’t find any pics of the show).
WHERE: Royal Lyceum
WHO: Citizens Glasgow
I remember this as if it was yesterday. First the Royal Lyceum theatre; I had never seen such a beautiful auditorium. Even now it is still one of the best. Then the show; the Glasgow Citizens in their pomp. Play by Robert David Mcdonald, about Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes rehearsing on the Venice Lido. David Hayman as Nijinksy in a white boiler suit (and nothing else); the late Gerard Murphy as Diaghilev, complete with full length black Astrakhan coat and hat; directed and designed by Philip Prowse on a set somewhere between a salon of a dance studio, complete with mirrors and barre but fine white sand on the floor (nine tons of it apparently); Gerry Jenkinson’s lights reproducing the white heat of a Mediterranean high summer. I had no idea who those people were at the time; but I knew I was in the presence of greatness and it made the most enormous impression on me. “Will anyone ever realise how wonderful it all was?”
WHAT: Rowan Atkinson
WHO: Rowan Atkinson
Rowan was a contemporary at University so I’d seen all his shows in Oxford and I’m not sure exactly which ones were included in this line-up but I think I’m right in saying the sadistic school master (“Nibble? Leave Orifice alone”) and the bureaucratic devil welcoming new arrivals in hell (“Atheists? You must be feeling a right bunch of nit-wits” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91DSNL1BEeY) were among the line up here. This was the turning point of his career; from here on it was upwards through Not the Nine o’ Clock News and on to Blackadder and beyond. The Wireworks, some will remember, was an extraordinary but shortlived venue just behind the Fringe office on the High Street, built out of a shell of a building by Rowan and his pals (Rowan delights in tech and – fun fact – holds an HGV driver’s licence, or did at this time) for his solo show. This show became the first stand-up routine to win a Fringe First. (That’s Alistair Moffat in the picture, then Fringe administrator, later head of programmes at STV and now prolific author and historian).
WHAT: The Gospel at Colonus
WHO: Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines
The Gospel at Colonus, developed by New York Svengali Lee Breur, is an ectstatic rendering of the last part of the Oedipus tragedy, when the tormented and now blind Oedipus finally finds a sort of peace. It is generally the most philosophical and least theatrical of the three plays but the improbable device of turning into a parable as told to a Pentecostalist church meeting was a stroke of genius. In 1982 (I think) it was still a modest, but already compelling, work in progress, with a wonderful a capella group called 14 Karat Soul doing most of the music and a preacher like a kind of Ray Charles. It was (again, I think) in the Circuit tents, another short-lived venue that for a couple of years took over the infamous Hole in the Ground, a derelict site long fantasised about as a site for a new opera house, now the home of the Traverse. Not the least extraordinary part of this little story is the triumphant return of the show, now complete and on a vast scale, to Edinburgh, now as part the Edinbrugh International Festival, more than 25 year later in 2010 where it raised the roof of the Playhouse with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama plaing the (blind) Oedipus at the centre of everything.
WHAT: The Portage to San Christobal of AH
WHO: Alec McCowen
One of those heady Fringe moments, I think 1982, might have been ’83, when a previously unannounced show turns up for a few nights and creates an enormous must-see stir. I can’t even remember what the venue was. Based on George Steiner’s book, adapted by Christopher Hampton, this starred the great Alec McCowen as a Hitler who had survived, escaped and been rediscovered in the South American jungle (as a number of Nazis were – Paraguay was a popular destination and it was a popular conspiracy theory at the time that Hitler was among them). The extraordinary spectacle of this great actor calmly and plausibly defending and justifying all the things that Hitler did (and remember Steiner is Jewish) has stayed with me ever since. You had to slap yourself from time to time to remind yourself what you were being drawn into. Mesmerising and ghastly all at once.
WHAT: Woza Albert!
WHO: Market Theatre, Capetonw
In the sweaty downstairs space of the old Traverse in the Grassmarket. Apartheid still in full swing. Mandela still eight years from being released. Electrifying mixture of politics, theatricality and joie de vivre. These people might be oppressed (the red noses were when the two guys were being whites) but it didn’t look like any force on earth could keep them down for long. Pic not the original production, so let’s not forget the two original guys, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, who also wrote it along with the late, great Barney Simon of the Market Theatre of Capetown. When it returned to Edinburgh a few years ago, it had inevitably lost some of its force but it is regularly revived, a classic of South African theatre.
WHAT: The First Edinburgh International Book Festival
WHERE: Charlotte Square
The new book festival was why I went in 83; Gilly, my then girlfriend, was the editor of a literary magazine and in those days book festivals weren’t two-a-penny. So off we went, driving all the way from London. I remember getting pulled over by the police within minutes of joining the M1 because apparently our conversation was so animated they thought we weren’t paying enough attention to the road. Only person I can remember seeing was Anthony Burgess whom I very much admired at the time. Was John Updike really there? The charming, soothing atmosphere of a tented Charlotte Square, under the stewardship of Jenny Brown, now Scotland’s literary super-agent, was apparent right from the outset.
WHAT: The First Festival Fireworks
WHERE: Princes Street Gardens
WHO: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a pyrotechnician called Wilf Scott
Fireworks in Princes Street Gardens, we thought? Might as well. We even had seats at the Ross Bandstand, so low key was the first event. It wasn a Thursday, I think. Nowadays you need to be minor royalty to get into the gardens. But back then no-one knew quite what to expect. We were promised musical accompaniment but it was a revelation that it really could be in time with the live band (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, from memory). And then they got to the Largo alla Siciliana, the 3rd movement from Handel’s Fireworks Music, and they let loose that now famous white and silver glitter fall down the castle’s curtain wall. You could hear the gasps from Jenners to Frasers. Firework displays are enormously impressive everywhere now but I have interviewed some of the pyrotechnicians who have done Edinburgh and they all say there is nothing like it anywhere in the world, the castle rock providing a perfect backdrop. Certainly felt something special that night back in 1983.
WHAT: The Dinner Party
WHERE: Victoria Hall
WHO: Judy Chicago
The visual arts have an odd relationship with the Edinburgh Festivals over the years with the National Galleries and the International Festival eyeing each other with varying degrees of hostility across the Nor Loch (although, to be fair for many years, the National Gallery, under Tim Clifford, used to compete with the National Museums to throw the best festival party). The public didn’t care about any of that; they just wanted to spend the morning contemplating something gorgeous before the drama and music kicked in after lunch. I remember properly discovering Raeburn and Ramsay for the first time, among others. But the one that sticks in my mind was The Dinner Party, a famous installation by Judy Chicago which toured the world and came to Edinburgh under the auspices of Di Robson, later herself to be a short lived director of Mayfest in Glasgow. It was the first piece of deliberately feminist art that made an impact on me; the stories behind each place setting were extraordinary. Now on permanent display somewhere. http://www.judychicago.com/…/the-dinner-party/dp-artwork/
WHAT: More Bigger Snacks Now
WHO: Theatre de Complicite
A star was born here – well, several, but Simon McBurney has burned brightest, a genuine original genius. The show, set in a grungey flat, even worse than The Young Ones on TV, was utterly mad and extremely funny; I have a recollection of McBurney rising up from a behind the pile of chaos, holding a plate behind his head so that he looked like a Russian Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary, with an expression of total bewilderment. They won the Perrier – of course they did but they were so much more than just funny Incidentally, among the short list (for the 2nd year running) were local favourites the Bodgers (Moray Hunter and Jack Docherty) who went on to become part of the Absolutely troupe. Theatre de Complicite, by the way, best name for a theatre company ever, after Shared Experience.
WHAT: King Lear
WHERE: St Cuthbert’s Hall
WHO: Deborah Warner’s Kick Theatre
You may have been aware that Deborah Warner had directed Lear twice before the one with Glenda Jackson in 2016. But you may not know that the first one was so long ago, when La Warner was still in her early 20s and when it was still possible to do a full three and a half hour show on the Fringe. Kick Theatre were a fixture for a few years in the early to mid 80s but this was the one I saw in St Cuthbert’s Church Hall at the west end of Princes Street. Three step ladders and couple of galvanized zinc buckets is all there was, all in daylight. That and piercing clarity of vision and great verse speaking, not least by the late Robert Demeger as a young (apparently he was 37) Lear and Hilary Townley, doubling as Cordelia and the Fool. He went on to become a well kent face at the RSC, NT and on the tele, but Warner entered the directorial stratosphere, pretty much as a direct result of his show.
WHAT: The Thrie Estaitis
WHERE: Assembly Hall
WHO: Scottish Theatre Company
1985 must have ben a vintage year – lots of memories. Or may be it was just the first time I was here for the whole festival. To my shame. I’d never even heard of this icon of Scottish theatre before I came to live in Scotland. Given how rarely it gets done, I was lucky to get to see it just a year after I arrived. Unaware of all the politics surrounding the play, the distinction of the actors in it (the only one I even vaguely knew of was David Rintoul) or the problems of the ill-starred Scottish Theatre company (a fore-runner of the National Theatre of Scotland, helpfully providing a model of how NOT to do it before the real one came along) I just went to see a show and thoroughly enjoyed it. And on Festival City Radio (remember that Janice Forsythe, Kate Copstick, Tony Roper, Geoff Webster?) the next morning I made a friend for life of Tom Fleming (the director) by innocently saying I couldn’t understand why all the English critics moaned about the difficulty of the language (16th century Scots is not for everyone) while cheerfully going to see plays in German, Polish or Japanese without a murmur. Incidentally the pic is from the 1948 production, also at the Festival, by Tyrone Guthrie who later went on to found the Stratford Festival in Ontario, building just such a thrust stage.
WHERE: Old Quad
WHO: Yukio Ninagawa
We had seen the staggeringly beautiful “Macbeth” from the great Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa the year before, strewing the Royal Lyceum stage with a carpet of cherry blossoms (traditionally the flower of death in Japan). So his return, with perhaps the most immediately accessible (even in Japanese) of all the Greek tragedies, was eagerly expected. Sure enough, even on a cold and rainy Edinburgh night, outside in the Old Quad of Edinburgh University, the power and spectacle were unstoppable. Medea was played by a man but in the elaborate costume and head-dress (see pic – sorry can’t find better pic easily) you would never have known and the ritualisation of the whole thing made it irrelevant. It culminated in one final unforgettable image, realising Euripides’ mysterious final stage direction which calls for Medea to be “borne aloft on a chariot” with her dead children. As the full horror of what had happened dawned on Jason inside the Old Quad, there, high in the night sky, way above the rooftops, was Medea, picked out in a shaft of white light against the darkness, screaming her defiance into the elements. It really looked as if she was hanging in mid-air. It was only later I found out that he/she had been on the platform of one of those “cherry-picker” lorries parked in the the lane round the back. But it so was so artfully lit that there was no sign of supporting arm in the darkness. I don’t think theatre has to be spectacular to be good but my word this was breath-taking.
WHAT: Living Space
WHO: Yvette Bozsik
The work that Ricky Demarco brought to Edinburgh from behind the Iron Curtain (kids, that was when something called the Soviet Union used to rule most of Eastern Europe) were a constant source of controversy, energy, fascination and brilliance and really helped to make Edinburgh unmissable The famous first appearance of Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class and the notorious Strategy:Get Arts palindromic exhibition (Ricky, unlike the Festival was always interested in the visual arts as an artist himself) was before my time. This show, from the Collective of Natural Disasters of Budapest, was extraordinary even by Ricky’s standards. A young woman, clad only in a loin cloth but caked in clay, is locked into a perspex box about waist high off the ground, with the audience standing around it. It is barely big enough for her to turn round. And yet within it she lives an entire life, birth, faith, sex, death transfiguration.The story going round at the time was that the show lasted only as long as there was enough oxygen in the box but I think that may have been a bit of nifty PR. Either way, it was an intense experience, further enhanced by the startlingly beautiful Yvette Bozsik who performed it and who went on to become a respected dancer and choreographer across Europe.
WHAT: Nixon in China
WHO: Houston Grand Opera
It maybe hard to imagine now, but for at least half the Festival’s lifetime, the city was ambivalent about the festival. Every year there was sniping and arguing about the cost and the incovenience and what Bernard Levin, the great Times columnist of yesteryear, brilliantly dubbed “the annual grudging of the money” from the City Council It had got louder after the city, douce, genteel Edinburgh, elected a Labour council in 1984. 1987 was the year that Edinburgh finally admitted it really did care about the festival and this was the show, apart from its own integrral qualities which were many. You may think you know about Nixon – he’s the Watergate guy, right? – and so he is. But this first visit by an American president to communist China, back in 1972 when it was still under the command of Mao Tse Tung himself, was diplomacy of operatic proportions as the American composer John Adams identified. The opera, directed by a young wunderkind called Peter Sellars, had been a huge success at its premier in Houston, Texas of all places and was a genuinely world shaking cultural event. It’s European premiere at Edinburgh would both enhance the festival and enhance the work’s reputation. But it needed to happen quickly that summer and EIF budgets had already been committed. With no more money from the Arts or City Council, Frank Dunlop, the then director, approached Magnus Linklater, then editor of The Scotsman to arrange a public appeal. It raised £50,000 (£134,000 at today’s prices) in about 3 weeks; many of the donations were small, sometimes accompanied by notes which said things like “I don’t go to the opera but I’d like the Festival to succeed”. The prodution was secured and was duly a triumph. And never again could anybody say that Edinburgh didn’t want the Festival (although there are a fair few who still happily rip it off).
WHAT: Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
WHERE: Lyceum Studio (or was it Theatre Workshop?)
It’s easy to forget how theatre in Scotland was in the vanguard of the recovery from the disappointment of the 1979 referendum. when Scotland voted in favour of having its own Parliament (by a margin very similar to the one that recently voted to leave the EU) but was denied it by a Labour amendment requiring a proportion of the entire electorate, whether they voted or not, to agree to it. (Had the EU referendum had the same stipulation, incidentally, we would not be in the mess we’re in now). Places like the Traverse, writers such as Peter Arnott, Chris Hannan and Liz Lochhead, companies such as Winged Horse and Borderline began to create from, though not necessarily about, a new kind of Scotland. Gerry Mulgrew‘s Communicado company was perhaps the most inventive of all and this show, in which they teamed up with Liz Lochhead for the script, was one of their very best. Welcomed by Anne Wood’s gypsy fiddle music, seduced by the shape shifting Myra Mcfadyen as the Corbie, dry observer and narrator of the scene, this telling of the familiar story of the “twa queens on the wan green island” was like no other. A fantastic young cast (Anne Lacey, Alison Peebles, Stuart Hepburn, Mcfadyen, Mulgrew himself as John Knox), Lochhead’s poetic Scots language (the opening speech must surely be about the best monologue about Scotland in Scottish theatre for the last half a century – “National pastime? Nostalgia!) and the genius idea of linking it all to the children’s game of the same name; it was riveting, hilarious, heart-breaking and also political. Don’t forget we had another “queen” on the “wan green island” at the time. And although it is revived quite often, I have never seen it better done than that first time.
WHAT: Man to Man
WHO: Tilda Swinton
WHEN: 1987Surprisingly only the second time the Traverse has come up in this trip down memory lane and the first time with one of its own productions. Tilda Swinton is an Oscar winning actress now but back then she was another struggling performer, known as an acolyte of the indie film-maker Derek Jarman and a nice girl (from one of the oldest families in the Borders – fun fact, her Dad was a major-general) gone interestingly off the rails (she had joined the Communist party while she was at Cambridge). At any rate, no-one quite expected the extraordinarily intense and focused – and career making – performance she gave at the old Traverse in a one woman play by then the relatively obscure East German playwright called Manfred Karge. Younger readers may need to be reminded that the Berlin Wall was still up at this point so visitors from the east were rare and exotic. Man to Man was loosely based around a true story though apparently Karge didn’t know that at the time; he had jsut heard ti as an anecdote at a party. It’s about a woman who lived as a man – became a dockworker – really just to surive. Swinton, always androgynous, was completely convincing. (The pic is from a later film; the stage version was much more brutal).
WHAT: Strictly Ballroom
WHERE: Odeon Clerk Street
WHO: Baz Luhrmann
Apparently nothing memorable happened after 1987 until 1992 which is obviously nonsense but hey its my memories so…
Ah, remember when the Film Festival and the other festivals were all on at the same time? Heady days. I was never a delegate (on a jury once – thank you Hannah McGill – but that was much later) because I was too busy doing reviewing etc. but getting to the opening or closing gala was always a good plan because the film companies tended to fund glitzier parties than the poor impoverished fringe parties.
In this case, however it wasn’t the party that sticks in the mind. It was this joyful, shimmering (all those sequins!), perfectly constructed, Ugly Duckling meets Cinderella fairy-tale, complete with Australian comic flair, which launched a certain Baz Luhrmann (it was his first film) on to an unsuspecting world and which, more recently, has lent its title to the most popular show on BBC television.
If you have never seen it, you have a treat in store; save it up for a rainy afternoon, kick back and enjoy. If you have, go back and see it again because I guarantee you will have forgotten just how note perfect it is. And in case you think, hey, this is supposed to be about the Fringe, bear in mind that it began life as a stage show, written by Luhrmann himself.
And when you’re at a low point on your own creative journey, and nothing works, and the reviews are lousy, and you’re fresh out of money, and your girl/boyfriend has dumped you because you won’t give it up, read the story of how close this film came to never being made so many times (the Wiki entry is not hard to find) and then think of where Luhrmann is now.
WHAT: L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato
WHERE: Festival Theatre
WHO: Mark Morris Company
Not much dance so far in this succession of memories because mostly I was at the theatre when the dance was on. But Mark Morris was something else altogether. Along with a few other artists – Peter Stein, Andras Schiff – he became a festival fixture for a number of years under Brian McMaster, bringing an openness and joy to dance, to choreography, to art, to life that few others could match. “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato” remains in my view, and that of many, his master work. You wouldn’t think that one of Handel’s more abstract, cerebral oratorios, based on texts by Milton, would be the key to this ecstatic, kinetic, portrayal of life in its many moods. But perhaps there was something in the relentless logic of late baroque music which drove the dancers on into that swirl of colour, energy and movement. The New York Times summed up reactions from around the world by saying “How blessed we are to live in an age in which such miraculous beauty is made!” In best Festival style, they did this with a live orchestra and singers instead of a recorded sound track. Was that the secret? Uplifting, transcendent, unforgettable.
WHAT: Dans La Solitude des Champs de Coton
WHERE: Drill Hall
WHO: Patice Chereau
Theatre stripped back as far as it can possibly be, the kind of play that makes Pinter’s stage directions look like George Bernard Shaw. Two people, an empty space. Each wants something that the other has; one is a buyer, the other is a seller. And that’s it. And yet for 90 minutes, in the Drill Hall that was later to host Black Watch (yes, that’s coming too, all in good time), in low light, with many shadows, the stage en traverse, this extraordinary play had me mesmerised. Written by Bernard-Marie Koltes and directed twice by the great French director Patrice Chereau before he appeared in it himself in Edinburgh with Pascal Greggory. They both wore long greatcoats so that very time they moved – which they did a lot, prowling through the shadows, along the length and breadth of the space – the tails of the coats billowed out like the wings of great dark predatory bird.
WHAT: Carmen Funebre
WHERE: School Playground
WHO: Teator Biuro Podrozy, Poland
A Fringe classic. Teatro Buro Podrozy from Poland. Who? Apparently they’re big in Poznan. Where? We are summoned by Ricky Demraco (who else?) to a school playground in the dusk? Really? Is this another Fringe gimmick? I’ve been doing this too long. There’s even a bit of a nervous chuckle as the first two figures appear, on stilts,juglging firesticks. How many Fringe cliches are we going to get in one show? Within seconds , no-one’s laughing as these two giant groteques start hauling people out of the audience (disguised company members, it turns out, but by then no-one was taking any chances; I think it was when these “innocent bystadners” were stripped to ther underwear that the penny dropped. By then, everyone else are drawing back in alarm at the visceral evocation of the savagery of the Bosnian Serbian war – and every war. For this is Mother Courage, Observe the Sons of Ulster, Troilus and Cressida, you name it, all rolled into a concentrated 45 minutes and filtered through the prism of an Eastern European sensibility where they are a lot less sentimental about broken bodies and man’s inhumanity to man; they’ve seen too much of both. Adrian Turpin, then a writer on The Independent, now the genius behind the Wigtown book festival summed it up brilliantly. “If you’d told me beforehand that a stilted grim-reaper carrying a 10-foot pitchfork or the sound of bells tolling as a stage-set burns could be more affecting than hours of news footage, I’d never have believed it. But it was.” The company had been around for about 5 years when this piece first appeared. It made them international box office ever since.
WHAT: Wreck the Airline Barrier
WHERE: Garage venue
WHO: Riot Group
By this time I am arts editor of The Scotsman. This wasn’t the first show I awarded a Fringe First to in my relatively brief tenure but it is one of the ones I remember most strongly because it was so out of left field. A bunch of American college students from upstate New York, in a tiny, nothing venue, unheralded, unannounced, turning up to the Fringe because they’d heard about it and effectively launching their careers off the back of it.. It was Mark Brown, now of the Sunday Herald, who spotted it – in what may have been his first year as a festival reviewer. I remember him calling in, almost before the Fringe had started, and saying quietly “Look I know it’s early days but I really think you ought to see this asap.” So I did. Adriano Shaplin, the writer and director and general enfant terrible claims I nodded off in the front row which is almost impossible to imagine, so loud and in-yer-face was the show in a tiny space. As Mark wrote at the time ” The labyrinthine script of glass-sharp fragments of language and the violently unleashed performances are simply incendiary”. But it was hot and stuffy…. Either way I saw enough to agree with Mark. The company rapidly overcame their desire to remain anonymous to accept the award and we all felt we had done a good thing that day.
WHERE: Royal Botanics Gardens
WHO: Toby Gough
Toby Gough – if there was one person other than Ricky Demarco who sums up my experience of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it is puckish, mischievous, birds-off-the-trees-charming Toby Gough. Scion of another military family (see “Man to Man” and Tilda Swinton), Gough won his first Fringe First when he was still a student at Edinburgh University with an adaptation of Grimm’s fairy tales at the Bedlam, appropriately titled Grimm. Even that was mired in controversy as the EU Dram Soc had effectively blocked him.
But trying to block Toby is a bit like trying to block the sun rising. Toby is not interested in barriers; he just carries on, sometimes leaving chaos behind him, sometimes leaving love and affection. Usually he uses Shakespeare as his battering ram, shamelessly adapting him to suit his ends; an African Macbeth, a Caribbean Tempest etc. And usually he brings everything to Edinburgh which he sees as his spiritual birthplace and creative wellspring.
These days he is quite a significant international producer of big song and dance shows, from India and especially Cuba, where he made his home for a while despite being imprisoned and in serious danger for overstaying a visa.
Persuading a very cautious RHS to allow the Botanics to be used as a Fringe venue was a typical piece of Gough chutzpah that even experienced site specific outfits such as Grid Iron had not managed. Not the least of his successes there was another Macbeth starring Danii Minogue – yes, that one – which had Edinburgh in fits back in 1999. It is a mark of Toby’s respect for the traditions of the Festival that while the tabloid press was going mental for a picture of Dannii in rehearsal, climbing walls illegally, offering thousands of pounds, he gave the exclusive on it to me at the Scotsman because, as he saw it, The Scotsman WAS the festival, the only paper that really mattered during August
This Pericles, coming from Sri Lanka in the year after the tsunami, had an additional layer of magic. Again, it was fairly standard Gough procedure to rock up, quite uninvited, in the devastated province of Galle and tell everyone who would listen that what all these orphaned, traumatised children needed were drama workshops using a text from a foreign country written in a language that was 400 years out of date. You can imagine the reactions of hardened disaster relief workers.
And yet Gough was right; Pericles depends on the consequences of a terrible storm at sea. The children blossomed; famously one little girl who had not spoken since the disaster found her voice again as a result of her involvement in the play. You can probably find more textually appropriate productions of the play, but with its combination of youthful vigour, colourful Sri Lankan dances and costumes, the magical fading light in the Botanics and some tested Toby tricks of lanterns, promenade and drumming, it was a triumph.
WHAT: All Wear Bowlers
WHERE: Aurora Nova
WHO: Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford
No set of recollections would be complete without mention of Aurora Nova or, as it previously was, St Stephens, that big old church at the bottom of Frederick Street which, with its wide space, high ceiling and high-tech fit-out became a mecca for high production value, often dance or movement based international shows. Is this where I first saw the extraordinary Derevo? It often broke the financial backs of those trying to work there but Wolfgang Hoffman made Aurora Nova an international brand and brought some of the best shows.
All Wear Bowlers – not sure why Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford’s beguiling show so sticks out in the memory from so many. It wasn’t even in the main upstairs space but in the smaller downstairs one. But so complete was their mastery of their schtick – which was stepping in and out of movie footage, something I hadn’t seen done before in 2006 (though I have seen it a lot since) that I was completely captivated. They’re funny too, not mime but usually silent (apart form the music) and very physical. I can see them yet.
WHAT: Black Watch
WHERE: Drill Hall
WHO: National Theatre of Scotland
Does this need any introduction? I have been privileged to see a lot of really great theatre in my time; the Mahabharata at the Tramway; Nicholas Nickleby, the original RSC production at the Aldwych; Ariane Mnouchkine’s version of the Orestaia, when Bradford was City of Drama, back in the 1990s.
Be in no doubt, this show, the coming of age of the National Theatre of Scotland, is up there with the best of them. From the opening pastiche of the Tattoo, which was of course going on just up the road from that first performance in the old Drill Hall, to the shattering coup de theatre at the end, every beat landed.
Was the genius John Tiffany or Greg Burke? Or was it Davey Anderson’s haunting score? Or the movement brought in by Steve Hoggett. [Neil Murray, the exec producer at NTS, calls to remind me “Gareth Fry ‘s sound, Laura Hopkins design and Colin Grenfell lighting were also a major factor. In many ways the man of the match was NTS Production Manager, Niall Black who somehow made it all work.”. Happy to include] Impossible to extricate one from the other. I know that Burke and Tiffany were worried sick before it opened that it would simply crash and burn.
As it was, the audience rose to its feet almost as one, a surprisingly rare event in Edinburgh, certainly at the theatre. And just a reminder – it was on the Fringe; the International Festival turned it down.
I was a working critic at the time and the cadre of critics in Scotland used to be – I’m sure still are – very disciplined about not sharing their thoughts before they had written their own reviews. But I remember Alan Chadwick, then reviewing for the Metro and a good friend, sidling up to me as we flooded out into Forrest Road, and whispering, “I don’t suppose we could give it six stars?” I wish we could have.
WHAT: Meow Meow
I really wasn’t looking forward to this; it was late, in one of those uncomfortable Spiegeltents, in George Square gardens, which was always crowded and rowdy and drunk. It was one of those shows that turn up late in the festival, unannounced, and try to be a bit cool about it all and throw a reviewing schedule out of kilter. But my New York friend Paul Lucas, then an uber publicist and producer, now a hit show writer himself (he wrote and produced Transcripts, whose impacts are still rippling outwards) kept pestering me in his quietly persuasive way and eventually I succumbed (as most do to Paul in the end).
Boy, was I wrong to hold out. By now, the legend of Meow has spread to every part – Les Parapluies de Cherboug in the West End, an outrageous Titania in the equally outragoues Dream which opened Emma Rice’s stormy stewardship of the Globe, and a sell out at the Usher Hall with Barry Humphries last year. But back then, although she was already quite big news in New York and Berlin and her native Australia, in the UK, no-one had ever heard of her. And she took advantage of that in this dazzling piece of cabaret theatre which, to me, finally rescued the wrongness, the subversion of the bourgeois and comfortable, the danger of cabaret, from a lot of giggling young girls in their first corset and camp young men who thought cabaret involved flashing your knickers and knowing the words to a couple of Marlene Dietrich songs.
Meow – I found out her real identity by a bit of digital digging later that same night but it seemed a shame to ruin the fun then and I’m not going to now, though it’s much easier to look up these days – was a properly trained opera singer so that, on the rare moments when she allows her act to release a phrase or a verse of a song, she reduced every other cabaret singer on the Fringe, as I wrote at the time, to so many foghorns moaning in the Forth. Dazzlingy beautiful, thanks, as she was at pains to point out, to some spectacular cosmetic assistance, unbelievably daring and risk-taking with her audience, a genius of timing and wit; well, I was hooked. She’s back doing the Little Mermaid this year. You’d be mad to miss her.
WHAT: Dry Ice
WHO: Sabrina Mahfouz
What you have to understand about being a critic at the Edinbrugh Festival and Fringe is that all of us who have done this are very nearly as nervous as all the performers. What if we get sent off to see an unknown Tom Stoppard, Denis Kelly, Ella Hickson – and we miss it? Or alternatively what if you write off some incomprehensible eastern european transgender dance piece and it turns out to be the latest thing? It happens; everyone (every critic) wrote off Waiting for Godot until Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan magisterially weighed in in the Sunday Times and the Observer respectively to say it was a work of genius. But having said all that there is nothing more exciting than stumbling acorss something unexpectedly, before everyone else gets there, and identifying it as a winner. Dry Ice, by a then more or less unknown Sabrina Mahfouz, was one of those for me. I had noticed a whole raft of shows about strippers on year – male, females, there was even a show in one of Edinburgh’s nototorious stripper bars – which I thought might make an amusing round-up piece. Ms Mahfouz’s show, set in a strip club and told by a waitress (which she was for a while – though fully clothed) was one of them. So I came to it much earleir in the Fringe than anyone else because there was nothing else that made it stand out except some remote connection with David (Friends) Schwimmer. But as she took to the stage, with just one of those bentwood chairs, and began her extraordinary monologue, the hairs on the back of my neck began to prick up. This was a poet at work, but a poet with an urban, grungey sensibility, a keen sense of character, dramatic stucture and all the other necessary elements. I wrote my review accordingly; and I can’t deny that it was gratifying to see the rest of the reviewing corps following on. I eventually me Ms Mahfouz towards the end of the Fringe, by chance, in the Abattoir bar (I’d never met her before ). She turned out to be charming, witty, and hugely intelligent, as well as gifted. We were able to thank each other. I think the review may still be on her website. She is a magnificent writer. People talk about “the discovery myth” and by and large they are right; most really talented people get where they get to by graft and hard work. Others – agents, producers, scouts – are looking all the time and although it may not look like it from the outside, there are routes to success. If I did, I am delighted to have played a tiny, tiny part in the development of Sabrina’s glittering career.
WHAT: Coup de Grace
WHERE: Sweet Venues
WHO: Shows on a Shoestring
Coup de Grace was the first show my producer, Effie Scott brought to the Fringe, to Sweet Venues one of the newer kids on the block, with her company Shows on a Shoestring. She had worked on previous shows with Sarah Chew among others as PA, AD and another intials. And she had toiled in the trenches of Frontt of House with Gilded Balloon for a number of years, But Coup de Grace was a brand new play, her company, in Sweet venues with a bunch of mates from E15 drama school. And it did pretty decently, Now she’s back at a whole new level of proefessionalism with Assessment by Robert Dawson Scott at Gilded Balloon and proving what a brillian producer/stage manager she is. What great memories willshe create for others to recall 40 years hence. I’m guessing there will be many..