‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre

Matching each other, name for nameThere is a large photograph on the front page of today’s newspaper.  It is of Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin as Lear and Regan in the new production of King Lear in the Olivier Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.  This latest collaboration between Mendes and Russell Beale is clearly considered newsworthy; and Charles Spencer, on the Reviews page gives the show four stars.

I’m neutral on the subject of Sam Mendes, but where Simon Russell Beale is concerned, I’m a fan.  I’ve seen him on stage many times, I’ve booked things that would largely not appeal to me solely on the strength of his participation, and have never been disappointed…..until now.

It’s probably a shameful confession, but here it is anyway.  So little was I enjoying the experience, I left at the interval.  I had sat through two hours, and the thought of another hour and a half brought tears to my eyes.  I had already been near weeping for the half hour or so before the break, when I was on hyper alert for the rhyming couplet that normally indicates the end of an Act; and each time I had convinced myself that it must, it just must be now, another actor would appear on stage out of the darkness, and shout some more.  Finally, during the eye gouging scene in which they poured water onto the stage, and the bloodied actor wiped his face on it, my silent cry that surely this must be the interval, if only to allow time for the wiping up, the lights went out and the stage was empty.

After sitting through some awful nights in the theatre trying to appreciate Shakespeare (yes I’m talking about you, Ralph Fiennes) I had all but given up on it. It was the National’s production of Othello last year which encouraged me to believe that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily mean meretricious tedium. That was a production of a play I didn’t know well, but which, because of it’s cleverness and the brilliance of the performances, let me understand it, and engage with it on both an intellectual as well as an emotional level.

King Lear is another of the canon that I don’t know well, apart from the broad brush strokes: the three daughters, the carving up of the kingdom, the old king going mad….. and with SRB in the lead, surely here was a production that would enlighten and entertain me.

I think my dislike of the production all stems from a single problem, which was that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  For all the shouting and shrieking, the words were remarkably indistinct.  This, added to the frequent changing of scene, of one group of actors leaving as another arrived, I couldn’t really work out what was going on, or more importantly why.

S, my theatre companion and I, were in agreement that the only actor whose words were being enunciated clearly enough for us to hear was the one playing Edmund.  It was therefore very amusing to read subsequently (I’m far too tight fisted to buy a programme) that this was Paapa Essiedu, the understudy for Sam Troughton who had lost his voice midway through the performance of the previous day.  Maybe as understudy, he’d not yet achieved the ‘production style’.  It was very disappointing, but must have been a production decision, because I have never not been able to understand what Simon Russell Beale was saying before; and Anna Maxwell Martin’s usually mellifluous voice was lost in her awkward, shrieking harpie.

S would have probably stayed for the second half if I hadn’t asked her if the only reason for staying was that we thought we ‘should’.  Leaving was the only option once we’d acknowledged that it was the naughty thing that we shouldn’t do.

Have you seen it?  Did it get better after the interval?

Clearing out the Clutter

A few days before Christmas I visited the Design Museum to see the Paul Smith exhibition.  Thank goodness for my Art fund pass which afforded me entry for half price, so that I felt underwhelmed, rather than actively cheated, by the show.

Paul Smith is evidently a collector, and keeper, of all manner of stuff; stuff that accumulates in his office and studio, and which may or may not influence his clothes designs.  He has lent some of this stuff to the Design Museum for the show.  In one area the stuff is arranged in a replica of one of his early studio/offices, in another area, his first collection of clothes is laid out in a cardboard replica of the Paris hotel room in which he showed it.

I suppose my lack of interest in claustrophobic accumulations of random stuff is a barrier to full enjoyment of the exhibition.   I left the building with renewed resolve to come home and clear out all the unnecessary stuff in my own home.

In the week before I went away for the holiday season I shredded five large bin bags of papers – early drafts of novels, my own and other people’s, ten year old bank statements, tax returns and insurance certificates, those things that are important to keep, but not necessarily forever.  I eliminated piles of papers that I had moved off the dining table when I had visitors; I knew what was in them, I just needed to empty a few folders before I could file them in a more appropriate place than under the bed.

I allowed myself to do it one little bit at a time.  I promised myself I only had to do an hour a day, and that when the hour elapsed and I wanted to stop, I could.  I didn’t have to make everything tidy, I could walk away no matter what the room looked like.  It worked.  It removed that barrier, the thought that there was so much to do I would never be able to finish it.  That no longer mattered, because I didn’t have to finish it if I didn’t want to.

I was pleased with the result. I did feel lighter and more organised.  Even if, to the untrained eye, the flat looks unchanged, and as full of things as it always has, I know that there is less stuff bearing down on me, and there is space to put things in the filing cabinet and in the desk drawer.

The project is a continuing one; in fact it may never end, but I am reconciled to that, as it only takes a few minutes a day.

Adrian Villar Rojas at The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

2013-10-02 15.15.45We’d had a coffee in the courtyard cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, still able to comfortably sit outside on the unseasonably warm October morning, once the rain had stopped, and decided that we should go and have a look at the new Serpentine Gallery.  All we knew about the new space had been gleaned from newspaper articles: it was somewhere in Hyde Park, had been a munitions store, and the refurbishment had been designed by Zaha Hadid.

With no discussion, but deep in conversation, we headed down Brompton Road towards Knightsbridge.  It was only after we’d navigated the crossroads by Harvey Nicks that we looked at each other , and in near unison, said, we should have just walked up Exhibition Road.

I like to congratulate myself on the London map that I have in my head.  There are whole areas that are blanks, there be dragons,: tracts  of the City, most of what is South of the River, but the West End and west as far as South Kensington, I like to think I’ve got well mapped as it were.  But walking two long sides of quite a big triangle, instead of taking the direct route, is a reminder that it can sometimes be quicker to think about where you are before setting off.

Having said that, it was a lovely afternoon for a walk in Hyde Park; the sun was so warm that we both ended up carrying our jackets, and because of our ridiculously roundabout route, I saw areas of the Park from new angles.  Our wandering tour was worth it in the end.

The inaugural exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler is a huge installation by Adrian Villar Rojas.  When we arrived, the gallery was being evacuated because of a fire alarm, so we walked around the outside of the building to examine the curves and sweeps of the Zaha Hadid 2013-10-02 15.11.07extension.    From some angles, the whole looks rather incongruous: a square building of golden bricks with a white curve stuck on the side; but the curving roof does have a pleasing shape, and cries out to be stroked – a possibility in those places where it swoops to the ground.  It appears to be made of painted plastic and canvas.  Light flows into the space from light wells in the roof, which are integrated into the support pillars, shapes reminiscent of the depiction of Triffids on 1960s editions of the John Wyndham novel. (There are T-shirts sporting the design shapes, in the minimalist shop for a mere £45.)

It clearly wasn’t a major fire emergency, as by the time we had complete the circuit of the exterior of the building, we were allowed to go inside.

The whole gallery is dedicated to the Villar Rojas installation, even down to the bricks on the floor, which the young man who greeted us at the door informed us were specially made, and had been laid loose, so that they respond with creaking and chiming as you walk on them; like a distant relation to the nightingale floors of Imperial Japan.  Evidently, all of the bricks are newly made using traditional South American methods.  It’s an astonishing feat of concentrated hard work and industry.

The entrance area is dominated by a sculpture of an elephant, made from textured concrete and plaster, apparently ramming itself into the wall, pushing its way into the gallery.  There is something both powerful and poignant about it – its great shoulders stuck underneath a lintel, and its trunk curling helplessly below it on the floor.  The surface is rough, and cracked, as the concrete has dried.  Interior walls of slowly drying and cracking concrete surround the rest of the installation.  The temptation to touch and to feel the surface is near overwhelming (and I gave in, but only for a moment, and really, really gently on tippy tippy finger tips), and there is that smell of fresh plaster in the air, that reminder of every hellish home refurbishment project ever undertaken.

Villar Rojas has created a collection of apparently random objects, the detritus of bits and pieces of contemporary life, and displayed them on racked shelved reaching to the ceiling.  Many are coated in concrete, or sprout vegetation growing from green potatoes.  It’s as if we are looking at a vision of our world which has been dug up by slightly confused archaeologists of the future.

I’m not sure I understood it, but it’s one of those exhibitions that will stay in the memory, if only for how much fun it was to walk on the brick floor.

‘A Doll’s House’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Nora has been petted and indulged her whole life, first by her father and then by her husband.  She makes few decisions, and those that she does make, she expects to have few consequences.  She has done one thing though which will have far reaching effects when her husband finds out about it.  He believes that her desire for money, for additional housekeeping, is to indulge her childish pleasure in shopping.  In fact she needs the cash to pay the interest on a loan she took out to pay for a trip to Italy for her husband’s health.

I believe this is a new translation of the play, and I was watching and listening to the sharp intakes of breath from the audience in response to the most patronising and infantilising things her husband says to Nora, I did wonder how heavily the original Norwegian text had to express the notion of the frivolity of women for a 19th century audience to react to it; because Nora, when we first meet her, is a self-obsessed, irritatingly silly woman.  So irritating that K, my theatre companion, expressed a reluctance to remain in her company for the second half after the interval, until I persuaded her to stay.  The point of Nora is that when she understands that her husband really does see her as only a decorative adjunct to himself, she awakes from her doll like sleep and leaves to grow into herself on her own. It must have been a controversial idea at the time it was written; but still today I heard a conversation in the audience after the play about the wickedness of her leaving her children behind (especially after the murmurs of surprise and approval when they had a real toddler, rather than a rolled up blanket prop on stage in one scene where she was playing with her offspring.)

I enjoyed the play, as, in sharp contrast to my experience of Fences it gave me a portrait of a deeply flawed character who, though her experiences, developed some self-awareness and understanding of her own role in her frailties.  Hattie Morahan as Nora shows her development from silliness to anger as one of slow gradations, her fluting childlike voice gradually changing to one of deep adult power as the drama progresses, until finally she leaves the house slamming the door loudly behind her.  There was also real pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that Nora’s school friend, the sad, widowed Kristine has finally found happiness with the suitor she thought she had lost years before.

The drama is acted out in a clever and intricate revolving set. The doll’s house of the title, it does indeed resemble one of those toys where opening the front reveals tiny details of a home, as well as having more than a passing resemblance to one of those wheels in a hamster’s cage that keeps the pet running, no matter how pointlessly.

It’s about taking responsibility for yourself, a properly occupying your own life, and I found that a surprisingly optimistic message.

‘Fences’ at the Duchess Theatre

2013-08-31 12.29.47This production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences‘ has received universally positive reviews in the press, and those journalists who award star ratings have generally given it four.  It was therefore something of a disappointment that my conversation at the interval with K, my theatre buddy, was on the question of whether this was or was not, in our opinions, as bad as, or worse than ‘August, Osage County’.

It was perhaps the coincidence of the word ‘August’ in the name of Fences‘ playwright and the name of the other play, but Tracy Letts’ work, which I endured at the National Theatre a few years ago, is broadly my low water mark of tedious, over long examinations of family dysfunction in contemporary (ish) US drama.

The result of our discussion was a draw.  K thought Fences was worse, I disagreed (but then I did truly loathe Osage County).

This was the first August Wilson play I have seen, although K had seen ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ in New York, coincidentally on the famous occasion, in 2009 or thereabouts, when POTUS took FLOTUS on a date night to the theatre, making it, K, observed, quite difficult to leave at the interval, even though she didn’t care for the play.

Having said all of that, we did stay and watch ‘Fences’ through to the end.  The acting in the production was very good; Lenny Henry does occupy the stage with confidence, including great moments of stillness, and creates a blustering, unsympathetic character very effectively; and Tanya Moodie as his wife had a fantastic voice and tone.

The problem for me, was the play.  It was a portrait of a self obsessed, self pitying, disappointed man, and the damage he did to the people associated with him.  There was no development of that character other than the passage of time and the revelation of even more unpalatable events. He wasn’t tragic in that he had no sense of his own fallibility and frailty, and appeared to learn nothing over the course of the play.  He gave some really self pitying speeches, punctuated with threats to his sons and his wife.  It was a bleak portrait of a particularly nasty type of a man.

It was also perhaps unfortunate that it seemed that many members of the audience had come expecting to see a comedy, and therefore, primed for a laugh, started rattling away as soon as Henry appeared on stage, and continued periodically, even at astonishingly inappropriate moments.

All those four stars are still a mystery to me.

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 6

Yes, yes.  I know I’m behind with this diary writing business.  I knew when I started I was forging a rod for my own back, but it didn’t stop me in my enthusiasm to make a record before I forgot, before each new experience overlaid the memory of what I’d seen the day before, the hour before, just before I ate that ice cream.

It’s a couple of days since I left Edinburgh to return to the West coast, and I can’t quite believe how much I saw and experienced.  The debate about what was the best thing, the most memorable thing, the thing I wasn’t sure about at the time, but which is now the most vivid in my memory, the most fun, the most thought provoking, the thing I’ve changed my mind about the most since thinking about it, will continue for some time.

In the meantime I’ll fill you in on the last half day of my Festival which saw me back at the Queen’s Hall for a concert of works by Couperin.  I will confess my ignorance up front.  I didn’t know what to expect, other than a recital involving a harpsichord.  It was played by Christophe Rousset and his period instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyrique.  Having been to the exhibition of Vermeer paintings of musicians and instruments at the National Gallery within the last month, there was a certain synchronicity in hearing a harpsichord in concert.

Perhaps I was a little festivalled out; or perhaps the 5 hours I had spent sitting quietly concentrating first on Mozart and then on Shakespeare (in Mandarin) the day before had exhausted my sitting still quotient, or maybe I’ve got cloth ears, but once I’d admired the look of the harpsichord imagining it in a painting, wondered to whom it belonged (I’ve since discovered it’s the University of Edinburgh), and if the man tuning it was a specialist harpsichord tuner or also a piano tuner,(and how much call there would be for dedicated harpsichord tuners,) marvelled at the dexterity of the playing, and enjoyed the tinkling notes washing over me for the first few pieces, it began to all sound a little bit the same.  (Cloth ears is a distinct possibility as the Guardian music critic awarded the concert 5 stars….)

I’m still glad I went.  As I am for all of the things I saw and heard; and will be debating what the subtext of some of them was for some time to come yet.

And so my first Festival experience came to an end.  It was a fantastic experience, and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to go for the first time.

I’ll be back for sure.

I’d love to know if you’ve seen any of the same things as me, and what you thought of them.

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 5

2013-08-22 10.00.00Don’t worry, I’ve still been festivalling, I just ran out of steam on the writing front…..

Day 5 might be characterised as being of Mozart, Mary and Will with Chinese Rock.

The day’s activities began with a concert at the Queen’s Hall by Nachtmusique an ensemble which specialises in using ancient instruments in their performances.  The programme was all Mozart for wind instruments, principally  basset horns and clarinets, which were, according to the notes, new technology at the time Mozart was composing.  I’d never heard of a basset horn before, let alone seen one, so given my rather visual approach to music concerts, I was fascinated to have a look at them and how they are played.  A wooden instrument with some fancy looking ironwork, with a knee bend in it in the middle, it is apparently possible to play it in one of at least positions, as two players held it to the outside of one of their thighs, while the other held in more centrally.

A varying number of performers occupied the stage for each piece, some written, according to the programme notes while Mozart was playing a game of skittles.  We also heard the overture to The Magic Flute scored for woodwind.  I like the idea that various forms of each piece might have been written so that the widest possible audience might hear the music: so you can’t get to the opera house, you can still hear a flavour of the piece from a smaller group of musicians in your drawing room.  I sat for a while wondering what a group of none musicians is called, and it turns out, that on that particular occasion it was an octet plus a double bass.

The Queens Hall is a deconsecrated Church which has been a concert hall since it was opened by the Queen in the early 1980s, but it still bears traces of its religious past.  The audience sits on velvet padded seats, but, the upper balcony, their backs are pressed against the straight wooden back of the old pews. There’s no slouching here.

Thence to the Mary Queen of Scots Exhibition at the Museum of Scotland.  In common with the notion of challenging everything we think we know about a period in history that had been so interesting at Sarah Chruchwell’s talk at the Book Festival, this exhibition sought to put Mary into her historical context, her relationships with the major political events in Western Europe of the early Renaissance, and to present her as neither saint nor sinner.

I found the exhibition fascinating, if only because I was able to answer questions I’ve had since my very fractured school girl education in Scottish history; those questions which while not an every day persistent worry, make me feel rather ignorant when I do consider them.  How exactly were Mary and Elizabeth l related?  How were the Hanoverian Kings related to the Stuart monarchy.  (I’m not going to tell you, it’s all there in the museum….)

I thought the complicated inter relationships between the Royal House of England, Scotland, France and Spain were well explained.  You could see what each monarch was trying to achieve and how they were gambling on positioning themselves; and Mary was one of the pieces in the game puzzle that kept being moved around.  When she was left in charge on her own, it seems as if she was doing fine, her education and upbringing had brought her to expect to be Queen, and then she married Darnley and it all went downhill from there on in.  She lost her what judgement she had at the sight of a pretty young man.  What irony there is in an era where, because the Church forbids divorce, murder is the only option.

Many of the artefacts are ‘thought to have been’ Mary’s, but there is one piece, a huge piece of embroidered squares and emblems that was definitely made by her,  It is an extraordinary thing to look at: she was a skilled needlewoman and had many years of confinement in which to practice it, and she fashioned her various emblems into it.  It made me pause to think of a life led half as a Queen, and half as a prisoner; by the age of 25 she had been widowed twice and been deposed.

The exhibition led to a debate over which Royal House had won the big game of cards; which dynastic line survived the best.  Elizabeth ruled successfully, but it was Mary’s son who succeeded.

From one story of rivalries and betrayals to another in the evening.  Coriolanus was performed by The Beijing People’s Art Theatre in Mandarin, as part of International Festival.  The Playhouse is a big theatre and it was full on Tuesday night; some of the audience wore their chains of office and, form my vantage point, it was clear that there was a degree of diplomacy underway.

The stage was stripped back so that the action took place against a backdrop of bare brick walls, with a huge chorus of drably dressed populace.   English surtitles had been promised, but they were largely out of step with the speed of the dialogue, so mostly I had no idea what was being said, but it did seem to be a fairly traditional interpretation of the Shakespeare, but with the startlingly anachronistic addition of two competing rock bands, complete with thrashing guitar chords, and knee length hair for swinging about in frequent head-banging interludes.

The main actor playing Coriolanus had the gravitas and stage presence that drew the eye even before it became clear of his role, but I found the rather stylised, declamatory acting manner of the cast, and especially his mother rather distancing.

The production reminded me very strongly of things I saw in Moscow in the early 1990s when artistic control was loosened and directors were trying new ‘modern’ effects, and were testing the boundaries, throwing in odd bits and pieces they hoped would be striking and controversial: my yardstick always being the rock version of Anne of a Thousand Days in which Henry Vlll and Cardinal Wolsey stripped to the waist, in black lycra leggings, fought each other with whips  over the future of the Church of England.

What would be interesting to know is how the story of Coriolanus plays in present day Chinese politics.  Is it a tale of the population let down by arrogant leaders, or one of leaders undermined by the fickleness of the mob?

One more day of EdFest to go…….

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 4


Carlton Burial Ground and the Roof of Holyrood

The busiest day so far, and it’s encompassed The Queen’s Gallery, a graveyard, the Fringe, the Book Festival and hoola-hoops.  What more could any person want?

The day began at the exhibition of da Vinci anatomical drawings at the Queens Gallery at Holyrood; or if I am to be absolutely truthful, the day began with coffee and cake at the cafe at Holyrood.

The da Vinci drawings have been in the Royal collection since 1690, but it was only in the 20th century that they have been fully appreciated.  Now removed from the leather book binding in which they were kept for centuries, scientists and doctors have been able to see how truly accurate and extraordinary the drawings are.  With no blue print before him, Leonardo developed his own way of sketching the body, stripping away layer by layer to reveal the sinews and bones and tendons beneath the skin.

The price of admission brings with it an audio guide which both explains the key drawings, but with the contribution from a surgeon reveals how da Vinci’s work prefigures what can now be proven with the use of three dimensional scanning, and how it is possible to tell that the drawings must have been a real person, because of the abnormalities depicted. Because da Vinci was interested in the way things actually work, everyone going round the exhibition, at one moment or another, finds themselves flexes their fingers, or stretching out their arm and making a fist, just to check they are made the same way.

Unconsciously in choosing the exhibition on anatomy, I was making a link to the strong muscles and straining tendons I had seen at the ballet on Sunday.  Our next stop had another similarly tangentially link.

The Carlton Burial Grounds is very close by Holyrood so it was just a step across the road to see The Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen Christine Borland and Brody Condon.  Installed in one of the watch towers which were erected to protect the graves of the newly dead in the period when Burke and Hare, the resurrection men were stealing bodies to sell to the Edinburgh medical school for anatomy lessons.  The tower is now derelict, and Borland and Condon have suspended a long string of jacquard cards, the arrangement of holes in which set the pattern for weaving cloth, but which in this installation tell the story of two girls living in the home for daughters of decayed tradesmen.  These stories, told in a nearly lost language now gently undulating in the breeze, will be unfathomable unless you can read binary code.

It’s a thought provoking work set in a fascinating place.  The Carlton burial ground was for Edinburgh tradesmen and their families, so many of the stones and small temples record not only names and dates but also occupation: auctioneer, merchant, sea captain.

From there we walked up the Royal Mile to launch back into the Fringe, hunting out our venue by its number, to discover that it was not a coal cellar or someone’s garage, but instead one of the meeting rooms in the Radisson Hotel.

Magic Number 6 is a one hour play charting the deterioration of the relationship between Patrick McGoohan and Lew Grade during the making of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. I’d booked the play because the writer has recently completed an MA in screenwriting, and the subject matter, about the conflict in a commercial creative world is something that interests me.  It may not be an ideal reaction, but what struck me most forcibly in watching the show, was how difficult it is to write a short play.  Some of the scenes of the confrontation between the two men were tight and tense and well performed, but as a whole, the play lacked its own moral, and given that ultimately the dispute was over money, not enough about the importance of the budget was established at the beginning, when Grade appeared to approve the project without any comment on the finances.

We had to hot foot it back across to the New Town for an afternoon slot in the big tent at the Book Festival where Liz Lochhead, Makar (Scotland’s National Poet) was in conversation about Scottish culture in the thirty year life of the Book Festival.  It turned out to be not really about that, but as she said at the outset it would be a ‘bit of a blether about books’.  It also emerged that while she was very happy to talk about the flowering of literary talent in Scotland in the last decades, she resoundingly rejected any suggestion that just because it was Scottish something was good, as if it wasn’t Scottish it was bad.  It was refreshing to hear her strong opinions, and amusing to sense the anxiety of the chairwoman about what she might be about to say next, especially when she started on the subject of poor productions of her own work she’d seen.  But what was good to hear was the celebration of good work from wherever it came, and the ability to experience it in Scotland.

Circa Wunderkammer is one of the shows with the most posters around town, and about which we’ve already had several conversations with strangers.  I’d ordered the tickets some while ago, so was pleased that it turns out to one of this year’s hot topics.

What can I tell you?  I was not disappointed at all.  They are a remarkable troupe of acrobats from Australia, strong and lithe and humorous, doing unbelievable stunts.  Once again I was wondering at the muscles and the timing; they perhaps lack the grace of the ballerinas in Scottish ballet, but have you ever seen a ballerina with a man standing on her shoulders?  I loved the androgyny of the show.  It’s the men who do the striptease, and the women show they can also carry a man aloft, or catch one of their sisters flying through the air.  Men climb poles as if there was no such thing as gravity; one man can hold his own weight, as well as that of another hanging off his ankle at right angles to the vertical.  A woman could step up to a man’s shoulders as if there were nothing easier in the world.  One of the women can keep a dozen hula-hoops going at once, spread across her body, moving her arms in and out and bending her head to the side without interrupting the flow.  There were gasps of awe at the anticipation of what the next trick was going to be and then applause when it was completed.

I’m off to practice with my hula-hoop……

But one last thing before bed.  We returned to Summerhall for the Michael Nyman installation Man with a Movie Camera.  Inspired by an experimental film from the 1920s by Russian filmmaker DzigaVertov, Nyman has written a score for the silent movie, and has then created 10 parallel films, apparently, according to the blurb, matching to the original frame by frame.  All 11 films are being projected on a forest of screens in one of the galleries, while the music plays.  It would be fair to say that opinions of this piece amongst our party diverged significantly.  I found it confusing until I identified the screen that was showing the original film, and then spent my time watching that, because, knowing the era in which it was made, I could see the experimentation and fascination that had gone into it.  The more modern collage of images was less interesting, and I couldn’t really discern any congruity between the images and the music that was being broadcast.  Others in the group loved the music.

I believe I have now earned my EdFest Spurs.

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 3

Day 3 introduced some ballet to my Festival diet, spiced with another bookish discussion.

In fact I went to two separate performances by Scottish Ballet which formed part of their Ballet Odyssey weekend programme.  In the morning we went watched 5 duets, sitting on temporary seats constructed on the stage, such had the safety curtain not been down we wold have been looking straight out into the auditorium.  The theme for the weekend was for dance to be stripped down to its bare minimum, so the music was recorded and there was minimal staging.  Instead, from the second row of the stand, we were within 10 feet of each pair of dancers.

Ballet is another of those things I know very little about, and even though I always looks for narrative in any piece, the mime and significance of dance gesture usually passes me by.  What I could see, sitting so close, was the energy and strength of the performers, all those sinews stretching, all that core strength.

I was never one of those little girls who dreamed of being a dancer, for a start I can’t point my toes, and for another, I was far too tall and the girls who went to dance classes were those tiny, skinny girls.  This might be one of the reasons that the elfin ballerinas on stage don’t really engage me, no matter how dainty.  So it is perhaps not surprising that the duet I enjoyed the most was one performed to Rachmaninov, by a ballerina as tall as her partner, shapely and athletic; I could see the story here too, of them finding romance together after a bashful, hesitant start.

Of the five duets, three were of a traditional style, and two were more modern, choreographed around soundscape rhythms rather than melodic music.  In one, the ballerina’s feet never touched the ground, and she was held by or entwined around her partner for the whole piece.  In the other, the dancers performed repetitive mechanistic movements in time to an insistent beat.  I enjoyed it all, but a significant part of that enjoyment was in being able to see such intensity of concentration and effort close by.

In line with the idea of Odyssey, after the duets, we were led to the foyer of the Festival Theatre to watch a new work danced to a mash up of noise and disco.

I’m very interested to compare my reaction to these pieces, to the circus acrobatic performers we have tickets to see on Monday evening….

On the walk back from the Old Town to the New Town for the Book Festival event, we walked along part of the Royal Mile as I had yet to see any of the Big Five street performers I have set myself as my safari objective– a juggler, a stilt walker, a unicyclist, a fire eater and a tap dancing string quartet. I saw some, and turned down a score of leaflets advertising shows. There is some category debate: does two unicyclist jugglers count as one or two?  I’ll have ironed this out by the end of my Festival experience.

Back at the Book Festival we went to listen to Amit Chaudhuri talk about his book on Calcutta.  During the talk he touched on the idea in Bengal that the concept of the perfect conversation is one that wanders from one subject to any other, and will give equal weight to the discussion of a cup of tea or the political agenda of the government.  This meandering, expansive philosophy of discussion was apparent in his own way of speaking.  It was a little unfortunate that because the chairman of the event didn’t guide the conversation more actively, all the time was gone before there had been any questions from the audience.

After more refreshment breaks and a little writing, we returned to the Festival Theatre for Scottish Ballet’s The Rite of Spring.  Taking the ideas of ritual, division and religious fundamentalism, new choreography has been created for three dancers on a sparse white stage with curved up walls confining the dance space to the centre of the empty stage.  I wasn’t sure I understood much of this, but, as I suspected, this morning some of the images are still in my mind’s eye.

In the first part, two brothers, dressed in long black skirts, fight and argue and appear to try to escape the confines of their environment.  The leaping and outstretched limbs of the dancers created big bold geometric shapes against the white background.  It is only when the woman, Faith, appears, a sort of flitting Tinkerbell in brilliant white, that you see that the stage isn’t that white after all.  The brothers fight over Faith.

In the second half, one man is a prisoner of the other.  Now one is dressed only in his underwear and the other in army fatigues and black boots; while faith waves seductively from the sidelines.  There is a great deal of mimed brutality and violence, including a black bag over the head of the prisoner.  There was something about this section that I found disturbing, making me feel voyeuristic and uncomfortable; but it did accentuate the violence inherent in the music.

I’ll be back on the Fringe tomorrow…..

HeLa at Summerhall

I first heard about the possibility of HeLa, an examination of the story of Henrietta Lacks and her medical and scientific legacy when I met Adura Onashile a couple of years ago when we were both spending time at Cove Park.  Adura had come to start work on the preliminary research for a theatrical piece which she would both write and perform.

I was therefore very excited to be in the audience to see the show that has been worked on and honed over the intervening months.  Previously performed as a work in progress at the Science Festival, it has been refashioned to fit into the former Anatomy lecture theatre in what used to be the veterinary college and which is now Summerhall arts venue.

In fact, I was even rather anxious on my way to see it on Saturday evening; I know how much work has gone into it, I wanted it to be perfect and successful.  We arrived so early we had our choice of seats in the steeply raked seats looking in and down onto the performance area.  I wanted the perfect view, but I didn’t want to put her off(!)

HeLa is a one woman show, inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cancer in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951.  When her doctor examined her, when she went in for treatment for a pain in the abdomen, he removed some of her tissue without her permission, and this tissue has provided the raw genetic material for thousands of scientific and medical experiments in the decades since. Eminent scientists have used the cells in work which has led to Nobel Prizes and public recognition.

The cell line, referred to as HeLa, from the first two letters of her first name and surname, have a remarkable property that not only can they survive outside the body, but they continue to multiply, and can in effect be manufactured as infinitum.

It was only in the 1970s when a researcher approached the Lacks family to test to see if this characteristic had been inherited by any of her four children who were all very young when she died ,that they knew anything about the use of their mother’s tissue.  Subsequently the genome of the HeLa cell line was sequenced and published online, violating the privacy of her surviving descendants.

I think what may have initially sparked Adura’s interest in the story of Henrietta was a feeling of outrage, that something had been taken from a poor black woman in a segregated hospital without her permission, that it had been endlessly replicated without the knowledge of her family, that they were all treated as something less than deserving of respect.  But what has emerged is not an anti science play, it is, I think, a very serious attempt to examine what we might mean by life and identity, and scientific responsibility.

Through the eyes of Deborah one of her daughters, we face the question of what it must be like to know that something of your mother still has life, is still growing and replicating, when you lost that person when you were almost too young to remember her.  To a scientist a replicating cell may not be ‘alive’, but to a daughter it must feel like a ghostly presence that might reappear at any time, so why not buy a Mothers’ Day card every year, and wonder if you might ever know what her favourite colour was, or if she might recapture the smell of her? To a scientist they are just cells for experimentation, to the family they are part of a person that they would like to be acknowledged.

On her own, in the middle of the room, with only a medical trolley, a few wooden stools, a box of memories, a video projection and her own tremendous physicality, energy and nuanced performance, Adura creates a world of characters, and asks us to consider the woman, Henrietta Lacks, and her legacy.  It’s thought provoking and raises big questions we should all debate, but it is also the re-imagined story of a woman and the impact her early death had on her family.

Go and see it!

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