An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 4

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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.

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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!

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 2

2013-08-17 15.51.49I started on my first day in Edinburgh with something on the Fringe, and something in the main Festival, so, of course, it was only right to begin Day 2 with a trip to the International Book Festival.  We went to listen to Sarah Churchwell, a Professor at UEA talk about her new book Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby.  

I picked this event because Gatsby is a favourite book, it’s somehow back in the Zeitgeist because of the recent Baz Luhrmann film, and I’ve seen Sarah Churchwell on review programmes on the television and she seems like a knowledgeable person of strong opinion.  To be honest, I didn’t think I’d come away from little tented village which hosts the book festival with a copy of her publication, but I found the talk and discussion so interesting that I followed her to the book shop and had my newly bought copy signed.

What was so interesting about the discussion was that it is the story of the story.  Churchwell has researched the events that were in the news at the time that Fitzgerald was writing the novel, written in 1924 but set in 1922, and she has questioned every trope of what we presume we know about the 1920s.  Were the women wearing short skirts?  No.  Were they dancing the Charleston? No.  Did a green traffic light mean Go? Not necessarily, but sometimes.

During her research she came across reports of a notorious double murder in New Jersey in the early 1920s, which evidence indicates that Fitzgerald did read.  There were startling points of overlap between titbits in the news reports and details in the novel.  Using the news reports as well as other contemporary material, Churchwell has built a factual story of the times in which the novel was written, Fitzgerald’s writing process and the novel itself.

That she has interrogated every assumption that we have about the period, the roaring 20s, those images which we now accept as the shorthand for the era, and has found that they are not accurate, is what I found so interesting, as it is those details which create the pictures in our mind’s eye and the richness of the tapestry of we weave when we are immersed in a good book.  I’m looking forward to reading her work so that I can repaint those pictures.

After an afternoon spent chatting, I went to the Summerhall to see HeLa, written and performed by my friend Adura Onashile.  I’m still buzzing from the experience, and it needs a blog post all of its own, which will come(!).  Afterwards I had a drink with Adura and I had what I’ve been told is a ‘true festival experience’ of having quite a major conversation with the people with whom we shared the table in the bar.  We heard what they’d seen, and we showed off what we’d seen, and discussed our wish lists and future bookings, given the randomness of the encounter and the sheer number of things that are on, had a surprising amount of overlap – and of course took the opportunity to impress upon them the importance of their seeing HeLa before the end of the Festival.

Another day has dawned, and with it sunny blue skies, so I am optimistic for another fun day, and maybe today I will see a unicyclist!

An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 1

2013-08-16 16.33.25Yesterday I had my first taste of the full Edinburgh Festival experience.  And even though it didn’t start until the middle of the afternoon when I arrived at Waverley station, as it comprised listening to blues played on a home made guitar made from an old radio in a jazz bar basement, and  experiencing the induction to a life on ‘New Earth’ at an out of town climbing centre, I think it counts as a proper initial immersion.

John Hunt does Afternoon Blues and Swing using his own home made instruments.  There was a short legged coffee table on which he stamps out his percussion section, and a first guitar made from a wooden shelf, with built in amplifier and microphone.  It’s worth descending the stairs to the underground bar on a sunny afternoon for his ingenuity alone, but he delivers his set with dry wit and a gravelly voice, mashing up his own compositions with reinterpretations of early 20th century classics like Someone to Watch over Me.

All round it was a very satisfactorily disorientating introduction to the Festival.

After refreshments, it was down to the Conference Centre to pick up the bus to Leaving Planet Earth.  The bus ride is only the first part of the experience of ‘jumping’ from Old Earth, a dying planet ravaged by war and unrest, to New Earth, a twin planet of bright colours and endless opportunities.  At the Ratho Climbing Centre, doubling as the induction centre for new arrivals on New Earth, we learnt about the great future we will share, so long as we can avoid The Pull of memories of Old Earth.  The Pull can turn people into Empties who cannot go on and who endanger the success of the project, so have to be taken on the Path.

We’ve been promised that, in return for our pledge to put the survival of the human species ahead of our own individualism, we will live a great new life on New Earth so long as we can sever all our memory and emotional ties with Old Earth.

As the show progressed, and we were led from space to space around the concrete and iron space of the climbing centre, it became clear that all may not be well in the New Earth, and that we may not have come to the better place of freedom where we can satisfy our own desires.

How sane are the leaders of the project?  Have we been dragged into a cult of personality? And  who will decide if we are to be sacrificed in the interests of an idea of a higher plan?

While some of the speeches were a little too laboured, the overall experience of the show has lingered in my memory.  It is almost that this morning the impression of the experience has improved.  The way that GridIron has used the industrial scale of the  climbing centre is very effective, and evocative  of what might be a purpose built landing point for a new colony.  The way the audience is moved around, in a choreographed and timed fashion, adds to the impression of a busy working facility.  Sometimes each of the three groups is alone, sometimes we all emerged into the central area, where we could see each other all arrayed along the various levels of the raised walkways.

The show’s literature warns that there are stairs to climb, which is true, and that there are loud noises and strobe effects, which I thought were relatively minor hazards.  What they failed to mention is that the promenade staging presents quite a challenge for anyone suffering from vertigo or a fear of heights.  I found the open grilled external walkways and stairways extremely challenging, and I was not alone in this; there was also no mention that there were no toilet breaks and no refreshments available.

It’s definitely worth seeing, but take some water, a person whose hand you can hold on the stairs, and be prepared to miss a few minutes if you need a ‘comfort break’.

All in all, not a bad start to my Festival experience…….

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