So where was I? Ah yes, Stockton! Well, I left there Saturday, heading for the station with a friendly taxi driver who called me ‘pet’, caught a train to Darlington and learnt all about the footie from the Middlesborough supporters, just about made the connection at Darlington, arrived at Edinburgh Station 9pm and got transported through the rain-soaked city by a friendly taxi driver who called me ‘pal’. Picked up keys, found my flat, set off into the night in search of new venue Summerhall for the midnight-to-dawn show Hotel Medea. Arrived an hour early, and it all looked locked up, so rather than stand in the torrential rain for an hour went off in search of a fish tea and found ‘Edinburgh’s finest’, The Newington. Suitably nourished, headed off again and discovered that Summerhall wasn’t all locked up, I’d been trying to get in the wrong entrance. Oh, new venues, new venues – who knew?
Summerhall’s an old Veterinary College, part of the University of Edinburgh. It’s a wonderful building – dark wood panelling, tiled floors, grand staircases, and what seems like a hundred rooms big and small – although I hear that there had been a fair few problems getting it ready. I’m not sure if the rumours of the discovery of strange animal remains are true, but it’s a gruesome thought. But ready it is, and running a tightly curated programme, under Rupert Thomson’s direction, with the support of both BAC and the Demarco European Art Foundation. Much of the interesting experimental theatre, live art and installation work at this year’s Fringe is sited here, including companies/projects such as Quarantine, Action Hero, BiDiNG TiME, Little Bulb Theatre, Imitating the Dog, The Paper Cinema, Me and the Machine, Melanie Wilson, and Curious. A pretty impressive line-up, no? Oh and of course Hotel Medea, the extraordinary night-long journey-theatre piece, from Brazil’s Zecora Ura in collaboration with the UK’s Persis Jade Maravala.
It was a fantastic experience, but maybe doing an all-nighter on my first night in Edinburgh was a little mad. With a Total Theatre Awards assessors meeting at 10am, there was little point in going to bed, and I got through Sunday on the kind of speedy high you sometimes get when you haven’t slept. A relatively easy day, though, with just two shows, both at the Traverse. It’s odd to think that just a few years ago I would hardly have passed through the doors of the Trav more than once or twice in the whole of August. Now I’m a regular.
The Traverse is ‘Scotland’s New Writing theatre’ but their definition of ‘new writing’ has expanded more and more over the years, and now the work programmed there is most definitely within Total Theatre’s territory (this years offerings include site-specific work by Grid Iron, an intimate encounter with Adrian Howells, and Tim Crouch’s latest). It’s also clear that the world of UK theatre is changing, opening up to a more ‘European’ approach. So what with one thing and another, the longstanding divide between ‘physical and devised theatre’ and ‘new writing’ seems to mean less and less these days. So, on the menu for my Sunday night is the Mark Ravenhill / Mark Almond collaborationTen Plagues, a song cycle composed by Conor Mitchell and staged by designer/director Stewart Laing; followed by The Golden Dragon, a play by a German playwright that has the look and feel of a devised/collaborative ‘poor theatre’ piece, although it has in fact been tightly scripted. Check the reviews linked above if you want to know more…
Monday morning, and what Bootworks director Rob Jude Daniels describes as ‘the Hotel Medea hangover’ has kicked in. I’m not quite sure how I get through the day, but somehow I manage to stay awake through my three-in-a-row shows at the New Town Theatre. New Town is another gorgeous building, and home to Universal Arts, a lovingly nurtured venue that boasts another curated niche within the mayhem that is the Fringe. The programme has a strong international element, with work from the USA, Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Poland, Brazil, and Hong Kong – as well as from England and Scotland. (I’ve noticed nobody uses the term UK in these parts).
So my three choices are an eclectic mix – with a kind of Italian theme running through. First is Turandot, by neTTheatre/Grupa Coincidentia from Poland. The show’s a Kantor-esque reflection on the life of Puccini and the making of his unfinished opera Turandot, a very lovely mix of high and low artforms. There’s hardly anyone in the audience, a great shame as it’s an interesting piece – although it must be said that they aren’t selling themselves well with their PR copy, which doesn’t really flag it up as a visual theatre piece. Later that day at the venue I have an interesting standing-in-a-queue conversation with Herald critic Mary Brennan, who feels that companies are making some odd decisions, for example by choosing not to place themselves in the Dance & Physical Theatre section of the Fringe brochure. I say that it is probably because they are trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, but she points out, quite sensibly, that the problem with that is that those of us actively seeking out physical and visual theatre pieces to see and support are struggling to identify them in the great big mulch of information that is the Theatre section.
The second New Town show I see is Snails and Ketchup, a circus/physical theatre piece produced under the auspices of Made in Scotland, another curated programme within the Fringe, although in this case it’s a kind of showcase of Scottish talent flagged up in its own little brochure, rather than something linked to one particular venue. Good to see some wordless theatre on show at the Fringe! There does seem to be a fair bit of circus or circus-related work around this year… The Italian connection here is that this piece is inspired by Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees.
So third and last is Company XIV from the USA with Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures, a baroque ballet with music hall tendencies. The Italian connection here is obvious! But just to cement it, there’s a Venetian Carnival theme to the piece…
So that was New Town Theatre, but the night was not done. To wind it up was Ontroerend Goed’s latest, Audience. Well, this company seem to court controversy (the Fringe before last it was all around their speed-date show,Internal, pushing personal boundaries) but this time they’ve gone for the jugular. No doubt the show will be a big talking point of this festival, but for me it was a step too far.
So, Tuesday, sunshine! – although a chill wind. Another assessors meeting. A walk across The Meadows. A whimsical and charming dance-theatre piece,Agnes and Walter, at Zoo Southside – a venue that every August produces a solid programme of good work, much of it dance and physical theatre. Great to see good audience numbers – but Zoo Venues have put in the groundwork over the years, so now deservedly reap the benefits. A trip to Leith on the Fringe for another circus-theatre piece, This Twisted Tale, by the rather marvellously named Paper Doll Militia. And finally, to the Traverse again, for Dance Marathon. It’s four hours long, and inspired by the marathon contests of the 1920s and 30s. You remember the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Well, that was us. I had a great evening – and I reached the semi-final with my new dance partner Ewan, who I met at the start of the show. High five, Ewan!
So three days in Edinburgh that begin and end with a marathon… Once upon a time going to the theatre meant a chance to doze off for a while in a nice cosy dark room. Now it’s dance shoes at the ready and off we go… but I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t want it any other way.