Saturday, 23 August 2008

Further into the fringe.

The mother and the sister were over during the week and we really did the dog on the festivals! My sister is a musician and composer and every year she comes over and puts me to shame with her energy, basically she probably sees more in 3 days than I see in the whole month. We'd done a bit of homework and booked some good stuff in the Traverse. First up was
Mong Yeon (A love in dream) a beautiful little Korean production. Really interesting visual and musical piece about a widow grieving for her dead husband. Kind of like a really lush version of Ghost produced by an undergraduate Wong Kar Wei. It's a bit of a curates egg in terms of trying to explain what's going on with slightly heavyhanded exposition getting in the way of sublime musico-visual set pieces. A wedding scene is absolutely fantastic, a sugary shimmer like an ice cream in a childrens book. Another dream sequence walks a bittersweet tightrope as the widow dreams of lying in bed with her beloved, a sublime evocation of the giddy thrill of mundanity. The cockerel is a morning demon rousing the bereaved from her dream of love. The piece sags a little towards the end as the young cast hammer a little hard trying to get the message across. Despite these slight flaws it's a beautiful, big hearted and generous production that's performed with joy and conviction by the cast. The sister was seriously impressed by the multitasking actors who managed four part harmonies, live instruments, acting and dancing over the course of the hour. Hard working heroes!

Then it was on to the Fruitmarket for Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's "The House of books has no windows" which is the best thing I've seen anywhere in ages. Heh, hyperbole alert but it really is that good, a beautiful, immersive, witty, playful, disturbing playpen of wonk. As in wonky. Which is clearly a fantastic thing. The "Opera for a small room", a recreation of an isolated shack stuffed with records, turntables, suitcases, disembodied voices and lights playing on a 20 minute loop is a beautiful introduction to the world of Cardiff & Miller. It's sinister, joyful and doomy all at the same time in much the same way as Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Walking around the pitch dark room surrounded by insect noises, rain (which after the last week's weather I never thought I'd enjoy hearing again) and passing trains you feel transported, despite the often crowded space. Shadows from the window change on the walls creating an uncanny spooky rural backwoods atmosphere. The "House of Books has no windows" piece created for this exhibition is a simple idea executed sublimely and provoked a profoundly emotional response. Sitting in the house breathing in the luscious smell of old books I felt at peace, protected, like a child clasped to an adult. I'd had a stressful day and sitting in there I felt a real sense of peace. The "Killing Machine" is the piece that's getting all the press and it's an absolute belter. Basically a sinister musical torture device that's operated by the viewer it's genuinely chilling. The rest of the exhibition is really accomplished and I've spent the last few days excitedly dragging everyone I meet along for a look.

We went to the Abbey Theatre production Mark O'Rowe's "Terminus" in Traverse and were completely blown away. I'd heard mixed reports about this with some people finding the three rhyming monologues tiresome. I disagree and thought it was a compelling and lyrical piece. Sure it's violent, gory and really lurid but there's a phenomenal imagination at the heart of it. O'Rowe undersells it in the programme notes saying the piece is at least "full of crazy people doing crazy shit". It is but there's a real humanity to the characters. The acting is very strong with Eileen Walsh demonstrating subtlety, power and phenomenal balance in her performance. The script is an absolute revelation with rhyming used throughout. This creates an urgency and rhythm to the piece that drives the story forward, O'Rowe frequently wrongfoots anyone attempting to pre-empt the rhymes and this made for some great comedy allowing the audience some tension relieving laughter in his visceral tale. Reviews of this piece got a bit lost in a phenomenal lineup at Traverse, it deserves more consideration. O'Rowe has a reputation as a "muscular" playwright, something that maybe puts off more lyrically minded theatregoers, this is a pity.

Following night we went to Enda Walsh and Druid's "New Electric Ballroom" in the same room. This is a companion piece to last years "Walworth Farce" which went down a storm. The similar devices are there; isolated, desperate people re-enacting their past to cocoon themselves from a frightening outside, cakes in the face, jet black humour and family secrets. This created a bit of debate afterwards, the wife and my mother both loathed it, found it less enjoyable than the Walworth Farce. I really enjoyed it, particularly Rosaleen Lenihan and Mikel Murfi's performances. The similarities with the Walworth farce are there but the piece is more a meditation on Irish village and family life than the Walworth's treatment of how we deal with trauma. Or at least that's what I got from it. The audience didn't seem to know what to do with it, particularly the penetrating minds who seem to think that wolf-whistling partial nudity is normal theatre-going behaviour. I don't like to be a fuddy duddy but what a total numpty. Strangely, the effect of Terminus the night before meant the initial stages felt a bit lumpen in comparison with O'Rowe's stacatto patter.

More to come, covering clubs, more theatre, more art and a little rant about books.

Sunday, 17 August 2008


Been plenty busy of late between work commitments and the rigours of the festival season taking its toll. I've seen quite a bit but can't really draw on that enthusiasm to write a lot of stuff up. We went to the Traverse the first weekend for some 2 for 1 preview action and really enjoyed the Almeida production of Adam Rapp's Nocturne. It's a beautifully constructed monologue about grief, family breakdown, loneliness and trauma. But entertaining for it. The entire thing hinges on Peter McNamara's stunning performance as the nameless narrator, a writer still grieving over his accidental slaying of his sister in a car accident. The monologues slowly unpack the narrators stacks of baggage in a humane and artful fashion depicting a fraught atmosphere of family tension where the piano, a Steinway, is an ever-present, impassive and malignant presence. The narrator repeatedly invokes Greig, Chopin, Tchaikovsky", names spat out by the narrator, personification of his torment at the familial expection to perform. Each scene is intercut with beautiful, haunting and jarring bursts of piano music, little miniatures of pressure, rhythm and tension in a glorious hour and a half of haunting and musical language. The work really put me in mind of some of Michel Faber's darker short stories with tragedy spun in a scintillating web of gorgeous language.

Last week we pottered on to "Etcetera" at the independent Universal Arts venue on Hill Street. A wordless 50 minutes of puppetry by Polish company Teatr K3 is a wee gem. It's difficult to describe this piece as it suggests much more (play, automation, commercialism, our "metro, boulot, dodo" culture) than it initially appears(three evil sisters tormenting dolls). There's something mythical about it with the three performers stalking the stage selecting their next manikin victim and then, to some wonderful wonky/spooky music, pulling them in hundreds of different directions until they tire of it, discard it hanging on the wall and move in search of their next candidate. The piece is poetic, funny and haunting, the greatest draw being the palpable pleasure the performers take in their exertions. A fantastic piece which seems to have been overlooked by a lot of critics.

Monday evening involved an orgy of classical music with a double header at the International Festival. First up was the Estonian Philharmonic Choir conducted by Paul Hillier. As we took our seats in the top circle of the newly (and not-quite finished) refurbished Usher Hall (after a climb up a scaffolded staircase! one wag said it was a bit more like a Fringe Venue!) I was a bit worried we weren't going to get the full benefit of this well-regarded Choir. That all changed once they launched into Veljo Tormis' "Jaanilaulud"- starting with sounds like the wind in trees or a distant sea at night. The repertoire stayed around the Baltics with Finland and Estonia taking centre stage. Highlights included Toivo Tulev’s 2006 work "Summer Rain" which had a peculiar. lollopping cadence and Arvo Part's beautiful "Magnificat" and “Nunc dimittis”. The final piece, Bergman's "Lapponia", a non-lyrical semi-improvised evocation of the Lapp landscape in winter and summer was a bit more challenging with the 2nd movement "Yoik" integrating LKSDJ song techniques evoking a desolate arctic wilderness. A final piece from (I think) Sibelius left us home with something a bit more tuneful. Not a bad evening's entertainment but the programming lacked a bit of fun and levity after the first, flush of enthusiasm. It got some very positive reviews from people who know far more about this stuff than I do.

Then it was a quick dash through Tattoo Traffic, a quick fortifying Malt in the Bow Bar and on to St Giles Cathedral and Naji Hakim's second performance as part of the Messiaen centenery. The first night was very well reviewed. The performance skewed a little more in favour of Hakim's own work with the second piece Offrande au Saint Sacrement instead of the programmed Offrande et Alleluia from the Livre du Saint Sacrement. This was a little disappointing and confusing for the audience who didn't applaud in the break between "Offrande au Saint Sacrement" and Hakim's "Sakskøbing Praeludier”. I always find this the most offputting aspect of classical music where the neophyte often doesn't know when to clap for fear of appearing to be some sort of thick tongued teuchtar dragging muck in on someone's nice carpet. Still, Hakim was a blast, hammering through the Messiaen and then firing into his own two compositions. The Messaien (a composer I know very little about) sounded to me very like some John Carpenter scores. What I love about Faure, Satie and Poulenc, who are all forerunners to Messaien, is their playfulness, the lightness and beauty that lurks even in their strange works. A few years ago me and the missus went to "Punch Drunk Love" on Valentines Night and she described it as being like a lovely light pudding. That's how the more beautiful modern French music sounds to me, whimsical, slightly bonkers but amiable nonetheless. There were aspects of this in the Messaien along with more discordant spookiness staggering off down the Cathedral to the dark. I expected it to be a lot more difficult and less enjoyable than it was. Someone with more education about this might smirk at my artless listening skills but there you go. The "Sakskøbing Praeludier" is a collection of hymns that seem to come from outer space. Really entertaining, overblown and completely, utterly original. I can't imagine the kind of church this comes from, sort of like looking at the weird space creatures in the bar in Star Wars. Some pieces were quite like video game music, partifularly Hitoshi Sakimoto, the God King of Japanese video game composition who wrote the influential music for the Final Fantasy series. There was also some John Carpenter, but less menacing. The half hour of Sakskøbing Praeludier and the Glenalmond Suite was as entertaining, fresh and enjoyable as I've enjoyed musically for ages. After some well timed applause from a very mixed crowd Hakim treated us to some improvisations which were similarly witty and playful before he tickled us all with a big cheesy deconstruction of Scotland the Brave and some other Scottish airs. He took his heartfelt applause with a big smile that reflects the openness, good humour and accessibility of his music. There's a good youtube of him merrily improvising away for himself here!

As I’ve previously intimated here I’m not all that into stand up comedy. This is largely due to overdosing on mediocrity in the first couple of years in Edinburgh and the frustration that comes from spending extensive amounts of cash to sit and listen to a bare hour of complacent, smug and faux-intelligent wittering. By cutting out the comedy I've had the money to spend on tickets for much of the above so i feel my instinct is right for me. This year I made an exception for both of the Amsterdam Underground Comedy Collective going to both Micha Wertheim and Hans Teeuwen. Wertheim was reasonably funny, largely because he’s quite an astute physical comedian with a really amiable manner. He seemed a little rusty though (this was in the first weekend) and at one stage looked like he was about to corpse. Teeuwen is a class act, a sly and sneakily intelligent comedian as well as accomplished pianist. The hour we spent listening to bizarre ranting setups that blossomed into delicate and intricate routines was as good I think as I’ve ever seen. Days later I’m still unpicking parts of the performance, the interplay of music, language, physical theatre and edgy surrealism left everyone I’ve spoken to about it completely stunned.

More to come during next week, hopefully more theatre at the Traverse and a stroll through some more highlights in galleries.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Bookshelves, Carpentery and The Living End

And so begins another Edinburgh Festival. A few posts ago I referred to it as the Truly Detestable Edinburgh Festival, largely to shoehorn a gratuitous Edwin Collins pun into a moribund review. It's also because every year I feel an ache of apprehension at the invasion of this sleepy burgh by marauding hordes of fledgling PR's with gawping turistas cluttering my normally serene progress through town. Then it starts and I spend the first week manically running around going to a scatter of varied events and staying up way too late. The festivals are what they are and what they are is a fantastic excuse to to run around going to a scatter of varied events and stay up way too late while dodging fledgling PR's and gawping turistas.

First up was the launch of the Edinburgh Art Festival with the Cockburn Street Party joint-hosted by Stills and the Collective Gallery. Thanks to superbly timed downpour the "street party" become "two openings opposite one another with people pegging it between the two". The Stills exhibition of the Martha Rosler Library is right up my street being, well, a library. Had a great time riffling through things finding some superb book titles. Favourites being a translation of Paul Auge's "Non Places: an introduction to the anthropology of super-modernity", "The New Mauve- a collection of flower arrangements by Constance Spry" and the sublime "Grammar of Motives". The library is Rosler's own collection as such has loads of postcards, tickets and other ephemera stuck in as place markers.

It reminded me of Myles NaGopaleen's business idea for "Buchhandlung" in which the libraries of the rich and vulgar are finessed by a qualified person to make it appear that the books had been read. This would be on a sliding scale to suit all pockets:

"Popular Handling" would ensure that all books would be:
"well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket...or other comparable item inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark"

"Premier Handling" would involved each:
"volume being thoroughly handled...a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil"

"De Luxe Handling" would leave smaller volumes with:
"the impression they have been carried around in pockets..., an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book mark, not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter and whiskey stains, and not less than 5 volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. "

Then we come, inevitably to the Superb Treatment or "Le Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it" in which books are subjected to all manner of thorough and learned handling by master handlers:
"who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours...suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined...and an appropriate phrase from the list inserted in the margin, viz:
Yes, indeed!
Yes, but cf.Homer, Od, iii,151.
Well, well, well
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me."

At this stage Le Traitement Superbe is only getting into its stride,
"Not less than 6 volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,
'From your devoted friend and follower, K Marx.'
'Dear A.B.,-Your invaluable suggestions and assistance, not to mention your kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you surely to this first copy of "Tess". From your old friend T.Hardy.'"

This is by no means the full extent of Traitement in store for the hulking libraries of the wealthy illiterate and I would heartily recommend finding a copy of "The Best of Myles" from which these incomplete and completely un-authorised quotes were culled.

Anyway, I digress. The exhibition is a fascinating and compulsive space for a book lover. It could also serve as a fantastic resource for passing new bands who are looking for names! The launch itself was quite busy so not really conducive to the really deep pointless browsing that the exhibition deserves. X and the Living End deserve special mention for providing tunes and flawless crowd control.

Over the road then to Collective and The Golden Record which is a cross platform/cross festival event that looks to recreate a record portraying the diversity of life and culture on earth. More than 100 artists contributed work to the exhibit in the gallery. This is combined with a weekly comedy hustings in which a variety of comedians stand for election in the vote to decide who is the Representative of Planet Earth. There was a projected film in the back with BBC4-esque narration that makes this sound a lot less interesting than it probably is. I have issues with stand up comedy, I enjoy laughter but would tentatively suggest that the last thing Edinburgh needs in August is more comedy. That said, the lineup is good and John Hegley's record cover in the exhibition is a thing of stark brown-baggy beauty. Collective are brilliant at joining things up and have done some great stuff in the past with the Book Festival and National Library of Scotland.

The launch was rammed and good fun with Karen Carpenter (she's looking GREAT) entertaining the crowd. I'd forgotten how much I loved "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft". Entertaining raffle too with Karen and Miss Le Bomb holding court!

There's loads more in the Art Festival over the month and I hope to cover more of it in the coming weeks. More to come from the Book, Fringe and International festivals too.

Comments, quibbles, gripes and declarations of undying devotion gladly accepted.