July 4, 2023:
Today, I finished the program itinerary for the 2023: it includes 24 shows for the group and a full day Scottish Highland tour to Loch Ness! We will be seeing an unprecedented 5 shows from the Edinburgh International Festival this year, including a three-hour production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera by the Berliner Ensemble. Luckily, most shows at the Fringe will be no longer than an hour, but one exception will be the adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Life and Times of Michael K, which is being produced by the internationally renowned Handspring Puppet Theatre from South Africa. As usual, the Summerhall venue showcases a diverse and exciting line-up of cutting edge productions this year, and The Traverse Theatre has announced a spectacular repertoire. (I will be trying to fit in all the Traverse shows in my own calendar, and hope to add a few extra from Summerhall, too) On our first evening in Edinburgh, we can look forward to Tim Crouch’s revival of An Oak Tree, a highly entertaining and emotionally affecting play that combines Crouch’s typical artistic experimentation with sheer theatrical magic. We’ll also be seeing a new monologue from Daniel Kitson, who has been called the greatest standup of his generation, and Mark Thomas, known for his life-time of (often hilarious) left-wing, anti-Tory political activism.
I’m so gratified that 6 of the 9 people participating in the program this year are repeat attenders! I look forward to seeing you all in Edinburgh in our newly renovated digs. It should be an awesome year!
August 21, 2023
I planned to post updates throughout our 2 weeks at the festival…but really, who had time for that?
First, a word to the wise for next year’s participants: bring carry-on luggage only! Bad weather delayed two people flying in from Atlanta for a day, and their luggage was lost. Despite countless calls to the airline, one bag arrived on day 12 of our trip; the other not at all! Even my bag, supposedly on a direct flight, was delayed a day. The Scotsman reported on the “chaos at Edinburgh airport” with over 7,500 people not receiving their luggage within three days; the same had happened last year. Maybe the powers-that-be will have it all sorted by 2024, but my advice stands. Carry-on only!
Our newly renovated, six-bedroom (six bathroom) house was even more spectacular than I remembered from last year. An accessible double was added next to the front door, along with a larger, open-spaced dining room / living room / kitchen looking out to the garden, with six huge skylights that made Edinburgh seem bright even on the cloudiest days. The addition of a tumble dryer was also welcome. Fingers crossed that we will be able to book it for next year’s trip.
Day 1: August 8
After resting for the afternoon and sharing a scrumptious Indian take-out meal, we headed to the Lyceum studio for Tim Crouch’s revival of An Oak Tree.
This experimental two-hander has influenced a generation of playwrights since its opening over 10 years ago. In it, Crouch plays a “bad” hypnotist, who was recently involved in a car accident that killed the daughter of the second character, who happens to be attending the hypnotist’s show. However, the second character is played by different person every night and has never seen the script. Just how Crouch manages to play his character and also direct the second character (sometimes directly stating what s/he should say, sometimes using a script, and sometimes quietly speaking directly to the actor through a microphone) is nothing short of amazing. Despite its meta-theatricality (commenting on the nature of performance itself and making the audience aware of their role in its creation), the play’s exploration of grief and loss is deeply moving. On the night we saw the play, the second character was played by Archie Backhouse, an accomplished actor starring in Strategic Love Play that the group saw the following night!
Full disclosure: I brought Tim Crouch to UMASS Amherst 10 years ago, where he gave three performances of this play, and I’ve subsequently assigned the play to students. Though I knew what to expect, the different actors always reveal something new; and Archie (according to a conversation afterwards with Tim) sometimes took the play in directions that surprised and delighted the playwright. We were fortunate to be in the audience on this particular night. Check out this clip from on earlier show:
Day 2: August 9
While Reyes and Marianne took a walking tour of Old Town, Jenny and Mary added Rewind to our personal itinerary
Based on interviews with refugees and migrants from South American totalitarian regimes, as well as the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (who in 2000, earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for their efforts repatriating the remains of the “disappeared”), the play’s emotional story focused on a single victim and the mother who eventually receives her remains. Amid the morgue-like files (which comprise the stage set) and the team’s careful handling of bones, the story unfolds with beautiful music, energetic dance, compelling scenes, and creative choreography. A group pick for next year should the play return!
The group reconvened at Summerhall for Gusla (“Witchcraft”), perhaps the most difficult, and most terrifying, performance of the trip. This national classic was performed entirely in Polish, but the dark atmosphere, strange music, and incredible costumes made for a spell-binding hour of ritualistic theatre. The pagan characters, complete with indigenous face-paint, strode about in costumes made of heavy fur, bone, feathers, and iron, sometimes addressing the audience menacingly
with bizarre weapons and emotional tirades. Everyone in our group had a different interpretation of the play, but most saw it as a highly emotional tale involving mourning, sorcery, loss, and ancient warfare.
We then experienced something ENTIRELY different: Strategic Love Play, produced by the Paines Plough in the Summerhall Roundabout, was an engaging and often hilarious two-hander about a first time, online dating meet-up. A witty send-up of the romance genre, the play’s female character quickly admits to looking for a long-time partner and insists on ruthless honesty. The male character honestly wants the date to be over, but he hangs around just long enough to be enticed by a series of provocative proposals for their imagined future together. Is this women crazy, calculating, or just desperate? Is this man a “typical dick” or all-too-accommodating? Can this “strategic” romance really work? The play strings the audience along just as the characters do each other; no wonder the ending seemed anti-climactic. But getting there was a riveting hour of fun. [Note: the play won a coveted Fringe First the last week of August].
Our day ended on another comedic high point with Baby Wants Candy‘s improvised musical. After voting as an audience on the title “The Shit-tanic,” we were treated to an entirely improvised, live band musical that delivered hilarious takes on the most memorable scenes from the film “Titanic.” Although summary is impossible here, let me just say that our heroine, who suffers from such stinking shit that she is embarrassed to use the bathroom in the proximity of her truly obnoxious (and expertly played) upper-class lover, finds true love with the below deck janitor who unclogs her toilet and embraces his new love completely, stinky shit and all…The play had it all: class conflict, stirring musical solos, impending disaster, and a (somewhat) happy ending. The high quality of the acting, songs, and plotting left us with only one question: just how did they do it?
Happily, Julie and Michael were able to join us for the play after a flight delay of 1.5 days!
DAY 3: August 10
The free, and quite remarkable, National Museum of Scotland was on the agenda for the morning. You could spend days here, but just walking into the bright, Victorian-designed main floor is worth the visit.
Afterwards we met at the Assembly Mound for the extraordinary performance of nobel-prize winning J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K by the South African Handspring Puppet Theatre. Well-known for its highly creative and political performances during apartheid, the group is still going strong with beautifully crafted, life-sized puppets (manipulated by up to three puppeteers at once). If you think that a puppet cannot seem entirely human, then you have not seen this groups’ work. The story focuses on a poor gardener, born with a cleft lip, who travels to his recently deceased mother’s birthplace during an unspecified time of civil war in the country.
As one of our group put it, “the story is just sad.” Yes. And yet, the main character manages to survive most of his struggles over the 2.5 hour play. The performance is an exercise in empathy on many levels, and a political commentary on the effects of war on people who have so little to do with them. Not surprisingly, a Fringe First winner its first week, and one of many highlights from our trip.
After a delicious, whiskey-tasting lunch at the Whiski Rooms, the group walked down to the Scottish Storytelling Center for David Colvin’s play Thunderstruck. Because we were early for the event, we were encouraged to attend another performance in the small, intimate space upstairs. Despite the title No one is Coming, the room was packed as Irish storyteller Sinéad O’Brien wove for us a captivating “love letter to her mother” (who spent much of her life as a psychiatric patient). Using memories, anecdotes, and elements of Celtic mythology, O’Brien focused on the emotional toll on those who live with, or care for, family members with mental health issues–and how they are able to cope. For O’Brien, long estranged from her mother, it ultimately involved the story of a golden deer. Heartfelt but not heavy-handed, O’Brien was by turns funny, charming, and achingly vulnerable. Above all, an accomplished story-teller.
Thunderstruck is an internationally acclaimed ode to Gordon Duncan, the Pitlochery binman who became a legendary Scottish bagpipe musician–according to many, the best that ever lived. That so few know his name has something to do with the disfavored status of bagpipes themselves, and the play gives the audience a lesson in the instrument’s limitations as well as its strengths. Duncan, who took the instrument to the very edges of possibility (imagine Jimi Hendrix as a bagpiper), was also despised in his time for expanding the bagpipe’s 9-note scale and for defying musical tradition with his stunning compositions. Despite his incredible talent and innovation, he was rejected by his musical community and eventually committed suicide. Though Duncan’s personal story is sad, the music he left behind is absolutely thrilling, and the play ends with a long set of boisterous live music showcasing it. Like them or hate them, we cannot hear Scottish bagpipes the same ever again! I’m including here a video clearly inspired by Thunderstruck…just too funny!
Day 4: August 11
Another free morning before seeing three plays at the Traverse theatre. Susan and attended the exciting Grayson Perry “Smash Hits” exhibit at the National Art Museum. The working class, transvestite, potter/ tapestry maker/ painter won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2003 and the extraordinary retrospective was fully worth the admission price. He introduces the show below:
Our afternoon began with After the Act, the “act” in question being Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Local Government Act that legislated against the very mention of homosexuality in public spaces. The result was a generation of gay and lesbian citizens who faced shame, ostracism, abuse, loneliness, and trauma–before the work of activists and allies finally succeeded in getting the law rescinded. The parallels to today were hard to miss, especially for those of us living in the state of “don’t say gay…” Interestingly, the verbatim musical was based entirely on interviews as well as well as the words of actual court rulings. Just excellent.
After lunch at one of our favorite spots (Bar One), we saw the Irish play Lie Low in the smaller Traverse 2 space. The opening moments sold the play: a woman who can’t sleep opens her bedroom closet door for a man with a duck mask over his head…and a wild swing dance follows. This clever two-hander was serious and hilarious by turns, dealing as it did with both psychological trauma and family issues. What happens when the one person you most depend on reveals himself as your abuser? The dancing just gets more frenetic, I guess. The clip gives you a taste:
Because Thrown, also in Traverse 2, was an International Festival production by the National Theatre of Scotland, I think we expected more. Or maybe it was just hard to compete with the two earlier plays we saw here this afternoon. A seemingly “made-for-government-arts-funding” kind of show, it ticked all the boxes for diversity and inclusion, Scottish themes, and an interesting premise without really delivering on its promise. The play focuses on five very different Glasgow characters on a backhold wrestling team preparing for the Scottish Highland games; each of them (including the coach) are struggling with their own unresolved histories and identities. Without more time to explore their relationships, it was difficult to feel involved with the characters’ struggles. Well-choreographed and well-acted, though; and who even knew what women’s back-hold wrestling was before this play?
Day 5: August 12
Saturday morning in August is the Farmer’s Market, which did not disappoint.
Afterwards, most of us met at the Pleasance Dome for two plays: a devised Finnish production, Them, and the French playwright David Lescot’s play Dough. Both were in a small theatres that expertly showcased the actors’ perfect timing and physical movement. In Them, we were greeted at the door by four seated actresses saying, by turns, “Welcome,” and “I’m sorry” before donning mens’ suits hanging about the stage set. A commentary on sex roles that managed to be nuanced rather than easily stereotypical, the play still seemed a bit dated for our group. As John noted after the play, “I was changing diapers 50 years ago…” Unfortunately, the play still hit home at moments (especially when we later caught ourselves saying “sorry” a bit too much…) Dough, on the other hand, was a French play written by an award-winning playwright, and acted (we think) by Americans. Tracing every financial transaction from a boy’s earliest memories of allowances and bullying, to midlife victimization by a Ponzi scheme, the play is an interesting and face-paced journey through a life with familiar moments shared by many. But, finally, the point? Yes, money and our attitudes toward it are shaped by our histories and actions; and financial transactions often undermine our closest relationships. Luckily, the play was so expertly performed we didn’t seem to mind the simple, episodic plot.
The entire group reconvened in a slightly larger space in the Pleasance Dome for Ad Infinitum’s production of the one-woman show Beautiful Evil Things. An intense re-telling of the Trojan War, we are introduced to a handful of strong, and slightly scary, female characters, starting and ending with Medusa, who menacingly notes: “This is the story of my severed head.” The high octane, tour-de-force was absolutely mesmerizing: no wonder the Guardian named it one of the best plays of 2022. I’m glad we were able to see it!
DAY 6: August 13
Sunday we started at 10am with Traverse Theatre’s headlining show The Grand Old Opera House Hotel. And grand it was! Few in our group were opera fans, but this play may have changed some minds. The hotel of the play is literally haunted by the site on which it is built: a grand old opera house that had years before burned to the ground, killing actors trapped on its roof. The stage’s multi-door set, leading to several identical “chain hotel” rooms, was a perfect set-up. We follow a romance between two lowly hotel workers–one with a beautiful, operatic voice–as they lose, and ultimately find, each other despite all the misunderstandings and mishaps that serve as the play’s farcical plot. Like opera itself, the play is a bit “over the top,” with its thinly plotted story (replete with ghosts and mistaken identities). But oh, what fun!
The group then saw Adults in the same space. Written by Kieran Hurley (who authored the smash-hit Mouthpiece that our group saw in 2019), this dark comedy was unexpectedly moving despite its unlikely set-up: the newest client of a 30-something women’s new brothel business just happens to be her old teacher. In his eagerness, he has arrived early, so while the normal apartment is turned into a brothel set, we are treated to some interesting dialogue between the two: mostly about her current choices vs. what the teacher remembers as her educational potential. A bit later we realize his appointment is actually with a young man, who turns up late with crying child in pram (who will eventually nap outside the room). Because the teacher’s embarrassment makes him uneasy about following through, we are treated to a very funny seduction scene by the young man who doesn’t want to lose his day’s paycheck. How accurate a portrayal this is of the current generation’s economic situation is hard to say. But the expertly acted and well-paced play was definitely a thumbs up.
Recommended by a UMASS faculty friend as the best show on the fringe this year, a group of us headed to the EICC Pleasance (a converted huge conference space) to see the South African production Dark Noon. Although it looked a bit silly in the previews, (black actors in white face and blond wigs?), it was one of the best performances we saw.
With cheap wigs and make-up, this farcical spin on the American dream seemed to have it all: the genocide of First Nations, black slave auctions, the frenzied Gold Rush, indentured Chinese to build the railroad, soldiers with PTSD, brothels, barrooms, churches, and a fridge full of Cokes offered to audience members periodically invited onstage. Costumes and make-up were changed in a frenzy, and the onstage set was built before our eyes–eventually taking up the entire large space. The sweeping, nightmarish, and all-too-familiar version of American history was offered in the form of a Western with the purported good guys anything but. (Perhaps the best example of Brechtian “historicizing” of a contemporary moment that I have ever seen.) At the end of the play, the actors each appeared on the large screen explaining how Westerns and American culture really had shaped their childhoods. One of them delivered my favorite line: “My grandmother told me that the best way to ruin an African story is to tell it in English…” I only wish our entire group had seen the play!
Two in our group are isolating (yes, COVID), and the rest of our group nearly missed the last show of the day because their fearless leader went to the wrong “Studio” for the event! So we missed our “seats at the table” for the International Festival production of FOOD, but were at least able to be seated a few minutes late to see this strange, utterly absurd and absorbing show.
The master chef-waiter-magician-clown of the evening is Geoff Sobelle, but how to describe the event he conjures is almost impossible. Here are a few rather memorable moments: Geoff asks people to order off the menu (which they read), and then produces it with panache. Someone orders eggs and gets three raw eggs cracked into a bowl; another orders fish and he dons a parka, turns the table into the Artic, makes a hole in the ice, and fishes out a meal; another orders potatoes and gets them raw in dirt dumped from a bucket. Later, Geoff sits, as if lonely, at the head of the table and eats every item of food in sight and in a single gulp–raw eggs, whole potatoes, an entire bottle of wine, large stalks of celery. Later still, the tablecloth is removed to reveal a large patch of earth on which tiny trains will run, buildings will emerge, crops grow, all before our eyes as if by magic. At the end of the play Geoff will climb up on the table, and then climb into the set, disappearing into the dirt. Just amazing!
DAY 7: August 14
The day started First Thing with Daniel Kitson’s performance by that name (which he undoubtedly chose, before it was written, to indicate the time it was scheduled.) This “work in progress” at the Roundabout was, indeed, “Classic Kitson,” a line repeated throughout the performance by audience members, who were all given complete scripts of the play with highlighted lines to read. Kitson, a frequent Edinburgh performer and influential comedian, draws a huge following every year with his utterly original, self-referential, metatheatrical performances, many of which (though not all) involve the audience in some fundamental way. In this one, Kitson bandies back and forth with the audience whose lines mostly ask questions about what exactly is going to happen in this play? And when is it going to begin? Kitson’s lines are scripted too, but he also improvises depending on the audience members’ particular line delivery (or lack thereof). Sometimes after miscues, he gestures to the stage technician to “fix” the scripts for tomorrow’s show. Clearly a work in progress, that maybe isn’t really a work in progress? We were lucky to catch the show since Kitson is on no social media, rarely records and never films his work, and yet has sometimes been called the greatest living comedian; someone who has expertly blended comedy with story-telling, his fans snap up tickets to his shows as soon as he announces them on his (old school) list-serve.
Next up in the Roudabout was 60 yr old political activist/comedian Mark Thomas’s performance of Ed Edward’s England and Son. This was the first time in many years that the stand-up has performed in a play written for him, but not by him. And he was brilliant, as always. Telling the story of a working class boy’s lost childhood, Thomas’s ferocious and funny performance makes a connection between juvenile deliquence and the violence of colonialism passed down through generations and reinforced by conservative policies. Seeing the brutal image of his grandfather holding up the heads of Malaya men for a photo souvenir disillusions the boy, and underscores the play’s themes. Although there is no reason to believe that this is Thomas’s own story, he makes us believe it is.
Next up, the circus? At the last minute, a few of us decided to Uber to Murrayfield Ice Rink for the Hungarian company Recirquel’s IMA, billed as an “immersive circus.” Always up for an immersive experience on the fringe, I must admit that finding myself seated for the entire performance was a bit disappointing (I imagined wandering through a huge space seeing multiple artists perform). However, everyone else in the group was utterly enthralled with this one-man, acrobatic, high-wire act. The atmosphere as we entered was calming and worshipful (like entering a high-end spa), while the act itself, backlit with tiny stars in the ceiling shot through with beams of light, was both intensely physical and surprisingly spiritual. The sheer strength, endurance, and gymnastic skill it took to perform this 40-minute piece, and to do so throughout the day, was, I admit, a bit mind-blowing. For a clip of the show:
This evening, the group attended the International Festival performance As Far As Impossible. Not an easy show to see, the verbatim play was created from interviews with international aid workers in some of the most difficult (indeed, impossible) areas of the world. The show sparked some discussion among the group: were these stories intrusive, even exploitative, or were we invited to some necessary witnessing? Since it was the aid workers basically telling their own stories (including why they had to give up doing work in the “impossible”), and since the play offered no answers of any kind, I found the subject matter both compelling and nuanced. There were no heroic or inspiring visions, nor any way out for those suffering or for those who tend them. Rather, it offered its audience a rare look into what the world prefers not to see. The show ends with a pounding drum solo that seemed to go on, and on…accomplished, invigorating, and finally just distressing. A fitting end to a thought-provoking show by the new artistic director of the Avignon Festival.
Day 8: August 15
We started our day with Fishbowl, at the Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall, a play about dementia in which two actors play multiple roles about the challenges of carers and patients alike in a nursing home. Well-acted and clearly based on real experiences, the piece was at times amusing and at times difficult to watch. Intending to inform the audience through empathy and emotion, the play nevertheless seemed a bit dated (perhaps because new therapies for dementia, including “don’t argue, and share their world”) have been much in the news lately.
The comedic highlight of our trip, were we to vote, would be the Grand Pleasance performance of Ice Hole (think ice-fishing “ass hole” and you’ll have one of the play’s motifs): A Cardboard Comedy (think, all lines of one character delivered directly to the audience via various sized pieces of cardboard boxes with comments already written on them.) The counterpart to the older, mostly sitting “asshole” is a younger man constantly changing the set, miming all the action, and providing running commentary as he goes–all using cardboard boxes. For one character, the lead role is grand, for the other, exhausting. The play is not only hilarious, but also extremely inventive–and just imagining how much preparation is involved in 80 minutes’ worth of perfectly lined up items for the second performer to grab, display, and discard is awe-inspiring. We root for the little guy and share his irony; yet we laugh at the entire, absurd stage set up that this same performer builds and dismantles at a moment’s notice. Nothing is too silly or absurd for him to “act out” for us, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes with disdain. A mermaid? No problem. A pawn shop in the desert? Done. Buy a coke? The wireless sign for a credit card is produced. And so on with surprise after surprise until we literally have laughed ourselves silly.
Afterwards, we went to see comedian John Robins’ Work in Progress at the Just the Tonic nearby. I chose this show because of a request from one personal for “more comedy,” and I knew that his 2019 show had garnered a Fringe First. But despite some funny lines and an engaging personality, the show mostly convinced us that theatre is what we are here to see after all.
While two of our group were lunching at the best fist restaurant in town (Fisher’s in the City), four of us added one more play: No Love Songs at the Traverse 2 (the preview clip is from the Dundee Rep where the play opened.) The “gig musical” has become quite a genre at the Fringe this year. The story–girl meets boy (musician), girl gets pregnant, they marry, boy gets musical break in U.S. leaving girl with newborn, girl gets severe post-partum depression, boy comes home just in time to save her. Not such a cheery story, but at least a happyish ending and some very good music. Check out the clip from the Dundee Rep production:
DAY 9: August 16
Today we were picked up at 7:30am by Des from Rabbie’s Tours and travelled to the Highlands for the entire day. After so much excitement and theatre, it was nice to get away for some easy sight-seeing. We drove through Beatrix Potter’s town, stopped for a short hike in Pitlochery, took a boat ride on Loch Ness (no, we didn’t see Nessie, but at the end of the month there will be tons of scientists there looking with high tech devices.) On our way back through Glencoe valley we saw the most dramatic and beautiful scenery. (More photos on our website gallery)
DAY 10: August 17
Recharged and re-energized! Four of our group took a tour of the Medieval Castle this morning, while Mary (always up for another play) and I saw no less than THREE shows before the group met up at 2:30. We were the last to be admitted to the sold-out Fringe First show Funeral, an immersive experience by the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed. Despite the hype, it was, well, interesting. (That is, not as good as shows they produced in previous years–such as Smile Your Face Off written up on last year’s blog). We sang a sad song together, shook everyone’s hand as we entered as if in a receiving line, were given a log to sit on, watched as actors shared memories of departed loved ones, and participated in an ash-spreading ritual by throwing (one by one) a pile of colored confetti in the air. The most moving moment (in a play that was by its very nature sombre and reflective) was the speaking of names we had given an actor when we entered the space. Afterwards, we saw Appraisal, a Fringe First winner from last year about an awkward annual review between an older man and younger woman: tense, funny, and perhaps a bit too close to home! But excellent overall. At Summerhall, we took in Her Green Hell, which was an amazing story of how a woman, whose plane crashes in the Amazon in Peru, manages to make it out alive, despite walking into the jungle, rather than out of it. As one reviewer noted, surviving for three weeks in the Amazon alone, with only one shoe and little food, would seem too fantastical if it weren’t actually true!
The 40-minute Concerned Others, also at Summerhall, was one of the most original shows that the group saw this year. Although the story about opioid addiction and attempts to treat it was familiar, the method of its telling was completely original. Sound and image seems the only way to convey a sense of this performance: check it out–
On the other hand, the techniques showcased in Lost Soles were a disappointment. Written and acted by tap dancer Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips, we expected more tapping and less patter. The set had a clunky, “hand made,” high school quality. Stories about famous first teachers were interesting, but the stage seemed cluttered with unnecessary set items and too much stage “busy-ness.” Although Phillips was genial and inviting as he welcomed us before the show, we were left thinking that as a tap dancer, he is past his prime.
After a much-needed break, the group met at the Traverse 2 for the award-winning, Irish two-hander, Heaven. A series of interlocking monologues, the play features a married, middle-aged couple who spend the evening back in their childhood hometown before a family wedding. But they always occupy separate spaces–emotionally as well as physically. Remembering their past and reassessing their choices, both wonder if it’s time to stop “settling” and to start really living again (with different partners). While both are facing mid-life crises brought on by a sexually unfulfilling marriage, only one manages to make a clean escape (and it is not the one we expect.) The play earned a Fringe First its first week.
DAY 11: August 18
This morning most of the group toured the new Parliament building and then hiked Arthur’s Seat. (Photos will be posted on the gallery). The weather held, as it has for most of our trip!
Last year, I saw the play Godot is a Woman alone, and I ranked it among the best plays of last year’s Fringe. Luckily, it was back for a few days this year, and our group was treated to a high-energy, hilarious, feminist performance that everyone agreed was one of the best shows this year. The devised piece is based on a sad and hard-to-believe fact: that the Beckett estate still, in 2023, will not grant permission for women to play in Waiting for Godot! The performance begins with a person on “hold,” waiting for someone from the Beckett estate to answer the phone, a motif that returns throughout the play. Attired in their Godot costumes on a Godot-inspired set–all ready to go once they get the nod–the three women still manage to adapt much of Beckett’s rhythms and physical theatre bits as they contemplate “what is to be done?” So they wait. But they also act: in a wild and informative mock “trial” of the Beckett estate, they prosecute their case and by the end of the play, we have three women stripped to their underwear in an inspiring, over the top, and definitely un-Beckett-like musical number, interrupted only by the ringing of the telephone. But the women at this point simply hang up the phone.
After grabbing a quick fish and chips dinner at the City Cafe right next to the Festival Theatre, the group was treated to the highlight of this year’s International Festival: an extraordinary performance of The Berliner Ensemble’s Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. Nor did it matter that the production was almost entirely in German, with subtitles. The set, the live orchestra, the Kurt Weill music, and the story itself made the 3-hour performance (including intermission) fly by. It was well worth its very expensive price, and because our seats were near the front, we were able to see everything. Again, sound and image is worth a thousand words. Check this out:
Day 12: August 19
Are we tired yet? Most of the group was up early to hit the St. John’s Cathedral craft market before our Traverse play, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. An incredible multi-media performance that combines murder mystery podcasts, powerpoint presentations, internet sleuthing, and autobiographical narration, the play also deconstructs the very forms used to tell the story just as it critiques how we generate knowledge in the modern age. Iranian playwright Javaad Alipoor speaks directly to the audience throughout the performance, directing various facets of a story about Fereydoun Farrokhzad, the Iranian “Tom Jones,” who was murdered in his apartment in Germany in 1992–a murder that has never been solved. But what is the truth, and how can we possibly ever know? Back in the U.S., I realized that the title of this play must surely allude to French cultural critic René Girard’s 1978 work of the same name. I’ve never read that book–but I’ve ordered it and will let you know how it all fits (if it does). The play was complicated enough on its own…informative, thought-provoking, visually stunning, and entertaining.
Our last production was around the corner at the Lyceum theatre: a double bill of Phaedra / Minotaur. None of the group much liked Part One, which was pure opera set to British Composer Benjamni Britton’s score. But the second part was a thrilling dance piece with the minotaur figure haunting the dreams of a young woman literally dancing on a climbing wall above her bed. (For some of us, we were reminded of the acrobatic IMS production.) Although I wished the Minotaur that appeared in Act One had actually returned as a dancer in Act Two, his head morphed into something closer to the women’s teddy-bear as she dreamed of the man balancing precariously above her.
Finally, we headed over to the Sheraton Square One for drinks and a final dinner. It took a while to sink in that we were indeed at the end of our trip…We’ll miss Edinburgh!