2022 EDINBURGH FESTIVAL ITINERARY RECAP
[click on plays for video clips and/or reviews]
Wednesday, August 10:
Today we began three days of incredibly warm temperatures (for Scotland)–high 70’s, even 80. Truly shorts and tee-shirt weather!
In the morning, Leslie discovered Elsa McTaggert in After the World Stood Still, a play about rehabbing a Scottish cottage during Covid, complete with Scottish music on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, penny whistles, bouzouki and accordion. Later in the week, she and Peg saw two more shows starring Elsa, who has a voice “like a songbird.” While Jenny waited for a delayed Delta flight carrying the rest of our group, Peg met her friend from home, Mark, who gave her and Leslie a tour of the old town along with a lunch of haggis and Scotch egg.
After take-out South Indian food at our house, the entire group walked to King’s Theatre (right down the street) for our first International Festival Theatre production: Burn. Dressed as a goth, Alec Cummings performed and danced through this play about Scottish poet laureate Robert Burns, focusing on his “bad boy” reputation as much as the poetry. The most moving moment came at the end with a tearful Cummings singing a heartfelt rendition of Auld Lang Syne in front of the closing curtain.
Thursday, August 11:
The last-minute cancellation of our walking tour was replaced by a Hop on-off bus tour of the city this morning. Then Reyes, Leslie and Peg hiked Arthur’s Seat!
We all met up at the Roundabout: a tent-like structure in the courtyard of Summerhall. This year the space featured plays by Paines Plough, a London-based group that has supported British playwriting since 1974.
At 7pm, we watched Tony and Olivier-nominated actor Samuel Barnett in Marcelo Dos Santos’ “turbo-charged monologue” about a young, British stand-up comedian who falls in love with an American who cannot laugh. The play’s title, Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen, captures the neurotic character’s often panicked presence on the stage in what was a thoroughly engaging and hilarious hour.
At 8:25, we saw the powerful choreopoem Caste-ing, in which three black actresses, using beatboxing, rap, song, and spoken word, navigate the pressures of making their way in the often racist acting industry. The balmy weather made for a pleasant 25 minute walk back home through the grassy Meadows.
Friday, August 12:
Jim, Julie, and Mary today discovered the incredible eggs benedict at Hugo’s French Cafe, a popular stop on our way to Summerhall.
Leslie toured the Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile this morning, and showed us a couple of them later in the week.
In the 10am Materia, an actor used fans to manipulate polystyrene balls and rectangles into a beautiful and moving dance. Do these inanimate objects actually have a will of their own? As we project our own narrative onto the stage, the styrofoam is crumbled in what looks like the melting of the ice caps and thrown into shapes like fireworks. Later, we meet the actor/manipulator in line for another show; he is pleased we “got” the ecological themes of the performance. We also learned that every piece of the littered floor was recovered, bagged, taken back to Berlin, and fed to plastic-eating slugs for disposal! Interestingly, this performance piece was produced by Aurora Nova, which brought Counting Sheep: A Guerilla Folk Opera to Edinburgh in 2016 (a play Julie still talks about!)
At 1:15, we all collaborated on Work.Txt, a true Fringe experience! Who knew that, working together, and reading aloud lines of the script projected onto the stage, that the audience could build an entire cityscape from a huge pile of blocks? Or that our friend-of-the-program Mark would end up as “that guy” who laid on the ground, refusing to work, in a gesture that went internationally viral! As a Guardian reviewer put it, this show performed entirely by the audience is about “the gig economy, financial instability, and bullshit jobs.” I was not surprised to later learn that Tim Crouch, the master of audience-focused plays, consulted on the production.
Afterwards, the already theatre-addicted in our group asked: “What’s next?” So we filled our planned break with another show at 3:20: Double Drop. Set in Wales, this two-hander pits a young girl’s fascination with the rave scene at the abandoned slate quarries against her mother’s need for her to participate in an annual cultural event featuring druids, clog dancing and poetry recitals. Although the accents took some getting used to, it was interesting to learn about Welsh cultural institutions and to experience the Welsh music sung so beautifully by these women.
We all meet up at the Pleasance Courtyard at 6pm to see Rhum + Clay’s Project Dictator, a show inspired by conversations with international artists working under totalitarian regimes. The hilarious first half satirizes populist politicians when the straight character’s side-kick gets tired of doing all the dirty work and takes over his ambitious project of creating a political play that “answers all of our problems.” The audience becomes complicit as we cheer for the underdog who turns out to be a dictator in his own right. In the dark second half, these clowns, in traditional mime costuming, play out scenarios ordered by an offstage voice, are imprisoned and tortured, turn on each other, and are eventually left onstage together to await their unknown fate. A powerful performance by incredibly talented clowns.
While Jenny peeled off to meet up with the director of her former student program (now under the auspices of the University of New Mexico), the rest of the group saw Showstoppers at the Pleasance Grande. If you’ve never seen an improvised musical, where everything from subject matter to costumes, music, dances, and song are suggested by the audience and made up on the spot, then you’re in for a treat! How do they do that?
Saturday, August 13:
Jenny starts early at the Farmer’s Market, buying lamb, duck, vegetables and fruit. Others come later and score Scottish clotted cream tablets (to die for) and artisanal gin.
Mark joins our group for This is Paradise at Traverse 2. Set on the eve of peace talks that will end “the troubles,” this powerful monologue follows the sad story of a young woman who has grown up in a violent world about to change, as she is. Whatever can be said about making this very personal story representative of a larger social moment, there was no doubt about the performer’s amazing ability to hold the audience’s attention–without scene changes, costumes, or music–for an hour and twenty compelling minutes.
After learning that no one in our group really likes whiskey, we cancelled the whiskey distillery tour. Peg and Leslie bussed to the Royal Botanical Gardens while Mary, Jim and Julie could be found later that afternoon at 54 Church St., with its menu of 100s of artisanal gins!
For the “what’s next?” crowd, I booked Luke Wright: The Remains of Logan Dankworth at the Pleasance. An interesting counterpoint to the morning show, Luke performed in his own authentic and engaging play about the mistakes he made in 2016 as an ambitious young reporter and their effects on his homelife. Totally worth it. Afterwards, Jenny watched Destiny at the invitation of Tim Crouch, who had workshopped the play. Another monologue, but again, totally different. In this powerful show, a working-class girl from Chippenham, with irrepressible optimism and grit, holds onto her unlikely dream of becoming an MTV dancer through a variety of disappointments and straight-up sexual exploitation by those who claim to be helping her. When a story of victimhood is told through the victim’s point of view, we can actually see her agency and, with her, refuse to despair.
At 8pm, we were back at the King’s Theatre for what was the most amazing, indescribable show of our entire trip, the International Festival’s The Room. An extravagant, hallucinatory, highly physical performance from the apparently crazed mind of James Thierrée, directing a cast that includes an exquisite opera singer, a talented musical ensemble, incredible dancers, strangely moving mannequins, and a set of towering walls that revolve and recombine on the stage with uncanny speed. What does it all mean? The question is asked onstage more than once and is never answered. When will it end? Also a question asked and answered only with “Not yet…” by the show’s main character. A breathtaking performance for two hours with no break, surely exhausting for actors and audience alike. But so glad we were able to experience it!
Sunday August 14:
A little cooler and a little rain today–more like Scotland!
Today we saw two shows at the Traverse. The first, The Last Return, was an interesting comedy for the festival, given how many lines we have stood in before shows (especially when 7 of us need to go in together!) The show follows the petty conflicts that arise when five very different people queue for return tickets for the final show that they want or need to attend. The ticketmaster is no help, stating that it is up to the characters to organize themselves in a civilized manner. Simple requests like “Will you save my place?” lead to increasingly over the top negotiations and each new character brings with them another story and more potential conflicts. A really funny show that stayed with us through the week!
After a lunch across the street, we returned to see one of our group’s favorite shows, Bloody Elle. Lauryn Redding’s performance (about her heartbreaking relationship with another woman) was outstanding! On a multi-level stage littered with guitars, she expertly played several characters, sang beautiful and tender songs, and generally wowed the audience with her talent.
Our next show was the entirely forgettable International Festival show Amber. Perhaps we should have stayed for the talk-back, which was apparently the real reason for this show about immigration in Scotland. But the mindless building and re-building of a brick wall, interspersed with random questions to the audience, made us all eager to leave the theatre. It happens.
Luckily, Tim Crouch’s play Truth’s a Dog to Kennel did not disappoint. After a drink at the opulent Royal Lyceum Theatre, we were directed to a plain dance studio across the street. Playing the fool in King Lear, who disappears in Act Three before the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes and the rest of the tragedy, the fool returns as a helpless witness of the onstage action being narrated by the performer. The play questions the role of theatre after Covid: What use are they anyway? Can silent audiences, much less characters already banished from the play, prevent violence or tragedy? And who is the audience, anyway? Wearing an empty Virtual Reality headset, Tim will blindly point to various audience members, announcing who they are, why they came, how much they paid for their seat, and whether or not they are awake. A classic and imaginative investigation of the audience, and theatre itself: classic Crouch.
Monday, August 15:
On a rainy Monday morning, we saw Space Hippo in the George Square blue room. A rather silly, but endearing, satire of clueless politicians whose answer to climate change is to send a hippo into space, looking for habitable planets. Consisting of 100’s of projected Japanese paper cuts, we were treated to a beautiful comic book production that was unlike anything else we saw on the fringe this year.
Off the Royal Mile and the Scottish Story-telling Center, where some of us enjoyed Haggis for lunch before the popular play The Man Who Planted Trees. Based on Jean Giono’s 1953 environmental tale, this story focuses on the fictional life of Elzéard Bouffier who starting in the 1920s planted thousands of trees over his lifetime, turning a mostly uninhabitable part of Southern France into a rich and fertile landscape. Performed for over 14 years by the Puppet State Theatre Company, the dog stole the show!
Moving from gentle comedy to harrowing narrative, we watched Henry Naylor’s autobiographical play Afghanistan is not Funny at the Golden Teviot on George Square. Although the action of the play occurred two decades ago, the subject matter was all too relevant as he tells the story of navigating Taliban country with a photographer and still being haunted by the subjects of those photos (especially that of a young girl, holding a dead baby bundle, on which the play ends).
Equally compelling, but far more uplifting, was the International Festival Book of Life at Church Hill Theatre in Morningside that evening. A play about healing after the Rwandan genocide, the protagonist speaks directly to the audience, flanked by the 12 young women drummers whose very existence illustrates the post-traumatic possibilities open to their countrymen. The final moments of loud, joyful, and expert drumming carried us out the door, and into the drenching Scottish rain…
Tuesday, August 16:
Jacket weather and cloudy for our busy day. Peg and Leslie visited a church, an art museum, and Prince’s gardens. They also saw a monologue The Olive Garden about a nanny making her way in life: not their favorite show. Jim, Mary and Julie booked a 10am ticket to Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World at the Pleasance Grand. They enjoyed the production but were surprised to find it more of a kid’s pop musical about great women than the feminist showstopper they had imagined. In the meantime, Jenny and Reyes saw About Money at Summerhall: a play about a young man trying desperately to raise his younger sister on his own with only a drug dealing friend as the unreliable babysitter. Strong performances in this realistic working-class play.
Reyes explored the National Library of Scotland after the show, while Jenny booked two more: Godot is a Woman was among her favorites of the fringe. A hilarious devised piece by three talented women, trying to get permission from the Beckett estate to stage Waiting for Godot–permission that the estate has not, to date, given. One show that I wish the entire group had seen! Opal Fruits, on the other hand, was an entirely missable stand-up delivered by a woman who was commissioned by the Pleasance for a working-class piece when her mother died. The play didn’t really get written, or rather, was not written well.
Back at Summerhall for evening performances. Lots and Not Lots: a meandering and slightly pretentious play by a young company featured lots of flashlights, lots of ping pong balls, and not lots of dialogue. Despite being funded by a highly competitive MadeinScotland grant, this disappointing performance piece seemed not ready for prime time.
Luckily, our final show of the night was brilliant! Although Something in the Water began with a women’s naked body, required audience response, and explored gender nonconformity in the form of strange squid-like genitals, it did not make the audience uncomfortable. As we answered questions posed from the stage (“Normal?” or “Not normal?”) and waved our plastic pitchforks in useless mob action, the audience becomes an ally in this deftly acted and endearing piece that won numerous accolades at the Adelaide Fringe.
Wednesday, August 17:
Blue skies, a bit cooler. This morning, Mary, Jim, and Julie did the “skip the line” castle tour while Peg and Leslie visited the St. John’s Craft Market. The castle tour was so popular that Leslie and Peg booked one for themselves for Thursday morning. (Next year, everyone will go!)
The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Exodus was one of the strongest productions of the Traverse season. A biting political satire about just how far the anti-immigration candidate (a woman of color) will go to become prime minister (hide a baby washed up on shore at their photo shoot? claim it as her own when discovered?) The funniest lines come, of course, from the political advisor–a woman with no moral compass and a wicked mouth.
While Jim and Leslie watched a John Hunt blues show and Peg explored more of the city, the rest of us had a unique and a bit unsettling Fringe experience with the Belgian one-on-one show Smile Your Face Off by Ontroerend Goed. We were led in one by one, seated in a wheelchair, blindfolded with hands lightly bound. Where are we? A voice whispers in our ear, the sounds of cries in the distance and a camera close by. Someone lovingly unbinds us and washes our hands. We are given bites to eat (chocolate, mandarin, gingerbread), and we get to glimpse…Santa Claus? At the end of the piece, we are set face to face with an actor in front of a wall of Polaroids, including our own. Literally “in our face,” the actor asks us to smile, keep smiling, keep smiling, keep smiling…while s/he silently cries. Strange, and utterly Fringe!
Today Peg visited (and highly recommended) the National Museum of Scotland; with its rich history over six floors, it is a definite must-see for anyone traveling to Edinburgh. Leslie had visited earlier, and agrees.
The final show of the day Blood Harmony in Traverse 1 was a more traditional play about three sisters reuniting with each other after their mother’s death. Unfortunately, the length was traditional, too: after so many one hour shows, and so many completely original performances, it was literally difficult to sit here without a break for an hour and 45 minutes. On the upside, Julie discovered the burrito store on the way home–the burritos were as big as a plate, as heavy as a small dog, and delicious (or so I’m told).
Thursday, August 18:
Leslie and Peg went off to the castle tour this morning; afterwards, Leslie visited the National Gallery while Peg toured the Real Mary King’s Close on the Royal Mile, a subterranean medieval labyrinth 4 levels under street level that takes you back to the 1600s.
The rest of us saw the crazy, slapstick comedy The Anniversary at noon. Middle-aged performers “Barb and Jim” take us through preparations for their 50th wedding anniversary, which turns into the party from hell. Unexpectedly dark, as well as funny: kitty in the blender, sliced rat loaf, anyone?
The second show by Belgian group Ontroerend Goed Every Word Was Once an Animal at Zoo Southside was a meta-theatrical exploration of theatre itself: what is, exactly, an introduction? when does the play “really” start? or end? how do we know? can we trust what actors say? and what are those curtains doing? Not everyone’s cup of tea, but particularly interesting for the drama professor crowd.
Everyone liked the one-woman performance piece Waterloo by Australian award winner Bron Batton, back at Summerhall. An explosive re-telling of an ill-fated affair with a (married) conservative military officer, Batton pulls no punches as she dissects the unexplainable attraction to someone who shares none of her political views. Jim was drawn into the action popping balloons with a carpet cutter (which sounded like artillery going off) and later saving the actress from suffocating in the large rubber balloon she somehow ended up inside. Original, risky performance art at its best.
We switched our last day group dinner to this evening to give people more options on their final day in Edinburgh: the fancy Thai Lemongrass restaurant near our house was a perfect spot. Afterwards, we returned to Traverse 1 for Liz Kingman’s hit One Woman Show, a stand-up monologue that The Guardian listed as its top comedy show in 2021. “In a show that never stops commentating on its own performance,” one reviewer writes, Kingman “misses no opportunity here to pull the rug from under solo-show artifice, make mincemeat of liberated-woman cliches and spoof the look-at-me egotism that – occasionally – animates one-person theatre.” While the plot is silly (Kingsman romances a plant and threatens an entire bird population), the play is laugh-out-loud funny. The latest theatre performance we have attended to date, but no one was tired after this show!
Friday, August 19:
We all Ubered to the SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT for a tour this morning, as well as the graphic and compelling photojournalism exhibit in the main hall. Afterwards, Leslie showed us one of the “hidden gardens” from her tour, and we met up again at The Stand comedy club for a rare chance to see veteran Mark Thomas in a new stand-up show called Black and White. Thomas has been doing larger shows at the Traverse and Summerhall over the last few years, and this chance to see him close-up and raw was exhilarating. Jenny thinks he is the best working class political comedian in the UK, and even better, has backed it up with tons of political actions (the results of which often fuel his shows). He did not disappoint.
While Leslie and Peg bussed to Leith for a walkabout and a fabulous dinner at The Shore, the rest of us had lunch at the upscale Fisher’s in the City–really the best seafood in town. It was nice for us all to treat ourselves (burritos and oatcakes go only so far…) Peg and Leslie did a quick tour of the Museum of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile, a nice presentation of Scottish history and items set in a 18th century house with courtyard in back with cemetery stones
The day ended with the Edinburgh International Festival performance of Muster Station at the Leith Academy. Developed with Grid Iron theatre (known for their decades of site-specific work in Scotland), the Academy was turned into a “muster station” for the population of Edinburgh attempting to escape from an imminent tidal wave due to climate change. We were divided into groups through a passport-like gate system, then led into four different rooms to watch different scenarios related to what was happening. Immigrants begging for family visas, an uprising led by an ex-military conspiracy theorist convinced that the muster station is a government ploy to drown the poor while the rich move to the highlands, and so on. The most impressive scene took place in the school swimming pool, where three young actors go from a leisurely summer day to a harrowing situation in which one of the characters drowns. The audience can see the brutal waves of the North Sea moving outside the pool windows. Using the entire school space, the young actors were impressive, the play a thoughtful and moving piece of immersive theatre.
Saturday, August 20:
Our final day in Edinburgh came much too quickly! At 10am, we returned to the Roundabout for We Were Promised Honey, a play that began, and ended, on the “2018 Horizon Air Q400 incident” in which a Seattle airport grounds person with no flying experience stole a jet, and flew it successfully for hours before crashing it on an island in an apparent suicide. This framing incident leads the performer to ask us all sorts of questions, beginning with “do you want to go on” if you know the play ends badly? We choose yes, which leads us to consider many more choices and possibilities that face us before the death of the sun in 5 billion years, and the death of the pilot of our story (much earlier).
On the strong recommendation of someone we met in a queue, we added Boy to our list of plays. Based on the true story of the Reimer twin boys, one of whom loses his penis in a botched circumcision at Johns Hopkins hospital in 1966, we follow the ordeal of parents who are advised to raise Bruce as a girl, renamed Brenda. Eventually, the parents begin to question the “authorities,” the boy discovers what happens, and the many cruel and strange events in his life begin to make sense. Interestingly told with doll puppets and loads of toys, this Belgian duo made us sympathize with both the parents (who inadvertently caused their child trauma) and Bruce, who appears in a video interview at the end of the play. Sad and compelling documentary theatre.
Our last group show at Summerhall this year was Mustard, by Fishamble Theatre. A coming-of-age tale about an Irish girl who is hopelessly and one-sidedly in love with a professional cyclist and copes with disappointment and pain by covering herself with mustard. Her final act of stealing her would-be boyfriend’s prize bicycle and throwing it in the river was applauded by the audience as a new start (and happy ending?) for this certifiably mad character.
Les and Peg also saw today In the Water–a show about a creature in a pool of water enticing a Japanese photographer who seeking this elusive fairy/monster, only to be drowned in the end, the same fate as his family members. The sprite’s last line is “it’s easy to get them to the water, it’s harder to get them in.”
Leslie, Reyes, and Jenny took advantage of a beautiful evening to walk to one last show at 9:30pm near Waterloo station; Jim, Mary, and Julie met us there with gin and tonic in hand. 2 Guys and 3 Drams was a fitting end to the program: we tasted three different Scottish whiskeys, learned a bunch of interesting facts about Scotch in general, and listened to some crowd-pleasing blues. The percussionist was especially talented on the washboard.
Sunday, August 21:
Peg left first this morning for a flight to Gatwick where she was being picked up by a friend for another 10 days in Hastings in Southeast England. Reyes took the train to London to stay with friends before heading to Spain. She will return in January for some sabbatical research in Edinburgh. The rest of us were off to the airport before noon, and everyone made their flight home.
Did we really see 38+ shows in 11 days? Who’s ready for next summer?