Megan Vaughan: Edinburgh is like a black hole for theatre
I’m only on month two with this column but fuck it, I give up. Edinburgh is like a seething black hole, hoovering up theatremakers from literally everywhere else. No point fighting. It sucks all the decent performance stuff out of every studio theatre, rehearsal room and every single other venue up and down the country. I just saw four students, Bryony Kimmings and a hula hoop flash past my window. Pop a manhole cover on Cowgate right now and it’s just a mass of pulsating pink slime like in Ghostbusters II.
You may laugh, but I was initially determined to make this month’s column all about the incredible, unusual, genre-shifting theatre one can see outside Edinburgh during the month of August. (Lol.) On my list for inclusion: Rosana Cade’s Walking:Holding at the National’s new River Stage, Gaggle’s take on Lysistrata for the Dionysos bit of the Almeida Greeks season, and a hilarious joke of my own devising about how the Camden Fringe is actually just an intentionally useless website created by some sardonic art pranksters. That’s it. Two things, effectively. Both great, but both in London, and both programmed by big ol’ fancy establishment theatres. *thumbs down emoji*
Casting aside (for now) the 3,000-word thinkpiece I have in me about the role that prestige venues like the NT and the Almeida can play in raising the profile of contemporary performance, I find myself faced with a dilemma. There are, after all, only two types of arts opinion column at this time of year: the ‘what to see/how to survive’ model and the ‘why Edfringe is shit and I’m not going’ model (excellent example courtesy of Gareth K Vile here). Instinctively I am drawn to the latter but my reasoning lacks nuance and besides, you lot are like braying, salivating hounds, barking for recommendations. Noses to the dirt, you only need one whiff of ‘breakthrough hit’ before charging off to hump the life out of whatever poor creature the critics finger. You sick bastards.
With that in mind, I’m just gonna tell you about the best stuff I’ve seen in July and you’ll all be so transfixed by my wisdom and insight that you’ll forget Ed*****gh is even a thing.
I kicked off the month in Winchester, flat on my back for Graeme Miller’s Track at Hat Fair, which trundled me slowly under willow trees and the cathedral buttresses. Stacy Makishi gave me a psychic reading based on my choice of orange Sharpie in her contribution to The Yard’s Walkie Talkies season with the Olympic Park (I’m a “warm, creative and open soul” apparently, which, yep, sounds about right). And just a couple of nights ago I saw Franko B go 12 rounds with a gold punchbag full of milk at Toynbee Studios.
That show really helped to focus my mind on why I love those live art experiences that maintain a singular sustained idea. Speak to some people and they’ll tell you how ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’ the work is. I say: bollocks, mate. In Milk and Blood, we were given 45 minutes of quiet time to watch spatter become a puddle become a full-scale creamy crime scene, while Franko B sweated and muttered and hammered out his own frustrations. With the lights reflecting off all the gold, it was kinda calming. Like we could all just relax and enjoy the picture, y’know, because our battles were being fought for us by the unyielding badass in the shiny gloves.
Interestingly, my other two favourites this month have been almost entirely wordless. The first, Puki Jam by militant electro-punk Quilla Constance (at Tender Loin from Steakhouse Live), started with a pop video, all postmodern rave visuals, gollywog pastiche, and QC looking fierce in bedsits and galleries. I can imagine her joining Rihanna’s gang in the Bitch Better Have My Money video (which I’m not entirely sure is the aim of the UK’s radical performance artists, but hey ho). Then, when she arrived on stage, she began this totally unflinching physical narrative performed entirely through breath and posture and non-verbal sounds: panting like a dog, sex noises, then laughter, pure guttural anger, back again. There was a conscious intimidation there, which I admire for its audacity, but she’d also created a fully realised journey. (There are significant holes in the plot of that Rihanna video, so I’m hoping there’s a future dramaturgy hook-up there at least.)
Alba by Jo Bannon isn’t technically wordless (there are a few short clips of an interview with her mother) but it’s performed in a kind of ceremonial silence. Bannon has albinism, and was brought home from hospital the same day as the Pope was visiting the family’s home city of Coventry. This show explores her own ‘paleness’ in relation to her mother’s faith, her childhood penchant for fighting, and the subtle aggression of the silent treatment, of being ‘sent to Coventry’. It’s totally, totally luscious. Like, phwoar.
All my favourite ingredients are there: striking visual imagery, something a little bit scary, proper fucking banging music. I almost don’t want to spoil the detail for you, but I think there’s something really interesting about the connotations of religious ritual for those without faith. As an unashamed heathen, the preparation of an altar and the sound of a catholic mass don’t offer any intrinsic sense of inner comfort, but remain intensely affecting for other cultural reasons (eg. The Exorcist, The Omen, the video for Like A Prayer by Madonna). Alba riffs on Japanese horror as much as that stuff, using light and dark to play with her own status as ‘miracle child’, and the precision of the staging – the steam from a kettle, the flash of light on an iron, everything just so – makes it creepy as fuck. Yes, yes, yes.
I saw Alba during a two-night run at Ovalhouse, but apparently it’s also going up to some big festival in Scotland from the 24th of August. (Nah, me neither.)
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