Reviewed today: Jon Ronson, Pot Of Dreams, Skittles, The Table, Tenchi Shinmei, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
We've both been fans of Japanese taiko drumming both before and since that event, but the 2006 festival was the trigger that pushed us into actually dabbling ourselves. Since then, we've popped up to the Mugen Taiko Dojo in Strathaven one every year or two for their weekend workshops, and had lots of happy (but exhausting) times there. All of this is a long preamble to an admission that partway though the Tenchi Shinmei show today, The BBG and I are the only two people who put our hands up when they ask if anyone in the audience plays taiko, and we still feel a little embarrassed by that. We're very, very occasional players: we're way down the food chain compared with the people on stage.
Or, technically, the people on the altar: because our first show of the day is inside St John's Church, a somewhat incongruous place to see several sets of traditional Japanese taiko laid out. (Having said that, it's the regular venue used by the groups coming out of the Mugen Taiko Dojo on the years when they play the Fringe, so it's obviously got something going for it.) Wadaiko Ensemble Tokara was founded in Japan in 2004 by one of the acknowledged taiko masters, Art Lee: Tenchi Shinmei is actually meant to be a collaboration between them and a more melodic group, Ensemble Rivelta, spread over two daily performances. The flier appears to suggest that Ensemble Rivelta are playing in the afternoon, while Tokara have the evening slot, but illness appears to have messed up those plans a little, meaning it may be pot luck as to who you get. Check venue for details, as they say.
Anyway, what we end up with is a rather fine hour of drumming by four members of Wadaiko, who've assembled from countries all over the world. (I won't tell you which ones: they have a quiz on that very subject part way through the show.) As with all the best taiko players, they're a treat to watch as well as to listen to, playing with relaxed, flowing movements: the wild enthusiasm of Yukari Ichise's performance is particularly delightful, as she whoops and cheers through all the most exciting parts. There's a nice balance of light and shade in the programme - it's not all played at full pelt, but whenever they take the brakes off you'll know about it. Being trapped in a room with loud drums may seem a risky way to start off one of our traditional Hangover Days (inspired by not getting to bed till three last night), but it works for The BBG and me - although we both catch ourselves watching Tokara for performance tips.
Here's a strange thing about Hangover Day this year: partly through planning, partly through accident, we're spending it all in the West End of Edinburgh. That shouldn't be unusual - after all, before Napier University changed its term dates, we regularly used to stay in student flats in this part of town. But these days, we don't - and it's been noted in several quarters that the balance of Fringe venues has been shifting over to the east side of the city recently, with all the mega-venues now clustered in a tiny area around Bristo Square. But there are still plenty of venues over in the west, including those for the non-Fringe festivals: more on that later.
One of the delights of staying around here was the proximity to the area they call the Pubic Triangle, a collection of topless bars and lapdancing clubs gathered around the Lothian Road and a couple of its backstreets. We often used to go past these seedy-looking venues and joke about how they should be getting involved in the Fringe as well. And now, one of them is: the Sapphire Rooms are holding an exhibition called Pot Of Dreams during the daytime, before reverting back to their core business function in the evening.
It took some persuading to get The BBG to accompany me on this one, I can tell you. And I felt a proper nob going in through the door and having to announce "I'm looking for the exhibition" to the bar staff, trying to add an "I'm not a perv, honestly" overtone to my voice. It turns out that the bulk of the exhibit is in two side rooms as you enter the building: there are some additional photos once you go through into the main bar itself, but I had this curious feeling that heading in there would be crossing some sort of line from Art to Filth. Which is an interesting artistic response in itself, I think.
Pot Of Dreams is an exhibition on the lives of the girls who work in places like the Sapphire Rooms, centered on a series of photos taken by Jannica Honey and Holly Davidson. There. See? Feminist. That's not to say that the photos are entirely family-friendly, as there are a couple of topless shots here and there: but it's more about representing the dancers as people, balancing their everyday lives against the way they've chosen to earn a few bob.
Alongside the photos are handwritten pieces by a number of the dancers themselves, giving a generally positive view of how they've chosen this lifestyle: unfortunately, as you'd expect, the Sapphire Rooms are generally dimly lit, so the text parts of the exhibit are irritatingly difficult to read. I'd suggest a few UV lights by the text displays would get round that problem, but The BBG has pointed out that this could lead to even further unpleasantness. Anyway, if you've ever wanted an excuse to peek inside one of the Pubic Triangle venues, now's your chance.
A day in the West End isn't just about titty bars: there are nice restaurants (Illegal Jack's for lunch, Imans for dinner), old-fashioned theatres, and a Book Festival. Our one scheduled visit to the latter this year is to see Jon Ronson, who we last caught here back in 2002. This time, he's promoting his new book The Psychopath Test. His initial inspiration was the story of a man called Tony who'd feigned insanity to avoid a stint in prison, only to end up doing an even longer stint in a mental institution. "Faking madness is a typical sign of a psychopath," Ronson was told by someone who'd apparently never read Catch-22. In fact, there's a twenty-point checklist available which can be used to diagnose psychopathy - and once he'd got hold of this list, he started using it to test various people he knew, with increasingly unnerving results.
Ronson's key theme in the book is how the traits associated with psychopathy have ended up becoming the traits we associate with strong leaders in both business and politics. He's interviewed a number of them for The Psychopath Test, secretly marking his checklist as he goes. In many cases, the people he's talked to don't see these traits as being negative, quite the opposite in fact: he talks with irritation about one CEO who'd "modified my checklist into Who Moved My Cheese". And there's plenty of discussion of some of the other case studies in the book, including one that didn't make it to the published version: a man who claimed to his wife he was a CIA agent on regular missions away, but was actually just taking time off to see his other wife.
Ronson's an engaging presence on stage, as ever: drily funny, self-deprecating to a fault, and always keen to treat his subjects as human beings rather than targets for scorn. It's a shame that I can't fit any more Book Festival events in this year, but I'm glad I managed this one, which was organised with the Festival's usual skill and attention to detail. (Right down to the use of John Lennon's Mind Games as exit music.)
Similarly, only the one visit to the International Festival this year: although that's a more common strike rate for me where the EIF is concerned. Given the choice, I'll normally go for a theatre event from their programme, and this year is no exception: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's novel by Stephen Earnhart and Greg Pierce.
Toru Okada (James Yaegashi) is having a bad time at the moment - he's lost both his cat and his wife Kumiko (Ai Kiyono). The latter is more of a cause for concern, and he suspects his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya (James Saito) has something to do with her disappearance, but can't prove anything. As he sits in his apartment waiting for the return of either or both of them, a number of characters of variable degrees of reality drift through, offering help or otherwise.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a patchy old thing, really. It's slickly directed by Earnhart, and there's always something on stage that'll catch the eye: video projected backdrops, glamourous costumes, the use of traditional Japanese puppetry for some scenes. (For me, the latter of these is the most disappointing element in the mix - it's not performed all that well, and there are Western productions that have used it better in the past, notably Complicite's Shun-kin.) There's a beautiful score, performed live by Bora Yoon from a small cluster of keyboards and traditional instruments just in front of the stage. And yet all these things never quite come together as a story, except possibly on the level of science fiction, where the logistics of the moves between different levels of reality are more interesting than the people they happen to. Not an entire success, then, but on the whole I'm glad I saw it.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Rhian - I've never seen Waiting For Godot (can I admit that here?), but I think that's what The Table was broadly about, but with puppets. I was worried it would be a bit weird and deeply profound, but it was funny, intriguing and a masterful performance by the Blind Summit company.
It's a three-part show, The Table being the first part. A puppet (apparently performed in Japanese Bunraku style) has spent the past 40 years on a table. He introduces us to the way Bunraku puppetry works, his operators, and his table. His table world goes away when taken over by a visitor writing a diary. Even if it does get a bit weird after that, I found myself getting increasingly concerned that his table world should stay safe. I'm sure I've missed all sorts of allusions to the meaning of existence, but I don't care, it worked for me.
The second section of the show, which consisted of cleverly lit masks framed in windows and dancing to music, left me pretty cold. But the final section - a story told wittily and skillfully with the help of gradually revealed and very basic cartoon drawings - kept the attention of the whole packed audience. I'm not sure why it worked, it just did.
Rhian - Skittles is a one man show - he's gawky, geeky, with more than a passing resemblance to Where's Wally. Talking about the ups and downs of relationships, has probably been done once or twice already. But I thought this was a lovely hour - it's a tight performance, done in rhyme - a poem with laughs at just the right moments and a satisfying, but not too predictable, ending. I'm pretty sure everyone wanted to take him home at the end, and from the response of the audience, that included the men too.