It's a perennial problem. You come to the Festival, and timetable every minute of your day trying to see as many shows as possible. But despite (or because of) your planning, there's one thing you fail to see every year: Edinburgh itself. After that initial wonder you experience when you first see the city - I have fond memories of comedian Mark Hurst summing up his first reaction as "wow, mountains in the middle of town" - you start taking it for granted, not noticing as you run from one disused church hall to another that there's a whole glorious city waiting to be explored.
Which is why The Belated Birthday Girl and I spent the Easter weekend in Edinburgh this year. We saw the Castle, we ate in some really nice restaurants, we slept in a bed at Rick's Hotel that was more than two and a half feet wide (one of the traditional problems when roughing it in student halls of residence). It gave us another view of the city that you don't get at Festival time. And yet, even back in March, we couldn't keep away from some of our usual Festival haunts - seeing a play at the Traverse, and catching some stand-up comedy at the Stand comedy club.
The show we caught last Easter at the Stand had Owen O'Neill headlining, so it's amusing five months later to return to Edinburgh and find him performing again at the same venue. O'Neill was one of the earliest comics to make the move from simple joke-telling to extended narrative in his Fringe shows, and he's written and performed several such monologues here over the years. Chasing My Tail is, as he admits up front, his greatest hits compilation; as he was rewriting his monologues for a forthcoming radio series, he picked the best bits from each one and made a new hour long piece out of them.
Unless you knew the original shows, you'd be hard pushed to spot the joins, as O'Neill's work tends to be autobiographical in nature, lending itself to a chronological structure. He starts by telling stories of his childhood in Northern Ireland in the early fifties - I'd never realised before now that he's 50 years old. He talks about his early ambitions to become a footballer - nearly destroyed during a run-in with the IRA over his vandalism of a Gaelic football pitch, and more or less killed off completely once he moved to England. He talks frankly about branching out into acting (really must re-watch Michael Collins at some point), his obsession with Mick Jagger, and his battle with alcoholism (which makes it even more astonishing that he looks that good at fifty).
What makes this work is that over the years, O'Neill has honed his storytelling skills superbly - he knows he's got good tales to tell, and he knows how to tell them. It all makes for a thoroughly engaging hour, which we then round off with lunch at Rick's for old times' sake.
Shane Danielsen, director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is obviously having far too much fun in his job. His delightful introduction to yesterday's screening of Serenity, in front of a room full of rabid Joss Whedon fans, gives you some idea; "this festival is all about discovering new talent, and this is a new director we've discovered. It's his first film, you won't have heard of him..."
The only people I've ever seen Danielsen interview in the Festival's Reel Life events are ones he's a huge fan of, and this is obviously the case with today's talk with Whedon. They're both good with the funny, which makes for some terrific exchanges. At one point, talking about Whedon's early career as a script doctor, he justifies some of his dodgier choices: "I love Waterworld... well, I love the idea of it." Danielson's response - "we all love the idea of Waterworld, like we all love the idea of Communism" - is good enough for Whedon to promise to steal it in the future.
Again, this is being played out in front of an audience of fans, who know all the key points of Whedon's story already: so the talk ends up being a little more freewheeling than the usual chronological runthrough you get at these things. Whedon talks about his early days as a TV writer, like his father before him and his father before him (there's almost certainly a market out there for a DVD compilation of his early work on Roseanne). He moved into Hollywood to work as a script doctor, where the typical request is "make the ending more exciting, and make it cheaper." After the experience of seeing his original feature script of Buffy The Vampire Slayer being hacked by other people into something he didn't like, it was his wife who suggested that he could move back into television and do it the way he wanted. "But she also said that one day garbage trucks would have robot arms to pick up sacks, and I didn't believe that either."
The 'robot arms' thing comes back as a leitmotif several times whenever Whedon refers to advice from his wife that he initially ignored, which means that either he's as brilliant as The Belated Birthday Girl says he is, or that he's got a pre-packaged version of his life story he already has in his head for use at events like these. But there's no denying that he's as funny in real life conversation as he is in his scripts. And it's interesting to hear the way he frequently slips into what is apparently his Ironic Voice, which is a dead ringer for the one Xander in Buffy uses when he's taking the mick. It's an entertaining 90 minutes, made all the better by FilmFan not only getting us inside in the first place, but getting us near the front in seats allocated to the Dutch delegate Uip Festival.
Look back through the archives, and you'll see that the Pals and I don't do much at the International Festival nowadays. We've caught the odd play or concert, but we've been disappointed enough times - yeah, Die Ahnlichen, I'm looking at you - to generally put us off unless there's something really special going on. The British premiere of John Adams' opera The Death Of Klinghoffer counts as something special in my book, particularly given the whiff of controversy associated with the work. People from the Scottish Chief Rabbi down have been demanding the opera's withdrawal from the Festival, or at the very least an audience boycott; in the end, it plays to a full house regardless, and the TV crew in the foyer hoping to pick up some protests are left twiddling their thumbs.
What sort of opera could inspire this sort of reaction? One based on the real-life hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1984. A group of Palestinian terrorists, led by Mamoud (Kamel Boutros), take the passengers and crew hostage, demanding the release of a number of political prisoners. One of the passengers is the wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer (Jonathan Summers). You can probably work out the rest from there. Historically, the opera has always been attacked by both sides on the Middle East conflict, which to an outsider like myself looks like a good thing. Nobody is shown as being wholly good or wholly evil, as it's acknowledged that things are much more complex than that.
Klinghoffer's never been performed in the UK before, but a couple of years ago a film version was made for Channel 4. It was astonishing for its commitment to documentary realism - filmed on a cruise liner at sea rather than on a set, with all the singing being performed live rather than mimed. Anthony Neilson's production for Scottish Opera is obviously a lot more stripped-down, using very little in the way of props and sets. His most distinctive addition is the use of the theatre itself, and it's a shame that the Scottish Chief Rabbi saw fit to spoil one of the best surprises in the production; even though you can see this is dangerous imagery for Neilson to be playing with, there's no denying the frisson it produces, particularly in days like these.
Musically, it's all very fine stuff, well sung throughout, with Kamel Boutros particularly impressive as he reprises the role he played in the film version. The one thing separating this production from true greatness is the quality of the sound mix - even though every singer is miked up, a lot of the words are lost during the more bombastic orchestral passages. That aside, the International Festival has an undeniable success on its hands.
We wrap up the day with Mirrorball: Animation, a selection of animations from the Film Festival's music video strand. Sadly, it looks like I won't be able to make any of the McLaren Animation programmes at this year's festival, so I'm treating this as a substitute; and as ever, the programme's a mix of the good, the bad, the pretentious and the funny.
Shynola's film for Beck's E-Pro makes for a great opener; in its determination to throw everything possible on screen to see what sticks, it's pretty much the visual equivalent of a Beck record itself. Of the artier videos that follow it, Liam O's clip for Mira Calix's Umbra/Penumbra and SSSR's film for Swan Meat by Subtle are both technically very impressive, though in the latter case you can't stop wondering just how much computing power it takes to render something that looks like a 1920s cartoon with bits of greasy fluff floating in front of it. And twelve hours on, I just can't remember what David O'Reilly's film for Szamar Madar looks like, but I'm thoroughly fascinated by the accompanying music of Venetian Snares, which features Elgar's cello concerto having the shit kicked out of it by a drum 'n' bass rhythm track.
As ever, the two most popular films are the funny ones. Chris Waitt's clip for Love Is An Arrow by Aberfeldy is a simple tale of Eskimo love, drawn in a cutesy style but with a heartbreaking sting in the tail. And Nizlopi's JCB Song, animated by Laith Bahrani in the style of children's exercise book drawings, is the perfect marriage of visuals and music. A perfect recreation of a simple childhood memory - sitting in your dad's JCB as he drives it down the road holding up the traffic - it's emotionally engaging in a way that the more 'serious' pieces here could never hope to achieve. And you can see it here if you're interested.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Diane - I wasn't attracted to Fiona Evans' play We Love You Arthur from the title or the two line description in the Fringe programme. A play about two 14 year olds with a crush on miners' leader Arthur Scargill didn't sound promising. However, reviews told a different story, and in this case the critics were right. Set in a North Eastern mining town during the 1980s miners strike, we meet teenagers Lisa and Julie who do, indeed, have a crush on Mr Scargill. They are impressed by his skills as an orator rather than his looks! Lisa and Julie hatch a scheme to be near their hero which doesn't go as anticipated. In the process they discover that Lisa's adored father is having an affair with a policeman's wife, and her world is shattered. To make matters worse, her beloved grandmother dies, and when Julie's father turns scab and returns to work, Lisa is forbidden from seeing her best friend.
Joanne Hickson and Ashlea Sanderson are spot on as Lisa and Julie, given excellent support by John Carter as Lisa's dad, and Zoe Lambert - very versatile as Zoe's mum and grandma. No room for an elaborate set in the small space they have been allocated, but they didn't need one - the 80s music (Billy Bragg, Bronski Beat, Madonna, George Michael and The Smiths) and the period clothes (exactly right) created the atmosphere of the time. In spite of its lighthearted title it was a play that made you think about issues like the plight of the miners, infidelity, loyalties, intergenerational relationships and the role of women - a lot of issues in a short play.
At one time, the Edinburgh Fringe was full of plays by John Godber's Hull Truck Company. They have disappeared from the scene, but in a way this play took me back to my first visit to the Festival 20 years ago. It was very much in the spirit of Hull Truck and the Fringe in general - do go and see it!
The Belated Birthday Girl - For the second time in as many days, I was pleased to be in the same (large) room as Joss Whedon (and, in fact, Serenity actor Nathan Fillion, who was in the audience just a few feet from us in the row behind). As any fan knows from his marvellous DVD commentaries on Buffy, Angel and Firefly, Joss is very good at talking, with his trademark humour as much in evidence as in his writing, accompanied by a self-deprecating charm. Although to a fan there were no startling revelations, hearing Joss in person talking about his career in Hollywood script-doctoring, his early days working on Roseanne, and the genesis of Buffy and Serenity was a real treat, and his advice to would-be filmmakers when asked for by a film student in the audience was passionate and honest. I am a self-confessed Joss Whedon obsessive, so this was always going to be a highlight for me, but I think even a non-obsessive would have found him generous and entertaining. Big thanks to Shane Danielsen for getting this to happen - and big thanks to Joss for, well, everything he's given us all so far (and everything to come).
Diane - Rain Pryor's show Fried Chicken Latkes had so much pre-publicity it was bound to come in for harsh criticism. In most of the reviews the critics felt that the talented Ms Pryor should have stuck to singing, and limited the talk to in-between-song chat. Rain Pryor sings very well, her style veers between Barbra Streisand and Billie Holliday - an apt mixture because, as she keeps telling us, she is half black and half Jewish. The fact that her father is comedian Richard Pryor explains perhaps why critics were disappointed. They came expecting a sidesplitting comedy show. Instead, what you get is a snapshot of Rain's teenage life, growing up confused about her identity. Not surprising when Mom is a white Jewish woman who, according to Rain Pryor, "believed she was black," and Dad is constantly high on cocaine.
The criticism is undeserved - Rain is a talent in her own right. Her engaging personality draws the audience in and her talent as a singer, actress and raconteur makes you wonder why she hasn't made it bigger. In this case, having a famous father has probably been a drawback rather than an asset. Don't go expecting to see a mini female Richard Pryor delivering sidesplitting material. If you want a thoroughly entertaining hour in the presence of a multi talented performer with a very warm presence, then this is the show to see.
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