Themes emerge at Edinburgh Festival 2008

This article is from 2008

Steve Cramer's Festival Blog

Critics are as human as anyone else, so they’re apt to seek patterns in what they see from day to day in a busy fringe. Perhaps these patterns are there, or perhaps we simply seek to find some comfort in the regular recurrence of some phenomena or other. Whatever the explanation, you’d probably expect critics to seek out such motifs. This year, the obsession of either myself or the dramas I’m seeing is history.

History, mainly of a personal kind, seems to be something that stops characters of various pieces in their tracks this year. In Supper at the Assembly Rooms the male narrator’s past, from his loss of his grandfather to his discovery of his love for his partner seem to impede his present, filling him with dread at the anticipated loss of his beloved. Meanwhile a past of abuse is the focus of The Bird and The Bee: The Bird, Kandinsky’s second of a daily double bill, where the malicious act of vengeance which threatens a relationship is explained and partly justified by personal history.

Both of these pieces are pessimistic in tone, and it might tell us something about the difference between the UK and US sensibilities that a glimmer of optimism can be seen in a series of American pieces where the characters seem trapped by history in a static present. The gentle rebuilding that underlies the end of Adam Rapp’s gorgeous Nocturne at the Trav, which sees a man paralysed by an accident that killed his sister fifteen years before is also reflected in Sister Cities at The Gilded Balloon. Here, for all the reflection on childhood brought about by four sisters loss of their mother, there’s a sense of life moving on, perhaps to better things in an uplifting finale.

But one nation’s optimism can be another’s apocalypse and in the politics of a couple of history plays, that sense of an end of history is all pervasive. In Fall at the Trav, an untidy kind of play with a potential brilliance at times buried under the of sprawl that a fortnight’s more work might have rectified, we see a society obsessed with its recent past of civil war. Yet here there’s a rare quality in a British play, for however muted, there’s a tiny gesture of redemptive optimism at the end of the piece, after all the catastrophe. In the two survivors left on the stage in a darkness alleviated by the occasional striking of a match, one feels the same vague sense of human hope that occurs in Len’s repair of a broken chair in Bond’s Saved. In my show of the festival so far, the splendid Architecting, at the Trav, there’s also a gentle, problematical sense of rebuilding to cap things off.

As ever with the festival, some of the funniest moments have occurred offstage. I’ll nominate three in ascending order:

On Saturday evening, the start of Office Party was delayed by an errant fire alarm, but the audience, queued as they were around the block of the Appleton Tower, made their own entertainment. Full points go to the female queuer who managed a loud wolf whistle at a sheepish fireman as he alighted from his appliance.

Meanwhile, the same rowdy line of punters were beset by the inevitable show casts armed with fliers. One of these, the Aussie performer Russell McGilton of From Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle approaches a group of rowdy Welshmen next to me. He assures them he’s moderately famous back home, and gets a “never heard of you” from one valley-dwelling lad, to whom, not repining, McGilton presents his flier, which pictures his bare backside suspended over a bicycle seat. “Ah, now I recognise you!” says the cheeky Welshman.

But the one-liner to end them all occurred on Sunday night in the Trav, where Riot Group actors, the redoubtable Drew Friedman and sharp-as-a-razor Stephanie Viola join me at my table. Friedman is attacking a right wing, homophobic US Senator, who recently aired his view that homosexuality leads to bestiality:

Drew: Can you believe it? This guy says having a relationship with a man is the same as having a relationship with a dog.

Stephanie: I’ve thought that a few times myself…

Steve Cramer is a theatre critic for The List and several other publications