Camille O'Sullivan: 'What I love about Edinburgh is the anarchy'

Camille O'Sullivan: 'What I love about Edinburgh is the anarchy'

Camille O'Sullivan / credit: Sean and Yvette

Irish cabaret star and torch song diva launches a weekly Q&A series about the joys of the Edinburgh festival season

Edinburgh may not be set to host the bustling crowds of yesteryear, but the city will still witness a more active cultural August this time around after 2020's enforced hiatus. For the countdown to festival season, we've teamed up with the Edinburgh International Festival on a series of weekly Q&A interviews with artists, bosses, and readers.

First up is Camille O'Sullivan, the Irish torch song diva who has wowed audiences since her Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2004 with stirring reinterpretations of works by Jacques Brel, Nick Cave, and David Bowie. In 2012, Camille made the move to the International Festival when she put her own spin on Shakespeare. Here, she tells us about memories of Edinburghs past, featuring sword swallowers, early picnics, and darts shows.

What are your first festival memories of Edinburgh?

I was terrified! It was a very big psychological step to take a show there. It was 2004, and I was going to be part of the original La Clique show too, so I went to The Famous Spiegeltent and to a small downstairs bar at C venues with four or five people in the audience most nights. But I fell in love with Edinburgh, and even to this day, I still have this magnetised draw to the city. I used to spend a week extra after everybody headed off, and to me the memory I had was like an Escher painting, the one of ascending and descending: I couldn't work out the geography of the place so I knew I would never tire of it.

With La Clique, it was just mad. I ended up living with a group of them, the girl who did the sword swallowing and Ursula [Martinez] who did the hanky trick. They laughed at me because I was the shyest one there and wouldn't get undressed in front of anybody, but they were all naked all the time backstage and I was thinking, 'oh my god, what have I got into!?'

What is your all-time favourite memory of Edinburgh during August?

My dad is more of a sports person but he thanked me for this little child who grew up and suddenly he's going to see theatre shows which he was never really into. I took him to Fuerza Bruta in 2007 at Ocean Terminal: it was hilarious for me and my dad to be dancing while the performers swam above our heads.

With La Clique, I was in awe of all the performers on stage and could look at these guys every night. As my mother said, 'you're not the person putting your head into the lion, Camille, you're just the singer'. They were doing incredible, magical things. I pinch myself because when I was an architect I joked about running away with the circus, and it was actually happening! Another special memory is that 5am walk up Arthur's Seat for an early picnic.

Can you name one person you met in Edinburgh during festival-time who truly inspired you?

Jim Haynes was the kind of man I don't think I'll meet again in my life; he was very inspiring. The show that most inspired me was Daniel Kitson's It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later. I'm quite emotional but I remember crying my eyes out; the way it began so simply with the lights up and he was just wandering around, and then he suddenly started and it all came upon you like a wave. When he finished you'd lived your life and death through the ordinary moments he spoke about.

Then there are the people you often meet again and again after the shows when you're signing CDs; they kind of change your life all for very different reasons. They are probably as eccentric as myself: we tend to find each other.

In 2012 you performed Shakespeare's poem The Rape Of Lucrece as your Edinburgh International Festival debut: what do you remember of that show?

It felt terrifying! Though I'm a scaredy cat so every show is terrifying. But we were very proud of this piece we had written. Feargal [Murray, her pianist] was more religious than I, and he'd have the rosary beads out with him: we had a hug and were trembling before going out on stage. I wondered how the people who come to my shows would get on with me doing a Shakespeare thing, but whether it's a 400-year-old poem or a Nick Cave or Bob Dylan song, it's all about transforming yourself into emotional storytelling.

If you could curate your own festival line-up for a day, who would you include? Anyone can be on there, dead or alive.

I'd definitely put Daniel Kitson in; an acoustic John Lennon; maybe Bowie doing a three-act set of Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane; Kenny Everett and Dave Allen; Hot Gossip doing a new routine. Shows I'd love to see again are The Street Of Crocodiles by Complicité, Robert Lepage's The Far Side Of The Moon. Oh, and we could have David Byrne doing Stop Making Sense, and anything with Chris Green in it.

What would you change to improve Edinburgh during August?

The comedy aspect has made it more commercial. I love to see really brilliant comedy but there could be less comedy, more theatre, more madness. Of course, we'd love to change the weather and avoid trench foot. Accommodation would be great if we could all get a place that was a bit cheaper. They should bring back Fringe Sunday which gave people a chance to see lots of acts.

How does Edinburgh compare to other arts festivals across the world?

What I love about Edinburgh is the anarchy. It's lovely to just wander up to the Book Festival and to places that might not have crossed your path. For myself, I've been inspired by some street performers who went on to be in a show. It's a learning place, that's what you have to grasp: I did Jim Bowen's darts show and Lunch With The Hamiltons, and thinking 'what am I doing here?!'

Part of The List's My Perfect Festival series, created in collaboration with the Edinburgh International Festival. Read more about other people's festival experiences here.