Sunday, August 29, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Midsummer Night's Madness

As expected from the title, this is a re-telling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, done by a group from Hackney in London. They brought the story into a modern world, where the mechanicals were police officers and construction workers, where the fairies were ‘invisibles’, the unheard youth. They brought in step, rap, hip hop, R&B. They made the story theirs in some very interesting ways.

The acting, on the whole, was not good – with Puck and the mechanicals (who were hilarious) being notable exceptions. The cast were talented singers and dancers, but they were not actors. And it wasn’t until the first mechanicals scene that they really engaged me, really got me in to their production. I’m told they’re an amateur group, so I’m not going to judge them for this, but I did end up with some time at the beginning to think about things.

And what I was thinking about was this: they took the play out of the original language. Now, I’m not a purist by any means. I don’t consider the text sacred. If you need to, by all means cut it the hell down. If you want to change fairies to invisibles, go for it. And, as a friend pointed out, they did change the name. They weren’t trying to claim this was Shakespeare’s Dream.

But. It makes me wonder… What are you saying when you keep the exact story, but take it out of the original text? Are you telling your audience you don’t trust them to be able to understand it? Or is it more important to get the story across and the text can come later?

Because I firmly believe that Shakespeare is understandable, if presented in the right way. For nearly two years I worked with a company that put on Shakespeare for high school students. We cut it down to two hours, because (due to bus schedules) that was all the time we had with the kids. We had young performers and we played it very broad. And the kids loved it. And they understood it. The language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Thinking about it afterwards, I began to suspect that the cast were asked to put their parts into their own words and that the script came out of that. The most successful at it was Helena, who took her part right down into Essex girl and it worked perfectly. Some of the others ended up with dialogue that floated somewhere between Shakespearian and street talk, and it didn’t quite sit right.

As the show went on, though, more and more of Shakespeare’s text crept into the play in bits and snippets. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice, to introduce it slowly in as the audience comes further into the story, or whether it was the actors becoming more comfortable with the original text themselves.

There was so much that was good, so much that was new and fresh in this production. And the cast had so much passion for it, so much energy. And there was one moment where it all came together and showed me what it could become. Puck’s last speech. They left it entirely in the original text, and rapped it. It was awesome.

They have something wonderful here, and I think the next step would be to put it back into the original language and bring the rap and the hip hop and the R&B to that. Use the original text, but present it in a way that’s theirs. I would love to see that.

Edinburgh Fringe - Yianni Agisilaou in The Universe: A User's Guide

This was a show on the free fringe. My first attempt to see it was a complete and utter failure. I got to the venue to find that the show had started half an hour before the time I had read in whatever review.

I went inside, thinking I would watch it anyway, but couldn’t find the room. The only person in the foyer of this place was a company member from a different show. He had never heard of the show I was trying to see, had no interest in helping me find the room where it was on, and tried to convince me to see his show instead. No chance, buddy.

In the end I went around the venue and just stuck my head into every room, figuring if they can’t even organise one person who knows what’s going on, then they can deal with the interruptions.

If this had involved money of any kind, I would not have gone back. Since it was free, I tried again the next night.

The show was ok. It was an Aussie stand-up comic basically doing his riff on ‘isn’t the universe awesome’. Most of it was funny. It was also meant to be informative, but having absorbed a lifetime of science fiction, there wasn’t a lot he told me that I didn’t already know. The thing that tickled me most of all, though, was the very dirty joke that required a working knowledge of the whole Schrödinger’s Cat theory in order to be funny. That’s asking a fair amount from your average free fringe audience.

He finished up with some quantum physics stuff that just bends my brain. He was riffing with just a layman’s knowledge, and I was happy to sit and listen. As I was walking out though, all I could picture was Lexi ranting about how he had no idea what he was talking about and listing all the ways in which he was wrong.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edinburgh Book Festival

I saw two events at the Book Festival this past week. One was a talk by James Shapiro, a Shakespeare historian. He was discussing his new book, Contested Will, which is broadly about all the theories concerning who wrote Shakespeare. Shapiro is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp, as am I. And I was hoping that his talk (and his book) were all about grinding the opposing theories into the dust. Not so, sadly. It was mostly about looking at the phenomenon itself, and trying to understand why people feel the need to put forth all these other theories of authorship. So there was also some talk about the history of literature and our approach to it.

Shapiro was interesting and entertaining. And he slammed the author of Will in the World, the first Shakespeare biography I tried to read, for exactly the same reasons that made me want to stab said author with a fork. So I felt vindicated.

I will probably still pick up Contested Will at some point. Shapiro has a very accessible style, and I’m guaranteed to learn a lot. I want to finish reading 1599 (Shapiro’s biography of Shakespeare that tries to understand who he was by examining in detail one year of his life) first, though. Shapiro also talked about his next book, 1606. Similar structure to 1599, but set later, while he was writing Lear and Macbeth. I’m looking forward to that one, but it won’t be out until 2016 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), so I have a bit of a wait.

The other event was a talk by two university history professors, billed as being about everyday life in Scotland from 1600 to the present. The two professors were there, and their published books were about everyday life in Scotland, but they mostly spoke about the process of writing and publishing their books. This probably should have been obvious, but clearly I misunderstood.

They were relatively interesting, though. One of the professors had written about history from the political perspective, which was much less interesting to me. The other had actually edited a series of books about everyday life. He talked about how he and the other historians who worked on the books went about figuring out what everyday life was actually like, because no one at the time was writing about the mundane. That was quite interesting, and he mentioned a couple of books that I’ve been reading myself written by early travellers to the highlands.

In the end, though, I went to the festival bookshop and bought two books: The History of Everyday Life in Scotland from 1600 to 1800, and ditto for 1800 to 1900. I’m hoping to get from those what I didn’t get from the talk itself. I’m currently still mired in the introduction to the first one, but I’ll keep you posted.

The vibe at the book festival was very different from the fringe. Much more subdued, in one way, but with much more being elbowed and poked with umbrellas as people jostled to get a good seat. Particularly in the second talk I went to, I was the youngest in the room by a good thirty years, and the questions from the audience were both educated and stuffy.

Edinburgh Fringe - Out of the Blue

This is possibly the most fun I’ve had at a show since I’ve been here. It’s the a capella singing group from Oxford university – read: twelve incredibly charming young men in blazers with stunning singing voices.

They sang a wide variety of songs, from Tom Jones to the Backstreet Boys (complete with choreography), from ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to Lady Gaga. And their multi-part harmony rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel)’ nearly made me cry.

And throughout the whole thing, all I kept thinking was ‘this is what Glee should have been like’. They traded off the lead with every song. There was no magical appearing/disappearing pianist. They created all the harmonies and back-up they needed among themselves, singing guitar parts, trumpet parts, whatever was necessary. And the only microphone onstage was traded between the guys doing the beat-boxing.

They had huge energy, wonderful charisma. They were funny. They danced. They made each other laugh. (At the start of ‘Poker Face’ they had to hold for a minute, because they kept corpsing, one after another.) They seemed charming and wholesome and just a little bit naughty, and had I been ten years younger, I would have been crushing madly on all of them. As things stand, I may have had my first cougar experience.

The audience were all essentially bouncing in their seats, they clapped along, and there were big cheers at the end of every song. It was just a huge amount of fun, and I didn’t want it to end.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

It has marched past the front door of my workplace every night (and twice on Saturdays) since it began. It was wonderful to see, but also the worst kind of tease, because all the tickets were sold.

I managed to… acquire a ticket yesterday, though, with about 15 minutes’ notice. I joined the huge queue that snaked past our front door and actually got to go in and watch. And it was wonderful, despite the fact that it rained on us for about an hour and a half.

I fished an old map of Marrakech out of one pocket and a slightly newer one of Edinburgh out of another and sat on those to keep my bum dry. And while we weren’t allowed to put our umbrellas up, I did still have mine with me, so I opened it just a little and used it to make a tent over my knees to keep them dry. My raincoat more or less covered the rest. That and the fact that we were wedged in like sardines (my estimate was about 6000 people in there – they must make millions on this), which actually kept me reasonably warm, too.

They had giant torches, lit and flaming, along the ramparts of the castle, which made my romantic heart very happy. When the show began, there was a perfect line of drummers along the lower ramparts on one side, a line of brass players along the other, their scarlet coats glowing in the strategic uplight. They played the first notes and then the military band in the esplanade joined in. At the end of the number, all of the cannons in the ramparts fired off at once and then the massed pipes and drummers marched out through the castle gates.

The pipes and drums were probably my favourites, just because. There were also military bands from Poland, Jordan, and the United States. There were exhibitions of precision motorbike-riding from kids aged from 5 to 17. There was highland dancing, and a sword dance. There was a vaulting display from the military department of physical fitness (they all wore the goofy tank tops and shorts that look like they’re from the 1950s).

My favourite of the more traditional bands were the New Zealanders. Not only did they march in formation and play their instruments, they also danced, sang, performed a haka (the kama te!), then brought out a singer and performed a lounge act. It turns out even the kiwi army has a great sense of humour.

One of the British regiments (one of the really old ones – I think they said it had been serving for 310 years) tried to do something similar and played Robbie Williams’ ‘Let me Entertain You’. They didn’t quite get the tempo right or something, though, because it just wasn’t the same.

I thought it was good that they also brought out drummers from a unit recently returned from Afghanistan, dressed in desert camo. It’s helpful to remember that the military isn’t all about music and dancing and gymnastics. They did a very nice salute to the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and to those who have fallen. I could have done without the re-enactment of the soldiers on peace-keeping patrol, though, particularly since the ‘women’ in burqas were clearly rather burly soldiers underneath.

The last number brought everyone out onto the esplanade to play together. Very impressive. (There was one regiment that walked between the ‘aisles’ created by the ranks of other regiments, and I was convinced one of them was going to be taken out by a particularly enthusiastic cymbals player, but he got through without incident.) There was a lone trumpet (bugle?) player on the lower ramparts that played ‘Sunset’ and then the lone piper on the upper ramparts played as well.

And then everyone joined in as they marched off down the hill. The pipers were last, and they finally played my favourite song. I don’t know the name, but I could hum it for you…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Now is the Winter and Putting it Together

Now is the Winter

I made the mistake of standing still (to be fair, I was standing in line to see Simon Callow’s show) and I ended up being flyered to within an inch of my life. It’s a hazard of the fringe. Most of them I chucked out soon afterwards, but one of the people doing the flyering stopped to chat for a while and got me interested. (We bonded over a mutual dislike of ‘actor voice’.)

The woman doing the flyering for this particular show really picked her targets well. The show – of which, it turns out, she is the writer/director/producer – is called Now is the Winter, and is a re-telling of the story of Richard III from the point of view of his servant. It’s a one-woman show, and I believe it’s a mixture of lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III and some new writing.

I went to see it on my day off. I had read a review stating that it was hard to keep up with the content unless you were familiar with the period, so I found myself going over the program before the show started as though I was studying for an exam. Even so, it was challenging and I had to pay very close attention. Not only was I trying to keep up with the politics, but also with the people’s names. Everyone had both name and title – sometimes more than one title – and they were referred to by either interchangeably. And not having the physical body to which to attach the names made it harder.

It was an enjoyable show, though, with a good gossipy tone. It was nice to see the servant going about her business as she talked, cooking, folding, sweeping and so on. It built a whole kitchen out of just a few props. I got an excellent sense of her and her world, although somewhat less of a sense of Richard. He was the master and quite a distant figure, although it was clear that she adored him.

A good show. I’m glad I went.



Putting it Together


This is a show I’ve seen before. A Broadway musical. (And I don’t quite understand the place that established musicals have at the fringe – why not bring a new one? – but there do seem to be a lot of them.) Although technically, I suppose, it’s a Sondheim Review (not ‘revue’, one of the actors points out in the introduction, as Sondheim wants us to think about the result).

Usually, I steer clear of amateur Sondheim; the intervals are tricky, the music is often not exactly lyrical, and the lyrics are complex and fast, all of which can sound terrible when butchered by amateurs. But this production had received some very good reviews. So, as a treat, I decided to go on my day off. To see something familiar.

And it was good. Great, by fringe standards. All the singers were able to keep up with the Sondheim music and lyrics, which at least meant that it wasn’t a painful listening experience. That said, though, they were never quite able to take control of it. To own it.

To be fair, I am comparing them to the version I’m most familiar with – the DVD recording of the 2000 Broadway production. Carol Burnett, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman and Bronson Pinchot leave some big shoes to fill.

And the woman playing The Wife in the fringe production may have been having an off night, because she stumbled a couple of times, and we were all a little worried that she wouldn’t quite make it through ‘Not Getting Married’. She did have a beautiful voice, though, and was one of the best actors on the stage.

I did enjoy it, though. It was really nice to hear some of those songs again. I had forgotten how much I love the version of ‘Being Alive’ that ends the show. And ‘Hey, Old Friend’. And the introduction. I had a big goofy grin on my face.

I’m going to have to re-watch the DVD again as soon as I get home.

Edinburgh Fringe - My Name is Richard and The Crying Cherry

My Name is Richard

I heard a lot of good things about this one before I went to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It is a musical about Richard (not Dick), a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, which is a kind of high-functioning autism. He is in love with a girl, Anne, who is dating the school bully, but he is determined to win her love.

The score and the book were both good. The interactions between Richard and his parents and his two brothers were very realistic, as were the playground interactions of the teenagers at Richard’s school.

It was interesting to watch the way Richard’s mind worked, convinced that the logical chain of events that he could see in his head was the way things would work in reality. He couldn’t grasp the reality of human emotions that his friend kept trying to explain to him.

It was very well done, very sensitive to the subject matter without tiptoeing around it. The songs were good, and one of them is still stuck in my head a couple of days later.


The Crying Cherry


Ok. This is going to be a toughie. The difficulty comes from the fact that I’m not familiar with the source material. I’ve heard this play described as a live-action Samurai Jack. And I think they’re parodying a whole genre of Japanese films.

It’s a piece of physical theatre. It stars two men in tracksuits who not only play all the characters, but create the entire soundscape as well, using their voices and a handful of props. It’s the story of twin brothers, essentially. Their father raped their mother, and when she was pregnant, the mother was given a prophecy that one of her sons would murder the other. So she sends one of them away, where he is taken in and trained by a Samurai, and eventually journeys back to his homeland where he accidentally kills his brother.

That said, the plot was completely irrelevant, because the whole joy of this show was in the skill of the two performers. They played all the parts, often several at once, including the animals, and did the sound effects. They were phenomenal. It was all performed with complete seriousness, but the result was absolutely hilarious. And it was meant to be.

And, I should say, there was dialogue, and narration, that accompanied the whole show – all of it in gibberish Japanese. Convincing gibberish Japanese.

It was bizarre and surreal, but it was also a feat of physical performance. Very clever and very funny.

So excited!!!

A brief pause in my crazy fringe schedule for this exciting news... I'm going to see the Barenaked Ladies!!!! Not that I'm at all excited by this fact.

*bounce*

For those of you playing the out of town game, the Barenaked Ladies are a Canadian rock group. Possibly THE Canadian rock group. I love the Barenaked Ladies. They were my happy music while I was living overseas - I would put them on any time I got homesick. They are still a favourite for road trips, too. And just in general. And in Canada, they would sell out the ACC (read: great big stadium) the day the tickets went on sale. In the UK, the tickets have been on sale since April, and I can still get two in the stalls.

*bounce*

ALSO, the only other time I've ever seen them live was when I was living in the UK. In Hammersmith, in fact. And they came to perform at the Hammersmith Apollo, two blocks from my house. The other ex-pat Canadian and the two Americans and I were all bouncing off the ceiling while the Brits looked on as though we were nuts. I dragged Steve, a British friend, with me to the concert, and he had this very patient 'yes, dear' expression on while I was jumping up and down with excitement.

Today, walking in a neighbourhood I don't usually spend a lot of time in, I saw a poster for the Barenaked Ladies. They are coming to Edinburgh, but not until the 22nd of September, the day I fly back to Canada. They are, however, also coming to London, where I will be before I fly out. They're coming back to the Hammersmith Apollo. So I've arranged to come to London two days early, and I've bought tickets for myself and for Dario, who is kindly putting me up.

It will mean that I travel from Skye to Buxton on the 13th of September, have the 14th to recover, and then hop on a train to travel down to London on the 15th. Lots of travelling in a short time, but worth it.

I'm going to see the Barenaked Ladies!!!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Edinburgh Museums - also known as my day off

I got another day off yesterday – which brings me up to two since the middle of July. I had the ultimate luxury of not setting my alarm at all, and ended up rolling out of bed around noon.

It was a really beautiful day, warm, a little humid and with a nice breeze. I headed into town, determined to avoid the fringe for at least part of the day. My first stop was the Scottish Museum. There’s a terrace up on the roof with stunning views out over the city. I spent some time up there in the sun, taking photos.


I also stopped in to see the temporary exhibit of the Lewis Chessmen. It’s believed they’re of Scandinavian origin, made in the late 12th or early 13th century and found on the Isle of Lewis in the 19th century.



They’re beautifully carved and have enormous amounts of character. My favourite is the guy who’s biting his shield. I love that something that old still has this vibrant sense of humour.


From the Scottish Museum, I headed to Gladstone’s Land, which is a restored tenement house. I have this fascination with tenement houses. I’m not sure why. I went to the tenement museum in New York City as well. In this case, the tenement dates to the 17th and 18th centuries, and they have set up the rooms as they would have looked at the time.


I think I spent more time in there than just about anyone else. Photos were forbidden, but I read all the leaflets, I took notes, I chatted with the guides. There was one in particular, an older gentleman, who was extremely helpful, telling me all sorts of extra tidbits.


One of the most interesting things was that baking was forbidden in any of the tenement rooms which didn’t have flagstone flooring (which was anything above the first floor, really) due to fear of fire. So the women were supposed to bring prepared dough to the local baker’s to be baked. The guide thought this was probably a very rare occurrence, since at that point it would have been simpler and cheaper to just buy the baker’s bread. But, on my trip to Morocco, one of the guides was saying that up into this century, women would prepare the dough and send it to the baker’s to be baked, and then the children coming home from school for lunch would pick it up again. The similarity really struck me.

Also, in one of the rooms, you can still see the faded paintings that adorned the ceilings and the walls. It would have been quite vivid once. But they’re still there, having been painted in the 17th century. How amazing.

My only disappointment was that there were only two floors – the ground floor and the first floor – that had been restored. I would have loved to see how the rest of the building would have looked, what the poorer quarters would have been like.


From there I headed to the writers’ museum, but once again I got there just before closing time. I had about fifteen minutes to poke around the Robert Louis Stephenson area in the basement before being chucked out. I’ll have to go back another day to explore the rest.


This is the point at which I caved to the fringe. I headed down to kill some time in the Grassmarket and got some lovely shots of the castle from below. I found the toy store that Tanya had sent me in search of, but the café she remembered was no longer there. They did, however, have a book about the life of a domestic servant. I’ve been putting together my family tree, and many of my relatives – including my grandmother – were in service at some point. And charting the tree is one thing, but I’ve hit the point where I want to know what their lives were like. So I bought the book to read later.

I went to see a fringe show called Now is the Winter, which I will write about later. Then I picked up a curry – which turned out to be enormously disappointing – and went home to eat and have a rest. It was my day off. I could do things like that.

Amazingly, I did get up and head out again. I went to see Putting it Together, a Sondheim review (spelled review and not revue, apparently, because he wants us to think about it, as in to review) that I have seen before and loved. It was good, by fringe standards. But again, I’ll write about that later.

All in all, a good day.

Edinburgh Fringe - Art and Second Star to the Right

Art

I managed to miss this show on Broadway, in the West End and when the Mirvishes put it on in Toronto. I did finally catch it at the fringe, though, and it was wonderful.

It’s a three-hander, and in this case was mounted in a converted hotel conference room, with simple furniture creating three different living rooms.

It’s the story of three friends. Serge buys a painting – a white background with some white stripes on it – for a vast sum of money, and this kicks off a series of arguments between the three of them. Marc is worried that he can’t be friends with someone who genuinely likes that kind of painting. And conciliatory Yvan is stuck in the middle.

Given its pedigree, it’s not surprising that it’s also extremely well-written. And very funny. And it was very well-acted, too, which was a treat. Yvan in particular blew my socks off.

A truly enjoyable show, and I’ve been recommending it to all and sundry.

Second Star to the Right

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this one. It wasn’t bad. It was odd, but not bad. But at the same time I’m fairly certain I didn’t understand it, and I’m not convinced it actually went anywhere.

Wendy wakes up in the nursery and is taken away to Neverland, where she is told the stories of how the Lost Boys ended up there. The cast was made up of four women – Wendy, and three others who played a variety of parts. The trouble is, I was never exactly certain who they were meant to be.

There were elements of dance, and song, physical theatre and rhyming verse, and it did create a strong atmosphere, but the meaning behind it was never really made clear. The dance in particular didn’t quite work, and I don’t know whether to blame it on the fact that the floor wasn’t sprung or on the abilities of the dancers. You could see the effort going into the dancing, though, which takes away from the effect. It never quite flowed.

The set was interesting, and more complex than is usual for a fringe show. The entire room was draped in fabric, but it had more colour and texture than the standard black theatre drape. The floor was laid with a kind of Astroturf, simulating grass, and there was a big tree made of various fabrics over a structure and draped from the ceiling.

We were greeted at the door and ushered inside by the three Lost Boys, who whispered in our ears as we passed. We sat on cushions on the floor. And at the end, a Lost Boy came and whispered at us that it was time to leave, but without there having been any blackout or applause.

It was interesting. Odd. With a strong style. But I couldn’t quite find the story in it all.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Christopher Marlowe meets Green Eggs and Hamlet

The Demise of Christopher Marlow

I hoped this play would be interesting. Given how much Shakespeare-related stuff I seem to be seeing, I thought it would be good to expand to other writers of the era. Sadly, this play just evoked a resounding ‘meh’.

The theory behind the show (and I have no idea how much of this is based on fact, knowing absolutely nothing about Christopher Marlowe that wasn’t covered in Shakespeare in Love) is that Christopher Marlowe was a spy who knew too much. Another spy, this one with royal connections, felt threatened by Marlowe’s knowledge and plotted to have him killed.

Basically, they threatened to take him to Deptford to kill him and… they took him to Deptford and killed him. Not that the tension was ever going to come from that corner – we all know how he died.

They tried to drum up some tension about whether he would betray Thomas Kyd, with whom they implied Marlowe was having an affair, but that storyline never really came together.

And… there just wasn’t much else there. The plot felt a bit straight-line-ish. The blurb made a big deal about maybe Queen Elizabeth was behind Marlowe’s murder, but her involvement in the action was limited. The plotter wrote her letters saying ‘this man is a danger and should be killed’ and she wrote back and said ‘ok, kill him then’.

The man playing Christopher Marlowe was quite good, with lots of energy. The others were mediocre, apart from Thomas Kyd who was bad, but thought he was good.

I wanted to like it, but in the end I just didn’t care.

Green Eggs and Hamlet

I so wanted to love this play. I completely fell in love with the idea of it. I mean, listen to the blurb: “Rome had Carthage, Holmes had Moriarty, and now, Hamlet has Dr. Seuss. Shakespeare’s classic tale of death, deception and madness told in the style of the beloved Dr. Seuss. Shakespeare is weeping in his grave.”

Sadly, the concept was far, far funnier than the play itself.

Firstly, their idea of ‘Dr. Seuss rhyme’ was broadened to include ‘any rhyming couplet’, and I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. Dr. Seuss has a very specific metre (“I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam-I-am”), and they ignored that and just jammed any number of syllables into their lines.

Secondly, there were random passages of actual Shakespeare left in there for no real reason. And I have to say, they’re not exactly two styles that mesh well.

Thirdly, they didn’t know whether they were trying to be funny or serious, and various actors swung back and forth between the extremes. Either you’re parody and you go all the way, or you take the bizarre and play it straight, but this was all over the place.

Lastly, the only actor who could act at all was Hamlet himself. He did quite a good job, expertly walking the line between being funny and taking it seriously. As for the rest… at least two of them were abjectly terrible, having clearly never acted before in their lives. The other two were your average amateur actors.

There were individual moments of cleverness and humour (Ophelia’s “I like the flowers, I like the daffodils” madness speech actually got a snort of laughter from me), but not nearly enough to sustain a 50-minute-long show.

It did make me think, though, that a one-man show, telling the story of Hamlet using the rhyme and structure of one or more Dr. Seuss books could potentially be hilarious. It would, however, have to be a lot smarter than Green Eggs and Hamlet.

A disappointment.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Following Wendy, Unenlightened and Alone

Following Wendy

This was a re-telling of the Peter Pan story, with much darker overtones, and it was absolutely wonderful. It brought the story further into the real world, brought it into the modern day, and looked at the consequences of Wendy’s disappearance.

It was really well-acted by the entire cast, which is rare enough at the fringe to warrant note. Tinkerbell was particularly good and thoroughly enchanting. Wendy, Peter and the ensemble were also very strong. Wendy’s friend Sebastian was the weakest link, but even he did well.

The venue was a room in the depths of an old building, damaged by fire and usually abandoned. It was damp and claustrophobic, but this only added to the experience, somehow.

The set and props were minimal, but well used. Boxes, chairs, a stool, sweatshirts, a red ribbon and some fairy lights combined to create both the real world and Neverland. The costumes were also simple, but there was a lot of thought put into them. Tinkerbell’s costume in particular was just perfect.

There was also a strong physical theatre element to the performance. Stylised movements, repeated in the same way sections of dialogue were repeated, added a wonderful depth to the story. I’m used to not understanding the meaning behind physical theatre, not completely, but in this case everything suddenly became heartbreakingly clear at the end.

The script was a complete delight, tight, brimming with life and folding back on itself to make everything come together in the end. There were a couple of scenes at the end of the play that were potentially unnecessary. They were there to explain things that I had already gotten from the story.

The actors played the stylised dialogue to perfection, and it made me wish they would tackle Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. It’s one of my favourite plays, and the one and only production of it I ever saw just completely butchered it. If anyone from the company is reading this, think of doing that one next time, please!

Very good, thoroughly delightful, dark and imaginative. And it nearly made me cry. Go see it!

Unenlightened and alone

This was a one-night-only performance. Two former Cirque du Soleil artists put on their own show, and the house was packed.

There were several acrobatic acts of the kind you would expect from Cirque. We began with a hand-balancing act, and then an inventive number on crutches (which always makes me think an injured artist got bored and came up with the concept), a balancing act on one of those yoga balls, and then a number on straps. In contrast to Cirque, there was a distinct lack of colour in the costumes, the set and the lighting. I missed the colour a little, but the simplicity blended well with the other segments of the show.

The other acts in the show were perhaps the most inventive. There were two numbers that involved drawing to music. A laptop was set up on a desk onstage with a drawing program open, and the image was projected on the back wall. The performer sat there, silhouetted in the dim light and drew, accompanied by beautiful music. It was actually very engaging.

The other numbers were musical in nature. The performer brought a cello onto the stage and played a simple melody. She recorded it with a device plugged into the cello, which then played it back on a repeated loop through the speakers. She then accompanied herself, adding a slightly more complex tune, and recorded that as well. In the end it was a stunning multi-layered piece of music, all performed live (sort of) by the one musician. It was beautiful.

The very last act had the two performers onstage at once, the one playing the multi-layered cello accompanying the other who was performing on the straps. Straps are pretty much what they sound like. Two straps of strong canvas or fabric that hang from the ceiling. The performer climbs them, hangs from them, twists in them. Contortion in silk and corde lisse, both of which we had in Quidam, are variations on the theme. And I always loved the aerial numbers best. So this number was by far my favourite, and actually made me a little homesick for the circus.

My only issue with it was the space itself. I’m astounded they were able (or allowed) to fly a person in that room. And the space just wasn’t big enough or high enough to accommodate the act. Usually on straps, the performer would take a running start and then fly, his arms outstretched, suspended from the straps. It’s beautiful. But there wasn’t room for that. The performer also banged his foot several times on the proscenium arch and on the desk that remained on stage from the drawing number. During a couple of his spins, I was terrified he was going to crash into either that or the cello player. There was a sense of confinement when usually the act is about flying, and plummeting, and freedom.

It was a good show though, and received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Edinburgh International Festival - Tempest: Without a Body

Tempest: Without a Body made a very strong artistic statement. It just wasn’t anything remotely close to the one I was expecting.

It was dark and harsh, the movements sharp and contained. The performers moved with quickly shuffling feet as though their ankles were bound. A witch-like woman, stooped and crouched and rigid, with stubs sprouting from her back where wings had been broken or cut away, took slow, painful steps across the stage, turned to the audience and let out a sound somewhere between a scream and a wail, again and again.

There was no music, but a sombre soundscape with deep, vibrating base, continuous tone, and clashes and chirps of sound that created a constant tension.

The lighting made an equally strong statement. With almost no front light at all, the performers were thrown into stark silhouette, half in shadow half in light. What light was there was cold and harsh.

The set was simple; a single giant monolith, deeply textured in the harsh light, suspended about four feet above the stage. There was also projection, images of wrinkled, aged faces on the back wall.

It being, supposedly, a dance piece, I was expecting bigger and more fluid movement. It is also unfortunate that I had been up since five in the morning (to start work at six) and was starting to doze in the darkness. Had I been more awake going in, I think, despite my expectations, I would have found it interesting.

It was reminding me a lot of the butoh that I saw in Vienna, which is a kind of modern Japanese dance that is also very slow and very deliberate. I had the worst hangover of my life that day (courtesy of a friend’s birthday party and an abundance of 1 euro tequila shots), but I had sworn up and down I would go with another friend to the dance festival. Her choice was the butoh. I was dreading it a little, but it turned out to be perfect. The men wore cream-coloured fabrics, the lights were gentle, as was the music. And the movement was slow, but hypnotic. I found it very peaceful, almost like guided mediation.

Tempest was anything but peaceful, and while I’m sad that I did nod off occasionally, I also can’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly. A strong statement, but not for me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - pilots and pirates

I saw another two shows yesterday. Two in a day seems to be a good target for me. I can squeeze them in around work fairly reliably. I also haven't seen a television since I got here, so, other than reading, they're my only entertainment. I'm rather enjoying it.

Mission of Flowers

Another one-man show, this one about Bill Lancaster, who was a pilot in the '30s. He dreamed of breaking records, of making it big and being famous, but somehow he never quite got there.

When we meet Bill Lancaster, he has just crashed his plane in the Sahara desert, and we follow him as he tries to stretch out his water supply over seven days. During this time, he tells us the story of his life, his dreams and disappointments, his love affair, his trial for murder.

What makes this play particularly interesting is that it is based on a true story. The text of what Bill writes in his logbook is taken verbatim from the actual log books. This in turn ups the tension surrounding whether Bill lives or dies at the end. I won’t give it away, but I will say it wasn’t what I was expecting.

It’s a very sweet show and I enjoyed it.

Jollyboat

I had heard about these guys from a friend, so I dragged another friend along and we went to see them last night. It’s a kind of cabaret comedy show with a very eclectic group of hosts. Two brothers got up and did a rap about Jesus that was hilarious. Then one of the brothers told a story about how he wanted to be a superhero when he was a kid. Then we got a magician with incredible stage presence and some seriously impressive tricks involving cards and ‘mind reading’. I’m not usually a huge fan of magicians, but this guy was very funny and completely endearing. Then one of the brothers came back (not the superhero one) and sang a sad love song. Then there was a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine with some uncomfortable-making jokes about Hitler. And then they finished up with a medley of pop songs to which they’d re-written the lyrics with a pirate theme.

On the whole, I enjoyed it. I loved all the funny stuff. I thought the serious stuff (the story about wanting to be a superhero and the love song) went on for far too long and got a bit self-indulgent. And while some of the off-colour stuff was fine, for me personally the Hitler stuff went past funny and into uncomfortable.

Still, I’m grateful for all the laughs I can get, and the funny out-weighed the not. Worth a look-see.

Edinburgh Fringe - Simon Callow in Shakespeare the Man From Stratford

I’m not sure when I became so fascinated with Shakespeare. Certainly not in school. But somewhere in the last few years it happened with a vengeance.

I saw Simon Callow’s show on Friday, Shakespeare the Man From Stratford, and was completely riveted. It doesn’t hurt that he has made his show enormously accessible to just about everyone.

He tells the story of Shakespeare’s life – or, his interpretation of it, I should say – framed by the seven ages of man from the speech ‘All the World’s a Stage’. He uses text from the plays and sonnets – beautifully and clearly acted - to illustrate his points. When discussing Shakespeare’s childhood at his mother’s skirts, for example, we had scenes from The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione talking to her young son Mamillius, with Simon Callow acting all the parts.

I particularly enjoyed his take on Shakespeare’s life. He is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp. He posits that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, not for money or because she was pregnant (although she undoubtedly was), but for love. That during the ‘lost years’ Shakespeare was living quietly in Stratford trying to support his family. That he left for London to find a job to be able to support them. That his parting from them was heartbreaking.

And then, arriving in London, a boy from the sticks, he would have ended up in the taverns alongside boatloads of immigrants from Europe and Africa – plenty of fodder and inspiration in that company.

In need of money, Shakespeare couldn’t have taken a traditional job, which would have required a seven-year unpaid apprenticeship, and so he turned to a new industry, still unregulated: the theatre. He began as an ostler outside the theatre, as Simon Callow put it, valet-parking the patrons’ horses, but then gradually began to get to know the players. He worked backstage and then onstage, and also as a sort of script doctor, working with a group of others to patch up old plays. And, eventually, he began writing his own.

One of the most interesting bits to me was Simon Callow’s examination of Shakespeare’s school-boy life. To those who think that Shakespeare could not have written as he did without a university education, he pointed out that education at that time was heavily based in grammar and rhetoric. He used a sequence of different texts to illustrate all the techniques Shakespeare was using that he would have learned as part of that curriculum.

The second act covered the adult years of Shakespeare’s life, living and writing in London, buying and selling property, then his gradual ‘retirement’, and then his death. It was still interesting and very well-played, but had less in it that felt new to me.

Though he brushed against it, Simon Callow didn’t retread any of the ground covered in There Reigns Love, his sonnets play. There’s nothing in either to refute the other, though, and I’m happy to have seen both. There are similarities in structure and staging that I quite enjoyed.

All of it, of course, is still speculation in the end, since we have so few concrete facts about Shakespeare's life. As I mentioned, text from the plays and sonnets was interwoven and acted out as illustration, not as evidence. The thing with Shakespeare is, though, that he wrote about such a wide range of experience that you can use his text to support almost any theory.

As far as theories go, I do like this one. It has made him seem the most human. Just a man, who loved his family, and in trying to support them discovered his incredible genius.

In terms of the production itself... Simon Callow was, of course, wonderful. The set was minimal, as were the props, and both were used well. There was an effective use of lighting to create mood and space. I liked the actual roaring fire that made a couple of appearances, too. As with so many shows I’ve seen this year, there was a projection element with some evocative images, although in this case it was unnecessary, really, since I never took my eyes off Simon Callow.

Wonderful show. Absolutely worth seeing, whether you care about Shakespeare or not.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Ray Bradbury's 2116: The Musical

Well, I've had my 'worst show ever' experience at the fringe.

I got suckered in by an interesting blurb. “Hauntingly beautiful, lyrical, cautionary tale for the age of technology. Told by Mr. Marionette’s Shadow Show – robots, dancers, marionettes, fugitives from the law.” I’m sure I read the words ‘Tim Burton-esque’ somewhere, too, although I can’t find that bit of paper at the moment. It was enough, at any rate, that I was intrigued.

I should have asked around.

This show is just shockingly bad. It’s trying to be camp while taking itself seriously, and it’s just awful. And not even the kind of awful that could become a cult classic. It’s just really, really bad.
The first half is an insipid ‘love’ story that goes nowhere. The end is obvious miles before you get there, and there are no complicating factors whatsoever. It marches right down the straight line to the horizon.

The whole thing ends, except the audience is kept behind (clearly as some kind of punishment) and a whole new ‘story’ begins. It turns out the first 40 minutes were the show put on by a troupe of travelling players, Mr. Marionette’s Shadow Show, who also happen to be fugitives. They’re on the run for crimes like telling stories to children and going for a walk. [Insert eye-roll here.] Three of the characters sing songs about why they’re on the run. Then one of them sings about how he’s really pulling all the strings – because it’s a marionette show, get it? Yeah. I know. And then there’s a finale and it’s blessedly over.

Not only was the story moronic, but the songs were terrible. Dumbest lyrics I’ve ever heard, and all of the songs sounded exactly the same. This is the closest I’ve ever come to getting up and walking out during a show. I stayed only because the show was billed at just over an hour and it didn’t seem worth the effort. And then they had the gall to try and sell me a CD at the end.

I want that hour of my life back.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Dream of Sancho

I am trying to find the words to describe a piece of theatre that used almost none at all. I will begin by saying this show was the most beautiful piece of art I have seen in a long time, hoping that you’ll excuse my clumsy attempts to explain it.

We arrived just before the show began and were led into a cobbled courtyard that felt completely hidden, though we could hear the music from a nearby club. We took our seats under the open sky, completely surrounded by stone-built five-storey Edinburgh buildings.

While we waited for the show to begin, we were entertained by what we used to call ‘animation’ in the circus – meaning performers in costume and in character, out interacting with the audience.

And then the show began, and I was completely enchanted.

The Dream of Sancho is a piece of physical theatre. I have an unfortunate tendency to dismiss physical theatre as pretentious, or to lump it in with dance. But this show was neither. There were a handful of spoken phrases, but the rest of the story was told purely through movement. Not mime, just movement.

Inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the loose story is of a man, trapped in the 9-to-5 grind, who has forgotten that in another life he was Don Quixote. Sancho finds him when he falls asleep at his desk, and he begins to remember.

Some imagery I got, some I didn’t, but the intellectual story was completely irrelevant. It was the experience that was important.

The ‘staging’ of the show was brilliant. It incorporated the most wonderful use of projection I have ever seen. The whole wall of one of the buildings became a canvas, extending the story that was told by the bodies moving on the cobblestone. And the projection incorporated the stonework, the windows. Such excellent use of the space.

Their props were minimal – a silver hoop, pairs of shoes, flowers, a multitude of umbrellas – but so effective. Lifting the shoes off the ground let characters take flight among the projected clouds. Planting flowers between the cobblestones created a beautiful garden.

Their use of light was especially skilled. At the opening of the show, a young woman was just caught in a crossbeam, causing her yellow umbrella to glow. Lights close to the ground gave the cobbles dimension and texture and brought the flowers to life.

Every single aspect of this show was perfect. I was fascinated, and enchanted, and all those things. I keep saying, it made my soul happy. It lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes and I didn’t want it to end.

There were only a couple of dozen people in the audience at a venue that could probably seat ten times that. It’s absolutely criminal that this show isn’t sold out every night. I’ve been telling everyone to go.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Naked Splendour

I’ve wanted to see Naked Splendour since I first heard about it. (The five-star review didn’t hurt either.) It’s just such a wonderful concept. It’s a one-man show, starring Philip Herbert, in which he tells stories about being a life model for art classes. The interesting part is that he models naked while he does it, and they hand out sketch pads and pencils at the door so you can draw while you listen. Such an excellent idea.

I ran the gauntlet of the Royal Mile to see it today, and I really enjoyed it. I have no artistic skills whatsoever, but it was nice to exercise another part of my brain and scribble a little bit.

Mr. Herbert played two characters – himself and Angela, the life drawing class hostess. Angela made us all welcome, and then Mr. Herbert took us through his process of getting ready, getting undressed. He then held a series of 3-minute poses while he told us various anecdotes. Some of the stories were lightly dramatised as well. He was interesting and often funny. The nudity was a complete non-issue.

At the end, the audience were invited to lay their works out on the floor. There was no judgement at all about artistic ability, and it was really interesting to see what everyone else had done.

On the whole, it was a very sweet show, and I would definitely recommend it.

Edinburgh Fringe - Shakespeare's Mothers and Mr. Darcy

Two more fringe shows today. The first was called Shakespeare’s Mothers: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. The loose framework for the show was William Shakespeare being grilled on a television infotainment show and being held responsible for the rise in numbers of female terrorists due to the kind of women’s roles he wrote. Shakespeare then takes us through some of his female characters, with the three actors performing a scene or two for each. In an hour, we visited Lady Macbeth (she was a mother, even if it was only a throw-away reference), the sisters from Lear, characters from Pericles, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and a couple of Richards, among others, and (of course) Gertrude from Hamlet.

‘Shakespeare’ was very funny, and I enjoyed all of his commentary. The Shakespeare scenes were… ok. All three performers suffered (to varying degrees) from what I call ‘actor voice’ during those scenes. This happens when actors choose to wear Shakespearian roles like diamond-encrusted mantles and then use Great big Voices to fill them out. It all results in a Great Big Barrier between the audience and any kind of emotional connection with the material. Not at all crippling in this case, but I did notice people starting to tune out.

Personally, I got the most out of the scenes from plays that I knew well. Scenes from the ones I have never spent time with (Pericles, Cymbeline and the like) kind of passed me by, though Shakespeare did his best to put them into context.

But the best part came at the end, when some of the mothers broke out of their scenes to interact directly with Shakespeare. All of a sudden, the whole thing really came alive, and it left me wishing more of the play had been like that.

On the whole, a good show. You’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with a wide range of Shakespeare’s canon.

I also saw Darcy’s Dilemma. From the blurb in the guide, which begins “Pride and Prejudice – the story continues”, I expected this play was going to add something to the story. But, no. He covered no ground that wasn’t already better trod by Austen herself.

Set in Darcy’s study in the period immediately after his rejection by Elizabeth Bennett, this is essentially Darcy’s reaction to that event, and really just recaps the story thus far. With a lot of raging and angst-ing.

The script is poorly constructed. Supposedly a one-man show, it relies far too heavily on pre-recorded dialogue from other characters, and twice Darcy walks off-stage to talk to a non-existant footman. Now, either it should be a one-man show in which he creates for us the other characters in his world, or it should be a play with multiple characters. It is, however, neither here nor there.

Not to mention the fact that the pacing was absolutely glacial. Interminable pauses left me repeatedly wondering if one of the many sound cues had gone awry. And the sound cues themselves could easily have been played at double speed and not raised any eyebrows.

Mr. Mickleburgh as Mr. Darcy mumbled many of his lines, and twice left the stage completely empty to shout his lines from the depths of the side-stage curtains.

All in all, it felt like one man’s vanity project – an excuse to dress up in a tailcoat and sideburns and pretend to be one of literature’s greatest romantic heros.

What with the names of Austen and Darcy attached, this show will sell well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And for a final nail in the coffin? The woman beside me slept through the whole thing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tickets!

Today, on my break, I sneaked out and hit the box offices across the street to book tickets for the shows I’m desperate to see.

I found the ticketing window at The Hub and sat down at the wicket for the Book Festival. There were three on my list of things to see, but the Simon Callow one was sold out. I did get tickets for James Shapiro’s talk about his new book, though, which was second on my must-see list. He’s debunking all the Shakespeare-wasn’t-really-Shakespeare myths. I haven’t read the book yet, but I really want to. I’ve read bits of his other work, and he’s very good. Unlike some other Shakespeare historians whose work makes me want to jab them with a fork.

I also booked a ticket to a session with two university professors who will be talking about life in Scotland from 1600. I’ve been putting together my family tree over the last couple of years, and from my grandfather on back it’s all in the same small area of the Isle of Skye, so I’m hoping this session will help me understand what their life was like.

Then I moved down one wicket and sat with the guy from the Edinburgh International Festival and booked another two tickets. These two were for two different dance companies. I sat down for lunch the other day at Auld Jock’s Pie Shop and there happened to be a brochure for the dance portion of the international festival and I flipped through it as I ate. I don’t usually go to see much dance, but I felt like branching out, and these two sounded fascinating. (One of them is some kind of Maori retelling of The Tempest, which I didn’t actually realise until after I had bought the ticket, but which fits well with the whole Shakespeare theme I seem to have going here.)

Sadly, the wicket after that would not sell me Fringe tickets, so I trouped across the road and around the corner to the Assembly Halls to buy a ticket for Simon Callow’s show about Shakespeare (yes, Shakespeare again) and one for Danny Bhoy.

I worked with Simon Callow, a little bit, a couple of years ago, and he is a thoroughly delightful man. Very intelligent, very articulate, and I love his theories about Shakespeare. So I was determined to see him.

Danny Bhoy is a Scottish comedian who I have seen on endless reruns of Just for Laughs. I like him, and when I saw he was here, decided that he would be my one stand-up comedy splurge.

So, yes. I have tickets! This makes me very happy.

Edinburgh Fringe - my first two shows

I’ve seen two shows now. Both have been generally enjoyable, which gives me a good batting average for the fringe so far.

The first was called Jewish Chronicles. It’s a one-man show, in which the one man in question plays the piano and sings. He has written a number of songs about his family and his experience of growing up Jewish in the UK.

The tunes are very catchy (one of them is currently lodged in my head) and span a range from touching to hilarious. There’s one about his great-grandfather, who came out to the UK from the old country only to be cheated out of his genius idea. Another about his Aunt Naomi who married some kind of Christian evangelist and ran off to be a preacher’s wife. And a hilarious (if deeply wrong) ditty about a Rabbi who was caught dealing cocaine and hiring prostitutes.

There was one song at the end, in which he aired his family’s dirty laundry, where knowing that it was a true story made the whole thing a little awkward in a ‘too much information’ kind of way. On the whole, though, it was a fun show.

The other show I saw was called Legless ‘n’ Harmless (pronounced in the British way, without the ‘h’). Its description reads as follows: “Two men live together. One has no arms. The other has no legs. They depend on each other until betrayal ensues.” It sounds like your average pretentious fringe crap, but is in fact a comedy about two men trying to put on said play.

They have good material. And it was funny. And had it been on a little later in the evening, had everyone been a little drunk, and had there been a good crowd in there, it would have been absolutely hilarious. But with only six of us in the audience, it was all just a little awkward. Funny… but awkward. I want to see it again on a night with a better crowd.

a quick inventory of the Edinburgh sights - also known as my walk to work

I’ve been in Edinburgh for a few weeks, now, working long hours, and one of the highlights of my stay has been, strangely, my walk to work.

I’m staying in Marchmont, which is something of a student ghetto. It’s all terraces of big, stone, Victorian buildings. The neighbourhood seems very nice, although for the longest time – until I switched to the night shift which starts in the afternoon – I never saw any of the stores while they were open.

I then cross the Meadows down a tree-lined avenue with views to Arthur’s Seat. Once upon a time, the Meadows area was actually the site of a shallow loch. It was drained in the 17th century and used as pasture land. In the 19th century, a law was passed banning any building on the site, and it has been a popular park ever since.

Arthur’s Seat is part of Holyrood Park, the former hunting grounds of the Scottish kings. It is a ridge of land that reaches 251 metres high and is all that remains of an ancient volcano.

Leaving the park, I pass Greyfriars Kirk. Built in the 17th century on the site of a Franciscan friary, it is a peaceful nook on a busy corner, with its graveyard almost completely encircled by the buildings that back onto it. If it weren’t for little Bobby, it might have been forgotten entirely.

Greyfriars Bobby was a little dog whose master, John Gray, died in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby, heartbroken, sat watch over his master’s grave and would not be removed. Local shopkeepers and neighbours kept him fed and cared for. Bobby died in 1872, 14 years later, and was buried just inside the entrance to the kirkyard.

There is a little statue of Bobby outside the Kirkyard, which is always mobbed by tourists. I have given up trying to dodge the cameras and now just walk through the shots. Rude, maybe, but I’m on my way to work, and if I waited for them all to finish, I would never, ever leave that corner.

Heading up George IV bridge, I have nice views down onto the Grassmarket, and then pass by The Elephant House, a café that claims to be “the birthplace of Harry Potter”. Apparently, J.K. Rowling used to sit in there to write while she was working on the first books of the Harry Potter series.

I could then head up on to the Royal Mile, but it being Fringe time, I only try that if I have a lot of time to spare. It’s chaos. Fun, but a complete zoo. Instead, I skirt along Victoria Terrace, which runs both down to the Grassmarket and up to the Royal Mile at the same time. One of the many things I love about Edinburgh. With all the different levels, this city becomes the only place you can walk into a building on the ground floor, go down four flights of stairs and come out at ground level.

And, when I finally arrive at the front door of my workplace, I have an excellent view up to the castle and Castle Rock. We can hear the cannonfire from the Tattoo, and when the show lets out, all the soldiers and pipers and dancers file past our front door.

So, while I don’t have time to go out and actually do much touristing around Edinburgh, at least some of the sights have come to me.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The festivals in Buxton, Derbyshire

I seem to have arrived in Buxton in the middle of a great big festival. On Wednesday, in an attempt to stay awake, having arrived in the UK at 5:30 in the morning, I went for a walk through the town with my aunt. There's a huge fun fair with rides and junk food and a midway set up in Market Square. There's the Buxton Festival, a 19-day festival of the arts, happening around the Buxton Opera House, with opera, music and literature events. And there's the Buxton Festival Fringe, which is the UK's second-largest fringe festival after Edinburgh.

For a town of just over 20,000 people, that's a quite a lot going on at once.

I wasn't up for much on Wednesday, but Thursday I headed back down into the town to check it out. It seems this whole event has grown up around something called the Wells Dressing Festival, a custom local to Derbyshire where people decorate the local wells. Believed to have its roots back in pagan traditions of leaving offerings for water gods, the festival took on its current shape back in 1840, and has continued fairly consistently since then.

The Buxton fringe began in 1980 and is now a major part of the festival. It permeates the whole town, with venues in local shops and artists' studios, in the parks, on the streets, as well as in dedicated theatre spaces. There are more than 150 events, including comedy, dance, film, music, spoken word, visual arts, street theatre and regular theatre. I had a really nice afternoon checking some of it out.

I stopped by The Hendrick's Horseless Carriage of Curiosities, set up in the Pavillion Gardens, and toured some of the visual arts in a local framer's shop. I visited the local museum, which had a couple of galleries displaying works by local artists as part of the fringe. It also had a sequence of rooms charting the history of the Peak District in general, and Buxton in particular, from the formation of the Earth through to the present day. It's just a small museum, but I found it fascinating and well laid out.

I bought a ticket for one of the fringe events - called The World's Greatest Walking Tour of Buxton. I would have been happy with a real walking tour. And it began something like that, albeit with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. As we went on, though, it devolved more and more into a piece of street theatre. Funny, if a little awkward.

One of the nicest parts of my day was sitting in the bar, waiting for the tour to begin and listening to all these local men and women talk about the shows they'd seen. Most had been to something that afternoon and were heading to something else in the evening. Others were saying they'd been to something every night. It was good to see that the festival really does belong to Buxton and isn't just something that sits on the town bringing tourists in.

Today, Saturday, is carnival day. The fun fair is packed and running full swing. And everyone headed down to the centre of town to watch the parade. The Queen and the Rosebud of the Wells Dressing Festival were out front, and there were floats from a number of the smaller surrounding towns. There were pipe bands and fancy dress costumes. My cousin's daughter was up on one of the floats dressed as a cave girl. The parade lasted about an hour from where we were standing, but the route is long and they were probably on the move for a good few hours.

We stopped into the Old Hall Hotel for tea and a snack. The current Old Hall Hotel hotel was built in 1670 and is one of the oldest buildings in Buxton. The earlier hotel building standing on the same site was host to Mary Queen of Scots when she came to take the waters in the 16th century.

The festivities will continue for another week, but I leave tomorrow for Edinburgh and my next festival experience.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cheap trans-atlantic flight - the follow-up

I survived the el cheapo Thomas Cook flight relatively intact. We left essentially on time. They did have the advertised leg room, and the seat-back screens - although the non-premium passengers had a very limited selection, and no one had control of starting or stopping the films as one does on the larger airlines.

The service on-board was slow. By the time they had slogged through the long non-premium cabin trying to sell us snacks and headphones, and then again trying to sell us alcohol and more snacks, it was a good three hours before they got the dinner handed out. My seat-mates and I were starving by the time it arrived. And then it was just barely two hours before they woke us up to try to serve us breakfast.

Also, my seat-mates reported they had paid the extra fee to book two aisle seats opposite each other, but hadn't gotten them on either their flight out or their flight back. On the flight out, it was because an aircraft had been swapped out, but I believe on the flight back they were just given away. So it seems you have to check in early, even if you have reserved your seats, which is annoying.

Overall, I can't say the experience was comfortable, but nor was it unreasonable. And for $240 including taxes (one-way) I can't complain. I'm willing to fly with them again on the way home.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

packing and prepping and shopping, oh my!

I have made a radical decision: I'm taking a suitcase, not a backpack.

I know! It's freaking me out a little, too. Here's the thing, though - I'm not going to be moving all that much. I settle down in Edinburgh for six weeks, and then I rent a car to do my touristing. The suitcase will give me a little more room, it'll be more practical while I'm living in Edinburgh, and it's got wheels so it's pretty mobile.

Let me say, though, trying to pack a sleeping bag into a suitcase? Really, really weird.

All other aspects of the pack are going well so far. I've almost finished running my errands, and as soon as the laundry is done I can work out whether it's all going to fit and whether I can keep my bag under the weight limit.

I have this feeling like I should be crazier or busier or more worried, but this is the third trip I've taken in the last nine months, so I pretty much have everything to hand.

Not to mention the fact that my trip mostly involves big western cities. Quite different from my last two trips into the wilds of Morocco and Thailand. It's nice not to have to worry about toilet paper and water purification tablets and diarrhoea medication.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

pre-booking jitters

It happens to me every time.

I've worked out where I want to go and what I want to do. I've researched and priced everything out. I'm ready. And yet, I'm terrified of actually taking the step and booking my arrangements.

What if something goes wrong? What if I calculated the dates wrong? What if I change my mind? It's ridiculous. And yet, I always have a moment of paralysis.

This trip was no different. By yesterday morning I had worked out the cheapest car rental in Scotland, gotten availabilities from B&Bs in all the towns I want to stay in, worked out the best train routes and fares, sourced travel insurance, the whole lot.

But did I book any of it on the spot? No. I had to let it all sit while I wibbled for a little while. Every single time, this happens. And I can't be the only person who does this, can I? And you'd think I'd learn. It has bitten me in the butt before. I've ended up paying more for train fares, car rentals, losing out on my chosen B&B. And yet.

I think what I really want is to be able to book it all the day before, as I go, but for those same cheap advance prices. I can be sure of what I need a day in advance. Sadly, the world doesn't work that way. Or, at least, it doesn't work that way on the cheap.

I got my dithering down to a little more than 24 hours this time. This afternoon I sat down and took the bull by the horns. I e-mailed the B&Bs and asked for reservations. I will be spending three nights in Stirling and two nights in Fort William, and hopefully those two are sorted now. I will also be spending five nights on the Isle of Skye, but I'm still researching B&Bs for that one.

I'll be renting a car in Stirling and driving around Scotland for a week. I usually go with Easycar (a relative of Easyjet), because if you can book far enough in advance, they are crazy cheap. I did a little shopping around this time, though, and found that Enterprise Rent-a-Car beat their price by about £20, so I ended up going with them. I booked that this afternoon as well.

Reading through my Lonely Planet Scotland, I found something called the Jacobite Steam Train. It runs from Fort William to Mallaig, across the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and you can take a day trip out and back with an hour and a half stop in Mallaig for lunch and sightseeing. This was also the train (and the viaduct) featured in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts Express. Now, while I'm not a huge fan of those movies, I do remember the train and the stunning scenery it passed through, and I decided I wanted to go. I booked myself a ticket for that this afternoon, too.

The only thing I'm still dithering over is travel insurance. I don't know why. I've decided where I want to buy it, found a decent rate, I'm definitely going to get it... and yet. Apparently my nerves need me to leave that one for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

prep and planning - flights

After nearly two months of going back and forth about whether I could make this happen, it's finally beginning to come together. This next bit is going to be the crazy part, because I'm now scheduled to leave a week today.

Based around a six-week work contract in Edinburgh - which was only finalised today - I'm extending my trip to nearly ten weeks in order to spend some time with family and to travel around Scotland.

I took a gamble and booked part of my flight before things were confirmed. There is a website, Canadian Affair, that offers cheap flights to the UK from Canada - sort of like a transatlantic EasyJet. And we're talking true bargain basement here. They offer flights with Thomas Cook and AirTransat, so it's essentially going to be a charter flight where you're lucky if there's room enough in the seat for you and your knees together. When I flew with them six years ago, there was no assigned seating (it was first come first served), and I think there was a charge for the in-flight meal. There was an option (which I took) to upgrade to what would be economy class on any other airline (assigned seating, free food, etc). The check-in line at the airport was huge, and the flights were delayed by at least two hours both going out and coming in.

That said, they're very cheap if you have some flexibility in your travel plans. I have to be in Edinburgh on the 19th of July. And there was a seat sale on - I could fly to Manchester for $49 (all figures in Canadian dollars) one way if I left on the 13th. Instead of dithering and hoping that the deal would still be there when I was ready, I just went ahead and booked it. With all the taxes and charges it came to $240 for the one-way flight.

(At that price, I could swallow the cost if worst came to absolute worst. And being able to book one way at a time - not having to commit to a return date - was a huge bonus. If the job had fallen through, there was a back-up plan; I'd find the cheapest possible flight home, and spend whatever time that gave me in between with my family. A low-cost vacation option.)

Now, according to their website, things seem to be a bit more civilised. I haven't gone for the upgrade this time since it would have doubled the cost of my flight and money is the primary issue, but I was able to pre-book my own seat (for a charge of $17) and they do seem to be offering a complimentary meal. They also make a lot of claims about leg room and seat-back video screens (on certain aeroplanes only), but I'll wait until I've suffered the flight before I comment on those.

I've also found that their flights seem to be cheaper if you book them one way at a time. For one of the itineraries I was looking at, the same flight was $50 cheaper if I booked it as a one-way than if I booked it as part of a round-trip. I don't know that this is always true, but do explore your options when it comes time to book flights.

Another trick is to check the prices flying into various airports. The $149 flight to London I had been counting on disappeared, but the $49 flight into Manchester made up for it. As it turns out, I have family near Manchester that I can stay with, so it was even better for me than London (which is usually a cheaper flight), but had I needed to get down to London, the UK has excellent rail links, and if you book in advance the tickets can be quite cheap. (Although the UK rail system has been privatised and different routes are run by different companies, you can still book all your travel through the National Rail website.)

I haven't booked my plane flight home yet. The end of my trip is still a bit fuzzier than the rest, and there's a certain part of me that wants to explore the possibility of not coming home at all. I could, if I wanted to, arrive in the UK on a one-way ticket alone and sort out the rest of my plans at some point during my trip, because I have a visa that allows me to live and work there. I may, in fact, end up doing that, gambling that there will be another seat sale to get me home closer to the date. If you're just travelling as a tourist, though, you will need to have a return ticket, a one-way ticket home, or a ticket for an onwards journey that will take you out of the country. Immigrations officials don't like it when you turn up with no plans to leave.

I'm waiting on one last piece of information before booking my train tickets, and once those are in place I can start looking at car rentals and accommodations. I'll keep you posted as things progress.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

ScotlandsPeople Centre

I'm still not sure how I got sucked so deeply into tracking my family tree. All I can say is, it's addictive. Curiosity led me to poke around Ancestry.co.uk a little and it just took off from there.

Ancestry is a wonderful site, but does not hold the birth, marriage and death records for Scotland. Those are held at the ScotlandsPeople website. The records are accessible online, but instead of a monthly subscription that allows you to search as much as you want, on scotlandspeople you have to buy credits. 30 credits cost £6, and to view a search results list of up to 25 entries is 1 credit, and to view an actual record is 5 credits. Personally, I find this a frustrating system.

There is, however, the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh. They have a large number of computer terminals where, for £10 a day, you can sit and access as many records as you want. There are dedicated printers and there is also the option of saving your records to a memory stick. (Note, however, that there is a fairly minimal charge both for printing and for saving.)

So, when I knew I was going to travel to the UK, I made sure to allot time while I was in Edinburgh to spend the day there.

The Centre offers a free two-hour taster session within specific time windows (10am-12am and 2pm-4pm). I arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon, dumped my gear at the B&B and practically ran up the very big hill to get to the Centre before it closed. I ended up with just over an hour of my taster session, but that was fine. It let me figure out how to search, how to print, how to save - all things that would help me get the most out of my full day of research.

On the way out, I reserved a seat for the next day. It wasn't really necessary in December, but if you're going during the high season - particularly during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - I highly recommend reserving a seat so you don't end up being disappointed if it's full.

The next day, I arrived at the centre when it opened at 9am and stayed until it closed at 4:30pm (opening hours: 9am-4:30pm Monday to Friday). There is a cafe there, but I didn't stop to eat, or even go to the bathroom, I was so deeply into what I was doing.

The best part about that unlimited access was the chance to just dig through record after record. For example, I know my grandfather had three brothers who died as infants, but I didn't know their names or dates of birth. At the Centre, I was able to do a search of every child born in a specific region within, say, a 25-year span and just keep clicking through the records until I found them. Dozens of records that would have cost hundreds of credits otherwise. And I used that method to find a number of different relatives.

Now, obviously, it's more cost-effective to just buy the hundreds of credits versus buying a flight and accommodation in Edinburgh just to go to the Centre. However. If you're going to be in the UK anyway, it's a wonderful resource for family history research.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

the happiest place on earth - for book-lovers, that is

I found it during a stop-over in Inverness to change buses. I had enough time to just take a quick walk through the town, and there it was. My favourite place on earth.

It's a book shop. Not a chain store, but a real book shop. And a second-hand book shop, at that. It's in an old gaelic church. It has great big bookcases hewn from real wood and wooden floorboards that creak just a little. The counter was in the middle with a cast-iron wood-burning stove spewing a merry warmth while the clerk reclined with his feet up on a stack of cord wood and a cat slept nearby. It was, I think, my idea of heaven. I nearly turned around and walked straight back out, terrified that if I lingered at all, I would never, ever leave.

Thankfully - or not - we had a bus to catch, so I couldn't browse for too long. But the memory of that book shop stayed with me for nearly fifteen years, and when I arrived in Inverness on my trip this past December it was the first place I wanted to go.

It's still there. I was so thrilled when I found it. There was a ceilidh dance going on at a pub down the street and I would have dearly loved to join, but it being late afternoon on a Saturday in December, the ceilidh ended at the same time the store closed, so I gave up the dancing to spend a blissful 20 minutes browsing the wooden shelves.

They've made it even more cosy with the addition of a little cafe on the upper gallery, accessed by wooden stairs with a wrought iron railing. And I feel like they may have moved the counter. In addition to books, they also sell old maps and prints of artwork. I didn't get a photo myself, but I managed to find one online here. (It's from a delightful website that has its own description of the shop. I can't seem to find a website for the shop itself.)

Isn't the shop just beautiful? I stayed until closing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

pilgrimmage to Culloden field


My grandad, Charlie, was born and raised on the Isle of Skye. We went to visit when I was three years old, and one of my earliest memories is of him playing the bagpipes for me and my grandmother kicking him out of the house to play on the porch because they were far too loud for indoors. His favourite song, which has become one of my favourite songs, was the Skye Boat Song, a Scottish folk tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping after his defeat at the battle of Culloden.
Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden's field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Our family were staunch Jacobites, and family legend has it that we are descended from Captain John MacKinnon who led the MacKinnon clan in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and who sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie during his escape to Skye.

This photo was taken at the Elgol coast on the Isle of Skye. You can see the remains of stone walls in a squarish outline in the foreground which are, I'm told, the ruins of the house in which my family lived. They took Bonnie Prince Charlie from here to hide him in a cave further down the coast.

The idea, if not the details, of the Battle of Culloden has loomed large in the impressions I have of my family. So, when I was in Scotland this past December, a trip to the site of the battle was high on my list of things to do.

It was a damp, blustery December day when I visited the battlefield at Culloden. I rented a car in Inverness and drove out to Culloden, a brief detour before heading out to the Isle of Skye. Getting there at all was something of a personal triumph, it being my very first experience with right-hand drive.

Admission to the Visitors' Centre cost £10, and included a guided tour of the battlefield. (The National Trust for Scotland has an excellent website, with all the information you need to plan your visit.) I spent some time wandering through the centre, looking at the exhibits on the walls. One side of the gallery tracks the Government's troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and the other side tracks the Jacobite troops under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Walking through the gallery, you can see both sides moving through the battles of the uprising, through to the final battle at Culloden.

It was the tour of the field itself with a guide telling the story that made the deepest impression, however.

It being December, there were only a handful of us on the tour, all huddling deep into our jackets against the bitter driving wind. A row of blue flags showed the Jacobite line, a row of red the Government line. And, not far from them, stone cairns marking the mass graves of each Jacobite clan.


When it was all over, the local villagers came out and dug graves for the dead of both sides, doing their best to keep them together by clan.

Because Culloden was less a battle than it was a slaughter, in the end.

The Government troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland were well-fed and well-rested. They had spent the day before the battle celebrating the Duke's 25th birthday.

The Jacobite troops, however, were half-starved. Supply lines had broken down and they likely hadn't had much to eat in three or four days. They had spent the previous day standing ready to fight, and the night in a forced march; their commanders hoped to mount a surprise attack on the Government troops during their celebrations at their camp, eleven miles away. A dense fog scuppered those plans, and they were forced to turn back, hungry and tired.

When the battle began, the Jacobite troops charged the Government line through a hail of artillery and musket balls. They smashed into the line and the fierce hand-to-hand fighting began. Under the onslaught, the Government lines buckled, then broke. The Jacobites were through their lines.

The Duke of Cumberland had a plan for this eventuality, however. He had a second line in place, and he sent one part of it forward to meet the clansmen, and the other part around to flank them. The Jacobites were caught in a vicious cross-fire. 700 clansmen fell within a matter of minutes. The battle was lost, and the rest of the Jacobite troops broke and ran.

After the battle, the government troops rode through the field, under orders to kill any wounded Jacobites where they lay. They then rode down and killed any fleeing survivors they could find and anyone along the way they suspected of having Jacobite sympathies.

In the construction of the Visitors' Centre, they have turned one wall into a memorial for all those who died on the field that day.


The inscription on the plaque reads:
16 April 1746
Many more Jacobite than Government men died at the Battle of Culloden. The numbers of fallen on both sides are represented by the two groups of projecting stones in this wall.
The group for the Jacobite dead contains approximately 1500 stones. The group for the Government troups about 50.

My family, the MacKinnon clan, were not among those 1500, however. While they certainly rose with the Jacobite cause, they did not fight at Culloden; they were stationed north of Inverness on another mission. After the battle, they were among the 1200 troops that retreated to Ruthven under the command of Lord George Murray.

After this resounding defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie accepted that the uprising was over and fled through the highlands with a £30,000 price on his head and the Government troops hot on his heels. It was five months before he could escape to France.

And while Bonnie Prince Charlie was able, finally, to escape, some of those who helped him were not so lucky. The lovely lady behind the counter at the Visitors' Centre was kind enough to look up Captain John MacKinnon in her book, Prisoners of the '45, and photocopy the information for me:
No. 2217
Name MacKinnon, John of Ellagol (Elgol)
Regiment M'Kinnon's
Prison Career 11.7.46 Elgol; H.M.S. 'Furnace,' Oct. 1746, Tilbury, Southwark
Ultimate Disposition Released 3.7.47
Home or Origin Skye
Notes and Authorities Nephew of John Mackinnon of Mackinnon, the Chief, with whom he served through the campaign. In company with his Chief, he helped the Prince to escape from Skye to the mainland in July 1746. He was caught on 11th July and put on board ship, where he was examined by General Campbell as to his reasons for not giving up the Prince and claiming the reward. When he replied that he would not have done it for the whole world the officers rose and drank his health. He was ordered to be transported, but must have been reprieved. He was in hospital in Edinburgh in 1761 paralysed in both legs, and he died 11th May 1762 in Bath
I did, in the end, find my family connection at Culloden, although not the one I was expecting. I was vastly impressed with the kindness and helpfulness of the staff at the Visitors' Centre. And I also found that the fact of standing on the battlefield, with a very knowledgable guide telling me the story of the battle, made history come alive for me in a way that no amount of books or wall-mounted displays ever could.