Monday, 2 October 2017

Festival review: Edinburgh 2017

Festival review, the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival 2017



Dedicated to James Kerr


This is coming a bit later than I’d anticipated finishing and putting this up, but sure nobody reads these things anyway so its not like it matters :)

The last time I was in Edinburgh at festival time I promised myself I would return. This is the first time I’ve managed to get back over for it since then, it’s now been five years and I am honestly sorry I’ve left it that long and I hope that the next time isn’t so far off. The Edinburgh Festival and its various components, including the now much larger and arguably more significant Fringe, is the most important arts festival in the northern hemisphere. The main part of the festival, just called the Edinburgh International Festival (or EIF from here on in) was founded in 1947 in the aftermath of the second World War, conceived of as a means to inject a bit of life into the economy of the city and surrounding region and as a way of bringing people together from across the world after the dislocations and upheavals of the previous years. The whole story of how the EIF came together and progressed is fascinating, if you’re interested and can stick Jack Whitehall (which I can only manage in small doses) then the recent BBC documentary Festival Tales: Edinburgh At 70 is well worth having a look at.

1947 is also an important year to me as it was also the year my Dad was born and it was to celebrate his 70th than my Mum decided to take us all over as a present for him that we could all enjoy. This was actually plan B as she had originally intended to get us all tickets to Glastonbury. I’m kind of glad now that didn’t happen as I don’t think my Ma had anticipated how physically taxing that would have been. They would have been unlikely to get the full use of their tickets at best and I dread to think how badly that might have gone. Still, it was a nice idea and I think that the longer time over meant that we were able to take everything at an easier pace and really get the most out of it.

The EIF comprises the best of the arts; theater (from the classics of the ancient world through Shakespeare up to the cutting edge of modern stagecraft interactive multi-media performances), dance, Opera, Classical music and modern music (including this year PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker's current project), as well as the Tattoo and Fireworks. We didn’t get to anything at the EIF this year due to clashes, other stuff that we wanted to see not being on while we were there and with the high ticket prices you can’t just go see something at random and hope it’ll be good. As such the only interaction I had with the main festival was seeing and hearing the tattoo and fireworks from the street.

At the same time as the various shows there is also the Edinburgh Art Festival with special exhibitions in the various public and private art galleries in the city, events and specially commissioned art work, some of which becomes permanent and stays up outside of festival time as well as special events workshops and art-related stuff for kids.

 As well as that there’s also the Edinburgh International Book festival, which is a series of talks, signings with authors, poetry workshops and an award for work from new writers.

 And then there’s the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (EFF from now on). Again I can’t but stress the importance and cultural significance of the Fringe. Few are the stand up comics that have come to prominence on the world stage that haven’t at least gigged at the EFF and many household names in UK comedy have got their big break there. As well as stand-up there’s also loads of one-man shows, improve, talks, music, arts and crafts lessons, spoken word, performance poetry, theatre, stage magic, dance, and all sorts of un-categorisable weirdness. Stuff I missed included a live action role play, gin tasting, yoga workshops, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in surround sound in a planet’arium dome with space visuals, a 24-hour D&D game, queer-burlesque and performances where the players and audience were all naked.

The whole world is here in one place. You can see performers from all over the planet and different degrees of talent and experience from professionals at the top of their game who have been known and respected in their field for decades to people who wish to be them making their first steps onto that path to people who are enthusiasts and the entirety of their ambition for what they do is to get their show to the Edinburgh Fringe. A big part of the EFF is the Free Fringe, which is somewhat mis-titled as it’s all on a tip-based system where you pony-up what you thought the show was worth or what you can afford at the end of the gig. It seems like the free fringe is the most interesting as you get a lot of people who are part of the free fringe because they dig the ethos of art and entertainment being affordable and accessible no matter what your budget, but you also get stuff that couldn’t get booked any other way and some of it is awful.

 Aside from the festival itself, Edinburgh is just an incredibly cool city full of stuff to do and see with a vibrant arts scene upon which the festival is just some nice spicy gravy. Earlier in the year my sister was over for a hen-do and had a cracking time, I personally would happily go back off-season and make a proper couple of days of it.

What follows now has been cobbled together from my contributions to a thread on a web forum for people to talk about and recommend shows to each other, so while I will be talking about the festival in general I will be going into a lot of detail on some of this so feel free to skip where you feel appropriate, this is essentially “what I did on my holidays”.

The four of us got to Edinburgh at tea-time on a Saturday night and by the time we’d settled into the accommodation it was late in the evening and only my Da was up for heading into the center of town to catch a show. On previous years visiting the festival my parents had found the half-price ticket booth at the bottom of the mound, this is a great resource if you just fancy seeing “something” but aren’t fussed on what and can be a good way of hitting up shows that you might not have considered doing otherwise. We managed to get down just in time for the half price booth to close before we got there so we headed back up the mound to the main box office beside the Assembly Halls to see what was available. Fortuitously we managed to get there in time to catch a chap selling on two tickets to Mark Steel for some friends that hadn’t turned up which was starting in 5 minutes. As a fellow former member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain I’ve seen Mark Steel loads of times and even chatted with him at conference, loved his TV work, read a couple of his books and always enjoyed his writings in the independent. His stand up comedy is usually quite political, and there was a good bit of politics in his act, as there was in a lot of the other shows at the festival. With everything that’s going on in the world, Brexit, Trump, the threat of nuclear war, Charlottesville happened while we were there, climate change and so on seeming to reach a critical point it could hardly be avoided to the point where it seemed to be all pervasive, with the consensus being very much to the left of centre. It actually felt really weird being there having voted for Brexit.

Anyway, Mark Steel was on extremely good form, as well as lamenting the general state of things he’s also apparently been through a bit of a hard time in his personal life which was a shit one for him but did give him a lot of good material. After the stand up we went to a bar in the back streets off the Royal Mile for a drink while we waited for the last bus back up to the flat where we were staying. We had a good time.

 The next day there was also a lot of shopping and taking care of stuff like getting the bus cards organised etc. By the time we’d that sorted we got to the half price ticket booth and managed to nab tickets to Hardeep Singh Kohli and The Toxic Avenger: The Musical. Hardeep Singh Kohli was cracking. Again very political humour, talked a lot about identity – being Sikh and being Scottish, the independence referendum, the atmosphere of racism post-brexit. He was funny, intelligent and made his case well without being preachy (which I respect in any political comedian), and managed to get the boot into the DUP in a very clever way that tickled the four of us.

Later on while at the venue for The Toxic Aveneger we were hustled into getting half price tickets to Phil Jerrod’s show Submerged. He alright, funny enough and worth the £4 but nothing to write home about. He did have one line that cracked me up about something making, “Nigella Lawson look like a middle aged drug addict”. Unfortunately the venue for The Toxic Avenger has had a fire alarm go off during a previous show and everything in that room was running late. My sister managed to do her toe in when she was in Berlin just before the festival and hadn’t got a chance to get it looked at (turned out later she’d broken one of them). It had already been giving her jip and the 20 minutes / half an hour extra wait for Toxie was a bit too long so we ended up splitting back to the accommodation. It was a shame about our kid’s foot. I’d anticipated that as with the last time I’d probably spend a bit of time knocking about on my own, but I’d been looking forwards to just the two of us hitting a few things together after our parents took off home for the evening. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be this time.

The next day was the Monday, we sat in the gaff in the afternoon watching the new episode of Game Of Thrones and Rick and Morty before heading out (I had my laptop over with my HDMI cable specifically for that purpose, though it would come in handy later), I then spent ages running around getting our Toxie tickets sorted. They hadn’t been able to provide a refund or to get them swapped to a different date at the venue on the previous evening because the tickets had been purchased from the half-price booth though they had been good enough to make a note on whatever system they were using to the effect that even though the half price tickets are supposed to be non-refundable under the circumstances they were happy to allow it. Me and my Da hit the main ticket office on the Royal Mile and they said they could only issue a refund, but that the half price booth might be able to get them swapped. After trekking down to the bottom of the mound it required a lengthy explanation of what had been happening and a chat with a manager to finally get sorted, which amounted to them refunding the tickets (though not straight away and only because the note from the venue was on the system) and allowing us to purchase the half price tickets for the next night as we already had tickets for another show at the time The Toxic Avenger was on.

With that sorted we popped into the national gallery and caught a bit of their general exhibition of contemporary Scottish art, which was awesome. After that my Da went back up to see the girls and get food, I spent a lot of time on my own bombing about the Royal Mile seeing street performers and stuff and allowing myself to be flyered. The last time I was in Edinburgh that was how I found a lot of the better stuff I ended up seeing. I only caught a couple of shows that day before hooking up with the rest of the fam much later. I saw Bare Threads a physical theater piece about the relationship between clothing and the human body, which just re-iterated to me that dance based physical theater isn’t really my thing. I saw ForniKateRess at the Banshee Labyrinth, a one woman show from Kate Smurthwaite talking about what being in a poly/open relationship is actually like which was pretty good. It was a very small intimate venue. I’d not heard of Kate before that I could remember but I liked her and enjoyed the show. Poly and non-binary gender seem to be such a big part of the conversation around sexual politics these days that it featured quite a lot in the festival in general. One thing I noticed that was different to the last time that I was there that any show where there was a compare they always started “ladies, gentlemen and anyone in between” or words to that effect rather than just “ladies and gentlemen, etc.” Kate Smurthwaite is a sort of left wing Katie Hopkins, in the sense that she’s carved out a niche for herself by trolling the right wing tabloids and broadcast media. Which is fair enough like, you need to do or say very little to trigger those fuckers and nothing on the level of moral reprehensibility of Hopkins. The show was entertaining and informative as intended.  I found her personable, engaging and funny, so you can imagine my annoyance when I got home looked her up and it turned out she was a massive SWERF.

After that I finally saw Jerry Sadowicz live for the first time ever after being a fan since I was literally a little kid. It was everything I dreamed it would be any more, raw, dark offensive humour, manic delivery, card tricks, you know the score, he started hard and didn’t let up, the first five minutes of the show was him introducing himself with a series of rapid fire one-liners delivered breathlessly and already hitting you with the next one by the time the last one had landed. The man is a legend. It was a nice tonic to the decidedly lefty humour that everyone else was doing. During the show he managed to tell a two line gag, which I dare not repeat, that is simultaneously the most racist and sexist joke I’ve ever heard in my entire life. No mean feat in its own right but it was made all the funnier when he said that he had actually woke up with that joke in his head. “Imagine waking up at four in the morning with something like that going through your mind and thinking, fuck, that’s pretty good!... you think its hard listening to me, try being me”. That to me is Jerry Sadowicz in a nut-shell, that’s why even after the massive cultural shifts of the last decades he and he alone really gets away with that type of humour and why I, card carrying Trot SJW and all that that I am, still find him funny and if asked seriously who my favourite comedian is will shoot back that its him without batting an eyelid. As nasty as some of his jokes are, you just know that the coruscating rage behind his humour is largely directed inwardly. He’s a very troubled man, a real life Rick Sanchez, a genius driven by self hatred but who can do amazing things that appear to defy the laws of physics and carry it off with dank sardonic wit. Rarely in my life have I laughed at live comedy as hard as I have at that gig.

 I was going to go to the Voodoo Rooms after to catch a bit of late night cabaret as the venue was nearby but I got a bit of bad news from home and didn’t really feel like staying out after that.

The next day we got into town in the late afternoon. I had a crack at the VR thing in the half shipping container in front of The Assembly Rooms on George Street which was part of the FuturePlay segment of the fringe. That was cool, if a bit steep at £12 for half an hour but I’ve never seen or done anything like that before so it was well worth it. That was just before we went to see Performers in The Assembly Rooms. Performers was a play by Irvine Welsh that my Ma fancied seeing after seeing him promote it on The Wright Stuff. The play was inspired by the film Performance, a fucking mental art-house movie made in the late 60s about an east-London gangster holing up in a house with an eccentric former rock star played by Mick Jagger. The film apparently featured some real east London gang members playing the other gangsters the protagonist was hiding from and Welsh wondered, considering all the weird homo-erotic sexual stuff in the film, how the casting sessions must have went and this play was his answer. I thought it was good crack but I can totally see why it got panned by the Guardian. Some of the dialogue in the cockney idiom didn’t quite ring true and all the rhyming slang came across as cheesey. Still it had its moments and the plot resolved itself nicely. 

After Performers the folks split to get fed and I went off on my own to see Stephen Baxter in conversation with Ken MacLeod (Scotland’s greatest living sci-fi author who introduced a series of talks) at the Book Festival. It was very interesting. He was talking about his new book The Massacre of Mankind, which was his sequel to HG Well’s classic The War of the Worlds. He’d previously done a sequel to Wells The Time Machine which was quite well received when it come out so he has form. This sounded great, the discussion took in both general chat about his work but also the process of adapting someone else’s work and went into a bit of depth about the history of and what was great about the original. That said its going to have to go onto my massive To Read list and I doubt I’ll be getting onto it any time soon.
The poster from the original movie.

I got some food then caught up with the fam and we finally did get to see The Toxic Avenger: The Musical. It was good fun. It pretty much was what it promised, the plot of which should be familiar enough to any fans of the original but for those unacquainted, the film was the flagship super-heroic franchise from legendary New Jersey indie studio and distribution network Troma. The story is of a Melvin Ferg, a 98 pound weakling who gets bullied by the jocks at the health club in the town of Tromaville N.J. where he works as a janitor and after being thrown by said jocks into a vat of nuclear waste instead of dying like you'd expect he is transformed into a hideously deformed creature of super human size and strength and calling himself the Toxic Avenger vows to clean up the town both figuratively and literally with his mop. The film is a cult classic and both it and its various sequels are excellent slices of horror-comedy with silly gross-out humour, good low budget live effects, titties, and environmentalist themes. The musical did a half decent job of translating the story to the stage with forgettable but fun musical numbers and some good irreverent humour and a Rocky Horror Show reference. I had a good time and thankfully my folks, who had been dragged to it by me, also enjoyed it.

The next day was probably the best one of the whole trip and I had my wee mind blown more times than I could count. We started early, me and my Da hitting the Jacobite exhibition in the national museum while the girls went for a drink. The exhibition gave a fairly entry-level skim of the topic but had the personal battle armour of one of the Stuarts, an amazing array of early-modern weapons, secret toasting cups and other paraphernalia. My Dad really enjoyed it as did I though we did think that it was hilarious that the war in Ireland after the Williamite succession only got one small informational plaque, the same as the massacre at Glencoe where a whopping 37 whole people were killed. The museum itself was awesome and I’m sorry I didn’t have a whole day to do the whole thing, again something I wouldn’t mind doing some other time off season.

The next show we saw was Dan Gordon’s show Frank Carson: Rebel Without a Pause in the Assembly rooms. I wasn’t expecting much from this tbh, it was mostly my Ma’s idea to go and I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if they weren’t going. Frank Carson was known mostly for his inoffensive humour and cheesy catchphrases and I wasn’t expecting it to be brilliant, though I reckoned I’d probably find it interesting since it was a Norn’ Irish performer doing a show about one of our local minor light entertainment stars. I am happy to admit that I was well wrong about that. Frank Carson had an amazingly interesting and eventful life even prior to getting into show business, his story touches on class, sectarianism, imperialism and actually the frequent jokes that punctuated it make sense It actually did something I never thought I would see done well, capturing our humour and our way of using it to deal with grim reality. And fuck it, the jokes are funny, cheesy dad-jokes are the best.

 After that the rest of them split off back to the flat to give Catherine’s foot a break from the running around. Edinburgh is a class city but getting around the city center to the various festival venues is not easy. It’s not actually that big of a space for a major city but the great big hill in the middle of it and all the streets and back streets make it appear a lot bigger than it is. Doing the festival is physically taxing at the best of times but somewhat less than ideal on a sore foot. My laptop did end up coming in handy. As well as allowing me the use of the internet when I was at the accommodation I also have tons of films and series saved on it so when the girls ended up home bound they had a good few options to keep them entertained, Stranger Things got rinsed among other things.

So they went off and I saw Tago, a Korean traditional drum music / physical theater performance. It was pretty amazing, I’ve always been a huge fan of percussion, this was a masterful display of drumming with the young crew of (extremely fit and often shirtless) young Korean gentlemen playing sets and arrangements using different set ups of the drums used in Korean music. The first bit started simple with a single pounding beat on the huge bass drum which reverberated through the room and slowly built up in intensity from there. So it went with the rest of the show, until at the end there was dancing and spin kicks all over the stage. The lads pulled it off with a lot of humour, bringing elements of physical comedy into their set that seem designed to transcend language (they take this show to festivals all over the world) and audience participation. The leader of the troupe after introducing the performers beat his drum then got us to clap back in time, this got progressively more elaborate until he did one that was impossible to keep up, though one little kid did have a go and just kept clapping his hands like mad back at him, the guy laughed and did the universal “I’ve got my eyes on you” two-fingers hand gesture to the wee’an. You can actually watch the whole show on YouTube if you want to see what I’m on about (recorded a while back in Seoul but it’s the same show).

Earlier in the day I saw a poster for Andrew O’Neill’s Black Magick Fun Hour at the Free Fringe. I sort of remember seeing O’Neil on TV, but what caught my eye was that he spelt ‘Magick’ with a ‘k’ at the end which usually connotes that we’re not talking card tricks, illusions and shit, but the ‘Real Thing’. The show started with Andrew entering the room stage right wearing antlers and incanting a prayer to the trickster god, thus inducting us into his cult for the duration of the show. It was an interesting performance themed around the occult and how he uses it in his every day life and in his work as a writer and performer “a joke is a spell that causes the diaphragm of another human being to vibrate” etc. so it was a very informative window into his world and belief system as well as being an incandescently funny stand up routine. Next to Sadowicz he was probably the funniest comic I saw at the festival and felt like he was really good crack, would be a good laugh to hang out with and I was sorry I didn’t have the time to chat with him for a wee minute after as I had to rush off to another show.

And rush off I did, to see the legendary slam poets Sage Francis and B. Dolan’s show Tricknology. This was one of the shows I clocked on day one and knew I was going to hit at some point in the week, so it was a short trek down the mound back to George’s street, this time to the Masonic Hall. Their show was unreal. I thought it was just going to be them doing their tunes and whatnot, instead what I got was a comedic interactive performance where they were pretending to be gurus / motivational speakers, we were inducted into their program, the Tricknology of the title. It got the boot into Scientology, PUA culture, psychics and poetry slam culture. Hilarious, relevant, Brilliant. 

After the show let out it was about 8pm-ish and I had a tour around and found something to eat (no mean feat for me with my incredible list of physical allergies), I got a call from the folks to say that Catherine’s toe was still bothering her but my Dad was in town. We found each other near the museum and went to a bar to have a drink that was participating in the Free Fringe and had some live music. When we got to the bar there was no live music, because it was an Irish bar and it was showing the Celtic match so instead we managed to catch the last half + extra time of Celtic hammering some Kazakhstani team 5-0 in the European Champions League and see the last three goals. Neither me nor my Da are big football fans or anything, nor are we Celtic supporters per se but that was unreal. The atmosphere in he bar was tense, every goal was one step closer to the next round and closer to the next round, any goal by the Kazak side would be one up for the next match so even though they were winning and had decisively won by the time we got to the bar every second was still a big deal. The drama of the match and the way the room lit up when Celtic scored, gown men singing and crying in each others arms, it was up there with the best things I saw at the festival all week. Never mind the distinctly average guy playing his acoustic guitar that came on after, they should have been flyering for that, like that deserved its own listing on the festival program – enjoy the cutting edge Multi-Media installation (aka big screen TV’s showing the fitba’), an authentic slice of proletarian sporting culture, Celtic FC in a real Irish bar in Scotland!

So that was a nice bit of male bonding for the lads anyway. Later on found me at a venue I hadn’t been to before – The Black Market down by the railway station. It was quite a nice venue and again, somewhere that I reckon would be good crack off season. It was quite a big venue with lots of small rooms. I reckon that with a bit of forwards planning you could spend all day here if you weren’t too fussy about what you were watching and hang in the bar between shows, in fact there’s a few venues you could do that if you were forewarned, which would probably be a lot more sensible than hoofing up and down the mound all day, like an idiot, like me that particular day. Anyway, I was the only person who turned up for the show I wanted to see, which was an interactive gaming thing you needed at least two punters for, and I ended up getting lured into a small room for something called I AM THE SEX. That was a bad move. It looked good on paper and the two performers were affable enough as they hustled people up to their show but Je-sus. It was supposed to be a sort of sex-positive feminist stand up but it was just grim. The girl couldn’t tell jokes, it was all really shit single-entendre gags, delivered artlessly and with a smug self-congratulatory drawl. The less said about her mate the better, like seriously if you have suffered a recent trauma and need therapy, get therapy, don’t visit that stuff on an unsuspecting group of punters expecting to be entertained, especially if you genuinely can’t hack your own material yourself yet. This was not just the only show at the Free Fringe I didn’t even chuck a few quid towards.  I actually got up and left, awkwardly, in the middle of it.

When I was getting my stuff together to leave, the girl who was sitting next to me whispered, “are you going?”.

“Yeah”, says I.

“Please take me with you…”

So, I managed to make my own escape and facilitated another person’s exit. My only regret about that is that I didn’t have the energy in me to heckle. I swear I am too nice for my own good sometimes. Rarely have I ever felt the need to tell anyone involved in any creative or artistic pursuit that they were irredeemably bad at what they were doing and that the world would be a better place if they just gave up and put their time into something else but that was one of those times and honestly it was apathy and fatigue after running around Edinburgh all day that stayed my tongue rather than civility.

The next morning we all got ourselves together early and trekked out to the Camera Obscura. This wasn’t part of the festival it’s a tourist attraction (the oldest one in the city) that is permanently in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile just before the castle. It’s a museum of optical illusions, at the very top of which is the Camera Obscura itself, a live moving image projection of the street around the tower that’s been there for 175 years.

The first show we saw that saw was Nick Hall: Spencer at the EFF. While the main reason we went was that the performers girlfriend an old friend of the family and we went mostly to see her, the show itself was pretty good. It was a one man show about Spencer Perceval the only Prime Minister in British history ever to be assassinated and why nobody really remembers him or knows anything about why he was shot. It was quite an interesting story too, like right enough I reckon most people, most Brits could name at least two US presidents who’ve been assassinated in office but I doubt most people would even be aware that a sitting UK Prime Minister had ever been assassinated, never mind who he was or why. Also not a bad little factoid to keep up your sleeve for pub quizzes and the like. 

After that I caught a talk at the Book festival. It was a discussion between Adam Roberts (a well known sci-fi author who is also an academic), Farah Mendlesohn (academic and scholar of genre fiction known for her non fiction writing about Sci-Fi who’s also had some fiction published) and Jo Walton, a fan critic and writer, chaired again by Ken MacLeod, on the subject of ‘What Makes Science Fiction So Great? This was a very useful event for me as I am currently working on a bit of long-form prose in the genre and listening to the discussion, especially the actual argument that broke out among the panellists at one point, helped me firm up my own ideas about how I should approach writing the genre.

After that I hooked up with my folks for a meal at a pop-up restaurant in a bicycle shop. This was something that my Mum, huge foodie that she is, was very keen on doing. The guy running the pop-up is the cousin of one of my good friends and he and his staff made sure that I was well catered for with my horrendously large amount of food allergies. That was pretty cool, class setting, proper fancy restaurant food and me being well sorted. It was the sort of thing that you couldn’t do easily back in Belfast, the sort of thing you come to the festival for.

Later that evening I caught The Bubble Show For Adults Only, a burlesque show involving bubbles, lots of bubbles. I liked it, the two performers were good at what they did and quite hot. Great stuff, if you like burlesque and particularly if you kink hard for bubbles (is that a thing? That’s bound to be a thing...).

I then did manage to see the Cabaret at the End of the Universe in the Voodoo Rooms before going home that night. It was good being back in that venue, which was one of the more interesting ones that I’d found on my last Edinburgh adventure. The acts were good but that night’s crowd were awesome and I get the feeling that the guys running and compèring the thing were having as much fun on the job as we were watching it.

On returning home I was conscious of the fact that the next day was my last full day at the festival and I resolved to try and fit in as much that day as I could.  I also realised that I still hadn’t seen any real serious theater up to that point except Bare Threads. Live drama is something I’ve always had an interest in and enjoyed but an its interest I tend to neglect. I had been looking forwards to catching some at the festival but it just hadn’t happened. So I promised myself that the next day I’d get into town early and try and squeeze as much of that as I can, if I could, and that I’d be happy if I hit 3 or 4 shows of that type. I went through the programme for the festival marking out shows that looked interesting, times and noting location, distances, estimated times between and so on.

They say that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. That was the case that friday morning as I slept in a little and didn’t manage to get into town quite as early as I had intended and missed all the early and pre-afternoon stuff I’d pegged as interesting. So in spite of my mission the first thing I saw was a comedy gig, Star Wars Vs Star Trek. This was a young Scottish comedian conducting a debate between two other festival performers on the merits of the franchises. This is a conversation I’ve had many times with a host of different people and have developed some very definitive ideas about over the years (basically that he two franchises share only superficial similarities and are when you get right down to it are quite different beasts so there’s no fair basis for comparison). It was good fun. My favourite bit was after being asked from the stage whether I personally was for Star Wars or Star Trek hitting back immediately, “Babylon 5” and being told to “fuck off“ by all three of them.

Next I saw my first serious theater of the day, Crazy Horse, a Dream of Thunder, a one man show about the Sioux Warrior Crazy Horse’s life story. It was a tale powerfully told that got you right into the mindset of the man himself and his people and actually did go deep on their internal politicking which led to Crazy Horses betrayal and eventual death. The way it was framed was that Crazy Horse, the night before his death was summoning the spirits for a vision quest and we in the audience were the spirits and he spoke to us as such. Great stuff, I find that whole period of history heart-breaking, especially in the knowledge that their oppression never ended and continues to the present day, I got pretty emotional watching the whole thing, especially at the end.

After that I bounced down the hill and had a crack at the FuturePlay Tech Zone. This was a series of machines and what were essentially gaming apps in stand up cabinets and the like in a dome in the street front of the Assembly Rooms on George Street. Some of it was good fun but I reckon it should have been about half the price, not mind blowing or unique like the VR experience. I have apps like this on my phone and can get more for a couple o quid each, why pay £12 or whatever to do this for an hour?

I then bate my way back up the mound to see The Fall. I’d had this one on my to-do list from getting flyered for it on day one and it did not disappoint. An hour and twenty minutes on South African student politics may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it. As someone who is a member of the organised left and former student activist / occupado myself I’m pretty much the target audience but I really rated the stage craft, the acting from the young cast and all the writing which was able to convey the inherent drama of protest politics and the debates and disagreement’s brilliantly. The Fall was so called because the Students Movement kicked off from a campaign to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the Cape Town University campus and rolled on from there making the subject matter timely and relevant, particularly in the wake of Charlottesville which had happened that week. Each performer represented a different facet of their student movement, I’m guessing an amalgam of actual people involved, a queer feminist student, a couple of lads from the shanty towns, one of whom was doing medicine, a trans student, one from the struggling middle etc. The scenes were punctuated by the sort of harmonised sing-chanting that they do on demos there. It was stirring stuff and as I say, a well done bit of theater arguable the best thing I saw in the whole trip. At the end they announced that in the wake of current events the performances were dedicated to all those struggling against oppression world-wide.

After that I had a cup of tea and a dander. I ended up going to see Evocation. That was... interesting. Well, it wouldn’t be Edinburgh if I didn’t go see something really artsy and pretentious, some of which I really enjoyed. This took me a while to get into to and while I did eventually come to like it, it didn’t really captivate me the way a performance like that should have. I was just attracted by the promise of an industrial noise soundtrack and glove puppets, which I got tbf.

I wanted to see a thing called The Gun Show after reading about it online above but that night’s showing wasn’t on for some reason. I ended up going to see Anathema, a story about a young man dealing with a sexual assault. In the program it mentioned that this was the first thing had been completed by this particular playwright. It showed. It was very raw. Whilst the dialogue was decent, the cast did a fantastic job and it did tease out some of the subtleties of the issue at hand in a sensitive way it didn’t all quite hang together and the “twist ending” thing didn’t work for me, though on reflection maybe the parts of it I had issues with were sort of ‘the point’. The B plot about the other flatmate’s more complicated sexual encounter rang a lot truer imo. Anyway, it was a good effort and I reckon that the team behind this would be ones to watch in the future.

After that having met my goal of hitting four non-comedy shows I went down to The Voodoo rooms for some Illicit Thrills. I’m not sure if I should I describe this as “immersive feminist physical theater”? Or should I just call it what it was, a strip show – an informative one with quotes from one of the performers PHD thesis in the subject, irony and meta-jokes but still a strip show with real strippers? Take your pick, either way I kink hard for politically conscious ethical perving so I had a good time watching it. Going home in the taxi I knew that that might have been my lot for that year as we were leaving the next afternoon and I hadn’t managed to get into town before 12:30pm once that trip. If that had been the case at that point I actually wouldn’t have been too annoyed and felt that I’d got the most that I could out of the festival.

I did however manage to drag myself up early enough the next morning to get into town in tome to catch a couple of shows. I saw a play called NSFW, which was a satire of the publishing industry, specifically ‘Mens’ and ‘Women’s’ Magazines. It was ace, it was a bit like watching a live episode of The Thick Of It if they’d done an episode set in that world, tight script, razor sharp dialogue and similar-ish tone. I thoroughly enjoyed it, which was just as well since it was actually a plan b. I’d intended to see a stage production of Ray Bradbury's famous dystopian science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (based off Bradbury's own script) but the box office had sold out when I went for a ticket, they’d actually sold out of NSFW tickets too but said they might have them at the venue itself if I went round, which I find a bit odd as the show itself wasn’t packed out our anything. That’s one of the peculiarities of the festival that I’ll have to make a note of for the next time, ticketing and allocation is weird. When I bought something from the various different box offices I had to create an account for some reason, which did come in handy with the Toxic Avenger: The Musical tickets but was a bit annoying. They might have that fixed for the next one or it may even be easier purchasing the tickets through the apps for the Fringe and Free Fringe (something I only discovered late I the game and will probably make a lot more use out of next time).

I had a bit more luck after. At that point I had no plan, wasn’t fussy and just wanted to see one last thing, I had a dander and managed to get the last space in the room to see Phil Jupitus reading his poetry at the EFF in Bannermans for that day. It was brilliant. I’ve always liked him on TV, was only vaguely aware that he did poetry (he’s a cracking DJ and all) but I’ve never heard or seen any of it. He kept apologising for not being in a good mood but I thought the show was awesome, funny as you’d expect from such a comedy veteran but at times touching and profound as great poetry can be. The two guests he had on were pretty good too, one was from the show that was on after, a showcase for black performance poets. Had it been a different day I’d have considered sticking about for that but I’d a ferry home to catch so that was my festival over for 2017.

 So, congratulations to anyone that’s read this far, particularly if you’ve done it all in one sitting. I should be giving out prizes or something and I swear I will finish soon. There is one last thing that I need to get off my chest before I wrap up. The one thing I regret about being at the festival though was that being there prevented me from getting to the funeral of my mate James Kerr who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly and whose funeral that week. James was someone I always had a lot of time for and was more to me than just someone to get wrecked with. I felt bad about not being home to grieve with the rest of our crew. I’d considered coming back home for it but the I honestly couldn’t have afforded to and the way I looked at it, if the boot was on the other foot and it was me and he’d been over the water with his kids or something I’d not have expected him to drop everything and get home for mine. James was someone who read my previous blog post about the 2015 Bangface, took the time to tell me how much he enjoyed reading it and was very encouraging about my writing. Getting feedback like that from someone you know and whose opinion you respect is fantastic and a good boot up the arse towards taking all this more seriously. I appreciated his encouragement at the time and still do. So for that reason as well this one is for him. Rest in peace chum.

So with that said, and to not finish on too much of a downer I’d like to say in conclusion is that the festival is amazing (in case that point hadn’t been hammered home quite enough in the near 8k+ words above). Your art is the trace that your soul leaves on the world as it passes through; it’s a big part of how we connect with each other and across space and time. It’s that connection that the festival was intended for in its inception and what after 70 years it still delivers. That was my Edinburgh experience and is largely reflective of my tastes and interests at this time. It is the biggest arts festival in the world with thousands of shows, whoever you are and what ever you are into you will find a ton of stuff there that will reflect yours, and find yourself giving stuff a go that you might never think you’d like but find you actually love. Anyone who is involved in any creative enterprise of any sort should get on this put make performing at the festival at least once something to strive for. I do appreciate that it’s not all fun and games for the performers, getting over getting a venue, putting the show on and accommodation and all that can be difficult and expensive as hell. Friends of mine did a musical comedy show and brought to the fringe about ten years ago and to the best of my knowledge are still paying off the debt to this day. That said, for anybody in comedy in particular it can make your career. For me I left feeling tired but stimulated and encouraged in my particular thing and resolved to get my head down and write. I’d love to say that I’ve been dead productive since getting home, in all honestly I’ve not been at it as hard as I should be but I have been a lot busier than any time previously in the last couple of years and have taken steps towards doing more in the future. I’ve said it before and I’ll finish by saying it again, Edinburgh is a really cool city, one I will be back in some day and I will return to this festival again and hopefully not leave it as long this time.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Cartoons all Revolutionary Socialists should make their kids watch, Part VI Steven Universe

Welcome back to this occasional series which I haven’t updated for way too long.  This installment is a bit of a departure because it doesn’t deal with a series from my childhood or a more recent feature film, but with a series that is currently ongoing and yet to reach its completion, something I hadn’t anticipated doing way back when I started this.



What it’s about:


Thousands of years ago a race of immortal crystalline alien beings from another part of the galaxy (the Gems) came to the planet earth in order to harvest it for its mineral properties.  Some of the Gems realised that the merely organic life-forms, the animal and plant life that lived on the planet which would inevitably be exterminated by the harvesting process had intrinsic worth no less than their own and rebelled against their home-world.  They succeeded, saving the planet and the life on it but at a cost, all but four of the rebels being destroyed in the final battle.  In the centuries and millennia since as human civilisation has grown up around them these surviving crystal gems have been quietly protecting the organic life on this planet from the odd crystalline mutants that occasionally threaten it.
Steven and his girlfriend Connie training to fight the bad Gems

More recently, the leader of the rebels, Rose Quartz, fell in love with a human called Greg Universe and in order to procreate (something the crystal gems can’t do by themselves) she gave up her own mortal form to give birth to a son, Steven.  The series picks up when Steven is just on the cusp of adolescence, and follows him on his adventures as he learns to use the powers and abilities he inherited from his mother to take his place as a defender of the Earth, and learns to be a young human being as well.


Why it’s Good:


I think its easy for our generation to get overly emotionally attached to our childhood memories and easily dismiss any contemporary animated series in favour of nostalgia for the stuff we used to watch when we were wee.  This would be a mistake and Steven Universe is but one example of something that is as good as if not better than any of the stuff we used to have.  In fact one of the things that makes it good, and I believe should be accessible to people my age who might have kids of their own, is that it is quite clearly the product on one of our generation.  

From the little chip-tune bassline in the opening titles to the background art and character design the whole aesthetic of the show is permeated by 8 and 16 bit computer gaming culture.  You can also see the influence of Anime through the look and the story lines of the whole series.  It’s kawaii without being sickeningly cutesy (a balancing act that is often tried and utterly failed at in Western animation).  

The show is light, funny, full of charm but also has this epic backstory and various arc-plots that run throughout it and lots of big sci-fi concepts that are jut casually implanted into the story in a way that seems perfectly natural and wouldn’t confuse or alienate its younger viewers.  Its emotional when it wants to be and when the arc plots kick into gear towards the apex of the seasons it is genuinely exciting.


What the Young ’Uns will hopefully take from it: 


The underlying philosophy of the show is intensely humanist.  Steven, our hero’s main attribute is his humanity and empathy.  he sympathises with the mindless crystal shard creatures which he and the Gems have to hunt down, and this sympathy can be an advantage, something which he has over the Gems.  



While much of the premise of the show is quite personal (it is inspired by the relationship between the show’s creator and her younger brother) there is some very deep subtext going on that should be of interest to readers of this blog.  As alluded to above, the Gems come from a rigidly hierarchical society that is prepared to commit ecocide for its own material gain and the goodies in the series are rebels that defy their social norms by becoming more than their designated roles. Which is great and everything but so far, so liberal.  The really interesting stuff is what the show does with gender and sexuality.

Greg with an infant Steven from a recent episode
In the series the Gems don’t procreate organically and so needn’t have any particular gender but yet are all female.  Which essentially means that the characters with Super-Powers are all women.  This was a deliberate move on the part of the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar to "tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children”.  The show isn’t intended to be an action adventure show for boys or a cutesy show for girls but to break the gendered social norms of the medium and create something genuinely inclusive.  There’s implied lesbianism, the show has touched on gender queerness.  The one adult male figure in the shows main cast, Greg Universe (Steven’s dad) is kind of a bum, though he is sympathetically realised and still quite a good dad.  Basically we are a long long way from He-Man.  This is perhaps the main reason that it has the massive multi-generational fanbase that it has.

What’s also really interesting on the show is the concept of Fusion.  In the context of the show two Gems can, through a delicate dance particular to their pairing, come together or ‘Fuse’ into a single being with the qualities and attributes of each.  What this concept is used to explore on the show is the nation of human connection, relationships, taboos around sex and sexuality.  This is done with deftness of touch and a sex-positivity as well as body positivity and acceptance of difference.

Capitalism is structured around patriarchy and the behavioural norms associated with the nuclear family, heteronormativity and cis-sexism.  Cultural projects like Steven universe that are about consciously breaking down those structures could be argued to be part of a re-alignment within bourgeois society, or alternatively as being an inevitable part of the gradual realignment of the system into something else.  Either way it would seem to be a step in the right direction, and its great that the show itself is so good while wearing its deeper meaning on its sleeve.  Its one of the few shows rom recent years I’m sorry i didn’t get to watch when I was younger but I’m glad exists now.