It was a big, busy festival for me this year one that would be impossible to sum up in even as bloated a blog post as yesterday's. How to Occupy an Oil Rig was the new show, but for a substantial chunk of the festival it was neither the first nor the last thing I performed on any given day. All of which is a short way of saying, here are a few more thoughts on this year's Festival.
The Price of Everything came back for the second half of the festival as part of the British Council showcase, and after the excitement and the adjustments and the learning curve of figuring out how to perform How to Occupy an Oil Rig, it like was sliding into a familiar pair of slippers. It's never easy performing solo for an hour, and the show always differs slightly from day to day as I figure out how to perform to this audience, here, now, rather than the one that saw it yesterday or last week or the one I imagined when I was first rehearsing it two years ago now. And with the combined weight of eighty-plus performances behind me, finding it anew does get tougher. So I'd thought maintaining the spark of life in it for twelve consecutive performances in the same space might be a challenge. Actually, it was as comfortable and enjoyable as it's ever been, relaxed, responsive, but with that crackle of excitement that's only possible when everyone - me included - senses the possibility of something genuinely unexpected.
It's too early to say whether the British Council showcase is going to lead to extensive international touring for the show. I do hope so, because I'm running out of venues in the UK and I'd like to keep going with it. And also: INTERNATIONAL TOURING! COOL! It'll be the 100th performance of the show at the end of this year - for which watch this space for an EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT - and I've no intention of being like one of those batsmen who, having made his century, gets out cheaply through inattention or a misplaced sense of satiation. I'm going for a daddy. There'll come a time when I have to stop doing the show, certainly. When the current economic settlement becomes the previous economic settlement, for example. When our culture re-evaluates its relationship to capital. In the meantime, Alex Kelly, who's my lodestar in most things, is doing The Lad Lit Project at a festival next week eight years after its first Edinburgh run. That's good enough for me.
Doing The Price of Everything at 10.30 in the morning enforced a regime of sensible behaviour and early bedtimes on me that undoubtedly provides the reason I survived the festival. Performing two shows (that and Oil Rig) before lunch exacts physical and mental rigours, but it's still less time on stage than even a heavily edited Hamlet. Nevertheless, early nights, limited booze and healthy eating were essential.
The third show I was involved in this year, The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, put paid to all that, and I wouldn't have changed it for a second. That I was booked to be there eight times and was actually there nearly twice that is testament to the joyous, warm, ramshackle embrace of it all. I just genuinely couldn't think of a room I'd rather have been in, and on any given night of the festival if I wasn't sound asleep there I was, on stage for a third time that day, long past my bedtime. The show won the Spirit of the Fringe award at the final fringe first ceremony and totally deserved to. (I am of course judging on the basis of nights where I was in the audience rather than on stage. Stop looking at me like that.)
For those who have no idea what it was, a bit of background: The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project split into two main parts. For the first part, six artists - Cora Bisset, me, Lucy Ellinson, Kieran Hurley, Alex Kelly and Chris Thorpe - were commissioned to make a 15-minute piece that responded to the idea of border balladry. For the second, each night a different guest artist added a new stanza to an epic ballad telling the tale of a foundling babe found in a moses basket floating down the Tweed on the night of the dissolution of the act of union. By the last night, this was nearly an hour long. There was also a lot of singalong. Clear? Of course not. It wasn't that kind of show.
I don't know about you, but my first reaction on seeing the list of people I'd been commissioned alongside was to think what that fuck am I doing here? And obviously, Northern Stage being a Newcastle theatre, I'm the token northeasterner. But however you find your way into such stellar company, once you're there you try to make it count.
So where any functionality in the dramaturgy of How to Occupy an Oil Rig owes an immeasurable debt to Sarah Punshon, my piece for this show, "The Ballad of Hamish Henry Densham" owes a similar debt to Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage's Artistic Director and the curator of this event. In the first instance this debt exists because if Lorne hadn't commissioned me, the piece would never have existed. But more substantially, it's because the day before I was first due to perform it, with 95% of everything I'd written so far being utter shit, Lorne and I had a good long chat.
Officially this meeting was an opportunity for me to read a fairly complete, perhaps even virtually performance-ready draft to Lorne, so that he could make a few suggestions and help me tidy it up. Instead what I had was a loose version of the story that ended up constituting the second half of the piece, so haphazardly written that instead of reading it to Lorne I instead put it aside and told him the story. Towards the end I broke off, because it was dreadful. And we had a long conversation about class and identity and about some of the places in me from where the instincts behind this story sprang. And Lorne said, tell the story, sure, it's a good story, but really you should talk about all that underlying stuff. After he'd gone I didn't move from my seat, I stayed put and wrote the whole thing in three hours. Some of the architecture remained from earlier drafts, and about a minute and a half's worth of actual text, but really, almost the whole thing was written out of the energy of that conversation.
And it was an enormous pleasure to perform. Terrifying in a number of ways, not least because it ends with a song and I'm not a singer. The second time I did it I was on after Cora Bisset, who, my word, really is a singer. And, perhaps because there's a lot of honest personal material in there, on one early occasion I had the strange sensation of looking out at the audience and thinking why are all of these people sitting here listening to me talk? But an enormous pleasure perhaps in part because of these fresh, unfamiliar terrors - an entirely different set of unfamiliar terrors to those involved in performing Oil Rig.
The second part of the evening was also a joy to be involved in. Every new guest artist added something quite different to the unfolding epic of the foundling, and each night a growing band of house artists of gathered to perform everything that had gone before. Performing other people's words - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit aside, and that's a whole other thing - is another unfamiliar terror, another unfamiliar pleasure to add to the store of pleasures with which I've been gifted this month. And while some guest artists beguiled and others bewildered, while some took the story in directions I found thrilling and others in directions I found tremendously problematic, this potential for internal wrangling was written into the rules of the game; indeed, it was written into the chorus. The epic ballad was a shaggy dog story; the epic ballad was an argument; the epic ballad was internally inconsistent and yet it cohered into one messy, ragged, joyful, plaintive whole.
Lorne's avowed intent behind the event was to improve the quality of our collective confusion about the approaching referendum on Scottish independence. And last night at dinner on this artists' residency I'm on I found myself sitting next to a man who loudly and with no discernible doubt shared his opposition to independence. I didn't buy any of his arguments, if arguments they were, but he presented them with such brisk certainty - as facts, not as viewpoints - that it wasn't worth entering a debate with him. The yes camp with which I instinctively sympathise won't get anywhere with him; it's the undecideds where the debate will be lost or won. But more than any of this, I found myself thinking, I wish you'd come to The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. It might just have elevated the quality of your certainty into a recognition that such certainty is a horrible thing.
Even Kieran Hurley, the remarkable Kieran Hurley, whose own border ballad began with a direct avowal of his support for Scottish independence, then spent his fifteen minutes chewing over the complexities and difficulties of maintaining that support without ambiguity or doubt. The world is currently run by people who are certain. The world is currently ruined by people who are certain. Events like The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project might just elevate the quality of all of our confusion until that confusion itself has the confidence of others' certainty.
One of the things I found most difficult in Kieran's piece was his statement that, in the event of Scottish independence, the thing that his English friends will struggle with most is the need to redefine Englishness in its light. I don't think of myself as English, I think of myself as British. I identify more with Glasgow than I do with London. Englishness, I instinctively feel, is of the centre. Britishness is inclusive of the margins. Englishness went to Eton, drinks Pimms, has leather sofas in wood-panelled rooms, and rules. Britishness drinks pints and marches in protest against the depredations wreaked by Englishness.
The trouble with this analysis is this: it's bollocks. (It's not an analysis at all.) Ask someone outside of England how they feel about Britishness and it's more likely to connote empire than solidarity between Clyde and Tyne. It's easy for an English person like me to wear Britishness as a badge of solidarity with the marginalised of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but actually Britishness, not Englishness, is why there are tanks in Belfast; Britishness, not Englishness, is the imaginary ideal to which unionists appeal when pro-independence campaigners like Kieran try to make proper arguments. I can have solidarity with my Scottish friends even if we don't live in the same country, perhaps more so once people like me are forced to stop pretending that we are all equal in Britishness. We aren't. Maybe these realisations will strengthen the English left. We've allowed Englishness to be claimed by and appealed to by the right. And for sure, patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel, but there's a history of struggle, of revolt that's far more deeply ingrained in English identity than Pimms or anything the EDL can come up with.
I'm not proud to be English. How could I be proud of an accident? But English I am, and these last few paragraphs have been my attempt to rise to the challenges of Lorne and Kieran, by raising the quality of my confusion on this point.
The enthusiastic, rambling formlessness of this blog post surely does more to sum up the joys of my Edinburgh festival than anything else could.
Given that I managed a measly ten hours sleep last night, after the far more respectable twelve to thirteen of the previous three nights, it begins to look as though I'm recovering from Edinburgh a little more quickly this year. Perhaps I'm getting better at it. Perhaps it helps that I'm living here for a week, with virtually no phone or internet.
It's also possible that I'm still recovering from Edinburgh last year. After The Price of Everything finished a year ago, I had one day off and then went straight into three weeks making Ash, the precursor version of what eventually turned into How to Occupy an Oil Rig. Then term started and when I wasn't teaching undergraduates I was touring The Price of Everything and when I wasn't doing that I was developing How to Occupy an Oil Rig and Story Hunt and when I wasn't doing that I was oh it's nearly September already.
So I'd like to write something taking stock of the month I've just had, when I could just as easily write something taking stock of the year I've just had. And what I've in fact written is a sort of loose diary taking stock of the month How to Occupy an Oil Rig has had, in a few rather narrow contexts. I've talked a lot about process, very little about the show itself. Another time.
How to Occupy an Oil Rig went well, very well, which it had little or no right to. It had predominantly four-star reviews with one or two either side of that. It sold well and sales improved day on day. It won an award. The spring tour is filling up.
It should have been a disaster. I say this in full knowledge of the fact that everyone always says this about every theatre show ever. Really. It had disaster written all over it. To start with, due to bereavements, illness and, you know, life, we started rehearsals far less prepared than was in any way ideal, with far more to do to get the material into shape than was in any feasible in a very short rehearsal process.
Let's be honest. The script, such as it was, was a fucking mess.
So it didn't help when four days into rehearsals our indefatigable director Dick Bonham was defatigated. Viz, went into hospital, with blood clots on both lungs. (He was finally to be discharged almost exactly an hour after we set off in the van for Edinburgh.) It's an unusual rehearsal process where you end a day's work by going to visit the director in hospital in order to tell him what you've been doing. And up to a point, there were things that we could do. There's plenty of work that a company of performers can do without an outside eye present. Sorry, directors, but it's true. Tone, rhythm, rapport, dynamic, these and other things were forged or strengthened in this surreal but strangely enjoyable few days.
There's also an awful lot that can't be done without a director, so after only a few more days we were in a stubbornly sealed jar of pickle, trying desperately to peer out, with absolutely no idea what the work we were making looked like. Thank then the stars, the skies and everything heavenly for Sarah Punshon, who was able to join us for the last few days, and take us through previews in Edinburgh. Without her insight, patience, wisdom and sheer determination we would have been in no shape at all. (I should mention at this point that Sarah Punshon also happens to be my wife. But when your substitute director has her CV, you don't quibble about how you got her in the room.)
I'm particularly grateful for her dramaturgical bloody-mindedness. There was a point, the Sunday about three days before we left for Edinburgh, where we'd just done a work-in-progress showing in Leeds. It was a bloody mess, partly because we were under-rehearsed, partly because the structure of the show just wasn't working. As the author of the show, I knew it needed a lot of mending; as a performer I just wanted to get my feet on ground solid enough to get the hang of walking and more change was a terrifying idea. With infinite wisdom and infinite patience, Sarah kept the company working for hours, coaxing, cajoling and pushing us until we had a shape that began to look like a show.
The immense forbearance of Jack Bennett and Kathryn Beaumont, who appear alongside me in the show, was another of that evening's miracles. On the very first day of R+D in July of last year, before The Price of Everything in Edinburgh, I'd warned them that I tend to keep rewriting until the very last minute and often beyond, and that the ways the show changes in front of an audience fuel its further development. But however forewarned, that was a tough evening. If I was them I'd have wept with the confusion and the mess of it all. I nearly wept myself. I love and admire them beyond measure for taking an increasingly heavy series of blows on the chin and not simply tossing the script in the air like so much confetti and marching out into the Leeds night. Cut the scene I just learned? Fine. Replace it with a whole new, yet to be written scene? No problem. Re-arrange all of that text just enough to make it completely different while retaining a ghost of sameness? Sure.
Without Sarah we'd never have had the ability to fix all of those problems that evening. Being in the same boat as Jack and Kathryn, I was all too aware of how mentally and physically shot they were after a tremendously tough week (it wasn't like we were doing nothing until Sarah turned up) and I would have settled for making more piecemeal changes more gradually. I also don't think I believed I had the intellectual energy to work through everything in such detail at that stage. But it turns out that Sarah was able to provide us, collectively, with that energy. Pizza helped, and fizzy drinks. But mostly it was Sarah.
There followed a few more days of rehearsal and re-rehearsal, during which the show remained by no means a fixed set of constants, but at least there was some solid ground. In the van on the way up to Edinburgh we almost knew all the words. And by the time we opened, we at least gave an impression of knowing most of what we were doing. There then followed several long days during which we rehearsed before performing, had notes over lunch, then rehearsed for the rest of the day. First day off? Cancelled. Rehearsal.
Aside from that Sunday, incidentally, and despite the huge challenges, this was all tremendously enjoyable. I might have happily carried on rehearsing all day throughout the fringe. Instead, we kept the early morning call, but after the first few days we had to lose the afternoon. I had another show to open. And a week after that, we had to lose the morning, too, so that I could open a third.
Premiering a show in Edinburgh is playing for terribly high stakes - most of the press and industry who come to see your show will come to see it in this run, and if it's not ready, this run will be your lot. So one of the real pleasures of How to Occupy an Oil Rig was feeling it grow and improve, becoming more reliable at producing its effects, take its audience on a consistent ride despite the threads of improvisation running through it. I had no idea, before the first performance, whether or not this would be a show I'd enjoy performing for a month. Unequivocally, it was, and it became more so. I can't wait for the tour. Given how the show grew in confidence, I can't help but feeling that, given the press came relatively early in the run, we got away with it a bit. Some of them were perhaps nicer than we, at that stage, deserved.
Jack and Kathryn were magnificent. I was adequate. This is in no way surprising, given that this is the first time I've appeared on stage alongside other people for something like twelve or thirteen years. One of the hoary maxims of acting is that all you need to do is remember the words and not bump into the furniture. Towards the end of the second or third performance I caught my head a proper crack on one of the side lights and spent the next couple of days sporting a magnificent shiner. As a director, I'm hugely admiring of those actors who get a note, ask whatever is necessary to assimilate its purpose, and then incorporate it into their performance without it ever needing to be discussed again. As Sarah observed more than once, I am not one of those performers. There are some things that I know I do well on stage - forming a rapport with an audience, for example, playing spontaneously with the present moment, perhaps even combining frivolity and seriousness. Reproducing similar effects, even similar text, reliably from day to day has not, hitherto, been one of those things. This show has been a tremendous learning experience for me as a performer, one that I hope was neither too obvious to the audience nor too irritating for my fellow performers.
So as a shape, as a set of experiences, as a journey if you like, as a set of rhythms and games and set pieces, I'm very happy with the show. There's still some work to be done on the ways it produces its meanings, some of which I think are still problematic, inaccurate or downright inconsistent. There's plenty I'm pleased with here, too - that a show consisting of three-quarters or more how-to demonstrations on forms of protest and direct political action has enjoyed any success at all feels ludicrously unlikely, that it's been very well attended and reviewed is downright daydream. Nevertheless, there's more to be had from it.
So sorry, Jack, sorry, Kathryn. Sorry Dan. No show is ever finished, it just stops getting booked.
I'm aware that this discussion of the material itself is perhaps the most potentially interesting bit for most readers, in a post that's otherwise a very late diary entry and little more. Sadly it's also the bit that requires the intellectual energy of someone more fully rested than I am. If I manage double figures in hours of sleep for a few more nights, then maybe next week. For now, here's a picture of the view from my bedroom window. A few more nights of this and never mind a discursive and thoughtful approach to the themes and content of my latest show, I might just write you a novel.*
* For those of you interested, I'm here, where several other folk are writing actual novels.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will