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.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will