By Christiana Spens.
As is normal in the summer in Scotland, I awoke to torrential rain and clouds so dark it might have been night-time already. But I had not overslept ‘til the evening; the whiskey had not been that strong. It was only ten in the morning. Black boots, jeans, leather. Layers in case of sun.
By noon, the weather had made it’s first shift, as the train scuttled along the Forth Road bridge, past waves sparkling like granite and grey clouds now brushed with white. I kept looking at this familiar, tempestuous view, trying to lift myself in mind if not body from the crammed, hyper carriage. The Festival does that to Edinburgh-bound trains. The recently brought in alcohol ban doesn’t start ‘til nine at night. Hours to go ‘til then. Drinking in the morning has been made a socially practical thing to do now. The Scots are pragmatic like that.
I had an unfortunate seat near the toilet, where men dressed in leotards on stag weekends would conspicuously cram into the grimy little space in pairs. As we got closer to the city, and passengers rolled their eyes, bored of the farce already, a naïve, impatient man, who had only just wandered in, asked out loudly: “Is the door broken? How can it be engaged if a man just walked OUT?”
We hurtled into Waverley, only after yet another awkward moment upon the switch to VACANT. Men in leotards swigged canned Guinness. Dancers picked up their bags. I ran for a rare cab, got through the crowds to Summerhall within the hour.
Before I had a chance to see any exhibitions or shows, though, I bumped into Robert McDowell, mastermind behind the phenomenal new venue of the Summerhall Arts Laboratory. The day got it’s glamour back, the sun brightened, and wine was served. We talked about cross-dressing, Paris, Ireland and malady. It was indeed, my new found “arrhythmia” that let me to my first show. I had been telling Robert about my irregular heart (what a surprise!) and reminiscing about the fleeting concern of my family, (which I put a stop to quickly by singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion – didn’t want them to get too upset about my exaggerated likeliness of dropping melodramatically dead). – When along came the producer of a libretto about neurosis and illness called, ‘Dr. Quimpugh’s Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions’. Quickly and cleverly, Robert saw a cure for my panic, and got me a free ticket to go with the wine. And it worked: seeing these characters even more melodramatic than myself cured my own libretto-suited ailment in a shot.
And the libretto – by composer Martin Ward (Royal Opera, ENB) and librettist Phil Porter (Royal Opera, RSC) – was brilliant aside of being a cure for the oddness of my heart. Telling the story of a brilliant but neurotic Doctor and his long career of diagnosing rare afflictions of the mind and body, the libretto was perfectly at home in the venue, which was until recently the University’s Vetinary School. This must have been an old lecture hall, and I was uncharacteristically (I promise) in the front row.
Particular high points were the patient with the ‘Alien Hand’ who hilariously sang of how her independent-minded hand would ruin her life by randomly groping authority figures and stabbing her lover. She was convincingly tragic and remorseful as she sang: “Oh my alien hand / gets me in terrible trouble…”
Also ingenious was the depiction of the “walking, talking corpse,” who sang, “My heart was the first to go,” before railing off his other organs and singing of his “Illogic immortality / oneness with infinity / it breaks my decomposing heart”.
Up next was a pious, chaste girl from Yorkshire whose mother despaired when she unravelled into hysterical orgasm upon recollecting the churches and art she visited on an education trip to Florence, and which the Doctor could not cure (though he seemed to identify, vocally).
By the end the Doctor was in crisis himself, having only diagnosed, and never cured, his ridiculous patients. But judging from the enraptured audience, his neurotic song had medicated the crowds to happiness, if not medical enlightenment. I certainly enjoyed every moment of the original and delightfully silly libretto, which balanced quite perfectly the playfulness of the libretto with its comically neurotic subject matter.
After the libretto, the weirdness continued, as I got lost trying to find an art exhibition. After wandering around empty, windowless corridors for a while, I met a nice technician (with a special access key / card thing) who proceeded to give me a secret tour of the old buildings, taking the long route to finding my way out. Certainly it’s a fascinating old place: we saw old animal cages (where they used to clone things, apparently), dusty old pill bottles, a model of a decomposing sheep, and more cages. Eventually, these cages became frames for art installations for the Fashion Festival’s ‘Syn / Aesthesia’ show. At times it was hard to tell what was old animal hospital, and what was fashion-as-art. I do mean that as a compliment too: there was something perfectly Gothic about this subtle merge between the medicinal and the creative.
Eventually, we opened a door onto the main courtyard, where we met some nice Polish technicians, who were arranging an old car for a stunt show later on. He wouldn’t tell us what would happen, but, “A person being run over is a given, of course.” There were bottles of cheap Russian fake champagne, which he said would could have a bottle of if we came to the show, but sadly we never got to taste this sinister concoction. Moments later, I bumped into Joe Ridgwell and Jenni Fagan, and Michael from Tangerine Press, who were in town for Jenni’s reading for the Neu! Reekie! event. This was pretty brilliant, with Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson, John Hemingway and others also delivering energetic, at times aggressive performances.
We sat in another old lecture theatre, sipping wine as Chicago and Edinburgh battled it out (Edinburgh won). Never been to a more intense book reading, that’s for sure. More Fight Club than Eng. Lit – with a mixture of Welsh-ian profanities and Hemingway family histories of cross-dressing and tuna fishing. They competed for varying ideas of masculinity and similar pitches of aggression – followed by more stories of guns, prisons, and women being treated badly. When the door opened onto the breezy summer night, it was a relief to be released, just as the catharsis of all those endings set in. The best writing makes you feel free – so however aggressive, maybe that’s what those writers, in that evening, managed to do.
I had to get a train home, anyway, so I left soon after, and went to Waverley. I got refused a drink at the bar because of the pedantic ID insistence, despite clearly not being seventeen (one day I’ll miss it, I guess). But two girls from Manchester – Emily and Emily – came to my aid with gin and coke and good conversation. As I ran for my train, they ran to the night; it was only beginning for them. And so the cycle of visitors and trains and rounds and shows went on, in the ever-magical festival where night is day and day looks like night. My odd heart beat played up a little as the train set off; perhaps my arrhythmia is only the city’s, perhaps I am a Fringe child at heart.