Edinburgh: extreme storytelling

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For the past three years, I’ve spent a portion of August in Edinburgh. In fact, twelve months ago I was there to speak at two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a wonderful experience.

But even when I don’t have an official reason for going, these days I tend to feel the call of the north when the brief British summer glimmers into view. And, marvellous though the book festival is, I have to confess that another extravaganza in the Scottish capital has first claim on my heart: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Running since 1947, the annual four-week celebration of all things performance-related is the largest arts festival in the world. This year sees more than 50,200 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries taking place across the city.

The variety is extraordinary. If you want to witness South African dancers transforming themselves into a 16-legged beast, you can find that in After Freedom Productions’ I Am Rhythm. If politics is your thing, you could take yourself along to a garden shed in South College Street and get involved in the reading of the 2.6m-word Chilcot report into the Iraq War (or you could have done until it ended after 284 hours and 45 minutes last weekend). And if it’s comedy you’re after, you can take your pick from the hundreds of aspiring stand-up comics and famous names gurning from posters fixed to every lamp-post, phone box and – likely as not – person who stands still too long on the Royal Mile.

The venues are as different as the acts they house. While specially erected tents accommodate some of the bigger shows, numerous shops, businesses, bars and institutions throw open their doors to host performers in their basements, back rooms, lecture theatres and garages. This year, there are 294 performance spaces operating in the city – among them a venue in Blackwell’s bookshop.

Depending on what you choose to go to, you could find yourself wandering the halls of Edinburgh university, scrambling into the store room of a shop, or squeezing into a police box or camper van (both of which have been used for shows in previous years).

As I writer, I always find the Fringe hugely inspiring. I love the energy and excitement. I relish the inventiveness of the performers, and the weird and wonderful characters you encounter both on and off stage.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about it all for me is this: for all their diversity, each of the 3,269 shows is an attempt to communicate something. Every time the house lights go down in venues large and small, someone is trying to tell a story that will hold the attention of a frequently tired, sometimes rowdy and occasionally downright difficult audience for an hour.

Meeting this challenge every day for the best part of a month requires performers to have guts, energy and a creative approach. This may involve mining episodes from their lives for material, as comedian Alice Fraser does in her show The Resistance, which draws on her childhood in her Holocaust-survivor grandmother’s ramshackle home in Sydney. They may get the audience to take part in the action, as happens in the moving and wonderful play Every Brilliant Thing, in which members of the public are drafted in to play characters in the story.

They may take a historical episode and use it as the framework for their performance, as magician David Narayan does in The Psychic Project, a show based on American studies into the possibility of using mind readers as spies in the late-twentieth century. Or they may make it up as they go along, the way that improv-comedy group Austentatious do with their hilarious improvised performances of a never-before-or-since-read Jane Austen novel inspired by a title provided by a member of the audience.

Not every show works (although I should say that I enjoyed all four of the above). But in many ways, that is beside the point. The attempt to communicate is what counts, the daring to take the conch and step to the front of the stage.

As I return to my desk this week and attempt to pick up the threads of the draft of my next novel, the stagefolk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be my inspiration. They will remind me that though storytelling can sometimes be a messy, intimidating business, it is also a great wonder and privilege because of the opportunity it offers human beings to connect.

None of the joy and power that has filled my last few days would have been possible without the bravery, determination and ingenuity of those performers, who each found their own ways to share their stories. What matters is finding the gumption to try.

Photo of posters and fliers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2012) by Jim Forest on Flickr.com.

Person under a train

Banksy

One of the great, unexpected things that has come out of my project to read a book from every country in 2012 is the fact that I’m often invited to go and tell people about it at various events around the UK and even abroad. There’s nothing nicer than sharing some of the great stories you helped me find and the extraordinary kindness of many readers and writers around the planet that I encountered that year – and still do to this day.

So when Graham asked me to come and give a talk yesterday evening at the Hilt in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, I was only too pleased to say yes. The plan was that I would get the train from London to Winchester, where Graham would pick me up.

Everything was going swimmingly until, about ten minutes before we were due to pull into my stop, the train slowed to a halt. The guard came on the Tannoy. There’d been an incident at Winchester, he said, and the station was closed. Instead of stopping there, the train would go back the way it had come and take another route. Next stop: Woking, then Southampton.

My heart was in my mouth. I thought of Graham waiting at the station and all the people who had bought tickets to hear me speak. How on earth was I going to make it on time?

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me knew the area well. The best thing for me to do was to stay on until Southampton as it wasn’t that far to drive there from Winchester. I’d be late, but I would at least make it, she said.

Over the next two hours, the woman and I chatted as the train crawled its way around southern England. Claire, I learned, was a film editor making a documentary about fashion and we talked openly about our work and families. At some point, we heard that the disruption at Winchester had resulted from a person jumping under a train, a sad discovery that made us reflect on some of the difficult situations facing people we knew in our own lives.

At last, 20 minutes after my talk was due to start, we pulled into Southampton Central. By this stage, poor Graham had been waiting for nearly an hour and had bought me several cups of peppermint tea and a veggie pizza, nearly all of which had gone cold.

We got to the Hilt and I gave my talk. Despite having to wait so long, the audience were warm and enthusiastic and I felt very welcome. As ever, the excitement and fellow-feeling that books have the power to generate was humbling.

Then it was back to the station. Things I’d seen online suggested that by this stage trains should be running from Winchester once more, but when I arrived on the platform, it turned out not to be the case. The information on the boards and the recorded messages just kept pushing departure times back and cancelling services, and there was no member of staff (erhem, South West Trains) to advise us.

At length, a man asked me if I was headed for London and what I thought about the idea of getting a group of people together and trying to share a taxi. It seemed better than spending the night staring at numbers on a screen, so we gave it a go and before we knew it we had six people and a taxi prepared to drive us the 70-odd miles or so to London for a reasonable price.

Feeling a bit like children embarking on a school trip – the taxi driver even made us stop at a petrol station to use the toilet and get snacks and drinks before we started – we set off. My fellow passengers, I discovered, included theatre director Daphna and set designer Jenny who had been at work on I Do, a play showing at Winchester’s Theatre Royal and coming back to the Almeida Theatre in London soon, and a young artistic guy working for an architecture firm called Tom.

Sitting up front as we bowled down the motorway, Tom and I had a great discussion about Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months, and our various projects.

Finally, some way north of midnight and after the poor taxi driver’s sat nav had erroneously led us to the Ritz, we arrived at Waterloo, tired but strangely happy. Against all the odds, it had been a great journey. We had met new people and learned something about the awkward strangers we normally found ourselves sitting among on public transport.

If the person who died on the tracks that day needed proof that they were worth something and had the power to make a difference, it was there in that car. Sadly, however, they’ll never know.

Picture of a Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers

Thailand: watching the watchers

Chart Korbjitti caught my eye on Wikipedia’s list of Thai writers. Not only is he a two-time recipient of the Southeast Asian Write award, but he was named a National Artist in Literature in 2004. He made his career through self-publishing his work and is one of that hardy breed of full-time writers who commit to doing nothing but waking up and spinning stories all day long. I also like his glasses.

This is fitting because, as it turns out, vision is a central theme in the book I chose to read. Set in a theatre, the novel records the reactions of a 62-year-old filmmaker as he watches a show dubbed ‘the most boring play of the year’ by Thailand’s drama critics. As the action unfolds in an old people’s home, the protagonist finds himself drawn into the slow drift of events, pausing now and again to imagine how he would represent the action if he were portraying it in a film. Distanced from his everyday routine by the strange suspension of reality the theatre affords, he reflects on the sad events of his life and in the end takes a great deal from the drama playing out in front of him – although whether what he infers is what the play’s director intends remains a mystery.

The novel is one of the most structurally innovative books I’ve read. Jumping between the action on stage, the protagonist’s interior monologue and his imagined shooting script for the scenes he witnesses, the narrative tests the limits of the written medium while exploring the visual arena of stage and screen. The filmmaker’s watching and commenting makes even the most mundane of onstage actions – washing, feeding and entertaining the frail and largely bedridden inhabitants of the home – come alive.

This is particularly true when what he sees encourages the protagonist (if that is the right word for someone who is essentially watching the actions of others) to look for parallels in his own experience. These reflections range from pettish and sometimes funny reflections on the selling of lottery tickets through social issues such as child labour to admissions of his own fears and loneliness. Indeed, the narrative is frequently startling in its stark reflections on ‘the pain of being left alone in the world’. ‘To tell you frankly, when I see something like this, I’m scared. Scared to have to lie on a bed like this. I’m thinking of my wife –’ says the narrator, striking a balance of honesty and reticence that means the narrative never tips over into wallowing.

Yet Korbjitti pushes the boundaries even beyond the trope of a man sitting in an auditorium watching a play. As the show progresses, we find the thoughts of the characters on stage beginning to spill into the narrative, forcing us to question where these recollections and preoccupations come from. In addition, the nagging smell of urine that irritates the filmmaker throughout the show invites us to wonder exactly where the boundary between the real and the imagined lies.

The result is a masterful dissection of the experience of consuming art. At times, I had to stop myself from turning round to see Korbjitti watching me read, constructing a story about a blogger reading a book about a filmmaker watching a play. But perhaps he’s already written it…

Time: a Thai Novel by Chart Korbjitti, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thai Fiction Publishing, 2010)