FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT 43: A Return to the Threshing Room Floor

Edinburgh festival fringe 2012As I write the Edinburgh Festival of 2015 has ended and to mark the occasion thousands of pounds of fireworks have been rocketed into the sky like so many mini-Tridents and exploded into tiny nuclear starbursts of sound and colour over the castle. Last year I had great success with my play “Three Thousand Trees” which played to full houses for three weeks. This year I wandered around the city for less than a week, a singular soul in the carrying stream of desire, ego, expression and razzmatazz which is Edinburgh in August. Next year, who knows, I may have another success or my play could go the way of 95% of all Festival offerings: down into the darkness of audience-less, review-less oblivion.

For once, not being caught up in the intensity of a production, I was able to observe the Edinburgh Festival dispassionately. As I moved like a ghost through a fair, entertained and appalled in equal measure, delighting in the colour and exhausted by the clamour, the thought kept coming into my head, like a bird through the open window of an empty house: just what is all this for?

The Roman poet Catullus (84 – 54 BC) – a great wanderer and questioner himself – once wrote

“I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.”

All my adult life I have believed that the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe was about art, about seeing the best performances from around the world and about freedom of expression. I no longer think that. “…and I’m torn in two” and if what follows is a bit rambling then it only reflects the rambling chaos of the Festival itself.

As I walked down the High Street and managed to both enjoy and swerve the rather annoying Australian street performer whose act seemed mostly to be about blowing huge soapy bubbles up into the Edinburgh air I saw two of the busker stages provided by the Fringe where a singer (or whoever) can book a slot and perform for an allocated time: all sponsored by Virgin Money. No-one is free when they perform under such a banner. I am not so naive to suppose that sponsorship plays no part in the production of art. I myself have accepted funding from dubious sources and have convinced myself that it is for the good of the production. That is not the nature of my complaint: I suspect that no-one any longer knows what the Edinburgh Festival is for? Just what, exactly, is its purpose? Whose interests does it serve?

It may be of no significance whatsoever that I seemed to be the only one whose heart sank watching one the greatest French screen actresses of her generation go down in a lifeless production of Antigone which understood neither the function of drama nor the conflict between the laws of nature and those of man.
Watching a great play die is never easy. This production was a universe away from the threshing floor of human experience upon which Sophocles conceived it and beat it into shape. The collective of the chorus was transformed into the individual voice so there was no power, no threshing out of humanities tragedy, no theatre. For whom was this exercise in style and celebrity designed?

Why did I feel so lonely in the crowd watching another exercise in style which was the production of Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s novel of 1981? Was it because what was happening on the stage was both confused and confusing, was crammed packed with gizmo’s and gimmicks – light and sound at the expense of storytelling? Or was it because I knew that at that precise moment Alasdair Gray was lieing badly injured in a hospital bed? Or was it because the tickets were £32.00?

Many hundreds of people loved Antigone and Lanark. I was not among them “and if you ask me how, I do not know.” What do I have to complain of? Is not Juliette Binoche performing before your eye a mouth-watering prospect? Is the work of Alasdair Gray not worthy of celebration in his 80th year and by a Scottish – more or less – theatre company?

Well, yes to all of that. And yet, and yet… “I hate and I love”. So maybe it is time to return to the threshing floor which is the origin of all celebration, of all the performing arts. Once the harvest is in the people dance. The Edinburgh “International” Festival was started in 1947 to shed some light into the dark world of post-World War Two and to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. The harvest up to 1945 had been war so is it any wonder people needed to believe in creativity. That same year, 1947, eight theatre companies “gate crashed” the official festival and so began the Fringe. Recent revelations have added to the significance of Edinburgh as the site for this Festival because the Nazi’s planned to drop their atomic bomb on Edinburgh once they had the wherewithal to do so.

Edinburgh in August is bombed by agencies of a different intention. Squadrons of spivs, chancers, marketeers, promotors, agents, producers and snake oil salesmen drop their load on the capital for three weeks. Each year their carpet bombing has increased to such intensity that now the “platform for the flowering of the human spirit” has been reduced to rubble. Cultural “shock and awe” has like in Dresden in 1945 sucked the oxygen out of the city and turned it into a firestorm of greed, mania, exploitation, naked ambition and money.

For all the 3,000+ performances which happen every day just what is actually going on in Edinburgh in August? In post-referendum Scotland, where the Tory cuts have been proven to be driving people to kill themselves due to desperation and depression, just what has the Festival got to do with us? Other than those companies which are fortunate enough to be sponsored and promoted by the Scottish Government’s “Made in Scotland” partnership which selects “the best” of Scottish arts – and in effect creates an elite because no-one really knows how the selection process works, it is difficult to make your presence known above the babble. The old much maligned Scottish Arts Council refused to directly fund anything at the Edinburgh Festival and at least that had a rough equality to it. As it stands, out with official sanction, just where is Scottish culture represented in the Festival hootenanny?

Many small companies take the risk and perform at the Festival Fringe. Many more ignore it and save their precious resources for the other 49 weeks of the year. Why bother to “weep the black river” of yourself, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney – you may get lucky and the stars align as they did for my play last year but everyone knows that it is rare. Bolstering a contemporary cultural confidence in a small emerging nation, albeit one with a long cultural history, is difficult when the focus is all about three weeks in August in a festival city which treats such cultural aspiration with disdain and deems it “parochial” and ignored by a media which is hypnotised by celebrity.

I love the Edinburgh Festival but I hate the Edinburgh Festival. It mirrors the growing gap in inequality in our society and the obsession with self and inwardness. What the Scottish people are striving for is a new social paradigm where wealth is distributed more equally and where there is opportunity for all. I think what the Scottish people desire of the Edinburgh Festival – “I do not know: I only feel it” – is an arts festival and an arts community in general which reflects the threshing floor of their dialogue with the political and cultural future we are trying to create. Nothing much seems to be serious in Edinburgh in August, especially the comedy. It is as if we have to go back to 1945 and begin again.

The truth – even although it may not be self-evident – is that the Festival is just too big. It is collapsing under its own mass and like a black hole it sucks all light and gravity in and lets none escape. The Festival, as it is shaped and constructed now stops us from asking who we are, keeps us complacent – “I do not know: I only feel it,” as old Gaius Valerius Catullus would say and as I say “I’m torn in two.” In other words: we need something new. The plot each year is exactly the same only “bigger” and “better” but that is a world we all know too well. What we need to discover, to seek out, is a new narrative for our emerging world. That narrative will take courage and imagination to create because our new freedom will be just as hard to secure as our old slavery is difficult to shake off. Just go and watch the Tattoo if you think the imperial military past with the Union Jack as its banner-logo is safely in the past: it is still here. It makes us think in the light but act in the dark. It is the opposite of the Greek idea of the “agora”: that public space where the citizens go to debate the politics of the state and the poetry of the moment.

The commodification and financialisation of art means that it becomes merely advertising: it is trying to sell you something. The purpose of art, especially of public art, is to give you something. What does the Edinburgh bonanza in August actually give us other than access to “Virgin Money”? It was Chekov who suggested that “The writer must find the truth, wrap it up and take it somewhere.” He never suspected it would be in the logos and slogans of oil companies, banks and breweries and that it would be taken to that dark place where information is valued over civilization and your cash over your soul.

New figures reveal the population of Scotland is at an all-time high of 5,347,600. It was also reported that 2.3 million tickets have been sold for this year’s Fringe alone and that 400,000 fireworks were let off to celebrate the Festival’s close. Now it has to be remembered that the Edinburgh International Festival from 1947 ignored Scottish culture entirely which is why from 1951 to 1954 Hamish Henderson and others mounted the highly successful Edinburgh People’s Festival. It was closed down by the Labour Party who thought it was a front for communism. What it did give was a platform for Scottish folk culture. It seems that the Labour Party in Scotland has a history of getting things wrong.

Now I know that criticising the Edinburgh Festival is never a popular but I am no backwoodsman with a parochial axe to grind: far from it. Like the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam I too am “nostalgic for a world culture”. What we need to do is to sweep away the empty husks of finance and the dead straw of corporatism from the threshing floor of Scottish culture so that the arts that express that culture can truly engage with the rest of the world, as equals in an truly welcoming and international Scottish People’s Festival, and not have to go skulking around the backstreets of our own capital, excluded from the ceilidh by ticket prices and that old ugly dog-dance of the Scottish cringe and London prejudice.

My personal quirky high points from this year’s Festival (other than Elspeth Turner’s brilliant play Spectretown) was a Latin American jazz band ripping up tunes with a joy and skill that lifted the heart and a man carving a sleeping dog out of sand on Prince’s Street that seemed so beautiful and melancholy people watched him work in silence. So, you may ask, what have I truly got to complain about? In conclusion, and in my defence, I give you the dichotomy and dilemma of Catullus – and me – again

“I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.”

©George Gunn 2015

George Gunn’s book “The Province of the Cat” (£9.99 plus postage and packaging) will be published by The Islands Book Trust later this month.

Comments (16)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Deirdre Forsyth says:

    I agree about Antigone. All I can say positively is that we stood for ages outside theatre talking about the play and the set. I also saw a play called Tomorrow in the Traverse which was moving and well worth seeing

  2. Pete Searle says:

    ” And I am torn in two ” Great quote, powerful resonant message and an intelligent challenge to the entire Festival machine. And yet, and yet, if George himself is ” torn in two ” then there have to be many many positives to offset the disappointments. He is spot-on and sadly right about Juliette Binoche. And right again about all he says of Lanark. But there were gems amongst the should-have-been-better productions. Four young actors at the Pleasance theatre machine delivering joyous hope for our future theatre in their production of “Run”. Maureen Beatty in Deliverance showing the performance at its very very best – and not just her acting, though that was more than good enough to have held me spell bound if she sat still in a black box with just one candle to light her face. Performance is what theatre is about, and there was a lot of that in Edinburgh. But still and all the comments were just and I also am torn in two. But at least I FELT it. And that was good

  3. Derek says:

    Is this about the EIF or the Fringe? George, are you really saying that a plethora of fleas are sucking the lifeblood out of Edinburgh and EIF?

  4. Paul Carline says:

    Simply superb. Nothing to add – except maybe something else from Ancient Rome: panem et circenses: the purpose of which was and is to distract us from what really matters.

  5. elainefraser says:

    I look forward to the festival/fringe and eagerly await the brochures. This year it seemed so thick and took ages to get through. I put it down and picked it up over a couple of weeks. I booked a couple of things and noted of a few others I intended to see but in the end it felt somehow different this year, didnt feel right and I couldn’t really be bothered.

    It has slowly dawned on me that what happened last year in Scotland felt for many of us like a year-long festival . It was fun and mostly free, accessible , participation was positively encouraged , challenging and fresh , hopeful, inclusive , imaginative and best of all – it was real !

  6. George Gunn says:

    Dear Derek,

    no I see it all as one big thing.

  7. Michael Bramley says:

    Dear GG, I was a fan of Lanark and snuck in for £22 and next year it will be 11 like my >60 companion. Youngers can do £11 too or £8 on the day.
    3000 is just a journalism number. By the time you excluded circus, clowns, dodgy dance, enthusiatic am drams and men wearing hats there are only a few shows for any individual to choose from (your filters of choice) And otherwise long may the American matrons being mislead by Edinburgh medical student review flyers contribute to the economy x ps the free fringe is a nice addition and I happily paid a proper contribution to a couple of shows there.

  8. Kenneth G Coutts says:

    Well said, will go when there is reality.
    Indeed get rid of the tattoo

  9. Dave Leslie says:

    Are you playing the role of a new Lanark, George? and is the festival / fringe devouring all else in order to sustain itself? Personally, I don’t subscribe to the latter.

  10. George Gunn says:

    Dear David,

    no I wasn’t planning to play the role of the new Lanark, but maybe all Scottish writers are a bit like Lanark. I think Elaine Fraser has hit the nail on the head with the year long festival we had running up to the referendum and this is what was, on reflection, what made me want to ask the question of the Edinburgh Festival(s): what is all this actually for, what is its purpose? One answer is it is what it is because it just is. Somehow, this year, I was needing more.

  11. Ruari McNeill says:

    I agree with George Gunn to a certain extent.
    But I cannot comment on Lanark as I will not see it until this coming Saturday at the Cits.
    Scottish drama has sadly always been thin at the Festival.
    But as far as I can remember there were at least 4 productions of “The Three Estates”. The first one took place very early on during the Festival and was directed by Tyrone Guthrie.
    The, ill fated Scottish Theatre Company, presented the play twice, directed by Tom Fleming in the 1980’s. In the second year of production it was twined with a revival of The Wallace. The production of the Three Estates then a year later was invited to the Warsaw Theatre Festival where it played to full houses and was awarded “Best Production of the Year”.
    The following year the Scottish Arts Council axed the company and we had to wait, I think, about 10 years before The National Theatre of Scotland was established. I enjoyed their production of the three Jamie Plays.
    I have worked for almost 60 years in the professional theatre, mostly on Scotland, as a technician, stage manager, and administrator. Working in theatre in Scotland was never easy, but always exciting and I hope that it will continue to be so, with, or without the Festival. Having said that it would be very healthy for the Festival develop in the way George suggests.

  12. Ray Bell says:

    One of the big demons of the Edinburgh August must be stand up comedy. While some it is good, some of it is not… it’s really squeezing everything else. Think massive egos, cocaine addiction and no need for pesky set designers/actors/musicians/other artistic personnel to get paid.

    Interestingly this year there were several interesting productions by Welsh companies, displaying a confidence in themselves lacking in some of the local Scots. Not to mention using – shock horror – a Celtic language on their posters.

    1. Ray Bell says:

      Didn’t realise you did the Macrae play. Went to see it at the Arches. Good stuff although Oi Polloi clip a bit jarring.

  13. catherine says:

    I agree almost entirely. Almost but not completely as I really did enjoy the production of Lanark – something I thought would have been impossible until a couple of weeks ago. I thought David Greig did a marvellous job transforming this iconic book into stageable material and the actors gave their all.
    But I am also worried about the future of the Festival. While there seems to be little hope for the Fringe – maybe it has been a victim of its own success – the International Festival should never forget why it was brought into being in the first place, ie to bring people together. Even though the organisers of the Festival do manage to bring some of the great practioners of music and drama to Edinburgh in August, the audiences (particurlarly in the Usher and Queens Halls) seem to consist mainly of residents of Morningside and the New Town and their equivalents in other places. I feel that for an international festival of any standing this is not good enough. The Festival needs to showcase more local talent and there is a need to attract a more international audience. Equally important is to bring in people from different backgrounds and walks of life, particularly in the current economic and political climate.

  14. George Gunn says:

    Dear Ray,

    there are two Three Thousand Trees. The one you saw was by Any Anderson, and fair play to him. Mine is a fish of a different feather.

  15. Ian Tully says:

    I agree about the “Antigone”, I found myself concentrating on the words and ignoring the performance which simply did not convey the spirit of the text. “Lanark” was a worthy effort but I suspect it would really need a gifted film-maker to convey the complexities of the book.
    It was never the intention of those who began the International Festival to show-case Scotland’s talent to the world, at the time, before the cultural revival it would have been thin fare, rather they wanted to show a wider world to Scotland, and in that they have largely succeeded. Today we certainly have something to offer, and there is no excuse for not presenting the best to our audiences, but that does mean concentrating resources and making selections. We are asking to be compared to the best in Europe and the wider world where support is often far more generous.
    How to get more working-class audiences? I think it is one of those questions like how to alter working-class diets and exercise to which no one really knows the answer. There are genuinely working-class folk who do go to the International Theatre events, but they tend to be those engaged in other levels of social life too. Start them young must be part of the answer, get them interests, and most importantly get them believing that this is for them too. It is not as though our theatre is particularly aimed at any one social class’s concerns.

    The Fringe is over-blown: it has passed the point where we should be advising people to stay away or come back at another time of the year. The comedy festival is big enough to be floated off as a separate event, at another time. you will never get rid of the street performers, and they do help created the atmosphere, and give those with little cash a chance for some free fun. This year it certainly seemed to lack something, although the Traverse was as always a centre of excellence.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.