At the Book Festival

Aug 22 2019 | By More

Theatrical life in Charlotte Square

Round-up review by Hugh Simpson

The Edinburgh international Book Festival continues to provide a commitment to theatrical elements as well as the customary squelchy grass and ice-cream cones.

In recent years, there has been a welcome attempt to shine a light on recently departed playwrights, and this continued with a semi-staged reading of Tom Leonard’s translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children. Or some of it, at least – even in 90 minutes, there was only time for the first half of what proved to be Leonard’s last major work before his death last year.

Suzanne Bonnar in Mother Courage. Pic: Pako Mera

Responsible for the reading was Tam Dean Burn, who also reprised the role of the cook, which he played in TAG’s version of the play more years ago than any of us care to remember. A distinguished group of actors had to battle with less than perfect conditions – the Spark Theatre, seemingly longer and thinner than the other tents, has problems with audibility even if you don’t factor in the roistering late-evening denizens of George Street outside.

However, there was enough here to satisfy on its own terms, as well as suggesting a full production (albeit one with the occasional judicious cut) would be welcome. There is an unsurprisingly hard-edged demotic feel to the translation that was well served by the likes of Ryan Fletcher at his most bemusedly goggle-eyed, and Chris Craig essaying a selection of lubricious authority figures with rotic glee. Therese Bradley, as a compelling Mother Courage, Suzanne Bonnar in fine voice and Burn’s customary compelling performance made this a fitting tribute to Leonard.

A similar air of commemoration was felt in the more congenial atmosphere of the Spiegeltent for the Celebrating Hamish Henderson event. This featured more poets, singers and instrumentalists than could ever be listed here, though mention must be made of the outstanding trio singer Aileen Ogilvie, fiddler Karys Watt and guitarist Dave Macfarlane.

The cast of Mother Courage and Her Children. Pic: Pako Mera

Collectively, the assembled throng struck just the right balance between honouring the centenary of the birth of the legendary Henderson (poet, songwriter, campaigner, folklorist and just about everything else) and demonstrating the continuing vibrancy of the traditions he sought to encourage. By the time the excellent Stevie Byrne led the inevitable and rousing singing of Henderson’s internationalist anthem The Freedom Come-All-Ye, there were more than a few lumps in throats.

Congratulations to the event’s organiser and unassuming MC Jim Mackintosh, whose Poets’ Republic have produced The Darg, a centenary collection of new poems to mark the centenary, and which features the many poets heard here. Considering few people go into either poetry or folk music because of the opportunities they afford for punctual time-keeping, sound administration and general organisation, getting so many people on and off stage in 90 minutes was little short of a miracle.

almost insane ambition

Slightly less of a smooth running order was in evidence at the nevertheless compelling A New Divan also in the Spiegeltent. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, his response to the Persian poetry of Hafiz, Ginkgo Books have published a new collection (as well as a new edition of the original).

A work of almost insane ambition, A New Divan features twelve poets writing in Arabis, Persian and Turkish on the themes of the original, with twelve poets doing the same in various European languages, and the whole lot then also made into poetry in English by the likes of Kathleen Jamie and Jo Shapcott, either directly or using bridging translations. The resulting book is full of treasures, as well as being a gorgeous object in its own right, well worth the trouble some of it apparently gave the typesetters.

Many of those poets were in attendance to read their work, either in person or recorded, and while there was a diffident, occasionally shambolic air to some of the proceedings, it was nevertheless absorbing. The contrasts between the styles, and the descriptions of the rewards and pitfalls of translation, were illuminating.

Jan Wagner and Robin Robertson. Pic: Pako Mera

This was even more in evidence in an earlier event on the book chaired by its co-editor Barbara Schwepcke and featuring poets Jan Wagner and Robin Robertson, as well as Persian scholar Narguess Farzad. Wagner and Robertson in particular were utterly fascinating – they clearly know each other well enough to be honest about the process of Robertson rendering Wagner’s devilishly complicated rhyming German into a version by Robertson, who ‘doesn’t do rhyme’.

That what sounds like the driest of subjects – translating poetry – was completely inspirational is testament to the Book Festival’s determination to build bridges.

Even hearing so much poetry in other languages is refreshing; not only is the whole New Divan project a necessary dialogue between East and West, it is a vital reminder of the whole idea behind the Festival in the first place – to connect us to the wider world. Now, more than ever, we need something to remind us of what we seem determined to throw away.

The Book Festival continues until Monday 26 August at Charlotte Square. Entry to the gardens remains free.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.