Book Festival Round-up (Part Two)

Aug 29 2016 | By More

More words from Charlotte Square

The script’s the thing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 

by Hugh Simpson

As well as being the most congenial place in the whole Festival simply to hang out, the Book Festival continues to provide a great deal of interest associated with the theatre.

The rehearsed reading of a play has become a welcome feature in recent years, being a way of gauging the viability of a project without the risk of a full production.

Charlotte Square Gardens 2016, Photo Robin Mair, Edinburgh International Book Festival

Charlotte Square Gardens 2016. Photo Robin Mair, Edinburgh International Book Festival

Often the work concerned has been a proposed revival, but in the case of Love Song to Lavender Menace, an LGBT Youth Cultural Commission by Village Pub playwright James Ley, it was a new work about Edinburgh’s LGBT bookshop of the 1980s, the people who worked there and those whose lives it transformed.

The play is designed to be performed in a bookshop. On this occasion, the reading’s popularity meant it became a well attended event in one of the marquees, with the presence of several real people depicted or referred to in the narrative provided added spice.

Even before American author Garth Greenwell (at the festival to discuss his novel What Belongs To You) appeared as a time-traveller from the future, the structure was gloriously unpredictable. History was mixed with fiction, digressions and self-dramatising humour contributed to a sometimes baggy but always exhilarating performance from Ley and Matthew McVarish.

If there was an awkwardness to some of it that betrayed its state of still not being the finished article, it was a hugely impressive portrait of everything that has changed in the last thirty years, and of those things that have not. There are certainly some nostalgic nods to Letraset and Gestetners, but what is most heartening is the way that the references to Section 28 seem to belong to a similarly long-gone era.

provocative mixture

In the discussion that followed the play, Greenwell congratulated Ley for creating a play that did not seek to present a portrait that sanitised history or paralleled ‘straight’ life; however, the evocation of desire, longing and the need to belong would strike a chord with any audience.

A visitor from the future - James Ley and Garth Greenwell in Love Song to Lavender Menace

A visitor from the future – James Ley and Garth Greenwell in Love Song to Lavender Menace

Another provocative mixture of established history and speculation came from shakespearean scholar Richard Wilson. He apologised – only partly in jest – for not being the ‘other’ Wilson, and perhaps in order to forestall any disappointment from audiences who have come to see him in error, he has developed a forthright presentational style.

His work as the Sir Peter Hall Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kingston University is designed to bring academics, theatre people and the public together, and while his constant attempts to make the subject contemporary – parallels between religious conflicts then and now, comparisons between the character of Hamlet and modern suicide bombers – did not always convince, his arguments were always intriguing.

The combination of historical perspective with ‘close reading’ in the best Leavisite tradition made for some revelations that certainly backed up the proposition that not only does Shakespeare remain relevant, but that there are always new things to be discovered, even after all of the scholarship that has gone before.

One particularly chilling moment in his theories about contemporary relevance came when, in discussing The Tempest’s depiction of ‘colonialist guilt’, he pointed out that 19th century scholars consistently identified the island in the play as Lampedusa – now notorious as the entry point to Europe for refugees.


In the context of current events, a rehearsed reading of David Greig’s Europe, his breakthrough 1994 play about migration, was particularly timely. With its original director Philip Howard at the helm, there was no apology given or needed for this not being a full-scale production, with everything including the stage directions deftly handled.

That it is at least as relevant now as it was in the aftermath of the wars in Yugoslavia does not mean that Greig was able to predict the future; rather, that things remain depressingly the same.

Nevertheless, the themes presented by the impressive cast – the marginalisation of anyone felt to be different, who then becomes the object of scorn and fear; the construction of convenient narratives of national identity, that are promoted even by those who know they are founded on lies – seem chillingly contemporary.



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