At the Book Festival

Aug 18 2018 | By More

Theatre news from the EIBF

By Hugh Simpson

The Edinburgh International Book Festival continues to offer many events designed to appeal to theatre-goers.

For example, the Playing With Books strand – a co-presentation with the Lyceum, where writers, directors and performers present their interpretation of a recent book with only minimal time to prepare – is back after a successful outing last year.

One Hundred Nights of Hero at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Pic Robin Mair

One Hundred Nights of Hero at Edinburgh International Book Festival. David Greig, Isabel Greenberg and Ella Hickson. Pic Robin Mair

Writer and director Ella Hickson’s take on The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel, was constantly interesting – although it had a decidedly unfinished air even by the standards of the project.

Set in the same world as her astonishing Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Greenberg’s work – which owes an obvious debt to the Arabian Nights – can be seen as a kind of a feminist fairy tale, a hymn to the power and legacy of female storytellers.

The most immediate problem is how to transfer the tone and texture of a graphic novel to the stage. As Hickson pointed out, a man in a funny hat and beard giving a comedy leer, while plotting sexual misdemeanours, is a different thing entirely when it is transferred from the comic to the flesh.

So it is to the credit of Hickson and her collaborators that what took shape as a ‘young adult-plus musical’, with music by Emmy The Great, had the coherence it did with so little time available. Even more credit to Kim Allan and Christina Gordon for performing the songs and linking passages with such zeal, and Jatinder Singh Randhwa for being the token male.

nuts and bolts

While what was presented may have whetted the appetite for a more finished work, the inchoate nature of proceedings may have appealed more to a Book Festival audience (who are always happy to hear about the nuts and bolts of the creative process) than a Lyceum crowd, who are accustomed more to seeing the finished article.

The Life and Times of Michael K at Edinburgh International Book Festival Pic Robin Mair

The Life and Times of Michael K at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018. Damola Adelaja (on screen) and Emily Stride Pic: Robin Mair

The insight gained into the genesis of a piece of theatre compensated for something that must have been puzzling for the large proportion of the audience not previously familiar with the book. Greenberg does not seem to be the most natural at selling her work – and she has no reason to be when it speaks for itself so eloquently. Hickson perhaps over-compensated for this by stressing what they had been trying to do; whether they managed to is up for debate.

There was no such unfinished air to the staging of JM Coetzee’s Booker-Prize winning The Life and Times of Michael K, presented by the Booker Prize Foundation and Story Machine Productions. A film by Joshua Carver, featuring a luminous, almost entirely silent performance from Damola Adelaja, was accompanied by narration shared between Emily Stride’s live action and Matt Bannister’s voiceover.

John Last was the only other actor (and he added to the atmosphere even before the show started by harassing audience members for their lack of documentation) but Sam Ruddock and Joseph Ballard’s direction suggested a much larger production. This was helped greatly by Ross Flight’s exemplary sound design.

The theme of how difficult it is to retain your dignity and sense of self, in the face of the narrative those in power have constructed about you, resonated in the light of the struggles so many distinguished writers invited to this year’ s Book Festival have had even getting into the country.

The only thing that affected the production’s impact was the disappointingly small audience scattered around the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. This could, however, be seen as reassuring for those who lament the diminished importance of the printed word. This was, after all, a late addition to the festival and there are many Book Festival devotees who don’t believe something really exists unless it is the original paper programme.

The Book Festival continues until Monday 27 August.


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