Playing With Books

Aug 25 2019 | By More

A Charlotte in Charlotte Square – and more

Round-up review by Hugh Simpson

The Book Festival’s Playing with Books strand continues to delight and tantalise audiences in the Charlotte Square Spiegeltent.

The events, in collaboration with the Royal Lyceum, give distinguished writers, directors, actors and musicians (minimal) time to mess about creatively with recently successful books, and continued with a response to Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins.

Brian Ferguson and Jessica Hardwick with musicians Laura Ross and Mike Outram. Pic Suzanne Heffron

The books’ creators are often surprised by the result, and Higgins was clearly taken aback (if impressed) by the way adaptor David Greig and director Elizabeth Newman were well on the way to turning her exploration of what remains of Roman Britain into a road movie-cum-romcom.

By focusing on the relationship between Higgins and her partner (not to mention their beaten-up camper van) that is more of a sideshow in the book, the collaborators had created something fresh and attractive – albeit one with clearly more filmic than theatrical potential.

Higgins’s astonishment that the different demands of theatre meant that nothing seemed to be resolved for the first half of an already limited rehearsal time was brought into relief a little by Greig. Perhaps not as smoothly calm about his work as is his wont in public, there was more than a hint that this was even more of a last-minute affair than Playing With Books has tended to be.

Lucky, then, that two such accomplished performers as Brian Ferguson and Jessica Hardwick were on hand to give life to the words. Their rapport, as seen in Cyrano De Bergerac, was gorgeously unforced and made for a magnetic performance. The music of Laura Ross and Mike Outram was also a major part of another warmly intriguing event.

an extraordinarily elastic feel

The notification that the writer of a book has cancelled is one guaranteed to sink hearts at the Book festival, and if the event does go ahead, many can be put off. This may have affected the audience in the Spiegeltent for Annville, with Heather Spears – author of the The Flourish, the fact-based tale of murders in Victorian Lanarkshire on which the play is based – unable to attend.

Which was unfortunate for any who chose to stay away, as the focus was on reading of much of Martin Travers’s theatrical recasting of the book. Unlike the Playing With Books events, this featured a full, already-written work – albeit one whose theatrical future is uncertain, after the sad passing of its main supporter, the director Amanda Gaughan.

There must, however, be a place on stage for such an intriguing piece. Reworked from the book’s Standard English into Scots, the script has an extraordinarily elastic feel, a brooding and versatile style of Scottish Gothic full of doomy foreboding and extraordinary similes. Read by Ros Sydney, Lauren Mitchel, an ominous Robbie Jack and the particularly impressive Angela Darcy, the play clearly has huge potential.

Roseanne Watt and Beldina Odenyo Onassis with Imam Baksh. Pic EIBF

The Throwing Voices strand, showing how ‘local language, culture and tradition can resonate across linguistic divides’ is another series of events that throws artists together (with careful preparation, of course) at short notice to see what sticks. The last two events both featured a Scottish poet, a writer from South America and a musician, and (despite the odd technical hiccup) both were illuminatingly beautiful and slightly melancholy events.

Shetlandic poet and film-maker Roseanne Watt and Guyanese Young Adult novelist Imam Baksh were accompanied by Scottish-Kenyan musician Beldina Odenyo Onassis, aka Heir Of The Cursed. Fife-born poet John Burnside and Argentinian novelist Agusitina Bazterrica were given support from musician, novelist and Long Fin Killie founder Adam Sutherland.

The format, where the writers had to choose three objects to respond to, was a little artificial but probably necessary in terms of structure and helping to facilitate dialogue. The results were always fascinating – Baksh produced poems in Guyanese Creole for the first time, Watt and Burnside produced more expected but still liminally enticing poetry, while Bazterrica’s politically informed calls-to-arms were rousing.

Heir Of The Cursed transformed the poems into enticing songs, while Sutherland concentrated more on supportive soundscapes, whether literal or more impressionistic. There was a cheeky reminder of Sutherland’s work with Mogwai on a Burnside poem about losing his Scottish dialect, but the rationale behind the Hunted By A Freak-echoing vocoder effect soon became clear.

crystallised the musings on identity

Just as the strictures of the English Speaking Board caused Burnside’s linguistic identity to fragment, so too did his words become more obscured, with the subtitles that had previously only shown translations featuring his words in English too. It was a glorious moment both in sound and in meaning, and crystallised the musings on identity that had been a feature of the events. Any theatre company not falling over themselves to get Sutherland to do sound design needs their heads examined

The use of the subtitles was slightly problematic not merely in whether you could read them, but in how much and what was shown. There was also an odd balance to the presentations, with discussion almost overshadowing the performances themselves. The overall effect, however, was to enhance the slightly untidy but inspirational fusion taking place.

Imam Baksh, Roseanne Watt and Beldina Odenyo Onassis. Pic EIBF

There was that melancholy too, however. Despite the disarmingly honest Burnside’s admission that the process had sparked a returning interest in creating poetry, and despite the constant assurance that all of this was only the start of the collaborations, there was nevertheless a profoundly elegiac undertone.

There is not just the suspicion that bringing together people from all over the world might be still more difficult in a year’s time. Any exploration of linguistically marginalised cultures also lies under the looming shadows of the continued rise of mono-linguistic far-right movements that celebrate artificial nation-states, allied to ever-encroaching multinational conformity, that will only accelerate the destruction of minority cultures and the spaces they inhabit.

affable and urbane

If you are looking for an evocation of the sense of place, of course, there is nowhere better to go than to Iain Sinclair, the writer and film-maker astonishingly making his first appearance at the Festival. Sad to report, then that London’s most celebrated chronicler is finished with the metropolis – and indeed with cities in general – finding London overly ‘brutal and digital’ and home to a gap between rich and poor that has widened to such an obscene degree that it is now two cities that cannot see each other, like China Mieville’s work made flesh.

Living With Buildings, Walking With Ghosts deals with the effect spaces have on our health, but he has no manifesto or obvious remedy. Hoping only for a ‘completely new philosophy of living’, he is not sure where it will come from, except that it will not be from the ‘plague’ of social media – his website, although he does contribute to it, is quite definitely not his idea.

Such end-of-days philosophising, like his musings on secret and hidden places, is made more palatable by his magnetic writing style. In person, moreover, he is affable and urbane, making tales of such as the time when an audience member at a poetry reading organised by Alan Moore was so psychically discomfited by B. Catling’s work that they returned with a gun, sound positively everyday.

Such psychic energy is also apparently able to make two seeming strangers in the signing queue nearly come to blows over US politics. The Wellcome Collection, which commissioned the book, baulked at a title change to Walking With Buildings, Living With Ghosts but those ghosts may well be coming home to roost regardless.

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



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