Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2001

The Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals

reviewed by Tony Challis

There are very many LGBT-related events these days at the Edinburgh Festivals (main, fringe, book, film and TV). It is possible to obtain a perspective on our past and present fairly quickly here.

On my first Sunday morning here I worshipped at the altar of Quentin Crisp. Resident Alien, wonderfully performed by Bette Bourne and written by Tim Fountain, may have been seen by you elsewhere. This not only shows us a brave Crisp in New York, demolishing Oscar Wilde and Princess Diana in a few pithy sentences, but also reveals the sadness of Crisp’s time for homosexuals through the many adversities he had to endure.

Then it was along to a show called Lucky, performed by a young group from Surrey called In Human Form. This focuses on a young footballer who gradually accepts his bisexuality, comes out within the team and is supported by his (bisexual male) best friend, also in the team. This play is very well scripted and witty, involving and very well acted. It was written and directed by Eddie de Oliveira, who also plays the central role of Sam. A real achievement for this young guy, who must already have a place in the bisexual hall of fame. Bisexuality seems something of a theme this year, though other offerings I have seen have not been as good as Lucky.

The contrast between the worlds depicted in these two shows conveys how the LGB experience has changed – but, of course, there are battles still to be fought. Fairly early on in a show called I’ll be Frank, David Benson, famous for his Kenneth Williams show, stated that everything was sorted now for gays. (His subject was Frankie Howerd, who lived in more difficult times. Repeatedly during this brilliant show, Benson brought the audience in, asking for their memories of Howerd – risky, but very well controlled.) At this point, Janet Street Porter, seated at the back of the audience, protested loudly, saying that there were still many problem areas for gays – employment, schools, to name but two – and David Benson had to back down. Bravo, Janet!

A group called Coming Soon did that old (1989) chestnut, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raving Queens – more recent history, very warmly and engagingly performed by a young cast. After the show one of the cast members mentioned that an HIV-positive man had come to the show and protested that they were still presenting this, and should instead be doing shows on topics such as insurance, inheritance and gay marriage. Point taken. Who out there has the art to dramatise these topics?

Over at the Book Festival, Gore Vidal (surely by now a historical monument himself) talked almost entirely of politics, the parlous condition of the American state and Timothy McVeigh, who was executed by lethal injection earlier this year. Fascinating stuff. Vidal was one of several people this year who seemed to feel that their sexuality had been “done” and did not need further discussion.

A smaller audience greeted Graham Robb, who gave a very enlightening talk on the subject of his latest biography, Rimbaud. I hadn’t realised that Rimbaud had been such a child prodigy – pouring out masses of Latin verse, doing his maths homework in rhyming couplets, and doing other students’ homework for them while tailoring the results to their weaknesses and personalities. No wonder he found rural Charleville so stifling. Robb has expanded on the knowledge of Rimbaud’s roaming years and he seems almost to have a novelist’s touch for narrative. I shall be looking out for the paperback Rimbaud when it appears in September.

Maureen Duffy, president of GALHA, made an appearance at the Book Festival. And so did Sir Vidia Naipaul. However, in a lengthy interview in the Literary Review, available free at the Book Festival, he controversially said of E. M. Forster that “of course [he] has his own purpose in India. He is a homosexual and he has his time in India, exploiting poor people, which his friend [John Maynard] Keynes also did. Keynes didn’t exploit poor people, he exploited people in the University; he sodomised them, and they were too frightened to do anything about it. Forster belonged to that kind of nastiness, really.” It is sad to see a great writer sinking to the level of indulging in such unreflective abuse.

Of course, there were many things with no gay content, too. Perhaps the high point for me was Novecento, a play for one actor by Alessandro Baricco (Theatre de Quat’sous, Montreal) performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre by Tom McCamus. This tells the story of a man, Novecento, named after the year in which he is found, at ten days old, on a piano in the first-class section of an ocean liner. He lives his life on the ship, becomes a fabled pianist and refuses to leave, even when the ship’s life is ended. His story is told by Tim, the ship’s trumpeter, in one hundred minutes of incidents and anecdotes, seated in the groaning ship’s engine room. With no mention of sex or sexuality, this is clearly a love story and is quite magical. If a production comes near you, catch it.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-10-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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