Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

The Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals

reviewed by Tony Challis

Sudden darkness. High fence. Nude man scrambles over, begins running at me. Second, muscular nude male appears, does same. Drinking clothed male appears, making disparaging remarks ...

No, it’s not that sort of a dream: it’s a play, my first show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival – Out in the Garden, by the Production Line Company at the Assembly Rooms. A very witty play about the wedding celebrations of a closet case who picks up a man in the Jester on his stag night.

Yes, there are some boulder-heavy Brummie accents. But there are also some very good lines.

Ten years ago you could have done the gay shows in the Fringe in one very long day, maybe two. Now a week would barely do it. Of course, the quality varies, but the best gay show I have seen this year is The Laramie Project by the Red Chair Players. This one won a “Fringe First” (an award given to six shows in each of three weeks – out of nearly 1,500 shows!).

The play is a semi-documentary, based on months of interviews conducted by this young company in Matthew Shepard’s town in Wyoming. (Shepard was beaten to death by homophobic thugs four years ago.) This company moved between characters very easily and convincingly, playing many parts. The extent of “Biblephilia” in this part of the Midwest is striking. Clearly, the imagination is strangled by scripture. One, not too articulate, rationalist voice is heard. Exceptional is the Catholic priest, who tries to arrange a vigil for Matthew – but no other local clergy will attend.

Later, this priest calls for the killers not to be executed, but for them to become “our teachers” – so as to learn how they became able to do what they did. As the Muslim girl says, “This [the killing] is us.”

Of course, I saw many non-gay shows. An unheralded delight was The Unexpected Man at Roman Eagle Lodge presented by Wagstaff and Moss Productions. This is a two-hander by Yasmina Rezia, the writer of the hit comedy Art.

An aged novelist and a woman fan are in the same train compartment. For a long time, both speak their thoughts to us, the novelist imagining the woman in various fictional guises. Will they actually speak to each other? Aah! As well as a short play can, this one tells us what literature is about. I was particularly struck by how well the very young male actor conveyed a sense of being elderly by posture, movement and voice – immediately convincing. Yasmina Rezia is a wonderful writer – watch out for her work.

One of the best stage shows I saw was Bomb-itty of Errors by Bomb-itty International – a take on The Comedy of Errors, with rap. A small, racially mixed, all-male cast spend two hours rhyming, leaping and dancing to an excellent DJ. This is so creative and so much fun that if it tours your way just beg, borrow or steal a ticket. Given the homophobia in some parts of the rap world, subverting the genre in drag (quite authentically Shakespearean, of course) is brave. This should be in London within three months, so look out for it. (And the company are threatening hip-hop Dickens! Is nothing sacred?)

I saw many other good shows – the complex You Couldn’t Make It Up, the arousing Head Games, the hilarious and lovable Lesbian Launderette, the instructive Madam Galina, the refreshingly different Charlie’s Angles (a football-loving, gay ex-PE teacher from Glasgow – very sharp), Throat, performed by the beautiful communicative genius John-Paul Zaccarini, who can make a lexicon of the words “yes” and “no”.

David Greig’s play Outlying Islands, already done on Radio 3 in the UK, is going from the Traverse Theatre to the Royal Court. It concerns two ornithologists researching a remote Hebridean island in 1939 prior to anthrax experiments, and this punter at least thought a bisexual subtext could be read into it.

Hyperlinx, John McGrath’s final play before his death in January, was performed by his widow, Elizabeth MacLennan. This post-11 September monologue spoken by a doubting MI5 operative brings you hard up against the realities beyond the comedy circus. It won a Fringe First, as did The Al-Hamlet Summit, a contemporary Hamlet by a Kuwait-based international company. Hamlet becomes a fundamentalist – and I can rather believe that of him. Worth looking out for it it comes near you.

Derevo’s excellent La Divina Commedia will go to the Riverside Studios. Ron Hutchinson’s prison drama Lags is going from the Pleasance to London’s newest writing theatre, the Latchmere. So, increasingly, the Edinburgh summer seems to be fuelling London’s autumn.

There is just so much to say about the exciting Edinburgh Fringe. I suggest you look out for any of the above in your area. And Edinburgh will still be here next year.

As an aging democratic socialist, I was very keen to hear Terry Eagleton at the (very popular and overflowing) Book Festival. Eagleton is a leading radical literary theorist, who has just published a study of tragedy, and whose “anti-autobiography”, The Gatekeeper, has just come out. This slim volume is more about other people, and is very amusing: Eagleton demolishes the strange notion that you can’t be a socialist and be funny.

Claire Rayner (a vice-president of GALHA) gave the Humanist Society of Scotland Lecture at the Book Festival. Repeatedly, she came straight to the point about British attitudes in her early days, about emotional and sexual needs and about common anxieties. As a counsellor, I find impressive her ability to put into a couple of sentences the essence of what some therapists would need a dense volume to convey.

I was lucky to get in among the crowds thronging for Germaine Greer and for Seamus Heaney. Heaney took his audience on a tour of the Western imagination from Horace to the present time with a real lightness of touch. Greer had many interesting things to say about women poets, clitoridectomy and so forth – but a couple of sentences about Tony Blair have been picked on by the press as the “main theme”.

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