At the Fringe II: Eternal youth and male anger

After another jampacked Edinburgh Fringe comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the shows that truly impressed. Felicity Hughes picks her highlights in the second of our three round-ups.

Angry Alan

The men’s movement is a topic ripe for satire and it would have been easy for writer Penelope Skinner and her actor partner Donald Sage Mackay to simply play the subject for laughs and score a hit. But this is not just a comedy, it’s also a dark drama that roots through the psyche of its troubled protagonist to show how easily disempowered people can be manipulated and radicalised. Told as a monologue interspersed with video clips made by real men’s movement advocates, this is the story of Roger and his growing fascination with Angry Alan, a charismatic men’s movement leader.

There are plenty of laughs as whiny Roger bemoans how awful his wife’s post-natal depression was for him, and even more hilarious when real YouTube clips are shown featuring puffy looking middle-aged men ranting about the “gynocentric conspiracy”. But there are also troubling moments.

Not everything Roger says can be so easily dismissed. In a recounting of a conversation with his girlfriend and her colleagues about the #MeToo movement, Roger questions whether people should be tried by media before an accusation of improper conduct even enters a court of law. This is a point Margaret Atwood herself has made recently, concerning the case of a university professor. “If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?” the novelist commented to great controversy.

Largely though, annoyed with his ex-wife and by his girlfriend’s new found interest in feminism, Roger seems to be channelling a rage against society in general at women in particular. He insists that he’s been emasculated by women – losing his well-paid job and having to scratch out a living in an electronics store have nothing to do with it!

Women are the cause of his self-esteem issues, of his broken relationship with his son and of his general malaise. This is, of course, what Angry Alan tells him online and just after he’s heard all this bombast, he’s puffed up, eyes gleaming like a zealot. But then he talks to his girlfriend and the fire begins to die. He begins to wilt, to plead with us, to become a rather pitiful figure. Nobody listens to him, to his feelings, nobody cares, nobody that is except for Alan who is happy to exploit Roger’s loyalty for his own ends.

Just before the end we see a real men’s movement leader smirking on screen, gloating about the rise of Trump and “grab em by the pussy” culture. It’s an utterly chilling moment that amazingly is topped by the play’s climactic and deeply disturbing final scene.


You Only Live Forever

Photo courtesy of Viscera Theatre

Eternity is a big topic to tackle in just under an hour, but Viscera Theatre aim not only to do that, but to also deliver their take on the “theatrical process” into the bargain. A romance between one woman frozen in time and another being swept along like the rest of us into old age and inevitably death, the story jumps neatly through the progress of their mildly twee relationship. It only stalls when the two young actresses break out of character to explain how they devised the whole piece in the first place. You’d think these asides might be rather aggravating, but the best moments come when the fourth wall is broken through and we see “real-life” animosity flicker as the two butt heads.

They are a great comic duo. Alys Metcalf plays the goofy but endearing idiot to Roxy Dunn’s pretentious and controlling straight woman. In the play proper, Alys (playing a character called Inma) is the one who gets to drink the elixir of youth – the buffoon as always stumbling blindly into the best bits of luck – while poor Roxy (in the play Olga, as in “getting older”, geddit?) is left to age ungracefully, justifiably questioning whether her partner still finds her sexually attractive.

But this question is simply glossed over; the marriage between the two lasts with minimal hiccups despite the ever-growing age gap. The main problems that arise are all external: how to explain away Inma’s unchanging looks or the enormous age gap that is making Olga look increasingly sinister. Surely, the viewer thinks, Olga might justifiably feel like punching Inma as she skips youthfully beside her wife’s zimmer frame after the umpteenth move and identity change. But no, the main play persists until the bitter sweet end in its insistence that love between the two characters would win through.

Rather sappy stuff considering that all this is offset by the actors’ “real” and incredibly fraught relationship, an uneasy artistic partnership that devolves into out-and-out name calling by the end. This laughter might have spilled out more into the central action if it had perhaps been a parody of the kind of earnest theatre Roxy seemed to be fond of – that is, pretentious fare performed in high seriousness, that would have made the conceit of stepping aside to discuss their process make a little bit more sense.

As it was, I found many scenes fell slightly flat, though the energy and pace of the meta play within a play kept things moving along enough for the hour not to feel as if it had turned into an actual eternity.

You can find out more about Viscera Theatre here.


Baby Face

Photo courtesy of Daniel Hughes

Baby Face opens with ‘In Heaven’, the Pixies version of a delightfully innocent-sounding song originally written by David Lynch for Eraserhead, before quickly seguing into a barrage of industrial noise that may well have been sampled from that very same film. While intentional or not, the parallels with Lynch’s work are clear as Katy Dye takes familiar modes of seductive behaviour and gradually dismantles them until they’ve devolved into something truly disturbing. But unlike Lynch, the agenda is deeply political here; the target, not the suburban dream of middle-class America, but mainstream society’s fetishization of childlike innocence in young women.

Inviting a male member of the audience to take the stage with her, Dye, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actress Sissy Spacek, is at first simpering and sweet, doe-eyed and alluring. But the sweetness becomes cloying as she demands that he stroke her hair and eventually that he even physically pick her up. If men get turned on by childlike behaviour, then surely this is sexy?

It was not easy watching this poor young man struggle with her overweening attentions and nor should it have been. There’s a brutality at the heart of this piece that often turns inward on the performer herself. As she flings herself about the stage, body morphing from sweet yet seductive nymphet to a gibbering mess of contorted flesh, you wonder how she’s managed to find the energy to keep this up every day of the festival.

One of the most powerful sequences was watching her mimic the marketing jargon of a skin cream, posing and cavorting around until she’s spraying pink cream all over the floor and smacking herself in the forehead screaming: “Love the skin you’re in!” Dye is a dervish that annihilates the conventions she’s set her sights on. The show ends in an infantile frenzy with its creator lying on the floor and screaming like a baby as clouds of talcum powder float gently down through the air, leaving the audience looking shocked and utterly dazed.

You can find out more about Katy Dye’s work here.

Atwood Takes Her Pick

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Attending book festivals I often wonder about the puzzle-work that goes on behind a neatly arranged stage-panel. Who ended up talking to whom, about what exactly, and how happy is she or he about spending an hour with this author, whose writing they might or might not like?  This year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival invited four authors to each curate a series of events, choosing who should join them on the stage, as well as the theme of discussion. One of them was Canadian novelist, poet and overall visionary Margaret Atwood, here to promote her latest novel, Maddaddam. Having dedicated a dissertation and more than one essay to her work during my university years, I jumped at the chance to see what would happen when Atwood the interviewee became Atwood the interviewer.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with her work, these events offered plenty of monsters and impending catastrophes, but also a no-nonsense approach to vague answers, and quite a few additions to my reading list. “I’ve curated these events,” Atwood said on the Sunday afternoon, in the Baille Gifford Theatre. “Consider yourselves curated.”

The first event, “Writing under the Influence”, brought British novelist Naomi Alderman together with American author Valerie Martin. Atwood has made a guest appearance on Alderman’s innovative Zombies, Run! an app adventure which combines survival skills with outdoor fitness. Martin’s new novel explores the links between the spiritualist life of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Mary Celeste, a legendary ghost ship. The conversation between them strolled from specters and half-humans to zombies as the “lumpen proletariat”, speculating about why the vampire has become a sexy youth, “glimmering in the sun” instead of melting in it. Fishing for the common threads, Atwood asked her interviewees when they first started reading Edgar Allan Poe. Alderman, it turned out, had his stories read to her by her parents at the age of nine. “What peculiar parents,” Atwood remarked, notably delighted, and like so often the audience exploded in laughter. “There probably are not any monsters, zombies or centaurs,” she continued. “So they must be metaphors. What are they metaphors for?”

No nonsense. It was clear that we were in the hands of someone whose work deals with the most contemporary of anxieties: pollution, corporate greed, biological engineering, or as she’s said in essays: the what if’s of our age. The replies she received were equally candid. It is to do with fears, said Alderman – what we can’t quite put our finger on. As someone who was given Poe to read at the age of nine, she should know.

On the following Monday morning, with my expectations heightened by yesterday’s treat, I went to “Horror and Weirdness: a Scottish Peculiarity”. Atwood and Valerie Martin were this time joined by crime writer Ian Rankin to discuss what it is about Scotland that inspires such an impressive list of dark tales. After exactly an hour, (Atwood is punctual: “This is the witch hour, at which we shall all leave our human forms and go back to being writers.”) I emerged with a list of anecdotes to explore, books I regret not having read yet, and feeling strangely proud of my decision to move to this wondrous city two years ago. I had no idea that David Hume once got stuck in the Nor Loch – Edinburgh’s famous mid-town sewer – or that Muriel Spark’s husband shot her in the foot. Then there was the second sight: “Some of us believe you have it,” said Valerie Martin smugly, turning to Atwood. This, of course, lead to more talk about witch-burning, writing about ghosts without believing in them, and of course: Edgar Allan Poe.

A few hours later the queue once again snaked its tail all the way around the festival square. It was time to zip up this bookish month with not only one, but two of this year’s Guest Selectors: “Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood: storytellers go head to head”. “I don’t think there is a chair for this event”, I said to my friend while entering the Baille Gifford Theatre. “I think maybe they are too good at chairing themselves,” she replied. The conversation began with reminiscence. Both authors praised the importance of comics in their youths, and of libraries. They asked each other what made them want to learn to read as children, and it turned out to be the same thing: because adults never read for long enough. As an encounter between two writers on equal footing, the dynamics of this event turned out to be the most interesting and difficult. Afterwards, the slightly critical comments could be heard all around:  “He did take over, didn’t he?”, “She was the one asking questions, while he went on about himself!” What did it mean, then, to select, and curate?

Maybe it meant to ask the right questions. Being a great author doesn’t make you a good chair or interviewer, but neither should one underestimate the effect of spontaneous talk, and shared curiosity. Affinity, even. Here were two magnificent writers each doing this in their own way. Atwood never allows for an evasive answer, much like her writing seldom does, and every now and then a comment made the audience laugh out loud, while she discretely giggled behind a covered mouth. Gaiman tells stories, encourages creativity and inspires courage in art. All the while, an interest in that which “looks human but is not quite human”, seemed to bring them together: the almost pathological need of opening doors you are told to stay away from. Having attended the previous two events, I smiled when Atwood finally mentioned how the librarians of her childhood had placed Edgar Allan Poe’s work in the children’s library. “Did you read Poe?” she asked Gaiman. And it turns out he did. It turns out it was the right question.

Storytelling in 140 Characters

Manoj Pandey

Brevity is difficult. It’s hard enough having to “cull” our stories to make them tighter, what about doing it in only 140 characters?

Well, Manoj Pandey can. And he invited the world to join him when he created Tales on Tweet, which has gone from India to international, garnering the attention of some of the top writers in the world, including Salman Rushdie, Shashi TharoorMargaret Atwood and Roger Smith.

Here are some of their stories:

She died. He followed her into the underworld. She refused to return, preferring Hades. It was a long way to go to be dumped.  Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

Gandhi saw the misery of Partition & broke his vow of silence. He wept.  –Shashi Tharoor

Drunk, Bell shot his wife and kid. Turned the gun on himself but survived. Blind when they gave him the chair, he smelled his flesh burning.  –Roger Smith

Red footprint, white footprint. An axe in the snow. But no body. Was a large bird involved? He scratched his head and made notes.  –Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Elsewhere, others have also experimented with Twitter as a medium to tell their stories. The New Yorker recently published “The Black Box“, a short story by  Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (A Visit to the Goon Squad), on Twitter in instalments. @140novel tells a story over several months. The Story So Far lets you suggest and vote on the next line of the story.

Tales on Tweet will soon release a limited edition book featuring 140-character tales from some of the best-known authors around. Meanwhile, how good are you at mixing story with brevity? If you’d like to submit a brief burst of genius, follow @TalesOnTweet and post a twitter tale, using the hashtag #talesontweet.

Lit News Round-up: 10 October 2008

Oi. Litro has a bit of a backlog of post-worthy material—a backblog, if you will. But rather than let these items slip away from us unacknowledged, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll bring you a round-up of all the week’s reviews and literary news worthy, in my humble opinion, of your attention. I’ll uphold my end of the bargain by blogging in depth as often as I can. You uphold your end of the bargain by sending me money, thus eliminating my need for a day job and giving me more time in which to blog in depth. Everybody wins! Deal?
In case you missed it…

  • Are video games the future of reading? Choice quote from an 18-year-old gamer: “You can’t say: ‘I charge you to a reading duel. Go!'” Au contraire, Derek dear. I stand before you a living contradiction of that sentiment. Let me tell you about the wild sleepover parties of my grammar school years: once the hostess’s parents had turned in for the night, we’d each eat a bag of marshmallows, make a few prank phone calls and then settle in for a reading duel. Who could finish the latest book in the Sweet Valley Twins or Babysitter’s Club series first? It was intensely competitive. So, use your imagination, Derek. Youth today.
  • Finally, a topic even nearer and dearer to Litro’s heart: if you aren’t already familiar with Alice Munro’s work, please do yourself a favour and read Margaret Atwood’s essay on Alice Munro and then go pick up a book of the latter’s short stories. Noting the “widespread but false tendency to equate length with importance”, Atwood explores the strange state of affairs whereby Munro, a regular New Yorker contributor and probably the most acclaimed living writer of English-language short fiction, remains something of an “undiscovered” author among even the most well-read of the literary world. And I find that a damned shame.

By Julie Palmer-Hoffman