Tag Archives: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Meow Meow performs ‘The Little Mermaid’. Photo: Pia Johnson

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Siren and Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sparkling, Comedic Shallows…Poignant Depths)

23 August 2017.

It just so happened that my last day of seeing shows in Edinburgh this year was entirely mermaid-themed. My middle name is Lorelei, which is the name of the siren who enchants sailors on the Rhine in 19th-century German songs and poetry, so siren stories have always held an extra allure for me.

The first was Siren, the debut musical play written by award-winning comedian David Elms, and directed by Thomas Martin. It’s a song-sprinkled two-hander with serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows. It also has a dark edge – it is an exploration of the siren archetype, complete with the murderous elements from the ancient Greek tales and the sorrow of the Romantic-era mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul.

Rosa Robson is wonderful in the title role, as a siren cursed by fate to inhabit her little island alone: ‘we’re usually in pairs’ she explains sadly to one of her sailors. Styled as a 1950s, Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming pin-up, she oscillates between bright gaiety and the slowly-revealed cracking of her mind, caused by the heartbreaking loneliness of her island. ‘I’ve built a mound’, she tells us in one of her monologues, ‘that almost looks like another person from the right angle’. Her beautiful voice brought the show’s bright array of songs to life. Nicholas Masters also gives a strong performance as Robson’s counterpoint in this pas de deux, playing the variety of sailors who are pulled into her song’s compelling aura, as the show deftly and subtly unpacks various forms of attraction, desire, and love.

This is a beautifully-written show. Its bright and dark tones, its shallows and depths, are swirled in a story that feels particular and modern, but also universal and ancient. It unearthed psychological currents running powerfully underneath the siren archetype, exploring the sadness of broken forms of attraction and loving, longing and loneliness…and also, off in the distance, perhaps redemption and hope. I loved it.

After the enchanting Siren, it was time for Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International FestivalI walked from Pleasance Dome, where Siren took place in a humble, tiny black box theatre, to a ballroom inside The Hub, which had a huge stage draped in streams of silver glitter, luxurious booths upholstered in crushed purple velvet, two bars, a live band with strings playing sexy bossa nova, and a packed, murmuring crowd.

This show is a cabaret performance in which Meow Meow is the immortal mermaid drenched in loneliness, singing and searching for true love…and the truth about love. Meow Meow, the Australian creator and performer of the show, is described variously as a singer, actress, dancer, cabaret performer and ‘international, kamikaze, post-punk superstar’. I would describe her as an artist, above all, for the brilliance of the show’s script. It has a story arc that, like Siren, is sourced from the deeper psychological octaves of the siren story, and which dropped, non-stop, beat by exhilarating beat, words that were gilded and diamond-encrusted with poetic meaning, falling perfectly within the grandiose, comedic style of cabaret, and the show’s poignant theme – like a fountain, or rain at sea.

The show starts with a riotous thunderstorm, and then Meow Meow comes on-stage sobbing.  She starts singing throatily, through her sobs, a lurching, slow rendition of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ (‘Here I go out to sea again/The sunshine fills my hair/And dreams hang in the air/You know it feels unfair/There’s magic everywhere/Look at me standing/Here on my own again…’).  She is accompanied by a mournful brass-heavy band. Then she gradually transitions from sobbing and singing into her first, sweet, skittering, chatty monologue filled with glittering wordplay, in which she finally snaps: ‘I feel like I’ve been travelling everywhere for 300 years looking for true love, but I can’t fucking find it!’…though, she tells us later, sometimes finding ‘Faux Love…Flove’.

She conjures the ocean onstage, telling us, as she looks upwards from the depths of the ocean floor, that ‘many church steeples piled upon each other would not reach the surface’. This is imagery that beautifully evokes the quiet, vast depths of the ocean, but also the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid’s longing to reach upwards to heaven, to become human, to find love, to have a soul.

Her most delightful theatrical magic trick is to conjure her subconscious on stage and rummage around in it in search of catharsis, which resonates grandly with the metaphor of the mysterious watery depths of the ocean…but which also feels resolutely practical, as if this is a mermaid ready to transcend her despair and loneliness, ready to break the spell.

Published in Exeunt Magazine 23 August 2017

Wild Bore image

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Wild Bore (Oh My God, Look At Her Butt)

20 August 2017.

Wild Bore, the new show created and performed by Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, is creating a bit of a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I felt an intriguing, ironic frisson personally as I took my seat and pulled out my pen and notebook to take notes for this review, knowing that the show was about theatre critics. The music playing as the audience settled in was ass-themed club music: ‘Anaconda’ by Nicki Minaj (‘oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look-at-her-butt).  That song’s riotous energy and lyrics were a perfectly thoughtful precursor to the precisely orchestrated, deliciously sarcastic, intelligent and entertaining feminist study of theatre criticism that then unfolded.

The stage was set with a long table and three chairs, and at the start of the show, one by one, the artists’ bare asses appear at the table, and they talk, um, out of them, in rumbling, low-throated blusters, repeating excerpts from bad reviews that each of the three artists’ have received for their work, their hands reaching up to gesticulate, asses turning towards each other to nod and jiggle, animatedly mimicking the talking heads of critics.

During the show, the three artists work their way thoroughly through of the concept of theatrical criticism, exploring its facets via the theatrical language of performance art, including abundant, thematically-ringing gestures, comic soliloquy, vignettes, dance and meta-moments. The text for the show is based on a patchwork of actual, badly-written theatrical reviews, which are mined both for significant philosophical points and straight-up comedy.

The use of the talking ass by artists to represent (bad) theatre critics is a brilliant symbolic gesture. It expresses the anger of the artist when the critic has failed to understand the point of the artist’s work and then derided the work and artist, publicly. It is a fast, funny and obvious skewer, spoken in the non-traditional artistic language that the critics being skewered seemingly struggled to comprehend: the shocking, female, nude, comic, gestural language of performance art. It’s a nuanced and blunt way to represent bluster: getting it wrong, but thinking you’ve got it right, and pronouncing judgement from a platform of power. The words of the misguided critic are blustery and muffled, because they are coming from the wrong place inside them, from error, from ego. It’s also a provocatively feminist symbol.  The three naked asses and genitalia on prominent display are female, which to me felt like a like a deeply feminist symbolic rebellion against the broken elements of a traditional style of theatre response that we have inherited from the patriarchy, which is struggling to see, accept and understand the unfolding edges of theatre, and which defaults to superiority and derision as a response to anything it doesn’t get.  Which is, aside from anything else, dishonest, and a misuse of the critic’s power.

Each of the three artists told the true story of a particular review they have received in the past that rubbished their work, in which the critic displayed an obvious lack of comprehension of the particular theatrical language they were using.  Ursula Martinez told the story of a critic reviewing a show of hers who said in his review that she began to build a breeze block wall between herself and the audience ‘for no apparent reason.’ Considering the blindingly obvious significance of the boundary and relationship between performer/stage and audience, the famous book by Peter Brook about it called The Fourth Wall, and the common adoption of this phrase to discuss this conceptual space, that is just really fucking lazy theatrical critique. This phrase, ‘for no apparent reason’ is picked up by the show and shouted as a refrain again and again, most memorably in the brilliant Shakespearean-style soliloquy performed by Martinez, dressed in a jester suit, which had the audience rolling in the aisles. The repetition of this phrase was always accompanied by a fierce glare out at the audience from Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott, which I read as a direct challenge to everyone in the audience to really think about what they were trying to tell us in, as they put it, ‘the secret coded language of theatre’.

I loved this show for many reasons.  It is beautifully tuned so that every detail and creative decision works in harmony with its themes.  But also, it is just hilarious, and expresses a joyous, earthy, healthy, don’t-give-a-fuck freedom, which I found totally exhilarating, and inspiring [fist raised, sisters, and brothers-becoming-sisters-or-brothers-who-also-seek-to-topple-the-goddamned-patriarchy].  Thank you, Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott.  And yes, I worked very hard on this review, because I took what you said to me via your asses really, really seriously.

P.S. The day before I saw Wild Bore, I heard an older, white, male critic begin to talk about it, and when I said, ‘I’m also writing about it and seeing it tomorrow, would you mind not talking about it in front of me?’, he didn’t register me as a) a person making a request desiring a response, or b) a fellow writer, and he carried on talking about it as if no one had spoken. I felt a little socially awkward about this and had to decide between getting up and leaving the pub table or putting my fingers in my ears, because it was important to me to encounter the show afresh, with no preconceived ideas.  I put my fingers in my ears, which I saw him dimly register, but to which he made no response.

The next day, two hours after I saw Wild Bore, a different, older, white, male critic decided to man-splain the concept of the avant-garde to me, having met me briefly the night before, and knowing nothing about me, my background, education or knowledge of theatre, culture, or the avant-garde…but obviously perceiving that I am female, blonde, and that I appear younger than him in the physical form that is my avatar in this life, though I suspect we are of a similar age (40s).  

Now that I have seen Wild Bore, the memories of their two voices has merged into a muffled, low, babbling, beyond words, having no sense or meaning, as if coming out of their asses from amidst a crumbling paradigm of outdated thinking about art, theatre and appearances…

Published in Exeunt Magazine 20 August 2017

P.S. Here are further thoughts of mine about this show, written for a feature dialogue piece amongst Exeunt critics, which didn’t end up being published in the magazine:

I thought Wild Bore was a wholly appropriate and timely theatrical bomb thrown at an already crumbling paradigm, which I have never personally identified with.  I don’t think the act of criticism, or my preferred word, ‘response’, is on its way out – just a particular style of it, that yes, has been adopted by many female writers working within an old, male-dominated and created paradigm: fairly short reviews published in newspapers and magazines that attempt to describe and give a quality rating to a piece of theatre, interpreting the work using a small numbers of words, for a specific readership, in an entertaining style.

I don’t think we are ever going to be able to restrain ourselves from describing, classifying and valuing the jewels of art/theatre, but I think Wild Bore was setting fire to the way it has been done by some: a tradition of a sort of journalism that sometimes doesn’t work very hard to discover the meaning or craft behind a work of art, especially something new and abstract, a tradition which has corseted the act of exploration and valuation with word-counts and a particular journalistic style. To me, this feels uncomfortable, restrictive, old, male.  It is a tradition that allows a critic who doesn’t understand or naturally resonate with something to dismiss it simply as bad quality, or nonsense, rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand or resonate with this. Maybe I am not the right person to act as interpreter for the wider public in a journalistic context.’  Which reminds me of values held by insecure teenage boys until they learn better: bluster and compete, bluster and compete. To me it just feels…dishonest. And there is a deep tradition of emotional remove and cynicism in this old style, which to me also feels dishonest.  Emotionally dishonest. It is not fashionable in the patriarchy-created style of criticism to love or resonate with a work of art in a warm, passionate, and well, female way.

I felt that the fuel for the wild energy underneath Wild Bore was a simmering rage about the moments of critical dismissals of the three artists’ work which were based on laziness, or an inability to peer into the meaning, depths, and the (relatively) new theatrical techniques and materials of performance art.  Remember the show’s emphatic, deliciously sarcastic repetition of a quote from one of Ursula Martinez’ critics, who wrote in his review that she built a breeze-block wall between herself and the audience, ‘FOR NO APPARENT REASON’? As I write in my published review of this show, and considering the resounding, obvious significance of The Fourth Wall in theatre, that is just totally fucking lazy thinking, which is acceptable, and normal even, in the old paradigm of criticism.  It seemed to me that they are calling bullshit on that. I don’t think they were having a pop at all criticism/response – just bad criticism, old criticism, and (with hand-on-heart, deep respect for my male colleagues who are thoughtful, clear-eyed explorers in the new style) it is a type of criticism that has been passed down to us from the patriarchy, from blustering, competitive teenage boys (and sometimes girls acting like the boys) who haven’t grown up, but who have blustered and competed their way into theatre critic jobs.


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Frankie Vah by Luke Wright (Lush, Transporting, Poetic)

18 August 2017.

I felt as if, having come to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to drink from the magic fountain of Art, that at the end of my second day I was still en route to the metaphorical fountain at the centre of the festival, and still thirsty… Then I walked into a small black room at the Underbelly for Luke Wright’s new verse play Frankie Vah, which lit my heart on fire and gave me a good, long drink of what I came for. This is a mature, lyrical and politically relevant piece of poetic writing and, as a one-hour solo show, beautifully performed.

Frankie Vah is the performance poet’s second verse play. It is set among the dark, sticky-floored, hash smoke-pervaded ‘skuzzy indie venues and politics’ of 1980s Britain. Audiences are told the story of a vicar’s son, Simon Mortimer – politicised, disaffected, unhappy – and his transformation into a new self-created identity, Frankie Vah, flame-tongued performance poet extraordinaire, with rolled cuffs, Doc Martens, a platform opening for punk bands and the heady power to influence political debate.

His first transformation happens via love, with a woman named Eve. One of the most powerful aspects of this show is the way Frankie and Eve’s love story winds into and around its other narrative threads: the first steps that Frankie and Eve take as young artists; their resistance to Thatcherism in the run-up to the 1987 general election; Frankie’s rebellion against his father’s values and his confrontation with his personal demons and self-destructive behaviour.

The personal, political, social and philosophical dimensions of the show spin into each other in a moment of theatre that is lushly, transportingly poetic. It is also delicately nuanced, capturing with sensitivity the moments of tension in Frankie’s life that send his story down increasingly charged pathways, culminating in a finale that broke my heart wider open. the pacing of the unfolding story is effortlessly managed to create a smooth narrative ride, and the skill with which it comes together allows the listening mind the freedom to hear the deeper philosophical resonances of the work: how art dialogues with politics, how the personal dialogues with the political, how we are young, stupid, wonderful and broken, but learning and constantly turning into truer versions of ourselves. I watched and listened in awe and pleasure, just drinking, drinking, drinking in the beauty of this show.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 18 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Portable Dorothy Parker (Beautiful Homage)

14 August 2017.  When I walk into the small room where the play is showing, the stage is set with period furniture from the 1940s: an armchair, a desk holding a neat pile of white paper, a small, black manual typewriter, a liquor glass half-filled with amber liquid, hardback books, and a black rotary-dial telephone. The venue room is lit by daylight from large windows, but the stage lighting is a warm, antique yellow. The merging of the two areas of light felt symbolic of the way this show felt like a portal, back into Dorothy Parker’s life in 1943, the year the play is set.

The Portable Dorothy Parker is an import from America, a solo show written by Annie Lux, directed by Lee Costello and performed by Margot Avery. As soon as Avery comes on stage, the quality of her performance made me feel like we were in a fine, velvet-upholstered theatre, instead of sitting in folding chairs in an upstairs function room. One of the interesting things about Dorothy Parker’s literary voice is that it contains so much of herself in it – her identity and personality are not elided or vanished in order to become an ambiguous authorial presence. This play is a beautifully constructed and performed theatrical homage to her, and her words.

One of the great pleasures of the show is that Margot Avery does vanish herself completely into Dorothy Parker, and the script is a thoughtful lace-work of Parker’s writing and famous bon mots, in the shape of an encounter between Parker and an (unseen) young female editor from her publishing house. In fact the construction materials of theatre, in general, are vanished out of sight in this production, and it just feels like an effortless creation, whole and correct, as it is. Parker muses upon her own work, while sorting through it, selecting pieces to be included in the publishing house’s upcoming The Portable Dorothy Parker. She recalls the famous literary figures who circled around her in New York and Paris’ early twentieth century, like the Fitzgeralds (‘the gilt wore off those Easter Lilies before Pentecost’) and Somerset Maugham (‘such an old lady’).

The deepest and most interesting moments in the show for me were the ones depicting Parker’s admiration for Ernest Hemingway and her longing to be valued by him as a writer in the face of his disdain for her – it is here that the sharp steel of her wit armour gives way to a still clear-eyed, but wistful vulnerability, as she recalls the poem by Hemingway said to be about her after one of her suicide attempts: ‘To a Tragic Poetess. Life will never become her so much as almost leaving it’.

Everything merges by the end of this entrancing hour into a sensitive and nuanced biographical portrait of Parker, which reflects, via her reflections, a wider pool of ideas about literature, the lives of writers, and the creative process.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 14 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo (A Fan Letter)

13 August 2017.  A part of me would like to structure my review of Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo as a fan letter to him, such are the grateful, admiring and affectionate feelings fluttering around in my heart after seeing his solo hour of character comedy. ‘Dear Joseph Morpurgo, I just want to tell you that I’m so happy that out of all the shows in Edinburgh that I had to choose from, I picked yours’, is perhaps how it would begin. But, Exeunt Reader, this review is really for you, so…[wink, blowing you a kiss].

Hammerhead takes place in the little black box of Pleasance 2, and when I walk in, a giant screen behind the stage says ‘THE END’ with blood dripping off the letters, in white on a black background. The screen would turn out to figure heavily in this lovable, intelligent and hilarious multi-media meditation on the creative process. The show is structured as a post-show Q&A with Morpurgo’s character, the writer-director-actor of the show under (fictional) discussion. He bounds onto stage, cheerful, suave, commanding, in heavy horror-esque stage make-up and torn clothing, still sweaty, breathless, made-up and costumed. He’s just finished performing his avant-garde, 9-hour re-mix of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The layers of irony and meaning in this piece are stacked, flowing and structured like a futuristic utopian travel system, including hovercraft, swirling tubes and inter-dimensional rips in the space-time continuum between Shelley’s work, the fictional 9-hour re-working of it, and the show I’m talking about. As Morpurgo’s character takes questions from both the real audience and a fictional audience chiming in via Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc, the themes of the show emerge: the questioning vulnerability at the heart of the creative process, the price art asks you to pay, the fears that cluster around the artist…am I making something beautiful, or monstrous? Who decides which it is, and why? And will my big brother come to see what I made?

But the way these questions are explored is to me the deeper beauty and fascination of this show: it is art talking about art, with a high-concept and comic voice, tripping lightly through time and layers of multi-media materials. Its bright pace or humour doesn’t diminish the power of the descents it makes into philosophic questions and the shadowy parts of the artist’s heart. It is like a painter brightly laughing while quickly dabbing brushstrokes onto a work that in its finished form gives you joy, but shows you sorrow, too, and makes you want to just sit in front of it for a while, thinking and feeling, and to come back to it again another day.  [Grateful sigh] And… ‘Dear Joe, I really loved it.  Kind regards, Joy.’

Published in Exeunt Magazine 12 August 2017


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by Binge Culture (Interactive Whimsy)

13 August 2017. The rise of technology as an artistic material in performance has facilitated a new sort of kaleidoscopic theatre in which each individual audience member, via an interactive format similar to a video game, has a different and unique shake of the show. Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by New Zealand performance art collective Binge Culture is quite a lovable example of this kind of show, with a deliciously twisted vision.

It uses a smart phone and headphones to gives each audience member a Choose Your Own Adventure-style solo journey, creating a sweet and interesting intimacy between you and the voice coming through the headphones, your own personal local guide, who wants to show you around a new place. This relationship, however, is not at all predictable, and it was the moments when this relationship delivers psychological electric shocks that revealed interesting depths underneath the show’s otherwise easy whimsy.

The show turns The Meadows near Summerhall into an interactive, outdoor theatre, and throws wild, unpredictable fairy dust over the mundane and material fixtures it finds there. A statue, a bench, a lamp-post, a bare patch of grass are transformed through the voice’s spiky and whimsical artistic perspective, as it led me towards mysterious beings and trees who wanted to sell me their leaves.

The show contemplates the ideas of home and belonging and explores the different states of being you experience relative to your knowledge of the place you are in, as either a traveller, a tourist, or a local. Its insights into the invisible social inequalities involved sometimes stung a little, but in a good way – a way that pierced some unconscious complacency in me – and it was extremely fun, to boot.

The one slightly disjointed aspect of the show, in my opinion, was that the voice in the headphones is supposed to be a local guide to the place around us, Edinburgh, but it was a New Zealand artist’s voice with a New Zealand accent. The voice assured me that she had been living in Edinburgh for five years and was now a local.

This element distracted me, and kept bumping my mind up and out of the theatrical tapestry being spun around me. And, knowing that the show is an import from New Zealand, this one element gave the impression that the show was simply lifted entire from New Zealand and shoe-horned into a different country’s local setting. I can see that the show’s overarching theme is the movement of people around the globe, the relationship you feel to the spaces around you, and the process by which you create or discover a sense of belonging to them. In that sense, the accent of your guide shouldn’t matter.

But to me, it did – like a transposition in a piece of music, all its harmonies changed slightly. However, it is a testament to the overall quality of the show and its artists that despite this, its texture was still rich, sparkly, deep, intricate, and the show captured and delighted me, anyway.

stand up comedy

The Artistry of Stand Up Comedy

1 October 2015.  I think there is a quiet prejudice against comedy as an art form circulating in our current cultural environment, and I think I unconsciously absorbed this prejudice without realising it.  The Arts Council does not fund comedians, and in August The Independent reported on a letter sent from prominent comedy organisations to the Arts Council’s Chief Executive, asking that comedy be supported alongside the other art forms, particularly emerging comedians.  The Arts Council’s rationale is not that comedy is not a relevant art form, but that it is already commercially self-sustaining as a sector. But I wonder if there is something a bit unconscious, a bit ambiguous at work here.  The nature of my own prejudice was like that – unconscious, ambiguous, ambient – but it seems as if the trickster spirit of the Edinburgh festival this year decided it was time for me to understand, explore and ultimately transform this into a more mature awareness of comedy as a serious art form, with its own powers, techniques and peculiarities of expression.

I could feel the jostling of different artistic worlds at the festival – dance, comedy, burlesque, circus, visual art, and of course the full spectrum of theatres – and it was almost as if they were tribes, assigned the colours that flag their category in the pages of the huge festival programme. This year the festival seemed to unfurl a yellow brick road of comedy in front of me, in a slightly insistent way, and which was somewhat contrary to my inclinations.  I was extremely curious about the way this happened, and it made me realise I was unconsciously harbouring a quiet prejudice against comedy, which felt like something that was floating in the air, something I accidentally picked up along with my flyers on the Royal Mile. It was a refrain you heard: ‘comedy is taking over the festival’. And at first I judged that comedy would not answer my deeper soul’s urgings to be moved in a profound way by artistry. Of course I was wrong.

Of the comedians I saw at Edinburgh this year, there were two young, newish comics, a seasoned regular and one Old Master that tipped me into deep consideration of the artistry in comedy: Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee. 

Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian based in London who enchanted me with her show Bubblewrap.  She has perfect, whimsical, poetic English, is deliciously funny, and I was deeply impressed by the power, vision and subtlety of her mind and material.

Sofie’s show laid bare a deeply personal and painful aspect of her childhood and explored her teen self’s mentally disordered coping mechanism in response to it, which was an obsession with the boy band Westlife.  She became Denmark’s Number One Westlife fan and was somewhat famous herself in this capacity, appearing on television and radio, and getting the chance to meet the band on several occasions.

The Westlife material was presented as an illustrative flashback to a story from her more recent life that explored her journey to accept her beauty and sexuality, against a backdrop of self-harm and self-rejection.  This makes it sound dark, but every idea Sofie touched turned into mirth, so that the show as a whole was a balanced tragicomic shimmer.  I found this act of excavation of the most deeply personal aspects of self very powerful, because it was as if she was saying, ‘here, let’s look at this together, because it is my personal experience of a universal aspect of being human, and I’ll show you how to laugh about it, and by laughing we can transform it together in this theatrical space.’

Another show I had seen earlier in the day was Rituals for Change by None of Us is Yet a Robot, featuring Emma Frankland, whose performance in Don Quijote  (when she was Tom Frankland) was one of my favourites of late.  In Rituals for Change I found Emma using the same kind of theatrical expression that had enthralled me in Don Quijote, this time to explore her gender transformation.  The show was a progression of physical theatre gestures that were brilliant and rich metaphors exploring progressive angles of Emma’s transformation – the set was a building site, fertile with piled dirt, buckets of water, planks of wood, tools and scaffolding, which was constructed, de-constructed, moulded, made, and un-made in a beautiful evocation of the fluid materiality of the human body and gender.

The two shows were similar for the raw depths of personal excavation in their respective theatrical spaces.  It made me reflect that similar artistic magics were being performed, though one performer used a serious tone, physical theatre staging and props, a structure of linked vignettes, narrative and music, and the other used a comedic tone, a long thread of linked autobiographical stories, the setting of a warmly lit room, a different and more direct dialogue with the audience and sophisticated wordplay with frequent full-chord presses of the multiple levels of meaning, which made the audience laugh a lot.

At this point, I began to realise that comedy is just a different quadrant on the spectrum of theatres, with its own particular artistic materials, and to see that there are some artists making this sort of theatre with depth, nuance and subtlety (and some who are not, of course). Brecht was famously influenced by the comedians Karl Valentin and Charlie Chaplin, and he traced the origins of his idea of the epic (or dialectical) theatre to them.   In a way, the different theories of theatre all ask the same questions:  ‘what is the point of theatre?’ and ‘what does it do to the audience’ and ‘is this valuable?’

The belief behind Brecht’s ideology of the epic theatre was that the emotional catharsis that came from an audience’s immersion in a piece of theatre was not effective for moving the audience to change the real society outside the theatre.  He believed that in order to effect change, the theatre needed to encourage the audience to develop a critical perspective on society, to stand back and reflect upon it from a distance.  And he believed that this was best done by reminding the audience that the theatre was a representation of reality and not reality itself.

Stand-up comedy is so very Brechtian.  It is as if all comedians, consciously or unconsciously, exist at this pole of theatrical theory.  The frame of comedy itself is a large, obviously unreal, artistic construction, where every element of life is turned on its head and viewed from a comedic distance. And one of the most important aspects of comedy’s artistic world is its social conscience.  This is like the passionately beating heart around which all good comedy comes to life.

And it is interesting that wrapping the dark stuff of human existence around with laughter makes us feel more distant from it, and then perhaps more safe, more comfortable, and maybe more able to act in our own lives and societies…?  Although I’m not arguing here against immersion as a theatrical technique…how could I?  I’m so into it.  But there is room for both theories, for different ways of affecting people using art.  And it is true that catharsis and immersion feel really good – I had gone to Edinburgh hungry for it.  But the artistry of the comedians I saw also moved me, also changed me, but in a different way, and using different theatrical effects.

And speaking of Chaplin, the second comedy newcomer whose show made a deep impression on me was Mark Dean Quinn.  His show More Observation Without Comedy was a fascinating, poignant and extremely entertaining study in deadpan tragicomedy.  Quinn has an exquisitely light touch as a performer using comic materials, which is one of the ways it reminded me of Chaplin – he used silence, space, symbolic gestures, and gentle self-mockery to show glimpses of a real and private pain.

Like Emma Frankland’s show, it was a progression of vignettes and gestures, which explored the power dynamics in the unspoken social agreements we make in relationships, like, ‘I’ve just met you – can I trust you? At what point does trust begin between us?’ He unearthed profound and universal questions from the general field of ambiguity that we all live in, and it was fascinating to watch him explore them using a beautiful comedic language of absurdity and surreality.  He was a sad clown, exploring his sadness.  It was a beautiful and powerful show.

Both Hagen’s and Quinn’s shows are still carved into my imagination and memory several weeks later, in a way I can still go back to revisit.  They both had a sort of piercing quality.  This is not a definitive (or even clear) way of measuring their quality, but it feels significant to me.  And they felt different from the other ha-ha, laugh-a-minute, still enjoyable, but more blunt and less memorable comedy shows I saw.  It felt like they were both real artists who had chosen the materials of comedy as their frame and philosophical stance.

I saw both Hagen and Quinn in rooms in pubs, in tiny, cosy venues where I could practically reach out and touch them.  By contrast, I saw the famous comedian Stewart Lee in grander style in the Georgian Assembly Rooms: there were chandeliers, velvety seats, a big crowd of adoring fans, and a much larger literal distance from us to him.  He came on stage to the music from Bill’s death scene in Kill Bill, which I thought was a tremendously subtle and interesting opening flourish, considering that the common slang for a comedian’s failure is ‘dying’.

His comedy is like a series of concentric rings of meta-awareness, like inception inside the world of a single joke.  His whole set is one amazing joke, and within this he tells really, really long stories, each of which turns out to be a single, amazing joke, and these relate ironically, harmonically to the overarching joke, and when everything comes home in a big moment of coherence, it is hilarious, ingenious and satisfying.

His language is deeply poetic, and he pushes the boundaries of concepts practically off the edge of meaning, in a fascinating and thematically conscious way.  One of the most powerful themes he contemplated was the Fatal Risk of Doing Comedy.  He compared being a comedian to being a war hero and called the ghosts of dead clowns, like Robin Williams and Bill Hicks, onto the stage.

This was profound because it was a palpable reminder of the personal mechanics at work in comedy: that what a comedian does for his or her art is excavate  innermost soul and psyche, bring its deepest material up to the light, and ring this around with irony in a transformative way…and that he or she does this for the audience, for the greater good of society, because this process transforms what is deep, dark, ambiguous and scary into a new, enlightening awareness, which helps us to handle it and understand it.

It was serious and tragic at the same time that it was brilliant, funny, enlightening and reflective of the art of comedy, because it reminded us that some of the artists who are called to this sort of service don’t make it, because the dark is too dark, and the fear is too much, and the ambiguity too overwhelming.  And so here it was again: that tragicomic shimmering of things that were funny/sad/true/universal… and I felt contemplative, expanded and lit up on different levels by this Old Master.

And I need to at least mention James Acaster.  I want to tell you how much I liked him and why.  But his was the last show I saw in Edinburgh, and by the time I reached his comedy doorway and fell through it, I was pretty much like the guy who sits in the middle of the backseat of Wayne Campbell’s Pacer during Wayne’s World’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene.  That is to say, I was partied out.  I was barely hanging onto consciousness and sanity at that point…but James, sweet James, kept me hanging on a bit longer, until I could have another coffee and crawl back to the absinthe bar.  I do remember that his show included a rather adorable and deft depiction of an existential crisis, and that through the haze of my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘…beautiful, theatrical, beautiful writing…oh my God, the end of the show is incredible…I wish I could lift my pen to take noteszzzzz.’

Of course I partied a lot in Edinburgh.  It was brilliant. And exhausting.  But my exhaustion revealed another interesting thing about comedy – its physiological effects, which are different to the other arts.  I started thinking about this on my second morning, when I was talking to my friend and Edinburgh roommate Sarah in a post-party haze of desultory girl chat, both of us just awake but not really ready to get out of bed.

Sarah is a doctor, a consultant in palliative medicine at a hospice, and we were talking about her upcoming course in acupuncture.  She was explaining the theory behind it, which is that the human body makes its own medicinal molecular cures for itself, which are called ‘endogenous compounds’, and apparently acupuncture stimulates the production of these healing compounds, which fit onto our broken cells in a perfectly complementary way that drugs can only clumsily replicate. I kept thinking about this all through my festival whirl, about how endogenous compounds were bubbling up inside me every time I laughed, circulating around in my blood, and it was as if the laughter kept healing and re-charging me.

It is nearly time to kiss you on both cheeks and say good-bye, but I have one more point to make about comedy, which I’ll make via Shaun Keaveny.  For those of you who don’t know, he is the morning show DJ on BBC Radio 6. I started listening to him eight years ago, and he is the purveyor of comedy who drops into my life in the most regular way, because of the format of his distribution.  He is brilliant, lyrical, high-concept and deeply silly in a way that I particularly adore.  He is right at the top of my Fantasy Boyfriend list, fighting it out with Jon Stewart.  One of the only painful parts of my festival was that I missed seeing his Edinburgh run of stand-up by only hours because of my travel.  Deep sigh.

But on my last night I was standing in a queue for the ladies loo in the Pleasance Courtyard, and at some point I glanced up to the wall of posters running up the stairs beside me, and I saw the man himself, in flat avatar poster form, posed in a suave GQ kind of way, of thoughtful mien and looking absolutely gorgeous in a grey jumper, advertising his show: ‘Shaun Keaveny: Live and Languorous’.  So I ripped the poster off the wall, along with a fair few fragments of baby blue Pleasance wall paint, rolled it up and put in my bag, and he’s now living on the wall in my writing nook, my first pin-up in 25 years.

It has been interesting to write this essay and think about Shaun in terms of comedic artistry.  It has prompted me to deconstruct and understand my adoration of him, which until now has been instinctive but unexamined.  And what I think about Shaun is that he is like swans.  I live in Cambridge on a street that goes down to the river, and I see swans every day.  I see them quiet in the dawn with the sun rising over the river, and I see them sleeping and still, floating with their heads tucked away, with one awake sentry, when I am cycling home along the river late at night in the dark.  And I never think that they are less sublime and beautiful because they are so common.  I think, ‘if they were rare, people would travel from all over the world to see them – just to get one glimpse!’  And Shaun’s comedy feels like that to me…like artistry that happens to be just easily available.

And in general, this is what comedy feels like to me – like something powerful, sublime and special that is everywhere, and which perhaps as a result is somewhat taken for granted as an art form.  And perhaps it is the case that the commercial success of more blunt, less artistic comedy has tainted our perception of the whole genre.  But I think it’s time to have a closer look at the way subtle, nuanced and artistic comedy is valued in our cultural oeuvre.  I found truth, beauty and depth in some of the comedy I saw at Edinburgh, which are the subtle fragrances that, to me, signal artistry.  And I felt that parts of me were healed and enlightened by these encounters.  And, of course, I laughed and laughed and laughed.  For which, Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[An edited version of this essay was published in Exeunt Magazine on 1 October 2015.]