It’s festival time in Edinburgh and I wish that I were there. Here is just one of a thousand reasons why. I look at the ticket stubs of some shows I saw at the festival twenty years ago and have no memory of them whatsoever but there are a few that have burned themselves onto my brain and they will stay with me forever.
It’s 25th August 1995- eighteen years ago- and I am sitting in the Assembly Hall watching a very boring play. It’s a new historical play called Lanark and it’s part of the official festival, one of the show piece theatre pieces of that year, but it’s long, overblown and boring. As often happens in Edinburgh the audience turn to each other at the interval to tell each other so. We are not happy and this is only the half way point. Some people are leaving. When you are seeing four or five shows a day you become noticeably less tolerant of something that doesn’t work. I had been looking forward to this, it was one of the tickets that I bought well in advance, and I am in danger of going back to my bed and breakfast disappointed. Even so I don’t want to give up on it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have done that.
Then I remember…………… Earlier that day, while I was having an outdoor lunch, a huge figure of death on stilts maybe three times as high as me had swept his arm down to my level, stared at me for several seconds and handed me a flyer before stalking on his way. It had been a moment of cold theatre in the warmth of a busy August morning on the Royal Mile and it had been impressive, even in a world full of eager performers showering out flyers on anyone who lets their concentration drop for a second. So impressive, in fact, that I had marched straight into the fringe office and bought a ticket for the show, Carmen Funebre, that evening. The fact that I already had a ticket for something else was just a detail.
I take my ticket out of my pocket. The play starts at half past ten on the other side of the city in Drummond school playground. If I bale out now I might just about make it, even though I have no idea where Drummond school is. I see the figure of death staring me in the face all over again and my mind is made up. I don’t care what happens in the second half of Lanark and I do want to know more about wherever that figure came from. Whoever made him and brought him to life knew what they were doing. I leave.
A while later I walk into the darkening playground of a rather grim looking high school and make my way to the front of a small crowd of people standing around three sides of a rectangular space. The fourth side is dominated by the set, a pair of massive contorted iron gates. Nothing is happening. The audience is standing around, unsure what to expect. There is a sense of expectancy, vulnerability. There are no comfy seats, no walls to protect us. We have been dumped in an unfamiliar part of the city and left stranded in the dark. Anything might happen.
And then it begins. I swerve to one side to avoid a whip as vicious masked soldiers on stilts slice their way though the crowd. They pick out victims from the audience. This is a universal tale of war, desolation and persecution and it is the small people like me who are going to suffer. They show me their little lighted houses in the palms of their hands before they release them up into the night sky and I watch their hopes drift up towards the stars. They beg me for help which I am not able to give. All of us, performers and audience, are united in our powerlessness against the dark forces which have been unleashed. These are real people, facing their own terrifying moment of crisis, but they are also the same suffering humanity who could come from any country and any age, past present or future. My heart breaks for them. Finally the gates explode into a wall of flame and open as the giant figure of death strides out with his pitchfork. A coup de theatre which I will never forget. I am left shaken and upset and unsure how I am going to get home. Applause doesn’t seem right, it has been too real, too raw, it would be like celebrating the suffering which I have seen. Nevertheless I have to do something, so I walk alone, round to the back of the still burning gates to find the director. I have no idea who he is or how to do it but sometimes when you want something enough it just happens. Through my tears I tell him what I feel and how much the play has meant to me. He tells me that my words are like honey to his heart and I am content.
I have seen the magnificent Theatr Biuro Podrozy twice more since. They are a Polish company and they have now performed Carmen Funebre, which was inspired by the Bosnian conflict, in forty countries all over the world.
My grateful thanks to the company for allowing me to reproduce the production images in this blog.