Robert Crawford and Paul Farley, 14/8/14

Robert Crawford and Paul Farley, Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Guardian Spiegeltent, Thursday 14th August, £10/£8

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP2, September 2014]

‘Home’ is the subject that these readings, from two very different, extraordinary poets, continually stub themselves against; so often a towering landmark in the map of literary imagination, ‘home’ is at once insurmountable and fragile, and, as it proves in these poems, an eternally fruitful idea.

Paul Farley reads from his newly published Selected Poems (Picador, 2014), drawn from his four collections including Tramp in Flames (2006) and, his most recent, The Dark Film (2012). Farley confesses, only half-jokingly, that putting together a Selected Poems is a depressing experience, making him feel “nearly dead”. He reads thoughtfully, with welcome footnotes to his pieces, including a found piece for which he recorded his dentist’s in-chair commentary to create a brief, incantatory poem, referred to as a kind of “shipping forecast” for the mouth. Home, for Farley, is more specific; the Liverpool he grew up in is, despite his years in London, the place that his writing most often returns to. I like the comment after his reading in which he explains that London holds little “imaginative traction” for him, or at least far less than Liverpool did and still does. Farley is keen also to challenge any conception of the nostalgic potential of his poems – nostalgia, he argues, is not always cosy or rose tinted, but can be dark, troubling, and dangerously irresistible. His poem ‘Treacle’ describes this kind of shadowy anchoring of memory through an ancient tin of treacle that moved house along with his family. Around this memories and indefinite feelings coalesce:

                                Funny to think you can still buy it now,
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.
When you lever the lid it opens with a sigh
and you’re face-to-face with history.
By that I mean the unstable pitch black
you’re careful not to spill, like mercury.

Farley reads with compelling ease and a gentle, measured delivery which happily never brims into gravitas; he’s not too serious to add levity in his brief commentaries, informing the audience that he spent a good chunk of his time as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust “sitting watching Deal or No Deal in my boxers”. In his poetry he marries superbly quiet, astute introspection with perfectly pitched demotic language and phrasing. That latter quality especially, the supposed lack of which so often brings poetry in for public criticism, surely makes him an excellent poet for the public arena.

Robert Crawford’s reading offers an intriguing mixture of political satire and meditative lyricism, occasionally combined. Crawford begins with a poem taken from his latest collection, Testament (Jonathan Cape, 2014), one of his poetic paraphrases of the Gospel, in this case the story of Christ and the adulteress. Crawford cites the idea that “Christ was a poet”, which first drew him to such a project. Even if not all exegeses assert this idea, Crawford subtly exposes the lyricism that can so often be lost in the parsing of biblical texts. Crawford shifts gears several times throughout his reading, his rich Scots voice steering from the erotic lovesong that imagines two bodies as a ‘Nightingale Floor’, “dovetailed with joinerwork of love”, before he slides, with barely a ripple, into his own songs of home. Well-known for his literary and academic writings on Scotland, and for his support for Scottish independence, Crawford earlier this year published Bannockburns, which traces Scottish independence in the literary imagination over the last 700 years. In this more personal reading, Crawford traces the image of the nation in his own imagination. Scotland-as-nation is, historically, a difficult, anxiety-ridden concept to pin down. Crawford’s poems here are, fittingly, both evocative and elusive; like Farley, the fact that his inner compass continues to point North remains problematic. Crawford seems to enjoy his own reading most when he reaches his political poems, many of which focus on the impending referendum. He is quite clear at drawing a distinction between these ‘louder’, public poems and the quieter pieces with which he began. Cranking up both his volume and his accent, Crawford delivers ‘Daveheart’:

                                He sing the joys o’ Union lang
And loud through shitty weather.
His een are bricht. His voice is strang,
‘We’re better aff thegither!

which garners the kind of appreciative titters that only the Guardian Spiegeltent could produce.

The final discussion, led by Lilias Fraser of the Scottish Poetry Library, mostly returns to ideas of home that clearly and understandably touch a chord with readers and listeners. Apart from this, perhaps most interesting is a question about whether technology and digital media are destroying our ability to appreciate poetry – to “think deeply”, as the questioner puts it. Encouragingly, both poets firmly rebuff the idea that technology and poetry are fundamentally incompatible (not, I suspect, what the questioner wanted to hear, but I think a very welcome answer); both find an affinity with the idea of the poem as a machine, eternally opening out on itself in quasi-mechanical formations. Crawford archly comments, in response to a comment about poems becoming shorter as a result of the younger generation’s quick-fix mental capacities, that brevity is not the opposite of depth.

It is heartening to know that poets as eminent (and different) as Crawford and Farley are sanguine about the effects of an ever-changing society and its forms of communication on contemporary poetry.  Farley’s ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ concludes, with a fitting tremor of both fear and excitement, that “the gaps between get shorter all the time”. Farley and Crawford are two Janus poets, successfully straddling the ephemeral borderlands between past, present and future. They are drawn irresistibly to both private and public pasts, but they also anticipate the danger inherent in this, and look forward into ways by which, through innovations of language and thought, memory and history may be reframed and still proclaim their own relevance.


Edinburgh 2014 Round-Up

[Originally published in LP2, September 2014]

Throughout August Hannah Collins, Kyle Cooper, Becca Inglis and Phoebe Walker reviewed spoken word shows from the Edinburgh Festival for our website. Here are extracts of their reviews, plus their own personal highlights. 

Rob Auton The Face Show I don’t think anyone really has much of a clue what’s meant to be happening, not even Auton himself, despite the presence of an impressive set of props including dried lasagne sheets, a World Cup sticker book and a CD of choral music. Variously described as a stand-up, a poet and a performer, Auton explains that he mostly just tells stories, some of which are better than others. PW

Phoebe Walker’s highlights: This year’s Edinburgh fringe has introduced me to performers I’d never heard of and genres I never knew existed; everything I saw, without exception (and how often can you say that at the Fringe?) was genuinely worthwhile – screamingly funny, unaffectedly poignant, valuably weird and often all of these put together. Standouts for me were the bookends of my 2014 Fringe experience, so Kate Fox’s Poet in Residence, which owes its success to Fox’s wonderful warmth as a performer, and Lucy Ayrton’s The Splitting of the Mermaid, which was a virtuosic exercise in how to spin a heartbreakingly modern fairy tale. For some properly frenetic poetry after dark, I’d also single out Tim Clare’s Be Kind To Yourself – I actually grabbed a man by the lapels and told him to go and see it.

Megan Cohen Take Me Home: A One-Woman Odyssey It’s very, very funny and utterly engaging, the more so because Cohen isn’t just riffing lazily on the bard’s yarn for laughs – she really knows her stuff. PW

Jack Dean: Threnody for the Sky Children This is a story confidently, quietly told, assured of the power of its own narrative which, quite apart from the sensational storyline, hums with linguistic style. PW

Kyle Cooper’s highlight: Choosing a single highlight from the Fringe is always a challenge – with such a vast range of acts, picking a favourite is almost impossible. A particularly good way to spend an hour, however, is Charlie Dupré’s Philosorap Cabaret; a one-man variety performance with an emphasis on spoken word and rap. In it, Dupré performs a rap battle between Dawkins and God, mimes Spinoza’s central ideas, conducts a freestyle rap as Kant, and portrays a hyperactive Nietzsche wearing a superman cap (‘I’m Frederik! Do you like Pearl Harbour?’). Intelligent and frequently hilarious, Dupré performs with technical brilliance and bountiful energy.

Gary From Leeds Yeti The blurring between storyteller-style stand-up and comic (but never crass) poetry is hugely entertaining, and for me was an entirely new, very welcome subset of spoken word. PW

Mark Grist and MC Mixy Dead Poets’ Deathmatch An 8-bit sprite of Sylvia Plath holding a sword, and the grim reaper himself on the sound deck – this was always going to be an amusing show. KC

Hannah Collins’s highlight: It’s always strange seeing a celebrity in real life. Usually confined to the 2D glow of my computer screen, Phill Jupitus was granted the true presence he deserves by the Jam House’s stage at this year’s Fringe festival. Having always seen Jupitus as a comedian, it was interesting (and touching) to see him deliver a different kind of performance in his show Porky the Poet in Juplicity. This was an hour-long spoken-word treat wherein Jupitus was really able to showcase the diversity of his talents.

Loud Poets guarantees a smorgasbord of lyrical enjoyment, laughter, arresting performances and, above all, talent. HC

David Lee Morgan: Pornography and Heartbreak There’s lyricism here, but also unflinchingly brutal commentaries that lay bare the realities of the sex industry, porn addictions, self-hatred and remorse. PW

Becca Inglis’s highlight: Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret was my undeniable favourite at the Fringe. Many have noted the Fringe’s recent prolific engagement with feminism, noting the sheer number of female comedians, dramatists, and poets that have been promoting their cause from the stage this year. It was wonderful to witness this phenomenon for myself, watching women come together on stage to make their presence in the art world irrefutably felt. This collective managed their act with skill, demonstrating how women might support each other’s individual endeavours without being subsumed into a faceless, homogeneous group. If you are a proponent of individuality within feminism, then this performance is one to watch. What is more, the poetry was presented with refreshing skill and variety, with the delivery being alternately aggressive, touching, and humorous whilst engaging with a wide selection of topics. Personal stories were both relatable and political, sometimes documenting the anxiety of being a twenty-something woman in an uncertain world and at others confronting the stigmas that can be attached to one’s sexuality, race, or class. These women are unabashedly determined to make their and other obscured voices heard, and I for one will certainly continue to follow their progress.

Sophia Walker Can’t Care Won’t Care This performance crackles with an angry frustration that it’s impossible not to feel yourself; slumped, hair pulled back, eyes glittering, palms sweeping her face in anguish, Walker is utterly compelling. The material is powerful enough, but the elegance with which it is put together makes this a truly breathtakingly performance. PW

Dave Williams Prufrock and Me Gently self-deprecating and quietly witty, Williams presents an intimate show which says something about why we read poetry and how we engage with it. KC

Geoff Winde Money Is as Innocent as the Gun His is a radical attack on capitalism, which he carries out with both playfulness and clarity in a three-part performance. BI

Sophia Walker: Can’t Care Won’t Care, 10/8/14

Sophia Walker: Can’t Care Won’t Care
Banshee Labyrinth, Venue 156, 29-35 Niddry Street
10/08/2014 1:45-2:45pm
August 10-24. 1:45-2:45pm

Review: Phoebe Walker

Sophia Walker trails an impressive list of poetry accolades behind, including the titles of BBC Slam Champion, 2012 Poetry Olympics Champion, and Edinburgh Book Festival Improv Slam Champion. Last year she won the PBH Best Spoken Word Show, which means that, unlike a hefty portion of the shows available on the Free Fringe, you don’t walk in completely clueless as to whether you’re going to see something good. You are. There are no laughs here (although Walker tells us it’s fine if we find some of it funny), just a performance of unrelenting power. Designating the audience as her jury, Walker fashions a courtroom out of her performance and delivers two sides of the same desperate story: the death of a care home patient (nauseatingly referred to as a ‘service user’) and the subsequent trial for homicidal negligence of his carer.

Although a poetry slam champion, her narrative here is so carefully crafted that it at no point whacks you over the head shouting ‘I am a poem’, which makes it all the more insidiously powerful, her seamless rhythms maintaining a momentum which fizzes with anger. Walker unravels the history surrounding Lee’s death via a more than justifiably outraged attack on the care system, whose abilities and very humanity are slowly being whittled away by blinkered government policies. When the government cuts corners, she tells the jury, vulnerable people will hit those corners, and be bruised. The absurdities and indignities foisted on carers and those being cared for alike would be risible, if the situation weren’t so desperate – one carer, hampered by a useless, completely untrained temp, must prepare five separate meals for five different people, but isn’t allowed to leave them alone with her untrained assistant. That assistant isn’t allowed to move the patients, but they all need assistance to get to the table. That assistant isn’t trained in food hygiene, and so by law is forbidden from preparing their food. For choosing to prepare the food herself, and leave her patients, for moments, in the care of the temp, for making the choice between making sure those people get fed and letting them go hungry, a court levies the accusation of homicidal negligence. While Walker is making five separate dinners, alone, Lee falls heavily and dies, and it is she, the lawyer insists who bears the blame.

Walker’s lightning-fast switches between accuser and accused serve to make the injustices that are heaped at her feet all the sharper, and all the more intolerable. The (perhaps too predictably) plummy tones of the barrister accuse her of negligence, incompetence, lack of respect for the legislation of the government and for the regulations of her industry. The citation of her past ‘failings’ include saving a person’s life by illegally administering CPR to an epileptic. This performance crackles with an angry frustration that it’s impossible not to feel yourself; slumped, hair pulled back, eyes glittering, palms sweeping her face in anguish, Walker is utterly compelling. The material is powerful enough, but the elegance with which it is put together makes this a truly breathtakingly performance. Walker, depressingly, illustrates how eloquence, intelligence and common sense, pitted against bullying legalese, are so easily trampled down.

For £5.55, I have responsibility
for five lives and you imply…

Negligence, incompetence, lack of respect. At the end of the show I heard one audience member ask Walker “Was that all real?”, to which she, of course, replies “Yes.” It’s a hideous answer, and one that everybody needs to hear.

Rob Auton: The Face Show, 6/8/14

Rob Auton: The Face Show
Banshee Labyrinth, Venue 156, 29-35 Niddry Street
06/08/2014 4-5pm
(August 6-11, 13-23, 4-5pm)

Review: Phoebe Walker

Faces. I’ve got a face. You’ve got a face. Everyone reading this probably has a face. Rob Auton certainly has a face, and he’s so proud of it that he’s brought an entire show to the Edinburgh Fringe all about…faces. Now go back to the first three sentences. Those phrases make up pretty much the solid bulk of Auton’s show. If I could go back and data-mine it for the word ‘face’ (and ‘eyes’ and ‘lips’ and ‘noses’ – especially ‘noses’) I think we’d probably be sliding into triple figures. If you’re expecting something profound, for most of this show, you won’t get it. Which is great actually, because Auton’s slightly-inebriated, Yorkshire Jim Morrison vibe is entertaining enough without having to get all zen about what he endearingly calls “the bit at the front of my head”.

It’s an odd one this, the sort of show that you can imagine audience members leaving to exchange cheerful “only at the Fringe!”-esque comments with one another. I think I’d really like to go to the pub with Rob – neck some midori, come fifth in the quiz – but I’m not sure if that can really act as a show recommendation. Auton seems to have a peculiar amount of self-orientated schadenfreude, commenting, half-gleefully, half-morosely, “there’s some bits of this that won’t work. And we’ll all know it”. Later he politely informs the audience they can leave if they want to (a trio of backpackers slithers out) and darkly throws out a time check: “It’s four thirty-four. If you were wondering.” I don’t think anyone really has much of a clue what’s meant to be happening, not even Auton himself, despite the presence of an impressive set of props including dried lasagne sheets, a World Cup sticker book and a CD of choral music. Variously described as a stand-up, a poet and a performer, Auton explains that he mostly just tells stories, some of which are better than others. A skit about Hitler’s messy ordeal shaving a bushy moustache, relentlessly evening up each side until finally, “Yes, Hitler! This is my war face!” draws possibly the biggest laugh of the performance. This is a world where Zippy is a midfielder for Japan and Anthony Worrall-Thompson lives in a tent inside your head.

I wish there’d been a bit more poetry; there was a promising start with a piece about a penis-pen, but it sputtered out, highlighting the fact that Auton perhaps doesn’t, as yet, have the greatest confidence in his own material. It’s well worth having a look at his website if you want to read some poems about fish, drilling, and kettles filled with human tears. And you really should want to. The set finishes with a long story (or anecdote, or poem – could be anything really) about faces, beginning with a mouse and an alien watching a choir perform and then going back through history to see what else humans have done. Unfortunately, alien and mouse end up at Dunkirk in 1944, the spoiler being that human faces have actually done some pretty sad, bad stuff. It’s an odd change in tone from the rambling eccentricity that prevails for most of the show, and becomes even more sobering when Auton swerves seriously into a thoughtful monologue about the faces he loves. But hey, the porridge was weird already, another lump doesn’t make much difference.

Dave Williams: Prufrock and Me, 3/8/14

Prufrock and Me
The Canon’s Gait, Venue 78, 232 Canongate
03/08/2014 13.15
6th-11th, 13th -23rd August 13.15-14.15

Review: Kyle Cooper

Self- proclaimed ‘attendant comedian’ Dave Williams presents an hour discussing Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’. ‘Attendant’ as in ‘not Prince Hamlet’ – Williams talks about that teenage awkwardness and shyness which never quite leaves: the gut-wrenching fear of addressing the opposite sex, imagining yourself as part of Genesis, and the feeling that there’s a party going on to which you haven’t been invited. Williams relays how ‘Prufrock’ has been a compassionate touchstone when negotiating this mire of social awkwardness and self-doubt, finding in the titular character a protagonist from the same mould as himself. While the show is very personal, the situations he presents are general enough to be understandable by most people – summoning the courage to stand up in front of people, choosing how to present yourself and overthinking the minutiae of social situations; how do you set your face in a photograph? Williams ties this in with a mini biography, relating his entrance into the comedy scene and how ‘Prufrock’ continues with him in this.

Gently self-deprecating and quietly witty, Williams presents an intimate show which says something about why we read poetry and how we engage with it. Williams quotes directly from the poem, so knowledge of it won’t be required, although at fifty five minutes the show is perhaps a little lengthy. If you have an interest in poetry, people, and the link between the two, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Phill Jupitus is Porky the Poet in ‘Juplicity’, 15/8/14

Phill Jupitus is Porky the Poet in ‘Juplicity’
Jam House, Venue 44, 5 Queen Street,
17:00 18-23 August (seen 15th August)

Review: Becca Inglis

Fans of Phill Jupitus will be delighted to learn that he has again returned to the Fringe, this time under the pseudonym ‘Porky the Poet’. This was Jupitus’s alter ego before his rise to fame on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and other panel shows when he recited political poetry and associated himself with punk-rock ranting poets. Whilst his performance in Edinburgh was slightly less radical, Jupitus did convey a sense of his multifaceted career in the entertainment industry since his beginnings as ‘Porky’.

It might seem obvious to comment on Jupitus’s evident comfortableness on stage, but it was refreshing to witness a performer who could command the audience’s attention without urgency. As a host he was superb, wittily introducing his poems with the comic flair that has added to his success on television. His interest in music shone through, particularly in one poem, “Matinee 1978”, which documented “the first time I went to a gig”. Jupitus first appealed to the audience and discovered many first gigs, some more embarrassing than others, entertaining the rest of us with quips about Steps and Suede (“We’ve heard it before – I’ve got Smiths albums, thanks!”). This was arguably Jupitus’s best performed poem, with its emphasis on rhyming with “Jupitus” and fast-paced metre helping it trip along in a fantastic depiction of his excitability at seeing Blondie live. Skilful, hilarious, and even slightly erotic, this piece wonderfully showcases Jupitus’s flair for poetic writing.

This is perhaps however not the show for hardcore fans of spoken word. Jupitus’s poetry does showcase his technical capability through his proficiency with refrains, rhyme, and motif, but it was arguably his guest speaker Luke Wright who better exemplified the manipulation of sound that adds to performance poetry. His so-called “ode to service stations” made use of a mockney accent, for example, that careered through a torrent of words until he slowed the tempo to demonstrate the “oasis” that service stations can represent on a busy motorway. Wright too demonstrated comic flair when he wryly informed the audience, in reference to the approaching Referendum, “I couldn’t figure out what I thought, and I thought you’d want to know”. Adopting a stereotypical posh accent, Wright skilfully integrates irony into his “simple plea from an Englishman” who narrates his love for “haggis, heart disease” and “ditties like ‘Donald Where’s You’re Troosers?’” as justification for a continued union. Whatever your stance on the vote for independence, this piece certainly makes for an interesting and topical piece of art that showcases Wright’s talent.

What stood out about ‘Porky’ was the seeming camaraderie around the room. Jupitus took one moment to stand upon his self-proclaimed soap-box and explain his involvement in the Free Fringe, protesting, “This is a gathering, not a market-place”. He deplored the expensiveness of the fringe, insisting instead upon the accessibility of art for everyone. This democratic approach to art sums up well Jupitus’s approach to his performance: audience participation was rife; we were given a glimpse of Jupitus’s more private and sentimental side in his obituary to his deceased agent, Addisson Cresswell (“the mouth from south of Deptford”), and his narration of his “different kind of love” for the painting The Lady Agnew of Lochnaw; and he ended the show by personally shaking the hand of what seemed to be every audience member at the door. This event brilliantly eschews accusations that poetry can seem inaccessibly high-brow, interweaving instances of humour, personal anecdotes, and popular culture that make ‘Porky’’s poetry palatable to all.

Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret, 19/8/14

Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret
Banshee Labyrinth, Venue 156, 29-35 Niddry Street
2.50-3.40 Recurring Event (Seen 19th August)

Review: Becca Inglis

Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret is an all-female poet collective that aims to give a strong platform to “the voices less well-represented on the performance poetry scene”. Fay Roberts initiated this project upon witnessing a fellow performance poet asking on Facebook “where are all the woman [poets]?”, to which her response was to say “why don’t we show them?”. These are creative, driven, and entrepreneurial women, with Fay Roberts at the forefront of Allographic Press and Sophia Walker, winner of the 2012 Poetry Olympics and the 2013 BBC Poetry Slam Final, returning to the Fringe with her critically acclaimed solo play ‘Around the World in 8 Mistakes’ and her new piece ‘Can’t Care. Won’t Care’. The poets spent much time in between poems promoting their own and each other’s personal projects, so the group is evidently serious about thrusting female poets into the limelight.

The audience was engaged from the word go. Although the Cabaret theme seemed somewhat superfluous, the darkened room and sumptuous red décor did add to what Roberts described as a “slightly gloomy and intimate” atmosphere. Roberts, the self-proclaimed host, was at complete ease on stage, warmly welcoming the audience with a bowl of vegan sweets before seemingly absent-mindedly singing to herself whilst the audience clicked in time. A segment dedicated to open mic furthered this feeling of collaboration between poets and audience, this time with Barefoot Baker offering a description of alcoholism that was at once affectingly frantic and melancholy. His finish was met with a poignant hush, and Roberts justified the open mic segment by declaring “we have it because then we have moments like that, when the room is in complete silence”. This event certainly lives up to its description as “open-hearted”. The poetry is personal, the poets are direct and engaging, and the audience today was more than happy to grant them the noises of appreciation that Roberts had jokily requested.

Forest Fringe co-director Deborah Pearson has asked of this year’s festival where the shows that explore what it means to be a woman are. This collective might show this query to be somewhat reductive, since the variety of women on stage made it almost impossible to pin down any specific brand of femininity. Roberts for example was softly spoken, almost resembling a capella when she used her voice to sound a burlesque-style tune in which she integrated spoken word with a varying tempo. Hannah Chutzpah contrastingly followed her boldly onto the stage with the projected cry “Oi oi, how we doing?”. Racial, sexual, and gendered politics are all explored by Adele Hampton, who performed with Other Voices for the first time today, and Walker, who fiercely seized the stage with both skill and tenacity. Both separately uncover their privileges and the moments at which their identities become oppressed, with Hampton considering her comparative advantage amongst the African American community and Walker taking issue with the notion that sexist and homophobic language does not affect reality. The guest speaker, Paula Varjack similarly explored sexuality, adding comedy to the subject of bisexuality in her description of an adolescent decision to eschew ambiguity and “become a lesbian” before narrating an entertaining week of daily Tinder dates (“and yes, it’s all true”). This event manifests a fantastic opportunity to discover sometimes obscured women’s poetry, showcasing undeniable talent for multiple tastes and interests. As Roberts concludes the show, “we shouldn’t have to be Other Voices”, but whilst people continue to ask where all the women are, this collaboration will surely go on making their voices heard.

Megan Cohen: Take Me Home: A One-Woman Odyssey, 9/8/14

Megan Cohen: Take Me Home: A One-Woman Odyssey
George Next Door, Space A, Venue 430, 9 George IV Bridge
09/08/2014 8:45-9:45pm
August 2nd-23rd, 8:45-9:45pm

Review: Phoebe Walker

When I was at school and had to take RE lessons twice a week, a well-meaning neighbour gave me a copy of something called the ‘Street Bible’. Its target audience was the yoof, and it was exactly as terrible as it sounds – the apostles were prone to shouting ‘Whoah’, and ‘Absolutely!’ inexplicably replaced Amen. Since then, I’ve been a bit sceptical of translations of ancient texts that strive to be far too with it. I don’t want to hear a pimped-up Piers Plowman, or read a sonnet composed entirely of emoticons (such a translation, believe me, exists).

Just as well, then, that Megan Cohen’s one-woman interpretation of one of the oldest and best-known stories on the planet has helped me change my mind. Cohen relates the story of Odysseus after the bulk of his adventures are over, when he longs to return home, prefacing this with an explanation of the German word sehnsucht (“at the risk of sounding like a pretentious faux-multilingual asshat”). This feeling of “small yearning” for something that represents that slippery concept, ‘home’, forms the core of Cohen’s funny, erudite, and poignant performance. So: we hear the recap of Odysseus’ story pitched in contemporary San Franciscan idiom; Odysseus is super this and totally that, the suitors vying for Penelope’s hand are all “fratboy douchebags” and the goddess Athena intervenes to warn Odysseus to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. It’s very, very funny and utterly engaging, the more so because Cohen isn’t just riffing lazily on the bard’s yarn for laughs – she really knows her stuff.

This is evidenced in perhaps the most compelling part of the performance, when she slips into a discussion of one strand of Odyssey scholarship, which considers the epic to have been penned by a woman. She mentions Samuel Butler’s argument, which cites the infinitesimal level of domestic detail, the emphasis on peacemaking, and the text’s strong female characters as proof that it was written by a young, intelligent, socially independent woman. What is most impressive is Cohen’s own spin on this: it would have been easy (and lazy) to make a few token feminist gags and move on, but Cohen uses this argument to accessibly and intelligently explore the entire gender-in/of-literature debate. Discussing the presumption that ‘Women’s Fiction’ always deals in strong female characters, for example, she argues that “it’s not about what you’re able to write, it’s about what occurs to you to write.” Her point here is so astutely and succinctly put, making this show about a good deal more than just the iteration of a classic.

Cohen is adept at switching gears in her performance. This thoughtful slice of gender criticism is sandwiched between a vigorous, Macarena-based attempt to summon her Muse (“invocation bitchesss!) and an audience game of charades. There’s a not-your-ordinary dick joke and a bunch of grapes that stands in for a conch shell. There’s a small, poignant, perfectly designed moment in which Cohen coaxes her audience, simply by lowering their hands, to tell her where ‘Home’ is for them. Through it all, she stands (mostly) majestically in a black floor-length gown, looking pretty much like the fabulous mermaid that could well have formed the prow of Odysseus’ ship. With Cohen as your tour guide, this is one trip you should definitely take.

Mark Grist & MC Mixy: Dead Poets’ Deathmatch, 5/8/14

Dead Poets’ Deathmatch
Mark Grist and MC Mixy
Assembly Studio 5, Venue 17, George Square
05/08/14, 5.30-6.30pm
10th, 12th -24th August, 5.30-6.30pm
£10-12 (£8.50–10.50 concessions)

Review: Kyle Cooper

An 8-bit sprite of Sylvia Plath holding a sword, and the grim reaper himself on the sound deck – this was always going to be an amusing show. Mark Grist and MC Mixy present a collection of raps and poems from the educational and light-hearted to some more sombre fare. The audience are given their pick of eight of the greats: Byron, Raleigh, Hughes, Clare, Plath, Gil Scott-Heron, Burns and Keats. Four are chosen initially, which Grist and Mixy then introduce in a sort of rhythmic potted biography – imagine a hip-hop Wikipedia. These are competent; occasionally a little clunky, but are successful in stirring up some enthusiasm for the poets. The hosts then each present a piece of their own in response to this poet – these are more well-developed. Grist had a particularly nice response to Hughes in re-telling his own experiences with nature in battling the Great Skuas on the Shetland Isles, while Mixy’s rap response to Plath was powerful and rhythmically tight. Two of these four dead poets are then selected, while the hosts dress up to represent them. The show culminates in a rap battle between the two, which is good fun and contains some good quality spoken word.

This show is quality entertainment, approachable and understandable. The two hosts are excellent, and, while some of the pieces are a tad rough, their energy carries the humour of the show through. Well worth a look.

Lucy Ayrton: The Splitting of the Mermaid, 15/8/14

Lucy Ayrton: The Splitting of the Mermaid
Underbelly, Venue 61, 56 Cowgate
15/08/2014 5:20-6:20pm
August 15-24, 5:20-6:20pm

Review: Phoebe Walker

When you’re asked to picture a mermaid, a few too many of us are probably guilty of beaming up a picture of the red-haired, thyroid-eyed, Disneyfied creation, complete with singing crustaceans and a happy-ever-after ending. Lucy Ayrton’s performance of her version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale will wipe all images of Ariel and Flounder out of your head; Ayrton offers us an emphatically feminist version of the tale that avoids all the potentially obvious or clamorous points an interpretation might make. Set under the almost permanently leaden skies of Hull, this is a dark, bewitching creation, and a superb piece of storytelling. Feminist takes on fairy tales inevitably bring to mind the brilliant, bloody work of Angela Carter, but Ayrton fashions something entirely new, retaining the darkness of Christian Andersen’s tale, but steering away from the spiky, gore-strewn narrative that we’ve perhaps come to associate with the modern fable.

The sparseness of Ayrton’s stage reflects just how much this is her creation; the barest elements of the mermaid fable are there, but throughout it is Ayrton’s own style and her story that is being told as she moves expressively across the stage, her long plait of hair swinging. The underwater world is portrayed with a whiff of dystopia; mermaids are not allowed to raise their own children but have to deposit their eggs in a kind of spawning field, which leads one mermaid, May, to make a desperate bargain with a sea witch so that she can go to the human world and bear her own child. Here begins the ‘splitting of the mermaid’, which Ayrton, both in language and body, conveys with powerful, shuddering force. May, washed up on a beach in Hull faces the grim reality of the upper world; a brief fling on a beach, as per the sea witch’s instructions, leaves her with the pregnancy she so desired, but life on earth is cruel. She wanders, starving, through the streets, eating cast away bits of battered cod, slicing her feet open on broken glass. Mike and Dave, two men who go on to play serious roles in May’s life on earth, are well-conveyed by Ayrton, who has their gruff voices, heavy, careless movements and playful shouts of “dickhead” down to a T.

The ending is both sorrowful and hopeful, an admission of impossibility but also a cautiously optimistic reading of the future. Ayrton’s ability to create a story of, at times, almost unbearable sadness and poignancy without ever falling into the traps of mawkishness or melodrama is truly impressive. Her skills as a wordsmith are obvious; the language of ‘Splitting’ flows rhythmically, veering from sections of pure poetry to humour, the bathos of Mike and Dave’s dialogue to May’s voiceless anguish. Some of Ayrton’s rhymes are occasionally a little too conspicuous, but overall the story is seamlessly told, matched by the quick-flit of feelings across Ayrton’s face as a salacious grin gives way to spasms of pain. This is a fairytale told with utter conviction, a painfully exhilarating immersion into worlds above and beneath.