Edinburgh Festival 2015 Round-Up
Sean Wai Keung
[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]
The Edinburgh Fringe is internationally renowned for being home to some of the most cutting edge artists working in almost all forms – from dance to visual art to theatre to spoken word. Of course, cutting edge does not necessarily mean ‘good’. From the most mainstream of the mainstream right down to the most experimental collaborations imaginable, the Fringe is the place to both try out new things and to entertain audiences with old material. Naturally, reviewers are the heart of all of this (OK, maybe not the heart – but a kidney or two at least), and as such I spent my Fringe seeing as much spoken word and poetry as was humanly possible. Unfortunately I still wasn’t able to see it all, and apologies to all the artists and shows I simply couldn’t get to, but what I did see renewed my faith in the possibilities of spoken word as a form.
My first venue is the Banshee Labyrinth, something of a home to many spoken word artists throughout the Fringe. Consisting of three to four event rooms, a cinema, a sizable drinking area and a well-stocked bar, the dark, dingy pub seems a rather fitting place for poets to gather. Tina Sederholm’s The Good Delusion starts the afternoon off well. While mostly biographical, Sederholm focuses her life story around ideas of balance – the balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘reality’ and ‘expectation’. She manages to show off her skills as a performer by engaging with the audience, and to discuss her ideas without any form of preaching, all while maintaining an engaging narrative. While not the most original of topics, her personal perspective is definitely fresh enough to make it seem new – after all, who else could realistically discuss the disappointment of meeting a real life princess as opposed to an imagined one?
Next is Harry Baker and The Sunshine Kid. Baker is by now well-renowned for his performative energy and pun-heavy poetry, and The Sunshine Kid is no exception. The show serves as a great introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his back catalogue of performances and he works the crowd well in the moments between fan favourites such as Paper People and The Scientist and the Bumblebee. Precisely because of this, those who are already familiar with his work may leave disappointed at the lack of new material or any real linear thread between each poem, but the fact remains that Baker is a master at what he does, and what he does will light up even the dingiest of rooms.
The George Next Door venue is almost the exact opposite of the Banshee. Consisting of a series of connected rooms (all of which are in various states of decay and/or construction), it’s the complete stereotypical Fringe venue, with horrible acoustics and fourth/fifth-hand sound systems to boot. Which also makes it a great place to see Liam McCormick’s Govanhell, a show all about the Govanhill district of Glasgow and McCormick’s relationship to it. As someone who had never heard of Govanhill before, it’s a testament to McCormick’s poetry that by the end I feel a real connection to the place despite not ever being there. McCormick’s performance style is shouty, fast-paced and vitriolic, yet he manages to balance this with calm moments of narrative, humour and statistics, showing a real skill in terms of creating a spoken word ‘show’ as opposed to simply a longer spoken word ‘set’. Govanhell is a real triumph for those who enjoy seeing the dark places of the world lit up, briefly.
California Scheming by Clare Ferguson-Walker is in the same venue but also wildly different. Focusing around the expectations/reality of an artsy trip to California as seen through the eyes of the Wales based poet, Ferguson-Walker masterfully weaves humour through what could have been a serious, pretentious subject. Poets writing/performing about their travels is often done badly, but Ferguson-Walker uses her travelling as a method of exploration into the similarities and differences between Wales and California, especially in terms of their individual perspectives on art and the place of the ‘artist’ in society. At times her relentless rhymes and rhythms run dangerously close to becoming stale, but it is at these moments that she breaks away and either addresses her audience directly or drops a funny aside, keeping everyone in the room entertained. Truly wonderful.
Much further out from the city than most of the other venues, Clerks Bar claims to be the ‘home of spoken word’ for the Fringe. It’s a much classier bar in terms of decor, with some of the most comfortable chairs imaginable, but still suffers from a bad background noise problem. This is unfortunately a real issue with Dreamscape Wanderer by Mike Galsworthy, who asks his audience to close their eyes for his entire show, before beginning a meditative, surreal story based in the land of dreams and accompanied by a backing track of complimentary sounds. As a Fringe spoken word show, it’s a brave and interesting experiment, and I imagine that in a quieter setting it would work much better. Galsworthy’s rhythm, use of voice and the aforementioned soundscape work incredibly well as a poetic force and create an atmospheric narrative somewhere between spoken word, storytelling and guided meditation – when not interrupted by the shouts and noise from the bar upstairs. Despite this, I leave Dreamscape Wanderer looking forward to seeing it again in a different setting, but still having enjoyed my time away from the real world, if only for a little while.
Also at Clerks I have the pleasure of seeing Is This Poetry? – a collaborative show by Andrew Blair and Ross McCleary. Is This Poetry? still suffers from the bar noise but not to the same extent, especially for the shouting bundle of energy which is Ross McCleary. McCleary goes from standing still and shaking on stage to crawling over tables to standing on chairs at the back of the audience, all while shouting much of his poetry, and all while the much more laidback Andrew Blair simply stands in a corner looking slightly confused and lost, delivering his own brand of dry, magical poetry. Their interactions with each other are just as good as their individual pieces, which all lie under the umbrella of asking what exactly poetry, especially Edinburgh poetry, is and/or isn’t. They make fun of poets, poetry, spoken word, slams, artists, the Scottish, the English and themselves, to the point where the answer to the titular question no longer matters – as long as the asking is fun (which it really is). Is This Poetry? is definitely one of the highlights of the Fringe.
Another highlight is In Case We Disappear by Toronto-based Vanessa Smythe at Moriarty’s. Smythe is one of those rare performers who can get away with being sincere, witty, powerful and moving all at the same time. She focuses on the abilities and inabilities of communication – the true and false connections made during life, utilising all the possibilities of spoken word as a form to convey these discussions. She goes from singing to speaking to silence and beyond, and everything she does bristles with meaning, partly through her actions and expressions, partly through her words and rhythms. Her poems range from narrative to one half of a conversation to heartfelt messages to loved ones, all while using simple language to convey honest, real emotion. In Case We Disappear is one of those shows which I will smile about for years to come.
For every incredibly personal show, there is an incredibly political show. Politics has always played a role in spoken word, and one of the most overt examples of this is Money is as Innocent as the Gun by Geoff Winde. Winde tackles the subject of finance well, intertwining narrative, agenda and pure language to explore the absurdity of money in a playful, calm manner. This is done most successfully during the segments of pure language, where repeated words and semantic shifts blur into a whirlwind of confusion for both artist and audience. However, about halfway through, Winde seems to run out of things to really ‘say’, and it feels like he’s repeating his message again and again, only in slightly different ways. Structurally, his beginning and ending are masterful in their subtle introduction and conclusion, but somewhere during the middle I became lost in his unclear message – money causes problems, yes, but what does that mean we should do?
On the other hand, Hannah Chutzpah’s Asking Nicely is much less subtle in terms of political exploration, but also much easier to follow thematically. Chutzpah tackles the big topics of permission, responsibility and societal roles (gender, sexuality, class, age) with great enthusiasm, utilising images to create a very low-tech poetry power-point which works well with her natural warm charisma. While not necessarily doing or saying anything ground-breaking or new, Asking Nicely still feels very necessary in terms of modern political topics, but still contains enough personality to carry weight as a single unified show. Chutzpah’s poetry can sometimes fall into very similar repeated rhythms, but she manages to add enough humour and wit to her content that her delivery avoids becoming stale.
All in all, the 2015 Fringe was a huge success for the spoken word scene. It showcased a wide variety of styles and themes from all over the world, in all different kinds of venues. As well as the individual shows, Banshee Labyrinth hosted a nightly Hammer & Tongue event, as well as special one-off Say Owt Slam and the always-worth-seeing Anti-Slam, where great poets do purposefully bad poems in the name of pure fun. The Scottish Storytelling Centre housed the Loud Poets, showcasing some of the most talented spoken word artists imaginable, and Chiquito featured Poets Against Humanity – where, amongst other poems, Gatwick by Craig Raine was improved considerably through the replacing certain phrases with others taken from the game ‘Cards Against Humanity’. Nights like these were not only fun and relaxed, but also provided a welcome break for poets and poetry fans from every walk of life against the madness of the Fringe. If anyone still believes that writers have to work in isolation, or that poetry and spoken word is a dying or dead form, I dare them to experience the Edinburgh Festival and not have their minds changed.