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A truncated day.  M and I spend most of the morning going to the nearest post office and parcelling up the books to be posted home.   Eventually we are finished and we have lunch at a small French café on Broughton Street – baguettes and tarts and coffee.  Then we try to get a bus to the Pleasance, but the automated timetable for the number 8 bus says there are none for half an hour and the two at once.  We decide to walk.

Helen Keen, Robot Woman of Tomorrow, is entertaining enough, but the venue is very hot and I nod off a couple of times.  Then K wants to go to Waverley to buy a ticket for tomorrow.  We stagger down the hill to the flat.

Dinner with L at L’Escargot Bleu.  They have run out of truffle liqueur for the aperitifs, oh noes!  But things get better.  I have oysters, with traditional accompaniments, and seaweed butter for the bread.  Then rabbit leg with prunes, the meat sweet and tender, the sauce sweet and rich.  We drink a very nice red wine called Le Chataignier.  Karen and I share cheese for pudding.  Nice cheese, the quantities a bit scanty. 

Then back up the hill to the Book Festival to see Christopher Brookmyre and Mark Billington.  We are determined to get there in time, and in the end spend about fifteen minutes in a very long queue.  I am not sure what we were expecting – we booked it because both M and I like Christopher Brookmyre, and neither of us had heard of the other bloke.  Traditionally the book festival is rather genteel.  This is a riot. 

The authors stand on the stage side by side, exchanging anecdotes that are increasingly obscene and hilarious, reading out readers’ emails and discussing the BBC’s policy on swear words.  Brookmyre once submitted a radio play with forty instances of the F word.  Forty was deemed to be too many.  He was allowed fifteen.  They wondered whether writers could organise to share quotas, and whether they might be allowed to swap five F words for a C word.  It was funnier than any of the stand-up shows we had been to, and the audience was screaming with laughter.  A fitting end to the holiday.

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Visit to M’s parents’ flat to go through stuff.  M finds books and a picture he would like to keep.  I also find some books.  We lug back to flat on the bus.

Lunch at an Italian restaurant on Broughton St – Locanda de Gusti.  We order a mixed platter, and are astonished by a huge number of small dishes, some hot (pepper stuffed with couscous and pesto, grilled vegetables with tapenade, fried sausages and potatoes), some cold (spicy sausage, anchovies, seafood salad, rocket salad).  While we are eating some other people come in and order the day’s special, which seems to be an enormous assortment of crab, crayfish and prawns.  It looks amazing.  Maybe I will have to come back another time.  Having cleaned all our plates, we go on to Italian desserts (I have a cannolo, M has sfogliatella and K has plum and almond cake) and coffee.

Then up to the Spiegeltent in George Square, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The company start off as a group of teenagers in detention, forced to read the play by their dynamic teacher, Mr Goodfellow.  But then the scene opens up and we get to Athens.  It’s an excellent production, probably one of the best that I’ve seen (and that includes my visit to The Globe in London).  The text has been expertly cut, including the fairies who are only present as a murmur of sound in the background.  The cast deliver their lines with clarity and understanding.  There’s a lot of physical comedy.  The rustics are funny, Oberon and Titania are sexy.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Then we have a couple of hours before the Les Clochards in a different tent about 50 yards away.  We sit on a bench in the sunshine and eat spicy bahn mi baguettes.  The Les Clochards are a band dressed as tramps, who perform high energy versions of songs that they complain bitterly were stolen from them.  Standout ones were Like a Virgin, Girls just Wanna have Fun, and Sledgehammer (“Do you know where that Peter Gabriel lives?” they ask plaintively).  For an encore two of them came out wearing only their tattoos and very holey underpants, and sang The Number of the Beast, which was just gob-smacking.

Then off to two less successful performances, the Trojan Women (but not unfortunately the Euripides version), and Tania Edwards, a stand-up comedian. The flyers for her show, Killer Instinct, picture her holding a tabby cat, and the blurb refers to an unhappy ending with a cement mixer.  “I bet the cat gets it” I mutter as we and the other six audience members head into the venue.  And indeed it does.

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K and I rush M out of the flat this morning at 11 am so that we can go to a jewellery exhibition before lunch.  Poor M opts for more sleep rather than breakfast, but manages to squeeze in a pudding at lunchtime (lemon posset, if anybody is interested).

Our next show, Coalition is political satire, set in 2014 as the next General Election looms on the horizon, and the Lib Dems tear themselves apart under the strain of broken electoral promises.  The Tories see less and less need to placate their coalition partners, and for every small concession exact a large step backwards from their 2010 election manifesto.   The hapless leader of the Lib Dems, Matt Cooper, has just agreed to support a programme of building nuclear power stations.  The energy secretary resigns and the Lib Dems are left trying to find a candidate to fight the ensuing by-election.  Clegg is savvier than the hapless Cooper, and the Tories less Machiavellian than they are portrayed here (no, really!), but there are enough uncomfortable truths in the production to make us feel…uncomfortable.  Indeed, a couple of people stalk out of the performance, declaring that they are Lib Dems and won’t stand for this rubbish.  What did they expect, we wonder?  Phill Jupitus is a wonderfully oleaginous Tory fixer, and Jo Caulfield convincing as the cynical, world-weary Lib Dem chief whip. Amidst the wreckage Cooper is left muttering his mantra:  “Gladstone, Lloyd George, Attlee, Grimond, Cooper”.  “Never mind,” says Macintosh, the Tory pm who finally finds a space in his diary to see Cooper.  “You’ll end up with a seat in the Lords.”

Then it’s back to the Museum to see an exhibition on Catherine the Great.  The desk downstairs is labelled “information and tickets”.  Despite this, when we finally manage to speak to one of the underemployed staff manning the desk, they refuse to sell us tickets.  “Oh, no, you want the third floor”.  

After several minutes of waiting one of the new shiny lifts arrives.  There is indeed a ticket desk on the third floor, manned by two staff.  One of them is explaining something in great detail to a pair of tourists.  The other one is standing around aimlessly.  We try to buy tickets from him.  “Oh no, you need to speak to Nicole.” (She is the occupied one).  Several minutes later, Nicole is finally free.  By now we have exactly an hour to see the exhibition.  “Sorry you had to wait,” says Nicole cheerfully.  She gives us a discount on the grounds of shortness of time.  This is a somewhat bizarre business model, but what the hell.

The exhibition is odd but informative.  We learn all sorts of interesting things about Catherine the Great.  The first is that she was not Russian, but German.  The second is that her name was in fact Sophie.  The third is that she seized power after her husband’s aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, died and she probably did away with her husband, the emperor Peter III.  We spend some time wondering why her monogram was the letter E rather than C.  “Is it Cyrillic?” wonders Michael.  He is very nearly right, as a little later it is revealed that the Russian form of Catherine is of course Ekaterina.  The objects in the exhibition are rather less interesting than the history, being comprised mostly of various sets of china, clothes and furniture from the royal palaces.  Catherine was a serious collector of art, (as opposed to the china, which I think she mostly accumulated) but this is only really demonstrated by a film about her palaces, oh, and some actual Roman stuff, displayed in the last room.

After this we meet up with A and J to go for a curry, before our final show of the day, Quantum Battlestar Deep-Space Voyager Tardis Wars.  With a title like that you would be justified in expecting an Ian Sorenson-style production, and you would be more or less right, although it is more professionally done (probably due to additional rehearsal time).  I was going to say it had better special effects, but I don’t think that was in fact true.  I think everyone enjoyed it, but I was mostly asleep by then.

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The only trouble with our idyllic flat (posh furniture, all mod cons, quiet, free wi-fi) is that the basement (where the bedrooms are) is a bit damp and musty-smelling.  When we arrived the agent had opened all the windows, and it became clear why after we returned the first evening. It mostly fine if you leave the windows open, but as we are out all day we can’t do that. It doesn’t help that the elegant claw-footed bath in the designer bathroom leaks.  That is, the bath doesn’t leak, but the shower screen does, as there is a gap between it and the side of the bath.  Oh well, not our problem.  We have stuffed a towel under it.

Only two shows booked today, one re the Arctic, one re the Antarctic.  The Arctic one is called Thin Ice, and is on at the Pleasance.  We get into the mood by climbing a lot of industrial metal steps to the theatre and sitting in its extremely efficient air-conditioning for the next hour and a half.

Thin Ice is a sort of thriller set in the 2nd World War, and the scene shifts between Cambridge and Greenland, where scientists are observing weather patterns and changes in the ice.  The weather patterns are important for aircraft, but the changes in the ice are an early indication of climate change.

The play opens with one of the scientists (a Jewish refugee) being found frozen in an arctic hut, clutching a sheaf of papers and an Inuit talisman.  What has killed him?  Did he kill himself after receiving the news that his remaining family were in Dachau?  Was it a malevolent spirit that the local Inuit report as being out there on the ice?  Was it carbon monoxide poisoning?

The play contains references to absolutely everything about the arctic – northern lights, Inuit, polar bears, katabatic winds, Danish colonialism, but what it’s actually about is two ways of looking at the world.  The scientific way which denies the existence of what you can’t perceive or test, and the intuitive way which says that there are things out there that you cannot register scientifically, but if you ignore them they can poison you.  Early on we are played an extract from Schubert’s Erl-Konig, in which a child dies declaring he has been attacked by a supernatural being, the Erl-King, which the boy’s father cannot see.  The child may have died of a fever – the poem leaves it open.  Fascinating and thought-provoking.

Then David Bann’s for lunch, a vegetarian restaurant with a fabulous range of puddings.  M has the assiette of desserts for two to share, but manages to polish it off by himself.  After that we go shopping at favourite clothes shop Ragamuffin, source of baggy clothes and funky knitwear. 

Unfortunately we spend so much time shopping that when we get out it is only fifteen minutes until the start of the next item, a discussion at the Book Festival between Gabrielle Walker and John Harrison about Antarctica.  It is not actually possible to get from the Royal Mile to Charlotte Square (at the far end of George Street) through hordes of tourists and festival visitors, in a quarter of an hour, although we try.  All taxis have mysteriously vanished.  We get there five minutes late and they won’t let us in.  I am cross and embarrassed.  We sit and have a coffee and look at books to recover.

Then we try to find a bus that will take us to Bruntsfield, where M’s sister lives, and we have been invited to dinner.  This is not as easy as it ought to be.  Having visited Edinburgh for many years I’m actually quite familiar with the buses that go south to Bruntsfield and Morningside.  But Edinburgh has been devastated by the works for installing the new tram system, and the bus routes have all been moved. 

It’s hard to describe quite how disfigured Edinburgh is at the moment.  There are tram works along Princes Street, but also all over the New Town roads are blocked off, torn up and boarded over.  The city is like a patient in the middle of root canal work.  I had had a vague idea that the trams might be operating by now – after all, even Cambridge’s own over-time-and-over-budget council vanity project, the Misguided Bus, is up and running - but no.  The taxi driver who brought us from the station was incandescent with rage.  It will apparently take another two years.

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We spend the morning going through the Fringe Brochure and the Book Festival brochure which M had thoughtfully picked up yesterday.  K organises us and we decide on a full programme ranging from two to four items a day.  It’s harder to decide on what to wear.  By the time we set out for the fringe office it is muggy and overcast, and there is the promise of rain.

As our flat is in the New Town, which is north of the city centre, it is on the long slope downwards from Castle Rock to the Firth of Forth.  Everywhere we want to go (except perhaps for the Botanic Gardens) is Up.  We toil up Scotland Street and Dublin Street towards the Royal Mile.  Karen has thoughtfully become a Friend of the Fringe, which entitles her to 10% off in the Fringe shop, two for one on some shows, and seats with cushions to sit on while booking our tickets.  We get tickets for almost everything on our list, except Reginald D Hunter and Fascinating Aida.  Oh well.  We were long on musical comedy anyway.

Then it’s a quick pub lunch in Tiles (Victorian tiled bar, which I don’t think I’d ever been in) and off to our first Fringe show, Mitch Benn.  He is in good form and finishes off with the BBC song, which makes me happy.  He also has a new song inspired by the inflatable Olympic Stonehenge, called the Bouncy Druid song.  I hope Liz and Trevor have heard this.  In case not, here is a link.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVs7mPy4aRk&noredirect=1

At Mitch Benn we also bump into L.   After the show M of course wants to get the new CD and while he is doing this (with added fanboy chit chat) we arrange with L to go off to the Aperol stand on George Street to drink cocktails .  Of course it comes on to pour at this point so we stand under a very crowded canopy sipping fizzy drinks that taste a bit better than alcoholic cough medicine.

Off to the Pleasance to see the Beta Males in The Space Race, set in the quaint country village of Lower Birchly in 1969, which happens also to be the location of Britain’s top-secret space programme run by the utterly barmy Professor Brian Brilliance.  Much hilarity ensues.

After that we walk in the rain to our next show, which turns out to be the most thought provoking one of the day.  More Light is set in the first Emperor’s tomb as his concubines are walled in and left to die.  More Light is the name of the lead concubine, who decides that they need to consume the corpse of the emperor to survive, and then that they need to go in search of more meat.  It is only on the threshold of death that the concubines find a sort of freedom from the stifling restrictions of their lives.   It’s compellingly staged, with interesting visual images, and a couple of moments when I literally felt the hair stand up on my head. 

Dinner at Bonsai, a favourite Japanese restaurant.  We order lots of things we like, including salmon skin sushi, okonomiyaki, scallop sashimi.  M has tempura bananas for pudding.

Then back to the Pleasance for the final show, The Three Musketeers presented by Barbershopera, an a capella troupe of three men and one woman.  It is musical comedy (did I mention that we had lots of those?).  In this version Nicole d’Artagnan is forced to don men’s clothing and join the musketeers in order to foil the dastardly plots of Cardinal Richtea who wants to build a holiday home on her home village of Pissypooville.  But before the musketeers can do this they have to go to England to retrieve the golden plums of Charlemagne that the King has inexplicably (oh all right, not very inexplicably) given to his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.  It ends with a hymn to gay marriage and democracy.

As it has finally stopped raining, we walk home.  Downhill all the way!

Edinburgh

Aug. 19th, 2012 10:29 am
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Travel to Edinburgh uneventful but hot in a crowded train which, on the hottest day of the year, had lost its air-conditioning.  In the seats behind us men were drinking beer and talking more and more loudly as the journey progressed, occasionally breaking into song.  After Durham the train started to empty and they moved.

Taxi to the flat which is in Royal Crescent.  It’s incredibly quiet.  Not sure if the ceilings are 10 foot or 12 foot high.  All very comfortable, and decorated in Farrow and Ball, with muted, restful colours.

M and K went to Tescos while I went flop and put away my clothes.  Then out to our first actual Festival event, Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.  K and I dressed up.  We headed to the bar for white wine in plastic cups and sat on the steps in the sunshine.

The performance was terrific.  I had never seen traditional Kathak dance before.  The dancers wore ankle bells that rattled as they whirled and stamped.  Head, neck and arm movements were as graceful and precise as classical ballet.  The movements were clearly a language, but one which was closed to us. In the first part they wore traditional clothes, the women in golden bodices and skirts of gold net, or silk red, yellow, orange.  The men wore gold tunics.  Musicians were on the stage, singing and drumming.

The second half was modern, the dancers in grey linen without ankle bells.  I thought that this would be less entertaining, but it was fascinating.  The moves were influenced by yoga – I recognised the sun salutation - and apparently by Indian martial arts.  Afterwards we walked home, M and K discussing how it was better than ballet.  Hold on, I thought, perturbed.  Nothing is better than ballet!

We had dinner at Nargile’s, mezze and kebabs.  The mezze were fresh and full of herbs, dill and maybe tarragon. 

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