Thursday, 23 September 2010

In Defens: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle emerges from the rock, standing proudly above the city, the flags cracking in the stiff wind. It is imposing, formidable, solid and reassuring – depending on which side you stand – but it is certainly not comfortable.

The great halls are draughty; the stairs are steep; the walls are thick; and the windows narrow. As the weather creeps in through the cracks, the views of Edinburgh are wide and expansive but no number of tapestries and rugs can exclude the chill.

The National War Museum of Scotland explores more than 400 years of Scottish military history. War has given rise to extremes of technology and innovation, and revels in pomp and ceremony. Cabinets contain examples of weaponry; guns, daggers, dirks and bayonets. Rituals involve medals and dress uniforms. Paintings and letters capture coloured versions of history – ‘Butcher Cumberland’ and Culloden are frequently mentioned as is the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 at which the English Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell defeated a Scottish army and enforced military union with England.

Agreed union came about in 1707 but that was far from the end of the skirmishes including the Jacobite rebellions and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Victorian era romanticised the Highlands (just like the last 50 years have romanticised the Irish Boglands) and all things Celtic, such as the re-emergence of tartan and the preponderance of kilts, which were worn by the army until 1940. A further exhibition, Land Girls and Lumber Jills, shows how the women were involved in military work while remaining at home – planting and reaping harvests to feed the population and provide timber.

A voice-over recording explains that Scotland’s history is military, and that disbanding their armies has been particularly tough. ‘Famous regiments with famous names have been disbanded regardless of their achievements and long service.’ Although The Black Watch are not specifically mentioned, it is hard not to think of them, especially having seen the phenomenal National Theatre of Scotland play of the same name.
Pipe bands play as we roam the parapets – the mournful sound drifting down over the city and reinforcing the elegiac effect of this place on the rock. Modern munitions are represented by the crates of fireworks that will be let off later in the weekend to celebrate the end of the festival. We missed the Edinburgh Tattoo by a day. I can’t say that I’m sad about that, being slightly disturbed by the orgiastic parade of military might (I favour John Hegley’s argument here). There is definitely a pent-up feeling of barely restrained anger without an outlet around these walls.

St Margaret’s Chapel provides a quiet place for contemplation, however. The diminutive building is the oldest in Scotland, built for her by her youngest son, King David around 1130. Even this beautiful but spartan building with its stained glass windows commemorating the saint (Margaret was canonised in 1250 for her pious and charitable acts) has not always been used for worship – from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century it was a gunpowder store.
The Scottish National War Memorial is within the castle walls at Crown Square – built in 1927 in a somewhat austere art deco style. It was to commemorate the approximately 150,000 Scottish casualties of the First World War in the Hall of Honour. The names of the dead now extend to over 50,000 in the Second World War and the campaigns since 1945 including the Mayan Emergency, the Korean War, Northern Ireland, the Falklands War and the Gulf War. So many dead soldiers; Scotland remembers.
A particularly poignant cemetery is for the soldiers’ dogs, so there are gravestones for Tinker and Scamp, and other officer’s pets and regimental mascots. It has been in use since Queen Victoria’s time and is a perfect example of era’s blend of maudlin sentimentality with dignified respect.

A queue announces the whereabouts of the Scottish Crown Jewels (otherwise known as the Honours) and people shuffle through the exhibit which tells their story, anxious to get a glimpse of the crown, sceptre, orb and the seat of kings (and queens), The Stone of Destiny.

Apparently they still have a ceremonial part to play and the Queen symbolically presented them to the opening of the Scottish parliament but, the way things stand at present, no one will ever again wear the Crown of Scotland. No wonder ‘it’s in good nick’ as Him Outdoors says, ‘it’s not been used much’.

In my defens God me defend is the motto of the Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland, often simply abbreviated in modern English to 'In Defence'. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the capital's castle where the sense of righteous indignation simmers palpably beneath the surface.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Two Plays in Spanish in Edinburgh

Chilean theatre performed in Spanish as part of the Edinburgh Festival – why not? It’s all about multiculturalism after all. The plays have ‘supertitles’ – screens to the side of the stage on which the English translation is projected. Sometimes this can be very distracting – especially when there is a long stream of dialogue which you can’t read fast enough to keep up and you feel you either have to miss some words (I’m sure the translators do anyway), or miss some action. I chose the former, as I figure that actions speak louder than words and with the universality of theatre, this is generally true.

The Man Who Fed Butterflies (Teatro Cinema)
Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
29 August – 4 September 2010

The multi-media production is visually arresting if not emotionally engaging. There are three interwoven stories: an old man who towards the end of his life revitalises an ancient tradition of feeding butterflies with nectar (they are the spirits of dead warriors trying to find their kingdom, apparently); a director makes an epic film about a knight and his lady love; and a woman who has been in a coma for many years after being shot during a police demonstration.

The play blends film and live action in an intriguing manner in which the actors work with each other as well as shadows and projections of themselves. Changing positions and perspectives confuse more than they clarify and the hallucinogenic sound-track enhances the hypnotic ambience. The special effects are probably crude in comparison with cinematic tricks but they form the basis of the show and Teatro Cinema are acclaimed for their innovation.

The Butterfly Effect is often mentioned in relation to Chaos Theory in which it is propounded that small actions such as the beat of a butterfly’s wing may have profound effects such as causing a tidal wave. This may all be a bit much so it’s probably best just to enjoy the illusions and let them wash over you without examining them too closely.

The Man Who Fed Butterflies asks questions about the true potential of the human mind, the nature of acting (one of the actors of the film within a play says, ‘I prefer theatre’ – I think I do too) and the importance of fantasy as an antidote to the harsh realities of life and loneliness. It is easy to admire but not to identify and, as all the characters wear masks their stories are representative rather than real. It makes me think; but it doesn’t make me feel.

Diciembre (Teatro en el Blanco)
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
2-4 September 2010

2014 is the new 1984 in Guilllermo Calderon’s play, Diciembre. It’s the predicted dystopia in the near future when the tensions in South America have exploded and Chile is at war with Peru and the Bolivias (which are no longer one country). In December, the season of ‘sad celebrations’, the young soldier Jorge (Jorge Becker) returns on leave to find his older twin sisters both pregnant and both with their ideas for his future.

Paula (Mariana Muñoz) hates with a passion and she rants against the imperialist enemies, desperate for Jorge to return to battle and kill them all. Trini (Trinidad González) is a pacifist who would rather hide and protect her brother; she merely wants love and affection, even if she gets it through sticking her finger into the eye socket of the eyeless army deserters. Jorge plays his sisters off against each other while wanting to know who are the fathers of their unborn babies.

Despite the strong social element the play has both a human and an absurdist feel as the sibling rivalries and political passions break free around the Christmas dinner table like an elaborate tango. Each of the actors plays another character (the drunken auntie; Father Christmas; the rejected lover) which is a heightened version of their more ‘natural’ self.

In many ways, this is a typical Christmas dinner with all the accompanying arguments, drunken relations and revelations, and enhanced festive sentiment. Due to power cuts, the tangle of coloured bulbs that illuminate the spare set of an off-centre table flicker on and off in different configurations like the end of a party that has got out of control.

Teatro en el Blanco have produced a highly charged and dramatic work of black humour. Whether engaging with the domestic dynamics or reflecting on the nature of war (Machu Picchu has been destroyed and ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’ indeed), this is a powerful drama even to someone who knows very little about South American politics. The fast-paced dialogue, gradual reveals, quick changes of character and rapid-fire South American Spanish all combine to heighten the challenging. I am left reeling and with feeling of sensuous exhaustion that makes me so glad that it is not Christmas every day.