Samuel Beckett and the Islamic State

Attending the Edinburgh Fringe is like entering a bubble that insulates you from the rest of the world. The exhaustion of trailing from one event to the next; the crowds you struggle through or sit among; the constant demand – sometimes assault – on your imagination: it is unreal, culture and entertainment the purpose of life, not a distraction; or hyper-real with its sense of being more vividly, if exactingly alive. This year, however, the drag on my attention of events outside the bubble has been stronger, a change in me perhaps or a sign of the times. The amount of comedy on offer does what never seemed possible, feel excessive. I craved seriousness or humour that was less shallow and disposable. Likewise engagement with the referendum campaign, but performers fought shy of the subject, taboo-flouters nervous about misreading the mood. And I read reports concerning the Islamic state; compared its murderous puritanism with the festival of the human spirit happening around me; and wondered if freedom of expression would necessarily triumph over its many foes.

The stand-up we attended varied in quality and style. Andy Zaltzman disappointed slightly, always likeable but relying on audience input for his satire, not all of which worked. Glen Wool’s poster made him look like Woody Guthrie but he turned out to be foul-mouthed for the sake of it, as if that were transgressive any more. And Michael Mittermeier traded too heavily on national stereotypes, even if one of them was his own. Only Simon Munnery flew the flag with any originality: surreal, intelligent, bewildering at times, incurably daft.
Drama with laughs proved more consistently satisfying. Shakespeare for Breakfast never fails, pantomime silliness that is both innocent and inventive. A revival of Mark Ravenhill’s Product, ably performed by Olivia Poulet, raised some laughs at Hollywood’s expense, although as a target this was far too easy. The film business vacuous and amoral: who knew? Harold Pinter’s radio play, A Slight Ache, translated well to the stage, despite the smallness of the venue and the youth of its cast. And John B. Keane’s comedy, The Matchmaker, was a delight, the script having been turned into an epistolary two-hander. The language was funny and true, the performances winning if not quite word-perfect, the insights into Irish rural life both specific and universal, that trick great art somehow manages to perform.

Imagination, quirkiness, the unexpected: that is what one remembers most vividly – along, strangely, with things that fall flat. They have in common an endearing courage, not to say self-delusion, that induces people to hire a venue and expose themselves (sometimes literally) on a makeshift stage. Now We Are Pope was an attempt to dramatise the last hours of Frederick Rolfe, a monologue with too much back story and not enough presence in the acting. A poky, out-of-the-way room, a tiny audience, and afterwards a stumble, head-scratching, into the light: this is classic Fringe, as indispensible to one’s experience of the event as any five-star triumph. Picnic in the Cemetery was a Macao-based trio in an even smaller venue before an even smaller crowd playing music with the busy surface and melodic meandering of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass. Judgement clouded, perhaps, by our own fondness for that part of the world we bought the CD. And then there was Naomi Paul, talking and singing songs about being Jewish, living in Birmingham, saving libraries and escaping from the Moonies: brave, gentle, subtle, wry and curiously inspiring.
Private Peaceful, our one entirely serious drama, which has been adapted from a Michael Murpurgo story, caused disappointment bordering on offence. Not the subject matter – a young Tommy’s last night before being shot for cowardice in WW1; nor the performance by Andy Daniel, which was whole-hearted and deeply-felt; but the depressing conventionality of language and form. The two world wars produced convulsions in the arts, more keenly to express the depths of horror that had been plumbed. This version of war’s tragedy belonged to the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule: inoffensive, platitudinous, middle-of-the-road.

In contrast our highlight of this year’s festival was Title and Deed by Will Eno, featuring the incomparable Conor Lovett. His performance of Beckett’s First Love was the highlight of a previous Fringe; the company he is attached to specialises in the great man’s work; and Eno is heir to that bleak, funny, absurdist tradition. A recent arrival in an unspecified place, the single, anonymous character reminisces about the bizarre traditions of his native land, reflects on the difficulties of adjusting to his adopted home and attempts to interact with his new compatriots, sitting before him in the dark. Lovett’s use of facial expression, gesture and ambiguous silence presented, almost more than the words, a man out of kilter with the world, a life spent groping for affection, meaning and significance. This draws on Beckett’s vision of what it means to be alive, in its own way as uncompromising as Islamism but more useful to those of us living in a world drained of belief. As I watched, and for some time afterwards, I thought of those genocidal zealots in Syria and Iraq, who make al-Qaeda seem reasonable. The contrast might, on the face of it, seem far-fetched but concerns nothing less than the future of mankind. Can muddling through, laughable but laughing and groping towards one’s own sense of what is real, prevail against the absolutism of certainty in its numerous impostures? Or, to put it another way, can the priests be defeated by the artists and the clowns?