Edinburgh city was beautiful to eyes that had not seen it for several years. These were eyes that, while not dismissing the evident glory of the place, were being fed into by memory and delighting in recognition. The high stone walls, the architectural tendency to introduce bits of castle, towers, castellations, at every opportunity. The ups, the downs, the noisy cobbles and, endearingly, light waves of green grass seeping over them in less frequented parts. Green and grey: such colours of northern richness to this southerner hardened by the desert hues of her own lawn and all the fields of the southeast drought region.
The first night was Sir Ian McKellen in a creatively conceived balletic form of Hamlet. This was certainly, at one level, a vanity production but it was clever and engaging too. It helped in interpretation if one knew the play well. Indeed, I would say that was essential. There were unusual aspects included the idea of having two Hamlets, old Sir Ian (aged 83 in real life) giving the important monologues and a younger man doing the lively bits.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were another pair wittily shown, the two clownishly hopping about, pushed by convention and social insecurity into awkwardness and ill temper. They were abused. Abuse was an unpleasant aspect of the production with much unnecessary roughing up of both Ophelia and Gertrude. The final scenes were effective beginning with the play-within-a-play. The dramatic finale did not fail.
At the University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” by David Greig was a wonderful offering. Described as ‘a wild session of anarchic theatre, haunting, authentic folk music and strange goings-on’, it was one of those rewarding experiences that bring us back to Edinburgh as often as any of us can manage to get there.
A comedy about conflict
My favourite venue, the Traverse Theatre, did not disappoint. “The Last Return” by playwright Sonya Kelly was an absorbing and entertaining production featuring friction in a theatre queue that escalates to the point of death. It is described as “a thrilling comedy about conflict, peace and the pursuit of territory at any cost”. But the visit was not really meant for the Fringe, although once there one could scarcely resist a few events.
House and garden
The visit to Scotland at the end of August included an outing to Little Sparta, an architectural garden created by Ian Hamilton Finlay at a farm called Stonypath in the Pentland Hills. The seven-acre hillside is divided into many different areas of charming landscape designs and careful plantings. In addition, the many three-dimensional forms almost qualify the site as a sculpture park. Influenced by the Services, the World Wars and the classics, the works take the form of stone monuments such as tablets, urns and pillars, many of them inscribed with quotes or decorated with floral motifs.
One day was devoted to Dumfries House, one of the major projects of Prince Charles prior to his accession to the throne as King Charles III. It is a handsome house with an excellent café and a fine collection of Chippendale furniture. The grounds are magnificent, and secreted in various buildings amongst them are other royal ventures. The enterprise has greatly benefited the economy of East Ayrshire and is popular with locals. Nearby is a housing estate called Knockroon, intended as a follow up to the rather successfully designed Poundbury, but it was curtailed early and it is not clear whether it will continue as planned or not.
Before returning South, a day was spent in Glasgow visiting the newly refurbished Burrell Collection. The extended building and imaginative display of exceptional objects leads the way amongst the various galleries and museums of the UK. Nothing in Scotland disappointed, not even the weather on this occasion.
Affection is not always mutual
My impression is that, while we in England love the nation of Scotland, the affection is not so readily returned. At a personal level, everyone you meet is as kind and helpful as can be but the tone of public discourse towards their neighbour to the south and towards Westminster in particular is not warm. With a second Independence Referendum in the planning, we can only hope that the threat of separation fades and that we remain united. Scotland has much to teach us about European values and a more egalitarian and humanitarian approach to our own people. If our great northern cities could become as European in their outlook and as confident in their sense of themselves as Edinburgh is … if London could feel itself to be one amongst equals …
And finally, to reconsider all the fun of the festival…