Mayvin's James Traeger shares his thoughts on exploring real experience through art.
I stood before the Van Gogh in the National Gallery of Scotland. It wasn’t a well-known Van Gogh. There wasn’t a sunflower in sight. It was a simple rendering of an oblique view along Parisian river. It was quite small; about the size of an A3 page. I was a meter away from it, all alone; just the painting and I, every colour and stroke clear as day. It was unbearably lovely. But I had a moment of what Sigmund Freud called the ‘uncanny’. This was a Van Gogh. A real Van Gogh. But then it was just a small, pretty picture of a river. Then it became a piece of wood-framed canvas, covered in oil paint. Then it was a Van Gogh again. What was real? It could be worth millions of pounds, this objects, that, for a preposterous moment, I imagined myself just tucking under my arm and walking out of the gallery, perhaps popping it into a ‘bag for life’ to protect it from the misty grey Edinburgh summer.
I was in the City for work, and it so happened that the uncanny Van Gogh moment resonated across my two-day trip. It was Festival time, and the streets were alive and buzzing with people clamouring to capture the festival ‘experience‘. The streets were full of jugglers, fire-eaters, and young people handing out flyers for shows tucked away in basements or attics. All vertical surfaces were thickly bedaubed with leaflets. There was a feverish sense of trying to find the show; you know, the one where new talent is discovered, so people could say, ‘I was there! I saw them just when they became famous!’ I saw the real one.
This buzz has a particular edge for me. Nearly 30 years ago, I was one of those young hopefuls, part of a troupe waiting to be discovered on the Fringe. We staged a show that was an hour and 50 minutes long, in a two-hour slot, in a venue on Canongate, and I, being the producer, stage manager, sound and lighting operator, set builder (and dismantler) and more, had five minutes to get everything ready and five minutes at the end to take it all down again. The show was a great success. We won awards. I got to meet Mr Sulu from Star Trek. I was so miserable I didn’t realise what a good time I was having. But that’s another story.
Coming here this week, I suppose I was running the kind of inquiry that one does when one reaches a certain age: is it as good as it was in my day? (Actually, to be honest, that inquiry is more like ‘It can’t be as good, can it?’). So what did I find out? There’s an awful lot of stand-up comedy these days. And improvisation definitely seems to be in as well. Hundreds of flyers seemed to be offering the promise of ‘improv’ theatre. In my snooty musing, it occurred to me that the youth of today were copping out – improvisation meant they didn’t actually have to learn any lines, (not like we did).
Hubris offers quick returns. An excellent, hilarious Canadian street performer showed me the best of improvised craft, as he surfed that edge between teasing, mockery and affection, whilst juggling swords on a ten-foot tall unicycle. Then, taking pot-luck, a one-woman show caught my eye, near the very same venue where we had performed in 1988. I had never heard of her. I read a couple of lukewarm reviews online, but booked it, thinking, ‘what the hell’? Called ‘As Yet Undecided’ by the young (compared to me anyway) Jess Walker, it was excellent. To my chagrin, she delicately wove improvisation and scripted pieces together to create something unique, playing the boundary between engaging with the audience and story-telling. Lines from King Lear popped up alongside spoof drama student angst. I was one of only about ten in the audience. Who knows if she’ll be famous one day? Who cares if she is the real thing? She is a hugely talented and brave, whatever.
The plethora of fudge shops, tartan tat and whisky tasting did give one the impression at first glance that the Edinburgh Festival may have become a facsimile of itself, like so many such world-famous places. Was the ‘Edinburgh Experience’ in danger of getting in the way of experiencing anything. when everyone is waiting for everyone else to jump? But not Jess Walker or the 19-year-old Canadian on a unicycle. If you rip off a few of the sedimentary layers, the solid granite substrate appears, against which the bright talent continues to shine, as ever it did. Like a Van Gogh, what’s real lingers.