So here I am at the Edinburgh Fringe. The topic of my first Edinburgh blog is confronting who and what has come before you in your family histories, and how that has made you who you are. It’s what our show tries to ask you to do, and I found another amazing show doing the same kind of thing that I want to tell you about.
[If you hadn’t guessed already, it’s likely that my August posts will have more of a theatrical flavour than is usual in a single month, although there are some other films on the way that will burst you (and me) out of the Edinburgh bubble.]
I have been sick, which is a terrible way to begin the fringe, as you need an enormous dollop of energy just to keep doing your show every day, let alone flyering the general public for hours, or taking in anyone else’s artistic endeavours. But yesterday I made it out of the flat and actually saw *another show* which was just beautiful, so I need to tell you about it.
Mark Thomas is an alternative comedian best known for his political campaigns – for example he has written a book and done stand-up shows exposing Coca Cola’s involvement in the arms trade. I like his blend of humour, heart and justice-seeking. So I was a little surprised to find he was doing a show up here called Bravo Figaro, about opera. It turns out the piece is really about his dad – a violent, Methodist-Thatcherite workaholic builder known for his colourful language – and his surprising passion for a traditionally upper-class art-form.
He is brilliant storyteller in so many ways. Technically, he’s a pro: I was in awe of his articulation. But more than that, there is such a powerful combination of honesty, humour, and real clarity about the story he wants to tell you. That’s one of the my favourite things about the show actually – he felt like he really wanted to tell me this story, like it mattered. But how do you tell a personal story for 70 minutes and not make it feel self-indulgent? You give people opportunities to laugh at you. You give them a wider context so they can connect with your very personal story. You give them quirky details. And you chose very carefully the magical moments when things become quiet and important. (It worked, I cried).
Mark Thomas was very clear that this is not a story about redemption and healing and forgiveness – they might be part of the bigger story or they might not. This story is about a gift, a beautiful and unique gift that he was able to give to his dad at a point in his dad’s life when he had almost ceased to be contactable. His dad developed Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and was increasingly unable to respond to the outside world or to control his own muscles. During the show we hear his dad’s real, barely articulated voice for ourselves, as recorded by Mark Thomas a years ago. And yet it is into the context of increasing alienation in terms of their human relationships that something truthful and beautiful and pure is given as a gift which stirs life and connection.
It wasn’t wholly intentional that the first show I saw in Edinburgh was so close in theme to our own show, which is also about family stories, ancestors who have gone before us. But maybe it meant that Mark Thomas’ show landed with particular force for the four of us (it was a group outing).
I think that in different ways both shows are probing something deep and important. If we let them, they make us ask questions about what has gone before us, and what is has deposited in us – for good and for bad. For me this has been part the personal journey I’ve gone on (and I think the other girls have gone in) in creating our show. It’s not about neat endings and full reconciliation, but the honesty of confronting what came first and what its legacy has been. Then, from that place we are able to choose our response, to choose how to live. Mark Thomas’ act of generosity towards his father is not given from a place of blindness to his dad’s brutality; it is not offered as a symmetrical or reciprocal gesture. But the beauty of it lies in the fact that it is instead a generous choice to celebrate something unique and wonderful; to draw a line after the bad and perpetuate what was special.
What are the good things you want to carry forward from your family history?