I like Edinburgh. I like it now, I liked it then. I love it now, I loved it then. With one or two reservations, for which Edinburgh is not to blame, nor its good people. It’s so far north, it gets undeniably miserable in winter. And dark. The upside of this is that in summer the days are long; and, with its situation by the sea, the light and the air and the atmosphere are tonic.
On The Tape, I call it “a wonderful city,” “beautiful,” and “absolutely stunning.” I also tell my future self that, having queued up at the Fringe Box Office for an hour, and seen people advertise their shows there, “I feel very strongly that next year I will not be here as a member of the audience, but as a participant on some level or other.”
My slow delivery and often elaborate choice of words notwithstanding—I really seem to be searching a lot for the exact right way to express myself, and only succeeding maybe seventy, seventy-five percent of the time—I am obviously excited to be there and to have discovered “the place to be” for interesting theatre.
I never think of the theatre I had either already done by then, with fellow students in Switzerland, or that I was about to do, in London and Edinburgh with professional actors, as ‘avant-garde,’ but with hindsight it’s also clear that much of it probably was.
The theatrical establishment’s reluctance or inability to ‘get’ me as a theatre writer has always baffled me, because nothing I’ve ever written has ever seemed so ‘out there’ to me that it could not be both understood and also—if you relish language and appreciate thought as much as emotion, delight in playfulness for its own sake as easily as in losing yourself in a story—enjoyed. Then I read a sentence like the one I’ve written just now, and I think: maybe I do see why so many people simply don’t get me…
It occurs to me now, and only really now, that with all the wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm that I started out with, I propelled myself onto a trajectory that is exactly not what then I thought it was going to be. What I remember thinking it was going to be at the time—even though from today’s perspective that makes no sense at all—was that I would be heard and seen, ultimately, by everybody, by the general public: I fully assumed that people would, by and by over time, but relatively quickly, become aware of my work, and embrace it. Like it, if you like. And what I find most fascinating now is not that that hasn’t happened, that instead some people have absolutely loved my plays, but others as absolutely hated them, that not a single one of the new writing theatres (whose brief it is to put on new writing, after all…) has ever put on one of my plays, even though several of them have taken pains to profess how impressed they were with what I’d sent them to read; no, what I find most fascinating now is that in spite of all that, and after three decades, I still write work that to me seems entirely ‘reasonable,’ that is perhaps individual, but that certainly does not set out to baffle, and yet it still baffles people. They still think it’s too risky, too out there, too unconventional.
Today—this very week, in fact—I still have a theatre director tell me that something that to me is an obviously bold, and maybe a bit challenging, but therefore also exciting, stroke of theatre ‘cannot be done,’ not because it is ‘bad’ or ‘badly written’—they always, always point out how ‘good’ the writing supposedly is—but because it does not sit within the convention, within the narrow confines of what traditional practitioners still seem to expect their audiences to accept.
I don’t know this at the time I’m recording my audio diary in August 1988, aged twenty-four, still only three years into living in London, but I’m about to embark on a choppy voyage that will on many occasions have me nearly keel over, that will have some people so incensed at my work that they will attempt to sink me, that will cause me to get wet a lot, but that, yes, will also put my work in front of some audiences who will get something out of it too, who will accompany me for a short while and see a sight or discover a place that they would not otherwise have got to, and maybe find value in that.
But perhaps the tone had already been set long before then, when we did Sentimental Breakdown… while I was still at school in Switzerland. One, very conservative, local newspaper had said in its review of the piece, “if it proves anything it is that today’s youth has nothing to say.” Another, far more liberal, paper gave it a really positive write up. And it’s been the same more or less ever since. By and large, I seem to split the critics down the middle, sometimes miles apart from each other, sometimes less so, depending mostly on how conventional or not a piece of writing happens to be. And it would not be long before right here, in Edinburgh, two different individuals would write about the exact same piece that it was “the worst thing” one of them had ever seen, while it was “the best thing” the other one had come across. Which is why today, and for some time now, I no longer read ‘the reviews’: they really are just opinions.
Then, in August 1988, I tell my future self that Edinburgh is “the place to do something; lively, open, very free, the platform for modern new theatre; and that’s me saying this before I have even seen anything.” I’m about to see quite a bit: I spend a couple of days at the festival sleeping little—“it’s 34 hours since I’ve been to bed last, and it’s starting to show very slowly”—smoking too much, and watching seven shows.
One of these leaves me cold, others I’m quite impressed by, one has me “physically shaking,” it’s such an “amazing piece of work.” I take the opportunity to talk to performers and directors, and to some of the people running the venues to “get some insider views.” I see a comedy show which amuses me, but I also tartly remark that “the unfortunate thing is they trap themselves a little; they are very witty, because they parody the Eurovision Song Contest, but their serious songs fall into a category fairly close to the kind they’re making jokes about…” but overall I am inspired, encouraged:
“I love Edinburgh,” I say in my last entry recorded there. “It is full of beautiful places, full of stunning views; if Edinburgh [were] blessed enough to find itself located a few degrees further down towards the south, it would [be] one of the most vibrant and fantastic places to possibly even reside,” I venture, using the word ‘reside,’ still without a hint of irony, I believe, though I express doubts that Edinburgh would have the same atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel outside the festival, and “it’s just simply too cold, there’s no doubt about that; it feels like April, which is all right for three or four weeks to do some work here, but to live here must be hell, it’s so depressing; but funnily enough it doesn’t seem to affect the people at all, they are nice and friendly.”
And so, even with the cold weather, I am “so invigorated by the people, by what’s going on here, by the shows, I could,” I say, “go on for a lot longer,” but tomorrow I have to check out by 1:30pm, after which I will “then see another three shows at least, and take the 11:14 train from Edinburgh to London, and that will be my festival experience.” And even though I still have nearly a third of that experience ahead of me, I’m already able to conclude:
“Only just a couple of months ago, Edinburgh was this colossus of fantastically gifted, possibly famous, experienced, thoroughly professional beings who gathered together excelling at what they do… – but it’s an open space, it’s a platform, it’s a forum, it’s a festival, it’s a place where things can be done.” I seem to be under no illusion: “The fact that people put in vast amounts of work for what in material terms is no return whatsoever: that creates an environment which to me appears very fruitful.” And so the resolution: “If it’s the last thing I do, and if it costs me a vast amount of money, I still want to take a show up here.”
Thus, I record my own personal manifesto for the following year: “It is now high time, very necessary, very appropriate also, to proceed and do the experiment, see how it works, risk failure, risk loss, risk whatever is involved; and I shall be spending the next twelve months preparing for this experiment and will put it to the test.”
And that is, of course, exactly what I then did.