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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 19 - Cultural aspirations thwarted

AS A Festival-goer, I see myself as a piece of stern and rockbound cerebral coast-line against which the waves of cultural aspiration, traditional-comical, pastoral-historical, historical-topical and spiritual-temporal, lash themselves - often in vain - in order to make some slight indentation.

Festival audiences do not, generally, fall into a faint or a fit when some production is considered unsatisfactory. They have paid their money and made their choice, and most stick to their seats like limpets on a ship’s hull. A determined few do make the dramatic gesture of walking out in a marked manner in protest, perhaps, at the opaque intellectual intricacies or juvenile banalities of some production which are either above their heads or beneath their contempt and, in between, are a waste of their precious time and hard-earned money.

For some, the walk-out is an action of nicely-judged theatricality, sometimes showing more talent than anything seen on the stage involving heads shaking, bulging cheeks and handkerchieves pressed against mouths to indicate agony and countenances more in anger than sorrow.

Such posturings are becoming passe. The new protest takes the form of significant somnolence; that is a distancing from the production by falling asleep. Last year - and all this concerns mainly Fringe shows - I saw and heard soporific stalwarts gently registering their snoring comments on a production sicklied o’er with a pale and puerile cast.

At one late-night, allegedly humorous show, I saw people slumped in their seats like felled timber giants, and at another offering, that displayed less talent and stagecraft than my primary school’s mixed-ability infants’ offering of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, couples could be seen, stark in well-deserved retreat from their entertainment ordeal, resembling the Confederate dead at Gettysburg.

With some modern plays, sleepers can provide an interesting enigmatic element. At one production, the audience was jolted into noticing rhythmic, sonic effects that possibly indicated an element of growing menace in the western world which helplessly saw old standards and traditions eroded and changed into something resembling one of the less cheerful paintings of Breughel.

The breathing, soft at first, then rich and resonant like the siren of the Queen Mary entering port, affected not only the audience but also the cast who look-ed at each other in a wild surmise. Because of my experience as a Festival intellectual, I was also aware that the sound clearly symbolised the complacency of modern civilisation surrounded by omnipresent elements of disruption and disaster.

Then, the sound’s source was found. It came from a bearded chap, well-stricken in years, who could have played Polonius, Lear or Hamlet’s dad with no or few questions asked, had wandered into the theatre from the Canongate and alone, in the empty back row, had apparently lodged a sonorous protest at the intellectual pressures of the production. Awakened, he fixed us all with a blue-eyed alcoholic glare and left, muttering.

The use of sleep, therefore, as a mechanism for Festival criticism or for other cultural events is a wake-up call to those uneasy about using more clamorous methods such as booing or the throwing, as happened in robust Victorian theatres, of ripe fruit.

The trouble with much over-loud and coarse-grained, present-day drama is that it is often inimical to slumberous protest. As an audience member at the official Festival offering at the King’s Theatre of Variety, a drama by Douglas Maxwell about the decline and death of Scottish variety theatre, I found it hard to register my critical assessment of the bellowing, boorish and banal production by sinking into critical but also self-protective oblivion.

My wife and I stoically endured the first 30 minutes of four- and five-letter expletives exploding from the characters like shrapnel, the noisy dash around the stage of one portraying a fading comedian, who flaunted his proletarian vest and uttered tenement stair-head-brawl obscenities, another character - playing the manager of a doomed, provincial variety theatre - who sang a Harry Lauder favourite in a way that would once have earned from the outraged audience a barrage of fruit and veg, and a plodding, indifferently-acted plot, until we could endure no more. Sleep being impossible, we slipped silently away.

The Festival director, Bryan McMaster, should know that the production kept many critical audience members agonisingly awake. If I see him, I’ll tell him so. Meanwhile, I’ll sleep on it.

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