Edinburgh diary: No sleep 'til September

Nicky Woolf navigates day four of the Fringe.

August 11. Day four. 

The Edinburgh festival, for both performers and punters – and reviewers; anyone, in fact, who is planning on going up for a serious length of time – is a marathon, not a sprint. If Glastonbury is the Usain Bolt of festivals, Edinburgh is Mo Farah.

I'm sorry. That was a tragically tenuous metaphor, I know. Farah isn't even a marathon runner. But as I write the closing ceremony is just starting, Twitter is full of Olympic pride and I feel I ought to get into the spirit a little. Twenty-nine golds! The most successful British showing in more than a century! Wonderful.

OK, it's out of my system now.

Anyway. It is seductively easy up here at the Fringe to end up, ahem, sprinting nonetheless. There is an embarrassment of riches on offer here – live music, comedy revues, dance, theatre, and endless bars and clubs – and they go on all through the day and the night. Most people get strung out at some point along the way, and usually it happens about now, half-way through the month; performers have been rehearsing, performing and promoting their shows non-stop for more than a fortnight now, and it begins to take its toll. This phenomenon is called Fringe Fatigue.

Conrad Sharp, 32, is a cast member of Enfants Terribles' The Trench. “I'm exhausted,” he tells me. “We're doing a show in the day, with warm-up and notes before that, then we're handing out flyers all afternoon, then after that we fix all the props – and then you go out all night to blow off a little steam, you know.”

Edinburgh during the festival is a truly 24-hour party city. The Penny Black, the first pub to open, does so exactly five minutes after the last one closes, at seven in the morning. There is always a queue of people outside; several times, I have been among them.

“...Then you get up the next morning and do it all again,” says Sharp. “It's pretty full-on.” I ask how much sleep he thinks he gets, on average. “Ooh. Four hours, maybe? Five? And I'm sharing a room with another cast member, so of course we come in at all different hours.”

That punishing schedule is not limited to August for performers. “We arrived on the 1st, but we were rehearsing eight hours a day for four weeks before then. Because it's a brand new play, there was lots of devising, trying to figure out how it was going to work.”

It's not just performers who burn the candle at both ends. Lauren Archer, 18, is a reviewer for Twitter-based review site Fringebiscuit. She is asleep on a table in a café in the Pleasance when I see her. I ask if she's tired, and she laughs, wiping sleep from her eyes. “Ha! Oh yes. I don't think I've got more than four hours sleep since I got here on the first. Everyone is properly tired, dead out by now.”

“I haven't slept since July,” says comedian David Mills. “Sleep? No sleep.” He pauses. “Seriously, though, I see this as work. I'm trying not to let the fatigue get to me. It's like boot camp. This is training for comics. You smash one, then you fail the next one, then you fail, then you smash one, then you fail, then you smash another night. It's a gauntlet. I'm trying to stay focussed and committed.”

“There's a lot to distract you up here,” he goes on. “The problem with playing hard is that it makes it difficult to work hard.”

Boundless energy: the inSTEP group. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era