Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Weeeird improvisational science

“It's usually a bit mental but maybe not that mental.”

Improvisation is often talked about bombastically as an environment in which “anything can happen,” especially up here at the Fringe, where each new show competes in its publicity and press releases to sound wackier and more out-there than the last. Certainly there are shows where the action takes unexpected turns, but much of improvisational comedy is grounded in practice, and has certain rules.

Comedian Thom Tuck is a former member of both improvisational troupe the Improverts, as well as a regular on late-night improvisation show Voices In Your Head. He's also up at Edinburgh with two shows of his own. “It depends on the format,” he tells me when I ask about the science and preparation involved. “There is short-form and long-form improvisation. Short-form – what the Improverts do, and [sort of] what Voices does, is usually based on games.”

Mike Slater is a founder member of No Shoes Theatre, whose show The Improvised Musical is currently in its fourth year at the Fringe. They, he tells me, are very much “long-form” improvisation, narrative arc and all, and preparation is key. “The main thing is being around each other a lot, and playing the sort of games that make spontaneity happen. We sit down and talk about how stories are constructed, and songs; what makes a story, what makes a song. We spend ten hours a day together.”

“We know a certain number of things from experience,” he goes on. “Stories are made up of problems and solutions, so we introduce a major problem early on, and try not to introduce them after half-way through. We know that we get about seven songs, and we know that we get about nine scenes. Occasionally we throw all of that out the window. The more we do it together, the more we get a feel for what the other person's doing, where they're going.”

In Voices In Your Head, rather than follow the instructions of a stage presence, or of the audience as in The Improvised Musical, the performers obey The Voice, embodied by Deborah Frances-White, who stands at the back of the auditorium with a microphone. It's her show, so what she says goes – usually.

The Voice is quite antagonistic in tone, and when she picks on Phill Jupitus, who had never been on the show before – performers have no preparation for the show, and don't know what to expect – an extraordinary scenario began to build itself. Improvisation encourages performers whole-heartedly to commit to their first instinctive responses. “What is your name,” asks The Voice, and the performers will come up with one on the spot, in the moment, and build a character and a scenario around these instantaneous associative responses.

This is quite unusual for an improvisation show. More traditional groups practice the games and structures involved before going on stage. “It's fun when you're put on the spot, though,” says Tuck. “You're excited to see where it's going to go.”

One particular episode went very off-piste indeed. A power-struggle developed between The Voice and the character Jupitus was building. The dialogue between the two became faster and faster, angrier and angrier, and more and more intense, and ended with Jupitus advancing through the audience, shirtless and mad-eyed, on an audibly terrified Frances-White at the back, the two of them screaming at each other at the top of their voices, their character arcs locked by Jupitus' responses into that of former lovers. The audience was electrified, The Voice audibly shaken. “This next one,” Tom Salinsky – another of the performers – muttered after the audience and The Voice had both had a chance to settle down. “Is called: Follow That.”

After the show I run into Tuck in the Pleasance's Brookes Bar, and ask if it's always that intense. “It's usually a bit mental,” he replies, “but maybe not that mental.”
 

Phill Jupitus had a baptism of fire at improv show "Voices in Your Head". Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times