Meta-theatre, voyeurism and the vogue for Lecoq

Nicky Woolf's second Edinburgh diary.


August 9. Day two.

The day dawns with rude punctuality. I am not, by inclination, an early riser, but by seven the sun is shining through the open window on my face with tropical brutality: the city is glorying in a heatwave. I rise mostly in order to stave off sunburn, and head for the Pleasance.

The first show I see is a real gem. Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double is really two plays, Double: Vision and Double: Figures, running simultaneously with a video-link between the two, and I begin my day with the former. The shows together are a meta-theatrical farce about the collapse of an ambitious production of Macbeth, and it is riotously funny and tightly performed, so I book for the next day's production of Figures, to complete my set.

Next door to it, at the Pleasance courtyard, is a low black construction which houses the Peep stage, set up so that the audience sits in booths surrounding the stage in the middle, separated from their fellow viewers by curtains and from the performers by one-way glass; the sound comes over headphones. There are three short (20 minute) shows that play here, all about sex and sexuality, and I see the middle show, 69, by the Royal Court's Leo Butler. It is immaculately directed, production values are clearly very high and the voyeuristic effect works uncomfortably well.

My two shows for the evening are both by companies that have been formed out of the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Lecoq (childish snigger) is famous for physical theatre, focussing on dynamic movement and choreography, and is also a famously brutal learning environment: ninety students are accepted for the first year of the course, but sixty of them have been culled by the end of the first year. Lecoq is very much in vogue at Edinburgh this year; there are lots of shows by Lecoq graduates this year. I chose two of them for my first evening.

Edinburgh, built on a series of closely-packed and steep hills and hillocks, is a multi-layered city. From Cowgate, a valley street, you can look up at Nicholson, one of the city's great thoroughfares, crossing about fifty feet above you on an ancient stone arch, the buildings whose doors open onto it five stories above descend chaotically to the lower level, one city on top of another.

It is the Underbelly that takes the best advantage of this labyrinthine civic architecture. Its Cowgate headquarters is a bewildering warren of tunnels and dank chambers buried in the bowels of the city, and my first show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, is in one of its deepest and dankest. This vaulted dungeon is an apt setting for a deeply, deeply surreal performance about the end of the space race, science fiction, and memory loss. The audacity of the conception is breathtaking, and the effect is a show whose overall effect is a little bit mind-altering; at times too weird, but also at times strangely beautiful. It leaves me feeling a little winded, so I gulp a restorative libation at the Library Bar at the Gilded Balloon, and then head to the second show of the night.

This is Centralia at Zoo Aviary, a charming character-comedy about the last three inhabitants of a town in Pennsylvania that is beset by a slow-burning seam of coal that runs beneath it, turning into a superheated nightmare of smoke and yawning infernal chasms. It is a wonderful play, the characters are lovingly designed and there are some fantastic physical set-pieces, just in case we had forgotten what Lecoq training is all about; but the most amazing thing is that the story of the town of Centralia is entirely and dramatically true.

Day One: The Big Four explained.

Voyeurs wanted: Peep's show, 69. Photo: Getty

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

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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.