Edinburgh goes corporate: Is it time for a fringe of the Fringe?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has swelled to an untameable 2,871 shows, most of them well-behaved and aspiring. Matt Trueman gives his pick of the shows brave enough to stick their heads above the parapet.

Against a backdrop of brand logos, plastic pint glasses and corporate away-days, people wonder whether the real Edinburgh Festival Fringe still exists. The festival has swelled to an untameable 2,871 shows, most of them well-behaved and aspiring. It’s time, some say, for a fringe of the Fringe.
 
So, it’s only fitting that questions of authenticity and artifice are being asked. First there’s David Leddy’s Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse Theatre (until 25 August), a caper in which a pair of con artists (mostly trading in fake handbags) move into major art forgery. Or rather art-forgery forgery, because their plan is to pull off a huge con, come clean and then live off the kudos. It’s the perfect crime, as Jean Baudrillard might say.
 
The play prods at the terms “real” man, “real” woman and “true” love but its main target is the free market. It triggers a race to the bottom in which scammers scam scammers, who scam other scammers. Though Leddy occasionally trips into clever-clever territory and starts to irritate, he has brio, toying with the show’s authenticity through scenes written in the style of verbatim theatre and in accents from around the UK. A world that eats its own tail, he suggests, will ultimately consume itself and disappear.
 
There’s another great faker in Kubrick3 at the Pleasance (until 26 August), a play about Alan Conway, who posed as the reclusive director for several years (and inspired the 2005 film Colour Me Kubrick). Conway bedded students, hobnobbed with Julie Walters and gave interviews to the New York Times, although he’d only ever seen half a Kubrick film (he walked out before the end). David Byrne’s impish production makes canny use of four actors – three female, one male – as a hydra-like Conway, back from the dead, ashgrey and running circles around his son. The play is scruffy and small but its well-honed gags and gusto are ample compensation. It has an intriguing philosophy: if life gives you lemons, grab someone else’s limelight.
 
Kieran Hurley’s and A J Taudevin’s Chalk Farm, at the Underbelly until 25 August, is a serious rejoinder to the constructed narrative of the summer 2011 riots. We have been spun a story of mindless violence and poor parenting; this disruptive piece refuses to swallow it. Jamie is watching on the telly. His neighbourhood looks like a film set. The itch to get closer, to join in – let’s face it, we all felt that – proves too much.
 
Outside, kids carry goods in bulk. Jamie nabs a gift for his mum. History is being made, even if no one can quite articulate the causes. It’s a class thing but not in the way the papers and politicians make out. Chalk Farm is guilty of beautifying mayhem but it understands without excusing and is fierce and fixed in its gaze.
 
In Have I No Mouth at the Traverse (until 21 August), Feidlim Cannon attempts to heal his family’s wounds. Onstage with his mother – a reiki master – and their psychotherapist, Cannon invokes the circumstances of his brother’s death in 1984 and then his father’s in 2001. The latter was preventable. Totemic objects – a natty doll, photographs – and reenactments build a charge and when the psychotherapist, his head wrapped in bandages, stands in for Cannon’s father, it’s as raw as anything I’ve seen onstage.
 
Watching Have I No Mouth is a challenging experience. Whether the play is being staged for the benefit of its participants or ours, I’m not sure – it makes you feel their pain, rather than soothing yours. Yet it’s hard to dismiss this display of their agony as indulgent. This is theatre with undeniable force.
Posters line the streets in the run up to the Fringe. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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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