Daily Archives: August 18, 2007

FAT NATION: COLUMN 18 August 2007


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.8.07

ALL OVER THE world, this week, fans and worshippers have been marking the 30th anniversary of the untimely death of Elvis Presley; and from Memphis to Manila, the feeling  of loss still seems acute.  Part of the reason for that persisting sense of shock, of course, lies in the fact that Elvis died at only 42, a victim of 20 years of excess that had left him visibly bloated and ill.  Junk food, it seems, was his weakness, and part of the cause of his downfall.  He suffered from severe digestive problems; and the constant losing battle to control his weight had increased his dependence on the mood-altering prescription drugs that finally caused his death.  If Elvis Presley was ahead of his time in terms of his music, in other words, then it seems he was also a few decades in advance of the rest of us in the manner of his death.  These days, untold millions of us can afford to eat until we swell and sicken; and hardly any of us have to put in the long days of physical work our grandparents would have considered normal, back in the days when Elvis was a boy.

And the results are there to see, in every gathering, among every crowd; on average, people are wider, heavier and taller than ever before.  Around the Edinburgh Fringe, theproblem appears in its most graphic form; a frightening proportion of the paying public is now too long or too wide for the average little Fringe seat, and has no option but to overflow into other people’s space.  In a show called American Poodle, at the Assembly Rooms, the fine New York satirist Brian Parks conjures up an unforgettable image of his whole native land “butt-locked”, as he puts it,  into one huge mass of tightly-wedged flesh.  And the news bulletins are full of scare stories, the latest drawn from the leader-page of The Lancet, about the future horrors we are inflicting on ourselves, as  generations of overfed kids become beefy, hard-drinking young adults, and succumb at ever earlier ages to a frightening range of obesity-related diseases, from high blood pressure and diabetes to stroke, heart failure, and cancer.  Nor is this public health nightmare any longer confined to the west.  As nations grow more prosperous, they rush to mimic our eating-patterns, just as they rush to open local branches of the major fast-food multinationals; the latest news, on the increasingly stressed and uncertain global food market, is that China’s soaring demand for dairy products is creating a strong upward pressure on milk prices worlwide, as Chinese parents strive to make their children taller and broader by feeding them a western-style diet.

But although any one of a dozen agencies can describe the problem in the most fluent terms, the truth is that no-one really seems to know what to do about it.  Clearly, the reasons for the increasing bulk of the world’s human population are not individual, but structural.  Our whole society is now organised around the idea of sedentary work, two-income families, motorised transport, car-based communities, and a heavily-marketed  processed food economy that would simply collapse if everyone reverted to cooking a healthy meal, from fresh ingredients, at home every evening.  Yet so incapable are modern governments  of addressing or counteracting any of these structural pressures towards growing obesity – many of which are closely related to environmental destruction and climate change – that when it comes to tackling this health crisis, all we seem able to do is to bully people as individuals about the kinds of lives they should be leading, and the kinds of food they should be eating, while often making it almost impossible for them to live in any other way.

And the result,  as many wags and satirists around the Fringe are beginning to observe, is a society increasingly driven by a mixture of oppressive aspiration – look like Jennifer Aniston, or hate yourself – and outright nanny-state  bullying, in which people are constantly hectored to use their own individual will-power to combat huge stuctural pressures in our society, and then threatened with punishment when they fail.  Small wonder that the sheer difficulty of avoiding an unhealthy lifestyle in our society is now being compounded, in some quarters, by a culture of active defiance.  Like proud smokers determined not to be nagged away from the weed by anti-smoking legislation, people snack ostentatiously on crisps and  chocolate bars, as if there was no tomorrow; and it would be a rash observer, under current conditions, who would dare to assert that their decision to  live for the moment is entirely unreasonable.

If politicians want us to stay healthy, in other words they should give up the endless, patronising exhortations to eat healthily and take exercise, and try instead to give us the combination of time and money that makes healthy living possible; the time to cook properly, to exercise, to sustain our friendships and marriages, to eat family meals, to have the kind of guaranteed leisure that today’s always-on working culture iincreasingly denies us.  They should find the courage to stand firm against all the forces in our society that make it difficult to take such obvious steps towards a healthier way of life.   And above all, they should concentrate on creating the kind of society in which people feel that they have a future, and are therefore motivated to take care of their own long-term wellbeing.  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” has been the mantra down the ages of human beings who see no hope for themselves and their civilisation; and if politicians start to rebuild the sense that a better future is possible, then the nation’s health may just begin, at last, to look after itself.



Game Theory
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Traverse 3 Drill Hall (Venue 358)

TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION; the question of how to achieve it is everywhere on this year’s Fringe.  No show is likely to look in more searing detail at the heart of the matter, though, than the latest production from Ek Performance of Glasgow,  an intense three-handed drama, co-written by director Pamela Carter with writer Selma Dimitrijevic, which opened at the Traverse earlier this week.

Like a slow-moving sonata in three movements, Game Theory asks its audience, over 100 minutes or so, to circle round a series of images of the aftermath of a conflict, all staged on a single set that looks like a war-damaged schoolroom.  In the first sequence, we see three peace negotiators barely able even to begin to draft a statement about the fact that they are meeting.  In the second, two brothers and a sister revisit their dead parents’ home, and become drawn into an ever-more intense re-enactment of the moment before a massacre.  And in the third, a woman indirectly responsible for a series of shocking human rights violations, and the man who was her main victim, move steadily towards the moment when they will be asked to confront one another, in anger or forgiveness.

Pamela Carter’s production is sometimes so achingly slow and detailed that it tests the audience’s patience; there are moments when it completely loses the kinetic energy, however low-key, that’s essential to stage drama.  In its final closing scene, though, Game Theory packs the kind of dramatic punch that makes the whole experience richly worthwhile.  And although John Paul Connolly and Alexis Rodney turn in immaculate performances as the victim and counsellor, it’s Meg Fraser’s stunning performance as the perpetrator that transforms this bleak, grey show, in its final moments, to something like pure gold.

Vanishing Point’s Subway – the latest production from Matthew Lenton’s gifted Glasgow-based group – is also a show about reconciliation, although of a more familiar and personal kind.  Written by the company with playwright Nicola McCartney, Subway is a “musical adventure” that picks up where the last scene of Trainspotting leaves off, as a young guy born and brought up in Leith returns home to Scotland on a mission to find his old dad, and to have just one meaningful conversation with him before it’s too late.  The twist is that this is not today’s Leith, but the Leith of 2030 or so, where the rising waters of the Forth lap round the lower stories of the shoreline tower-blocks, the cityscape is dominated by a massive new private hospital, and ordinary guys like our hero are constantly supervised by spookily well-informed and bossy security cameras and vending machines.

All of this dystopian detail is blissfully funny and well-observed, and Matthew Lenton brings his usual barrage of theatrical briliance to the telling of the tale, which involves a seven-strong on-stage Kosovan band, a simple but telling design by Kai Fischer, and a typically brilliant central performance from Vanishing Point’s favourite star actor, Sandy Grierson.  The story loses impetus in the end, dissolving into a sentimental joke about the smoking ban that doesn’t quite measure up to the earlier intensity of the tale; and at the performance I saw, the sound-balance was appalling, with the music swamping many of the monologues it accompanies.  But Subway has barrowloads of style, haunting futuristic imagery, and a fine anarchic spirit; and if it fails to continue Vanishing Point’s huge success in making theatre that effortlessly attracts younger audiences, then my name’s Irvine Welsh.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
pp. 193, 227



Georgian Gift Season – The Dress
4 stars ****
Assembly @ St. George’s West (Venue 157)

IF EVER A FLOWER was born to blush unseen on the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s this year’s Georgian GIFT Season, presented at St. George’s West.  Finalised too late to appear in the Fringe programme, languishing in the freeze-dried gloom of the Candlish Hall, and featuring three shows with vanishingly short runs, the season seems doomed to obscurity; which is a pity, since the richness and beauty of the Georgian theatre tradition shines through the work of the company, drawn mainly from the Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio of Tbilisi.

This second of three shows, The Dress, is a new monologue by Tamara Bartaia, in which fabulous young actress Tamara Bziava plays a simple French dress, a little black number with silver threads bought from a shop window in Moscow 20 years ago by a girl from the south, and fated to accompany her, and her daughter, through a rough and often unglamorous two decades, towards a sudden and moving moment of unexpected fulfilment.

It’s a slightly awkward idea for a play, and sometimes the effect -delivered in a simplified English translation – is a little cloying.  It’s a privilege, though, to see how Tamara Bziava and her director, Hilary Wood, conjure this little story into 45 minutes of genuinely moving theatre, performed with terrific presence and skill.  The final effect is of a rich, elegiac study of a life lived from youth to old age, of womanhood under stress, of late-teenage fun shading into sad single motherhood, of survival in a time of war; and of the lovely things, sometimes hidden in the wardrobe for years, that help to give everyday life a touch of grace and beauty, even in terrible times.

Joyce McMillan
The Dress until 19 August; season until 27 August.
Assembly/Pleasance brochure,  p.31