Enter the Hinterland

HINTERLAND: EDINBURGH FRINGE 2011

It’s for posterity that I write this account, knowing full well that my experience can’t simply be captured in words, even though words were a fundamental part of it.

Emails from Alex Fleetwood and Sarah Ellis piqued my interest in this thing called the Hinterland. I put the Forest Fringe cafe on my map of venues for Day One in Edinburgh. On arrival, I received a book of instructions, a small thank you card, and an invitation to make a model for myself to place in a stage-set representing the Hinterland. The craft table, full of fluff, glitter, paint and unadorned thumb-sized figures, could have been a major distraction from my other Day One activities, but I found a dapper model, in silver trousers and a yellow jacket, that seemed to have been discarded. I adopted him, gave him a bright afro and a red gem befitting his sartorial sparkle. I positioned him on steps in the midst of hundreds of other models, and set off into the Hinterland myself.

CANTO 1

My first task was to converse with a French-speaking stranger – not impossible, as only hours before I had been served lunch by a Frenchman. I planned to return for petit dejeuner and in the meantime put my OU French to the test by attempting to read the questions printed in French. I was out of my depth!

My plan changed when I returned to halls (camp for the duration). My side-kick, who I’ll henceforth call Penfold, returned to our room after filling water bottles and said that he thought the people in the kitchen were French. With a good deal of encouragement – almost falling at the first hurdle – I took my instruction booklet and thank you card into the kitchen. Sure enough, the four youngsters were French, and they agreed to help me with my first mission. So far so good. I stood by the table as they began to read the questions, and with sinking spirits, I realised that they were more intent on conversing between themselves than with me – yet I was too timid to do anything about it. Not exactly in the spirit of the game, I thought, but neither a total failure. I called my answers in, exercising my best French pronunciation with my accomplices names. That night, my four young acquaintances proceeded to get very drunk, and my sleep was punctuated with noises of frivolity, and yes, illness!

I was outside the Fruitmarket gallery when I got the text from the operator informing me of the fresh pressing of Canto 1. Penfold and I listened in together (for the discovery was his as much as mine), on speaker phone, on the road, and laughed about the cocktail called the toilet, and at our own foolishness thinking that our electronic confidant was saying ‘And Sophie’, when in fact it was telling us about ‘Anne-Sophie’. I was instructed to return to Forest Cafe for Canto 2.

CANTO 2

At Forest Cafe, I was congratulated on completion of Canto 1, and invited to move my avatar into the second, much less densely populated stage-set. The instruction this time didn’t pose a language barrier, and yet seemed to me to be much more challenging. I had to find an American actor, who this time would be required to talk to the operator. I tweeted my desire to meet an American actor in Edinburgh, though without result. I remembered that one of the shows I was going to see (as recommended by a friend who was leaving me a breadcrumb trail around the city) was a two-hander between two Americans. I headed to the Vaults to see if I could coax one of the performers into a meeting, only to find that they were both stricken with illness and the rest of their run had been cancelled.

I was back to the drawing board, and decided to allow myself to be distracted for a time. Penfold and I were joined by family, who I’ll henceforth refer to as the hamsters, and I told them of my plight. We were too large a group (that incidentally contained an agoraphobic epileptic) to easily traverse the busy streets and venues, so we carved an alternative path through the city. However, on running an errand, I had to dash along the Royal Mile alone. I was flyered constantly and was mid stride when my ears caught up with me: did I hear ‘all texan improv’ back there? I retraced my steps and started up a conversation with a charming young woman from Texas who was a very willing accomplice. I agreed to come and see her show as a thank you for her help. I dialled in the answers that we had agreed on and then passed over the phone when instructed – my accomplice looked me up and down and said ‘student’ and then ‘sassy’ to two unknown questions!

It was the first time I had ever seen any improvisation, and coupled with the torrential downpour that had lasted for the length of our walk to the venue, it made for a very interesting and unusual hour of theatre. I got the text from the operator whilst I was sitting in a caustic pub with the hamsters (an act of hunger-induced desperation). We three listened on loudspeaker to an advert for a film in which I couldn’t even play myself – the tone matched our insalubrious surroundings perfectly and my laughter this time was tempered with a sneaking suspicion that the joke was on me. I was again instructed to return to the Forest Cafe.

CANTO 3

The applause that greeted my third visit to Forest Cafe assuaged my creeping fears. It was the final day that the Hinterland was open – yet I was assured that it was not impossible to get to the inner circle, even now. I determined that the Hinterland would be my sole pursuit for the rest of the day. This time, a short cut seemed even more impossible – I couldn’t read the Korean script, and nor did I believe that there was a single defining feature of a Korean speaker. So I turned to Google and once again to Twitter. Edinburgh has a well regarded Korean restaurant, so Penfold and I took the hamsters to the station for their onward journey and then headed north of Prince street.

At the restaurant,which at first seemed deserted (middle of the afternoon), I came across one of the chefs – I started to explain my quest, but he waved me further into the restaurant. I looked around for waiting staff, but my options were limited to two different pairs of diners. I took a deep breath and approached the pair on the left, asking if they spoke Korean. They answered that they did not, but the second couple overheard and volunteered that they were Korean. They were so interested in the booklet that they immediately broke-off eating and started poring over it. A waiter found me whilst they were reading, and asked if he should set a place for me. I declined, and on leaving the restaurant, with answers in tow, I was rebuked for entering the restaurant and surveying the diners without permission. I would certainly have felt much more worse had it not been for the genuine friendliness and interest expressed by my two new accomplices. Once again there was a moment when the strangers sat back to appraise me – an experience I found embarrassing, but bore with good humour, as my question-answerers were good humoured.

CANTO 4

I didn’t wait for my text from the operator this time – I was on a mission, and so headed straight back to base. When at last I reached the road that the Forest Cafe sits on, a young boy with a shock of white blond hair streaked past me – and I could have sworn he was clutching a green booklet, like me. Sure enough, he and his mother were also racing for the finish, and after moving our models into the green space of stage-set four, we set out together to find the top of Calton Hill. Our gracious guides indulged my desire for ice-cream by stopping at a street vendor of the ‘best gelato in Edinburgh’. We slurped our way over the bridge and up the hill, and I was relieved to find that Calton Hill was the smaller of the two peaks that tower over Edinburgh.

Atop the hill, we marvelled at the view, before heading our separate ways to find amenable strangers, who this time qualified simply by being in the same lofty space. I walked around for a little while until I found a couple sat on a bench, calmly surveying the land below. We past a lovely quarter hour talking about the city, the reason for their visit, where they were from (incidentally, within twenty miles of where I was born) and about their excitement about witnessing the tattoo that evening. They insisted that I take a look around the other side of the hill, to see the view of forth and the sea. They worked through the questions with me in a similar bemused frame of mind, and took the thank you card with an earnest desire to look up the results. I really hope they did.

As I was descending the hill, I received a text from the operator, and immediately started listening to the third Canto, this time alone. That feeling of vulnerability crept up on me again – the operator knew my hometown (I couldn’t remember telling him that) and said he could make things very difficult for me. The poem worked on my paranoia about how much information I share on the internet (Penfold is always warning me about this) and seemed darker and slightly menacing. I cut it off before the end, thinking I would listen when I was in a slightly different frame of mind – I didn’t want to lose the sense of serenity that the view and my lovely conversation with strangers had instilled in me.

ENDGAME

We arrived back at Forest Cafe jubilant to have made it into the exclusive circle of finishers. I called my answers in then and there, and when the operator asked me if I had any questions, I couldn’t help but enquire about whether he was a malign influence. I wanted to know where I stood, and whether the incongruous tone of the operator with the act of meeting and transacting with strangers was real or imagined.

I spent the next few days occupied with leaving Edinburgh and trying to ease back into familiar patterns at home, but I was constantly aware that I was still to hear from the operator. I wondered if he might have abandoned me for the late delivery of my final answers. I finally heard from him on a Tuesday morning, when I was at my desk. I slipped on my headphones and listened in straight away. The real voice, no longer mediated and electronic, was an incredible reward for my efforts – I was being spoken to, and looked out for (the student that looks like a deer). The pauses, the clutter of the background noise – it all combined to make it real: an authentic message, just for me, from the ultimate stranger; the one I would never meet.

As the recording came to a close, I wept silent tears: tears of pride, for my bravery and tenacity to complete something I would never have thought I could; tears of sadness for a beautiful thing coming to a close; tears of happiness for the simple joy of hearing another human reaching out and passing on the gift of language.

Bianca’s piece of the Hinterland can be accessed here. Hinterland was a Hide and Seek experience, conceived of by Alex Fleetwood, produced by Sarah Ellis and inscribed by Ross Sutherland. It was part of the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh in 2011.

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