How to Be Both by Ali Smith: A Theatrical Exploration

Ali Smith, Julie Taudevin and Claire Duffy
Edinburgh International Book Festival and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
Edinburgh International Book Festival

Ali Smith

The Theatrical Exploration series at the Book Festival, which shuts a group of writers, actors, musicians and a director into a room with a well-known book for three days to see what they produce, has returned for a second year, again in collaboration with Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre.

The one I saw had set its group of theatre makers the challenging task of translating Ali Smith's highly acclaimed How To Be Both into a theatrical performance. The novel is famous partly for its unusual construction: it is actually two stories, one set in modern-day Cambridge and the other in the Italian renaissance, that can be read in either order—half were published with the earlier story first and half with the later.

Within each story, the translation from literature to performance is more straightforward, although not without its challenges. The modern tale, which featured most in this performance, hops about chronologically as 16-year-old George tries to deal with the death of her mother and frequently jumps back to events that happened while she was still alive.

This performance sampler didn't really deal with how to translate the structural concept of the novel into theatrical language as this was just a collection of individual, fairly naturalistic sequences from different parts of the novel, each separately introduced by the writers, rather than a coherent single performance.

However in the discussion afterwards, they mentioned some of the ideas they had toyed with to reintroduce the randomness of story order should this ever go to a full production, which seemed to revolve around superficial use of modern technologies such as apps and tweets from the audience. Alan Ayckbourn was doing this sort of thing decades ago without such potentially expensive and unreliable gimmicks, so I'm sure they could find a better way.

For this script-in-hand performance, George was played convincingly by Saskia Ashdown, the untameable spirit of her mother was put across very well by Annie Grace and Seiriol Davies was Francesco, musician and a few other things. Some songs mentioned in the book became part of the performance and were even merged together, although I don't think we needed quite as much "Let's Twist Again" as we got in such a short performance. Oh, and hoop earrings and headset mics don't play well together—the continuous knocking whenever the two actresses moved their heads was quite irritating.

Compared to the exploration of Dirt Road I saw last year, this looked more like some sketchy ideas in the very early stages of realisation; James Kelman's road trip story is much more straightforward in construction, but still the presentation last year was more polished both in script and performance.

However it was a worthwhile experiment on the road to a possible full production at some point in the distant future—Ali Smith herself seemed very keen on taking it further.

Reviewer: David Chadderton