As far as closing night finales go, it had it all: top names in Scottish literature performing a script written by one of our own living legends, that so delighted an audience thrilled to see the book festival go out on a high.
Narrated by Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, we had Alasdair Gray as the meddling Satan (Nick), Will Self as Fleck, a failed chemistry professor to whom Nick promises unlimited wealth, power and sex, Aonghas MacNeacail as God, AL Kennedy as Fleck’s love interest, and other names such as Louise Welsh as May’s friend, Ian Rankin as a lawyer, Janice Galloway as an Earth Spirit, and Alan Bissett as a gangster!
It was a mixture of old-fashioned radio-play slapstick, Scottish pantomime and classic Gray; “It’s an odd piece” to quote Will Self in the Guardian, “but then everything Alasdair does is pretty odd.”
Fleck came to being as Gray’s attempt to imitate Goethe’s Faust but in a contemporary setting and time. He disliked the ending to Faust so much that he “wanted to wrench the story into his own vision,” and so for the 2011 book festival finale, we got the result.
The basis of the story is that Fleck becomes the pawn in a bet between God and Nick. The play moves between media and political commentary as well as a spot of satire in the delivery of Nick’s opinions on humanity.
There were some special moments during the performance, such as the sparks of humour between Will Self and AL Kennedy, a hilarious duo where words were often not requierd, their glances and chuckling more than enough to set the audience rolling.
A mobile phone rang out somewhere in the tent and Liz Lochhead, still perfectly narrating the play, reached into her handbag to retrieve her phone. It wasn’t hers, though. And right at the end, Aonghas MacNeacail spoke the wrong line, stealing one from Gray to his annoyance but to the hilarity of the audience.
Some wanted more from the night but for what it was, it was a rare treat to see. On a wider note, it’s good to see the festival marking such occasions with something special, albeit not to everyone’s taste, but nevertheless it’s one of the many examples of the impact that Nick Barley’s positive stewardship is having on the development of the festival.
A great night and a fitting end to what was a wonderful 17 days at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival.