“Fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em,” is not the kind of sentence typically found in one of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling outings; distinct from his ebullient electric club-honed stand-up it is his gentle exploratory whimsy that has made him a hit amongst theatre-goers. And yet here he is on stage, with large planes of fake glass from some unconstructed set languishing behind him, standing in front of a plain wooden table with a sheaf of notes, telling us “I am sick of the quiet fucking dignity of unwitnessed fucking lives”. And while explaining to us why he hasn’t got a show, he reveals a number of possibilities: his dressing up as a giant penis, teasing us with a staging consisting of “a fat man masturbating in a mirror”, employing a massive revolve and making it actually rain on stage, or producing a “pippet” show.
Except, as befits an artist of Kitson’s restless convoluting brilliance, the above is not as simple as a list of fantasy projects. As of 1.52pm… is something that might be explained as a reverse Kunstlerroman, a piece full of artistic self-excoriation and vertiginous auto-critique, where every utterance is couched in sufficient layers of fiction to smother Thomas Kyd forever, dampen the spirits of Tristram Shandy, blow the brains out of poor dear Charlie Kaufman.
Dan is a character in the play Kitson is reading out, and he’s just mistyped “pippet” show while writing himself into a play with his friend Jen, to liven up their characters Max, an old man with a habit of labeling things, and Connie his sweet nurse, who themselves are embarking on writing a fabulous story of castles, hills and streams. And while Kitson is falling into scripted direct address in front of us, it’s when he begins to render this Daniel in the third person – up all night writing in stained pyjamas reassuring his lover over phone that Jen bears no relation to her at all – and when Dan and Jen begin to take agency in writing themselves out of the story, that this monumental tendrilous array of sparking capacitors, like the control board of some mythic power station, reaches full meta-fictional load.
If there is a level of literary torture-testing to this Synecdoche Edinburgh we are never left to blue screen. Indeed a typo that can occur two levels of fiction down and be corrected in the next is indicative of the way in which this sprawling, leavened, minutely judged piece is a thing of superhuman control in which events are given their full resonance, just as they are snatched away into the structure. You can see Kitson’s careful, quick process, retroactively fitting decisions and gathering such measured strides to bring us this gun-free inception, and it results in a magnificent burnished literary product.
Many of those decisions appear as deeply self-reflexive ones, as we are treated to a stanley-knife-peeling-an-orange deconstruction of the quirks of his storytelling as it has developed over the years. Kitson skewers many of his own foibles: his over-reliance on pristine descriptive detail to give life, that slight force in his tender rendering of an object, by relegating that schtick to a self-mocking aside about a car (giving its make, model, a pause: “it’s a driver’s car”). His lunchtime whimsy blog poetry is marginalised – the line a “defeated to-do list” at the top of the show is a crowd-pleaser and swiftly left behind as ironic backwash. And instead we are given much more dialogue, clean, fast, mounting dialogue, delivered in a voice lent the required level of distance for each given fictional plane, a rapid tour de force of vocal performance: a flame-juggler setting fire to himself limb by limb, modulating his screams with determined precision.
All these textual interstices allow him to kick back and comically puncture his own pomposity; all that freewheeling space to shout “fuck ‘em”. The artifice of story is cleverly cast across a spectrum with the fable-telling of Max and Connie at one end, and the very bluntness of Kitson in the room delivering gruff one-liners, prosaic and bathetic stage directions, that tone of unexpected avuncular advice, on blinds, beans, and coffee, a familiar and effective tic from his stand-up. And so instead of as before, segueing into sparkling comic moments, he has found a form in which his comedy can co-exist with and antagonise his storytelling. It’s in this vein that some excellent mileage is made from his faux-self-aggrandisement: here the “K-Dog” can both have his cake and have his cake eat itself, where to declare “I am Daniel fucking Kitson” compounds the familiar gut-laugh with the sharp echo of formal irony.
Also in this cats cradle of a question mark, is his relationship to language. Jen accuses Dan of speaking in an “oddly patronizing mixed ability tautology”, as he delivers a longer word followed swiftly by its shorter cousin. And while Kitson has long appeared to fancy himself a linguistic fencer (a foil honed on the comedy circuit certainly makes the parrying superb but the swishes too often floridly rhetorical) here Dan explains how he wants to be “less polemical”. And where priorly this slight sense of insistence that his character’s lives are important was detectable amongst the gentle, and the notes of self-importance which accompany that act of telling which could on occasion be as much bruising as bruised, here they dissolve as Dan holds Daniel to consistent account, the dialogue is spittle-lively, funny, light and free, and for once that appropriating ego is suspended as if in the larger service of the piece.
What that is actually servicing, beyond a piece of writing as clear and bright as a water diamond, is near impossible to tease out from one viewing. It may be a fable about the fabulist; a winding argument for the use of myth; a meditation on art and language in storytelling. Its lessons are as deep and intricate as its rules. And if this is Daniel Kitson violently blowing his own artistic bridges mid-crossing, and given he’s hardly one to tread water, it does raise the question – what next? In some ways this is the perfect device, housing so much of his brilliance. What appears from the rubble of this architecturally astounding show is an equally astounding prospect.