Lipson looks to "tread that line of embarrassment" and create something that is sometimes "so frank you want to look away".
In a city with so much art to see, it's rare — maybe counter intuitive — for shows taking actual artistic risks to appear. What if they are so obscure people won't understand? Must a show be translatable? Experimental theatre says 'no', emphatically. It wants to give you an opportunity to perceive in a different way. Veteran UK-born theatre-maker Brian Lipson's new solo work, Edmund. The Beginning, which opens this month at Arts House, is shaping up as a piece that does just this. Difficult to categorise and inseparable from himself, Lipson says, the show is a piece of distorted biography about split personas, history, imagination, and literature, among various other things.
"Edmund had a bastard son of his own who was also called Edmund, who died when he was 18 months old and was registered in the parish records as a 'base bastard'."
"Edmund doesn't appear, but we do hear his voice," Lipson explains of the name in the show's title. "He was William Shakespeare's brother and was 15 years younger. It's a bit of a furphy, really, but he's someone I'm really interested in. For some reason or other there is not one Shakespeare biographer who really delves into this relationship. I honestly don't know why." The intrigue surrounding this mysterious figure was, as the title slyly suggests, a beginning for this project.
The character of Edmund in Shakespeare's play, King Lear, is the archetypal evil brother: a bastard son hell-bent on taking the power he wasn't born with. For Lipson, this link by name between the playwright's brother and one of his most famous characters is theatrical gold. "Shakespeare had to have chosen that name consciously, it was his brother and he was being mean to him. The terrible thing is that a year or two after King Lear was written, Edmund had a bastard son of his own who was also called Edmund, who died when he was 18 months old and was registered in the parish records as a 'base bastard'."
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"What interests me is how all this would have affected Shakespeare's imagination, rather than trying to find out who Edmund was," Lipson says. Intriguing digressions like this fill our conversation, with Lipson less intent on coming to a point than carefully articulating the characters and ideas his work illuminates.
In there, prominent among the 15 or so characters he plays, is Brian Lipson himself. "These other characters enter me and then leave," he says. "There is one who is kind of like a doppelganger of me, but he's also a real person who is not Brian Lipson. I won't say who, I don't want to spoil it." It's becoming clear why Edmund is being billed as more complex than Lipson's acclaimed last solo work, A Large Attendance In The Antechamber.
The character Brian Lipson doesn't just facilitate and narrate, Lipson says. He's heavily implicated in the show's themes. As in the confessional mode of American poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' personal expression, Lipson looks to "tread that line of embarrassment" and create something that is sometimes "so frank you want to look away... I have to feel that what I'm giving out is genuine and not just there in order to get a response," he confides.
At the end of King Lear, Edmund confesses to ordering the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. But it's not enough to save either's life, and certainly not enough to elevate him from the status of 'base bastard' to hero. It's a lesson that confession often fails. What Brian Lipson could be doing in Edmund. The Beginning, is exploring that moment before confession is overcome by louder, more parochial voices.