Phoebe Waller-Bridge knows better than anyone that the Edinburgh Fringe is where careers are made.
Now she has singled out a comedian performing a one-woman show about Kurt Cobain’s ghost as the breakout star of this year’s festival.
Waller-Bridge, 37, who rose to fame after performing Fleabag at the 2013 Fringe, was “floored” by Aberdeen, Cassie Workman’s epic poem about the Nirvana singer’s tortured life.
The performance is part-meditation on Cobain’s life, part-dialogue with his ghost and takes its name and its pervasive atmosphere from the rock star’s crumbling, rain-sodden hometown in Washington State.
It has been playing to small audiences at a converted chapel in Edinburgh but promises to attract much larger crowds after winning praise from Waller-Bridge and other influential critics.
“I was captivated from start to finish,” Waller-Bridge said after seeing the show on Tuesday. “Cassie is a phenomenal storyteller. I could practically feel the rain that she conjured.
“We were lulled by the elegance of her writing and wit into an unforgettable story of raw pain, fury and fragility. It is a howl of a poem.”
Waller-Bridge, who was made an “ambassador” for the Fringe last year, was intrigued when she heard about the show at a pre-festival event, and decided to attend.
Looming over the work is Cobain’s suicide at the age of 27 in 1994, when Nirvana were at the height of their fame after the release of the album Nevermind and its single Smells Like Teen Spirit. At the opening of the four-part poem, Workman is guided by his ghost, through Aberdeen, “a barren Walmart car park” and breathes the “fetid air” under the bridge where he lived for a while after his parents split.
When the ghost opens up “a portal” the action moves on, first to the lively music scene in Olympia, the state capital, through his tumultuous relationship with the singer Courtney Love and ultimately to his mansion in Seattle, where he died.
Workman, 40, worked on the poem for more than two years in a creative effort that brought on depression and suicidal thoughts, she said. “If you want to portray Cobain in art, it is impossible not to get sucked into that abyss with him,” she said. “He was absolutely not prepared to become the voice of a generation. For me that was really the appeal of him — he didn’t want any of it. Ironically, the more he didn’t want the fame, the more famous he became.”
She traveled to the United States to research the piece, arriving in Aberdeen during a storm. “I found his childhood home and it’s just this sad little wooden box on a corner. Down the end of the street was the Wishkah River and the Young Street Bridge where he lived when he was homeless. Now people go there to do heroin.” At Cobain’s home in Seattle, “I broke down,” she said. “It was so sad, so overwhelming, so intense.”
Workman, an Australian stand-up whose Giantess was nominated for the Melbourne Comedy Festival’s most outstanding show in 2019, tried with the poem “to make a contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno,” something with an “old-world feel” but about “a more contemporary subject”. She said: “If there is something really deep, intimate and personal to express, a poem is not a terrible way to do it, and it was a challenge, to make a poem that goes for an hour.”
Workman, 40, worked on the poem for more than two years in a creative effort that brought on depression and suicidal thoughts.
Asif Khan, the director of the Scottish Poetry Library, described the show as “absolutely stunning”. He said: “Cassie tackles that issue of you hero-worshipping someone who didn’t want to be hero-worshipped. People tend to park that and celebrate the music, but there is a human being at the core. Anyone who is interested in live performance art, not just poetry, should see the show.”
From the opening of Aberdeen
And it rains on 1210 East First street, the same miserable rain that fell on him.
And it rains on stinking Aberdeen, on my hero’s origin…
And nature feuds with the broken streets, each burgeoning weed its violence,
And since he didn’t want to speak, I, sopping wet, broke the silence.
“I didn’t know a place could have such fucking ugly rain.”
I sort of murmured half unconscious, to the ghost of Kurt Cobain.
This is going to sound crazy, but just give me fifty-five minutes to explain,
I am standing in ankle deep water, in Aberdeen, holding hands with Kurt Cobain.
Mike Wade is a Scotland-based reporter for The Times of London. He was once thrown out of an interview by Donald Trump