Edinburgh International Festival

Laurence Green reports on the very best in international opera, music, theatre and dance at the Edinburgh International Festival.

What have Maria Callas, Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, Rudolf Nureyer, Willem Dafoe and Ricky Gervais in common? The answer is that they have all appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival. This annual event set against the backdrop of the Scottish capital’s medieval closes, cobbled streets, underground vaults and 19th century Georgian grandeur attracts more than 35,000 artists, entertainers and thinkers, with over 1,000 shows per day.

The main focus, though, is on the official festival with its eclectic mix of dance, drama, music, opera and concerts, and this year’s theme was “the relationship between artists and their contemporary innovations, materials and technologies.”

The Tragedy of CoriolanusThe most eagerly awaited production was Lin Zhaohua’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus (Playhouse theatre), an epic re-interpretation of the Shakespearean tragedy for the 21st century, performed by Beijing people’s Art theatre, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Brilliant General Caius Martius returns to Rome a hero. Having conquered the city of Corioles, he is named Coriolanus and persuaded to run for Consul. However, when he is rejected by the common people, Coriolanus vows to destroy Rome and joins forces with his enemy Aufidius to mount an attack.

This is Shakespeare as you have never seen it before with a multitude of bamboo spear wielding extras substituting for the Roman hordes and two heavy metal bands, Miserable Faith and Suffocated on stage heightening and pinpointing the drama. Yet Zhohua managed to distil the essence of the Shakespearean original in showing the fight for democracy against the dangers of mob rule and tyranny of the majority. The backwall of Yi Liming’s vast set suggested the great portals and walls of a ruined city, scaled by besieging ladders, and the company played the crowd and fight scenes with great verve and conviction.

Pu Cunxin, one of China’s most famous actors, brought Coriolanus vividly to life, striding about in breast plate and golden robes, a General so proud of his nobility and arrogant in his achievements that he treats the Roman people with blistering contempt and yet we managed to see the human side of this flawed individual and are moved by his downfall.

Bluebeard's CastleBy contrast the Frankfurt Opera Company’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle (Edinburgh Festival Theatre), directed by Barrie Kosky, was something of a letdown. The opera depicts the tragic Judith obsessively opening a series of mysterious doors in her recently betrothed’s castle to discover the terrible fate of his former wives. This was a minimalist production performed on a raised, curved platform on a virtually bare set with the characters stiff and at times, over melodramatic in the style of a 30s film. But at least the two principals Tanje Ariane Baumgartner and Robert Hayward as Judith and Bluebeard respectively were in fine voice and Bartok’s dramatic score managed to convey the psychological subtleties of the two protagonists.

The first half of the evening, however was a more satisfying affair with a striking performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a poignant masterpiece of early English opera featuring some of the composer’s most heartfelt music. After reluctantly falling in love with the warrior Aeneas as he travels home from the Trojan Wars, Dido, Queen of Carthage, is brutally rejected when he is later deceived into leaving her. This study of desire, obsession and doomed love was neatly counterbalanced by some broad humour, mainly conveyed by two eccentric male witches, while the two leads Paula Murrihy as Dido and Sebastian Geyer, as Aeneas displayed richly textured voices and provided a searing exploration of human relationships.

Long Live the Little KnifeLet’s move on to the Fringe and where better than the Traverse Theatre, celebrating its 50th anniversary with one of its strongest line-up of plays in recent years. We’ll begin with David Liddys’ wildly funny and thought-provoking Long Live the Little Knife. Liz and Jim are small-time con artists who need £250,000 fast. They decide to become the world’s greatest counterfeiters. But there’s only problem – they can’t paint. This boisterous caper, marvellously brought to life by Wendy Seager and Neil McCormack, finds the absurd connections between verbatim theatre, free-market economics and the ridiculously over-priced and forever rising cost of art works and castrated labradoodles in classic Chanel handbags.

Screams reverberate through corridors. A forest echoes with the sound of gunfire. Innocent blood is shed and lives ripped apart. As the wounds on a community are left gaping, a young choir leader begins her guest to heal and to understand. Director Ramin Gray teams up with celebrated playwright David Greig with a bold new work entitled The Events that explores the horrific, politically motivated crime on a small community and delves into the nature of forgiveness – reconciliation and understanding. The play asks how far forgiveness will stretch in the face of atrocity. Featuring local choirs and a soaring soundtrack by Irish composer John Browne, what unfolds is a tale of tragedy obsession and our destructive desire to fathom the unfathomable. The play can be seen at the Young Vic in London in October.

The Secret AgentSecret terror cells, political conspiracy, police bungling, state-sponsored bomb plots. No it’s not the world as we know it today but London in 1896. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Secret Agent (also at the Young Vic in October) is theatre O’s heartbreaking and hilarious chronicle of passion, betrayal and terrorism. Set at a time of social upheaval and growing, disparity between rich and poor, at the heart of this tale is a woman fighting to protect her young brother from exploitation and violence, while the plot itself involves a reluctant spy pressured by ‘a foreign power’ to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, so as to provoke the government into passing repressive legislation. Using early 20th century forms of entertainment including music hall, magic – lantern and early cinematic techniques, this is an imaginative and irreverent work.

A spellbinding solo performance comes in David Harrower’s Ciara, with Blythe Duffas a gallery owner tainted by the sins of her father. This well-crafted play uncoils at a leisurely pace, providing an atmosphere insight into Glasgow’s dark underbelly, a world by turns terrifying and electrifying. The play returns to the Traverse in October.

But the best of the fest in the Traverse line-up was Christopher Haydon’s outstanding production of George Brant’s one-woman play Grounded about an F-16 fighter pilot whose career crash-lands when she falls pregnant, leaving her operating remote-controlled drones over Pakistan from an air-conditioned trailer in Las Vegas. She struggles through surreal twelve-hour shifts far from the battlefield-hunting terrorists by day and being a wife and mother by night. Lucy Ellinson gives an electrifying performance in a piece that brilliantly captures the pressures of modern warfare and the effects of post traumatic stress. The play has now moved to the Gate Theatre Notting Hill.

MidoriBack to the official festival where I caught an excellent morning concert by internationally renowned violinist Midori (Queen’s Hall). She managed to bring a fresh perspective to one of the greatest collections of music in the violin repertoire. With their colossal ambition, intellectual intensity and great emotional scope, Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas stand at the pinnacle of solo violin music. In her concert, Midori set the elegant Sonata in G minor against the rich, dense music of the C major Sonata, one of the most powerful and demanding pieces ever written for a solo instrument. By way of contrast Midori began the second half with Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s brief yet poignant tribute to his forebear Shostakovich, in which she was accompanied by an invisible, ghostly partner. Her playing was exquisite, delineating each note with care and clarity, bringing out the beauty and emotion of the music. A truly unforgettable experience.

Eh JoeThe most impressive production at the official festival, though, was ironically also the shortest at only 30 minutes, namely Armenian-Canadian film director atom Egoyan’s super production of Samuel Beckett’s Eh Joe (Playhouse Theatre) from the gate Theatre Dublin, featuring a stunning, wordless performance from Michael Gambon. We first encounter Gambon as an elderly man in his dressing grown, sitting on a bed in a dark, dingy bedsit. He moves around, checking behind the door, under the bed and out of the window. Gambon’s face is hugely magnified and projected onto a large screen. This is Joe, a man alone in the world. He does not speak, but we hear the internal monologue which is playing in his head. It is the disembodied voice of a woman (spoken by Penelope Wilton), a past lover, one of the many he betrayed in a life in which, it seems, charm marked a propensity for neglect, selfishness and abandonment. As the voice continues, suppressed memories in the “penny farthing” hell of Joe’s mind come to the surface and he is made to relive everything he has tried to forget.

Gambon perfectly conveyed by the subtlest of turns and facial expressions, self-hatred, guilt, self-pity and regret, with every flicker of fear anger and shame intensified on the large screen, turning this short play into a deeply affecting work which slowly and gradually insinuated itself into one’s whole being. At the end we were all forced to admit that we cannot escape our past.

Finally how better to unwind after a hectic day than at a Whisky Dinner and Ceilidh? At the Scottish national Gallery’s Café and restaurant where one could enjoy a delicious three-course menu, accompanied by the live band Shenanigans. A truly Scottish experience – with a dram of Highland single malt whisky from Glengoyne thrown in for good measure – that was very much a rarity at this international festival.


Last modified: September 4, 2013

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