The 2015 Edinburgh Festival, which lit up the Scottish capital over the month of August, provided an eclectic mixture of dance, drama, music and opera, attracting more than 3000 artists from 39 nations. The new festival director Fergus Linehan, whose previous roles have seen him head up the Sydney Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival and Vivid LIVE brought exciting, vibrant, boundary-busting productions that redefined the whole concept of theatre.
Making its first appearance at the official festival was Herbert Fritsch's production of Dieter Roth's previously presumed unstageable work Murmel Murmel, performed by the Volksbuhne Berlin. Given that Roth's 178 page text consists of just one word, the eponymous 'murmel' (meaning to murmur) there is no end of fun to be had in what s a meticulously choreographed riot involving 11 retro-clad performers overseen by a conductor dressed in military uniform who supplies the live soundtrack of marimba-led exotica. Over the course of the 80 minutes, the word is intoned, screamed, whispered, sung, stretched out, chewed up, swallowed and spat out. In one particularly hilarious scene, a man battles with the endless cords attached to an electric plug and is then caught up all over again trying to disentangle the microphone leads, all the while repeating the words 'murmel'. At times it is a physical symphony involving sketch-like movements, at others it is an increasingly ridiculous chant as the performers goose each other or else stumble and tumble into the orchestra pit.
Designing his own abstract, constantly shifting sets in bright primary colours and virtually eliminating furniture, Fritsch puts the spotlight on the actors, all of whom seem to be working overtime at the Ministry of Silly Walks. Truly inspired lunacy!
One of the most ambitious novels of the 20th century was Alasdair Gray's Lanark, but in Graham Eatough's production, adapted by David Greig and performed by the Glasgow Citizens Theatre it proves to be unstageable. Sandy Grayson plays the title character who drifts from living reality into a space somewhat between dream and nightmare in a story of a morally bankrupt alternate reality. The play which runs for a mind-numbing four hours is both unwieldy and uninvolving – although there are some interesting insights – offering a challenging mixture of live action, animation, projected words, sliding screens and metal structures,
It is not very often that a virtuoso performance from a talented young pianist lights up a concert, but this was certainly the case with Yuja Wang, whose reading of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto proved to be the highlight of the second concert of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Wang's dynamic approach to the slow movement and the wonderful arc of the finale were faultless in what was a beautifully structured and paced performance.
Conducting powerhouse Valery Gergiev and the magnificent London Symphony Orchestra brought the festival's concert programme to a close with two of the 20th century's most dazzling, vibrant composers Bartok and Stravinsky. Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin and Third Piano Concerto made an indelible impression but it was with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring that the evening really soared. Gergiev and the orchestra brilliantly conveyed the unstoppable rhythms and searing orchestral colours of Stravinsky's masterpiece. Indeed this dazzling composition which starts with a bassoon solo still challenges aspiring and experienced bassoonists today. A truly memorable evening!
Over to the Fringe and the Traverse Theatre where some of the best new writing can be found in Orla O'Laughlin's production of Stef Smith's Swallow, three strangers face their demons head on. Balanced precariously on a tipping point they might just be able to save one another if they can overcome their urge to self-destruct. This play takes a long hard look at the extremes of modern life and explores issues of identity, heartbreak and hope. A hardworking cast of three young actors succeed in bringing their characters vividly to life.
A fascinating exploration of faith and community in the modern world is provided by Christopher Haydon's production of The Christians by Lucac Hnath. For the last 20 years, Pastor Paul has been building a church. Starting in a modest storefront, he now presides over a flock of thousands. Idolised by his followers, today should be a day for joy and celebration. However, the sermon that Paul is about to preach is set to shake the very foundations of his followers' beliefs. This is an important work which asks profound questions about what we believe and why. It can be seen at the Gate Theatre in London.
However, the best production at the Traverse was Annie Ryan's absorbing and powerful stage adaptation of Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. This is a disturbing, yet hugely dynamic 80 minutes of theatre with an electrifying performance by Aoife Duffin as a girl born into a family abandoned by its feckless father, disliked and unloved by her unhappy mother, sexually abused by her uncle and loved only by her slightly brain damaged older brother.
The show justifiably won this year's Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award and will be playing at the Young Vic in London in February 2016.
Back to the official festival and a stunning programme by Ballet Zurich, one of Europe's leading ensembles which featured works by their artistic director Christian Spuck and multi award-winning British choreographer Wayne McGregor. The latter's new work Kairos is a seamless marriage of design and structure set to Max Richter's celebrated reimagining of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. In Sonett, choreographed by Spuck we are plunged into the mysterious world of Shakespeare's late sonnets, dealing with love, longing, loyalty, and betrayal and weaving together music by Philip Glass and Mozart with theatrical flair and passion. Indeed, in both works the dancers displayed a mixture of agility, articulation of movement and remarkable versatility that was both breathtaking and hypnotic to watch.
However, the highlight of the official festival for me was Barrie Koski and British theatre group 1927's superb reimagining of Mozart's masterful comedy, The Magic Flute. This witty and enchanting production by the Komiche Oper Berlin (staging by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kasky) provided an endlessly imaginative blend of animated film and live action in a spectacular kaleidoscope of 1920s silent movies Weimar cabaret and the dark humour of Edward Gorey and German expressionism.
The story opens in a dark forest, far away. As he flees from a giant serpent three women who serve the Queen of the Night rescue Tamino in time. When he regains consciousness, the first thing Tamino sees is Papageno, so he believes him to be his rescuer. Papageno, a bird catcher in search of love, does nothing to dispel this misunderstanding. The three women return and punish Papageno for his lies by rendering him mute. They show Tamino a picture of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, and he falls instantly in love with her. But she has been kidnapped and Tamino is ordered to rescue her – with the help, of course, of the magic flute!
This is an opera of pictures in which different worlds collide; what lies beyond or beneath these pictures is inadequately expressed by words but finds suitable expression in the world of fairytales and dreams – and in the world of music. Here spoken dialogue is replaced by title cards and many an exclamation mark. The acting borrows the muted gesture and mime of early films. In the fantasy world depicted here sequential images move kaleidoscopically before our eyes. Flying red lips grow insect legs and multiply. Flowers and butterflies appear and disappear. There are pink elephants, snowflakes, which turn to soot, monsters in burlesque outfits and a laboratory of strange scientific contraptions. A naughty, naked Tinkerbell whose flight across the stage leaves a vapour trail of notes on a stave represents the flute of the title.
It is surprising how well the animation (by Paul Barritt) interacts with the singers and doesn't detract from the impressive performances by the vocalists themselves – and for that matter, the beautiful score. Allan Clayton in particular is excellent as Tamino, reacting fantastically to the Queen of the Night's toying spider legs disjointedly pushing and trapping him around the resourcefully used stage, while sopranos Maureen McKay and Olga Pudova as Pamina and the Queen of the Night respectively are equally good.
In short then, this wildly inventive, wholly engrossing show certainly managed to shed new light on the traditional world of opera and certainly lived up to its title by bringing real magic to the festival.Last modified: April 7, 2021