Festival review: Hidden Door Opening Weekend

Anna Meredith   PIC: Kate Bones
Anna Meredith PIC: Kate Bones
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The Hidden Door has brought Leith Theatre to life for the first time in 28 years, with a programme of music, theatre, art and more. Scotsman critics David Pollock, Susan Mansfield and Joyce McMillan report from the festival’s opening weekend

DAVID POLLOCK ON MUSIC

The Hidden Door Opening Party ****

Leith Theatre, Edinburgh

Singling out any individual performance highlight from the grand unveiling of this year’s Hidden Door festival feels grossly unfair to the real star of the show – Leith Theatre itself, the derelict 85-year-old performance space appropriated by the festival for ten days of ad-hoc but ingeniously curated art and performance. For a traditional live band show or a dark and atmospheric club experience afterwards, the theatre revealed itself as an incredible location for live music.

Having seen it in action, it’s impossible to put too much emphasis on the point that this building is just waiting to become one of Edinburgh’s greatest cultural assets, and any attempt to stop it realising its potential would be a slap in the face to everyone who believes the city deserves a cultural offering worthy of a capital city.

The evening’s headliner was Anna Meredith, a North Queensferry-raised sometime BBC Proms composer turned Scottish Album of the Year Award-winning pop writer and performer of real genius. “Hi to everyone I went to school with,” Meredith deadpanned, a music room geek turned big-stage star multi-instrumentalist. She and her band opened with the thundering, tuba-led mantra of Nautilus and strode through a set of off-beam pop and clubby electronics, before leaving us with an unselfconscious and captivating take on the Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).

She was ably supported by the hypnotic, synthetic indie of Glasgow’s BDY_PRTS and the frosty electro of former Ladytron member Helen Marnie, a line-up which ably made the festival’s implicit point about great things happening locally.

SUSAN MANSFIELD ON VISUAL ART

Hidden Door Art ****

Leith Theatre

Something often cracks into life when artists have a interesting venue to respond to, and places don’t come much richer than Leith Theatre, opening its doors for the first time in 28 years. Not surprisingly, the artists in Hidden Door – ten invited artists and around 25 selected from an open call – have responded in spades to its decaying splendour. They’ve occupied every nook and cranny from the attics to the basement.

Kristina Chan is drawn to disused buildings in any case, and has made magnificent large-scale lithographs of the theatre’s interior prior to re-opening. Composer Luci Holland has created sound installations for stairs and passages which respond to the number of people inside. Lotte Fisher imaginatively turns a disused women’s toilet into another part of her world of Tenzing, with its own characters, buildings and language. In an old cinema projection room in the attic Marshall De’Ath uses sound and film to reflect on aspects of the building’s history, while in the women’s dressing room, Theresa Moerman Ib uses film, photography and found objects to explored silenced voices, the theatre’s and her own.

While the low lighting levels in some parts of the building don’t suit all the works, others revel in them, from Sarah Calmus’ infinity mirror to the leather ‘Torso’ sculptures of Sax Shaw. In a space with an atmosphere as powerful as this one, even the artists who don’t respond to it directly find it casts its own peculiar light (or darkness) on their work.

JOYCE MCMILLAN ON THEATRE

Hidden Door Theatre ***

Leith Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no point in pretending that theatre, as an art-form, stands front-and-centre at this year’s Hidden Door Festival; the headline story is all about the re-emergence of Leith Theatre’s mighty main auditorium as one of Scotland’s great music venues, breathtakingly lit and sound-engineered by the Hidden Door tech team.

Theatre is here, though, around the building; and if it’s often struggling to make its voice heard, above the hubbub in the bars and on stage, it was still thrilling to see the festival open, on Friday night, with a brief moment of focus in the main auditorium on a beautifully lit and sound-designed fragment by performance artist Charlotte Hastings. The piece, called Heroines, featured three female performers who made the doomed voices of three mighty classical heroines – Cleopatra, Antigone, Medea – echo briefly round the great space, which seemed to welcome them back; and it was followed by the dancer-acrobats of the Glasgow-based group Surge, who moved from balcony to main floor, criss-crossing the space in a half-hour ballet of awakening, loss, and rediscovery, on a scale to match the arena.

And then elsewhere, in backstage rooms, the opening weekend featured the latest work from Edinburgh-based company Creative Electric - a 45-minute monologue about depression and anxiety called Sinking Horses, staged in a dressing-room strikingly designed and lit to reflect the inner pain of the speaker, bravely played by Ros McAndrew; and also Annie Lord’s Graft, a completely charming 25 minute lantern-lecture about the art of grafting plants, and the birth of Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. The coming week’s theatre at Hidden Door involves companies like Grid Iron, Ludus Ensemble and Tragic Carpet; and the joy of Hidden Door is that in between bands, you can pick up some theatrefor no extra charge.

*Hidden Door runs until 4 June