Edinburgh International Festival: Critics’ guide

A still from 'Exhibit B'. Picture: Brett Bailey
A still from 'Exhibit B'. Picture: Brett Bailey
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OUR theatre, dance and classical music critics pick out some of their highlights from the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival programme.

Theatre, by Joyce McMillan

LIKE any artist, he likes to tease, and sometimes to contradict himself; so it’s perhaps no surprise that there are two genuinely thrilling aspects to Jonathan Mills’s final theatre programme as EIF director.

The first lies in the fact that despite his own controversial dictum, last year, that he would programme nothing directly relevant to the Scottish referendum - focussing instead on the Commonwealth, and the First World War centenary - he has commissioned, as the centrepiece of his programme, a trilogy of vast new Scottish history plays by Rona Munro, to be co-produced by EIF with the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

The James plays - covering the reigns of Scotland’s first three Stewart kings - promise to seethe with political conflict, personal drama and contemporary resonances; as well as offering a high-profile guest star performance from Sofie Grabol of The Killing, who will play James III’s Danish queen.

And the second striking aspect of the programme is the intensity with which it reflects the theme of war, and particularly the great wars that tore Europe apart in the 20th century.

From Moscow, Hamburg, Sydney and Toronto, great global theatre companies bring powerful reflections on war and its aftermath, ranging from the Thalia Theater of Hamburg’s Front - a version of All Quiet On The Western Front and Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, directed by the acclaimed Luk Perceval - to the world premiere of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival’s new show The War, in which a group of young people in Paris at Christmas 1913 debate their future.

Add the legendary Ubu And The Truth Commission by Handspring of South Africa - the company behind the magnificent War Horse puppets that recently thrilled Edinburgh audiences - and you have a programme rich in themes and possibilities, with plenty of new work, and some tried-and-tested productions of true global quality.

Music, by Kenneth Walton

It was clearly never intended, but if one performance in this year’s impressive EIF music programme is destined to hit a raw nerve, it is surely Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

Written during the Nazi siege of the Russian city, it is conducted, through a cruel twist of irony, by the Ukrainian Kirill Karabits with I, CULTURE, an orchestra of young musicians from Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Such is the delicate nature of international arts programming, the type of coincidence that can so easily set culture and politics on a collision course. Bets are, it could well turn out to be one of this festival’s most emotionally-charged performances, and possibly the most chilling contemporary manifestation of Jonathan Mills’ overall thematic exploration of war, unrest and “circumstances dictated by the powerful few”.

It’s a theme already packed with rich pickings: a production of Berlioz’s epic opera “The Trojans” by the Mariinsky Opera of St Petersburg under Putin-supporter Valery Gergiev; the brilliant Kronos Quartet in film and music commemorating the years of the First World War; the subversive collision of texts in Britten’s “War Requiem” and powerful anti-militarism of his opera “Owen Wingrave”; Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony, with narration written by Auschwitz and Dachau survivor Samuel Pisar; and a closing concert featuring Mills’ own “Sandakan Threnody”, an oratorio written in honour of the 2,500 British and Australian prisoners of war who died in the death marches of Borneo.

All that, in conjunction with the more neutral sentiments of pianist Paul Lewis’ solo Beethoven recital, the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s Mahler 6, two appearances by the Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw, a Festival opener featuring Debussy’s “Le martyre de St Sébastien”, a tea-time Greyfriars Kirk series opening with Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, and so much more, adds up to a challenging, possibly provocative, musical feast.

Dance, by Kelly Apter

It’s a bone of contention for many dance fans, that the Royal Ballet (one of the world’s most revered companies, and on our doorstep, relatively speaking) never tours to Scotland. So bravo to Mark Baldwin for bringing a few of its dancers to our shores.

Performers from Baldwin’s own company, Rambert, will join those from the Royal Ballet to deliver Inala, a brand new work accompanied by South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A potentially sublime combination of music and movement that brings goosebumps just thinking about it.

Rambert last played the Edinburgh International Festival in 2004, a year before Akram Khan – who also makes a return visit in 2014, and it’s great to see both of them back. Khan is one of those rare dancers who holds your gaze and refuses to let it go. These days, his blend of Indian Kathak and contemporary dance is more often performed by his company than him, so Khan’s Mahabharata-inspired duet, Gnosis is an unmissable chance to see the man himself in action.

Festival director Jonathan Mills is taking a risk inviting Lemi Ponifasio’s MAU company back to Edinburgh, but I’m very glad he is. The Samoan choreographer creates work that’s far from easy, but if you can leave your pre-conceptions about dance and entertainment at the door, you’ll be richly rewarded by his new work, I Am.

Pina Bausch created Sweet Mambo in 2008, a year before she died, and it’s a testament to Tanztheater Wuppertal that five years after the loss of its legendary leader, the company is still going strong. Mills is a big fan of Bausch’s work, and quite rightly sees this glamorous take on the challenges of romantic relationships as the ideal way to keep her memory alive with Festival audiences.

So, just four dance works this year, but every one of them worth a punt.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PROGRAMME

• Les Troyens, Mariinsky Opera, Festival Theatre, 28-30: One of two large-scale opera productions this year, but the epic adaptation of Hector Berlioz’s 19th century opera, charting the epic battles between the Greeks and the Trojans, will see Mariinsky Opera, from St Petersburg, perform for five and a half hours.

• Owen Wingrave, King’s Theatre, 15-17 August: Aldeburgh Music revive Benjamin Britten’s controversial pacifist opera, about a military cadet’s decision to reject the life of a soldier, which the composer wrote after being asked to write a piece for television, at a time when the US intervention in Vietnam was dominating the news.

• The James Plays, Festival Theatre, 5-22 August: Sofie Grabol, James McArdle and Blythe Duff head up the cast of Rona Munro’s brand new trilogy of plays - staged by the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain in their first major collaboration - exploring the tumultuous rule of the Stewart Kings over Scotland in the 15th century.

• Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 9-12 August: Australian theatre company Back to Back - whose ensemble is drawn from actors with disabilities - create what is billed as the festival’s “most curious” play this year, revolving around a elephant-headed Hindu god travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika.

• Front, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 22-26 August: The Thalia Theater company, from Hamburg, look at the horror which unfolded in the trenches in the First World War, partly inspired by the famous German novel All Quiet On The Western Front, which described soldiers’ incredible physical and mental stress.

• The War, King;s Theatre, 9-11 August: The world premiere of a new co-production between the EIF and the Chekov International Theatre Festival set in Paris just before and then during the First World War, with a group of young artists forced to re-examine their beliefs and beliefs as the reality of the conflict unfolds.

• Ubu and the Truth Commission, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 28-30 August: Testimonies from the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide the inspiration for the production by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, best known for their work on War Horse.

• Inala, Edinburgh Playhouse, 10-12 August: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the choir hailed as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors” by the late Nelson Mandela, join forces with dancers from The Royal Ballet and Rambert companies for a one-off collaboration to mark both 20 years of democracy and Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games.

• Gnosis, King’s Theatre, 19-21 August: The legendary Bengali dancer and choreographer, who masterminded one of the most striking sequences of the London 2012 opening ceremony, returns to the ancient Indian story Mahabharata, with which he began his stage career at the age of 14, for inspiration.

• Exhibit B, Playfair Library, 9-24 August: South African director Brett Bailey takes over Edinburgh University’s prestigious space for a human installation, which will see black performers appearing in “curiosity cabinets” highlighting European racism stretching back to the 19th century.

• BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Usher Hall, 30 August: On the penultimate day of his last festival, Sir Jonathan Mills will finally have one of his own pieces performed at the event - one he wrote inspired by his father’s prisoner-of-war experiences and the huge loss of life his countrymen suffered in Borneo in 1945.

• Songs and instrumental music from Terezin, Queen’s Hall, 25 August: A concert of the remarkable music produced at the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Terezin - where Czech musicians, composers, writers and artists were allowed to both create and perform.