Leader: Referendum finds way into Festival

Prime Minister David Cameron (L) is greeted by First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Reuters
Prime Minister David Cameron (L) is greeted by First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Reuters
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LAST March Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, caused something of a public row when he told our sister paper Scotland on Sunday that he would not be commissioning any work about the independence debate for the 2014 festival.

Instead, he intended to use the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 100th anniversary of the First World War as the inspiration for his farewell programme, after eight years in the job.

Sir Jonathan’s protestations of political neutrality were criticised. No-one suggested the Festival should take sides in the referendum, but equally there is a place for art to illuminate political controversy. Indeed, one reason the Edinburgh Festival was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War was to promote peace in Europe. However, when the 2014 programme was revealed yesterday, its centrepiece – courtesy of a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland – was the ambitious James Plays by Rona Munro, a cycle featuring James I, James II and James III.

Whether or not Sir Jonathan intended it, these plays will provide a historical backdrop to the referendum, reflecting issues of power, national identity and cross-border tensions – which is to the good. Fittingly, they are a co-production between the UK and Scottish National Theatres. They may have rescued the Edinburgh International Festival from seeming irrelevant in Scotland’s year of destiny.

With more than 2,400 artists from 43 nations expected to perform, Sir Jonathan’s Festival finale has already been much praised for its breadth and excitement. The 2014 Festival will be equal to the challenge of its time. Sir Jonathan leaves on a high note.