Edinburgh International Festival reviews: as british as a watermelon | Ezra Furman | RSNO: Mahler’s Third Symphony | Richard Egarr and Friends

A vivid and moving live art show about self-discovery and a thrilling set from Ezra Furman are among the latest EIF highlights. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, David Pollock, Ken Walton and David Kettle

THEATRE

as british as a watermelon ****

The Studio, until 26 August

As British as a Watermelon

The biography of queer Zimbabwean writer/performer mandla rae describes as british as a watermelon as mandla’s first solo live art show; and this one-hour show certainly feels as much like an installation with a spoken soundtrack as a piece of theatre with any kind of conventional structure.

On an open stage backed by a glowing wall of red and green colour, mandla – in a watermelon-print dress – occupies various spaces within a room suggested by a few bare parts of set, indicating a space, a door, a window. In the room, there is a kitchen bench with a row of large, sharp knives; and there are seven huge watermelons, which mandla gradually begins to stab, crush and take apart.

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As mandla moves around, speaks and sings, we also hear recorded voices, mandla’s own and that of a home office official questioning them about their life. What emerges from these words – often delivered in vivid, one-sentence fragments, followed by long silences – is a story we must piece together for ourselves, about a child from Zimbabwe who lost their loving mother at an early age, who found themselves living in Britain with the kind of fiercely religious grandmother who took pleasure in telling mandla that they “had the devil” in them, who fled only to find themselves abused again, and who experienced a kind of rebirth, when they finally shed their European baptismal name, and became mandla, a name that means power.

The impulse behind mandla’s show often seems to be one of deliberate blasphemy against their grandmother’s faith, as they declare themselves risen from the dead, and protests that if god is their father, he has been a lousy one to them; mandla re-baptises and heals themselves, as they go, with handfuls of crushed watermelon. And the overall impression left by the show is of something infinitely slow-moving but immensely vivid; as mandla moves, symbolically and metaphorically, through the long process of beginning to inhabit their own rage and complexity, and of being born again, as an artist. Joyce McMillan

MUSIC

Ezra Furman ****

Leith Theatre

“I know I play sad songs, but every concert’s a celebration, dammit!” announced Ezra Furman from the stage of this most anticipated of shows. Her sixth solo album All of Us Flames is released at the end of this week, and this tour is an opportunity for fans to meet Furman all over again, since she came out as transgender in 2021.

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The crackle running through the air was fuelled by some combination of welcome, support and defiance, with Furman and her band creating a sound where the fusion of proto-punk energy and raw melancholy deserved comparison to those early pioneers of non-binary rock style, Ziggy-era David Bowie and T.Rex’s Marc Bolan. Another influence also came when Patti Smith’s Because the Night, a song “from one of our punk ancestors,” closed the show.

Furman’s set was one of classic rock archetypes given the energy of newly current concerns, like a trans Springsteen, from the Ziggyesque epic of smalltown escape Point Me Toward the Real, to the dramatic Driving Down to LA and the emotional teen drama and rock’n’roll harmonies of Love You So Bad.

In the lyrics and dark energy of Forever in Sunset (“That summer of the crash / that winter of survival mode”) and Train Comes Through (“It will be too late to get out of the way by the time the train comes through… a great machine can break down suddenly”) there was also something of-the-moment and revolutionary in the air. David Pollock

MUSIC

RSNO: Mahler’s Third Symphony *****

Usher Hall

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Mahler’s Third Symphony is usually best served on its own. As one of the longest symphonies in the repertoire, Mahler takes us on a dizzying magical mystery tour of life’s infinite thoughts and experiences. In its company, anything else can seem excessive or pointless.

But there was certainly a point to James MacMillan’s For Zoe, a brief tribute to Zoe Kitson, a former RSNO principal cor anglais who died earlier this year. The wistful sweep of its central cor anglais solo alone bore a weeping Mahler-like quality that justified its soft-scented, scene-setting presence.

The potent silence the followed served only to heighten the emotional impact of Mahler’s colossal opening movement. Conductor Thomas Søndegård and the RSNO nailed its completeness – a kaleidoscopic frenzy of vying virtuosic soundscapes that resolve with militaristic finality – but also its promise of more to come. It would be amiss not to acknowledge the imposing preeminence of Simon Johnson’s trombone solo.

Thereafter, everything was a magical bonus, the perfumed elegance of the Menuetto, the Scherzo’s rustic naivety, soloist Linda Watson’s ruminative delivery of Nietzsche’s text, the transformative optimism of the RSNO Youth Chorus and Edinburgh Festival Chorus members, and the ultimately blistering, Hollywood-scale finale. Exhaustively thrilling to the end. Ken Walton

MUSIC

Richard Egarr and Friends *****

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Queen's Hall

Many search for it; few ever find it. The joy of musical discovery – and, more importantly, the ability to convey that joy with enthusiasm to an audience – is a rare gift, and one that Richard Egarr has in spades. Few in the Queen’s Hall audience will have been overly familiar with Italian and German early Baroque repertoire for three violins and continuo, and, as Egarr acknowledged, they were about to play pretty much all of it.

But if that sounds dry and academic – well, the concert was a world away from that. From the richness and flamboyance of a sonata by Giovanni Gabrieli to the more austere beauty of an instrumental reworking (by Egarr) of a short Salve Regina from Lully, these were exquisitely supple, expressive accounts from violinists Bojan Čičić (playing against his shoulder), Rachell Ellen Wong and Ruiqi Ren, each with their own distinctive musical personality but gelling into a sumptuously convincing whole.

They had equally supple continuo support from Egarr, Alex McCartney on theorbo and Jonathan Rees on gamba. Most memorable, surely, though, was Egarr’s solo harpsichord toccata by Rossi – a “migraine of a piece” in Egarr’s description, and yes, tweaking and shocking ears throughout with its relentlessly out-of-tune, non-tempered harmonies. Joyful surprises and discoveries from start to finish. David Kettle