Edinburgh International Festival Reviews: Coppelia | Room | Takacs Quartet | The Book of Life | Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra: Salome | Sons of Kemet

Our latest round-up from the EIF includes an ambitious new adaptation of a traditional ballet, and a wildly extravagant presentation of Strauss’ Salome. Words by Kelly Apter, Jim Gilchrist, David Kettle, Joyce McMillan and Ken Walton.

DANCE

Coppélia *****

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Coppelia. PIC: Gavin Smart

From the moment the curtain rises, it’s clear we’re not in Austria anymore. The skeleton of the original Coppélia may be here – daft boy has his head turned, clever girlfriend sorts things out – but everything else is shiny and new. Instead of a quaint European village, we’re in the clinical-looking world of AI company ‘NuLife’, populated by cool tech workers busy making life ‘better’.

Overseeing this hive of activity is Dr Coppelius, played by Bruno Micchiardi in what may well prove to be the role of a lifetime. His laidback arrogance is pitch perfect as the CEO with tunnel vision, willing to stop at nothing to achieve his aim.

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Choreographer/directors Morgann Runacre-Temple and Jessica Wright are the creative minds behind this ambitious and punchy new production, but they’re far from the only cooks in the kitchen. Video and projection designer Will Duke does an incredible job of fusing real-time and pre-recorded footage of NuLife’s laboratories. Scottish Ballet dancer-turned cameraman Rimbaud Patron glides in and out of the action, never obtrusive, always where he needs to be. And a myriad of costume, set and lighting designers have outdone themselves.

In this new, and I’m inclined to say improved, version of the traditional ballet, Swanhilda is now a smart journalist determined to get to the bottom of Dr Coppelius’ maleficent exploits. As before, Franz is her hapless beau, drawn by the perfection of new AI creation, Coppélia. The rest of the dancers keep the stage thrillingly busy as employees and inventions, driven along by an ever-changing soundtrack that blends Delibes’ original score with exciting new music by Mikael Karlsson and Michael P. Atkinson.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra: Salome. PIC: Oddleiv Apneseth

The show packs a huge amount into just 75 minutes, and perhaps it could use a little more room to breathe to aid narrative clarity, but this is a small concern in an otherwise ground-breaking production. Kelly Apter

Until 16 August

THEATRE

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Room ****

King’s Theatre

There’s a mighty tradition of hallucinatory, dream-like surrealism in European theatre; but not since the Catalan genius Carles Santos brought his glorious Dali-esque works of absurdism to Edinburgh 25 years ago, has the international festival witnessed a show quite like James Thierree’s Room, now playing - and looking absolutely fabulous - on the stage of the King’s Theatre.

Billed, after a fashion, as Thierree’s response to lockdown and its theatrical aftermath, Room certainly features a version of the four walls at which we’ve all spent time staring, these past three years. In Thierree’s vision, though, the walls become a kind of dream landscape; a dozen tall slices of a grand but dilapidated panelled drawing room or ballroom, that constantly whirl and shift around the stage, sometimes orderly and stately, sometimes back-to-front and utterly chaotic.

And in this space, eleven tremendously stylish performers from across Europe (plus an equally glamorous seven-strong stage crew), create two hours of gorgeous, dreamy episodes that somehow seem both decadent and innocent. Vital to the show is the fact that every member of the company is also a terrific musician; Sarah Manesse is the company’s magnificent lead singer, rangng from opera to blues, and the rest - together or individually - wield a mind-blowing range of instruments, from guitar and piano to a huge tuba.

Even more startling, though, is the sheer athleticism of the show. Thierree himself is a brilliant satirist-clown, a cross between Jacques Tati and Groucho Marx with an added quality of rubber-limbed weirdness; and other members of the company also throw themselves around with tremendous acrobatic skill and passion, particularly the astoundingly flexible dancer Ching-Ying Chien, whose final elegiac pas de deux with Thierree perhaps offers an emotional climax to the show. As Thierree himself observes, though, Room really has no narrative at all; just dazzling beauty and absurdity, profound humour, and a sense of spectacle that only grows more astonishing, until the architecture of the room is finally completed, and the show waltzes to a close. Joyce McMillan

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Until 16 August

MUSIC

Takács Quartet ****

Queen’s Hall

The thing about re-encountering regular EIF visiting artists is that you get to see them change and develop over the years. Across the many years that the Takács Quartet has been coming to Edinburgh, that’s meant a slowly shifting line-up of players – most recently violist Richard Rhones, who joined in 2020 – and a sound and approach that has developed in terms of focus and energy, while maintaining its underlying finesse and precision.

It’s meant an expanding repertoire, too: the five Fantasiestücke by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor that formed the centrepiece of the Takács’s Queen’s Hall recital were little-known but thoroughly persuasive pieces, like Dvořák meeting Elgar, full of unusual textures and ideas, and carried off with unerring commitment and insight. The players brought out all the drama and humour in Haydn’s very last completed Quartet, Op. 77 No. 2, too, from the ear-bending rhythmic intricacies of its finale to the Beethovenian motivic density of its second movement.

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There was a fascinating hard edge, too, to their concluding Ravel Quartet: first violinist Edward Dusinberre might have approached the first movement’s opening melody with a remarkable sense of freedom that played against the foursome’s crisp ensemble, but there was driving energy in their pizzicato slow movement, and highly strung volatility in a seething finale. Compelling insights from an ever-developing ensemble. David Kettle

THEATRE

The Book Of Life ****

Churchhill TheatreThe Rwandan genocide of 1994, which led to the deaths of more than half a million Rwandan Tutsi people of all ages, ranks as one of the most terrible examples in human history of deliberate killing on purely ethnic grounds.Yet according the remarkable Rwandan storyteller and theatre-maker Odile Gakire Katese, in the effort to rebuild after the conflict, Rwandans have often fallen silent about this great trauma in their recent past, or gone into a state of complete denial about the fact that they were there, as victims or perpetrators; and her show The Book Of Life, co-created with the ground-breaking Women Drummers of Rwanda and Volcano Theatre of Canada, is her gentle and searching attempt to begin to break that silence.The show therefore has many strands, as it seeks a way to approach that history without re-traumatising those who survived it. At the core of it lies Katese’s effort to persuade fellow Rwandans to write letters to the dead, mourning or apologising, or simply telling them how much loved they were; some of these letters feature in the show, read by Katese herself, from a gently domestic set with a chair, a lamp, and a lectern, flanked on either side by a row of four tremendous young women drummers and singers.Then there is storytelling, an old tale - with lovely projected woodcut-style images - of a time when half the world was plunged into permanent darkness, and of how the animals sought to get to the other side, to steal some of their sunlight.And then, at the heart of the show, there are the drummers; helping Katese to tell the story with their magnificent singing, and then drumming out the energy, the strength, the pure life-force, that Katese believes is the best and only answer to the wound of genocide; to love life, to love those lost along with those who lived on, to sing, to drum out our love and rage, and to tell the stories that help us to heal. Joyce McMillan

Until 16 August

OPERA

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Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra: Salome *****

Usher Hall

It’s five years since the Bergen Philharmonic and its chief conductor Edward Gardner wowed a Festival audience with its seething, unsparing concert presentation of Britten’s Peter Grimes. They made no less an impression on Sunday, returning with another seminal 20th century hard-hitter, Richard Strauss’ gruesome Salome, and a performance that cut to the very core of this savage, extravagant, exotic and erotic music.

The joy of such un-staged operatic experiences is that you get to see and hear the very engine room of the piece. Gardner’s gargantuan orchestra played its role magnificently, sourcing every ounce of emotional juice from Strauss’ nerve-jangling score, sometimes with mischievous surprise (those stabbing double basses that underpin Salome’s cold insistence), but always with abundant, charismatic zeal.

That left the main singers with a formidable challenge, how to project their presence over such a raging beast. Few problems there. Malin Byström’s chilling central presence as Salome was as much a triumph of magnetic personality as her ecstatic vocal performance, her seductive, manipulating enchantress testing Gerhard Siegel’s shameless Herod, Katarina Dalayman’s haughty Herodias and Johan Reuter’s beaming, saintly passion as Johanaan to the limit, till that final cataclysmic moment when the tables turn. Goodbye Salome! Ken Walton

MUSIC

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Sons of Kemet ****

Leith Theatre

Led by esteemed London saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings with twin drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, plus the subterranean pulse of Theon Cross’s tuba, the Sons of Kemet are on their final tour. Nothing diminished, however, in their Afro-Caribbean fusion, splicing defiantly raw power, simmering with outrage at racial injustice, with hypnotic dance rhythms.

While their albums feature guest rappers or vocalists, here they are purely instrumental, working up a groove in which the drums thunder and rattle while Hutchings’s tenor sax yells sinuous melodic hooks or terse, stabbing phrases, sometimes demonically vocal with reverb. There are no introductions: numbers such as Hustle or Pick up Your Burning Cross are sequenced in an unbroken, breathtaking torrent.

Of nuance there is little, although at one point Hutchings picks up a wooden flute for a breathily avian interlude that sounds at times like two players, before returning to that wickedly toned tenor. Cross, too, has his moment with a solo that ranges from upper-register tootling to a Pantagruelian rumble that out-didges any didgeridoo.

There’s a surprisingly muted conclusion, Hutchings sounding wistfully over solemn drums, before a lumbering encore calypso sweeps us off again amid an ecstatic audience send-off. Jim Gilchrist