Edinburgh International Festival reviews: Life Is A Dream | Bluebeard’s Castle | Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Programme 1 | EIF Isidore String Quartet

A quartet of reviews from across the EIF programme includes a whirlwind adaptation of a Spanish Golden Age masterpiece, a hard-hitting rethink of Bartók’s expressionist opera, and another nailed-on hit from one of the surest things in dance


Life Is A Dream ****

Lyceum Theatre

Until 27 August

Pedro Calderon's Spanish Golden Age masterpiece Life Is A Dream, first published in Madrid in 1636, is a thrillingly complex piece of work, packed with themes and strands of meaning about truth, illusion, and the slippery stuff of morality.

At its heart, though, lies a brave and radical speculation on the nature of political power, and its dependence on the willingness of other human beings to believe in and accept it. The play’s central character, Segismundo, receives a crash course in the fragility of power and rank when, after being raised like an animal in a remote tower because of a prediction that he will one day become a patricidal tyrant, he is suddenly informed of his status as Crown Prince of Poland, and taken to his father’s palace.

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His new life of comfort, beauty and deference is short, though, as he soon realises that power confers the freedom to commit the brutal crimes his father always dreaded; but his brief release has traumatic consequences for the kingdom, and his turbulent progress from abject misery to power and glory is brilliantly conjured up in Declan Donnellan’s quietly magnificent 2022 production, which ruthlessly foregrounds the unforgettable faces, voices, and physical presence of a superb ensemble of nine actors from Madrid’s Compania Nacional De Teatro Clasico, against the simple but perfect green backdrop of Nick Ormerod’s many-doored set.

Life Is A DreamLife Is A Dream
Life Is A Dream

At first, the intensity of Calderon’s glowing poetic verse, conveyed to non-Spanish speakers through surtitles, can seem overwhelming, and almost hypnotic. Yet as Alfredo Noval’s fiery and glorious Segismundo frolics between stage and audience like a giant toddler liberated from nursery, and a hauntingly brilliant Ernesto Arias as the king circles the action in transfixed horror, the sheer theatrical power of the acting soon draws us into the action as essential witnesses; in a whirlwind two-hour production provides a masterclass in the dramatic and poetic force of Calderon’s mighty original text, and also invites us - with the sharpest of moral intelligence - to consider our complicity in the power structures of our own time, and the extent to which we let others’ dreams of power become our pervasive reality. Joyce McMillan


Bluebeard’s Castle *****

Church Hill Theatre

This mesmerising rethink of Bluebeard’s Castle by Theatre of Sound turns Bartók’s expressionist opera completely on its head. What is typically conceived in blood-curdling Hammer Horror terms - the grisly fates of Bluebeard’s former wives revealed behind locked castle doors - is now a deeply tormenting psychological portrayal of the cruelty of dementia.

The setting is modern-day domestic, the libretto sharp to the task in stage director Daisy Evans’ new English translation. The doors are now a single trunk full of life’s mementos. The spectre of loneliness prevails, except it is predominantly Judith’s, as her mind and memories disintegrate. Susan Bullock’s portrayal, a triumph of unstinting realism and uncanny insight, is utterly compelling, monumentally sung.

Lester Lynch’s Bluebeard, a deep stentorian bass, is a rambling lost soul, eager to protect his wife, in two minds how to do it. Ultimately, he can only despair as she retreats into herself. Rather ingeniously, the previous wives are reimagined as flashbacks to younger versions of Judith.

The music is equally transformed, conductor Stephen Higgins’ fierce distillation of the orchestral score - hewn to a feverish 7-piece Hebrides Ensemble - perfect matched to the microcosmic intensity of this hard-hitting production. Ken Walton


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Programme 1 *****

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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For dance lovers, it’s a no-brainer – a night in the company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a guaranteed win. Rarely is it the case, however, that a modern dance company would entertain pretty much anyone who walked through the door. But Programme 1 of AAADT’s Festival visit is so full of life, great music, incredible dancing and vibrant costuming, it’s the dictionary definition of accessible.

The triple bill opens with Twyla Tharp’s 1997 work, Roy’s Joys. Inspired by, and set to, the music of American jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge, it feels tailor-made for the Ailey dancers – yet they only took it into their repertory last year. Tharp cut her teeth in the post-modern dance world of 60s New York, before moving on to more balletic, crowd-pleasing modern dance. So the piece is full of joyful swagger and easy-on-the-eye leaps and lifts but peppered with the odd quirky, unexpected move.

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From 1950s jazz, we take a smooth journey into modern-day R&B for Kyle Abraham’s sensual work, Are You In Your Feelings?A single neon light and bright-coloured costumes set the scene for a night on the town. Relationships, both functioning and fractured, are under scrutiny here and Abraham knows exactly how to make the personal universal. Love, lust, jealousy, pain – it’s all played out through gorgeous, tactile movement and the occasional witty spoken line. An ever-changing soundtrack takes us from scene to scene, with these ferociously talented dancers proving themselves equally capable of delivering emotional intent.

And then it’s time for Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s 1960 piece that ends every single show the company performs. A series of vignettes set to traditional African American spirituals, this work segues seamlessly from beauty to poignancy to drama and finally life-affirming joy. A closer to end all closers that bears repeat viewing time and time again. Kelly Apter

EIF Isidore String Quartet ****

Queen’s Hall

Expectations were high for the International Festival debut from the Isidore Quartet, formed at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, and winners of 2022’s equally prestigious Banff competition. It took a little while for the players to get into their strides, however. Their opening Haydn Quartet Op. 20 No. 2 was surprisingly restrained, even workaday, beautifully defined but hardly mined for its wit and drama. It gave little clue as to the sonic and emotional richness that was to come – in the powerful and deeply moving second quartet, Awakening, by Billy Childs, for example. Childs is best known as a jazzer, but his ‘classical’ language convincingly channelled Bartók and Schoenberg into a distinctive idiom all his own, and the Isidore players made a powerful case for his restless, turbulent writing, reflecting on a health emergency for his wife. There was nothing harrowing about their closing Mendelssohn Quartet No. 5 (not No. 3, incorrectly given a note in the printed programme): it was sunny and smiling, driven along by bounding energy, and with notably agile, compelling contributions from Isidore cellist Joshua McClendon and violist Devin Moore, who proved a naturally eloquent speaker when introducing the foursome’s recital. Their thoughtful encore – the first fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue – sent us off with a bit of vibrato-less bracing austerity cleansing our ears. David Kettle