Edinburgh International Festival reviews: Samsara | London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle | Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau: Winterreise | Muster Station: Leith

A visually arresting dance duet exploring birth, death and rebirth gets the full five stars while theatre audiences can experience Leith threatened by a tsunami. It’s all happening in our latest EIF round-up. Reviews by Kelly Apter, David Kettle and Joyce McMillan

DANCE

Samsara *****

Royal Lyceum Theatre, until August 20

Hu Shenyuan in Samsara

Billed as a contemporary dance duet, Samsara is so much more than that. Although in this instance, that would be enough – so utterly compelling are the two men performing it – but the stage is also alive with music, an art installation and lighting design so beautiful, it is almost a show in itself.

Choreographers and performers Aakash Odedra and Hu Shenyuan were inspired by the Chinese novel Journey to the West and samsara, meaning birth, death and rebirth. But those unfamiliar with either the book or the concept need not worry, this is a visually arresting spectacle that welcomes all-comers, not just those in the know.

Odedra and Hu each bring their own styles to the table, the former schooled in Classical Indian dance, the latter trained in his native China – and both well versed in contemporary dance. Their movement blends like two bodies of water conjoining yet with subtle differences between them, most obvious during a call-and-response section where they mimic each other’s steps.

Yet despite their obvious synergy, it’s when Odedra and Hu spiral off into solos that we really see what these superb performers can do. Hu opens and closes the show, breaking out of a foetal position to symbolise birth at the start, standing tall at the end, rock solid on one foot, his leg high in the air. I defy anyone to take their eyes off him.

Spotlights expand and contract as the dancers occupy them, Hu’s wing-like arms swooping, Odedra’s fast-paced feet driven by the pounding drums at the rear of the stage. In fact, every move the men make is propelled by the musical trio behind them, in particular the incredible Nicki Wells whose vocal prowess almost beggars belief. And throughout, sand pours from above onto child-like sculptures, catching the light in moments of ethereal beauty. Kelly Apter

MUSIC

London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle *****

Usher Hall

On paper, it really shouldn’t have worked. The five very contrasting, short-ish pieces that Simon Rattle had chosen for his EIF concert with the LSO felt dangerously like cherry-picking, and miles away from the tried-and-tested overture-concerto-symphony format (though that’s far from a bad thing).

In the end, it proved an expert choice of works, charting a grand arc of musical and emotional highs and lows – and kicked off by a swashbuckling Berlioz Corsair Overture, followed quickly by a Mahler Blumine that Rattle stripped of all its Viennese schmaltz, leaving music that was simple, heartfelt and sincere.

Sun Poem, the immediately likeable, brand new piece by British composer Daniel Kidane that kicked off the second half, played with orchestral colour and sonority to ear-tickling effect, though its musical content was less compelling. Rattle ended with a rip-roaring Bartók Miraculous Mandarin Suite that really put the LSO players through their paces, driven hard, but full of the conductor’s trademark teeming detail and sharply defined layers.

Talking of high-definition, though, it was a crisp, vividly etched Sibelius Seventh Symphony that marked the concert’s musical and emotional highpoint, its gear changes handled with ease and style, and its long line of argument traced compellingly from start to finish. It was of the clearest-sighted, most moving accounts of that symphony I’ve heard. David Kettle

Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau: Winterreise *****

Queen’s Hall

On a bright, breezy, bustling festival morning, it was quite a feat of mental readjustment to relocate to Schubert and Müller’s solitary wanderer lost amid a frozen, hostile landscape. But Austrian baritone Florian Boesch took the audience straight there from the first song of Winterreise, summoning regret, fear, fury, even bitter sarcasm as our unknown protagonist is rejected by the woman he loves, and serving as a prelude to deeper explorations of those emotions in the songs that would follow.

It’s almost redundant to mention Boesch’s uncanny vocal control, or his unerring command of tone and articulation, or the aching beauty of his mahogany voice, often hushed or veiled to remarkably expressive effect. Indeed, surrounded by festival music and theatre of every description, it was tempting to view his deeply dramatic Winterreise as a particularly compelling one-man show, one that mercilessly investigates existential grief and hopelessness.

“One-man”, of course, is doing a horrendous disservice: Edinburgh-born pianist Malcolm Martineau was as compelling a presence, and very much an equal partner in Boesch’s futile wanderings, at times violent and percussive, at others nearly reaching silence and stasis. It was an extraordinarily intense, vividly characterised account, one it almost felt inappropriate to applaud, let alone contemplate a return outside to the festival madness. Far better to simply hide away in a darkened room. David Kettle

THEATRE

Muster Station: Leith ****

Leith Academy, until 26 August

The port of Leith is a place and community that has, in its time, survived war and poverty, immense tragedy and moments of prosperity, then even the perils of gentrification; small wonder that its motto is the single word Persevere.

There’s therefore an immense poignancy about a theatre event – created with Leith Academy students by Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre stars Grid Iron, as part of the EIF’s Learning and Engagement programme – that imagines a climate-change moment when Leith will be able to persevere no longer, threatened by a mighty tsunami that will inundate lowland Scotland.

As the audience arrives, we therefore find ourselves cast in the roles of fleeing Edinburgh citizens, obeying government instructions to show up at our local muster station; and there’s something both chilling and – given recent refugee crises and immigration policies – ominously familiar about our experience, as we find ourselves herded around by bossy and unsmiling officials, divided into four groups, and led around the building to experience various episodes in the unfolding disaster.

For those prepared to enter fully into the drama, the experience is undeniably harrowing, although not without its moments of humour; and every detail is driven along by a powerful, often menacing score by David Paul Jones, and meticulously delivered by a creative and production team of more than 100 people, including writer-director Ben Harrison, fellow-writers Nicola McCartney, Uma Nada-Rajah and Tawona Sitholé, and a superb eight-strong professional cast.

In the end, Harrison probably needs to take a sharp red pencil to the show’s elegiac final scene; few more words are necessary, after all we have already seen over more than two hours. As in many other festival shows tackling the climate crisis, though, the point is well and truly made; that if we try to tackle this crisis using the same systems, attitudes and structures that have led us into it, rather than by embracing a new awareness of the interdependency of all life on earth, then our chances of surviving that big wave – or any other terminal climate catastrophe – will be slim indeed. Joyce McMillan