Edinburgh International Festival reviews: You Know We Belong Together | Brandenburg Concertos | Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra | When You Walk Over My Grave | Thank You, Edinburgh | Oh Europa

Soap opera ambitions, love, death and everything else in between captivated audiences and our critics alike at the Edinburgh International Festival this weekend. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, Mary Miller and David Pollock.

Julia Hales in You Know We Belong Together EIF 2022. Pic: Toni Wilkinson/EIF.
Julia Hales in You Know We Belong Together EIF 2022. Pic: Toni Wilkinson/EIF.

THEATRE

You Know We Belong Together ****

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

This glowing final theatre show of the EIF 2022 comes as a warm resolution to a Festival and Fringe that has been full of painful questions. Julia Hales is a writer and actor from Perth in Western Australia who has Downs Syndrome; and her show You Know We Belong Together – co-written by Hales with Finn O’Branagain and director Clare Watson – is about her life-long ambition to join the cast of the much-loved Australian TV soap Home And Away.

In a mock-up of the show’s Summer Bay Diner, she introduces us to her family and friends, many of them people living brilliantly with Down syndrome. Sadly, many of the company are not present in Edinburgh, because of an outbreak of Covid in the cast; but it’s a tribute to the huge professionalism of everyone involved that they succeed in staging a vivid one-hour version of the show, in which Hales tells her story, commemorates her late mum, and introduces filmed interviews with her friends, including artist Patrick Carter, writer and performer Tina Fielding, and her best friend Lauren Marchbank.

There are also poignant and beautiful filmed interviews with some of those friends on the subject of love, about which they understand so much, despite sometimes struggling to articulate their feelings. In these frightening times, this community marginalised and silenced for so long has finally found its voice and its place centre stage; and is now reminding us of what matters in life. Joyce McMillan

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MUSIC

Brandenburg Concertos *****

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Into the fog of uncertainty and instability of recent years came the lucidity of Bach on a bright morning. Order restored through the composer’s ability to balance mathematical precision with sublime chaos, we heard the Brandenburg Concertos, galloping, skipping, sighing, led by the Elton-John like harpsichordist Richard Egarr and a young multi-national ensemble of stunning ability. From spikey violin through to the wonderfully shaped bass lines, the playing beckoned us into to intricate woven lines, purring chorale and moments of dancing joy.

Egarr talked to us about contrast, about Bach’s obsessive fascination with numbers, and about how in these concertos he sets up conflict across the different pitches of instruments – the treble lines skittish and insolent versus the dour and orderly lower voices. We listened with fresh ears, thinking that we knew these works, only to have our perceptions confounded by the absolute clarity in the playing and the virtuosity of musicians’ exchanges – cool flute to vivacious viola, romping bassoon to bass, underpinned by brilliance from the keyboard.

These works may all be in staunch major keys, but we seemed to coast on our most unsafe emotions as the slow music lured us into darkness before we were hurled by a hiccoughing pair of lutes back into jollity and the last days of a fine festival. Mary Miller

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MUSIC

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra ****

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Stamina and energy were the name of the game in this demanding programme of contemporary works. Fortunately the Helsinki Philharmonic and conductor Susanna Mälkki had plenty of both, delivering an astounding showcase of bold orchestral colours and textures.

Kaija Saariaho’s Vista got the ball rolling with a flurry of dramatic elemental soundscapes. In the first part, Horizons, pairs of instruments such as oboes or piccolos were used to produce eerie and unsettling intervals. The fast-paced Targets was more focused, with the percussion-heavy orchestra building up to apocalyptic and cacophonous meltdowns.

By contrast, Sibelius’s tone poem about forest spirits, Tapiola, had an outward tranquillity underpinned by a controlled restlessness. Mälkki and the orchestra created a satisfying sense of unity and fabulous effects such as the wind sweeping through the forest in a gale.

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Dieter Ammann’s The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) was almost all about effect and the title itself is surely ironic. With soloist Andreas Haefliger hurtling up and down the keyboard to produce clusters of percussive sounds, this joyful minimalist melange constantly broke out of the traditional concerto mould. Instead the orchestra came across as a lively pulsating entity with the piano its beating heart. Susan Nickalls

THEATRE

When You Walk Over My Grave ****

Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

Visitors from northern Europe to south and central America often observe that the attitude to physical death and decay in those countries – celebrated in feasts such as the Day of the Dead – is very different, and it’s out of this difference the French-Uruguayan theatre maker Sergio Blanco creates this brilliant, disturbing show.

On stage, three attractive and charismatic middle aged men inform us that they are dead, and explain how they died. Then one of them, Sebastian Serrantes (brilliantly supported by Gustavo Saffores and Felipe Ipar) begins to play our autobiographical hero Sergio, a healthy man of 50 who, for unique and bizarre reasons, wants to end his life at a Swiss assisted suicide clinic, and be buried in the graveyard at London’s Bethlem Hospital, once known as Bedlam.

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When You Walk Over My Grave is not a show for the faint-hearted, or perhaps for those recently bereaved. Its core subject is necrophilia, a practice which although a crime has a long history, some of it explored here in designer Miguel Grompone’s dazzling visual collage of live theatre, live video, historic and anatomical images, and drone footage of Bedlam.

As this superb, serious and witty cast guide us through the story, Blanco’s work gradually emerges as a fascinating and searching study of mortality, love, desire, and our relationship with the past; and of what deep unfulfilled yearning could induce us to give it all up, in the hope of a brief “life after death” which we can only anticipate, and will never truly know. Joyce McMillan

MUSIC

Thank You, Edinburgh ****

Edinburgh Playhouse, streamed to Princes Street Gardens

A lot of Thank-Yous, graciously done, began this concert. First, EIF director Fergus Linehan, thanking the city for sticking with idea of festivity through awful times, and acknowledging those whose had helped us to do so. Then the Philadelphia Orchestra’s conductor added his welcomes and a series of introductions to the music.

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The programme brought its own sunshine, a fine and clever mix of fun and seriousness – interesting new work, lots of American references and finally Beethoven to ground us in the classical. The orchestra’s silky polish is consistently matched by awesome virtuosity – this is an ensemble who make a simple pizzicato sound like a throbbing heartbeat. Distant sounding but exquisite wind were dampened by a venue better suited to roaring amplification, but Angel Blue’s astonishing soprano voice blazed in coy Puccini, emotional Verdi before Somewhere Over The Rainbow moved us to tears.

THEATRE

Oh Europa ***

The Studio, Potterow, Edinburgh

Oh Europa is an art installation, a piece of immersive theatre, a musical performance and a 24-hour radio show dedicated to the subject of love across Europe. Artists Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse have been travelling the continent since 2018, recording ordinary people they’ve encountered and encouraged to sing their favourite love song. Currently, they have more than 1,000 songs in 51 languages.

At the EIF the results were broadcast live for a full day, from the evening of 26 August, on their RadiOh Europa channel. The final eight hours of this performance were open to the public to attend, huddled in the Festival Theatre’s darkened Studio around tables bearing digital radios and moodily low-lit desk lamps. At the end of the room, Paintin and Stenhouse played one recording after another, commenting as they went.

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In the session I attended, there were excerpts from Bread’s Everything I Own and Tracy Chapman’s Baby Can I Hold You, and a group of friends singing a Croatian song which merged into Coldplay. A baby interrupted its mother, an MEP named Peter sang a short, brusque song, and a father and daughter serenaded each other with When I’m Sixty-Four. It’s a kind of Radio Free Europe of the modern age, without the Cold War as backdrop. David Pollock