The first Edinburgh International Festival opening event since 2019 was as breathtakingly poignant and spectacular as anyone might have hoped for. Held at Scotland’s national rugby stadium Murrayfield for the first time, the choice of location spoke to the theme of the show; presented as part of the UK/Australia Season 2021-22 season, the show featured a unique fusion of Scottish and Australian performing talent in multiple fields.
The stage was erected in the centre of the pitch, with one stand open and a bank of seating on the pitch. Still, there were 15,000 people there. After an address from outgoing EIF artistic director Fergus Linehan, whose particularly modernising effect introduced the opening events, the poignancy came right at the beginning. With atmospheric backing from fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke and pipe player Brighde Chaimbeul, Scottish poet and playwright Hannah Lavery performed a specially composed verse in tribute to Edinburgh itself.
Lavery entirely nailed it here, her voice flowing over a piece which shifted through historical references and set Edinburgh as the backdrop to a place of great thought, while warning the present day inhabitants not to fall back on the reputation of past glories. Describing “a dying volcano throwing rock” at this region’s ancient birth, she said: “This city is not a place – it is a story of each life lived absorbed in the sandstone.” It was a beautiful welcome back before the first ever appearance of circus at the EIF opening event.
Backed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland, which opened on a chiming, symphonic countdown from five, Australian company Gravity and Other Myths felt like a redefinition of what the form can do. Their performance felt like dance as much as anything, which added to the intensity of their work. Three-tall cairns of people collapsed into their comrades’ arms in gasp-inducing trust falls, a woman scaled a towering bridge of linked bodies across the stage, and performers were lobbing in the air like rugby balls and caught just before they smashed into the floor.
A light segment saw one man run across the chests of the rest of the company, as they gasped out the strangulated tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb in accompaniment to the choir. Towards the end, Australian first nations dance troupe Djuki Mala emerged from the crowd on stage and performed to O’Rourke and Chaimbeul’s backing. By the end, our senses were overflowing. You had to be there.