Edinburgh International Festival breaks £3m barrier

The Edinburgh International Festival has smashed the £3 million barrier at its box office for the first time – with takings up almost one third on last year.

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform at this year's festival. 

Picture:  Marco Borggreve
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform at this year's festival. Picture: Marco Borggreve

An extra £750,000 was generated from ticket sales for this year’s programme of shows, the last to be overseen by departing director Sir Jonathan Mills, who has been at the helm of the event for the last eight years.

Audiences flocked to productions like The James Plays, the National Theatre of Scotland’s epic historical trilogy, starring Taggart star Blythe Duff and Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl from the hit show The Killing, as well shows inspired by the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Commonwealth Games.

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Sir Jonathan’s era drew to a close last night with the annual fireworks finale from Edinburgh Castle, which was watched by an estimated 250,000 people from various vantage points across the city.

Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture featured in the war and conflict-themed programme performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to thousands of spectators in Princes Street Gardens.

Ahead of the fireworks finale, the EIF reported overall ticket sales of 162,000, up more than 20,000 on 2012, the previous record at £2.83m.

Around £3.15m was notched up at the box office for the 2014 programme, compared to £2.43m last year, with the long run of The James Plays thought to be largely responsible for the scale of the increase.

Sir Jonathan gave a farewell speech after the final concert at the Usher Hall on Saturday night, paying tribute to the 16,000 performers from 70 countries who had appeared in more than 1,100 shows he had programmed during his tenure.

Sir Jonathan, who was knighted last year, a surprise choice for the role when he was appointed in February 2006, has largely won over the critics thanks to the expansive themes of his programmes and his efforts to extend the Festival’s international reach.

The Australian impresario will be staying in Edinburgh with his partner to concentrate on his composing career and will also be helping to organise a biannual international cultural summit in the city.

There had been controversy last year after he revealed he would not be tackling the independence referendum, insisting the Festival had to remain politically neutral.

However, it emerged that the Scottish Government would be directly funding The James Plays, a new trilogy by playwright Rona Munro exploring the reign of the Stuart kings in 15th-century Scotland. It has become one of the biggest ticket-sellers in the history of the Festival.

The shows, due to transfer to the National Theatre in London next month, packed out the 1,900-capacity Festival Theatre, with performances staged over two-and-a-half weeks attracting more than 30,000 people.

Sir Jonathan is being replaced by Irishman Fergus Linehan, who has already announced a major change in the EIF’s dates to bring it back in to sync with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time in 17 years.

Sir Jonathan said: “The true measure of success is the audience’s experience and we’ve received so much great feedback. There has been a fantastic atmosphere at shows across the Festival.

“Our audiences from Scotland, the UK and 75 other nations around the world have greeted our artists with huge warmth, with so many of those artists telling me how exciting it is to play to such enthusiastic and knowledgeable audiences, and enjoying their visit to Edinburgh immensely.

“Once again we’ve been treated to the world’s finest artists sharing their creativity and their work, which has ranged from the epic to the intimate, from east to west and everywhere in between. It has been an incredibly exciting and challenging eight years in the one of the best jobs in the world.”

Steve Cardownie, festivals and events champion at the city council, one of the EIF’s major funders, said: “This is has been a fantastic year for the Edinburgh International Festival, and its success is testament to the continuing quality and appeal of its vibrant programme.

“Sir Jonathan Mills has had an outstanding eight years at the helm of the Festival, and we have been proud to support his contribution in bringing the very best in the arts from across the world to Edinburgh.

“He will be a hard act to follow but I have every confidence that Fergus Linehan will continue the success of the Festival


Joyce McMillan: World-class work a regular feature

WHEN Jonathan Mills arrived in Edinburgh, there were fears that theatre might suffer as an element of the festival programme during the directorship of a young Australian composer working deep within the classical music tradition.

Yet although there have been years when the theatrical element of the programme has seemed relatively scanty or small-scale by comparison with other art-forms, overall he has provided Edinburgh’s theatre audience with a rich diet of world-class work, which has more than fulfilled the festival’s traditional role of keeping audiences and artists in Scotland in touch with the most impressive and widely-debated developments in world theatre.

Theatre suffered most obviously in 2011, when Mills’s emphasis on work from the Pacific rim moved the focus of performance decisively from language and dialogue to music and spectacle. It’s also true that, as divisions between art-forms become more fluid, some of the most theatrically exciting events presented by the festival are no longer strictly defined as theatre; from this year’s programme alone, the much-debated performance-installation Exhibit B and Heiner Goebbels’s remarkable piece Delusion Of The Fury, are outstanding examples.

Yet in more conventional terms, he has also given us some of the greatest theatre programmes in the history of the festival, notably in 2008, when he explored the theme “Artists Without Borders” with directors like Sarajevo’s great theatre-maker Haris Pasovic, and in 2012, when a mighty programme of world theatre – partly staged in specially-constructed theatres – brought to Edinburgh a dazzling gallery of great world directors, led by Ariane Mnouchkine from Paris, Gregor Jarzyna from Warsaw, Silviu

Purcarete from Romania, and Dmitry Krymov from Moscow.

And Mills has also pursued the festival’s ever-complex relationship with theatre makers in Scotland, supporting works like the much-debated Caledonia of 2010, Vanishing Point’s bold and thought-provoking Wonderland in 2012 and – this year – Rona Munro’s mighty trilogy of James Plays, commissioned, in true unpredictable creative style, by a director who once said that the 2014 Festival would have nothing to say about Scotland’s forthcoming referendum, yet ended up staging one of the most ambitious studies of Scottish history and identity ever seen on stage in this country – or, indeed, anywhere else.

Ken Walton: Provocative, but a finder of fertile ground

Jonathan Mills, in his classical music programming, has remained his own man.

From the word go, he asked us to view his approach within the context of a holistic event – the crossmatch between theatre, dance and music intrinsic to making each year’s Festival intelligent, imaginative and visionary.

That was – and still is among the musically conservative – a bitter pill to swallow, when instead of, say, a standard Berlioz blockbuster or walloping Wagner opera as outside crusts to multiple Mahler, Verdi or Bruckner fillings, we were being asked to consider a disquieting Schoenberg Six Pieces for Orchestra as the opening gambit to this year’s cross-fertilised theme of conflict and war.

Undoubtedly, the one stroke of genius was to inaugurate the instantly popular Greyfriar’s series that brought a whole new strand of early music into the Festival, though it was by no means exclusively that, as one of this year’s highlights – Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – illustrated. That will be a key part of the Mills legacy.

As will the greater freedom given to Usher Hall programming, which has taken its time to embed, and which has only in the past two Festivals looked like a sellable winning formula. Early attempts, such as opening the 2007 programme with Bernstein’s Candide, and the controversial trumpeting of the 2009 Festival with Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, fell on their critical swords. But Mills has, this year especially, found a fertile middle ground, where – without compromising his vision – quality of music and quality of artist have come together.

Staged opera has remained a troublesome area for Mills. We’ve had to get used to less, so when gambles such as last year’s mental Fidelio and this year’s dull The Trojans fail to impress, the hurt is greater. But overall, Mills has been a provocative ray of sunshine where it was needed.

Kelly Apter: Enriching programmes to be proud of

Sit the 2010 and 2014 dance programmes side by side, and they’ll tell you a lot about Jonathan Mills’s programming for the Edinburgh International Festival.

No less than three companies appear in both – the inimitable Pina Bausch, flamenco guru Paco Peña and New Zealand-based MAU.

In short, if you’re worth inviting, then you’re worth investing in.

Several other dance companies made repeat visits to Edinburgh during Mills’s tenure as festival director – France’s Jose Montalvo, Israel’s Batsheva, the Royal Ballet of Flanders and our own Scottish Ballet.

Not only does it help companies build a following, but it allows audiences to develop an appreciation of their work.

Some of those investments were no-brainers for Mills (the box office pulling power of Pina Bausch) but others – like the challenging yet remarkable MAU – made little financial sense but enriched the festival in other ways.

Which is exactly what Mills was supposed to do – provide audiences with the kind of work they would struggle to access year-round in their local theatres, whether that’s bringing the talented students of New York’s Julliard School, the incredible live music of Rosas’s Steve Reich Evening, and the technological complexities of Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine, or investing in world premieres from big-hitters like Michael Clark (Come, Been and Gone) and Matthew Bourne (Dorian Gray).

Mills also allowed us to grapple with what dance means to different cultures, and Asia in particular, with works such as Madame Freedom from South Korea, National Ballet of China’s Peony Pavilion, and Drought and Rain from Vietnam.

Above all, Mills has brought some seriously good dance to Edinburgh, and I’d like to thank him for my personal favourites: Brazil’s Grupo Corpo, Spain’s Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa – and most of all, Ballet Preljocaj’s And then, one thousand years of peace, which shot like a speeding bullet into my top three dance works of all time.