Seven years in, surely the free Opening Night event can now be considered one of the Edinburgh International Festival’s most welcome, inclusive and audacious traditions.
In 2019 we were treated to a full orchestral extravaganza in Tynecastle Park football stadium, and this year it is the turn of the home of Scottish rugby to host proceedings, with the enormous expanse of Murrayfield Stadium providing the backdrop to the suitably titled MACRO, a maximalist celebration of Scottish and indigenous Australian culture to mark the Festival’s 75th birthday in spectacular style.
MACRO features dazzling projections and lighting design as per previous opening events, but at its heart is the striking physical presence of a 30-strong troupe of acrobats and Australian First Nations dancers, an equivalent ensemble of singers from the National Youth Choir of Scotland and live music from a group of respected Scottish folk musicians, including fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, piper Brighde Chaimbeul and singer Kathleen MacInnes.
O’Rourke has co-composed the music for the show with Ekrem Eli Phoenix, writing a contemporary folk soundtrack into which are woven ancient Gaelic songs and Phoenix’s Turkic-inspired choral arrangements for NYCOS. O’Rourke has Festival form, appearing before with his band Lau and conceiving a trio of concerts called A Great Disordered Heart for last year’s event, which celebrated the contribution of Edinburgh’s Irish immigrant community stretching back to the 19th century, including O’Rourke’s elderly neighbours with whom he connected during the pandemic.
“It’s quite a jump from, ‘I’m content here in my courtyard playing to the neighbours’ to engaging in a project that involves 30 acrobats, a 30-piece choir and a bunch of traditional musicians flown out to open the Adelaide festival,” he says, “so I was thrown back into the deep end.”
MACRO is a co-production between the Edinburgh and Adelaide festivals as part of their UK/Australia Season. The show premiered in Adelaide in March to an audience of 10,000 – a relatively bijou warm-up for the expected 15,000 who will witness the Edinburgh performance of a project which has been in the works for many months.
“It was a pretty magical experience, but it was a long build-up, taking remote collaboration to the extreme,” says O’Rourke. “Every other day I was having Zoom calls either at the end or the start of the day with Darcy [director Darcy Grant] and Ekrem over in Australia, building this massive, epic show remotely. I think we all became very fluent in that way of working. By the time I actually met them in Australia, I felt I knew them intimately because we’d spent so much time on screen.”
The first full rehearsal also took place remotely with contributors beaming in from opposite sides of the world. For Chaimbeul, this only intensified the impact of finally practising and performing in person with the acrobats from contemporary circus company Gravity & Other Myths and the members of First Nations dance-theatre group Djuki Mala.
“We were already amazed at what they were doing looking at the screen,” she says, “but when you are actually in the presence of it, it’s mindblowing. There are parts where we are playing and singing really, really close to what’s happening. The way they are dancing and moving feels very intimate. I think it goes through every emotion possible. I remember coming off stage and it was a complete rollercoaster of all kinds of emotion. It adds that extra energy to what you are already playing.”
Chaimbeul duets at one point with one of her Australian counterparts, bringing together her Scottish smallpipes with the yidaki – the indigenous name for didgeridoo. “That worked really well because it’s a drone-y instrument and it adds rhythm to the drone that I already have.”
This is only one example of the concord between the two distinct cultures which is showcased by MACRO.
“Djuki Mala want to present their culture on a world stage but not in a clichéd way,” says O’Rourke. “I’m the same – I want to present our traditional music, not in a tartanised way, but as real music in a contemporary world. We didn’t want to present a funkied up version of traditional music; we wanted it to be a pure drop.
“There was a lot of talk about how the Gaelic and First Nations Australian cultures over the centuries have been almost snubbed out. The piece is a joyful celebration of these cultures but you can also feel the resonance of hurt and anger in the songs.
"There’s a song about the Highland Clearances which Kathleen sings and we explained what it was about in the rehearsal, the Gaels being felt to have no value on the land at all and being told that they had to leave to make way for sheep. In explaining what this song was about, you could tell it deeply affected the co-collaborators because these things still exist in Australia.”
“We learned a lot from them,” says Chaimbeul. “Even just the way that they respect the place they are in, it’s very grounded and open and warm and generous, so I just hope that we can welcome them the way that they welcomed us.”
The Edinburgh International Festival was founded 75 years ago to bring culture, wonder, escapism and some healing to the city in the years after the Second World War. Those elements still apply keenly in 2022 and a spectacle such as MACRO which is delivered with heart and consideration is all the more impactful as the world emerges – or, in many cases, is still grappling with – the pandemic.
O’Rourke is sensitive to these stark contrasts in scale, especially as the Mark Cousins/Becky Manson-directed film, The Ballad of the Great Disordered Heart, will also premiere in August in a co-promotion between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
“During the lockdown we zoomed in a little bit and experienced the details all around us which is what led to A Great Disordered Heart,” says O’Rourke, “but at the same time we zoomed out as well and realised the whole world was experiencing this and I think that’s the essence of what we are trying to do with this show – it is called MACRO after all.”