Murrayfield to host Edinburgh International Festival opener as event embraces acrobatics, hip hop and techno

The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) will take over Murrayfield Stadium for a spectacular curtain raiser at the home of Scottish rugby for a 75th -anniversary season that will also transform a high school and embrace acrobatics, hip hop, techno, jazz, indie-rock, Gaelic and the didgeridoo.

One-off free events will bookend the farewell programme of director Fergus Linehan. The festival calendar will also feature a reimagined version of The Jungle Book, a Robert Burns-inspired dance show, a season of shows exploring issues involving refugees, identity and migration, and the biggest showcase of Australian culture in the festival's history.

Techno trailblazer Jeff Mills, electronica producer Jon Hopkins, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, New York rapper Princess Nokia, spoken word star Kae Tempest, Hollywood and Broadway star Alan Cumming, and newly-appointed EIF director Nicola Benedetti will also star in the first full-scale festival in three years.

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However, the EIF’s long-running fireworks concert, which was first staged 40 years ago, has fallen victim to the Covid pandemic.

Mr Linehan insisted the move was unrelated to a drive to cut the environmental impact of the festival, which has scaled back the number of acts and companies performing one-off concerts and shows.

Music, theatre, dance, circus and a lighting display will transform Murrayfield Stadium for opening event Macro, which will see Australian circus and dance theatre artists collaborate with Scottish performers, including Argyll fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, Skye piper Brighde Chaimbeaul, Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes and the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

The festival will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a free “thank you” concert by The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of several groups offered a festival residency as part of plans to improve the event’s sustainability.

The location for the afternoon concert, which also honour people involved in efforts to handle the pandemic, has not been decided yet amid ongoing uncertainty over the use of Princes Street Gardens for large-scale events.

However, the festival will be returning to Leith Theatre, the Usher Hall, the Queen’s Hall and the King’s Theatre after the 2021 event was largely staged outdoors.

One of its main theatre shows will be staged in spaces around Leith Academy by Grid Iron, the Edinburgh-based company that has previously created work in Edinburgh Airport and a Princes Street department store. Pupils will help put on the promenade production Muster Station: Leith, which will focus on the impact of a community suddenly plunged into crisis.

The music line-up at Leith Theatre, the historic venue revived in the festival in recent years, will play host to Mills, Tempest and Princess Nokia, along with French-Cuban twins Ibeyi, London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet, Romanian folk outfit Taraf de Caliu, Skye electronica outfit Niteworks and Falkirk’s indie-rock favourites Arab Strap.

Major Scottish productions include a revival of Liz Lochhead’s celebrated version of the ancient Greek play Medea, with Glasgow performer, writer and director Adura Onashile taking on the lead role, the world premiere of a new Scottish Ballet production Coppélia, which will explore the world of artificial intelligence and modern-day obsessions with technology, and Burn, which will see Cumming challenge the “biscuit tin” image of Robert Burns.

The Edinburgh International Festival will open this year with Macro, a spectacular night-time dance, theatre, acrobatics and music event at Murrayfield.

Other highlights include the return of choreographer Akram Khan, with a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale The Jungle Book through the eyes of a climate refugee, and Australian theatre-maker Julia Hales’ show You Know We Belong Together, which is inspired by her love of soap opera Home and Away and her belief that performers with Down Syndrome are under-represented on stage and screen.

Mr Linehan said there was significant uncertainty about the fireworks concert being able to go ahead when a decision had to be made late last year.

He said: “It was essentially a pandemic thing. Given where things were at [with Covid] a few months ago, we wouldn’t have been able to commit to it. We had to make a decision before Christmas.

"It’s not just a case of setting some fireworks off. It’s a much more complex event than that. It's not just about having 15,000 or 20,000 people in a contained space.

Dancer Marge Hendrick helped launch the Edinburgh International Festival programme in Leith, where two venue will be run this August. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

"The one thing that goes if there is any kind of wobble in terms of the pandemic is an event with 200,000 people at it.

"The sustainability question is an issue, but it didn’t really arise this year. Personally, I really love the fireworks and I know lots of people do, but I know other people have got challenges with it.

"It’s a good moment to have a discussion about whether to do it when we have the all-clear to do it and also whether the castle is the right place for it. There’s a question of whether or not people feel the environmental impact is inappropriate.

“There are really complicated technical issues around the gardens over roads, loading and stages that need cranes that we’re working through, as we’d like to do something in the gardens this year.”

Mr Linehan said more than 15,000 tickets would be given away for the Murrayfield event, which will be staged three years after Tynecastle Park hosted an EIF curtain raiser.

He said: “It’ll be a performance somewhere between dance, acrobatics, theatre and choral singing. It’ll be a completely different event to anything we’ve ever done before in a completely new venue for us.

A reimagined dance version of The Jungle Book will be staged at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Ambra Vernuccio

“I’ve been keen to do something in Murrayfield for some time as it's a great arena where I think you’ll be able to create a really good theatrical space. Some of the audience will be on the pitch, but most will be in one of the corners of the stadium.

"We were incredibly lucky with the weather at Tynecastle. We want to make sure as many people as possible are under cover this year.

"There’s also the idea that if you do things in a sporting arena, you will attract people who would never set foot in somewhere like the Usher Hall. It’s a lovely way of changing the perception of people.”

Australian circus company Gravity will be staging the show at The Playhouse during this year's Edinburgh International Festival.
Murrayfield will be playing host to Marco, the opening event of this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Darcy Grant
Skye electronica band Niteworks will be playing Leith Theatre during this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Ryan Buchanan
Leith Academy will be playing host to promenade theatre production at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Laurence Winram
Adura Onashile will lead the cast of Medea at the Edinburgh International Festival this year. Picture: Peter Dibdin
Alan Cumming will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Festival in a new dance theatre show inspired by the life of Robert Burns. Picture: Lawrence Winram
Dance show Samsara will be staged at the Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of the EIF programme. Picture: Nirvair Singh
Murrayfield will be hosting the opening night event at this year's Edinburgh International Festival.
Indie-rock duo Arab Strap. Picture: Kat Gollack
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