Edinburgh Festival 2016

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green picks the best of the Edinburgh and Fringe Festival

The Edinburgh International Festival, the world’s biggest arts festival, is now in full swing, with a diverse and eclectic mix of music, dance, drama, opera and concerts, featuring 2,442 artists from 36 nations. The 2016 event began with Deep Time, a digitally animated artwork using the iconic location of Edinburgh Castle and Castle Rock as the rugged canvas for projections and illuminations inspired by the city’s past. It explored 350 million years of the Scottish capital’s history, set to a soundtrack of contemporary music by rock band Mogwai, uncovering the unique geology of a landscape formed by volcanic activity; while celebrating the intellectual legacy of the city and in particular James Hutton, the Edinburgh scientist and ‘father of modern geology’.

Music

A fiery drama of Italian operatic and choral treasures launched the splendid Opening Concert (Usher Hall) with the Royal Opera House supremo Sir Antonio Pappano conducting Rome’s world-renowned Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. The main body of work was Rossini’s stunning Stabat Mater, a moving choral work blending the sacred and the operatic, while the first half comprised overtures and instrumental music from three powerful Italian operas on Shakespearean themes. Pappano had the orchestra firmly under his control, his direction was lucid and particular, especially over his singers, soprano Carmen Giannattasio, and mezzo Marianna Pizzolato the undisputed stars of the Stabat Mater. The men, though, tenor Yijie Shi and bass Roberto Tagliavini, are stronger in the ensemble than in solo mode. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, under the direction of Christopher Bell, sung with great force and charity. This was a glorious evening of true musical bliss!

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The most eagerly awaited event was Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s acclaimed production of Norma (Edinburgh Festival Theatre), with renowned mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. This version sets Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani’s tragic tale of ancient druids rebelling against Roman occupation in more modern times – Second World War France where the French Resistance struggles against the Nazi oppressors, Norma is a schoolteacher torn between loyalty towards her community and her illicit love for Pollione, chief of the occupying forces and father of her two children, who has diverted his affections to the younger Adalgisa. This searing tale of love betrayal and revenge is rather over melodramatic at times but manages to build up a powerful emotional charge and grips like a vice. There are many memorable moments, of which the most moving is when Norma, consumed with hatred for her faithless husband, anguishes over whether to kill the children she has had with him. Bartoli makes a fiery Norma, getting right under the skin of the multilayered protagonist. Mexican-born Soprano Rebeca Olvera presents a striking portrayal of corrupted innocence, and tenor John Osborn is a convincing Pollione. Gianluca Capuano, replacing an indisposed Diego Fasolis conducted the Barocchisti ensemble, playing an authentic instrumental from the 19th century and the chorus packed an enormous punch to complete a marvellous musical feast.

Another musical treat was provided by Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s morning recital at the Queen’s Hall. London-born tenor Padmore’s great technical accomplishment was well in evidence in a program which began with Beethoven establishing the song cycle as a genre in An Die Ferne Geliebte and ended with Schubert’s fine example of the form – Schwanengesang – which isn’t a real song cycle at all. Padmore’s emotional subtlety and his revelatory sense of storytelling gave the impression he was discovering the song’s meaning for the first time. Playing a beautifully sonorous US fortepiano, South African keyboard player Kristian Bezuidenhout was surprisingly unobtrusive but provided the perfect accompaniment.

One of the greatest pleasures of the festival was Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret (Usher Hall). Humphries eschewed his Dame Edna persona to appear as himself to orate, present and perform an evening of ‘degenerate’ music from Germany’s Weimar Republic, joined by transgressive Australian Cabaret sensation Meow Meow and the gusty players of the Australian chamber orchestra, in 20s mobster chic, under charismatic director Richard Tognetti. Featuring jazz, cabaret, tango and Broadway musical style numbers by many forgotten composers, as well as Kurt Weill’s iconic Surabaya Johnny, it was a racy, risqué and acerbically witty evening that reawakened the hedonistic partying and social turmoil of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. A truly revealing show!

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Best of the Fringe

Over to the Fringe and where better than the Traverse Theatre, home of some of the best new writing and hothouse of creative new talent. Let’s begin with Al Smith’s new adaptation of Gogol’s classic story Diary of a Madman, re-imagined in contemporary Scotland and directed by Christopher Haydon. Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan) shoulders the family trade of restoring Scotland’s iconic Forth Rail Bridge with pride. In Pop’s head lurks an illness that has been kept stable by modern medicine, his loving wife and teenage daughter. But his stability, family and sanity are threatened when he discovers that his bridge has been put up for sale, and a young Englishman arrives at his home, catching the eye of his teenage daughter. This is a compelling portrait of a man spiralling towards insanity, when his senses of personal, professional and national identity are challenged.

A charming, riotous and quintessentially New Zealand love story inspired by true events and small-town family secrets is how you could describe Rochelle Bright’s Daffodils, directed by Dena Kennedy and Kitan Petkovski. The play captures the bittersweet nuances of farm girl Rosa and teddy boy Eric as they fall in love in the 60s, their first meeting at the lake by the daffodils and their marriage which turns sour. The New Zealand pop-rock soundtrack that shapes their lives – from Crowded House to Bic Runga – is played on stage by a three-piece band.

I was rather disappointed with writer/actor Ross Dunmore’s first full-length play Milk, directed by Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, and centres on a group of individuals whose lives intersect. Although the drama took a while to really get going, it is well acted, funny and provocative. I was more taken, however, with Matt Regan’s Greater Belfast, performed by the writer and composer, which blends poetic storytelling with caustic black humour, and an accompanying string quartet to promote a telling portrait of a city still aching from the violence of its recent past.

But the best play I saw at the Traverse was Mathew Wilkinson’s powerful exploration of grief, revenge and forgiveness in My Eyes Went Dark. A modern tragedy, it centres on a Russian architect driven to revenge after losing his family in a plane crash. Nikolai Koslov (an electrifying Cal MacAninch) is blindsided by grief, convinced the accident was a crime. This absorbing drama questions the old adage, an ‘eye for an eye’, asking if a victim’s forgiveness is ever possible. All the plays in Traverse’s festival programme run until the 29th August 2016.

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Festival Highlight

Back to the official festival and what was for me the highlight of this year’s event – John Tiffany’s superb production of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 masterpiece The Glass Menagerie (King Theatre). The place is St Louis, the year 1937, while matriarch Amanda Wingfield desperately struggles to provide her vulnerable daughter Laura with a ‘gentleman caller’, her son Tom dreams of escape from his dead-end warehouse job and oppressive life at home.

This stylised, evocative production of a drama often described as a ‘memory play’ takes this idea seriously, not as an excuse for misty nostalgia but as a fierce, involving and lyrical work, giving full weight to the historical setting – a shabby St Louis apartment towards the end of the deepest economic recession in modern history. Designer Bob Crowley’s staging features floating platforms, menacing black pools and fire escape ladders stretching to heaven, all of which heighten the reality of the piece.

But it is the marvellous performances that really bring this iconic work in American theatre so vividly to life. The great American actress Cherry Jones, best known as President Taylor on television, makes a humane Amanda, the matriarch agonisingly ambitious for her family, yet fearful of the darkness that surrounds them. In place of the conventional portrayal of fluttering, mentally fragile southern belle, she portrays a woman trained by charm, yet made of steel, carrying the whole weight of American history on her shoulders, fighting for her frail daughter’s future with every weapon she has to hand. Excellent support is provided by Michael Esper as Tom, Kate O’Flynn, a real revelation as Laura, and Seth Numrich, as the eagerly expected gentleman caller.

This heartbreaking, five-star production makes the play seem as fresh and affecting today as when it was first staged and like the images that linger forever in Tom’s mind, impossible to forget. It runs until 21 August 2016.

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Finally, no visit to the festival would be complete without an evening of traditional Scottish entertainment and fine dining and the famous Taste of Scotland Cabaret Dinner show at the historic Prestonfield House. It’s the ideal choice combining haunting music traditional song, ceilidh dancing, fiddle and bagpipes. What more could you want?

Edinburgh Festival 2016

The festival and fringe run until Monday 29 August 2016.

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