Edinburgh International Festival 2014

Posted by Laurence Green

This year's Edinburgh International Festival marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One with an eclectic programme of theatre, dance and music.

EIF 2014

Actors with painted recite Shakespearean soliloquies in the streets, fire eaters stage dangerous stunts, acrobats perform somersaults in front of astonished passers-by and the sound of bagpipes fills the air and merges with the noise of traffic and pedestrians. This can only mean one thing – the Edinburgh International Festival is in full swing. The 2014 festival which marks the swansong of director Jonathan Mills has explored the relationship between culture and conflict in the year marking the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. In an eclectic programme of theatre, dance and music, the festival has looked at the work of artists who in difficult and uncertain circumstances can transcend their surroundings to create works of great beauty and optimism.

FRONT (Royal Lyceum Theatre)A powerful insight into the horrors of the First World War is provided by Luk Perceval in his polyphonic play FRONT (Royal Lyceum Theatre), performed by the Thalia Theatre of Hamburg. Perceval believes that war is something that can’t be staged, so he eschews the idea of showing graphic  visual images, but instead presents in four languages (German, French, Flemish and English) and from  four different perspectives the extreme mental and physical stress from both sides of the trenches through the use of a collage of texts drawn from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire and contemporary sources. The result is a kind of “vocal orchestra” that gives voice to the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the war. The actors stand or sit in line at the front of the stage, their faces caught like moths around a flame. Indeed light is used imaginatively throughout, conjuring ghost from the past and then snuffing them out. The images so vividly conveyed are both harrowing and memorable – the relentless cataloguing of dismembered bodies, shattered bones and gaping wounds and the ghostly gas attacks with the gas sinking into craters and shell holes. Musician-composer Ferdinand Forsch creates the cacophonous noise of war by the banging of great metal sheets that form part of the set, while the texts, murmured or shouted, gives us some sense of that nightmare battlefield. For as this essential piece of theatre makes clear, the impact of this war lay not only in the loss of the four million who died but in the fact that survivors had to live on with that image of hell in the forefront of their minds, and it would seem that with the brutal conflicts currently raging in the world, man’s inhumanity to man seems set to continue.

A man in a trench coat hustles down a bleak, empty street, filmed in black and white. His gloomy shadow flits across the brick walls. An alleyway gives on to the street and against the corner leans a knowing blonde proffering a cigarette.

Helen Laurence (King’s Theatre)Welcome to the world of film noir, with its mid-20th century setting, criminal overtones and murder at the centre of a complex plot. But in Helen Laurence (King’s Theatre), this is not quote film noir as you have come to expect, as producer Chris Haddock have created a cinematic stage production which blurs the line between film and theatre.

The year is 1948. The place Vancouver. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony all take a turn in a time of fear, paranoia, rage and desperation. The police make pacts with the gangsters who run the brothels and gambling dens as the city reinvents itself in the aftermath of Second World War.

Meanwhile the femme fatale of the title Helen Lawrence (a suitably brittle Lisa Ryder) shows up to settle an account of her own – find the person who killed her husband. She keeps silent about her intentions but eventually works out who the killer is and where to find him – in the mixed-race ghetto of Hogan’s Alley.

All of this is filmed on a bare stage and subsequently beamed live in black and white onto a giant screen in the manner of classic movies such as Casablanca and The Big Sleep. The story itself, with its many sub-plots is at times confusing and a large part of the play is taken up with clarifying who’s who. Then suddenly the pace accelerates and there’s a resolution of sorts for each character.

Overall this is an imaginatively staged work, strong on atmosphere but weak on plotline, which nevertheless manages to capture the flavour of those iconic films of the 40s with their biting, quick fire wit and insightful characterisation. This show, which intertwines theatre, visual art, live action filming and computer-generated historical backgrounds, is truly a novel experience!

 Anne Sofie von Otter Terezin or Theresienstadt was the concentration camp north of Prague where the Jewish cultural elite - composers, musicians, painters and writers – were interned during the Second World War. Encouraged to continue their creative activities as a Nazi propaganda tool, they nevertheless produced fascinating, deeply moving and often uplifting work that affirms the triumph of human dignity over almost unimaginable suffering.

In an excellent morning concert at the Queen’s Hall, Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter performed a collection of songs instrumental music produced or played in Terezin – from colourful cabaret songs by Martin Roman to tender lullabies by Ilse Weber, by way of Lieder by Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann, and her strong, richly textured voice certainly made this an event to savour!

The relationships between women and men – seduction, happiness and misery, physical and mental fragility – are explored in what was for me the highlight of the festival, namely Sweet Mambo (Playhouse Theatre), the penultimate work of the late great Pina Bausch who died in 2009, Bausch’s unique concept of dance theatre creates beautiful, ambiguous imagery that mixes glamour and movement with a raft of recurring props – from water and fruit to chairs and dirt – creating ever-changing visual collages that balance on a knife-edge between reality and surrealism.

Sweet Mambo

Dressed in satin evening gowns, seven women drift on and off stage, trailing their long skirts like chords of glory, tossing their long hair like the sirens of mythology, while three men in their anonymous dark suits scamper after them, making repeated advances. There is an abundance of pure free-flowing choreography, superbly performed dance, while the enormous white, billowing curtains that frame the action, the genre-shifting music from the likes of Brian Eno, Portishead and Nina Simone, not to mention the Bauschian combination of anecdotes and jokes add immeasurably to the overall effect.

And in keeping with the grainy black and white footage from a glossy 1938 German rom-com there are hints of unresolved desires causing these women to mistake list for love. This indeed is a show which blurs the line between playfulness and pain, luxury and nightmare.

“Don’t forget!” is the recurring emphatic watchword as the various female dancers tell us  their names before going into their own solo dances and we certainly won’t forget both its creator who so revolutionised the dance world or an evening of such elegance and bliss. 

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