Thoughts on the Edinburgh International Festival 2019

This year I had the privilege of working for the Edinburgh International Festival. Now, the first thing I’ve learned I need to explain when I tell people about this (in case you don’t know) is that EIF ≠ Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They are separate, concurrent festival in Edinburgh in August. EIF is a curated festival bringing together Scotland and the world’s greatest artists in a programme of theatre, dance, opera and classical and contemporary music.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really used to pay too much attention to EIF in favour of the Fringe and probably only went to one or two shows in the International programme each year. Until this year, of course. This summer has taught me a lot about EIF and has realigned my perceptions of the Festival. The programme is so diverse and full of so many types of art that there really is something to float everyone’s boats. It is definitely of a higher quality (whether or not it’s in your taste) and it’s of greater value in my opinion because, in general, it is twice as long and twice as good as your average Fringe show. There’s less risk and therefore worth paying a little bit more. That said, it’s not as extortionate as you might think. They have some really good discounts going for concessions, especially 50% off for students, and just over a third of all their tickets are £20 or less. Do-able.

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This year I saw 17 EIF productions from theatre to opera, dance to classical music and also panel discussions. In the last month I have seen two of the world’s best orchestras (LA Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra) play, one of which was held in Tynecastle Stadium for a spectacular Opening Concert playing the epic scores of Hollywood movies – including Harry Potter, Casablanca, and the Pink Panther. It was pretty damn amazing. I also got to spend my month dwelling in all of Edinburgh’s wonderful theatres, exploring the nooks and crannies. I got to meet the lovely Ian McKellen and see him perform, along with another national treasure Stephen Fry who is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever seen. I saw my first ever full opera and really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to give opera a try for a while and Scottish Opera’s Breaking the Waves was a great introduction – it was creepy, dramatic, gripping, and in English! As part of the You Are Here programme I attended a discussion at the Lyceum on Power, Gender and the Arts which was a really inspiring and insightful discussion on the future of my industry. The amazing Ursula Kam-Ling made a really great illustrated summary of the whole discussion.

The Festival has introduced me to so many different art-forms and reconstructed the way I think about creating theatre, I’ve seen a lot of things that pushed boundaries and stepped outside the box. I took a chance on seeing art-forms that I maybe wouldn’t have if I wasn’t working here but I think that’s helped to broaden my horizons. And to top it all off, we marked the end of the Festival well with some epic fireworks to accompany the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It’s always a cathartic relief to see the shower of fireworks that ends the most mental month of the year, and through our tired wee eyes we see one last bit of beauty before hibernating til the middle of September.

And if all the above wasn’t enough, here is the run down of my absolute favourites from this year’s International Festival…

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West Side Story – Music – Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Wow. I was lucky enough to get inside one of the final rehearsals before they opened and it was such a privilege. Scottish Chamber Orchestra performed a concert rendition of my favourite musical West Side Story, with performers singing the vocals in a stripped down production. My favourite thing about West Side Story is normally the amazing dance and the way that it ties together with the music and the lighting and the staging, but with this production my attention was focused on the glorious music which was an absolute treat. It was a wonderful show and gave me total goosebumps, I was so there for it.

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La Reprise Histoire(s) du theatre (I) – Theatre – International Institute of Political Murder/Milo Rau
This piece of docu-drama was not really concerned with literally presenting the senseless killing of Ihsane Jarfi in 2012 in Liège but rather explored how you can tell stories like that using theatre and how effective that may be. We start with the interview and auditioning of professional and amateur actors preparing to retell the story. This kind of deconstruction provides explanation of what we are about to see as time goes on but whilst the explanation may reduce the shock, it adds a hugely unsettling feeling as you know what’s coming. The play is in both Flemish and French with subtitles (of course) but these are integrated into the piece that sort of straddles between theatre and film. The subject matter is one that really hit me, I am extremely passionate about gay rights so the idea of murdering someone on that basis makes me seethe. It took me a day or two thinking about it for me to fully make sense of my thoughts on this one but it really did stick with me. It was bold, nuanced, challenging, compelling and really asks to what extent theatre can communicate some of life’s hardest aspects.

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Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation – Theatre – Tim Crouch/NTS
I couldn’t pick just one theatrical highlight so here’s another one. With a title so long, it’s almost cruel trying to make us say it but hey ho. This was another boundary pushing piece. You come into the room and sit in two concentric circles of chairs around the ‘stage’ space, on each chair is a book which includes the script and illustrations that we follow along with the actors. It expands and augments the theatrical experience, creates anticipation and encourages participation from a habitually passive audience. The play shows us the reunion of estranged mother and daughter after the daughter has been indoctrinated in her father’s cult. The book commands her words and actions, the book gives us glimpses into their past. But at the end of it all does the world really end? I thought this was such a cool concept and it was so fresh, simple and innovative – and I was able to buy a paperback copy of the book!

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The Crucible – Dance – Scottish Ballet
Who would I be if I didn’t include some dance? Yet another Scottish Ballet triumph, they’re pretty good at the whole literary adaptation thing. The last time they did it (A Streetcar Named Desire) I saw my favourite piece of theatre ever, so I had high hopes for this retelling of an Arthur Miller classic. If you don’t know, The Crucible is about false witch accusations taking over a small religious town, at the centre we have the Proctor couple being torn apart by the vengeful servant girl Abigail who had an affair with John then feels scorned when he rejects her. The power of the witchery accusations goes to her and her friends’ heads and the town of Salem gladly grab their pitchforks and join in.  Scottish Ballet’s Crucible is snappy, striking and succinct. They don’t waste any time faffing about which is why they’re able to maintain a tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Every second feels vital and it was the epitome of storytelling dance. The score by Peter Salem was incredible, capturing the dramatic, creepy and threatening mood really well and complementing Helen Pickett’s striking choreography. Oooh it’s a goodie, make sure you catch them on tour.

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So there we have it. Another Festival draws to a close and I am left feeling suitably knackered but also grateful and proud of what’s gone on here for the last month. More on this years festival includes my Fringe faves and a mushy declaration of my love for the festival city if you wanna give those a read. Until next year…

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