This year the Edinburgh International Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary . So did I.
The opera, music, dance and drama festival tends to be overshadowed by the huge Edinburgh Fringe with its thousands of zany, rude, comical and political shows. But the international festival with its world class productions never fails to either stimulate or challenge you – even if you live near London and can already see a very wide range of productions.
I have been a recent convert attending the festival – starting post early semi retirement when I left the Guardian in 2009 – before that I was sometimes expected to stand in for the dead season of political coverage in mid August or went on a family holiday.
But what constantly surprises now my wife and I do try to go every year is the extraordinary range of productions. I have been entertained, moved, frightened and only occasionally bored by what we have seen. This year was no exception, even if underlying some of the themes has been the rather alarming and dangerous state of the world in 2017.
No more so than the joint Scottish and Turkish production of Rhinoceros – Eugene Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd play – drawing from his experience of the rise of Fascism and authoritarianism in Romania in the 1930s. It is very, very funny but it tells of the growth and attraction of authoritarian rule by people being turned into Rhinoceri until only one person was left. It was particularly poignant that it was a joint production with the DOT theatre company from Istanbul, given the rise of Erdogan.
Equally dramatic for anyone who likes flamenco music was the Maria Pages Company production of Yo, Carmen – an energetic and beautifully choreographed performance partly using Bizet’s music from Carmen. This eight all women group also had a strong Feminist message that women were not there just to please men.
Surprisingly disappointing was the premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play The Divide- a Dystopian sci fi picture of Britain after the Plague in the 22nd century. This was a diminished world of separated men and women – but it suffered from following a similar theme to the recent Handmaiden’s Tale on TV – and in two parts was over long and more of a narrative than a drama. This will come to London at the Old Vic next year. Not everybody stayed including us.
Anoushka Shankar – daughter of the late Ravi Shankar – also pursued a ” shock and awe” theme in her loud and strobe lighting musical story of the refugee crisis. Classical Indian music it was not – but a Westernised performance with an electric sitar.
As interesting was the supporting act – A gawwali ( Arabic meaning word of the prophet says the programme) performance singer – Faiz Ali Faiz- with a male chorus, two harmoniums, a tabla and handclappers is sung rather like an Indian repetitive raga. The sacred music dates back 700 years to the Sufi mystics. The performance was also a political statement against Muslim fundamentalism which bans singing. It was a complete revelation to us in more ways than one – since it had not been billed by the Festival when I booked the tickets.
Finally there was the revival of the Incredible String Band – the 60s psychedelic folk band – with one of its original members, Mike Heron, who with musical friends and relations, turned the clock back 50 years to a less troubled time, with both spirited and poignant performances. In its time incredibly innovative music and still powerful today. An avid follower in the audience told me to watch out for Trembling Bells, a more recent Glasgow psychedelic folk group, who occasionally join forces with the band.
One parting shot – since my wife became disabled following a stroke four years ago- access to events has been important. She doesn’t now need a wheelchair but can only walk slowly and needs rails -particularly on stairs to keep her steady. The Edinfest venues vary from good- the Lyceum and Usher Hall – to antiquated – the Kings Theatre – and more difficult, the Playhouse. Unfortunately at the Playhouse we were allocated seats in the circle there which had no rails to get there- and if it had not been for one of the helpful ushers and a member of the public – she could easily have fallen. This put her off returning for the Incredible String Band concert.
But overall such different, innovative and challenging stuff in just six days is why the international festival is really worth seeing. Happy 70th birthday Edinfest and long may it continue !