Posts Tagged ‘Edinburgh International Festival’

I really missed Edinburgh this year, regretting my decision not to go, and this was one of the main festival shows I would have seen had it been on whilst I was there (together with Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of A Little Life). The latter went straight home to The Netherlands, but this stopped over in Birmingham en route back to Australia, so I made an impulsive day trip from London, which proved to be another great idea. It seemed particularly appropriate that it was part of the arts accompanying the Commonwealth Games.

S. Shakthidharan’s play, an extraordinary debut, is an epic tale of a Sri Lankan family and the events which led to some of them emigrating to Australia. A family story interwoven with the political turmoil of their home country in the 1970’s and 80’s. We first meet Radha and her nineteen-year-old son Siddhartha in Sydney in 2004. He’s away at University, with an indigenous Australian girlfriend, and she’s empty nesting across the city. Radha’s mother, the first of the family to emigrate there, has died and they conduct a ritual to accompany her ashes into Sydney harbour.

From here we flash back to Radha’s birth in Sri Lanka in the 1950’s, and forward to her late teens when she marries and becomes pregnant with Sid. Her father is a senior Tamil politician at a time when changes, notably moving from three official languages (Sinhala, Tamil & English) to one, just Sinhala, threaten the security situation. It leads to a division in the country, provoked by the new government it seems, resulting in a Tamil community enclave in the north centred on Jaffna. This is 1983, Radha’s husband disappears, presumed dead, and she obtains a rare and precious visa and emigrates to Australia. I visited Sri Lanka shortly after this, when tourism returned to the island, and remember vividly the aftermath.

It’s playing time of over three hours feels a lot less as it moves swiftly from scene to scene, with inventive staging and onstage musicians propelling the story and defining the time and locations, marked by signposts above and behind the playing area. Multiple languages are used without surtitles, with other actors translating or explaining when necessary. Eamon Flack’s staging – he is also associate writer, with the playwright also associate director – flows beautifully, draws you in quickly and never lets you go. There are over twenty performers from six countries, led by Nadie Kammallawera as older Radha, Shiv Palekar as Sid and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as younger Radha; the performances are uniformly excellent.

I’ve seen other work by Belvoir theatre company, one of Australia’s finest, including at their home base in Sydney seven years ago. I’m really glad I made this journey to see them again. Plays like this are few and far between.

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Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

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This was my first foreign language Shakespeare, 32 years ago at the Edinburgh Festival. Set in Shogun period Japan at cherry blossom time, it blew me away and kick-started an interest which has led to 38 Shakespeare productions in 31 languages, boosted by the wondrous Globe to Globe festival in 2012. Seven of them were in Japanese, six directed by the late, great Yukio Ninagawa whose work this is, back in London after 30 years.

It’s hard to explain why the play feels so right in this setting. Perhaps it’s the similarity of two warrior races almost at opposite ends of the planet. Shakespeare’s story works so well with emphatic acting and stressed and distressed dialogue Japanese style. Above all though it’s the visual imagery, every scene a feast for the eyes with a stunning black, red and gold design, sumptuous costumes and of course all that cherry blossom. The stylised battles are brilliant, Lady Macbeth’s madness feels authentic, the murder of Lady Macduff and her children is devastating, Macduff and Malcolm’s determination on revenge intense and Macbeth’s tyranny all consuming.

There’s a Western classical, mostly choral and vocal, soundtrack which you might expect to be incongruous, but works brilliantly, haunting and beautiful. The witches played by men kabuki-style and the human horses aren’t comic at all. The performances are passionate, many larger than life, some more subtle. It’s rare to see the same production so many years apart, but doing so demonstrates it’s timelessness, serving the play so well, a classic production of a classic play.

At the second curtain call, a picture of Ninagawa in front of one of the design’s iconic features appeared above the actors. What a wonderful tribute and memorial this is. I feel privileged and blessed.

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