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Edinburgh International Festival.

THE appearance of street musicians, jugglers, and comedians, dressed in colourful costumes, the sound of bagpipes blending with the noise of traffic and human voices, can only mean one thing--it is time for the Edinburgh International Festival once again. This annual event, the largest arts festival in the world, remarkably manages to go from strength to strength, despite the recession. This year marked the first under the directorship of Brian McMaster, whose background with the Welsh National Opera pointed to a shake-up in the opera and music sections and these proved to be the strongest in the festival. McMaster produced a tantalising programme of goodies--from the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra performing Weber, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich to Schoenberg's epic opera oratorio Moses and Aaron. One of the main themes running through the 1992 festival was a celebration of the work of Tchaikovsky and this managed to tap a rich vein in exploring some of his less known works such as the Cantata Moscow and his opera The Oprichnik, a melodrama of love and conspiracy in which the crucial role is played by the Oprichniks, the notorious bodyguard of Ivan the Terrible.

Among the main international visitors the National Theatre of Bucharest, Romania, brought their four-hour production of An Ancient Trilogy: Medea, The Trojan Women and Elektra but this was generally considered a disappointment, lacking the naturalism, power and restraint so vital to these works. More successful was Els Joglars from Spain with Yo Tengo Un Tio En America (I Have an Uncle in America), a celebration of Spanish culture and a satirical look at its history and traditions. In a kaleidoscope of images of Spain through the ages to the present day the play reflects its humour and life spirit, whilst acutely observing and mocking its faults. Flamenco, drums and music help keep the action moving at a vibrant pace. But the main drama offering at the festival provided a reassessment of the work of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw and often described as the most unjustly neglected playwright of the 20th century.

A wry look at monarchy is provided in Harley Granville Barker's His Majesty (directed by Sam Walters) which, although published in 1928, has never before been staged. Following bloody revolution and war, resulting in the |carve up' of their country, the king and queen of Carpathia are in exile in Switzerland. Urged by the queen, the king decides he must return to try and prevent further civil war. Once there he meets with Dr. Madrassy, an opportunist and slippery politician and the present head of the Carpathian government, who also wants to avoid civil war. However, unknown to the king, Cernyak, his firebrand supporter, is personally leading a party to capture Madrassy. Madrassy escapes, but the king's position is now much more difficult -- should he side with Cernyak or leave Carpathia to its fate? The king's forces and the government sign an armistice. It is, however, almost immediately broken by elements of both sides. Disgusted, the king offers to abdicate but can find no one to accept. Meanwhile, without the king's knowledge, the queen attempts to influence events by bribery. Despite the topicality of the subject matter--anarchy in Europe and royalty in crisis--this verbose drama lacks punch and a sense of urgency. On one level it is an intricate study of political and moral realities adrift from individual ideals, on another it is about public morality and private ethics. The play manages to build up a certain level of interest and involvement after a dull start but I can't help thinking the characters exist merely as cyphers for Barker's pessimistic, post-World War I views on democracy and monarchy. I was glad, though, to have had the opportunity to see this 64-year-old premiere.

The idea of women as sexual objects or targets for capitalism is explored in Barker's witty and worldly comedy The Madras House, which was first performed in 1910. The play virtually dispenses with narrative plot and centres on the sale of an expensive family fashion house so that the young owner can become a social reformer on the London County Council. Lacking dramatic bite, the play nevertheless presents a revealing insight into the economic, social and sexual status of women in Edwardian England--there is an interesting contrast between the six unmarried, unemployed Huxtable sisters, prisoners of their class and domesticity, and their father's female employees sweating away in the Peckham factory with a mouthful of pins.

Eyebrows are raised when one of the female employees is found to be pregnant--we later discover the father is the philandering Madras Senior who has separated from his wife and become a convert to Islam. The cast are all in fine fettle, particularly Roger Allam as Philip Madras, the head of the company, John Hallam as his free spirited father, Constantine Madras, Helen Ryan as his mother, Amelia, Eve Matheson as his wife, Sessica, and Suzanna Hamilton as Miss Yates, the girl at the centre of the scandal. The last act is rather prolonged and the play ends with a whimper rather than a bang but the production is staged with imagination and style. I was particularly impressed by the marvellous opening, a vision of shop-window mannequins, all of whom suddenly come to life and turn out to be the Huxtable sisters, and the eye opening fashion show that provides the highspot of the second half.

The third and best of the Barker trio was The Voysey Inheritance. This remarkably assured play--with a strong contemporary relevance--was written when Harley Granville Barker was only 28 and is his best known work, as well as being his most ironic and morally complex. When Edward Voysey is admitted as a partner in the family law firm, his father confesses that he and his father before him have used the trust funds in their care for personal speculation. The family home in Chislehurst and their considerable social prestige and luxurious lifestyle are built entirely upon fraud. After his father dies suddenly the son is faced with the prospect of bankruptcy, scandal and imprisonment. Edward's response to his inheritance becomes the central theme of a drama about betrayal and love, the ethics of business and, in particular, how the lure of money entails moral and intellectual degradation. Although the play ends on an inconclusive note, this is a fascinating work, beautifully staged and splendidly acted, particularly by Peter Lindford as Edward Voysey, Tenniel Evans as his father, Gillian Martell as his motlier and Katharine Rogers as his cousin cum fiancee. A piece of theatre that seems as topical today as it did when first staged 87 years ago and marks a triumph for director William Gaskill.

One of the most exciting and unusual events in the festival was a programme of music inspired by Shakespeare's great tragedy Hamlet, performed by the Royal Scottish Orchestra under the leadership of the charismatic Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. The evening--a world premiere--comprised works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Musical Shakespeariana can trace its evolution to the middle of the eighteenth century, when the bard's plays established themselves on the Russian stage. Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture Hamlet was written in 1888, immediately following his Fifth Symphony, and it is dedicated to Edvard Grieg. It was first performed under the composer's baton on 12 November that year in St. Petersburg at the Russian Musical Society. This striking work has suffered undeserved neglect, despite the power of its romantic passions, and its contrasts of elegaic lyricism and tragic desolation. Under Rozhdestvensky's magnificent conducting, the piece achieved a resonance all its own.

The tortured, split personality of the Prince of Denmark, his continual introspection and his uncompromising |to be or not to be' is brilliantly expressed in Prokofiev's Incidental Music to Hamlet, Op. 77, in particular the transition from a superficial gaiety to a hidden tragedy.

Shakespeare, with the force of his universality and his profound understanding of human passions, represented the ideal creative artist to Shostakovich. |It's hard to write music to Shakespeare's plays', the composer said. |When speaking of Shakespeare's immense scope, I refer to his inner grasp and breadth of vision, and not to the exterior grandeur and pomp. Shakespeare's tragedies are in themselves extraordinarily musical-music is born out of the dynamic and poetry of these works'. Of all Shakespeare's works it was Hamlet that most fired Shostakovich's imagination: the usurping of power, the moral right to vengeance; the right to kill; the theme of crime and punishment, and the interpretation of punishment as a crime; the discrepancy between ideas and their realisation; the conflicts that exist in one's own mind and, furthermore, the conflict that exists between an awareness of inner conscience and a sense of duty. The stimulating Hamlet Concert Scenario perfectly blended together fragments of the incredibly powerful, sombre and tragic. In short then this memorable concert of music from Hamlet painted portraits dark and delicate and was suffused with the potent, brooding atmosphere of Elsinore.

The highlight of a crowded and diverse Fringe programme--with productions by 540 companies spanning 23 different nations--was undoubtedly Communicado's barnstorming production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, in a new translation by Edwin Morgan and directed by Gerry Mulgrew, which received its world premiere at the Traverse Theatre. This classic heroic comedy of unrequited love, sword and word play, is presented as a toast to poets in an age of accountancy. With a complete disregard for the conventions of French costume drama, this wild, irreverent version is performed in vibrant Scottish verse, with the army cadets transformed into Glaswegian gangs dressed in zip-up bomber jackets, nuns read The Sporting Life, and characters appear on stage smoking gauloises. Yet, surprisingly, these anachronisms work well in the context of the production--a fat, glorious romp. The eloquent poetry sounds better than ever, and the imaginative use of puppets, a wandering accordionist, whose jaunty music has a distinctly French flavour, and bold, inventive groupings that convey the sweep of battle or a risible theatrical production of the time, serve to enhance the text and convey a strong sense of atmosphere and conviction.

But ultimately the play rests or falls with the central performances and here it really comes up trumps. Forget Gerard Depardieu, here is a sharply drawn Cyrano, marvellously played by Tom Mannion, who is one minute a swaggering braggart, the next a sensitive poet hurt by the endless remarks about his tumulous nose, while the love of his life, his cousin Roxane, whose heart is set on the Baron Christian de Neuvillette, is portrayed with a mixture of compassion and wilfulness by Sandy McDade as a crop-haired gamine. Indeed the scene in which Cyrano acts as a surrogate poet for the baron so that he can woo Roxane under her balcony with the fine words that elude him, is both amusing and sad at the same time. Here is a show to savour -- and certainly one of the best of the year.

If conspiracy theories are to your liking then Slatzer's Bouquet by Jeff Merrifield, performed by Playback Theatre, may appeal to you. This takes as its theme the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe and is based on Slatzer's thirty-year investigation to prove that the blonde bombshell did not commit suicide but was murdered in a joint CIA-Mafia plot. What could have been a punchy, |no holds barred' drama loses its impact due to the ramshackle treatment -- the show takes the form of a photocall cum illustrated lecture, interspersed with brief biographical details and bursts of song, performed by stunning Marilyn look-a-like, Pauline Bailey.

Controversy raged over Red Shift Theatre Company's Fringe production of Orlando, a new play by Robin Brooks based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. Inspired by her passion for Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is a biography of her lover and friend, combining the novel with the no less exotic events surrounding the composition. Orlando ages only 35 years over four centuries. He is seen as page to Elizabeth I, a beau at the court of James I, ambassador to Constantinople (where he mysteriously changes sex), gossiping away the eighteenth century in salons with Pope and Dryden, feeling her way through the fog of the nineteenth century and finally shopping in 1928 Oxford Street before driving to the country. Woolf uses this exotic canvas to lampoon our literary heritage, attack blinkered sexual attitudes and celebrate her fascination for Vita, poet and philanderer. A multitude of wry caricatures are played by Vita, her husband, Harold Nicolson, her passionate and dangerous lover, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf herself, in a production which combines live percussion, powerful theatricality and lush storytelling.

The most eagerly awaited event of the official festival -- Tchaikovsky's Yolanta and The Nutcracker, performed by Opera North and the modern dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, respectively, certainly lived up to expectations. This marked the composer's last opera and his last ballet, designed specifically for performance in a double bill in 1892, and they emerge as fresh and moving today one hundred years later.

Yolanta tells the touching story of a blind princess kept in ignorance of her affliction by her father, but who is eventually cured by the love of a young knight who unwittingly reveals to her what she is missing. This slim, but charming tale achieves much of its appeal from the attractive music score, excellent singing, particularly by Joan Rodgers in the title role, delightful setting and absence of sentimentality. The director/choreorapher is Martin Duncan.

Innovation is the keynote of The Nutcracker. This version is set in a sombre Victorian orphanage run by the grim Dr. Dross and his stern sidekick, Matron. It is Christmas time but this is a parsimonious occasion with a tree devoid of leaves and meagre toys for the children. The orphaned Clara--protagonist in the story--dreams, and acquires a sailor Nutcracker, on whom she lavishes her love. The orphans rebel against Dr. Dross and his family, with the aid of the Nutcracker who is transformed into a tall, dashing young man. Clara is then led into the Kingdom of Snow which takes the form of a skating rink, where Sugar, the smug daughter of the orphan master, turns into Princess Sugar-Plum and attempts to steal the Nutcracker for herself. The disconsolate Clara is powerless to prevent their betrothal in the Kingdom of Sweets. However her love for the Nutcracker remains undiminished and, as in all good fairytales, there is a happy ending, when Clara awakens she finds the Nutcracker in her bed. They escape down a ladder of sheets to a much happier future.

Forget the purists' conception of this famous ballet, here is a production for the 90s that is witty, imaginative and totally captivating, complete with a gigantic, three-tiered wedding cake adorned with fairies and candles, and characters wearing baseball hats. The post-modern troupe, Adventures in Motion Pictures, choreographed by Matthew Bourne, is dazzlingly vivacious and their dancing first rate, while Etta Murfitt makes a winning Clara. This spirited, tongue-in-cheek production manages to breathe new life into Tchaikovsky's enchanting score, and provides a feast for the ears and the eyes.

Art, as always, was very much to the fore and, although not officially part of the festival, still draws as big, if not bigger, crowds than many of the theatrical offerings. This year's three major exhibitions comprised sculptures by the Spanish artist Joan Miro (1893-1983), portraits by the Edinburgh born artist and court painter to George III, Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) and Dutch Art and Scotland: A Reflection of Taste, featuring outstanding works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Koninck, Cuyp and Hals. The show at the Royal Scottish Academy brought together some seventy of Miro's |monsters'-- birds, women, heads and other archetypes conceived with a surrealist's witty eye for the affinities between things and a refreshing, disregard for the normal conventions of sculpture. Several of the bronzes were painted in bright and shining colours; almost all were cast from a variety of found objects and scrap materials picked up in the countryside of Miro's native Catalonia or in Majorca where he also had a studio.

As the leading portrait painter of the Enlightenment, Allan Ramsay painted the great, the rich and the beautiful of two capital cities--Edinburgh and London. A total of seventy oil paintings and more than thirty drawings from collections throughout the world were on view. Among the most impressive were Jean Nisbet, afterwards Lady Banff, a portrait full of vitality and charm, Dr. Richard Mead, the eminent physician and classical scholar (who befriended the young Ramsay), sitting imposingly in a high chair, Sir Edward Turner and his wife, a sensitive expression of conjugal affection, and the painter's second wife, Margaret Lindsay, pictured in a moment of tranquillity, arranging flowers in a vase. This exhibition can now be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London until January 17, 1993.

Scotland and the Netherlands formed close links, both cultural and commercial, more than 500 years ago. Since then, the Scots have been keen collectors of Dutch art, with a particular love of seventeenth century paintings. The magnificent exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland brought together more than seventy of the most important Dutch paintings to have entered Scottish collections over the years. It is ironic that Rembrandt's vivid, masterly Self-portrait aged 51 1657 is dated the year after the artist was forced to seek a cessio honorum, a declaration of legal insolvency, whereby all his property was required to be sold to raise money for his creditors. My own favourite work on display, again a Rembrandt, was the luminous Titus at his desk 1655, depicting the painter's son, Titus, holding a pen and ink in his left hand with a collection of papers in front of him. The boy's pensive expression communicates itself fully with the onlooker. Titus was the only one of Rembrandt's four children to survive, the others died in early infancy.

A festival, then, of many surprises and delights.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Green, Laurence
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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