Review: Edinburgh Festival 2012, for Mumbai Theatre Guide

Food for the Soul in Edinburgh: High points from Edinburgh’s Festival 2012

By Mark Brown

Taken together, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and their sister summer festivals (such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival) constitute the biggest cultural feast on the planet. Perhaps the greatest aspect of “the Edinburgh Festival” (as the events are collectively known) is its internationalism. Indeed, Indian artists have long played a significant part; Roysten Abel’s Othello – A Play in Black and White received critical acclaim in Edinburgh in 1999, and Ravi Shankar provided, arguably, the greatest performance of the 2011 International Festival programme.

Perhaps the most exciting development of the 2012 Festival was the huge expansion of the Fringe programme of the Summerhall venue (which had only been established the previous year). Located within the old veterinary school of Edinburgh University, curated by the excellent young producer Rupert Thomson, with the indulgence and support of the building’s new owner Robert McDowell, Summerhall has become a home for some of the highest quality, and most avant-garde, theatre companies.

In particular, the venue boasted the latest work by the great Polish company Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat Theatre). The group hails from the western Polish city of Wrocław, which is notable for its artistic life and, in particular, for being the city of master dramatist Jerzy Grotowski. Its highly wrought aesthetic – which is built around painstakingly developed physical movement, beautifully calibrated polyphonic song, powerful live music and simple-but-gorgeous visual imagery – is, in my experience, the highest expression of the Grotowskian method in the world today.

At Summerhall they presented Songs of Lear, a piece inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is a work for 10 performers (five women, five men) who are costumed in simple, contemporary black garb, a musician (who plays bellows bagpipes) and a narrator/conductor (the company’s artistic director Grzegorz Bral). The music, which was composed especially for the show by JeanClaudeAcquaviva and Maciej Rychly, also incorporates a squeezebox, a kora (otherwise known as the west African harp) and an extraordinary and very simple set of drums.

The original songs reflect the competing forces (regal authority and destitution, power and its usurpation, familial love and violent hatred) which drive Shakespeare’s play. Rychly’s songs, which are inspired by the Coptic Egyptian Gospel of Thomas, the so-called “Heretic Gospel” (which was discovered in Egypt in 1945), relate to the wilder sections of piece, expressing the passions and extremes of human experience in such a way that one’s soul shudders.

That this is so is down, in huge measure, to the astonishing method of TPK. The highly stylised movement and song have a cumulative effect that is, in the broadest sense, deeply spiritual. As the most seminal and powerful aspects of our humanity (love, loss, hatred, sexual desire, awareness of death) are alighted upon, one finds oneself transported beyond the banalities of day-to-day life and overcome suddenly and unexpectedly. At that moment of emotional impact, when one weeps (both at the joys and the anguish of the human condition), one realises that Songs of Lear has come exquisitely close to capturing that most elusive of entities, the expression of the human soul.

It is very much to Summerhall’s credit that it also showcased Caesarian Section –Essays on Suicide, a truly affecting piece by Teatr Zar, another Polish Grotowskian company, who, whilst observably at an earlier stage of aesthetic development than TPK, promise great things for the future. Other Summerhall highlights included the brilliant, short, illusionary piece Remember Me, by Italian company Sineglossa and The List, an emotive and disturbing monologue by Québécoise author Jennifer Tremblay, presented by Scottish women’s theatre company Stellar Quines and performed by leading Scottish actress Maureen Beattie.

If Beattie and her award-winning director Muriel Romanes were doing Scotland proud at Summerhall (as were Communicado Theatre Company, who presented Robert Burns’s Tam o’Shanterat the Assembly Hall), the same cannot be said of Vanishing Point Theatre Company’s Wonderland, which was the Scottish contribution to the theatre programme of the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival. The failure of the work – which reimagines Lewis Carroll’s looking glass world as the social underworld of violent pornography – is far from being the first Scottish failure at the EIF.

As many people have correctly observed, the Scottish theatre work in the programme is at a distinct disadvantage year after year, in that it tends to premiere at the Festival. By contrast the work from other countries is usually tried-and-tested, not to say critically acclaimed. This is not to defend director Matthew Lenton’s production (which lacks depth, insight and structure), however. Other art forms in the EIF stage Scottish premieres; most notably, in the 2012 programme, Scottish Opera’s triple bill, which boasted, in James MacMillan’s Clemency, an outstanding modern opera. However, the EIF and the Scottish theatre community need to think more carefully about the Scottish theatrical works which go on the Festival stage. To continuously showcase weak presentations at our most high profile festival is a bit like hosting a cricket World Cup, only to rest your best batsmen throughout.

This review was originally published in the web magazine on October 11, 2012

© Mark Brown



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