Sunday, 23 August 2015

48 Hours at Edinburgh Festivals 2015

Edinburgh Festival Reviews 2015

Like most Glaswegians I am vaguely aware of Edinburgh as a thing, and spend most of the year oblivious to what it is up to. However, in August each year this becomes impossible as the Edinburgh Festivals draw the London media, the combined population of every Oxbridge Drama Soc and 1000s of visitors to the city on a daily basis. This year I had the chance to spend a day off work in Auld Reekie, and take in some of the festival attractions. On Friday I managed to see two concerts from the Edinburgh International Festival, two plays from the Fringe and several exhibitions from the Edinburgh Art Festival. To help me remember what I actually did, I'll knock up a quick review of what I saw. Not only was this a good chance for me to overdose on some culture and entertainment, but as I was using some friends' unused complimentary tickets and gallery passes, I saved myself over £100. Much as that was pleasing for me, it does flag up one of the problems here at the festival, that not everyone gets to join in.

One highlight of this year's Edinburgh International Festival is the new stage adaptation of Alasdair Gray's classic book, Lanark. I caught one of the preview performances in Glasgow (review here) before it transferred to Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. After its run in Edinburgh it will return to Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in September, where the tickets are about half the price of the Edinburgh ones. There will also be discounts for those living in the Gorbals and concessions for the unemployed reducing the price of the best seats in the house to £2. I mention this only to highlight the point that ticket prices do not need to be as prohibitively expensive as many appear to be in Edinburgh, where even a student doing an hour's monologue about cheese can expect to charge £12 a go.


A frequently used device in some of Alasdair Gray's art is the drawing hand of the artist appearing in the work. I was thinking of this whilst seeing the same idea used to such great effect at the wonderful MC Escher exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, "The Amazing World of MC Escher". They have pulled together a fantastic quantity of his works, from the very familiar, to his early etchings and sketches of Islamic tiles, flat Dutch fields and the Alhambra Palace that you can recognise in his later material. Seeing them in the flesh, instead of in reproduction, you can appreciate the effort and attention to detail that went into producing his work. Also his skill as a craftsman shines through. 

A cancelled etching plate created by MC Escher

I also had the chance to swing past Jupiter Artland, a slowly growing sculpture park of modern art on the outskirts of Edinburgh where I was mesmerised by Tara Donovan's exhibition. Her large sculptures made from Slinkies, plastic cups and the material used to make helium balloons (Mylar) are beautiful. 

Untitled (Mylar) by Tara Donovan

St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
On a more personal level I found the exhibition about the men who served on the boats of the Arctic Convoys during the second world war interesting. The men shown here received the Ushkanov Medal in 2014 for their efforts to try to supply the Russian people. The exhibition itself, in the beautiful St Mary's Cathedral, of photographs and small tapestries inspired by their stories is a bit sparse, but fascinating information about their lives is explored in more detail in the accompanying booklet.

My own interest in hearing about this was because my gran's brother died at sea during the war, off of the coast of Norway (I've written about him here). I now have the Arctic Star which my great uncle was awarded after his death, and I could recognise this medal, amongst others, on the chests of the men in the photographs here.

Arctic Star medal of Donald Bailey

The works from the official Edinburgh Art Festival are scattered throughout Edinburgh and most can be reached by a quick walk around the city centre. Charles Avery's work Tree no. 5 (from the Jadindagadendar) greets you in Waverley Station as you get off of the train from Glasgow. A wee bit harder to find, but worth seeking out is Holoturian by Ariel Guzik. This is in Trinity Apse, a disused church off of the Royal Mile which I can remember coming to when we came through to the Edinburgh Miners' Gala, in the days when it was the brass rubbing centre. Now the space is filled with Ariel Guzik's nautical drawings, collected material, whale sounds and his submersible. The mirror below it reflects the depth of the church tower. 

Ariel Guzak's Holoturian
At Gladstone's Land on the Royal Mile Hanna Tuulikki performs a vocal duet, SING SIGN:a close duet with Daniel Padden on film, and at other times live further down the hill. I am a fan of her work and loved the recent piece she created, "Away With The Birds" (a version of which is now online as an interactive website). The commissions from the Art Festival have taken Italo Calvino's book "Invisible Cities" as inspiration under the theme The Improbable City. This is captured nicely here by the performers, on a two-screen film installation singing a composition based on the strange topography of the medieval closes leading off of the Royal Mile. I was never sure if the seagulls and car engines I could hear in the background were outside this ancient room, in the street, or were part of the film, which all added to a sense of place.

Other exhibitions under the umbrella of the Art Festival include Phyllida Barlow's set at the Fruitmarket Gallery, a work on a disorientating scale. I was a bit disappointed by Here Comes Everybody, an exhibition by kennardphillips at the Stills Gallery which is less finely honed than some of their other work (google kennardphillips, if you don't know the name, you'll recognise their work).

More biting photographic work was on show in the foyer of the Scottish Parliament with the World Press Photo exhibition. This could really have come with some warnings about the graphic nature of some of the content, particularly photos from the Ukrainian conflict and the downed MH17 Malaysian aircraft. A sharp reminder of the powerful storytelling ability of good photojournalism.

A small part of Phyllida Barlow's set

Within the Scottish National Gallery I found the works of 18th century Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard a bit underwhelming. He is not an artist I had ever heard of but his hyper-realism style drew my attention from his wacky self-portrait used on the publicity for the exhibition. The exhibition, largely of court portraiture, doesn't seem to merit the £9 you are charged to view it.

More photography is on show at the Scottish National Gallery, £11 for "Bailey's Stardust" seemed a bit steep and if we had come as a family to these two exhibitions instead of me coming alone using someone else's free pass, this would have been a ludicrously expensive visit. This is a David Bailey retrospective with over 250 photos from over 50 years of work. His early work from 1960's East End London is the most engaging material, where the characters pictured do seem to sparkle. His later court portraiture of the great, the good and the fashionable of the swinging sixties I felt no connection to. Maybe you had to be there.

Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival


Musically my day started with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie and friends at the Queen's Hall.

I have seen Colin Currie play several times before, usually his interpretations of Steve Reich's work, and Reich's "Quartet for Two Vibraphones and Two Pianos" was one of the pieces performed here. Before that we had John Adams's Hallelujah Junction, played on two pianos and nicely echoing Reich's style it reveals the piano as the percussion instrument it is in this crisp performance. Both pieces fizzed with jazz-tinged energy. The second half opened with a warm, solo piece for marimba by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin and ended with Bartok's Sonata for Two Percussion and Piano feeling strangely muted in comparison. It was a great way to spend two hours, even if the highlight of my day was accosting Nobel prize-winning physicist Professor Peter Higgs at the interval. If anybody knows what "star struck" literally means, it is this unassuming man whose achievements I would rather see proclaimed in exhibitions on Princes Street than the images currently there. After texting my science-mad son that I had spotted him, he was dead keen that I get an autograph of one of his heroes. I am grateful to Professor Higgs for tolerating my interruption to his day in the charming manner he did. As my son continues to harbour ambitions to study physics himself this wee memento will mean a lot to him. 

My day finished off with a concert by celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang at the Usher Hall. Like many of his performances at the festival this year this concert was sold out. His traditionalist piano repertoire, playing Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin this evening, isn't the type of thing I'd normally come to see (as I said above, some of these tickets ended up with me when others weren't able to attend) however it was an entertaining evening, if not exactly the most dramatic performance I have ever seen. For two hours alone at the piano he had the audience eating out of his hand. He began with Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, twelve short pieces Tchaikovsky wrote for the amateur pianist evoking each of the twelve months. I got a bit lost through the year and struggled to get a feel of which seasons were passing. Bach's lively Italian Concertos received "whoops" and applause from the audience for an energetic performance. A Chinese journalist was asking me at the interval if I thought he brought an "Eastern" rather than "Western" interpretation to the music, but I could only offer that he brought a "Lang Lang" interpretation to it, not wanting to say that it was Harpo Marx I was thinking of at times as he pointed, gurned and emoted. The second half, consisting of Chopin Scherzos, was performed with skill and bravura, but didn't give me the warmth and enjoyment I'd felt from the performances earlier in the day. Also particular audience members whom I was sat near were insufferable.


In the afternoon my random Fringe choices brought me to Assembly Roxy to see an hour of Dylan Thomas: The Man, The Myth. Narrated by Thomas's grand-daughter Hannah Ellis and performed with Guy Masterton's mellifluous tones, we learned about Hannah trying to find out about the grandfather she never met, and whom I never really knew beyond the image of the drinker poet. What came out most strongly from this was the strength and character of his powerful wife, Caitlin Macnamara, and as I left I passed by Blackwell's bookshop and picked up a copy of some of Thomas's poems. Bizarrely, although I've read all of his prose fiction I've never really given his poetry a go. I also didn't realise how autobiographical many of his writings were until hearing this performance.

Echoes, a play by one-time Spitting Image writer, Henry Naylor, is performed at the Gilded Balloon by Felicty Houlebrooke and Filipa Braganca. They play two 17 year-old women from Ipswich who, separated by over 100 years, go to Afghanistan and Syria to marry and to do their perceived Christian/Muslim duty. The parallels become apparent once we learn that British women were needed to go and marry British soldiers, out in the east fighting for the Empire and trade. As their overlapping monologues unfold we see history repeating itself and gain some insight into the hopes, expectations and disillusionment of both women. It was a fascinating idea, well acted and well told.

Hearts 3-0 Partick Thistle. Tynecastle, 22nd August 2015

On Saturday I was back in Edinburgh with the hottest ticket in town. A sell out crowd filled Tynecastle to see Hearts play Partick Thistle in the SPFL match of the day. Sadly Thistle didn't turn up and Hearts had a straight-forwards 3-0 victory. After this I was in the mood for some uplifting theatre, but as we had tickets for Antigone, we settled for Greek tragedy instead.

I do like the ancient Greek plays, and always try to catch them whenever a version comes around. I have seen some really memorable adaptions of Sophocles and Euripides works, particularly I'm thinking of Theatre Babel's productions of Medea and Elektra. More recently I enjoyed a very traditional performance of Antigone by Strathclyde Theatre Group. My earliest exposure to Antigone was as assistant stage manager at the Knightswood Secondary School Drama Club when our teacher had us perform it for the school. A trifle ambitious I feel in retrospect.

The production at the Edinburgh Festival had already played at the Barbican Theatre in London and featured Juliette Binoche in the lead role. A new translation by Canadian writer Anne Carson and directed by Ivo van Hove, this was a mouthwatering prospect. The thing about Antigone is its ongoing relevance and the fact that it can be so open to interpretation. After the two brothers of Antigone on opposing sides of a civil war die in battle, King Creon decrees that one will be buried with honour, the body of the other left on the battlefield for the birds and wild dogs to eat. Antigone cannot countenance this and defies her uncle, the king, to bury her brother with the dignity she feels everyone deserves. From here we can decide whether obedience to our rulers must come first, trumping family, tradition, personal beliefs, or not. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" as George W. Bush put it. The programme notes suggest that the Ukranian conflict was an inspiration behind this production, the bodies from the shot down MH17 flight lying ungathered between the opposing forces. We could alternatively think about refugees with this play, or even the Greek economic crisis. Do we obey EU rules above all as Creon may, or act as responsible, feeling human beings as Antigone does? If any of these ideas were floating about, it was the case that they decided against exploring them in this production. Antigone does not seem to have a moral or solid reason for her actions as Juliette Binoche plays her like a rather stroppy teenager. The stripped down setting and modern dress drains a lot of the melodrama of the play, the ending feels underplayed, losing so much impact. The amplified voices of the cast sometimes make it hard to identify who has spoken. The phenomenal story at the heart of it all survives, despite some clunky modern phrases that don't fit well, but it all feels like a missed opportunity. It was good, but it didn't seem to say anything or speak to us.

This was all that I managed to squeeze in with my 2 days at the other end of the M8 motorway. There is another week to run and a thousand other things out there to see and do that I didn't get the chance to. Many of the exhibitions will run on for longer or tour to other places.  Book festivals, comedy, political theatre...aargh, too much choice.

Typical Edinburgh scene during festival.
A man plays a didgeridoo in Princes Street Gardens,
ignored by everybody including the seagulls

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