If there are two qualities outgoing International Festival director Sir Jonathan Mills does not lack they are confidence and ambition.
Dapper and looking far younger than his 51 years, he oozes self-belief and while he surely will have moments of self-doubt it’s not readily on display. In fact not so long ago he went on the record as saying he’d never had a failure, and speaking this week from Festival HQ at The Hub, he said that everything he’s attempted in eight years at the helm has at the very least matched his expectations.
The International Festival is not just the most important show in town; together with the Fringe and other Festivals it forms the most important cultural event in the UK. With the number of annual world premieres it is arguably the most significant globally, so it takes someone with exceptional vision and determination to steer it through what can be very choppy waters.
He has been criticised for not being inclusive enough, for not being Scottish enough, and on one famous occasion for not being sensitive enough. But he has never been accused of being anonymous or irrelevant and calling him a culture vulture is like saying a great white shark is a fish.
He is not one to dismiss the role of critics, be they of individual works or his Festival programmes, but challenges them instead “to see productions in the context of the intentions of the creators”.
It seems like a coded message; if you don’t really understand what he’s trying to do then you won’t be able to criticise him fairly. That presumes his aims are understood and communicated effectively but also that those aims are accepted by those who might criticise in the first place.
Although there have been questions about some of his choices, his high visibility and availability means few argue he fails to get his message across.
Perhaps the biggest question mark, and that charge of insensitivity, came in 2009 when he selected a work originally written to celebrate the Duke of Cumberland’s victory at Culloden, Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, for the opening concert. For a festival themed on Enlightenment in the year of Homecoming, some felt a piece created to laud the crushing of Highland rebellion was a slap in the face.
He was never going to accept he was making a judgement about one of the most decisive events in Scottish history and dismissed the attacks, but at the very least his choice recognised what was undeniably a pivotal moment in the emergence of modern Scotland.
In 2009 he couldn’t have known just how important a sense of Scottishness was to become politically and neither did he know when plans for this year’s Festival were first being laid three years ago that it would close only a fortnight before what could be Scotland’s most decisive day since 1746.
He’s certainly not about to divulge which way he’ll be voting on September 18, ruling out answering that question before he’s even been asked, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his cross goes in the Yes box. Maybe it’s his Australian upbringing, but what is beyond doubt is he is an avowed Federalist.
“The current Scottish Government has been a breath of fresh air because they have enormous ambition for Scotland,” he says, while refusing to criticise its Labour/Lib Dem predecessor.
“My concern is that too often the concentration is on Londonshire – and I mean Londonshire, not just London – and the burghers of Londonshire do not understand the challenges facing other parts of England, never mind Scotland.
“Regional ambition is the key to the future. The needs of communities the length and breadth of the country must be addressed and the current Scottish Government understands that. They are very ambitious internationally and that’s something needed all over the UK.”
He also challenges Edinburgh to match that sense of desire and it’s clear he feels the city has sat on its laurels for too long and it’s time the success of August is spread throughout the year.
“There is a very attractive modesty to this city and a lack of pretention, but it could achieve much more in its civic realm than it is doing,” he says.
“The Festival is very successful, Edinburgh has a successful academic environment and it welcomes the world – it welcomes more artists every August than athletes came to the Commonwealth Games – and so there is a challenge of ambition to build on that.”
He cites building on the success of the Festival season as his reason for creating the Edinburgh International Culture Summit, the second of which took place in the Scottish Parliament a fortnight ago and was attended by 30 culture ministers from around the world.
Perhaps showing a certain lack of modesty he’d like to see reflected in the City Chambers, he explains: “The Culture Summit provided greater formal and informal discourse and 30 culture minsters coming to the Scottish Parliament can speak for this.”
The aim is for more people of influence to come here and return home with a positive message which can be turned to our advantage. It’s not just cultural advancement he seeks, but social and economic as well.
“An international city should be about encouraging incoming investment and a sustainable society and I feel there is a lack of understanding that we are lucky to have such a place in the world,” he adds.
By most measurements, his swansong of a Festival built around the centenary of the outbreak of World War One is likely to see him depart on a high. Already many of the big premieres have been critically acclaimed and with 13,000 tickets sold for the first weekend alone a bumper year is expected when the final numbers are published this Sunday.
Apart from a few predictable curmudgeons, the packed-out James plays from the National Theatre of Scotland have been widely praised and so too have the more cutting edge productions of Front by the Thalia Theatre of Flanders and The War from Russia’s Checkov International Theatre Festival.
Sir Jonathan is quick to defend what some have seen as the overly populist approach of Rona Munro’s Scottish histories, saying: “Front and The War were trying to do different things. But the James plays assisted in understanding the influences that have shaped this place and its people. They are empowering but do not dictate.”
On the combination of this year’s theme of war and conflict and the referendum, he is equally quick to head off any suggestion that current politics have influenced this year’s direction.
“The First World War was the starting point, but it’s really about exploring individual history, awareness, identity and empowerment. I don’t believe I am in the business of seeking a mandate and there needs to be a clear distinction between political mandate and creating a narrative.
“And I’m very sceptical of those wanting to draw too direct and immediate a connection with the art and a particular moment.”
Achieving his expectations is no mean feat when it is not unusual for him only to have seen a script for the big premieres he has commissioned. And pride of place goes to the trio of monumental shows at Ingliston in 2012, which were a critical and logistical success.
Although his time in charge of the Festivals is now drawing to a close, Edinburgh will remain Sir Jonathan’s home for the next three years at least while he returns to his first love of composing and writes an opera. It is likely he’ll stay involved in the development of the Culture Summit too.
Tough act to follow? Certainly. But he’s left a very solid platform on which his successor Fergus Linehan and all those around him with an interest in developing Edinburgh as an international cultural hub can build.
1963: Born in Sydney, Son of eminent surgeon Frank Harland Mills and poet Dorothy Porter.
1984: Graduates with Bachelor of Music degree from Sydney University.
1992-97: Composer in Residence, RMIT University (Melbourne).
1995-97: Inaugural artistic adviser to the Brisbane Biennale international music.
1998-2003: Professor, RMIT and artistic director for music festivals in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
1999: Graduates as Master of Architecture, specialising in acoustic design.
2006: Appointed Edinburgh International Festival director.
2011: Appointed Officer of the Order of Australia.
2013: Knighted for services to the arts. Enters civil partnership with Ben Divall.
2014: Stands down from EIF to start work on new opera based on the Australian novel Eucalyptus.
MY TOP FIVE FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
• The Festival Chorus: The performances at the Opening Concert, War Requiem and the Kaddish Symphony have been electric. Who says they are amateurs?
• The James Plays: Accessible, brilliantly staged and packed out, the three plays put little-known Scottish history in context. Gordon Kennedy shows as much stamina as Chris Hoy... must be the Watson’s education.
• Ganesh v the Third Reich: At times hilarious, at others deeply uncomfortable, but a hugely thought-provoking production performed by actors with learning difficulties.
• Front and The War: Challenging productions which do not seek mass popularity but which should prove very influential.
• The Kaddish Symphony: The brilliance of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, together with the power of the Festival Chorus and the heart-rending narration of Auschwitz survivor Samuel Pisar was as emotional as it gets.