Critics' Choice: Edinburgh International Festival 2017 highlights
The Scotsman's team of critics share their top picks from the 2017 EIF programme.
For its 70th anniversary programme, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) adopts a proudly European theme.
For fans of theatre, though, the bad news is that if they want to see any drama that actually uses the language of any other European nation - or any language at all, apart from English - then they are going to have to turn to the opera programme, or to the language of dance.
Despite that obvious gap, though, there’s a plenty to celebrate in this year’s theatre programme, including a massive vote of confidence from festival director Fergus Linehan in Scottish theatre, represented in four out of nine festival shows.
The festival mounts a major exploration of the work of the war-haunted Scottish writer Zinnie Harris, reviving her wonderful rewriting of the Oresteia from a female perspective, This Restless House, directed to great acclaim by Dominic Hill at the Citizens’ Theatre last year.
She also writes a new English version of Ionesco’s mighty political satire Rhinoceros to be co-produced by the Lyceum with DOT Theatre of Istanbul, and a new festival play for the Traverse Theatre, Meet Me At Dawn.
And there will be a new show about the refugee crisis from the brilliantly visual Glasgow-based company Vox Motus, of Dragon fame.
Edinburgh will also see the world premiere of The Divide, a new dystopian double-bill by the great Alan Ayckbourn set 100 years in the future, and produced by the Old Vic.
There will be shows from Australia and Ireland, and evenings of reflection at the Festival Theatre studio with the artist Martin Creed, and the legendary English experimental company Forced Entertainment.
Yet although there’s no doubt about the quality of this year’s programme, we also have to keep feeling the cultural width. Nor should we be tempted into using our great international festival to plug funding gaps in Scottish theatre, when responsibility for those so clearly lies elsewhere.
CLASSICAL & OPERA
It would have been unthinkable for the 70th Edinburgh International Festival not to celebrate opera in a big way.
It was the flagship of the earliest festivals, but has flagged recently due to costs. So three cheers to Fergus Lineman for boosting its presence this major year.
Is it representative? Yes. Either side of Teatro Regio Torino’s big Italian-genre productions of Macbeth (the Verdi opera that featured in the 1947 festival) and Puccini’s La bohème are a trilogy of Monteverdi operas in concert from John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir, celebrating the composer’s 450th anniversary year; and from more modern times, Britten’s “Peter Grimes in concert from the Bergen Philharmonic, and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s gutsy street opera Greek from Scottish Opera, first performed at the EIF in 1988.
Filling the obvious genre gaps, another quirky Mozart “reimagining” by Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra in Don Giovanni; and token Wagner, an unstaged Die Walküre, with the magisterial Bryn Terfyl as Wotan.
The orchestral programme seems conspicuously conservative, with barely anything contemporary, and the emphasis on safety: Verdi’s Requiem, resident artist Joshua Bell in Bruch, Nicola Benedetti in Brahms, Haydn and Mendelssohn as an opener, Bliss and Vaughan Williams to close with.
There are nostalgic reasons, of course, but plenty good artists and a few surprises on the bill, such as the combined RSNO and Mariisnky Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, to pep it up.
A series marking the reopening of the historical St Cecilia’s Hall, and the regular Queen’s Hall concerts have solid appeal.
This year’s dance programme is an interesting mix of familiar faces and new discoveries.
Both Nederlands Dans Theater and Rosas have played the Edinburgh International Festival before, but María Pagés Company, Aracaladanza and Boy Blue Entertainment are first-timers – and indicative of the festival’s broad-minded new direction.
Ten years ago, it was inconceivable that a hip hop dance company would be offered a slot in the coveted programme.
So it’s testament to the remarkable journey the genre has undergone in recent years that Boy Blue Entertainment is playing such a platform.
Last seen in Edinburgh with Pied Piper, their new show Blak, Whyte and Gray tackles slavery and colonisation and proves, at long last, that the ‘establishment’ has recognised the skill and artistry of hip hop.
Last year the festival opened its arms to younger dance audiences, with the fantastic Chotto Desh and Raw – and it’s great to see that strand continue with Vuelos.
Madrid-based company Aracaladanza use digital animation and life-size puppets to explore Leonardo da Vinci’s fascination with flight, making dance accessible and exciting for all ages.
The rest of the programme comprises the kind of solid, dependable dance that audiences know and love. No big ballets, which some will lament, but a triple-bill
from Nederlands Dans Theater, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rain (continuing her dynamic relationship with the music of Steve Reich – last seen at the festival in
2008’s Drumming), and flamenco dancer María Pagés’ dramatic Yo, Carmen are all exciting prospects.
With all the manifold riches of the opera, theatre and classical strands of the 70th anniversary programme, something had to give and it’s the new kid on the block – contemporary music – which has been slightly scaled back on this occasion.
However, the quality of what is on offer to rock, pop, folk and world music fans is not in dispute.
PJ Harvey brings her imperious, innately theatrical Hope Six Demolition Project show, inspired by her field trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC, to the Playhouse, droll troubadour Stephin Merritt, in his Magnetic Fields guise, presents his 50 Song Memoir over two nights at the King’s, and the same venue will host Room 29, a song cycle celebrating the Sunset Strip’s iniquitous Chateau Marmont, written and performed by Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker and piano maestro Chilly Gonzales.
There will also be a tribute to influential Edinburgh folkies the Incredible String Band, a concert by idiosyncratic Mercury Music Prize winner Benjamin Clementine and a collaboration between Makar Jackie Kay, composer Sally Beamish, reggae artist Ghetto Priest and the Scottish Ensemble around Burns-themed exhibitions by Graham Fagen and Douglas Gordon.
Sitar superstar Anoushka Shankar appears as part of the Spirit of 47 season, marking 70 years since the Partition of India, the full programme of which will be announced in May, to supplement this judiciously curated but already hugely popular part of the festival.