Edinburgh International Festival: Fire walk spectacle to herald return of star-studded cultural celebration

The Edinburgh International Festival will return in a blaze of glory this summer – with a free night-time fire walk heralding the launch of a star-studded cultural celebration.

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 10:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 6:01 pm

French arts collective Carabosse will transform the Royal Botanic Garden for a ticketed three-day spectacle on the festival’s opening weekend in August.

Night Light, which several thousand spectators will be able to experience over the opening three days of the festival, will be set to a live soundtrack of Scottish traditional music, which will also be celebrated throughout the festival.

More than 170 different shows and productions which will be staged at 10 indoor and outdoor locations across the city during the three-week festival which has been “bullet-proofed” to try to reduce the risk of shows falling victim to the tightening of Codid restrictions.

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Organisers hope their plans will “pave the way” for other organisations to bring back live events and “re-establish Edinburgh as a global celebration of culture.”

Star Wars and Harry Potter star Domhnall Gleeson, Blur frontman Damon Albarn, rising Scottish indie rock outfit The Snuts, former Scottish Album of the Year winner Kathryn Joseph, South African soprano Golda Schultz and spoken word star Hollie McNish will all appear.

Scottish Broadway and Hollywood star Alan Cumming, violinist Nicola Benedetti, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, and musician and composer Anna Meredith are among the festival favourites returning.

The National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Opera, the BBC SSO and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will feature in a programme including a celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, a German cabaret show, a show created by Edinburgh arts collective Neu! Reekie! and a spoken word collaboration with the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The festival, which was forced to go online last year, announced in April that it would use outdoor locations to ensure it stood the best possible chance of going ahead.

The vast majority of shows will be staged at three pop-up “pavilions” at a new culture quarter at Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh Academy Junior School’s playing fields and Edinburgh University’s Old College quadrangle.

However, against a backdrop of the vaccine roll-out and the recent easing of restrictions, the EIF also plans to return to several indoor venues, including the Festival, Traverse and Royal Lyceum theatres, and Dance Base. All performances are being planned to ensure they can go ahead with social distancing being enforced.

The temporary concert venue at Edinburgh Park will host Mercury Prize winners Black Midi, Black Country New Road, The Comet is Coming, Moses Boyd, Laura Mvula, Nadine Shah, Fatoumata Diawara, Sona Jobarteh, Tune-Yards, The Unthanks and Caribou, as well as Anna Meredith, Kathryn Joseph, The Snuts and Damon Albarn.

Jenna Reid and Su-a-Lee were at the Royal Botanic Garden to help launch this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

Scots and Gaelic singers Siobhan Miller, Nancy Nicolson, Josie Duncan and Arthur Cormack will star in a showcase of Scottish trad music at Old College, alongside the bands Rura, Talisk, Braebach, Kinnaris Quintet, Fara, Dàimh and and fiddlers Duncan Chisholm and Jenna Reid.

The Festival Theatre, the biggest indoor venue, will host the EIF’s biggest show, Scottish Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff. But Traverse audiences, which may be capped at just 50, will see Gleeson lead the cast of Medicine, a new play by fellow Irishman Enda Walsh exploring how society has treated people with mental health problems in modern times.

The theatre programme also includes the first live performances of Lament for Sheku Bayoh, Hannah Lavery’s play written in response to the death of the black father-of-two in police custody in Fife in 2015, which is now the subject of a public inquiry.

Benedetti will create three shows for a two-week “residency", while Cumming will stage the UK premiere of his new cabaret show.

Nicola Benedetti will spend two weeks in residence at the festival this summer. Picture: Simon Fowler

Fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke is creating a series of shows which will explore the sudden disappearance of tourists from Edinburgh’s Old Town last year and the area’s centuries-old Irish heritage, dance company Curious Seed will stage free outdoor performances in Holyrood Park and Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau will star in a concert commemorating the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott's birth.

A walking-tour experience, which will combine street art and an audio recording with a walk around the city will allow audiences to follow Sara Shaarawi’s “graphic-novel style revenge story” as a woman attempts to right the wrongs of male violence.

Festival director Fergus Linehan said: “We’ve been trying to build a bullet-proofed, un-cancellable festival with the three outdoor venues.

"But we realised if we had a very small number of indoor shows and were not allowed to do them we could move most of them outdoors, and it wouldn't feel like we’d lost the festival.

"We’re only doing a handful of indoor shows and the capacities are tiny. But we wanted to help get the wheels of indoor moving again and for them to be be almost test events for the venues.

“If I was to bet on what the beginning of August will look like I’d say the restrictions will be completely different and much reduced from what they are now. But it’s very a different question on when that might happen.

The Snuts are expected to be one of the most popular draws in the festival programme.

"We could be in a scenario in August where the restrictions are down to something negligible, or you could put a 50 per cent audience into the Usher Hall or the Festival Theatre by then.

"But things could also roll back. We could also get 48 hours notice and be told: ‘Everyone outside.’ Things really are on a knife-edge at the moment.

“There have been times when we thought we were being stupidly over cautious.

"But there is still a degree of caution out there. I don’t get a sense that people are hammering down the doors to get live entertainment opened up yet. But that might be the case in a while.

“We expect some events to be over-subscribed, but that’s always the case. We’ve had to guess what the demand will be like. But I think it’ll be pretty solid.”

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Alan Cumming will be bringing his new cabaret show to the Edinburgh International Festival this year. Picture: IWC/BBC Scotland
South African soprano Golda Schultz is expected to be one of the stars of the EIF's opera programme. Picture: Diego Acosta
Karine Polwart will be one of many Scottish musicians and singers appearing at this year's festival.
Award-winning British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula will be appearing as part of the contemporary music strand of the festival.
The Old College Quadrangle at Edinburgh University will be one of the Edinburgh International Festival's main outdoor venues in August.
Su-a Lee performs at the Royal Botanic Garden, which will host an opening weekend fire-walk event for the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Picture: Ryan Buchanan