Edinburgh International Festival - 1995

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Edinburgh International Festival - 1995


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


Acrobats performing somersaults in the streets, fire eaters staging dangerous stunts, actors reciting Shakespearan soliloquies in front of large crowds and the sound of bagpipes rising in the air and merging with the din of the traffic can only mean one thing -- the Edinburgh International Festival, the world's largest arts festival which this year boasted a budget of 4.95 million[pounds], is in full swing. The 1995 event, which marked the former Welsh National Opera's director, Brian McMaster's fourth year in the hot seat, attracted a truly diverse mix of music, dance and drama that drew record audiences.

The most eagerly awaited event was the return of the Abbey Theatre Dublin with their timely production of Frank McGuinness' award winning play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at the King's Theatre. The protagonists are eight men from Ulster who have enlisted to fight for Britain in World War I and are heading for the Somme. The play begins in the present time with Pyser (Clive Geraghty), the only survivor of the group, now an old man close to death and still urgently seeking the assurance that what his friends died for was a just and lasting cause -- a free, noble and Protestant Ulster. Trying to find final peace of mind, he seems to be pursued by the events of the war. His restless questions conjure up his dead friends and he is beckoned down the years to his first meeting with them. We return to the year 1916, the place an army training camp. Amidst bouts of antagonism, camaraderie and quasi-homosexual stirrings, the men -- young Pyser (Peter Gowen), David Craig (Conor McDermottroe), John Millen (Gerard Byrne), Patrick O'Kane (William Moore), Christopher Roulston (Sean Campion), Martin Crawford (David Parnell), George Anderson (Frank McCusker) and Nat McIllwaine (Lalor Roddy) -- quickly get to grips with the differences between them, while struggling to find common ground as a group, united in one cause.

At the start of Act II the men have come back from the Front to Northern Ireland for a period of leave, but are shortly to return to the battlefield. They have formed natural pairs and each duo is engaged in its own personal battle, intensified in the light of probable death back in France. We then see the men back on the Somme. Against the backdrop of a war more horrific than any of them could have imagined, they join in the final battle to gain that crucial dual allegiance not only to Britain, but also to Ulster. The drama builds with the despair of the men as they learn with grim clarity that salvation is never a reality in war: they can't save the Empire, they can't save England, they can't save Ireland, they can't save Protestant Ulster because they can't save each other. The cause hasn't betrayed them, war is the betrayer.

Frank McGuinness brings a powerful poet's voice to bear on the reality of war, and this is strongly conveyed in Patrick Mason's fine production. Indeed The Sons of Ulster has an objectivity of pain that is not often matched. The excellent ensemble playing of the Abbey Theatre breathes energy and life into these characters. This evocative and moving play--staged to mark the historic ceasefire declared in Northern Ireland at the end of 1994--emerges as both a lament for lost youth and a universal hymn to camaraderie and sacrifice.

Another keenly anticipated event was the return of the Miami City Ballet under the artistic direction of Edward Villela with their grandiose, million dollar production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker to Tchaikovsky's glorious musical score and based on the original choreography, the first time this choreography has been on stage in the UK. The production begins unpromisingly with a lack of unison among the young dancers in the Christmas Eve scene at the Stahlbaum home, and a rather plodding pace. But once Marie's dream materialises, the lights flicker, the Christmas tree trembles and starts to grow and the mice and life-sized soldiers enter and the young girl runs to protect her Nutcracker, the ballet really comes alive.

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