The 1999 Edinburgh International Festival

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview
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The 1999 Edinburgh International Festival


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


Actors with painted faces recite Shakespearean soliloquies in the streets, acrobats perform somersaults in front of astonished passersby, mime artists stand motionless and then start moving like mechanical toys and the traditional sound of bagpipes fills the air and merges with the noise of traffic and pedestrians. This can only mean one thing - the world's biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, is again in full swing. Nowhere else is a festival so all-pervading that it seems to take over the whole life of the city. The 1999 programme was as eclectic as ever, featuring choreographers Boris Charmatz, Meg Stuart and the little known Mats Ek, composers Gyorgy Kurtag and Heiner Goebbels, new plays by David Greig, Luisa Cunille, Tom Murphy and Marius von Mayenburg, pipes and string quartets, the Vienna Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony, amid a world class roster of musicians and soloists.

The chaos and turbulence of everyday life where individuals attempt to communicate with each other but fail is expressed through music, movement, words and dance in American choreographer William Forsythe's full evening ballet Artifact, performed by the Dutch National Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. This is a massive work, danced to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Eva Crossman-Hecht and staged on a grand scale with the company split into long lines of animated bodies, moving legs, arms and feet in total unison and forming complex jigsaw puzzles that fit together in a totally unexpected way. Configurations of familiar dance positions are altered and conventional transitions between steps are strangely emphasised, while a woman in historical costume links the disparate sections. Although I found the work rather repetitive, there is no denying Forsythe's inventiveness, his eye for the surreal - hands rising from a trap-door on the stage - and the athleticism and discipline of the dancers in the exacting duets and set pieces.

The possibility of grace, freedom and personal redemption is explored in Tom Murphy's The Wake, which the Abbey Theatre, Dublin brought to the King's Theatre. Vera (Jane Brennan) returns to her native Ireland from a harsh life in New York, following her grandmother's death. It is a difficult and emotional homecoming as where there is death there is usually family - and she has been lured back by the advertised auction of the hotel left to her. It is another property-grabbing strategy by her ruthless siblings: the brittle potentate Mary-Jane (a frighteningly cold Olwen Fouere), the hypocritical, God-fearing Tom (Phelim Drew) and the weak, manipulable, hate-filled Marcia (Anna Healy). Ever misused by the family, Vera is now a high-class prostitute who has fallen into a life of demeaning lewdness. Coming back into the benighted town, she moves in with an old teenage sweetheart, Finbar (David Herlihy), a social outcast. Having inherited the hotel, once the family home, Vera seems to hold the trump cards, but the pincer movement of the family's small town clout closes in. Murphy's dissection of small-town alienation and poverty is effective but this is a bitter play without any redeeming warmth or understanding and is considerably weakened by the over frequent use of expletives. Consequently, despite a fine cast, the play lacks involvement.

A little known Spanish drama - The Meeting by Luisa Cunille - was for some inexplicable reason selected for the official festival's first week drama programme (Royal Lyceum Theatre). Drama is in fact a misnomer to describe what is really a series of rather pointless encounters - a businessman on a journey crosses paths and shares his life with the lives of strangers: an old man is convinced there is buried treasure in the city park, a watchmaker talks to him about time, and a young man and traveller stir his discontent about life. Cunille's play, performed in English, conveys a mood of isolation verging on despair but seems unfocused.

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