Edinburgh International Festival

By Green, Laurence | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Edinburgh International Festival


Green, Laurence, Contemporary Review


THE appearance of street musicians, jugglers, and comedians, dressed in colourful costumes, the sound of bagpipes blending with the noise of traffic and human voices, can only mean one thing--it is time for the Edinburgh International Festival once again. This annual event, the largest arts festival in the world, remarkably manages to go from strength to strength, despite the recession. This year marked the first under the directorship of Brian McMaster, whose background with the Welsh National Opera pointed to a shake-up in the opera and music sections and these proved to be the strongest in the festival. McMaster produced a tantalising programme of goodies--from the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra performing Weber, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich to Schoenberg's epic opera oratorio Moses and Aaron. One of the main themes running through the 1992 festival was a celebration of the work of Tchaikovsky and this managed to tap a rich vein in exploring some of his less known works such as the Cantata Moscow and his opera The Oprichnik, a melodrama of love and conspiracy in which the crucial role is played by the Oprichniks, the notorious bodyguard of Ivan the Terrible.

Among the main international visitors the National Theatre of Bucharest, Romania, brought their four-hour production of An Ancient Trilogy: Medea, The Trojan Women and Elektra but this was generally considered a disappointment, lacking the naturalism, power and restraint so vital to these works. More successful was Els Joglars from Spain with Yo Tengo Un Tio En America (I Have an Uncle in America), a celebration of Spanish culture and a satirical look at its history and traditions. In a kaleidoscope of images of Spain through the ages to the present day the play reflects its humour and life spirit, whilst acutely observing and mocking its faults. Flamenco, drums and music help keep the action moving at a vibrant pace. But the main drama offering at the festival provided a reassessment of the work of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw and often described as the most unjustly neglected playwright of the 20th century.

A wry look at monarchy is provided in Harley Granville Barker's His Majesty (directed by Sam Walters) which, although published in 1928, has never before been staged. Following bloody revolution and war, resulting in the |carve up' of their country, the king and queen of Carpathia are in exile in Switzerland. Urged by the queen, the king decides he must return to try and prevent further civil war. Once there he meets with Dr. Madrassy, an opportunist and slippery politician and the present head of the Carpathian government, who also wants to avoid civil war. However, unknown to the king, Cernyak, his firebrand supporter, is personally leading a party to capture Madrassy. Madrassy escapes, but the king's position is now much more difficult -- should he side with Cernyak or leave Carpathia to its fate? The king's forces and the government sign an armistice. It is, however, almost immediately broken by elements of both sides. Disgusted, the king offers to abdicate but can find no one to accept. Meanwhile, without the king's knowledge, the queen attempts to influence events by bribery. Despite the topicality of the subject matter--anarchy in Europe and royalty in crisis--this verbose drama lacks punch and a sense of urgency. On one level it is an intricate study of political and moral realities adrift from individual ideals, on another it is about public morality and private ethics. The play manages to build up a certain level of interest and involvement after a dull start but I can't help thinking the characters exist merely as cyphers for Barker's pessimistic, post-World War I views on democracy and monarchy. I was glad, though, to have had the opportunity to see this 64-year-old premiere.

The idea of women as sexual objects or targets for capitalism is explored in Barker's witty and worldly comedy The Madras House, which was first performed in 1910. …

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