31 August, 2009

Festival Staff Profile - Jenny Rutherford

We spoke to Jenny Rutherford, Head of Marketing & Business Development for The Hub, the home of the Edinburgh International Festival.

What is your background – how did you come to work for The Hub?
I ran a small venue in Edinburgh for 4 years before coming to The Hub. Previous to that roles including Cast member in Disneyland, Kids rep. on a campsite in France and waitress in an American Country Club taught me a lot about both running events and customer service!

What is your job title and what does your position involve?
Head of Marketing & Business Development. Promoting The Hub to the right people and ensuring that we’re meeting their needs and keeping up to date with the fast paced events industry.

What is the best part of your job?
The variety and the fact that hospitality is a fun business.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Trying to please everyone – customers and colleagues!

What has been your most memorable experience in your job so far?
The Parliament sitting at The Hub in 2006

Which event/s are you most looking forward to at Festival 09? Why?
Petrushka, I love Ballet!

What are your words of advice to those at the Festival this August?
Keep breathing!

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in 3 words?
Stylish, Huge, Breathtaking

Festival Blogger review - Michael Clark Company: New work

Dancer: Simon Williams, Photo: Jake Walters

With the prestige of Clark’s choreography, his Scottish roots and his position as a driving force on the boundaries of contemporary dance, there were high expectations surrounding Michael Clark Company's performance at the Playhouse. I’d seen various pictures on websites and leaflets, of a male in skin-tight shiny silver leggings with a microphone trailing from his mouth, and it was difficult to miss the explosion of signs around the Playhouse interior reading “Warning: partial nudity and loud music”. Also surprising was the 1970s music filtering through the theatre before the curtain had even risen.

But once the performance started, with dancers moving mechanically across the stage in decidedly Star-Trek-style costume to the eerie electric soundtrack, the evidence of Michael Clark’s distinctive talent is irrefutable. Otherworldly and intriguing, dancers seem to move as one large organ, reflecting and coexisting together perfectly within the dark confinements of the stage, beams of light moving slowly along the backdrop. Bodies create beautiful and radical geometry which occasionally appears trance-like. However amongst the modernity of Clark’s choreography and ideas are classical steps gesturing at his background in Ballet (despite the overall performance having quite opposite direction to any form of classical dance). The inclusion of these classical positions and their clever contortion and unconventional twists brings an air of style and technicality to the visions onstage. Sadly this first act, edged with sci-fi and electricity and however mesmerising, does grow tedious – perhaps due to the more vibrant and shocking innovation that the advertising of the show suggests.

It is the second act that provides the true exhilaration and excitement that the audience was waiting for. Instantly, the show merges to one of bright colour and music such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground and a definite comic presence adds to the enjoyment. Against a bright, blank colour background, the audience is absorbed by the vision of dancers in lively but simple costume walking inexplicably on and off stage, running in circles, stopping and returning the way they came. The erratic but synchronised dance is shaped by fluid, beautifully formed solos, one of which featuring a woman covered in syringes moving to the sounds of “Heroin” by Velvet Underground.

Tthe tribute to David Bowie is inexplicably moving, as dancers move collectively to the backdrop of the music video of “Heroes”. Also Michael Clark himself onstage in a strangely and contrastingly casual outfit, dances against a backdrop of three nude dancers facing away from the audience and comically “hip-bumping” to the music.

Michael Clark Company seems to destroy boundaries between genre, instead combining colour, ballet, modernism, punk-rock, and talent both in dancer and choreographer to provide true visual entertainment. Ironically, it is apparently a little less daring than past works; perhaps for the better, because in this performance it’s the sheer rebellious energy that ensures the audience’s delight.

Reviewer: Kyna Bowers

29 August, 2009

Artist interview - Giorgio Battistelli, Director of Experimentum Mundi

Image: Giorgio Battistelli. Photo: Roberto Masottix

Giorgio Battistelli is the director of Experimentum Mundi, playing from 2-5 September at the Traverse Theatre. Tickets are still available from eif.co.uk/mundi.

Can you tell us about your direction as a composer?
Each composer has his or her own history and composition style. When I’m working on a Libretto I am always aiming for it to have the force to touch the collective imagination.

What inspired you to create Experimentum Mundi?
The first inspiration was composition style. When artisans are working they create an asymmetric rhythm, which I write into the score using the sounds and actions of their work. This accentuates the avant-garde style I have created. The second inspiration was the human dimension – by putting a community of artisans on stage, I hope to present the concept of saving them from modern negligence.

Experimentum Mundi has been performed in many countries. Do you find differences in the way audiences respond to your work in different countries and if so, what are these differences?
I don’t find there are many differences in audiences, from an aboriginal audience in Australia, to China and to Paris, the reaction is very similar. Though I think the cultural instruments will permit different understandings.

Have you attended the Edinburgh International Festival in the past?
It is my first at Edinburgh Festival, my first concert in Scotland. It is very exciting for me to have this opportunity and I am looking forward to it greatly.

Why do you think people should come to Experimentum Mundi at the Edinburgh International Festival?
I think that they will experience not a simulation of reality but a piece of the reality of the human culture that they themselves can relate to. The realities of life can sometimes touch us most deeply.

Festival Blogger review - Admeto, re di Tessaglia

Image: Admeto, re di Tessaglia. Photo: Theodoro da Silva.

Doris Dörrie’s production of Admeto, re di Tessaglia takes Handel’s opera based on the Greek myth of Alceste and her love for her husband Admeto, King of Thessaly, and transplants it into Samurai Japan. Essentially a comedy, involving deception, disguise and a complicated love triangle, the cast of this impressive performance manage to convey, as well as humour, intense and dark feelings of horror, love and jealousy.

One of the most striking aspects of the performance was the set – simple, stark screens, shifting the depth of the stage for changing settings. These were lit in varying colours to signify the emotion of the scene, intensified by a variety of light effects – for example the vast flickering orange shadows of Hades, or when both Admeto and Alceste sing their most anguished arias, a deep dark stage lit by a column of chilling blue light. There came a shock, however, in the third act; here the sharp, stylised set was discarded in favour of a luxuriously painted baroque palace and gardens – this marked a change in tone, with comedy heavily emphasised, eventually descending into bizarre slapstick.

The ten Butoh dancers added to the mood – near naked and painted ghostly white, their distinctive, sometimes grotesque but always pure movement was particularly effective in their role as the Furies, tormentors of the sick Admeto in the opening scene and captors of Alceste in Hell. They also provided a comic element, as frolicking deer in the forest and a nonchalant flock of sheep. Tadashi Endo, the solo dancer, represents Alceste’s changed spirit after her return from the underworld –like a shadow, he is always beside her, until she is finally reunited with her husband and jealousy is no longer present in her heart. Dressed like something from a horror film and moving in deathlike spasms, the dancer’s constant presence was disturbing and ominous.

These vivid images were accompanied by the superb FestspielOrchester Göttingen, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, who engaged with the audience as well as the orchestra. With a brilliant cast of soloists and some strange and fantastic costumes, this bold interpretation of baroque opera left the audience stunned and exhilarated.

Reviewer: Joanna Ramasawmy

28 August, 2009

Ticket giveaway - Gate | Friel at Festival 09

Image: Afterplay cast - Frances Barber and Niall Buggy

To thankyou for being a part of our Festival 09 online community, we’re giving away up to 50 tickets to each of the following Gate Theatre preview performances:

1. The Yalta Game preview - Saturday 29 August, 6.00pm at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
“Remarkable… takes us to the heart of Chekhov” - The Guardian
For info on the play click here.

2. Afterplay preview - Monday 31 August, 5.00pm at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
“A beautiful and poetic examination of truth and reality” - The Australian Stage
For info on the play click here.

Brian Friel is Ireland’s greatest living playwright, using a poetic and often surreal style that is both wise and earthy. Dublin's Gate Theatre has established a unique relationship with Friel and offers a peerless tribute to his work for Festival 09.

To enter the ballot to win a pair of tickets, all you need to do is email digital.marketing@eif.co.uk with your name, the performance you are interested in attending and the subject header “Gate Theatre giveaway”. Entries close today (Friday) at 5.00pm and winners will be notified with details of ticket collection via email on Friday evening.

27 August, 2009

Festival Staff profile - Jo Michel

We caught up with Jo Michel, Ticket Services Manager for Hub Tickets.

What is your job title and what does your position involve?
My job title is Ticket Services Manager - Hub Tickets. Hub Tickets is a subsidiary company within the Edinburgh Festival Centre and it is responsible for managing ticket sales for the Edinburgh International Festival, The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, The Edinburgh Mela Festival, The Festival of Politics, The Festival of Spirituality and Peace, East Neuk Festival and many other events year round. We have a full time team of 5 which expands during the summer months to 30 staff.

How did you come to work for the Edinburgh International Festival?
Originally from Sydney, Australia and have worked in the Ticketing Industry for the past 20 years. Just prior to coming to Edinburgh I worked at Sydney Theatre Company under the direction of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. My previous work on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe gave me a love of the city and when I saw the job advertised I just had to apply. I was very lucky to get it and have the opportunity to work in Edinburgh again.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of the job is the diversity, I get to deal with the organizers of many and varied events during the year and each one is different. Even within the Edinburgh International Festival my role has many diverse parts to it. I look after the ticketing needs for each department, Sponsorship, Programme Development, Artist Liaison, Marketing and Technical which mean I also have to understand what their individual requirements are and also the needs of their clients.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Prioritising during the festival period. Dealing with so many departments and festivals during the summer means that everyone wants your attention and it is always urgent. IT is really important to stay calm and deal with things as efficiently and swiftly as you can so everyone is happy.

What has been your most memorable Festival experience so far?
2008 was my first festival and my favourite events last year were Chunky Move’s - Mortal Engine and Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray. Both were visually stunning and exciting nights in the theatre.

Which Festival 09 events have you been most looking forward to and why?
This year I am really looking forward to Optimism by Malthouse Theatre, partly because I know the writer and cast so can’t wait to see them. Other than this The Last Witch looks fascinating as does Faust. I also want to see the Friel series – can you tell I love theatre!

What are your words of advice to those at Festival 09?

Stay Calm – I like to think that it will all get done when it needs to if you manage to keep positive and not panic.

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in 3 words?
Unique, Intriguing and Surprising.

Festival Blogger review - The Return of Ulysses (Royal Ballet of Flanders)

Image: The Return of Ulysses. Photo: Photo: Johan Persson.

German choreographer Christian Spuck presents a heady take on The Return of Ulysses, an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. The production blends ancient myth with modern times to tell the story of long suffering Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, whose husband Ulysses left home over 20 years ago to fight the Trojan War. It delves into Penelope’s life in his absence to discover whether her love for him is strong enough to stand the test of time.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders returns to the Edinburgh International Festival, with Eva Dewaele cast as the tormented Penelope. The musical choices are one of the most interesting aspects of the show, the cast dances to an eclectic combination of Purcell, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and 40s and 50s songs, including Perry Como and Doris Day. Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas also sings live on stage throughout the performance. In keeping with the music, the dancers vary between classical ballet and contemporary dance moves, some of which are so unusual they have the audience laughing.

The show opens with seven dancers dressed in black suits dancing in near darkness. The lights come up to reveal a simple set, with blackboard style walls, one adorned with tallies and a table with an old-fashioned tape recorder. We see a dejected Penelope wearing a crown, waiting for her husband to return.

Penelope has a bunch or roses, a recurring feature, which she gives out throughout the performance seeming to represent the hope of her husband coming back disappearing bit by bit. During the years of his absence the seven power-mad suitors we saw at the beginning, don’t care for Penelope but arrogantly attempt to court the assumed widow in order to inherit the kingdom. However, she only has eyes for Ulysses and continuously turns them down.

A model ship is seen at points throughout, representing Ulysses travels. The goddess Athena is personified as a platinum blonde air hostess in a gold suit with a megaphone, giving announcements about not smoking and demonstrating safety procedures, sometimes accompanied by the rest of the dancers. She appears on stage regularly as if to remind Penelope and Ulysses that she is in charge of their destiny. At points the stage fills with dancers in more colourful outfits, the gemstone shades of purple, blue and green have a regal feel. There are also appearances from Poseidon wearing flippers, goggles and a giant tutu, much to the audience’s amusement. In an attempt to escape the suitors’ demands that Penelope choose one of them as a new husband, she creates a plan to buy her time by making her bridal dress each day and then undoing the work by night, her days become monotonous, depicted in her dancing.

When we see Ulysses he is usually dancing with Athena, who keeps him from his wife. She decides to allow him to go back on the condition that he goes in disguise, to confront Penelope’s suitors. Penelope does not recognize him and he dances back and forth between her and Athena. The suitors steal Penelope back and challenge the still disguised Ulysses to a fight.

Penelope’s dancing becomes less and less graceful throughout, the music becomes violent as she is passed roughly around the suitors. Even with all the attention she continues her dedication to Ulysses. At one point the entire cast is dancing around her with various props and different sequences, yet she stands motionless, yearning for her husband.

Despite her plan, finally Penelope’s dress is completed and the suitors are still adamant that she must marry one of them. She suggests they fight for her love and the disguised Ulysses takes part, killing all the others. Penelope still doesn’t recognize him and continues to grieve, dancing alone in front of a black wall which has been moved to the front of the stage. The singing of Elin Manahan Thomas creates a truly melancholy scene.

Finally the gods allow Ulysses to visit Penelope without his disguise, she is convinced, they are finally reunited and the play concludes as they dance alone to a French version of 'Beyond the sea'.

This take on The Return of Ulysses balanced traditional ballet with the absurdity of modern day life beautifully. The combination of classical ballet with dancers in sharp, modern suits, unusual music choices and the appearances of a Greek god and goddess in entirely unconventional form made this production a compelling and memorable experience.

Reviewer: Sarah Jackson

26 August, 2009

Interview with Liza Lorwin from Peter and Wendy

Image: Peter and Wendy. Photo: Scott Suchman

We spoke to Liza Lorwin, producer and adapter of Mabou Mines' Peter and Wendy, playing from 2-5 September at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

What was the path that led you into puppet theatre and what were your first experiences in the industry?

There were so many paths, and when I look back at them they seem to wind a lot, but they do all land somewhere in the vicinity of puppets.

I should begin with the most direct - my first experience working with puppetry, which was an extraordinary gift. In the mid 80’s, I produced Lee Breuer’s The Warrior Ant (which Julie Archer designed lighting for). Lee invited Yoshida Tamamatsu, a master puppeteer from the National Puppet Theater of Japan, to develop a bunraku segment. He came to New York, bringing colleagues and puppets – a princess and a little boy, both exquisitely carved and painted, in silk kimonos and with human hair wigs – we couldn’t believe they weren’t in a museum. We hired translators, and took crash cultural lessons and all of us smiled and bowed and exchanged gifts and in general lived in a state of almost childish excitement – which turned out to be very productive. Tamamatsu was surprisingly open-minded about mingling ancient technique and new contexts – he performed to samba music, and let the little boy, with ant antennae tied to his head, ride on the back of an oversized worm-puppet, carved, like a Muppet, from foam. He seemed to enjoy himself. I was awestruck by his performance. We all were. We had a close-up vision of puppetry at its most riveting, and tucked away in our minds was a wish to work more with some version of that – to see it again.

Still, I think of Peter and Wendy as theatre, rather than puppet theatre. We did not set out to create a work specifically for puppets. Mabou Mines’ approach has always been to look for theatrical metaphors – a visual image, a style of music, an animal species... - that will resonate with an initial idea, to open it out beyond itself. Here, Julie Archer had a design idea - oversized paper pop-up books as set pieces. Barrie’s novel was instantly resonant with that. It’s so much about childhood imagination, but from the perspective of adult memory. It is essentially wistful. I had first read it as an adolescent, and it sent me into a stupor of free-floating yearning –so many opportunities for impossible desires! In any event, there is a sense that pure unfettered joy is fleeting once you grow up, and Barrie puts the cut-off age for the at two: “two,” he says, “is the beginning of the end.” It felt right to match this with the fragility of paper and with images that would appear and disappear by a simple opening and closing – no “stage magic.”

And this path led to puppets, an apt analogy for the volatile, often ruthless, always ephemeral nature of childhood imagination. They’re inherently stylized, out of normal scale and free of gravity; we experience them at a threshold place where reality and fantasy flow together. We chose to keep the puppeteers always visible, because we want the audience not so much to get lost in imagination as to watch the process of imagining.

Also I especially wanted to keep the wild lyric flow of the novel’s narrative passages. This was another path to puppetry – Lee had matched the sparse performance of puppets with dense language in previous work, including The Warrior Ant. The Asian forms we’ve adapted in Peter and Wendy have a strong narrative base. In bunraku, the narrators sit on the side and sing the story and the puppets enact scenes. In Indonesian wayang kulit, a single puppeteer performs all the characters’ voices and the narration. In Peter and Wendy, we’ve drawn from these traditions, combined and reworked them with western theater styles. The Narrator is herself the central character, and also acts the voices of all the characters, often interacting with puppets, but not always. So you’re at once inside and outside the experience of narration. We want to convey that slightly disturbing elation of being almost, though not quite wholly, absorbed in reading.

So along with the pop-up books (only alluded to in the final set), the use of live Celtic music, and a kind of minimalist Edwardian visual palette, the puppetry is part of the theatrical language of Peter and Wendy. It brings its own independent meaning, and heightens the emotional immediacy of the language and ideas.

Then too, the puppetry itself became a path – a path to other paths. For instance, working with them as “dolls” led to the decision to keep the Neverland within the space of the nursery. The puppets let us range widely in scale and angle and degree of realism, while still remaining in one room. So, perhaps not many paths to puppetry, but one path that keeps branching, where puppets have been a starting point as well as a destination.

Do you think that the way puppet theatre is received by audiences has changed since you become involved and if so, in what way?

In some ways yes. In the U.S., we’ve come late to puppets in theater for adults. Mabou Mines first used bunraku-inspired puppets in the 1970s in Lee Breuer’s Shaggy Dog Animation. It was seen by a fairly small and specialized audience. Since then, The Jim Henson Foundation has given tremendous support to this kind of work, especially through the International Festival of Puppet Theater which they produced in New York throughout the 1990s. It was hugely influential and now puppets in theater are almost mainstream. We don’t have to do quite so much work to get adults into the theater, or to warn parents not to expect a kid-friendly show, just because there’s a puppet in it. However, when a puppet does take the stage, especially when they do something very ordinary – for instance, scratch themself - that intense sense of wonder is unmistakable, often a gasp, even from the most puppet-sophisticated audience.

Do European audiences differ to those in the U.S.?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a production in Europe, though other members of the company have been more recently. In both Europe and the U.S. I’ve found audience differences to be quite local – country by country, state by state, neighborhood by neighborhood. In Dublin, I remember the audience was very quiet, and then so warm at curtain. At first it was disconcerting, having recently been in Berkeley California, where there was always loud laughter. For me, it’s one of the interesting things about traveling with a production, watching the performers adjust to audience response, and seeing how that transforms the work as a whole.

How do you feel about bringing the performance back to J. M. Barrie’s Scottish homeland?

Tremendously excited – and nervous. It feels a little like performing for Barrie’s family. We fell in love with the Scottish sensibility in the novel – the rhythm of the language, the dark humor, the raw emotion combined with a kind of toughness in being so exposed. We looked to traditional Scottish music to support those rhythms, and intensify that feeling. Johnny Cunningham’s score really winds throughout the piece, and Karen Kandel tuned her performance to its rhythms. This score and Barrie’s words are the truly Scottish elements. Then there are our own interpretations and pastiches - the delighted perceptions of fans. For instance, when Karen uses Scots inflected accents, they are meant to be the type of voice you might make up when reading aloud, a flight of fancy. Still, it was wonderful to be able to turn to Johnny for guidance. And a story.

Have you been to the Edinburgh International Festival before? If so, what did you find most memorable about your experience of the Festival?

I have been in Edinburgh during the festival, in 1981, when William Burdett-Coutts presented Lee’s Sister Suzie Cinema and work-in-progress Gospel at Colonus at the Assembly Rooms for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I produced those pieces, and Julie was the designer. Most memorable was the extraordinary energy that filled Edinburgh, the sheer numbers of people all thinking about theater. I have a vivid image of a red carpet flung down George Street, though that seems improbable - I must have made it up. Lee was at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007 with Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, and I know he was astonished and moved to receive a Herald Archangel. Also, when I asked him this question he answered without hesitation – “when the sun came out.”

Why do you think people should come and see Peter and Wendy at the Edinburgh International Festival?

It is an extraordinary chance for this piece that owes so much to Scotland to finally be there to draw on the energy of the people and the place. There is live music played by musicians who are, each one, renowned traditional performers in their own right. The live sound effects score, akin to early radio, add bells and whistles, literally (also amplified alka-seltzer fizz). Karen Kandel gives voice to well over a dozen puppet characters, while also giving a full human performance that is heart wrenching. The puppeteers’ artistry is astonishing - often with three puppeteers on a single puppet, their precise choreography of movement is itself a pleasure to watch. The puppets breathe, because Tamamatsu taught us that is more important than anything else a puppet might do. The design is both an instrument of the story-telling and visually beautiful. Barrie’s language is gorgeous, and full of wistful longing. In an early review it was noted, to Johnny Cunningham’s great delight, that “grown men were heard to cry.” It is also often quite funny.

We mean to stay faithful to the original, which we love, while reweaving, re-contextualizing, pruning according to our personal sensibilities. Barrie’s masterpiece is certainly rich enough to bear many interpretations, and ours may serve to de-familiarize the now iconic story, to let its lesser known aspects be seen fresh. Built collaboratively, it is a mingling of many voices, many personalities. There’s a good chance an audience will find at least one to relate to.

Festival Blogger review - Bryn Terfel & Malcolm Martineau

Image: Bryn Terfel

Bryn Terfel has a fantastic, one-in-a-million voice. The combination of world famous baritone Bryn Terfel and the hugely accomplished Malcolm Martineau who has accompanied the likes of Thomas Allan, Ian Bostridge and Angela Gheorghiu, promised a wonderful evening and so I went along to the Usher Hall with high expectations.

Everything about Bryn Terfel is on a big scale; his stage presence, his character, his voice. He filled ever corner of the two-thousand capacity venue with ease. His diction was crisp and clear to everyone whether he was singing in English, as he did for the predominance of the concert, or in German as he did for the somewhat random insertion of Schumann in the second half. Malcolm Martineau’s playing matched the quality of the singing every step of the way. With beautiful subtlety and emotion Martineau accompanied and supported Terfel throughout. Terfel’s voice was solid throughout his entire register and his dynamics, especially his quiet moments, were stunning. He had a gorgeous richness to his voice which made his renditions of Quilter’s ‘Weep you no more’, Keel’s ‘Port of Many Ships’ and Vaughan Williams ‘Whither Must I Wander?’ being particular highlights.

Every so often there were glimmers of the star-quality of his voice but I felt the repertoire failed to show off the extent of what Terfel's voice can do. I thing folk and traditional music can be a very worthy addition to any recital, and I also fully support his initiative to encourage music for the masses but Terfel’s programme failed to include enough contrast or substance. I have no doubt that many of the audience will have walked away from the concert at the Usher Hall thoroughly satisfied as Bryn Terfel is without question an engaging and charming first-class performer. However the concert left me feeling slightly frustrated - I had the privilege to attend a concert given by one of the world’s leading baritones yet was only allowed to hear glimpses of his real capability.

Reviewer: Fiona Stewart

25 August, 2009

Festival staff profile - Rob Conner

We chatted to Rob Conner, Finance Director of the Festival and The Hub, the home of the Festival.

What is your job title and what does your position involve?
Finance Director – management of the finance function for Edinburgh International Festival and its subsidiary company The Hub, also management of HR and the Edinburgh International Festival office and environmental policy.

How did you come to work for the Edinburgh International Festival?
I qualified as a chartered accountant in December 2000 and then worked in media, banking and utilities before joining Edinburgh International Festival in August 2002.

What is the best part of your job?
Working for Edinburgh International Festival and its subsidiary, being involved in the hospitality industry and the Edinburgh International Festival at the same time is a challenging and interesting work dynamic.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Probably working for two very different organisations at once, and working with people from different professional fields from my own.

What has been your most memorable Festival experience so far?
Llyr Williams playing Chopin’s 24 Preludes at the Queen's Hall.

Which events are you most looking forward to at Festival 09?
Michael Clark for David Bowie
St Kilda – is it opera, theatre, dance or music?
Handspring's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria – great puppets
Peter & Wendy (see previous plus fantastic fantasy story)
Actus tragicus – Bach at Home
Faust – everyone is talking about it
Opera in concert – attending 5 of 6 I think – something I have not previously indulged in much
Emerson String Quartet – great musicians
The Enlightenments Lectures and Visual Arts programmes – think this scale of both programmes is exactly what we should be doing plus interesting themes
Elisabeth Leonskaja – need I say more?

What are your words of advice to those at the Festival this August?
Attend a few things you really think you want to see, attend an equal number of things you wouldn’t normally choose to see – then prepare to be surprised!

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in three words?
Entertaining, exciting, enlightening.

Review - Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Image: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. Photo: Johan Jacobs

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – a baroque opera performed with puppets. At first I didn’t know where to focus my attention – the simple stage set was surprisingly busy. For each character there was not just the puppet, but also the puppeteer and the singer – all three closely connected and contributing equally to the part; the translation of the Italian recitative was displayed on supertitles; the musicians, present onstage in a raised semi-circle behind the action, were intriguing to watch, frequently switching instruments; and on a screen at the back of the stage, black-and-white film and animation. While the majority of the action took place in the centre of the stage, around a bed or dressing table, attention was occasionally cast onto a singer, for example representing Fortune or Time, standing amid the musicians, or beyond them to a puppet character on a journey through an animated charcoal landscape. However, soon my eyes became used to flickering from place to place, and the very different elements of storytelling merged together to create a completely absorbing performance.

The puppetry was stunning – beautifully carved wooden puppets, their faces expressive yet still rough-hewn, half life sized and fully dressed in robes, pyjamas or sparkling jewellery – these vivid characters were combined with skilful control from the puppeteers creating incredibly lifelike, subtle movement, from the breathing of the sleeping Ulysses to the walking shepherd. The Ricercar Consort, on original instruments including several types of viol, the precursor to the violin family, and the theorbo, a kind of lute, played magnificently, while the singers negotiated the intricacies of baroque operatic writing with ease.

There were three distinct and very different settings. Of course the Ancient Greece of the story from Homer’s Odyssey is referenced, particularly through the puppet costumes. Also Monteverdi’s Venice – the frivolous suitors and Penelope are dressed as Baroque nobility. However, this all seems to be perhaps just the confused hallucinations of a dying man in hospital – Ulysses is dressed in pyjamas, and while his recitative tells the story of his voyage home, the screen shows MRI scans, gastroscopies and surgical procedures, melting into bizarre images of war and destruction. On his voyage he passes through hospital corridors which, as in a dream, become ancient temples. During the prologue, the characters of Fortune, Time, Love and Human Frailty cluster around the Ulysses’s bed like doctors.

This fascinating production was beautifully performed and incredibly complex, and although it ended with Ulysses and Penelope happily reunited, the dominating theme of mortality combined with bleak and sometimes chilling images left me feeling solemn, Ulysses portrayed less as a hero than as a sick man struggling for his life.

Reveiwer: Joanna Ramasawmy

24 August, 2009

Interview with Elin Manahan Thomas

Image: The Return of Ulysses. Photo: Johan Persson

Elin Manahan Thomas is the soprano in The Return of Ulysses, a production by The Royal Ballet of Flanders. The Return of Ulysses plays until 24 August at the Edinburgh Playhouse.

You have sung from an early age, when did you decide to pursue singing as a career?
I've sung since I was 7 and remember having lessons down the road with a lovely dame of a lady who never let me have the sweets that were on top of her piano! I sang at school and university but I never intended to be a singer. Throughout college I thought I'd be a teacher or Civil Servant but by chance, as I was doing my MPhil, I was invited to audition for Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I got a place on his big tour of 2000, singing all of Bach's cantatas around Europe, and I got hooked! I've been singing professionally ever since and frankly I still pinch myself, to this day, when I realise how lucky I am to do my hobby for a living.

How do you feel to be performing with the Royal Ballet of Flanders and how does it differ from your usual performances?
I can't wait to sing with the Royal Ballet. I've sung with ballet companies before - notably the Rambert - but always from offstage. Being up there with them all will be awe-inspiring, and such a pleasure to be part of a fantastic creative process. My only worry is looking like a heffalump alongside all the beautiful dancers.

What drew you to become involved with the production The Return of Ulysses?
The musical aspects of the show are fascinating , they take us through many ages and certainly along many emotional roads. The Purcell excerpts I'll be singing are some of my favourite arias and they're very beautiful and personal moments. But singing them as part of a larger cast will be a whole new experience and I'm looking forward to fitting in with everybody and everything on stage.

Have you been to the Edinburgh International Festival before? If so, what have your observations been of the Festival?
I've never been during Festival time - I can't wait! I come to Edinburgh regularly as my goddaughter lives here and I grab any opportunity to visit. So my memories of the city mainly involve museums, shops and the zoo, and it'll be nice to see its cultural side and the fun of the fair, as I imagine Festival time can be. I've sung here many times too of course, as a soloist and with the Dunedin Consort: I'm always struck by the musicality of the city and the warmth of the audiences.

You regularly perform all over the world, do you feel excited when you have the opportunity to bring your performances back to the UK to an audience such as that of the Edinburgh International Festival?
I'm excited for many reasons. I love coming to Scotland because, being Welsh, there's a small element of 'coming home' to another Celtic country. The audiences in Edinburgh are always welcoming and I particularly think that this show will be eye-opening and memorable and a real experience.

Why do you think people should come and see The Return of Ulysses at the Edinburgh International Festival?
It's such a fabulous combination of performance elements, with comedy and tragedy and colour and light and beauty for the eye and for the ear. I'm going to enjoy it, I can tell you that!

Festival Blogger review - Huelgas Ensemble

Huelgas Ensemble

Listening to the Huelgas Ensemble was the perfect way to finish a long day at work. The ensemble consisted of eight singers and a small collection of renaissance and baroque instruments led by the director and founder Paul Van Nevel. The programme was a mixture of Bach and Praetorius chorales, which, whilst written almost one hundred years apart, fitted together in the same concert seamlessly.

Greyfriars Kirk was the perfect setting for the chorales, congregational hymns of the Lutheran Church. It was packed out by a large audience, but remained intimate enough for the small ensemble. This was a performance of a well-rehearsed ensemble; the tuning was impeccable and diction flawless. The dynamics were subtle, although arguably too subtle at times. If I had to criticize the Huelgas Ensemble’s performance, I think their technical brilliance and attention to detail occasionally led to moments of emotionless performance. Despite this, the beauty of the Huelgas Ensemble’s choral singing was undisputable. The eight singers’ voices melted together and moved as one, the four voice parts supporting and reinforcing one another. In between each of the seven chorales the singers rearranged themselves which continually mixed up the sound. The orchestration was sparse and intermittent but worked well to link the cantatas together to from a coherent whole.

The Huelgas Ensemble gave a beautiful concert. The chosen chorales were written to impart the pious wishes of a man on his deathbed, voice desperate cries for redemption and express exaltation at the glory of God, and whilst the concert swelled to a gloriously emotive end, it was too little too late. However whilst the concert may not have been a demonstration of heartfelt emotion, it was without doubt a demonstration of exquisite music performed by exceptional musicians, and the performers left to the stage to thoroughly deserved thunderous applause.

Reviewer: Fiona Stewart

22 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia da Dansa - 21/8/09

Image: Gelabert Azzopardi - Conquassabit. Photo: R.Ribas

Even for those who have limited knowledge on the subject of contemporary dance, it’s easy to spot something special. Gelabert Azzopardi, the dance company formed and directed by dancer and choreographer Cesc Gelabert and choreographer and teacher Lydia Azzopardi, is based in Barcelona, and seems to have found its own unique niche due to its refreshing juxtapositions and easily recognised style.

This Festival performance involves two quite differing pieces: Sense Fi and Conquassabit. The first of these, Sense Fi, embraces simplicity, with a dark background and in the first scene a gigantic moon-like orb of light that moves across the stage. The immediately obvious element to Gelabert Azzopardi’s choreography is the sheer physical demand, with many strenuous balances and leaps. However the bronzed, incredibly fit dancers show not a hint of fatigue as they move around the stage barefoot, with strange movements that appear fluid yet rigid and at times almost awkward.

A contrast is established in this first movement between moments of human intimacy and emotion and the more detached, trance-like group dances. Strange, occasionally uneasy percussion-based music (by contemporary composer Pascal Comelade) trigger changes in the mood and speed of the dancers, passing through moments of Zen-like calm and serenity to those of energy and passion. Figures constantly pass seamlessly on and offstage, with Cesc Gelabert frequently featuring as the main dancer and dancing many solos. Gelabert shows no signs of toiling at his 56 years of age, instead providing the audience with intriguingly choreographed interludes and wonderful expression.

Also noticeable is the Spanish influence that seems to arise in frequent use of the hips, almost salsa style, adding warmth and closeness between dancers. Scenes conveying love and pain feature subtly within the more human passages, portrayed beautifully through a fragile and graceful technique in both males and females – and the great skill of each individual is not sidetracked by complicated costume design or background, leaving the talent on the surface for the audience to appreciate.

The second piece of the performance, Conquassabit, retains these particular styles and quirks, but sets them on a more traditional musical background, reinstating the Gelabert Azzopardi’s love of juxtaposition. Surprisingly, the contemporary, radical style seems to lend itself perfectly to Handel’s Dixit Dominus, one of the Baroque composer’s Italian works. Cesc Gelabert once again takes frequent solo roles, involving different characters and a stricter finish to the dances, which are timed perfectly to the music. The choreography here appears more experimental in these solos with more graphic and visually surprising images, but still with simple costumes and no props beside a large expanse of silver cloth hanging loosely from the ceiling and providing a stunning backdrop for some truly incredible dancing. Ballet seems to have more of an influence in this movement, yet still with a Latin American trace, and individual solos allow each dancer to demonstrate their ability and precision.

The audience’s obvious enjoyment of these pieces lied in the commitment and personality that each dancer brings to the stage. The simple, innovative style of Gelabert Azzopardi Companyia de Dansa seems to exude a quiet confidence and quality, and reintroduces the joy and visual dynamic of contemporary dance.
Reviewer: Kyna Bowers

Festival Blogger review - Orchestre des Champs-Élysées - 17/8/09

Image: Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Photo: Jean-Phillippe Baltel

The Usher Hall seemed like a huge venue for such a tiny orchestra, but what they lacked in sheer numbers and volume they made up for with the intensity and emotion of their playing. As the clear opening notes from the flute in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture sang across the silent space, I was enchanted – as, I believe, were the rest of the audience, packed in to this sell-out concert.

From the delicate shimmering of the violins, representing the fairies’ footsteps, to the loud sarcastic braying of Bottom the weaver, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, captured a perfect contrast of sentiments. Played on original instruments – including the ophicleide, a large brass bass instrument, staple to the Romantic orchestra but nowadays near extinct – there was a definite emphasis on authenticity, though as a result there was a slight lack of the familiar warmth and tone of some modern instruments, and the frugal use of vibrato made for a very distinctive string sound.

The piano, also distinctly lacking in the tone quality and sustain of a modern instrument, did not affect soloist Alexander Lonquich’s lyrical and expressive playing of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2. He too captured the audience with his intensity, his hands flying from the keys with each virtuosic flourish, and his flawless timing and precision creating suspense and poise at the most emotional corners. Here the orchestra showed their strength as a backdrop, providing perfect support for Chopin’s elegant keyboard writing to shine.

It was Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony that gave the orchestra an opportunity to show the full extent of their range of colour – the sensitive pianissimos and pizzicato strings, the great stirring emotions of the Adagio, and finally the buzzing anger of the finale, formed a powerfully moving performance. Not only were the soloists excellent – the luxuriously smooth clarinet melody floated above the orchestra at the beginning of the second movement – but the unity and ensemble was impressive; the first entry of the violins sounded like one pure voice, and the physical movement of the whole orchestra was completely together, breathing with the music. With encores from both the soloist and the orchestra, it was beautifully moving performance.
Reviewer: Joanna Ramasawmy

21 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Faust

Image: Faust. Photo: Photo: Mihaela Marin.

It’s widely quoted to be the most ambitious project of the Festival this year; and as far as I’m concerned, no disappointments there. Welcome to the macabre and horrifying world of Hell. Romanian Silviu Purcarete’s epic rendition of Goethe’s Faust seems very difficult to contain in a matter of mere words, with its cast of over 100, copious use of fake blood, fire breathing, its two stages, even a fiberglass (but very realistic) rhinoceros.

This adaptation, spoken in Romanian with subtitles, relishes the dark and terrifying side to the tale of Faust (originally a German legend); a man who makes a pact with the Devil’s agent Mephistopheles.

Amidst chilling choral music, which often floats unnoticed into the atmosphere around, are the bloodcurdling visions onstage and the tremendously captivating acting style of leading lady Ofelia Popii (Mephistopheles). A notable sense of hysteria and melodrama is aided by the many bodies that spring from behind the audience, from under floorboards, from inside cupboards, in a nightmarish manner which is skin-crawlingly humorous at times.

And not forgetting a few unexpected changes in surrounding which make full use of the spacious setting of Lowland Hall, immersing the audience in the centre of the action. Creatures with heads of pigs, fires in bathtubs, bodies dangling from moving frames, sparks, torture, and lots of sexual references are to be found in Purcarete’s interpretation of the Devil's playground; a thrilling spectacle, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard to say whether Silviu Purcarete’s Faust is enjoyable to watch, but there’s no doubt that it is a masterpiece, with its brilliant set design and clever use of lighting and effects. Expect to be overwhelmed.

Reviewer: Kyna Bower

Festival Blogger review - Made in Scotland

Image: Royal National Scottish Orchestra. Photo: Jean-Philippe Baltel

Last night I saw the Royal Scottish National Orchestra perform Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise and Symphony No 5 and James MacMillan’s Britannia and The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at Usher Hall.

Not familiar with these pieces I went in expecting a very Scottish affair and was surprised by the opening piece, Symphony No 5, which would have been at home on a modern Hollywood film score. It was haunting and ominous, laterfilled with suspense and drama.

The conductor, Paul Daniel, was very energetic and ardent. The orchestra were also a pleasure to watch. As all seemed so passionate about the music they were playing there was a sense of the theatrical.

As expected, An Orkney Wedding brought the Scottish mood I had been expecting. A cheery song from the beginning, it is said to depict a wedding on the Orkney islands and as a Scottish islander myself, I thought it was an accurate portrayal. About half-way through it became even more upbeat and the audience came alive, with many tapping feet and rapping fingers. Then three of the violinists surrounding the conductor began to play fiddle-style as you may see at a Scottish wedding, with slurring brass thrown in to represent the more the musicians and guests drank, this even raised a few laughs from the audience. The piece culminated in a lone piper entering the hall at the back, marching through the audience to take centre stage in front of the conductor, to which you could see many of the audience display proud smiles.

After the break, the third piece, James MacMillan’s Britannia, was energetic from the start. It seemed to veer between an enchanting fairytale to a random, threatening sound. This unusual piece included duck noises, a whistle, a xylophone, horseshoe sounds and a horn, with lots of punctuation from cymbals and a gong.

While the central two pieces seemed quite lighthearted, the last piece went back to something more serious. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was written about a women burnt at the stake for supposedly being a witch in 1662, depicting ‘the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life’. The piece started off slowly and became quite menacing, with lots of drumming. Towards the end it became quite beautiful but cut with violent music, said to represent the suffering of innocent women tried as witches.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole evening but the highlight for me was definitely An Orkney Wedding, which as clichéd as it sounds filled me full of pride for all things Scottish.

Reviewer: Sarah Jackson

20 August, 2009

Festival staff profile - Niki Furley

We spoke to Niki Furley, Head of Sponsorship & Development for the Festival.

How did you come to work for the Edinburgh International Festival?
As a student I worked in the Festival Box Office one summer, the buzz and excitement was amazing and I always wanted to come back. I graduated with a degree in Psychology, however have spent my career in fundraising & events and was working with Scottish Ballet when I got the call to join the Festival’s Sponsorship Team. It’s just as buzzing as I remembered and the psychology degree certainly comes in handy at times!

What is your job title and what does your position involve?
I’m Head of Sponsorship and Development and our small team of five is responsible for raising funds to help support the work of the Festival, enabling the Festival to present the annual three-week cultural extravaganza as well as our year-round education and outreach programme.

What is the best part of your job?
Being part of something creative and extraordinary, not to mention the chance to attend Festival performances! Plus, I get to work with a group of enthusiastic and unbelievably hard working colleagues who manage to make even those difficult days fun.

What is the worst part of your job?
Sadly, I pretty much miss out on the other summer festivals and of course I have to remind my (very understanding) husband that not only are holidays in July and August out but that he won’t see much of me in those months either!

What has been your most memorable Festival experience so far?
Far too many to mention as each Festival brings something new, unexpected and unforgettable. Looking back on Festival 08 - I was really moved watching Sir Charles Mackerras and Alfred Brendel on stage together, completely blown away by the energy and adrenalin of the young dancers in Batsheva, mesmerized watching Nina Ananiashvili dance Giselle and enjoyed the beauty & tranquility of John Williams’ recital at the Queen’s Hall.

Which event/s are you most looking forward to at Festival 09? Why?
As a dance fan I’m particularly looking forward to Michael Clark’s New work and, of course, Scottish Ballet. I think the Lewis Psalm Singers will be extraordinary and the Bach at Greyfriars Series something truly special. Faust is unmissable according to a colleague who saw it in Romania in June and I also have Macbeth, Dream of Gerontius and Actus Tragicus on my hit-list.

What are your words of advice to those at the Festival this August?
Don’t waste a minute! Squeeze in as many performances as you can, take an umbrella and don’t forget to eat.

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in 3 words?
Exciting, exhilarating … exhausting!

Festival Blogger review - Faith Healer

Image: Kim Durham . Photo: Trent O’Donnell.

Whilst the concept of a play containing absolutely no dialogue may not be appealing to everyone, Robin Lefèvre’s production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer really does astound on so many levels. The play is unusually structured as a series of monologues by a terrific ensemble cast of three characters - witty and charming faith healer Frank (Owen Roe); his wife Grace who is trapped in her own dystopian reality (Ingrid Craigie); and comical manager Teddy who provides a detached commentary on the other two characters (Kim Durham) - each giving their own (often conflicting) reflection on Frank’s career and a deep personal tragedy which affects them all.

The genius of this production lies in its simplicity. For example, Liz Ashcroft’s set design is minimalistic throughout, which is particularly effective during Grace’s monologue as it emphasises how empty and drab her life is. One particular feature of interest is the constant presence of two empty chairs on the right side of the stage, the significance of which comes into full poignancy in the penultimate monologue.

From a theatrical perspective this really is a very brave play, and although there cannot be said to be one single key incident or turning point, the play remains thoroughly engaging throughout, which was demonstrated by the audience showing their appreciation with applause at the end of every scene, in addition to a standing ovation at the end. At one point in the second act, the acting was so realistic and strong that many members of the audience murmured in agreement with the character of Teddy as though he was directly addressing them, which is a true rarity in a play as serious in nature as this.

Faith Healer is essentially a play which explores differing takes on reality, and threads its way through an enticing puzzle of fact and fiction, ultimately allowing the audience to decide who is the most honest of the three characters. Above all, we must decide for ourselves whether Frank really is “a twisted man with a talent for hurting” as Grace portrays him to be, or whether there is more to his often hostile relationship with his wife.

Reviewer: Scott Clair

19 August, 2009

Interview with Jordi Savall

Image: Jordi Savall.

Jordi Savall is conductor for Le Concert des Nations at Usher Hall on 20 August. He is also directing and performing in Hesperion XXI on 21 August at the Queen’s Hall. We spoke to Jordi Savall prior to his Festival 09 performances and asked him a few questions.

When you were growing up how did music influence you and what is it that your particularly like about early years music?
When I was 6 years old I was a choir-boy at school, which I loved - until my voice broke when I became older. This was very frustrating for me as I still wanted to sing, so I tried to find something to replace it. I discovered the Cello, and the music of Bach, as well as English Composers such as Simpson. These gave a new lease of life to my music.

Do you find that there are many differences between audiences in different parts of the world. If so what are they?
There are many differences, sometimes incredible. In places like South America and Eastern Europe, where people don’t have as much money, the audiences are very warm. They’re happy you’re visiting and it feels a different atmosphere.

How did you find your time at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007?
It was marvelous. We had a series of nice productions, they were all very full, it was a great ambience.

What do you see as the main differences between performing as part of a festival and performances in other seasons?
In festivals there is always a nice audience, very multicultural. The audience are motivated to come to the festival, it’s not just high society, people are interested in the programme and the music. There’s such a variety, the local audience, people from far away, it’s very cosmopolitan. The city of Edinburgh is incredible, full of activity – a nice stimulating audience.

What do you think people will gain from coming to see your performances at the Edinburgh International Festival?
It’s difficult for me to say. I’m happy to present the compositions - they maybe very well known, such as Handel, or others that we have done special research on. We also have great musicians in our orchestra who play from the heart. We put life into our version of the music, like in older times without rehearsal.

As well as Le Concert des Nations, you're also directing and performing in Hesperion XXI. How do you find performing on stage compared to conducting?
I’m used to doing both, and I like to do both. I like to travel and conduct, but it also depends on the music. I also like to play alone, by myself, without intermissions. With Hesperion XXI, we have a group from all over the world, who’ve been playing together for 20 years. This is great for me, to get together is a festivity, with such a nice group of musicians and friends, and of course to share that with our audiences.

Festival Blogger review - Optimism

Image: Optimism. Photo: Jeff Busby

For a classic satire written almost three centuries ago, the themes of Candide still relate well to our times. Optimism by Malthouse Melbourne brings the story, with ever present topics of war, murder, rape and slave labour, to a modern audience with the additions of themes including global warming and swine flu.

I knew the play was to be an unusual take on Candide but I didn’t expect a group of airhostesses and apes dancing at a party, with one of the apes DJing, whilst holding giant inflatable balls and surrounded by bubbles and glitter. Despite these moments of bizarre frivolity, many serious themes were covered including the essential good and evil, with the theoretical question posed "when we send a boat off to Egypt, do we ask if the rats are comfortable?" It was all approached in a way that made you feel like you were in an insane dream, perhaps referring to the insanity of life itself.

One analogy that stuck in my mind is when Candide says he thinks his life is like god making a finger painting at some sort of "cosmic crèche". Starting off with the grass, adding some sky and then a sun, then adding war, some tulips, some blackbirds… changing his mind and trying to rub things out until the whole painting became a mass of brown which even "god’s own mother wouldn’t stick to her fridge"!

The lead role of Candide is played brilliantly by Australian comedian/actor Frank Woodley, who moves easily between cheerful optimism, disappointment at the fate his life dictates and even moments of improvised stand-up comedy with (at first reluctant) audience participation. The clown outfit of Candide seemed to represent his optimistic, naïve outlook on life.

The rest of the cast were superb, switching easily between characters including airhostesses, an ironic take on a whirling dervish, a singing monk, priests and slaves.

The set was fascinating, using simple glittered, plastic and white curtains to completely change the atmosphere of the set. Fans were used to simulate plane travel and wind, and a shiny steel box forming a plane cabin. Like a morbid waiting room, a digital display at the top of the set let you know where the characters were at all times, from Venice to Surinam, from 'In transit' to 'Half way between heaven and hell'.

The show concluded with Candide announcing it was time to look after the garden, as in Voltaire’s original conclusion (‘Tendre votre jardin’). The message rang loud and clear - while we should consider wider global issues, ultimately our power for change lies in our own backyard. In a literal response to Candide's statement however, buckets of dirt were then emptied onto the stage by each cast member, finished off with a healthy showering from Candide's watering can.

Reviewer: Sarah Jackson

18 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - St Kilda: Island of the Birdmen

Image: St Kilda. Photo: Photo: Christian Mathieu

Last night I had the pleasure of watching the opening night of St Kilda. This was my first show of the Edinburgh International Festival and was a stimulating introduction into what promises to be a thought-provoking programme focused around the theme of the Enlightenment.

Highlights from the opera included the dramatic mix of vintage and modern film footage as well as the impressive acrobatics used to mirror the inhabitants scaling of the island’s sheer cliffs which rise taller than the Empire State Building. Perhaps the highlight was the effortless and lyrical singing of soprano Alyth McCormack playing the role of Catriona. The dissonant orchestration came crashing into McCormack’s floating melodies as the harsh realities of what everyday life meant on St Kilda became all the more apparent to the audience. Her style and voice were perfectly suited to the haunting Gaelic melodies of David Graham and Jean-Paul Dessy’s music, and rather than the liquid line of the music coming across as a wash of sound, she made sense of each line of the Gaelic. As well as Gaelic, the opera was performed in a mixture of French and English. The Gaelic I was expecting and helped to recreate the atmosphere of the island. However the use of French as well as English made the storyline difficult to follow at times.

St Kilda was truly a multi-media experience. The show opened with an eerie monologue by Alain Eloy playing the part of John. On top of this several layers of film, music and acrobatics were built up to create a very sensual impression of what life was like on the island for the audience. Just as the opera started with a lone voice, the production come to a close with the different layers gradually fading out, and the show ended beautifully dying away to nothing. The complex multi-media approach taken by director Thierry Poquet worked both in favour and against the production. Whilst there was always something to hold your attention, sometimes you weren’t sure where to look and the individual components despite themselves all being excellent, didn’t equal more than the sum of their parts.

St Kilda was not easy watching or listening but light entertainment was never the production’s aim. It was simultaneously provocative and heart-breaking and raises awareness of a spectacular world heritage site.

Reviewer: Fiona Stewart

17 August, 2009

Faith Healer video

Watch a short film of Faith Healer actor Kim Durham and Gate Theatre Director Michael Colgan chat about the production and the Gate | Friel series at Festival 09.

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Interview with Frank Woodley from Optimism

Image: Frank Woodley. Photo: Jeff Busby

We caught up with Australian comedian and actor Frank Woodley recently and asked him a few questions about his lead role of Candide in Malthouse Melbourne's production of Optimism.

Growing up in Victoria, how did you enter the world of comedy and acting?
I'm not sure really. There were no performers in my family. The closest thing was the fact that in his youth, my dad had once been an audience participant at a comedy show. Because it was an event that dad remembered vividly, whenever I involve an audience participant I try to keep in mind that although it's just another show for me, for them it'll be something they remember forever. My earliest memory of making people laugh was when I was running the final leg of a relay in the grade two school sports. I realized I couldn't win and I thought "I can try as hard as I can, and still lose, or I could dance down the track playing the baton like a flute." I went the flute option, got a big laugh from the crowd and my fate was sealed. When I was about eighteen some friends and I started putting together routines and trying them out in comedy clubs and although we had some shockers we got enough laughs to confirm in me, this is what I love to do.

You were part of the successful comedy duo Lano and Woodley for many years. Was the move to becoming a solo performer a natural progression or did you find this difficult?
It has been strange. When we divorced we divided up all our material. Col got the set ups and I got all the punch lines. Unfortunately ... "So, I ate the bicycle, and rode the eggplant", doesn't really work without it's precursor. It took me quite a while to not feel very strange on stage without Col. One of the things I've had to learn is more discipline. Col and I evolved a technique where I could head off on flights of fancy, and if they worked great, but if they didn't work, they'd still have a pay off because Col would berate me and abuse me for wasting the audience's time. Now Col's not there as a safety net I have to be a bit more diligent so that any improvisations I undertake work in themselves.

Which part of your job do you find the most satisfying?
There's a few things I really cherish. I love that first time you present a new idea ... and it works. People laugh. Then I love the experience of refining that material. When I've performed a joke a few times, and I know it's a reliable big laugh, then I have this lovely experience of finding the most effortless way, to get that big laugh. Sometimes, if you put the right pieces together, you hardly have to do anything, and it gets an explosive response. A well timed eyebrow raise, or a twitch of a finger. I don't know if that suggests that I'm very lazy, but I get immense satisfaction from discovering that efficiency.

You performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008 and are coming back to take part in the Edinburgh International Festival. What do you enjoy about Edinburgh during the Festival period?
I absolutely love Edinburgh. The amount of theatre and music during the festival is totally absurd. I think the thing I love is the incredible variety of stuff going on and the fact that if you get into it, at least once a day you'll see something totally unique that fills you with wonder. There are so many passionate artists in town. Every one of them feels so intensely about their work and is putting their heart and soul into it. Whether it's a youth theatregroup doing Sweeny Todd, or a cutting edge multi media company from Eastern Europe everybody wants to reach an audience and move them deeply. And the backdrop of such a beautiful city doesn't hurt. A little bit less drizzle maybe ... but hey, I've got an umbrella.

What drew you to the production Optimism?
I read the book Candide, written by Voltaire in 1759, which is what the play is based on, and found it totally fascinating. The questions which it explores are so fundamental. Considering life is undoubtedly going to be filled with all sorts of suffering, and we all grow old and die without ever knowing conclusively what it was all about, is optimism an intelligent perspective? And ... what is the alternative? The level of black humour is astounding and I was surprised to find that the edge that the material teeters on, in terms of being shocking or offensive is completely contemporary. This is a comedy that confronts murder, war, rape, disease, depression, disillusionment, old age, bestiality, slavery and just about every other taboo you can think of. I spoke to Michael Kantor the director and he was very enthusiastic about creating a show that would respect the spirit of Voltaire's novel but would also be original and exuberant contemporary theatre.

What do you find most interesting about the character you play in this production?
One of the reasons I was drawn to the play is when I read the book I could see that the comic persona that I have been playing and refining for the past twenty years fitted very neatly into the role of Candide. Candide is essentially a trusting innocent with a naturally optimistic point of view, who is also very sensitive about his own and other people's suffering. I knew that the play was going to be a stretch for me in terms of the dramatic requirements, but I was confident that the role suited my strengths as a performer.

Why do you think people should come and see Optimism at the Edinburgh International Festival?
Hopefully people go away from the show, feeling stimulated on many levels. There's lot of laughs (it's hard to feel pessimistic while your laughing), and some very beautiful theatrical images and music, as well as some deeply challenging and confronting questions being kicked around. It's definitely the kind of show that is brilliant fuel for conversation.

16 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Diaspora

The concept of Diaspora is one which is particularly poignant for the Celts. Ask the McTaggarts of Dunedin, the MacKenzies of Saskatchewan or the O’Reillys of Boston. The arrival of Ong Ken Sen’s piece at the Festival in the year of Homecoming Scotland is an opportunity for one of the world’s most widely scattered races to explore the experiences of other peoples who have left old homelands and settled in new.

Singapore, where TheatreWorks hail from, is a country founded, as Steve Cramer reminds us in his excellent programme notes, “…founded almost exclusively on the concept of diaspora…”. When Sir Stamford Raffles arrived there in 1819 he found an island populated by a few Malay families and some Chinese traders. The thriving, bustling, energetic country of 4 milllion which today is the busiest harbour in the world is populated almost exclusively by the descendents of immigrants. Ong spent three years researching this piece, visiting ten countries and interviewing legions of ordinary people, as well as collaborating with a range of artists from diasporic backgrounds. Their stories form the basis of this piece.

Ong has brought together the sort of cultural big-hitters we are used to expecting on the international festival circuit. The CVs in the programme reveal a creative team of immense experience around that circuit, and certainly the piece shows all the strengths of its international pedigree. I didn’t look at the programme until after the show, and actually commented to my wife that the closest thing I had seen to what we were watching was a piece by Chinese composer Tan Dun, Revolution, which I had seen at the Huddesfield Contemporary Music festival in the 90s. Lo and behold, there in the progamme I find that two of the music pieces had been composed by Tan Dun. The video work by Choi Ka Fai and others is some of the best I have seen, and the stories of a range of individuals, told by four actors, are riveting in their insights.

Having said all of that, and the piece was really good, and I am really glad I saw it, it was also frustrating. The very scale of the piece, which will undoubtedly make it extremely well received around the festival circuit, militated against a genuine engagement with the very personal stories. We see the actors, telling the stories, replicated on four huge screens at the back of the stage, in black and white, with headset microphones next to their faces. There are all sorts of practical reasons for this. The orchestra playing flat out for one, the sheer size of the Playhouse for another. At the same time we see the actors, lit, sideways on at the sides of the stage, speaking to an offstage camera. Why? We see the mediated images dominating everything, the real person remote from us. I should say, as well, that the whole stage is behind a gauze, on which projections are being screened. The real people are remote from us, just when we most want to engage with them as people. This is one of the perennial problems of multi-media work – how do you stop the mediated images swamping the live performers?

The music was ravishing. The orchestra, under Tsung Yeh, were marvellous. The video work was fantastic. A couple of sections particularly stood out for me. The first half ended with a funny, clever, delightful Bollywood music video by Navin Rawanchaikul, about his journey to India to seek for people with the same name as him. In the second half the section with Scottish artist Rabiya Choudhry was riveting. One of the reasons that it was so powerful, I have to say, is because she was sitting on the stage drawing on a screen as we listened to her voice. Watching a real person, NOT behind a gauze, was a welcome bonus. I, and several others, both those who accompanied me and other members of the audience I over heard at the end, found ourselves craning to see over her shoulder to the actual drawing, rather than looking at the huge projection of the drawing onto the front gauze.

There were memorable images throughout the piece. Simple, eloquent moments when an actor, seen in silhouette, would walk across the platform in front of the huge screens. The image of a group of people walking into the sea, to be eventually picked up by boats, an image which resonated powerfully with forgotten memories of the Vietnamese Boat People all those years ago. The music suffused with the kind of duende that Celtic music is filled with, that is also found in Flamenco, another diasporic tradition aching with a longing for home.

The piece is powerful, no doubt. It is filled with the authentic voices of the people who have migrated throughout the countries of South East Asia: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, China, Malaysia, and Singapore more than anywhere else combines all of those traditions into a culture which values and respects those traditions. Those who read my blog during the Singapore Arts Festival will recall the court case where some religious fundamentalists were jailed for sending inflammatory religious tracts to people of other religions. The judge, in sentencing them, said that their actions struck at the very heart of Singaporean society, which is based on respect for diversity. Diaspora is not only about loss, it is also about opportunity, new beginnings, and the chance to turn away from the mistakes and hatreds of the past and make a fresh beginning. Ask our sheepstealing descendents who regularly thrash us in sporting events. Ask the people of the thriving country of Singapore.

Perhaps the most moving question of all that the piece poses is “where would you like your remains to be when you die?”. The ways that the people interviewed answered this are moving. It sent me, a Celt who lives in England, out into the night examining the depths of my own heart.

A fascinating piece. The sort of piece that only a Festival like Edinburgh can really bring to this country. I just wish we could have been closer to the people.

Reviewer: Ronan Paterson

14 August, 2009

Interview with Bernd Lepel from Admeto

Image: Admeto Photo: Theodoro da Silva

Admeto, re di Tessaglia re-imagines Handel’s operatic masterpiece in the world of the Japanese samurai. The production is both musically sublime and visually stunning. We talked to Bernd Lepel, the set and costume designer for Admeto, re di Tessaglia.

You began your career as a set designer in theatre but have also worked in cinema and television. What do you see as the main differences between these mediums and which do you most prefer to work in?
I would have given up one of these mediums if I wouldn’t feel the need of both for my work. Is opera stylisation? Is film realism? These are questions I have asked myself since the beginning of work in both fields. I will never find the answers, but I know for sure that the mutual influence is a great benefit for me.

You have worked in set design and production for over three decades. Can you describe the main changes in the field?
Significant on stage changes are ’cinematographic’ influences like projection or atmospheric lightning. In cinema, computer work has become very important over the years but one always is free to choose whether to use modern technics or not. You can still fascinate an audience with simple, hand-made stage design. People can also still be absolutely absorbed by CGI-free films.

You have collaborated with Doris Dörrie on several productions, what do you find most inspiring about working together?
Understanding each other is a rare gift, especially for artists with strong egos! When I met Doris for the first time we discovered our easy way of ’complicated artistic communication’. Coming from backgrounds of filmmaking, we both enjoy working for fleeting moments and lasting emotions on stage. Most inspiring is the process of forcing each other to to push further in our art.

What is special about this production of Admeto, re di Tessaglia?
I have always been fascinated by Samurai costumes, Kimonos and their history. It is intriuging that they are practical in a way, but completely unpractical on the other hand. The dressing ceremonies, with all those amazing binding technics together with some agonizing ways of wearing shoes, create a unique and special type of behaviour and attitude.

Where did you take your inspiration from for the amazing costumes you have created for Admeto, re di Tessaglia?
It isn’t the look of costumes so much as trying to find an unique costume profile for each character. Alceste and Admeto for example are almost wrapped in an enormous amount of fabric to give them a strong static appearance.

Have you been to the Edinburgh International Festival before?
I´ve never been to the Edinburgh International Festival before, but years ago when I was working on a movie production in Glasgow I made a trip to Edinburgh. I had deep impressions by this city which was almost like a surreal microcosm for me. This amazing northern light seemed to had found its ideal architecture and city topography to create a magic theatrical scenery which one will find nowhere else then here. I’m excited to come back.

Admeto, re di Tessaglia will be performed on 28, 29 and 31 August at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Tickets are available from eif.co.uk/admeto.

10 August, 2009

Festival 09 iCalendar

Our programme of events for this year's Festival is now available as an iCalendar download. This enables you to view all our events in your desktop calendar application, and find out dates, times and details quickly. It makes it easy to check your personal appointments against our Festival schedule and copy events you're attending into your own calendar. It's compatible with Outlook, Apple iCal and Google Calendar, and will even sync with your iPhone.

- To view the Festival 09 Google Calendar click here.
- To add the Festival 09 events to your own calendar, download the iCalendar file here.
- For more info and instructions on the Festival 09 iCalendar click here.

If you have any feedback or questions on our new Festival 09 iCalendar email digital.marketing@eif.co.uk with the subject "iCalendar".

Dialogos CD pack competition

Image: Tondal's Vision, Diagolos. Photo: Corinne Silva.

Dialogos is a vocal ensemble specialising in medieval music which has been described as "passionate and divinely beautiful from beginning to end" (Cresendo).
For Festival 09 Tondal's Vision will be performed in Church Slavonic and Latin with English supertitles, telling one of the most popular stories of the 12th century. In this version Dialogos presents the vision in a new context with medieval polyphony producing a pure and expressive rendition of an ancient tale.
We are giving away a special Dialogos prize pack containing the CDs Tondal's Vision, Lombards et Barbares, Chant Wars and Abbo Abbas. Further details of the CDs can be found on the Dialogos website. To enter the draw email marketing@eif.co.uk with your name, address and the subject heading "Dialogos", plus answer the questions "When was the Dialogos ensemble formed?"
Dialogos performs Tondal's Vision at Canongate Kirk on 24 and 25 August. For more info and to book tickets click here.

05 August, 2009

The Scottish Diaspora

Ong Keng Sen is the director of TheatreWorks (Singapore). Keng Sen and a group of video artists have searched for real-life stories of diaspora and displacement, creating a visionary production, layering music, video and live story-telling. Here, Ong Keng Sen talks about how he came to collaborate with Rabiya Choudhry, one of the video artists involved in Diaspora.

"I asked Rabiya Choudhry to join us onstage with Diaspora. I am particularly interested in her work as an expression of a new generation of Scots. She oozes confidence about who she is and yet, has a coexisting vulnerability. What is evident in her paintings/drawings is their connectedness with her personal choices. There seems to be a direct conduit between her dreams, her fears, her insecurities, her strengths and what she draws. The paintings are not forced nor artificial but instead are sharings of inner conversations. In her work, there is a blurring of private and public space, as obsessions tumble into the open and are embraced by her public.

I was first introduced to her work by The Skinny, an arts/entertainment newspaper in Edinburgh. The expressionism, the abstraction is compelling and yet it seems of the here and now, of clubs, of fashion, of the urban. I can imagine her drawings on the street as graffiti, as street art. In fact I have seen them or I imagine I have, so potent and iconic is the expression. Yet it has a direct line to Picasso, Gauguin. It is the narrative of a generation of disenfranchised inner-city street kids speaking to the power centre of our times. However, when you meet Rabiya, you realize that she is balanced, well adjusted to her mixed or double heritage, very comfortable with who she is in Scottish society. Of course, there are anxieties but it is clear that these anxieties are channeled into art. The now- generations of Scots embrace these anxieties in Rabiya’s work as a reflection of their own anxieties. This hints at the times, everyone has begun to feel the alienation of being the outsider. The alien-nation is truly well and alive as otherness is negotiated through art.

On 26 March – 1 Apr 2009, we filmed Rabiya and her family. The above questions were not answered initially but we decided to proceed and discover. On 26 Mar, we filmed Rabiya talking in depth about her work, her impulses, her themes, her worldview. On 27 Mar, we visited her parents. Her mother Moona had converted to Islam when she was a teenager even before meeting her future husband. As a young girl, Moona took on this Islamic name and was convinced that she preferred Islamic faith to her white family’s Christian faith. At that time, she fostered herself to a Muslim family. She remembers being chased down the street by Scottish children who called her a paki-lover. As she reached her late teens, her foster family felt that it was becoming difficult for Moona to continue staying there unless she was betrothed. This was how Moona met Rabiya’s father, Mazar. Mazar had come from Pakistan in search of a tertiary education but had stayed on after. He did not complete his studies and instead set up his own businesses which failed one after the other. Today, he works at a call centre while Moona is a housekeeper at a home for the elderly. He is a devout Muslim. Rabiya is the only daughter and she lives as an artist in Edinburgh. When she visits Moona and Mazar in Baillieston, Glasgow, she becomes their daughter.

We drive out to Girvan after picking her parents up from Baillieston. This is the second time I was meeting her parents. We had broken the ice a couple of days earlier, meeting for dinner in Glasgow. As I had an agenda of filming them, I wanted to seek their approval. It was a dinner with bated breath. Thanks to reality TV, Mazar was not disapproving and actually looked forward to his 5 minutes of fame under the camera spotlight!!!

In Girvan, the three of them was a gripping sight. Moona, a ginger-blonde woman in her Pakistani national dress or shalwar qameez; Mazar a respectable, solemn, elder from the south Asian community, physically still strong; Rabiya, their child who has grown into a young woman, an ‘emerging artist’. We followed them down the streets of Girvan where they had lived for a couple of years. Mazar had a sundries shop surviving through the patronage of the holiday beach crowd. He also worked in a restaurant. Moona looked after their three young kids. As they walked down memory lane, we filmed them from behind, referencing the camera which followed Vito Acconci as he trailed strangers in the streets of Manhattan in the 60s. It was an interesting memory walk which transformed Rabiya into a child again, unconsciously, as she relived the town. Girvan is now a deserted beach town. Today, most Scottish travel abroad for their holidays, rather than going to another local town. Girvan was almost a film set, it was our film set for that day anyhow.

On 29 Mar, we all met in Edinburgh in Rabiya’s apartment and filmed her work again. One of her best-known paintings is Moona Mother, Paki Lover and the Coffee Coloured Children (2004). Her father appears (owl-like) in one of her self-portraits, The Art Show (2004), on her shoulder for it is the Islamic belief that there are angels on one’s shoulders recording one’s good and bad deeds.

Rabiya professes her fascination with Hindu cosmology and visual imagery where the woman’s body is not shameful but indeed can be powerful like the Hindu goddess Kali. We joke that she is a leftover from before the Partition. We finally move onto Calton Hill where Rabiya talks about her love for Edinburgh, her journey between self/artist/lover in Edinburgh and Mazar’s daughter in Baillieston, Glasgow.

On 30 Mar, we return to Moona and Mazar. We visit Govanhill, their first home together in Glasgow. They had first lived here separately. It was also here that they met for the first time after Moona had chosen Mazar’s photo as a potential suitor. Govanhill is still the South Asian enclave of Glasgow, of Scotland. We returned to the family house in Baillieston where we filmed the old albums and learnt more about Mazar’s family in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Moona had visited, staying for one year. She learnt from her mother-in-law how to keep a Pakistani household, especially how to cook curries for Mazar. Mazar visited but shortly, he was keeping a business in Glasgow. Moona became pregnant and continued to live alone in a strange country, a foreign culture. It was only when she became ill that she was sent back to Glasgow. Both Moona and Mazar were worried that she would have a premature birth in Pakistan where there were few good medical facilities."