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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Preview: Edinburgh International Festival

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Preview: Edinburgh International Festival

WHEN Jonathan Mills took the top job at the Edinburgh International Festival four years ago, he made a study of the organisation's history. The year that particularly caught his eye was 1983. That was when the outgoing artistic director John Drummond put together his Vienna 1900 programme, inviting companies as diverse as the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and the Tokyo Quartet to take a fresh look at the Austrian capital at a time of great cultural flowering.

Drummond realised that the EIF, with its combination of artforms, could reflect on such a period from multiple standpoints, whether it was Scottish Opera doing Death In Venice or the Municipal Theatre of Haifa doing a play about philosopher Otto Weininger. The theme did not apply to every production, but it was broad enough to be felt throughout the programme. According to Drummond's memoirs, the critics said it "made sense and added to the understanding of the period".

Subsequent directors have toyed with similar themes, but none so overtly as Mills. His first programme in 2007 explored the influence of Monteverdi and the idea of setting words to music; his second considered geographical and cultural borders; and his third took us back to the age of Enlightenment and Scotland's influence on the world.

The starting point for the just-announced 2010 programme is New Worlds, not only the relatively familiar landscape of North America, but also the more exotic textures of South America and the cultures of the Pacific Ocean right across to the islands of Australasia. He is bringing us dancers from the Amazon basin, actors from Chile and musicians steeped in American jazz.

To keep things connected, he is also presenting European artists who have things to say about the Americas. The late choreographer Pina Bausch pays homage to the rhythms of Brazil in Agua, the National Theatre of Scotland remembers this nation's unsuccessful attempt at establishing a South American colony in Alistair Beaton's Caledonia and Opéra de Lyon reinvents Porgy And Bess.

If you look hard, you will find events that do not fit the pattern – performances that are there on quality alone – but there are relatively few. This in itself is a considerable feat in such a big festival. Mills has a finite commissioning budget, so he has to enthuse artists to join in with his theme or find existing work that complements it. And, of course, that work has to be good.

Is it worth the effort? There are certainly some immediate benefits. It provides an instant angle for newspaper reports, which generates good publicity, and it makes marketing easier. To present the festival as a coherent narrative and not a disparate list of events takes less explaining.

But then what? Will the midweek visitor with a ticket for the Cleveland Orchestra care that they could have been seeing the South Pacific choreography of Lemi Ponifasio on the same night? Even if they saw two shows in a day – say, a matinee of the Chilean political drama Diciembre followed by an evening performance of Paco Peña Flamenco – would they make the connection? How many shows would they have to see before the theme started to resonate?

As Mills sees it, this is not an issue. Each show stands on its own merit, but the theme is there to be explored for anyone who is so minded. If you have the time to investigate a number of shows and the willingness to move from artform to artform, then the performances will become more than the sum of their parts.

On balance, I think he is right, although some themes work better than others. It was easy, for example, to get a grip on the words-and-music theme in 2007 when you had the Wooster Group in La Didone staging a collision between a sci-fi B-movie and a Cavalli opera. By contrast, the theme of borders in 2008 seemed more theoretical. Another risk is that thematic relevance overrides artistic quality, a feeling shared last year by some who saw the critically panned Diaspora.

But more importantly, a theme invests the EIF with a sense of purpose. It stops it becoming a decadent event for privileged westerners, a feast of high-art consumerism, and gives it an intellectual rigour. Just as an individual performance can change an audience's perspective, so too can a whole festival. In that sense, a theme becomes a political act, one that challenges the status quo. It will be fascinating in 2010, therefore, to see how far Mills succeeds not only in entertaining us but also in shifting our Eurocentric worldview in the direction of the Pacific.

Tickets for the Edinburgh International Festival go on sale to the public on Saturday, 27 March. The Scotsman will carry a Festival guide the same day. The Festival runs from 13 August until 5 September.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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