Tuesday, 13 March 2018

EIF 2018, or The Drip, Drip, Drip Release of the Programme…

In my 20 years as an International Festival regular there have, broadly speaking, been four approaches to release of information about the annual programme prior to the official launch. Under Brian McMaster, a leaflet was produced around Christmas with highlights by week for the following year (usually a combination of major artists and works). This remains the best method and we have long advocated a return to it. Under Jonathan Mills the leaflet, when it was produced, became an announcement of the coming year's theme, usually with no detail as to actual performances. Fergus Linehan's initial approach was to announce a flagship show (he also opened booking for it in advance of the rest of the programme, a policy we strongly criticised and which, interestingly and positively, appears now to have been quietly abandoned). This year Linehan seems to be trying a new tactic. Since the autumn, a steady drip of announcements and leaks (usually not directly from the Festival itself) have provided more information about the 2018 programme than we have had at this stage for a Festival since the McMaster era. This information raises some questions.

Two flagship shows (at least on paper) have been revealed as a result of this. The first is the return of Complicite (seen at Festival 2015 with The Encounter (about which my feelings were more mixed than many)) in collaboration with the playwright Enda Walsh and the actor Cillian Murphy in an adaptation of Max Porter's novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers. You can read the reports from The Stage and What's On Stage. Two previous collaborations between Walsh and Murphy visited the National Theatre late in the Hytner era - Misterman (a pretty gripping, if weird one man show), and the much less convincing Ballyturk. The play premiers in Galway in three days time, so we won't have long to wait for reviews.

The second show Wayne McGregor's Autobiography – see the list of co-producers - has interestingly not been mentioned by the Festival at all so far as I've seen. McGregor's Woolf Works (Royal Ballet) was one of my highlights of last year. Londoners had an opportunity to catch this work last October, and it returns to Sadler's Wells in the summer, prior, I presume, to an Edinburgh run in August. Reviews of those earlier performances have been a bit mixed ranging from two stars in the Standard and the Telegraph (behind the paywall), three stars in The Guardian and The Stage, and five stars in The Observer. Americans at the New York City run seem to have been less keen, judging by these reviews in the New York Times and from Bachtrack.

The other major work was rumoured in Opera's We Hear That column last month – a staged La Cenerentola from Opera de Lyon directed by Stefan Herheim. Opera de Lyon last brought to Edinburgh a Fidelio which remains one of the worst opera productions I've ever sat through. On the other hand their earlier visit in 2006 with Mazeppa and a Weill double bill was quite outstanding. My only encounter with Herheim's work was his unconvincing Les Vepres Siciliennes at the Royal Opera. The only review I can find in English of this new Cenerentola does not inspire confidence see here. While I love Rossini I can't say that this strikes me as the most exciting piece of programming, assuming the rumour proves true (we shall find out on tomorrow).

Next we come to the latest entry in the Festival's increasing (and in my view increasingly questionable) presentations of Scottish theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland is to take over the Hub for a restaging of a musical comedy, Midsummerby David Greig and Gordon McIntyre. The staging is to be “immersive” and “radical” - terms which do not, on past form, inspire confidence. Given the show was according to the press release originally staged at the Traverse in 2008 the question (which has arisen with other of the Festival's recent Scottish imports) must be asked again – is this something only the Festival could do? Why should audiences pay Festival prices for something that if it started life in the Traverse and has since been touring could perfectly well be done in the NTS's regular season? There is also the unfortunate fact that the NTS's record at the Festival is not good – their last appearance being the interminable Anything that Gives Off Light. If this is balanced by an appropriately international theatre programme then less criticism arises, but recent programming raises questions in that regard.

The opening event has also been announced, a production entitled Five Telegrams. Co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and under the 14-18 NOW umbrella this will be a collaboration between Anna Meredith and 59 Productions. Personally, I've found it difficult to see the attraction of the annual lighting up of bits of Edinburgh for these opening events (especially as the Festival persists in making no effort at them to draw the attention of the audience to any of the rest of the programme), though I admit I seem to be in a minority on this, but Meredith is certainly a composer of talent and 14-18 NOW have been responsible for some fantastic commissions in the last few years.

And finally, we have the leak to The Scotsman last week, linked to subsequent reports about the amount of money the EIF will receive from the Scottish Government's Festivals Expo Fund.
This announced that the Festival is to return to a newly refurbished Leith Theatre for a season of Scottish pop, rock, folk and indie bands - a plan which raises a number of questions. Fergus Linehan's work in broadening the range of musical genres featured in the Festival has been admirable in intention. But it is a strand which has, to my mind, lacked imagination in contrast say to the BBC Proms offerings in the same area. Based on the shows that I've attended it seems to me many could just as easily have been produced by other promoters at others times of the year, or by other promoters during August.

That this is to be, it seems, a purely Scottish strand also raises questions. There have been several problems of programming balance during Linehan's tenure. To give two examples - the failure to balance a theatre programme dominated by Scottish companies with any non-UK based theatre company in 2017, and Linehan's retreat across his three Festivals from programming contemporary classical music, down both on the Mills and McMaster eras, and it sometimes feels with concealment of this attempted by the branding of a contemporary music strand which is in practice non-classical. It remains to be seen whether this Scottish music strand will be appropriately balanced by the rest of the music programme. But simply on its own terms it does not strike me as appropriate to an International Festival where balance should, I suggest, require a mix of Scottish and non-Scottish bands and the focus for the latter should be on acts that Edinburgh audiences would otherwise be unlikely to have a chance to hear.

Final judgement on all these questions must await the full release of the 2018 programme at 6.30pm tomorrow. But this drip, drip, drip of advance announcements does raise some significant issues.

Postscript: As I was about to go to press on this we had another leak today via the Barbican. Among several new listings was Theatre des Bouffes du Nord's The Malady of Death, an adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novella by playwright Alice Birch, directed by Katie Mitchell. Buried in the co-producers list (which I'm beginning to think I'm the only person reading) is the Edinburgh International Festival. A brief, positive, review can be found as part of this longer round up of recent French work. I have not seen any of Birch's previous work. I've seen two pieces directed by Mitchell, George Benjamin's Written on Skin at the Royal Opera and Sarah Kane's Cleansed at the National Theatre in 2016 about both of which I had mixed feelings. That this new work is to involve "live cinema" via "sophisticated camera techniques" I definitely do not find encouraging - Ivo van Hove's recent unconvincing work in this area comes to mind (seen most recently in Network at the National). These are certainly a company and collaborators of international standing, I'm personally a little bit sceptical as to what the quality of the work will end up being.

Postscript 2: As it turned out we got one thing wrong prior to launch. Complicite's Grief is the Thing With Feathers is not coming to EIF 2018 (rather to my chagrin I've just noticed in re-viewing the original Galway announcement that it does say "The production will tour in 2019"). Assuming it reaches the EIF next year this will make it the earliest pre-announcement of an EIF show since the Ring Cycles. It will also be an interesting measure of how far down the international pecking order the EIF sits - my suspicion is the show will pass through London (Barbican) and New York City first, but we shall see.


Keri said...

The Leith Theatre. My, that takes one back. My first visit to the EIF was in 1965. Pierre Boulez, the Domaine Musicale, and mezzo Jeanne de Roubaix performed Pierrot Lunaire and Le Marteau sans Maitre to a capacity audience at the Leith Theatre. And Helga Pilarczyk in Pli selon Pli at the Usher Hall. What do we get now? Wall to wall Mahler. And Max Richter, gawdelpus.

Finn Pollard said...

Thanks for sharing that - really interesting - and rather a sign, as you say, of the contrast between then and now...

Duncan Gillies said...

Leith was the scene of my first magical encounter with Jessye Norman and the songs of Poulenc. Then out into the lunchtime sunshine and a bracing sea breeze. Happy days.

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