Edinburgh Festival: daunting in its rich variety. Generous sampling undertaken by critic
THE annual Edinburgh Festival claims to be the largest arts gala in the world, and that isn't too difficult to believe. Coverage of the main festival, alone, by anything less than a busload of critics (a dire thought) is impossible. And the unofficial fringe events, with 900 shows in 100 locations, need an army. So the festivalgoer here is forced to make a hopeful choice from the program, add a few extras in the course of the event that someone says you mustn't miss, stray into a fringe event or two, regret missing half-a-dozen productions everyone else is raving about, and feel at the end of it all as though he's had enough culture and entertainment in three weeks to last him a lifetime -- or at least until next year.Skip to next paragraph
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This year's program, the 40th, included:
A Chinese Magical Circus with balancing acts beyond belief.
Verdi's ``A"ida'' in Swedish with no anachronistic elephants.
``Medea'' by Euripides in Japanese.
``Hamlet'' set in the 18th century.
An expressionistic modern dance about Poland by the London Festival Ballet.
Juggling and patter by the American ``Flying Karamazov Brothers.''
Vigorous portraits from Scotland's ``Golden Age.''
Artful Japanese marionettes, presented by a company founded in 1660.
Strindberg's ``Miss Julie'' directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The Maly Theatre of Leningrad in an opera about Mary, Queen of Scots.
And that's just a sampling.
Each festival has a theme. This year it was the Scottish Enlightenment, described as an ``extraordinary outburst of intellectual activity'' in the latter part of the 18th century. Several exhibitions hung their coats on this peg, ``A Hotbed of Genius'' being perhaps the central and most informative -- though a rather bookish -- one. ``Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age,'' telling one aspect of the same story, did its job more impressively.
The portraits by Allan Ramsay (1713-84) seem peculiarly Scottish in their sensitive rectitude, while Sir Henry Raeburn's (1756-1823), freer and more romantic, were painted with such apparent ease that their penetrating understanding of character is continually surprising. Both artists epitomize the intelligence and style of the period. (This exhibition will reappear in London, at the Tate, in October.)
In Edinburgh the most obvious inheritance from the Enlightenment is some incomparable 18th-century architecture. The 1986 festival capitalized on it.
Two Enlightenment dramas -- John Home's play ``Douglas'' and poet Allan Ramsay's ballad opera ``The Gentle Shepherd'' -- were staged in the long, splendid classical setting of the Signet Library. The delightful St. Cecilia's Hall of 1762 was used, not for the first time in the festival, for readings and performances, this year all connected with Scotland.
Most dramatic, though, was the Toho Company of Japan's ``Medea,'' open-air and after-dark in the 18th-century courtyard of the university's Old College. The solemn classical architecture was immensely effective as backdrop for this larger-than-life Greek tragedy performed with excruciating intensity in theKabuki style. The end, with the heroine and her slaughtered children in a fluttering pink chariot drawn by dragons, dazzling against the night sky, high over the top of the building, was an indelible spectacle.
A spectacle of a different and purely enchanting kind was the production of ``Oberon'' directed by Festival Director Frank Dunlop himself. Instead of the usual opening concert in a rather institutional Usher Hall, the place was transformed by elaborate staging, extravagantly beautiful costumes, and the cumulative effect of a dance-cum-masque-cum-pantomime of endless energy, fun and grace. The orchestra nestled in the set, and the fantasy of the music was in fine harmony with the singing and the action. (In this case the connection with ``The Enlightenment'' was a little tenuous -- the libretto was based on a poem by a German poet much influenced by Macpherson's ``Ossian'' -- but who cared anyway?)