EDINBURGH — A STRANGE thing can happen by the middle of the three-week annual Edinburgh International Festival. You start running into people who are apparently attending a completely different festival. It is surreally taking place at the same time, and it's certainly here in the Scottish capital city. But they have been attending a whole range of theatrical productions, recitals, films, cabaret acts, and exhibitions of period photographs that you not only have not been to, you haven't even seen advertised.
At this point it is important to hold your head up high. You should not be made to feel that you have missed all the significant contributions to the '92 festival by misguided choices at the outset, insufficient study of the Fringe Programme, or too-lax attention to the promotional snippets quoted from the Guardian, Scotsman, Herald, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Variety, Melody Maker, or (in the case of one performer) "his mother." This festival is, as ever, gloriously diverse and impossibly big. E veryone has to pick and choose. Everyone has his own festival. Yours is the best.
Of course there are always productions or concerts you have selected that put your inclination toward eulogy under severe strain. By the Wednesday of Week 2, I was beginning to regret my allegiance to C.P. Taylor, playwright. Should I have chosen the Edwardian Harley Granville Barker instead? These two British playwrights, both presented as unjustly neglected, have the lion's share of the drama in the official festival program: three productions and four readings of Granville Barker, seven productions by
the prolific Glasgow-born Taylor, who died in 1981. I chose Taylor as more recent and presumably more relevant.
His play "Walter" (1977) is about the final years and reminiscences of Scottish Jewish music-hall comedian Walter Jackson; "The Ballachulish Beat" is a "modern" (actually very '60s-ish) morality play set in the world of pop music, with undercurrents of outdated political protest; "The Black and White Minstrels" offers a wry look at the domestic mayhem and nervous uncertainty lying just below the surface of today's (yesterday's?) permissiveness, promiscuity, and verbal openness.
The basic problem is that each of these revivals lacks conviction. Is it the writing or the production or the acting? Difficult to tell. The audiences have been sparse, the reaction muted, the applause brief. The actors hardly seem to care. I'm sure I'm not alone in never having seen a Taylor play (he wrote about 70 in all) before this retrospective. But people who recall earlier productions, and who knew Taylor himself, speak warmly of both.
However, Taylor seems to have written for and of the moment; he does not seem to have bothered too much about beginnings, middles, and ends (some bang, some whimper, who cares?).
His dialogue overflows with a natural ease, and these festival productions have certainly caught that. But Taylor's laughter, which I am sure is in the texts, is ridden over roughshod. The actor playing Walter, for example, fails to engage the audience either through humor or sympathy - yet Taylor often has him directly address the audience, and as an instinctual playwright, he unquestionably knew that even if subversion of the audience is the chief purpose, this can only be done by first making us belie ve we are co-conspirators. It's just a game. But if entire rows of the audience walk out in disgust (undeleted expletives didn't help here), it suggests that somewhere a boat has been missed.
THIS said, though, two of the Taylor plays I've seen have been unforgettable, knowingly and sensitively directed, and splendidly performed. Admittedly "Schippel" is not entirely his play. It is based on German writer Carl Sternheim's 1913 comedy that makes fun of the mores and manners of the bourgeoisie. Taylor's Paul Schippel is a plumber with a tenor voice of startling beauty, his passport to social heights.
"Schippel" is a delightful period piece, and is quite as subversive in its societal undertones as Taylor's completely original texts, and it is also infinitely funnier, as well as surprisingly moving.
Even more moving is "Operation Elvis." Ostensibly for children (it came out of Taylor's energetic dedication to drama as part of the education of disabled youngsters), it is a simple story simply dramatized. But it hits uncompromisingly at people's intolerance of mental and physical incapacity.
The power in "Operation Elvis" comes from the remarkable central performances of Andy Milarvie as Malcolm (a schoolboy who believes he's the reincarnation of Elvis) and Annalu Waller as Michelle, (a girl who suffers from cerebral palsy). Miss Waller, a South African who lives in Scotland, is herself disabled. The passionate plea for understanding of those even more unfortunate than herself that she invested in this part is all the more extraordinary because this is her first acting role.
Although the audience for this production (in one of the most far-flung, unappealing festival venues ever) was undersized, those who saw it were intensely enthusiastic, and rightly so.
Much more usual festival fare came in the form of the return of Cristina Hoyos's flamenco ballet company from Spain. Her company brings a heartfelt mastery of the traditional national form, instilling it with new life.
FROM the United States, the Mark Morris Dance Group brought two programs, "Dido and Aeneas" and a generous evening of five pieces culminating in "Gloria" (Vivaldi). Incisive to the point of metronomic obedience, classical to its roots, yet endlessly inventive in shape and gesture, this marvelous dancing grasped the attention and never let it go. As has been said many times, here is dance which leaps out of the very fibers of the music. The dancers, musicians, and singers interweave and coordinate as if b y magic.
Two memorable concerts from this festival will stick in my mind. One was the unrelenting surge of the London Philharmonic, under the athletic command of Franz Welser-Most, of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8. Done without interval, this was something of a tour de force, and produced a rapture in the audience that was reflected back on both the orchestra and conductor. I've only seen Mr. Welser-Most at a recording session of Stravinsky before this, and I found him detached; with the Bruckner, and before an audie nce, this Austrian conductor was a kind of firework on the podium.
The other memorable concert was courageously chosen by the festival's new director, Brian McMaster. Who would have thought of Schoenberg as a festival opener? And yet this concert performance of his opera "Moses and Aaron," for all its dialectical abstraction and weighty theological argument, came over with irresistible panache.
* The festival ends Sept. 5.