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.

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?)

It was, among other things, a personal triumph for Mr. Dunlop. As a ``theater man'' he could be expected to introduce a new emphasis on this art to the festival. He has. The music fare this year has come in for some criticism, and the dance offerings cannot be described as adventurous. But Dunlop has organized a ``World Theatre Season,'' which is truly international in scope and unquestionably a success.

There were accolades for the Stary Theatre of Krakow's ``Crime and Punishment,'' for Bavarian State Theatre's ``John Gabriel Borkman,'' directed by Bergman, and for the Spanish Nuria Espert Company's two Lorca productions, ``Yerma'' and ``Blood Wedding.''

Market Theatre of Johannesburg also received high praise for two plays presenting ``a vivid picture of life in South Africa today.''

``Medea'' was so popular that an extra performance was given. ``Miss Julie'' by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm was a detailed, ferociously moving period version of Strindberg's tense play about the disastrous effect of crossing social barriers by sexual relations -- an interesting contrast to a modern South African, black/white production in last year's festival.

The English ``Hamlet'' by the Oxford Playhouse Company was almost the only drama to be less than popular. This was undeserved. It was an extraordinarily compelling production, full-blooded and pungent. There certainly was something rotten in this black-shrouded 18th-century court with its creepy, spying, tongue-clicking court followers, masked and cloaked as if for a Venetian carnival.

David Threlfall's Hamlet was vacillating, exaggerated, pathetic: a weak man with the sardonic gift of voicing his thoughts. Richard Kay's worldly cynical Polonius was also memorable.

A weekend of modern music at the Queen's Hall was crowned by a morning concert given by a group called ``Lontano,'' mainly devoted to living British composers. It was refreshing to see them jump on the platform to acknowledge the applause and kiss the conductor, Odaline de la Martinez, herself a composer and founder of the accomplished and venturesome ``Lontano.''

Anthony Gilbert's ``Quartet of Beasts'' and Geoffrey King's ``You, Always You, Op.32 (1986),'' prompted by a poem by Roger Musson, stick vividly in the mind.

It just happened that the last event I saw this year, ``A"ida,'' by Stockholm's Folkopera Company, was also conducted by a woman composer, Kerstin Nerbe. But this was not the only unusual thing about this version of Verdi's Egyptian opera. A small orchestra assisted by synthesizer techniques achieved a suitably strong sound, and a small cast managed splendidly to suggest the necessary magnificence of spectacle, while emphasizing the opera's humanity and intimacy.

Much Egyptological accuracy in setting, costuming, and movement gave this production extraordinary authenticity, aided by a ``diversion from the Nile'' in the form of a temple bathing pool full of real water in which washing and swimming, ritual and otherwise, took place. Here, too, A"ida and Radames met their dim and tragic fate, standing somewhat stiffly waist-deep in the murky liquid.

This production -- done on a comparative shoestring -- was very popular in Edinburgh (as it has been in Sweden for two seasons), and Frank Dunlop is on record as wanting the company back again in 1987.

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