Jonny McNaul writes about his experience at the Edinburgh International Festival. 


For anyone who has experienced the frenzied festival season in Edinburgh, the regular arts scene elsewhere may seem relatively lacklustre. But while the prospect of innumerable shows and concerts is tempting to any lover of the arts, the true gems can take a while to find. This is certainly true of the Festival Fringe, whose charm lies, almost paradoxically, in the fact it is so unbelievably vast. Try as some people might, it is physically impossible to make a dent in the intimidating festival programme, and so choosing the shows which interest you is tantamount to a ‘make or break’ scenario. While this may seem novel at first, shortly it becomes a bit of hassle.

While I admire and encourage anyone who relishes some cultural risk taking, I for one could not really be arsed with the annual expedition to find the interesting stuff. ‘If only someone out there could choose for me’ I thought naively. And I suppose that is exactly why a job offer from the International Festival was so enticing. I knew I would be going to see artists who were specifically chosen for their excellence by the Festival Director, unlike the Fringe, whose raison d’etre is allowing artists to invite themselves. And what is more, I was prepared to have complimentary theatre and concert tickets showered upon me like confetti. What could be better?

As it turns out, the International Festival provided something not all that different to the Fringe; an impressive range of music and theatre ranging from the utterly sublime to the questionable at best. For all its prestige, the festival was (as always, I have been told), a mixed bag. Take Ivo van Hove’s hotly anticipated adaptation of Sophokles’ ‘Antigone’, starring Juliette Binoche. Certainly there were many positive elements to the production: the striking minimalism of the set (whose sparse, geometric design complimented the sobriety of the text), and very assured performances from Kathryn Pogson (Euridike) and Samuel Edward-Cook (Haimon), made the show ‘worthwhile’. However, the one thing the play could not escape was its protagonist, Binoche herself, whose portrayal of the doomed heroine came across as more hysterical than dignified. After a while, the whole affair became odious and stale, and on leaving the theatre I was more than ready for a stiff drink. Contrast this with the rave reviews showered on Complicite’s production of ‘The Encounter’ with Simon McBurney, which was deemed by one of my own customers as a ‘life-changing’ piece of theatre, owing to the masterful storytelling and the ingenious technique of whispering the monologues to the audience through their own personal headphones, which was both intimate and strangely alienating. Towards the end of the festival I was given tickets for a rather different play, ‘Murmel Murmel’ by Dieter Roth. It was a German absurdist piece in which the characters could only utter the word ‘murmel’. This certainly would not have seemed out of place in the Fringe. It was weird, surreal, at times disturbing, and at other times side-splittingly funny. Ultimately, the show made me think much more than I had anticipated. The nonsensical and psychotic activities of the cast sent my brain into overdrive in an attempt to find patterns in their slapstick movements or to discern a sense of narrative continuity. Of course, there was no sense to anything on stage; in many respects it was a play in which the audience’s imaginations did all the work for them.

But perhaps the best piece of theatre I saw all summer, was not a piece of theatre at all, but a concert. One of the more interesting and thrilling selections of this year’s festival was a performance by Sufjan Stevens, in support of his most recent album, ‘Carrie and Lowell’. From the moment the support act started, I had an inkling that every element to the evening had been thought out with intense care, giving Sufjan a platform to explore the troubled relationship with his mother through a devastating song cycle. For instance, it surely was not coincidence that the support act was Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a mother and son duo. Sufjan’s performance itself was nothing short of spellbinding; each song was delivered as a quiet and impassioned monologue, from the lamenting regret of ‘Should Have Known Better’ to the painful nostalgia of ‘Eugene’. Bryce Dessner from The National created a soundscape, which at one point transformed into a goose bump inducing cacophony, steadily growing in volume. All the while, the Edinburgh Playhouse was filled with an intense white light, engulfing Sufjan and his band, which only enhanced the otherworldly nature of the performance. The entire concert was more than a series of disconnected songs, but a poignant and unforgettable story, and one which I will remember.

Although there are many more shows I could have discussed, these particular performances helped me reach a conclusion on what constitutes a good festival experience. Although the International Festival may seem like a safe bet for anyone who wants to see top quality artists, ultimately this is an unrealistic expectation. The Festival Director has also taken a risk to invite certain theatre companies or musicians, albeit an informed risk. In short, I have realised that risk-taking is a key component of any festival. It allows us to challenge our tastes, and to think about what makes ‘good’ art. Of course, each individual can decide this for themselves, but perhaps experiencing ‘bad’ theatre can give us a greater appreciation of the good, and vice versa. Next year, if I return to Edinburgh, I will keep this lesson in mind.


Jonny McNaul