FLICK through the programme of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and patterns quickly emerge. Fergus Linehan, who has been director of the prestigious arts showcase since 2015, has put together an offering that foregrounds the most urgent concerns of a world in turmoil.
It’s not just that there’s a series of discussions and debates entitled The Departure Lounge, which includes Morning Manifesto (in which 18 writers offer political provocations in the Lyceum Rehearsal Studio between August 5 and 24) and reflections on Power, Gender and the Arts (the Lyceum, August 24). The stage works themselves reflect artists’ eagerness to engage meaningfully with a world in which events, from climate chaos to the rise of the far right, often seem to defy comprehension.
There is theatre that reflects upon the experiences of the marginalised and the survival of peoples who have faced genocide. In Hear Word! (Lyceum, August 19-25), for example, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Oluchi Odii and eight other leading female figures in the Nigerian arts and entertainment industries offer fearless testimonies of the oppression and resistance of women in Africa’s most populous country.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s European premiere of the stage version of Kate Grenville’s acclaimed modern novel The Secret River (King’s Theatre, August 2-11) promises to delve powerfully into the dark and difficult origins of the Australian nation. Fascinatingly, in this 80th anniversary year of the beginning of the Second World War, the Komische Oper Berlin and Barrie Kosky bring us musical theatre that survived the Nazi Holocaust in the shape of Yiddish operetta songs from Warsaw to Broadway (Lyceum, August 16).
We should not be surprised, says Linehan when I meet him in his Edinburgh office, that the festival programme alights on such topical subjects as the struggle for gender equality, the dispossession and resistance of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia or the survival of Jewish culture in the face of genocidal anti-Semitism. It wasn’t so much a case of him deciding on such themes for his programme, he explains, as artists around the globe pushing these subjects to the fore.
“I just think that’s in the ether at the moment”, Linehan says. “If you go out and start talking to artists, there’s a sense that to just be enjoying the aesthetics of it all would be fiddling while Rome burns.”
Times have changed, he insists, from when he was appointed as director of the Theatre Festival in his native Dublin in 1999.
“When I started programming, you’d schedule something from Argentina or Indonesia, and the artists brought their own culture that had completely, distinctly different points of reference from ours.”
By contrast, he says, “everyone [around the world] has the same points of reference at the moment. So, for example, you bring a big piece of Nigerian theatre, and what’s it about? It’s about gender issues and the MeToo movement. There’s no doubt that there are global anxieties that are abounding at the moment.”
As an arts programmer and festival director of considerable experience (he spent 10 years in Sydney, directing the Sydney Festival, before going on to be head of music at the Sydney Opera House), Linehan is all too aware that the relationship between the arts and politics can sometimes be a difficult one. Although he is clearly keen to assist artists in addressing the great topics of the age, he is certainly no fan of the sort of worthy, egregiously polemical productions that tend to create a parody of political art.
THE work he has programmed for this coming August is emphatically “not agitprop”, he comments. “It’s a telling of stories, whether or not there’s a message in them.
“There’s a lot of revisiting history. When you’re in a moment like we’re in, people want to just step back a bit and get a little more perspective.”
That is particularly true of the Australian play, he believes. “Secret River revisits the way that Australia tells its history to itself, in a way that is both humanistic and sympathetic, as opposed to just howling at the moon.” The Yiddish operetta show is a case of unveiling a powerful truth by showing audiences something unfamiliar which has, nevertheless, had profound and diverse impacts upon the culture we are all steeped in.
“Yiddish culture is everywhere. It’s in our music hall, our comedy, our films, yet it isn’t acknowledged.”
Although such stories came to Linehan during his search for shows for the EIF (rather than him searching for productions to fit a predetermined theme), that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a concerted effort by the director and his team to accommodate some of the more marginalised work.
The festival became increasingly aware that the work of some important artists from historically oppressed societies and communities was falling between two stools where the Edinburgh festivals were concerned, he explains.
Not well-known enough to make the EIF’s high-profile programme in times gone by, they also struggled to make it to the Fringe. “The Fringe, although it worked for some of those marginalised voices, didn’t work for them all. They’re hard to get here [to Scotland] and they need support.
“We’re talking about complex works by senior artists, but they’re not going to do eight shows in a week in the Festival Theatre.”
Consequently, Linehan explains, the EIF has decided to “protect a bit of its programme” to present the kind of work that might otherwise not have been seen in Edinburgh in August at all.
If that is the case with Hear Word!, for instance, it is equally true of Kiinalik (The Studio, August 2-5), the European premiere of a remarkable dance-theatre piece from Canada that draws upon the cultures of First Nations peoples from the south and north of that vast country.
Such internationalism is the lifeblood of the EIF, of course. However, under Linehan’s leadership, there has also been a renewed emphasis on Scottish stage works.
Unsurprisingly, the Caledonian dimension of this year’s programme also engages with important matters of marginalised communities and issues of identity.
In programming Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s Purposeless Movements (The Studio, August 19-24), Linehan is giving deserved prominence to an excellent, humorous and affecting dance-theatre work by and about people with cerebral palsy.
Likewise Red Dust Road (Lyceum, August 14-18), which is based upon the memoir of author and current Scottish Makar Jackie Kay, whose identity as a mixed-race Scot is intricately intertwined with her having been raised by adoptive parents who were committed Communists.
Even the programming of the big classical works suggests that artists are currently attracted to characters who reflect the tempestuousness of the times in which we live. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (Festival Theatre, August 1-10); Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, rendered as dance by Scottish Ballet (Edinburgh Playhouse, August 3-5); Sophocles’s Oedipus (King’s Theatre, August 14-17); and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, by way of Tchaikovsky’s opera (Festival Theatre, August 15-17) all involve protagonists in various forms of socially generated, existential crises.
“Peer Gynt is about the madness of a life”, says Linehan, “the craziness we go through of being flawed human beings.” As for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s Oedipus, which casts the totemic figure of Ancient Greek tragedy as a modern-day political leader, the festival director finds it “an interesting view of the play”.
This Oedipus, Linehan says, might remind audiences of certain political figures who bestride the world stage today. “It’s the eve of an election and this populist politician is about to win. You don’t know whether he’s right or left, he just has the tropes of those populist politicians. In particular that stance that says: ‘I’m a straight talker, I tell it like it is.’”
THE character is faced with a choice between telling the truth over a particular issue or “doubling down” and lying about it. The festival director says the production is an expression “of the ways in which populism burns itself out”.
The concern, of course, is that far right, sometimes fascist, politicians in government, from Italy and Austria, to Hungary, Turkey and the United States, might light dangerous political fires before they themselves burn out.
Indeed, the fact that such a fear is widely held internationally might explain why this Oedipus has emerged in a programme that is addressing itself to what Linehan calls “global anxieties”.
Even in this political terrain, however, the director finds that artists are not engaging in straightforward denunciation. Perhaps, in the midst of the quickly offended, finger-jabbing culture of social media, the arts are taking on an important humanising role.
“You can see someone who is clearly flawed, is going through a tragic situation and may actually be a bit of a monster, but still actually feel enormous sympathy for them”, Linehan suggests. “I think this is the difference between the theatre we’re seeing now and the agitprop of the 1980s. It’s much more about talking about the humanity of people and trying to understand how the hell we got to this place.”
This reflective humanism is a response to the fact that artists can no longer simply resort to radical declarations against a perceived “Establishment”, the director suspects.
He postulates this is because the far right poses, quite convincingly, as a radical voice against powerful vested interests (albeit that they then attempt to direct people’s anger against not the rich and powerful, but Muslims, Jews, migrants, refugees and other minorities).
“There is no Establishment to rage against”, says Linehan. “The far right took on the mantle of counter-culturalism. Nigel Farage is more punk rock than David Cameron.”
This reactionary radicalism has, he suggests, “taken away from the artist the position of an outsider figure who is ranting against the Establishment… [Consequently] a lot of good artists are going back to really strong narratives.”
Linehan thinks part of the impetus for this exploratory and speculative storytelling comes from a sense that, after we have emerged from the current political turmoil, the “broken society” will have to be mended. “It sounds kind of soft”, he acknowledges, “but it doesn’t really matter which side of the 48/52 split you are on, we’ve got to find some kind of reconciliation.”
From Australia to Nigeria, Canada to the Yiddish musical theatre of Poland and the United States, the 2019 EIF programme is addressing our crisis-ridden world from a variety of fascinating and profound perspectives.
Arts lovers who enjoy being challenged will be pleased to know that Linehan insists that the festival is only “just at the beginnings” of the geographical, social and artistic broadening of its programming.
For details of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival programme, visit: eif.co.uk