- The Edinburgh International Festival, and: The Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The Edinburgh International Festival, founded in 1947, remains the world's oldest, largest, and most prestigious event of its kind. Yet it is only part of a massive month-long arts event. For theatre lovers and theatre masochists, the Fringe Festival is a legendary orgy, a grab-bag of candy and coal—this year, the festival featured 27,000 performances of 1,800 separate shows in 333 venues. Simultaneous festivals focus on film, books, jazz and blues—and starting soon, art. And let us not forget the Military Tattoo, a bizarre spectacle of dancing, prancing, full-dress soldiers playing the world's loudest, gaudiest music as fireworks explode and cannons blare against the backdrop of Edinburgh's gloriously medieval hilltop castle.
Just one month after the subway / bus bombings in London, this year's festival also featured a large security presence. No terror incidents or threats occurred, unless one includes what critics derided as a misguided attempt to make the audience "experience the reality" of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in John Adams's opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which I did not see. I did attend twenty-five theatrical events, not counting the Fringe show I left before it even began, fearing imminent death by asphyxiation from the artificial-fog–saturated, supposedly nontoxic air. This review focuses on several key productions.
One of the summer's most extraordinary theatre events was also its most highly anticipated. The International Festival commissioned Scotland's David Harrower to write Blackbird,directed by Germany's legendary Peter Stein. Harrower had burst onto the scene a decade earlier with the celebrated Knives in Hens(which I had seen at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre). Stein, once the wunderkind of German theatre, had stunned audiences at Berlin's Schaubühne with such works as his politically accusatory, modern-dress Oresteia, suggesting national culpability for Hitler's holocaust. Stein'sreverence for language and the script, evident in his revelatory productions of Chekhov and his fifteen-hour, uncut production of both parts of Goethe's Faustin 2000, gradually soured some former admirers, who accused him of deserting director's theatre in favor of academic pedantry and political irrelevance. Blackbirdproves these critics wrong.
A harrowing and magnificently humane work, Blackbirdis language-focused up until its ending. Questioning the very concepts of love and abuse, the play animates a confrontation between Ray (Roger Allam), a man in his late fifties, and Una (Jodhi May), the young woman who, fifteen years earlier, had been his twelve-year-old sexual partner. Frankly disturbing, the play is neither about an over-sexed Lolita nor an adult child-abuser; rather, like Mark Ravenhill's far more horrifying but equally humane Shopping and Fucking, Blackbirdgrapples with a variety of illicit love that Western society finds unspeakable and incomprehensible. In both plays, desperately damaged people reach out to each other in loneliness, pain, and confusion.
Fifteen years ago, Ray and Una had run away to a coastal town, planning to take the ferry to the continent, but the law and personal misunderstandings ended any possibility of a life together. Ray was imprisoned as a pedophile, and both partners were forced to undergo extensive therapy. Blackbirdhighlights a still-traumatized young woman, the veteran of countless sexual encounters and years of failed therapy, who cannot accept the label of victim. Ray remains similarly unable to see himself in the image of the pedophile presented to him by prison-enforced therapy. We gradually learn the secrets of their past: the missed cues, the fears, the confusions, the attempts to protect and hurt, and even the tender love they shared and may still feel beneath the boiling anger.
Most of the action occurs in Ray's workplace, a narrow, pure-white lunchroom covered with discarded food and crumpled bags. Co-workers and the twelve-year-daughter of the woman Ray now lives with appear beyond the frosted-glass rear wall and occasionally intrude upon the pair. Is...