Edinburgh Festival: Acting responsibly: Sarah Hemming tests Brian McMaster's reactions to last year's harsh criticisms of his inaugural programme as festival director and selects the best of this year's offerings

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The Independent Culture
THIS time a year ago, Brian McMaster was the new man on the job, nervously waiting for the curtain to rise on his first Edinburgh Festival. 'The main undercurrent this week is waiting for the disaster to happen,' he said, then. 'I wish it would hurry up so I can stop imagining the worst.'

A week before the opening of the Edinburgh Festival 1993, the festival director is less jittery - positively sanguine, in fact, as he considers the lessons learnt from one year in the hot seat. 'You can't be all things to all men,' he says. 'It's a very subjective job. Everything in this year's festival is something I want to see - that's the only responsible way to do it. You're bound to get criticism, but I don't find it irksome or a problem. You try to get a thick skin and you accept that you can't please everybody.'

Some of last year's festival wasn't to everybody's taste: his decision to make retrospectives of the playwrights Harley Granville Barker and C P Taylor the centrepiece of the drama programme was criticised. Among the negative responses was this from Michael Coveney of the Observer: 'The C P Taylor retrospective has assumed the proportions of a genuine debacle'; and this from the Daily Express's Maureen Paton: 'William Gaskill's stolid and colourless revival of The Voysey Inheritance . . . will do nothing to alter the impression that the festival has launched a disastrously mediocre 1992 season.'

McMaster has not been discouraged: this year's festival sees a mini- season of plays by Jakob Lenz. 'We did a large number of productions last year and clearly not every one is going to be successful,' McMaster says. 'But I haven't given up the idea of themes - Lenz is a major German playwright whose work is not often seen in this country. The festival offers potential for a real look at his work - as we tried to do with Granville Barker and C P Taylor last year. I think it's really worth doing. It's a concept that we've refined this year and that will come back in years to come.

'A festival is potentially the most exciting way to present art forms. You've got a large number of events in a concentrated period and an excitement which you can give an added depth if you cross-programme events.'

McMaster has, however, tempered the 'thematic' element of the drama programme; as well as the Lenz season, there is a Scottish staging of a classic saga, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair, and major international productions by Peter Stein, Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson.

McMaster's almost pedagogic approach to his role extends not only to his audiences: 'The Fringe is full of young directors and actors. If you've got ambitions to work in theatre you should be getting exposure to the most exciting theatre productions. If you see Peter Stein's work on Julius Caesar, it might have an effect on you. We have a responsibility to young artists on the Fringe.'

The relationship of the festival to the Fringe has always been rather vexed. There have been claims that the more exciting work was on the Fringe, and that the festival, by comparison, was rather stuffy. Frank Dunlop, McMaster's predecessor, attempted to combat such suggestions by inviting Fringe performers onto the festival programme.

'We've gone the other way, towards more clearly defining the festival,' says McMaster. 'That myth does exist and it has made every festival director frustrated. Personally I think you won't find anything less stuffy than Peter Stein's Julius Caesar.'

McMaster has already got into one row over this year's programme. His decision to omit listings of exhibitions from the festival brochure has outraged the galleries and Scottish art critics.

The festival director remains adamant. 'I don't think we should put some in and leave some out. I think it will be our responsibility in the future to develop one major exhibition and ensure that it is properly promoted.'

He does concede, however, that some criticisms of last year's festival were valid. 'We had very little opera last year and there is a huge hunger at the moment for opera, a great demand for it. Our audiences were upset, and we've responded to that. This year, there are three operas. And we need to have some ballet. Neither last year nor this have we had any classical ballet.

'Also one of the things that I was surprised by last year was how small a proportion of the Edinburgh Festival audience comes from Glasgow. In some ways, with this year's programme I'm trying to find things that aren't done in Glasgow. The Tramway there brings over a lot of international theatre, but they have a limited budget. So I've homed in on the large-scale stuff that won't be going there.'

The issue that provoked the most dissent among audiences was the decision to replace on-stage bouquets of flowers for female performers with off-stage bottles of whisky for all artists. 'Some people objected very strongly. But we felt the last thing an artist wants is a bouquet of flowers to lug around - whereas they do need the ability to unwind.' So will he bow this year to public pressure? 'We'll be doing it exactly the same way as last year,' he grins.

The Persians Peter Sellars returns with an innovative version of Aeschylus' The Persians. Royal Lyceum, 16-21 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights Gertrude Stein's version of the Faust legend uses the lightbulb as a symbol, allowing the director Robert Wilson to conjure with light on stage. Royal Lyceum, 25-28 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Julius Caesar Peter Stein's epic production (performed in German) includes 200 extras. Royal Highland Exhibition Hall, 1 & 2 Sept. 031-225 5756.

The Soldiers A welcome return for the Glasgow Citizens Company with Lenz's moral comedy which spearheads the mini Lenz season. Royal Lyceum, 31 Aug-4 Sept. 031-225 5756.

A Scots Quair A staging by TAG theatre company of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Scottish novels. Assembly Hall, 17 Aug-4 Sept. 031-225 5756.

The Legend of St Julian Communicado, the toast of last year's Fringe, returns with a play about a child born to be a saint. Traverse, 17 Aug-4 Sept. 031-228 1404.

I Due Foscari The festival's Verdi series opens with a rare staging of his early Byronic tragedy. King's Theatre, 16, 18 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Tourist Variations James MacMillan's new chamber opera should offer some comic variations on this young Scottish composer's customary political and religious concerns. Traverse, 17-18, 20-21 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Canadian Opera Company Cult theatre director Robert Lepage makes his operatic debut with an expressionist double-bill of Bartok (Bluebeard's Castle) and Schoenberg (Erwartung). Playhouse, 28-29 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Kurt Masur The current MD of the New York Phil leads his old Leipzig orchestra in symphonies by Beethoven (No 1) and Bruckner (Romantic). Usher Hall, 2 Sept. 031-225 5756.

Anne Evans Bayreuth's reigning Isolde launches the morning recital series with Schumann, Wagner and Berg. Queen's Hall, 16 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Andras Schiff The peerless pianist in sonatas by Schubert and Janacek. Queen's Hall, 18 Aug. 031-225 5756.

Huge Ben Miller and Simon Godley perform their new play about future comic idols yet to make it totally huge - much like themselves. Pleasance, 12 Aug-4 Sept. 031-556 6550.

Miditations John Shuttleworth, last year's Perrier nominee and pop messiah, moves on to greater heights with more devilishly hooky tunes. Pleasance, 24-30 Aug. 031-556 6550.

Emo Philips Legendary sex nerd with the Plantagenet rug and a sickish, self- mocking brand of humour. Assembly Rooms, 22-29 Aug. 031-226 2428. Queen's Hall, 30-31 Aug. 031-668 2019.

An Audience with an African Queen Knowing satire from South Africa's Pieter Dirk Uys. Assembly at the Meadows, 13 Aug-4 Sept. 031-229 9281.

Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World New age prophets unravel the mysteries of their own parallel universe. Pleasance, to 4 Sept. 031-556 6550.

Alan Parker Urban Warrior takes it to the people with a performance of sustained comic aggression. Dangerous. Pleasance, to 4 Sept. 031-556 6550.

Royal Scottish Academy Scottish watercolours, drawings and prints from 1700 to 1990. The Mound 031-556 8921. To 12 Sept.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Russian Painting of the Avant-garde. Fascinating exhibition which examines the major artists of the experimental period 1905 to 1925. Belford Rd 031-556 8921. To 5 Sept.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Phoebe Anna Traquair. Works by the Edinburgh doyenne of the Arts and Crafts movement. 1 Queen St 031-556 8921. To 7 Nov.

Talbot Rice Art Gallery Stephen Campbell. New paintings by the celebrated young Scottish figurative painter. Old College, South Bridge 031- 650 2211. To 11 Sept.

Fruitmarket Gallery Gerald Laing. Retrospective for the distinguished Scottish sculptor. 29 Market St 031-556 1059. To 18 Sept.

The Scottish Gallery Works by Edinburgh School Painters. 16 Dundas St 031-558 1200. To 8 Sept.

(Photograph omitted)