It's all in a day's work

Sex, violence and religion are on the menu in Edinburgh. And as Brian McMaster, the International Festival's director, tells Lynne Walker, a single show can last up to 12 hours
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The Independent Culture

"It's a purely physical thing," says Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh International Festival since 1992. "When a performance or artist is really exciting, there's a sort of chemistry at work. Programming a festival has to be subjective; it's purely about what turns me on. That's the only honest way to run it. I don't think about audiences at all, except in the sense of wondering if a performance might change their lives. I always hope that we're breaking a bit of ground in all areas, and there's certainly some quite radical work this year."

"It's a purely physical thing," says Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh International Festival since 1992. "When a performance or artist is really exciting, there's a sort of chemistry at work. Programming a festival has to be subjective; it's purely about what turns me on. That's the only honest way to run it. I don't think about audiences at all, except in the sense of wondering if a performance might change their lives. I always hope that we're breaking a bit of ground in all areas, and there's certainly some quite radical work this year."

He's thrilled to be welcoming back Heiner Goebbels, quirky and impossible to define, whose latest theatre piece Eraritjaritjaka (an Aborigine term summing up the melancholy longing felt for something lost) fuses words, music, live video and vivid staging. It's likely to dazzle and disorientate in equal measure. And though McMaster felt he'd done enough Carles Santos, he was seduced by the maverick's latest extravaganza. "Oh I must have it!" was his instant reaction to The Composer, the Singer, the Cook and the Sinner which focuses on the music of Rossini, who was all the things the title suggests and more.

Another Catalan, the controversial stage director Calixto Bieito, perhaps more enfant than terrible, is another McMaster favourite. "I found his last opening night [ King Lear in Barcelona] so wonderful that I couldn't speak during the interval," he says. "His insights and how he projects his ideas made the play work in a way that few other directors can achieve. I think he's one of the most important and deeply serious people working in theatre at the moment. He's rooted in a particular culture [in the shadow of the Franco regime] and gets inside texts very much from the age in which we live but also from a deeply moral perspective." And how unfortunate, he adds, that some people can't see that far into his work.

When I ask him why he thinks Bieito so often comes across to his detractors as a shock jock out to whip up reaction, McMaster looks blank, replying abruptly: "Sorry, you'll have to ask them that." Could it be that Bieito's by now predictable obsession with sex, violence and, frequently, a sadistic combination of the two - which clearly strikes a chord with some - distracts attention away from other, equally valid artistic dimensions? Bieito's graphic production of Verdi's Il trovatore from Hanover State Opera and his fresh take on Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas and starring Kathryn Hunter as the crafty old bawd, will no doubt fuel the debate in Edinburgh and beyond.

Although McMaster declares that "in Edinburgh we don't pull things down ready-made from supermarket shelves", a lot of the work he books is, of course, already on the production line. But to his credit he has made a habit of ferreting out some of Europe's most provocative creative artists, enticing them to bring existing work or make new productions for Edinburgh. Peter Konwitschny, one of Germany's most experimental directors, is making his Festival debut with his Hanover State Opera production of Luigi Nono's kaleidoscopic and revolutionary "scenic action", Al gran sole carico d'amore (known in English as In the bright sunshine, heavy with rain).

Peter Zadek, whose previous Edinburgh productions have never failed to enthral, embodies McMaster's definition of living theatre as "an integration between what happens on stage and the audience and how you make an audience react both to what's going on in front of them and to the text." Zadek is adept at stripping away anything that separates actors and audience, text and staging and his concept of Ibsen's Peer Gynt with the Berliner Ensemble should be particularly illuminating since the house lights don't go down on the production. Luk Perceval's version of Racine's ground-breaking Andromache from Berlin may only last 60 minutes but, at nearly 12 hours, Claudel's epic drama Le Soulier de Satin will more than make up for that. Spanning 20 years of 17th-century Spanish history, and straddling four continents, it combines romance with bold spectacle and sensuously religious emotion, and is receiving just two round-the-clock performances in Edinburgh.

"It's a hugely ambitious piece of theatre," McMaster enthuses. "Claudel was such a devout Catholic and though I'm not, particularly, there's something indescribable about coming into contact with his visionary ideas. He threw everything he knew about the theatre of life into Le Soulier. It's only had two previous productions and is, in a sense, the ultimate festival experience. Giving up that amount of time to sit in the theatre, you develop a quite different sort of relationship with fellow members of the audience and with the actors and musicians. I think people will find when they finally exit the theatre that rather than feeling drained, their intellect has been charged up, their emotions stirred."

Edinburgh International Festival (0131-473 2000; www.eif.co.uk), 15 August to 5 September

THE PICK OF THIS YEAR'S FRINGE

When Guy Masterton - the brains behind last year's Edinburgh hit Twelve Angry Men, featuring stand-up comedians - decided to revive Ken Kesey'sOne Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, he little guessed the lunatics would take over not only the asylum but also the production. He stepped down during rehearsals "for personal reasons". Now an outbreak of chicken-pox in the all-star company has hit Christian Slater ( above), who plays Randle P McMurphy, and the Fringe's hottest ticket is under doctor's orders. Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) 6 to 29 Aug; Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5065) in Sept.

The Traverselaunches its "Travel Agency" season of new writing with Linda McLean's Shimmer. Three women on their way to Iona in search of a miracle encounter three blokes at a B&B - and a flood of memories. David Greig has adapted the activist Raja Shehadeh's diary of the 2002 Israeli occupation of Ramallah into a one-man play, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing. Traverse (0131-228 1404) various dates to 28 Aug.

Lust, betrayal and murder feature in Caravan, a dark story told through the provocative puppetry of the Black Hole theatre company. Aurora Nova at St Stephen's (0131-558 3853) to 30 Aug.

Ecstasy, excess, temazepam and T'Pau collide in a Taking Charlie, a new play with songs by the writer of Beautiful Thing and Gimme Gimme Gimme!, Jonathan Harvey. Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) to 30 Aug.

Steven Berkoff returns with his controversial poem to the victims of September 11, Requiem for Ground Zero (17-22 Aug) and Poe's terrifying The Tell Tale Heart (24-29 Aug). Pleasance Theatre (0131-556 6550).

Metro Fringe (0131-226 0000; www.edfringe.com), 8-30 Aug (some shows preview from today)

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