High-risk culture for the Nineties

The Edinburgh Festival proper has at last recaptured the buzz from the Fringe - thanks, says David Lister, to its director, Brian McMaster
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The hottest ticket in Edinburgh over the next three weeks is not Jack Dee, Sean Hughes nor any of the other cult comics on the Fringe. Nor is it the searing new writing of the young Scottish dramatists at the Traverse Theatre at the Fringe's more serious end. No, the event that completely sold out is a production of The Merchant of Venice, in German, at the main festival.

That a black market can be operating for the Berliner Ensemble playing at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, where the supertitles are not even visible in whole sections of the auditorium, says much about how the Edinburgh Festival has changed in the past few years. It says much about where the audience is finding excitement in the Nineties. And, inevitably, it says much about the international festival's director, Brian McMaster.

Before McMaster took over in 1992, the buzz in Edinburgh in August often tended to be around the Fringe, the semi-anarchic hotch-potch of radical modern drama and, increasingly, stand-up comedy. The international festival proper was notable for some high-quality performances, but too often it was not the place to find cutting-edge work or the cream of Europe's directorial and performing talent.

McMaster has certainly changed that. Last year, he staged a seven-hour production of the Oresteia in Russian at an ice-rink, as well as a foreign- language Antony and Cleopatra, directed, like The Merchant of Venice, by Peter Zadek. That was also the year that he doubled the dance audience for the festival and one critic was prompted to write that the quality of dance companies in Edinburgh was such that if a bomb dropped on the city the rest of the world would have lost all its most innovative dance troupes.

It has not all been success and acclaim, however. Where he has hugely enhanced the festival's reputation for dance, McMaster has let its reputation for visual arts wither, arguing that it is not the festival's role to mount exhibitions.

McMaster took over from the far more flamboyant Frank Dunlop in 1992. Dunlop, with a long and outstanding pedigree in theatre, had had some notable theatrical hits at the festival but had let the musical side slip. The hope was that McMaster, the apparently quiet and shy director of the Welsh National Opera, would re-establish the festival's musical credentials and, with luck, get it to break even.

To many people's surprise he has done far more. As well as making a small profit last year, and achieving a 30 per cent increase in earned income, the international festival has rapidly garnered an enhanced reputation for music, and as strong a following for dance and drama. He also earned local Brownie points by moving to Edinburgh - unlike Frank Dunlop.

McMaster's formula is simple. He insists that anything shown at the festival must be something that one could not normally see at any other time of the year in Britain. He immediately redefined the festival's position vis a vis the fringe. There was no point, he argued, replicating the modern British drama and stand-up comedy that was to be found in Fringe locations all over the city. He has narrowed the scope of the festival, staging fewer performances than Dunlop, but almost all are cannily chosen talking points.

He also uses his European contacts, which he built up at the Welsh National Opera where he used talented directors such as Germany's Peter Stein. And to balance his insistence on showing the best of Europe - and often America - with the funding limitations, he specialises in co-productions.

One of this year's plays at the Drill Hall, performed needless to say in French, has a list of co-production credits longer than the combined list of cast, directors and designers, ranging from La Biennale di Venezia to Festival de Otono de la Communidad de Madrid.

One festival highlight, Requiem For A Young Poet by Bernard Zimmerman, epitomises both the use of co-production (there are six European partners involved) and the McMaster idea that a festival event should be different from anything you can find elsewhere. This rarely performed choral work is scored for an 85-strong orchestra, massed choruses, a jazz combo and electronic tape, and weaves the words of Mao Tse Tung, Karl Marx, Albert Camus, Winston Churchill, James Joyce and the Declaration of Human Rights into one work.

McMaster has also acknowledged the local audience, not just in mounting a major Scottish work - this year, Glasgow's Tag Theatre company's adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark - but also giving the festival an educational outreach arm. Even the celebrated Canadian choreographer and dancer Mark Morris, a star attraction, will spend some time in Edinburgh schools.

What he has demonstrated in a remarkably short time is that there is an audience hungry for a style of art - mixed-media musical presentations, innovative contemporary dance and foreign-language drama - that managements of large arts venues are too often afraid to risk.

To take one example, the best of foreign-language drama was once a staple of the London theatre season. It is now a rarity in the English capital. By showing that people will be flocking to Edinburgh from tomorrow to see work far more challenging than the Comedy Store on tour, McMaster in the long term may benefit far more cities than Edinburgh.