This Festival, there’s new writing and choreography running all the way through our theatre and dance programmes. From deeply personal autobiographical works such as Walking with Ghosts and When You Walk Over My Grave, to explorations of bodily autonomy, the nature of reconciliation and the threat that modern technology poses to society, these new works are wide-ranging in both scope and subject matter. Their creators include both established stars such as Alan Cumming and Gabriel Byrne, and exciting up-and-coming artists like theatremaker Julia Hales and choreographer duo Jess & Morgs.
Burn by Alan Cumming and Steven Hoggett
Burn marks the coming together of two Scottish national treasures; the legendary poet Robert Burns and acclaimed performer Alan Cumming. Having started work on the project in 2018, Festival favourite Alan Cumming has described being drawn to Burns as a character through which to explore how men deal with their desire, explaining ‘I saw that in him, I saw a man who did not deal very well with [desire], or didn’t control it.’
Together with co-creator and choreographer Steven Hoggett, Cumming has done extensive research on Burns, seeking expertise from literature professors at Glasgow University. They’ve used his letters as key source material, revealing Burns’ view of passion as both a defining force, but also something difficult and devastating.
The relationship between Scottish identity and Burns is also a central consideration for Cumming: ‘Did we always have those values and he just kind of put them into words? […] Or did he invent that? And now we are these people because of his words.’
These questions are central to the show, which looks to unmask the legend of Robert Burns to reveal the real man behind the mythology. The creators are invested in telling an unexpected story through an unexpected medium; dance, subverting expectations of both Cumming as a performer and the legend of Robert Burns.
Counting and Cracking by S. Shakthidharan
Counting and Cracking is a labour of love from writer and associate director S. Shakthidharan. Ten years before the play’s Australian premiere in 2019, Shakthidharan started a journey of trying to learn more about his mother’s homeland, Sri Lanka. In his research, the project grew beyond simply satisfying his own curiosity; forming the heart of an epic play about reconciliation and connection.
As Shakthidharan explains: ‘The story became less about fitting my community into a simple narrative, and more about presenting a group of people in all their glorious complexity.’ The narrative spans four generations and moves between multiple timelines and two countries – Australia and Sri Lanka – with the production no less ambitious in scope. Over three and a half hours, nineteen performers from multiple countries weave a tale that is by turns comedic and devastating.
Eamon Flack, the play’s director and associate writer, has said that the play ‘is about the relationship between the big stuff and the small stuff, and what happens when the big stuff tears apart the small stuff’. He defines the small stuff as ‘love, family, language, story, belief, food, home, place, the passage of time from one generation to the next’. The production is deeply rooted in these small, familiar parts of everyday life, creating an authentic, compelling journey through the mid-20th century to the present day.
When You Walk Over My Grave by Sergio Blanco
This moving play interrogating the concepts of death and bodily autonomy marks Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s International Festival debut. The play centres around a character, inspired by Blanco himself, who has decided to die by assisted suicide, sparking a series of conversations around how he wants to die and what he wants to happen to his body once he is gone. The playwright has described the play as “a dramatic poem celebrating the torments of love, but also as a metaphysical essay on the political status of the post-mortem body: who does a corpse belong to?”.
The play is the latest in a series of auto-fictional works by Blanco, who has been exploring the genre since 2012. Blanco’s fascination in with autofiction lies in ‘the intersection of the real and the fictional’, something that he explores not only in narrative but also in the form of his drama. When You Walk Over My Grave frequently breaks the fourth wall, with actors moving in and out of character throughout, taking Brechtian breaks to sing and play unexpectedly upbeat songs on guitar. This mingling of narrative and form is something that Blanco echoes in his writing process, having literally written the play in blood – not his own, but a dilution of blood powder and water. He claims the play is ‘a text that deals with such carnal themes that I could only write it with blood.’
Despite this undeniably morbid approach, Blanco handles these themes in a simultaneously playful and poignant way, resulting in a play that is ultimately sweet, funny and moving .
Walking with Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne and Lonny Price
Gabriel Byrne finished writing his memoir, Walking with Ghosts, in early 2020, a process in which he actively resisted falling into celebrity memoir tropes to instead produce an exploration of memory, identity and exile. Written in vignettes, the piece flits back and forth across different periods of time and space, from Byrne’s urban, working-class upbringing in a town near Dublin to drinking in a Hollywood bar with Richard Burton.
Resisting a romanticed view of Ireland, Byrne does not shy away from the darker parts of his childhood, particularly the oppressive presence of Catholicism. At the heart of the book is his sense of identity as an exile: ‘You have to make peace with that or you’ll be tormented forever by the question – do I belong here, or do I belong there?’
Over the last two years, Byrne has worked to transform this memoir into a one-man play, re-ordering the memories chronologically to bring his audience along with him on his journey from Dublin to Hollywood. The staging itself is almost spartan, with just a few pieces of furniture, allowing Byrne’s storytelling to take centre stage without distraction. Lonny Price, Byrne’s collaborator, said of the staging ‘it doesn’t need anything else, because it’s all about Gabriel and he does not need any help to hold the stage. The material and the acting are enough.’
Coppélia by Jess and Morgs
Coppélia is the latest full-length ballet to company from our national company, Scottish Ballet. Building on their recent ventures into dance films, which became even more pertinent over lockdowns, Coppélia switches things up by exploring the integration of film into live stage performances.
The question of technology is central to both the narrative and the production of the ballet. Coppélia, which premiered in 1870, is a classic ballet of comic misunderstandings and childish jealousy, sparked when Franz, the male lead, falls for Coppélia, a doll he mistakes for a beautiful young lady – much to the outrage of Swanhilda, his fiancée. This version puts a darker twist ion the original, with an AI-programmed Coppélia turning the story into a poignant commentary on modern society.
The production integrates live and pre-recorded film, causing the audience, much like the characters, to question what is real. The piece is choreographed by Jess & Morgs, an exciting creative partnership with a background in film, notably working with Scottish Ballet on their films Tremble (2019) and the award-winning The Secret Theatre (2021). There’s another dynamic duo behind the music of this production; Mikael Karlsson and Michael P. Atkinson. Once again merging classic and modern, the pair's soundscapes for the ballet reference Delibes’ original score, using a combination of recorded music and live music from the Scottish Ballet Orchestra.
With the tension between reality and artificiality at its heart, this ballet of contradictions provides a politically and socially engaged commentary on our enduring anxieties surrounding new technology.
The Book of Life by Kiki Katese
The Book of Life is an ambitious work; 25 years after the end of the Rwandan Genocide, artist and activist Kiki Katese is searching for hope and reconciliation in the face of tragedy. The performance is the outcome of a year-long project gathering letters from both perpetrators and survivors of the genocide, addressed to those who are gone, some of which are read out verbatim during the play.
The play is fundamentally an investigation of how to move forward after such horrors, with Katese stating: ‘We still have the possibility of undoing the genocide in some small way, to bridge the hole that’s been left, not with bones or the clothes they wore when they died – but with their lives. […] How do we undo the un-undoable? We let them live again’.
On stage Katese performs against a backdrop of live shadow puppetry, accompanied by the Women Drummers of Rwanda. Katese founded the group in 2004, creating the first-ever Rwandan female drumming ensemble. Traditionally in Rwanda, drumming was reserved for men – women were not allowed to touch the drums or approach the drummers. In the wake of the genocide, however, having lost large numbers of their male population, a group of women decided it was time to change this. The group are also known as Ingoma Nshya, a Kinyarwanda word meaning ‘new drum’ or ‘new power’.
An Untitled Love by Kyle Abraham
Acclaimed American choreographer Kyle Abraham is taking the UK by storm in 2022. He has already choreographed works for Sadlers Wells and The Royal Ballet this year and brings his newest full-length work An Untitled Love to Edinburgh in August.
An Untitled Love is inspired by a series of memories and influences from Abraham’s childhood his parents’ relationship, his mother gossiping with colleagues, even the plastic cover on his sofa. These piece is set at a party in a family home, creating an intimate backdrop against which the minute nuances of the relationships between dancers shine. Relationships and community are at the heart of the piece – Abraham said his intent was ‘to highlight the beauty in our culture, the way we love and love on each other.’ The work reflects the wider ethos of A.I.M, Abraham’s company, to create work that is galvanized by Black culture and history and to nurture and uplift talent within the Black community.
The music of D’Angelo provides the score; a personal favourite of Abraham’s. Dancer Catherine Kirk said that in the music, she found herself ‘falling more into why I love to dance […] why dance is spiritual and how it’s a language among humans.’ This element of communication through dance, intertwined with the score, once again pushes the subtleties of the relationships to the front of the work, in a celebration of community, joy and Black love.
You Know We Belong Together by Julia Hales
You Know We Belong Together is the first full-length play by Julia Hales, a theatre-maker and performance artist from Western Australia. Its origins lie in a series of interviews she had been conducting around the topic of finding love, which gradually began to take shape as a piece of theatre. Hales then began working with co-writer Finn O’Branagáin, who says : ‘Some of the magic of You Know We Belong Together – sorry, the magic of Julia Hales – is that I have been able to do all this with her, researching and conversing and piecing it together, with Julia as both subject and performer.’
Hales aimed to create a truthful and joyful representation of people living with Down Syndrome , their hopes and aspirations, stating ‘I want people to see us for who we are and what we do as part of the world.’ Her own aspirations are central to this piece, most notably her dream to be the first person with Down Syndrome to act in Home and Away, a show that she started watching at just eight years old and hasn’t missed an episode of since. The play is even set in the iconic setting of the Summer Bay diner.
You Know We Belong Together is a joyful and unexpected coming together of different mediums; monologues, sketches, video, dance and song. A cast of six Western Australian actors with Down Syndrome, join Hales onstage, all drawing from their personal experiences to create one cohesive piece. Despite its deeply personal roots, from creation to execution, the play is fundamentally a universal story about the search for love, joy and acceptance.
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