Edinburgh International Festival Review: Walking With Ghosts | The Jungle Book Reimagined | Philadelphia Orchestra | Magdalena Kožená & Yefim Bronfman | Lucy Dacus
King’s Theater until August 28
It’s really a two-part show, this long walk down memory lane adapted from its own published autobiography by leading Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, famous for his appearances in films like Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects.
The first half is a funny, sharp and energetic account of Byrne’s childhood in Dublin in the 1950s and early 1960s, delivered with enormous charm and charisma, and full of hilarious, fast-paced stories from his parents and his loved ones, streets full of “characters”, and the joyous tumult of life as one of six children of a working-class family; joyful, that is, until the moment when – in a seminary in England – her childhood is brutally interrupted by a young priest who sexually abuses her.
The second half of the show is a very different experience, though Byrne still derives some humor from his failed efforts to become a plumber and kitchen boy, before finally finding his calling as an actor. Here, however, the tone is darker, as Byrne reflects on some of the struggles that clouded his life even as his career blossomed; including the mental illness and untimely death of one of his sisters, and his own struggle with alcoholism.
Perhaps it’s the sheer distance from his 1950s childhood that allows him to shape the prior narrative into such an entertaining story; while the full story of his adult life has yet to be told and is certainly not revealed here. Whatever the cause, though, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour (with gap) show that would play much better as an uninterrupted 90-minute reflection on Byrne’s childhood and youth; about the formative influences that shaped him, and the beloved ghosts that he finally realizes don’t so much walk with him, but live within him, a part of himself. Joyce McMillan
The Jungle Book Reimagined****
Edinburgh Festival Theater
If Akram Khan’s new production is a vision of the future, then things look bleak. Radio news clips set the scene, charting the events of the years to come as we venture further into the 21st century. Curfews and food rations give way to greater challenges, as waters rise and cities are abandoned. Against this backdrop, Rudyard Kipling’s classic story has been radically reframed, now focusing on a young refugee separated from her family as she flees a homeland rendered uninhabitable by climate change.
But while this show couldn’t be further from the Disney movies, it has one thing in common: great animation. Appearing on two screens in front and behind the live action, beautiful images of torrential rains, herds of elephants, shattered cities and flocks of birds light up the theatre.
Many of Kipling’s original characters have been retained, including Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, and the Bandar-log monkeys. But Baloo is now a former dancing bear, Bagheera a big cat tied up by a selfish owner, Kaa a former zoo reptile, and the monkeys all ex-vivisection fodder. In short, they have all been damaged, physically and mentally, by humans. It’s a storyline that can only make you think about our relationship with animals and nature, which is exactly what Khan wants.
As always, her choreography is second to none, especially when the tight ensemble moves as one. Individual animals prowl the scene on hands and feet, but when grouped upright, we see Khan’s unique style in full glorious effect. What lets the show down a bit is the storytelling. Pre-recorded to allow dancers to concentrate on the movement, it is not always easy to follow. There are some witty lines courtesy of Baloo, but a few more wouldn’t hurt and would probably help get the show’s important message across with more honey and less vinegar. Kelly Apter
Philadelphia Orchestra ****
This was not how the Philadelphia Orchestra was supposed to open its EIF residence. We were originally promised Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but the orchestra’s insistence that the choir wear masks led to its cancellation and replacement with the Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem The Island of dead. Why, then, was half the orchestra maskless?
There is no denying that what we got was well worth the money. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, musical director of Philadelphia’s Fireball, immediately won us over with “a gift” (or should it have been a “peace offering”?). He didn’t tell us what it was about, but launched into Dvorak’s Carnival Overture with delirious conviction. The players swayed as one, the visual choreography as compelling as the vitality of the sound.
The Rachmaninoff tested the more subtle nuances of the orchestra, and while the ebb and flow of this alluring work possessed the same disciplined perfectionism as the Dvorak, it frustratingly failed to capture the maturity and intensity of color.
Nézet-Séguin, however, did not spare the horses in Beethoven’s Fifth. It was fast and brash, utterly purifying and triumphantly conclusive. And yes, it left me wondering what the boiling musical director would have done with the Ninth. Ken Walton
Magdalena Kožená & Yefim Bronfman *****
With the sensational duo of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and pianist Yefim Bronfman performing a mini Brahms-fest in the first half of their Queen’s Hall program yesterday morning, it was almost as if the composer were a tangible presence on stage with them. Running through fourteen consecutive compositions by lesser-known German poets, including the young Felix Schumann, son of Robert and Clara, Kožená and Bronfman’s selection showed the breadth of Brahms’ skills as a songwriter.
Emotional attraction was evoked through the different moods of the music. Dark despair one minute became bright hope the next. The images were painted not only through Kožená’s formidable vocal technique and mature seriousness of tone, but also Bronfman’s extraordinary piano playing, the two artists fused in the joint expression of these “Songs of innocence and experience”.
Sets of songs by Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Bartók open to even more characteristic chants, all of which testify to Kožená’s linguistic versatility. With the dark humor of With Nanny and the more overt fun of Evening Prayer, Mussorgsky’s Nursery Songs sat alongside Shostakovich’s quirky and demanding five satires before the duo turned to Bartók and his folk-inspired village scenes for complete an exceptionally well-crafted film. program. Carol Main
“I took a survey – who here is gay?” Lucy Dacus asked her sold-out crowd at the Edinburgh International Festival, and she didn’t seem surprised by the big cheer in response. “Sounds good,” she laughed, before performing Kissing Lessons to another big roar from the audience, a song about the teenage romance between two girls who kiss under the pretense of practicing for the boys.
The 27-year-old Virginia seemed more surprised by the size of her audience on this first European date of her new tour. The last time she was in Edinburgh, she says, barely 100 people saw her at the Voodoo Rooms; during this visit, she was able to bring her song Partner in Crime back to the city where it was written.
After the release of last year’s third album Home Video and her recent exploits with modern indie hero Phoebe Bridgers in supergroup boygenius, her time seems to be now. Dacus is part of a new generation of musicians who are writing queer songs without being niched in to do so, and his band’s music is poetic, bittersweet, warm Americana of the kind that fills concert halls.
Christine is about to desire a friend with a male partner; Thumbs is a tormented play about an absent father; Going Going Gone is a song about teenage romance that bleeds into adult boredom and despair. From her voice and her guitar, even Cher’s Believe becomes a song of impossible desire. David Pollock