Edinburgh festivals yield buzzy shows

EDINBURGH — the Olympics weren’t necessarily a bad thing for the legit festival scene in Edinburgh this summer. By the end of its three-week run, Fringe organizers were reporting ticket sales down by just 1%. And at the Edinburgh Intl. Festival, the event to which the Fringe is the populist answer, festival director Jonathan Mills brought together an unusually large number of productions, some of which were supported by cultural program associated with the Olympics, several on a particularly large scale.

At the Fringe, producers have set their sights on a Gotham run for “Mies Julie,” a reworking of Strindberg’s class-war drama now set in a post-Apartheid kitchen where the daughter of a white landowner attempts to seduce one of her father’s black servants. One of the most lauded shows of the fest, Yael Farber’s production of her own adaptation for the Baxter Theater Center and South African State Theater was alive with the conflicting impulses of sexual desire and political repulsion, with electrifying central perfs by Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai.

For many theatergoers, though, the Edinburgh Intl. Fest (EIF) was where the action was. At the Royal Highland Center on the outskirts of the city, the EIF converted the hangar-like Lowland Hall into three performance spaces.

Auds were divided about whether Grzegorz Jarzyna’s explosive Middle East reworking of “2008: Macbeth” (seen previously at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse) was a thrillingly cinematic update or a dilution of Shakespeare’s original, and about whether Chrisoph Marthaler’s “Meine faire Dame — ein Sprachlabor” for Theater Basel was a hilariously surreal music-theater response to “My Fair Lady” or too self-consciously surreal for its own good.

But there was widespread agreement that Ariane Mnouchkine’s four-hour epic “Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores),” with its cast of more than 30 and its grand story about a shipload of European exiles attempting to set up a Utopian community, was a triumph of stagecraft and artistic vision for the Paris-based Theatre du Soleil.

Also tremendously admired was Camille O’Sullivan, best known as a chanteuse in the Berlin cabaret tradition, who gave a mesmerizing spoken and sung rendition of Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucrece” for the RSC. Working with pianist Feargal Murray and helmer Elizabeth Freestone, she brought the lucidity of a storyteller and the passion of a singer to a deeply soulful and moving production.

Among other EIF highlights were a subtle and intense “Waiting for Orestes: Electra” from the Suzuki Company of Toga; an exuberant “Midsummer Night’s Dream” helmed by Dmitry Krymov for the Chekhov Intl. Theater Festival, focusing entirely on the Rude Mechanicals’ play within the play; and “Villa + Discurso,” two works of political passion in a post-dictatorship Chile by Guillermo Calderon for Teatro Playa.

Most ambitious of all was “Speed of Light,” an after-hours ramble across Arthur’s Seat, the city’s iconic mountain, where teams of runners created abstract patterns with the changing colors of their LED light suits. The work of Glasgow’s NVA, the event is expected to be reworked for other locations.

At the Fringe, shows likely to be around for some time include three seen at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theater: “Bullet Catch,” Rob Drummond’s meditation on life, death and a classic magic trick; “Bravo Figaro,” comedian Mark Thomas’ bittersweet tribute to his opera-loving working-class father; and “Beats,” Kieran Hurley’s portrait of the underground rave scene in the early 1990s.

With an estimated 1,857,202 tickets sold to a total of 2,695 shows, it turned out to be the Fringe’s second best year.

The Fringe doesn’t release box office figures, but EIF reported strong revenue of £2.83 million ($4.5 million), with ticket sales rising 11% from the prior year to 136,400.

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