Masterful theatre on offer at Edinburgh festival

Gordon Jones
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For three weeks in August, the population of Edinburgh doubles, as well as the number of buses on the streets of the old Scottish city.

The price of hotel rooms doubles and triples. Would you believe $288 a night for a single room?

The reason for this extraordinary inflation is the influx of an army of theatrically inclined visitors sampling the Edinburgh International Festival.

During a trip to the U.K. last month, I stayed in the Scottish capital for four expensive, but agreeable days and nights, taking in three festival plays, while sniffing around the edges of the youthful and rambunctious Fringe festival, featuring acrobats, ladder-climbers and fire-breathers, as well as alternate theatre.

The upstart Fringe, which has only been around since 1958, is now more popular than the mainline festival, founded in 1947.

As one British reviewer declared in The Daily Telegraph, the International Festival has had its day, sustained as it is by “old-school patronage to a relatively small number of well-heeled (aging) Caucasians.” On the other hand, he continues, the upstart Fringe “ticks all the boxes in its appeal to the broadest social demographic.”

I must confess that I am one of those aging Caucasians and I don’t much care about ticked boxes.

Consequently, the plays I patronized were an orthodox trilogy of plays by Scottish playwright Rona Munro, who was commissioned to dramatize the lives and reigns of three 15th-century Scottish kings, James I, James II and James III.

All three plays are dark, brooding and extremely violent, featuring highly choreographed warfare and hand-to-hand fighting. There are precious few pacifists in Munro’s 15th-century Scotland. And there are very few abstainers from alcoholic beverage.

Colloquial Scottish dialogue is liberally sprinkled with profanities, as barons and clansmen, Stewarts and Douglases, Chrichtons and Livingstons, struggle murderously for land, for power and for survival of their lineage, not only on the field of war, but in the bedroom.

None of the three kings dies in his bed. James I is assassinated by his barons, while James II and James III both die on the battlefield. Scottish kingship back then was no safe sinecure.

Some memorable scenes and effects are featured in the three plays. A youthful King James I participates in a spirited game of football — and then maniacally stabs to death his closest friend. “James II” opens with an eerie, if overlong, scene in which James is a frightened child, watching three puppeteers taking from a box and manipulating a jointed wooden doll that is a replica of himself — a veritable puppet-king. Then he wakes from his nightmare.

Production values of the three plays are high, with striking and imaginative lighting effects. Principal performers are very strong, despite being lumbered on occasion with platitudinous or incongruous lines — “He’s the king but he’s just a man,” “You know the problem with you lot (Parliament) you’ve got nothing,” “Scotland will do what Scotland does.”

And I must not fail to sympathize with the unfortunate young actor who must mortify the flesh — with full frontal nudity.

After closing in Edinburgh, Rona Munro’s trilogy will travel to London’s National Theatre. What, I wonder, will the southern Sassenachs make of Munro’s Scottish ruffians?

Organizations: Daily Telegraph, National Theatre

Geographic location: Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K. London Southern Sassenachs

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Recent comments

  • Brian King
    September 04, 2014 - 01:47

    The Fringe has been around since 1947 .. the same year as the International Festival.