Nationhood and the Edinburgh festivals
The world’s largest arts festival explores ideas of nationhood as the question of Scottish independence resurfaces. The FT’s Griselda Murray Brown speaks to Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan and theatre director John Tiffany
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Aidan Black. Additional footage courtesy of The Edinburgh International Festival. Pictures from National Theatre of Scotland and Getty Images
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GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN (VOICEOVER): Every August, performers and artists descend on Scotland's capital for the world's largest arts festival. It is, in fact, made up of many festivals. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Book Festival, Art Festival, International Festival, and others.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947 in a moment of postwar optimism to provide what it called, a platform for the flowering of the human spirit. It seeks to bring the best theatre, dance, and music from around the world to Edinburgh. And to position Scottish culture on a global stage.
The idea of nationhood and of a national culture is particularly important in Scotland right now. In the recent referendum on Brexit, the majority of Scottish voters wanted to remain within the European Union, leading First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to suggest that a second referendum on Scottish independence is highly likely. But how will all of this play out at the festival this year?
FERGUS LINEHAN: I think the question of nationhood and Scottishness is one that's been to the fore. It was to the fore in the Scottish independence referendum. It was to the fore in the Brexit referendum. And it's now in the fore to how we begin to think our way out of where we are now.
How that reflects itself back onto the programme. In a practical sense, of course, we want to represent the best of what Scotland has. But I think that goes way beyond that. I mean, it goes to the point where you would have Scottish ballet presenting the work of a French choreographer. You'll have Sir John Eliot Gardiner, an English conductor, doing a German piece of music, or a German company doing Shakespeare.
So, the idea of nationhood I think is one that's really fluid. Interestingly, much more so than any other festival I've worked on, it's completely understood as an international festival. And sometimes, in other festivals there can be a pressure, which is to be almost a little parochial, whereas here it's very much when Scottish work is of that quality, of course it should be there, as opposed to anyone trying to necessarily push that agenda.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So, how does the Edinburgh International Festival compare to other cross-art festivals on this kind of scale?
FERGUS LINEHAN: I think what's completely unique about Edinburgh is just the scale of what happens here. And in some sense, it's the unformed nature of what happens here in such a relatively small and very beautiful place. So, it is, I mean, as people who've come to Edinburgh know, it's a complete immersion into that festival environment.
And even in events like the Olympics or the World Cup, I just don't think you get quite such a sense that you know you're in the belly of the beast when you come to Edinburgh in August.
PERFORMER: And I want you guys all to know that I wouldn't put you in any danger.
PERFORMER: Count with me. Ready?
CROWD: One, two, three!
PERFORMER: That was awesome, Chris, you're a hero!
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: John Tiffany is bringing his production of Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie, which we've seen on Broadway in 2013, to the Edinburgh International Festival. Tiffany has worked extensively in Scotland and is perhaps best known as the director of Black Watch, which was a hit for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006. He is also the director of the current West End hit, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
JOHN TIFFANY: We don't get American actors doing Tennessee Williams here. We often have it with British actors. So, in some ways, it's like when British actors like Mark Rylance go to New York and do Shakespeare. And the New York audiences go crazy. What we're getting is the real deal. Cherry Jones, who plays Amanda Wingfield, is from Paris Tennessee.
CHERRY JONES: --And your lungs press against your heart. And that poor little heart gets discouraged because it hasn't got any more room left to go on beating.
JOHN TIFFANY: We are in exactly the same place politically and financially as when Tennessee Williams set the play originally, which is kind of amazing. He describes a world where it feels like we're on the brink of a revolution, or at least some massive change. He describes a world where, as he, as Tennessee Williams puts it, the middle class of America were matriculated in a school for the blind.
I think the Edinburgh Festival's a great philtre, a prism for all those conversations about nationhood, Scottishness, Britishness. The first festival I think was in 1947, and it was started as a very active ambition to try and reunify Europe after the Second World War, which is ironic, isn't it? Given what we've just done as a country.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Culture is one of the key ways in which a nation like Scotland defines its identity. And yet, Edinburgh in August feels much more like a place of cultural exchange than of national sentiment.