Socialist Worker

Edinburgh Festival preview: from Hell to Gaza

Theatre critic Mark Brown offers his picks of the drama at this year’s Edinburgh Festival

Issue No. 2162

Silviu Purcarete’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust

Silviu Purcarete’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust

Capitalism isn’t too fond of the arts. Of course, it loves Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and blockbuster movies which put “bums on seats” and fill the tills with cash.

It is deeply suspicious, however, of the potential for the (and, as an atheist, I use this word in the broadest possible sense) spiritual experience and political opposition that is inherent within artistic expression.

Perhaps that’s why, in the New Labour jargon, the arts are now described as “creative industries”.

However, while the New Labour apparatchiks see works of art as industrial products, any good Marxist will tell you that what makes artistic creations distinct from other products of human labour is that they have no use value, no utility. As I like to say, “a play is not a spanner.”

The primary power of a work of art is its power to move us “spiritually” – that is to touch the essence of what it is to be human, whether emotionally, erotically, psychologically or, indeed, politically.


Even when an art work is explicitly political, it succeeds or fails on its ability to move us spiritually.

Some of my worst experiences in the theatre have been watching left wing plays which do little more than polemicise, with little regard for the artistic and spiritual possibilities of theatre.

The Edinburgh Festival comprises of the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the huge Festival Fringe, as well as festivals of books and visual art.

It is the biggest arts festival on earth and is far from immune from the utilitarian and commercial imperatives which capitalism attempts to impose on the arts.

However, the sheer breadth and scale of the festival means that it is open to work which defies these imperatives.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of such work in Edinburgh this summer is Romanian theatre director Silviu Purcarete’s adaptation of the great German writer Goethe’s Faust showing at Lowland Hall, 18-22 August.

Performed as part of EIF, it tells the tale of Faust – who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge – with a cast of more than 100.

Romanian theatre is often among the most profound in the world, and, with his many visions of sexual ecstasy, death, pleasure and pain, Purcarete promises to show us the totality of human experience on a grand scale.

The scale is considerably smaller, but the possibilities are fascinating nevertheless, in Flemish company Ontroerend Goed’s show Internal at Traverse on 7-30 August.

Last year this company presented the superb, wonderfully titled show, Once And For All We’re Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen, a piece in which Belgian teenagers reflected upon their relations with their parents, teachers, society and each other. Internal promises to be equally inventive.

Inspired by speed dating, the show invites the audience member into a carefully constructed theatre environment where they will have a one-to-one encounter with an actor.

It’s not a concept which will attract everyone. Nor, at £14-£16 for a full price ticket for 25 minutes of theatre, will it suit everyone’s purse.


Fringe impresario Guy Masterson has brought many excellent shows to Edinburgh over the years.

Possibly the most exciting of his 2009 offerings is Go To Gaza, Drink The Sea at the Assembly Rooms, 7-30 August. Co-written by Palestinian dramatist Ahmed Masoud and playwright Justin Butcher, writer of the acclaimed play Scaramouche Jones, the play reflects on Israel’s devastation of Gaza through theatre, dance, film and live music.

In a festival the size of Edinburgh there are, of course, many hidden gems to be discovered. However, based upon past experience and reputation, I would also recommend the following shows:

Barflies at Traverse, 8-31 August, by excellent Scottish promenade performance company Grid Iron – a theatre adaptation of stories by Charles Bukowski, the man Time magazine called the “laureate of American lowlife”.

The Overcoat at Pleasance Courtyard, 16-31 August, is physical performance company Gecko’s production based upon Nikolai Gogol’s story of an office worker whose mind is overcome by his desire to radically change his life.

Finally, the Dublin’s Gate Theatre’s, Brian Friel Trilogy for the EIF at the King’s Theatre on various dates offers high quality productions of works by one of Ireland’s finest contemporary playwrights.

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Tue 28 Jul 2009, 18:56 BST
Issue No. 2162
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