SECULAR LITURGIES

History with hostility

Tom Sutcliffe looks back at the Edinburgh International Festival, and ENO's Otello

It was the last of Sir Jonathan Millss eight Edinburgh International Festivals, and the best. A main theme was the World War anniversary. But the James plays by Rona Munro were more of a gesture towards the Scottish referendum. I saw all three in a single day, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, which has no home theatre and manifests itself in a select few projects using Scottish actors and themes from time to time. They are about the Stuart kings James I, II, and III and echo the success of Hilary Mantels prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell which the Royal Shakespeare Company is staging in Stratford.

Theatre in Scotland plays a vital role in sustaining a sense of Scottish identity because Scottish actors embody the Scottish difference in a way that English actors do not embody Englishness but instead reflect our class and social divisions. Is it only our patriotism that is the last refuge of a scoundrel?

Variable quality

The James plays, now at London's national theatre till 28 October, reminded me of how much I liked both John Arden's Scottish play Armstrong's Last Goodnight in Chichester in 1964, and his Arthurian epic The Island of the Mighty staged controversially by the RSC in 1972. But Rona Munro's plays feel as if they were written in a hurry and are very variable in quality, anecdotal rather than thematic. She uses modern Scottish vernacular — as if the power-broking baronial families that dominated Scotland before the union of the crowns were similar in attitude and culture to the ordinary Jocks of Strathclyde today. The language got plenty of laughs. Those poor kings James were such outsiders. No wonder James VI took a one-way ticket south in 1603: liking bishops was only one of the things on which their subjects differed.

Modest stuff

As history cycle, this is modest unthoughtful stuff. Yes, Shakespeare's histories did serve national pride. But Henry V is profound and poetic about the business of both theatre and leadership. Munro paints the victor of Agincourt about to die as cheap and coarse, if a bit canny. She has no feeling for the religion that figured in pre-reformation Scotland. But her plays are more about today than about then, though then the English were not friendly. This is history with relished hostility. James is persuasively played by James McArdle, and Stephanie Hyam as his English wife Joan is also engaging.

Energy

Andrew Rothney as James IT has a hard time because he is initially a child watching himself in hindsight being represented on stage as apuppetworked by Japanese-style black clad extras. He also has bad nightmares, being so young and innocent in Scotland. This was far the worst play. But James III was muddled too and unconvincing, despite the charismatic Danish star Sofle Gràbal being queen Margaret. Its look and feel were semi-updated to now, and it went on about James III's bisexuality and badness. Still, the actors' energy —especially Blythe Duff as Isabella and Annabella — was compelling.

Superb staging

On the highest level in Edinburgh was Tom Cairns's superb staging of Minetti by the sardonic Austrian Thomas Bernhard, with Peter Eyre totally absorbing in the title role. It is about an old actor who rocks up at a hotel in Ostend where he is supposed to be meeting a German theatre director who is offering him the chance to play Lear which he, Minetti, has been preparing for decades since he gave up appearing on stage. As the play chanters along in the hotel entrance foyer (it is New Year's Eve with rowdy kids swilling in and out of the lift on to the street) one doubts absolutely everything. Eyre as Minetti embodies perfectly the existentialist crisis of faith. The submerged despair is as grandly moving as King Lear itself. Bernhard's writing, comically bitter and frantic, takes getting used to. Cairns and Eyre have together crafted and polished a superb translation. The supporting cast is immaculately directed. If this comes to London, it is a must.

Stylized but uninvolving

ENO's season opened with David Alden's new heavily stylized, choreographed, but uninvolving Otello production with Ed Gardner's flashy shallow conducting. Stuart Skelton's white-skinned Caucasian Moor was not even slightly tanned, with powerful voice and large frame — but without the needed heft at the top and Italianate legato. Jonathan Summers, fine ENO veteran, was an unsmiling Iago with little voice left, almost never offstage. Leah Crocetto's ill-clothed large American Desdemona had thrilling top notes but was never credibly poetic about the love she has to suggest. The great love duet after drunken Cassio's riot, which is what the tragedy is built on, did not glow. No bed in the last act, no pillows, no suffocation — instead he strangles her sprawled on the ground.

Fundamental subtext

The big question, though, is why when playing Verdi and Boito's Shakespeare a white singer cannot black or even brown up? Not once did Alden present Otello as the alluringly potent outsider — which is Shakespeare's fundamental subtext. Otello is not one of us. Shylock is a Jew. The theatre is about meaning behind masks and make-up. Political correctness has gone quite mad?

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