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Linehan raises the curtain for a new era for theatre at the Festival

There was a-whooping and a-hollering at Our Dynamic Earth on Tuesday as I arrived at the annual Edinburgh Festivals reception hosted by the Federation of Scottish Theatre. The speaker occasioning this theatrical outburst from a bunch of folk who know well how to be theatrical was the artistic director designate of the EIF, Fergus Linehan. And what he was saying was that the Festival he assumes responsibility for after next week has not done its best by Scottish theatre.

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He was, of course, preaching to the converted, and his contention was unarguably somewhat contradicted by this year's reality, but there is a history here of which Linehan has clearly been made aware. "I think The James Plays are an exception to this," he said, "but why have we had real difficulty becoming a powerful and far-reaching platform for Scottish theatre?"

The background is that for many years the inclusion of a new Scottish production in the EIF theatre section had come to be seen as a little tokenistic.

Although indigenous companies given that opportunity had more money to make their Festival show than they might be used to at any other time of the year, in the context of the EIF programme, they were up against established names from Europe and North America who might be regulars on the international festival circuit with their new work produced by a conglomerate of festivals that year.

We at The Herald have a track record of seeing more merit in some of these "local" shows than London-based critics have sometimes been able to detect, but the fact remains that few, if any, of them have gone on to further lives on the international touring circuit the way that shows in which Edinburgh has been involved as a co-producer have, with - for instance - a controversial Catalan director at the helm.

The opening weekend of EIF looked full of things that are likely to keep Linehan's predecessor talked of for a while. As well as The James Plays, Mark Baldwin's Inala (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and Vladimir Pankov's The War - both world premieres - look set for rich lives beyond Edinburgh.

Linehan conceded in conversation afterwards that the position is more complex than Scots versus the Rest of the World. His native Ireland has supplied regular highlights of the theatre programme from the Abbey, the Gate and other companies, with O'Casey, Beckett and other great Irish writers regular features of the EIF programme.

Yet the top directors of the English stage like Dominic Drumgoole and Katie Mitchell are strangers to Edinburgh, which is very hard to explain except in terms of past Festival directors being wary of giving London critics and commentators too much of what they are already used to.

What is clear, however, is that Linehan is both a theatre man - and Edinburgh hasn't had one of them since Frank Dunlop - and that he is determined to do things differently. Next year already looks as if it may be quite exciting.

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