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Edinburgh International Festival unveils indyref themed programme

An eclectic programme to be viewed "in the light of the discussion of Scottish independence" has been unveiled by the Edinburgh International Festival, in the final year of Sir Jonathan Mills' tenure as artistic director.

Picture: Gordon Terris
Picture: Gordon Terris

Historical plays about Medieval Scotland, art installations about racism and colonialism, ruminations on war and conflict, epic operas, new ballet and dance, classical and modern orchestral music - including one of his own compositions - and new and revived theatre were unveiled by Sir Jonathan at The Hub in Edinburgh.

In an interview with The Herald before the launch this morning, the director insisted he had felt no pressure to alter his plans for the 2014 festival despite there being controversy last year that no event, either performance or public discussion, is directly about the looming independence poll in the programme.

Instead, Sir Jonathan said almost every choice he made for this year's programme, which features the three 'James plays' by Rona Munro for the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), concerning the lives of James I, II and III of Scotland, could be viewed as a take on the many issues facing Scotland this September.

The festival, which runs from August 8 to 31, features 2400 artists from 43 nations, and will be Sir Jonathan's 8th and last.

Many of the shows feature the themes of conflict, colonialism and war, as part of the centenary commemoration of the First World War.

The James Plays will star James McArdle, Blythe Duff, Andrew Rothney, Jamie Sives and Sofie Gråbøl, star of The Killing, among an ensemble cast directed by Laurie Sansom, artistic director of the NTS.

Sir Jonathan said he had felt no pressure to change his programme to include anything directly addressing the independence referendum, following controversy over the decision last year.

Sir Jonathan said: "I didn't feel any pressure to do so, neither imposed externally or personally, but what I would say [at the time of the row last year] is that I knew the programme this year would demonstrate - not the specifics of the referendum because that is not something I believe this organisation should get involved in - whether we are open for debate and questions of relevance and timeliness.

"I felt the programme, when it is revealed, will demonstrate that."

Of the 'James Plays' he said: "What I think that Rona has done that is most powerful, is that she writes with a highly sophisticated awareness of the relationship [between Scotland and England] and with an awareness of the contested and quite challenging relationships within Scotland at the same time.

"The bastardry and the inter-necine struggles, and the lack of loyalty and the divisiveness of the courts of Scotland are equally powerful metaphors, for any nation but for [modern] Scotland as well.

"I hope they will open a discussion about ourselves, about Scotland and its histories, its origins and its struggles, and its depth of feeling and character."

He added: "What I hope it will do, to any voter, decided or undecided, is make them appreciate and think about the complexity of the notion of a nation, the struggles they go through and the conflicts both internal and external that are wrought by that process.

"It gives you the most precious thing that anyone in a democracy can have: a knowledge of what your place in the world is.

"What has framed it, what has forged it, what has shaped it and what has influenced it."

This year, the festival will see Berlioz's opera Les Troyens staged in Scotland for the first time in over 40 years.

The world famous conductor Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Opera and orchestra will perform Greek director Yannis Kokkos's production.

Also in the opera programme for Festival 2014 is Benjamin Britten's opera written for television, Owen Wingrave

The festival will also feature the world premiere of a new ballet Inala, which features music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo and dancers from Rambert and The Royal Ballet choreographed by Mark Baldwin.

Handspring Puppet Company is remounting its work based on the text by Alfred Jarry and the transcriptions of the South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Ubu and the Truth Commission.

Brett Bailey's acclaimed 'live installation' Exhibit B will be staged in the Playfair Library Hall.

The Usher Hall closes its season on August 30 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing JanáÄ?ek's Glagolitic Mass and Sandakan Threnody by Sir Jonathan.

The work honours the 2500 British and Australian prisoners of war who lost their lives in the death marches of north Borneo in the second world war.

Sir Jonathan said on the appearance of one of his own compositions in the festival, that he had been asked many times when one of his own pieces would appear, and this being the final year of his tenure, plus the subject matter of the work - war and remembrance - this piece and year seemed to be appropriate.

The work won the Prix Italia prize in 2005.

The James plays are entitled James I, The Key Shall Keep The Lock, James II, Day of the Innocents and James III, The True Mirror and all will be staged at the Festival Theatre from August 10.

You will be able to see all three plays in one day on 10, 16, 17 and 20 August.

Of the rest of the programme, Sir Jonathan said: "I think you could interpret these in a number of ways and you could interpret them in the light of independence [vote].

"We are not taking a view on it, but we are offering multiple perceptions.

"This is a great opportunity to look at identity, and the narratives we choose to represent us."

Elsewhere in the programme, the Flemish director Luk Perceval returns to the Festival after 10 years with his company Thalia Theaterstaging FRONT, bringing together actors and texts from countries on all sides of the First World War including Remarque's famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

War, the story of young artists in Paris from 1913 onwards directed by Vladimir Pankov and staged by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival;

The festival has also commissioned the revival of Akram Khan's Gnosis in which he dances, perhaps for the last time, alongside Fang-Yi Sheu.

Heiner Goebbels returns directing Ensemble musicFabrik in the large scale music-theatre work Delusion of the Fury by American composer Harry Partch.

Kronos Quartet will play live for its new collaboration with composer Alexandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison, Beyond Zero: 1914 - 1918 using the cinema set-up at the Festival Theatre.

Canadian Stage brings together visual artist Stan Douglas and screen writer Chris Haddock in Helen Lawrence, "bringing seduction to the stage with this film noir styled thriller of the 1940s is a ground breaking multimedia production."

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a "provocative and funny story of the elephant god's attempt to reclaim the swastika from Nazi Germany."

The Greyfriars early evening concert series returns to the festival, opening with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time played by Steven Osborne, Alban Gerhardt, Antje Weithaasand Jörg Widmann.

The Opening Concert on August 8 at the Usher Hall brings together three works written in the years preceding the First World War by Schoenberg, Scriabin and Debussy conducted by conductor and composer Oliver Knussen and performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra,Kirill Gerstein and Claire Booth.

Financially, Sir Jonathan said the festival is in robust shape and will hand it to new artistic director Fergus Linehan in good shape.

He said: "I inherited a festival that was in robust health but it had some very specific financial challenges, and I believe I will hand over a festival that is very healthy artistically and in terms of personel, and with a slightly better financial situation.

"There is always a risk attached to every year - touch wood, we plan to break even this year.

"I am cautiously optimistic we will hand over the festival with no debt and a modest reserves fund."

Sir Jonathan ends his tenure at the festival on 1 October.

As he stated in an interview with The Herald last year, he is to return to composing, and will write his third opera, and he will also take up a key role with the biennale Edinburgh International Cultural Summit.

The Usher Hall's 23 concert season includes Holst's The Planets, Britten's War Requiem, the first performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony at the Festival, the Festival debut of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with Erin Walland the Czech Philharmonic in two concerts the first of which stars Nicola Benedetti.

Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, dedicated to the memory of President John F Kennedy, is to be performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and narrated by holocaust survivor and UN Special Envoy Samuel Pisar.

The Virgin Money Fireworks Concert returns as the annual spectacular end to the festival, this year featuring Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture performed lby the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Edinburgh International Festival costs around £10.5m a year to stage, with funding from public sources as well as around £2.67m from sponsors, trusts, and foundations.

Tickets go on sale for the festival to Friends and Patrons of the Festival on March 19.

Tickets go on sale to the general public from March 29.

Students and young people are able to buy tickets for half price from the opening of booking.

Those aged 26 and under can buy £8 on-the-day tickets for the best available seats during the festival.

Fiona Hyslop, the culture secretary, said: "The Edinburgh International Festival is a wonderful platform for showcasing Scotland's amazing culture, exceptional talent and our reputation as a creative nation to audiences from around the globe.

"The exciting and vibrant Festival projects that our Expo Fund is supporting this year offer huge potential to celebrate and promote Scotland's creative strengths to the world as global attention focuses on us in this landmark Year of Homecoming.'

Janet Archer, chief executive of Creative Scotland, the national arts funding body, said: "Jonathan Mills' final programme for the Edinburgh International Festival inspires and challenges.

"It offers moments for contemplation, moments that will take your breath away. It promises a soaring conclusion to a hugely successful tenure as Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Festival."

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