Ghost Light

Edinburgh International Festival

Five stars

Dark times require enlightened responses. So it is with Edinburgh International Festival’s reaction to the enforced cancellation of the annual arts extravaganza due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With no live events possible, as with so many endeavours over the last few months, EIF has turned to digital evocations of its assorted splendours to make up its My Light Shines On programme.

Hope Dickson Leach’s thirty-minute film for the National Theatre of Scotland takes its cue from the theatrical tradition of leaving a solitary light on in theatre buildings when they’re closed. Conceived with NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie and dramaturg/director Philip Howard, the result is a slow-burning cinematic love letter to those that breathe life into them when you’re not looking.

On the one hand, as the camera leads us on a back-stage tour of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, we get a bite-size collage of NTS greatest hits past, present and possible futures. This takes us from the awfully big adventure of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan through to Vlad Butucea’s otherwise unperformed Come, Let Me Show You Around My World.

Inbetween are twelve other extracts, including the first of Rona Munro’s James Plays trilogy, Jenni Fagan’s adaptation of her novel, The Panopticon and Hannah Lavery’s solo piece, The Drift. There are other new works by May Sumbwanyambe, Jackie Kay and Ellie Stewart. These are fused together in socially distanced fashion by an exemplary troupe that includes the likes of Siobhan Redmond, James McArdle and Anna Russell-Martin.

Reimagined for the moment, each work becomes in part a tribute to theatre’s key workers; the ice-cream sellers, cleaners and back-stage crew who make the impossible real. Rather than destroying the magic, such a lush looking compendium transcends it, so theatre itself becomes Neverland. The last thing we hear in this movingly realised cinematic poem is the sound of an audience, the one element crucial to live theatre currently missing. There may be no applause or curtain call to go with it, but the ghost light brings the house down, anyway.