The Edinburgh Festival: War, Politics, Opera and Scotland
The programme for the Edinburgh International Festival was launched this week, it contains a wealth of interesting concerts, plays,dance and other events. I shall be attending over 50 events over the three weeks of the festival as I have done for over 40 years, and unlike most of the critics I will be paying for my own tickets. I attended the press launch last Tuesday and wanted to ask the director Jonathan Mills questions about the programme however in a remarkable act of censorship I was denied the opportunity.
At the end of Mills’s rather long and rambling talk I immediately put my hand up first to ask a question, Susie Burnett the Festival Press Officer acknowledged my hand but then proceeded to take the microphone to 3 other people one of who as far as I could see hadn’t even put his hand up. They asked rather tame questions about his last Festival and got rather rambling answers, at which point Susie Burnett announced there was no more time for questions as Jonathan had to conduct many one to one interviews. I protested but she said there was no more time I complained to her that this was a clear case of censorship and I would be making an official complaint to the Festival board about her unprofessional behaviour. Some other critics acknowledged that this was a clear attempt to stifle any criticism of Mills but interestingly none of them wrote about it in their report of the press conference. There is of course a symbiotic relationship between the mainstream critics and the Festival many of them are paid by the Festival for writing programme notes, some get taken on all expenses paid trips to see new productions. While I wouldn’t suggest this affects their critical judgement of performances it may inhibit their criticism of the Festival director.
This is the final programme of the Festival director Jonathan Mills who has been in charge for the last 8 years and last year was knighted “for services to the arts” However I will argue that he really deserves it for services to the British State.
Jonathan Mills was a minor Australian composer who had run a small arts festival in Melbourne for a couple of years. My Australian friends who are knowledgeable about the arts were astounded about the appointment. One said “How did you give the best job in the arts world to that guy, he has done little of any note in Australia?” I asked one of the Board members who had appointed him how he had got the job and why it was yet another non Scot. They said “Well he was the best talker”.
It is true Mills can and does talk, interminably. Richard Holloway a previous chair of the Scottish Arts Council said they used to have a bet on how short Brian Macmaster’s (the previous director) speeches would be,now they bet on how long Mill’s speeches will be!Perhaps the definitive word on Jonathan Mills came from the leading music expert author, broadcaster and journalist Norman Lebrecht.
A couple of years into Mill’s directorship I asked him at the Book Festival what he thought of our new Festival director: “Ah Mr Mills, yes I can tell you that the job he really wanted wasn’t the Edinburgh Festival but Director of the Wigmore Hall (the leading chamber music hall in London) because he asked me for a reference, I told him he wasn’t good enough to be Director of the Wigmore and he certainly isn’t good enough to be director of the Edinburgh Festival as his programming shows.”
I gave this quote to an arts editor of a leading Scottish paper and he said “I can’t use this I have to work with this guy”. Rather confirming my view about how critical critics are.
The Edinburgh International Festival was set up in 1947 soon after the war to lift the gloom of the war by bringing the best of international culture to Scotland.It has become the most important arts festival in the world and along with the huge Fringe Festival, bringing 500,000 people as visitors worth around 200 million pounds to the Scottish economy. However point number three in the Festival’s Mission statement is “to offer an international showcase for Scottish culture” and point five is “actively ensure opportunities for all sections of the Scottish and wider public to experience and enjoy the Festival”.
Directors over the years have attempted to meet these objectives by commissioning new Scottish works for theatre, music and opera and dance and by using Scottish companies.Some directors were more successful than other at displaying Scottish culture not least because amazingly there has never been a Scottish director of the Edinburgh Festival in its 67 year history. Mills replacement is an Irishman Fergus Linehan, who my theatre friends tell me knows Edinburgh well and has worked here.
I wish him well but wonder how it is that no Scot has ever been chosen?
This is at least partly explained by the well known “cultural cringe” ie the belief that anyone outside Scotland must be superior to people within Scotland, which is particularly marked in the area of the arts,where almost all the important jobs in Scottish arts have gone to people from outside Scotland often with little knowledge of Scotland.This was an argument that Alasdair Gray raised last year and I backed him up in articles and speeches. We were accused of being racist by some cultural figures who wouldn’t know what racism is, and for the record I am not saying that people doing important jobs in Scotland should be Scots but only have knowledge of Scottish culture and not “learn on the job”! I pointed out that the founder of 7.84 the late great John McGrath was a Liverpudlian but he knew and loved Scotland. In contrast the new CEO of Creative Scotland with a £100 million budget to spend on Scottish culture is Janet Archer who came from an arts background in England.When she was appointed she was kept away from the press because it was suspected she knew so little about Scotland,although she did claim that she had spent 6 months as a baby in East Kilbride and once drove a student minibus to Stirling! Janet Archer flanked Mills at the press launch on Tuesday and spoke enthusiastically about the importance of the Edinburgh Festival internationally and the great work of Jonathan Mills but she never mentioned the referendum.
Jonathan Mills has shown remarkably little interest in Scottish culture since his appointment preferring to theme his programmes with international messages and bring in foreign companies often with avant guard productions. He likes,to paraphrase his fellow Australian Robert Hughes “the shock of the new” He has rarely commissioned new Scottish work and often neglects major Scottish arts institutions like Scottish Opera. Brian Macmaster the previous director would often use Scottish Opera in the Festival and people still talk of the Wagner Ring production presented in the Festival just before Mills took over. The only time in 8 years that Mills has used Scottish Opera in a main stage production was when he got a special Expo grant from the Scottish Government of £300,000 in 2008.These Expo grants are meant to fund Scottish productions which will tour abroad showcasing Scottish culture. Mills when he got his grant went to Francesco Corti the music director of Scottish Opera (another non-Scot) and asked him to do Smetena’s Two Widows, apparently Corti replied “Why?” Because the Two Widows is not a great opera in fact is more of an operetta and certainly not Smetana the composer’s best work. However it fitted Mr Mills theme that year and since none had done it for a long time it counted as “new”! To be fair to Scottish Opera they did their best and produced a pleasant evening of a not very good work.
However when I rang up Scottish Opera recently and asked where the production had been exported to ( the point of the Expo fund) they admitted it had gone nowhere. Indeed Mill’s opera programming generally has been very weak leading recently to Tim Ashley of the Guardian saying “The Edinburgh Festival can no longer be considered a festival of international reputation as far as opera is concerned” I quoted this last year at Mills’s press launch when I told him that last year’s opera programme was the weakest since 1947, no doubt partly the reason that I wasn’t called to ask a question this year.
It is extraordinary that Mills has refused to use Scottish Opera and will bring opera companies from round the world instead, this year for example he is bringing companies from St Petersburg, Turin and Aldeburgh. I asked him once why he didn’t use Scottish Opera and he said “they are too expensive” However an insider at Scottish Opera told me that ” I am afraid Jonathan doesn’t seem to like us”! Certainly it in seems to be in breach of the Festival’s mission statement of “showcasing the best of Scottish culture”.
Funnily enough Mills mentioned the Scottish Government’s Expo Fund this week when interviewed on Radio 3 about this year’s programme. He didn’t mention the failure of his choices as Expo products. Another famous one was the play Caledonia which Mills commissioned for the 2010 Festival. It was I think part of Mills’s attempts to remind Scots why we need to be British because it featured the ill-fated Darien Expedition which bankrupted the Scottish bourgeoise and led to them selling out Scotland in the Act of Union. Incidentally the Darien Expedition was organised by a Scot William Paterson who went on to found the Bank of England which of course the unionist parties want to deny an independent Scotland access to. What was it Marx said about history repeating itself first as tragedy then as farce! Talking about farce, the production of Caledonia in 2010 was truly dire, getting savagely panned by the critics, it was as big a disaster as the original expedition. When I rang the National Theatre of Scotland to ask what had happened to Caledonia, there was an embarrassed silence and they said: “we don’t like to talk about Caledonia”!
This is worth recalling, as this year’s only Scottish element and also backed by the Expo Fund are “The James Plays” three plays by Rona Munro on James First, Second and Third commissioned interestingly by the National Theatre of Great Britain, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival. Of course I haven’t seen the script yet but it does talk of ” a troubled period of Scottish history which formed part of Scotland’s culture and identity”. Let us hope that it is not the disaster that Caledonia was and I will be interested to see what relevance it has to the current debate on independence. Could it be preparing the way for the inevitability of the Union in 1707 and of course the “British” monarchy in the 18th century to replace those troublesome Stuarts?
Jonathan Mills of course famously ruled out any reference to the referendum at last years Festival. This led to a stooshie in the press in which I played a part, and a friend of mine Chris Laws from Dundee organised an online petition asking him to review that decision, it attracted over 1500 signatures within 2 weeks, meanwhile a counter petition in support of Mills organised by well-known unionist lawyer Mike Dailly attracted only 15 signatures. The petition was duly sent to Mills and he made only a cursory response and refused to meet the petitioners. I talked to a couple of Festival Board members who while critical of Mills felt that to intervene at this late stage of Festival programming would be counterproductive.
So it was no surprise that there is little Scottish in the Festival apart from the James Plays. I am told they had been commissioned a long time ago by the National Theatre of Scotland’s outgoing English director Vicky Featherstone who admitted when she left she had felt uneasy coming to direct Scotland’s National Theatre. She was replaced, by yes you have guessed it, by another English director Laurie Sansom who is going to direct the James Plays. Now I have nothing personal against Laurie Sansom who I am told is doing his best to find out about Scotland having come from directing Alan Ayckbourn plays in Scarborough and local theatre in Northampton. I did find it astonishing that the Board of the National Theatre, largely composed of business people, passed over Scotland’s leading theatre producer David McLennan in favour of Laurie Sansom. Perhaps the fact that McLennan was the co-founder of 7.84 Theatre along with John McGrath made them think he would be “too political”. After all the Board of the Scottish Arts Council forced John McGrath to resign as director of 7.84 20 years ago because he was seen as “too political”. Readers might recall that 7.84 produced such epics as The Cheviot,The Stag and the Black Black Oil a little different from Alyn Ayckbourn.
It is quite remarkable that when perhaps the biggest democratic debate in Scotland’s history is raging across Scotland for 300 years that the Festival programme not only ignores it but actively celebrates “The Empire,The Commonwealth and Britishness”. This is not an accident it is a deliberate choice by Mills, as we have already seen he has form in these matters.
As James Macmillan Scotland’s leading composer says “Jonathan likes to twist the tails of the nationalists”. This he has done in many ways, by ignoring Scottish composers, writers and poets. For example in the year of the Burns bicentenary I asked him why there was no Burns in the Festival, he said ” everyone else is doing Burns and anyway this is an international festival”! I pointed out that Burns was an internationalist and that many of the great European composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Haydn had set Burns poems to music. Indeed anyone who saw the fine film “a Great Beauty” recently will have been struck by the main soundtrack, Burns’s “My Hearts in the Highlands” arranged by Arvo Part,it is stunning, it is European but for Mills it is probably too Scottish.
In 2009 he opened the Festival with a Handel Oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” written to celebrate the victory of “Butcher Cumberland” over the Scots at Culloden which contains, as Ken Walton music critic of the Scotsman said some of the most awful libretti ever, and includes the famous aria “See the Conquering Hero Come” written for “Butcher Cumberland”.
Of course this was written around the time of the writing of the “British National Anthem ” God Save The Queen whose original verses included “Rebellious Scots to Crush” something a little too indelicate even for rampant unionists to include these days! Incidentally the tune of God Save the Queen is used by many German-speaking areas which is entirely appropriate since of course the “British” royal family is of course Hanoverian German in origin brought in to replace those troublesome Stuarts we will learn about in the James Plays. Incidentally Mills’s closing concert that year was Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius it was Mills said “quintessentially English” as I said at the time he was rubbing it in.
So this years major festival theme is war, and in particular the First World War which of course the British State is spending £50 millions of taxpayers money celebrating,sorry commemorating.There is no doubt that this is a deliberate move by Cameron and his unionist friends to remind the Scots of our common bonds at a time when we increasingly look as if we might be severing them.There is equally no doubt in my mind and of many others that Sir Jonathan Mills sees the use of the cultural forms of the Edinburgh Festival to boost our Britishness and to ignore Scottish history.Indeed in his interview on Radio 3 this week Mills spoke about ” the importance of Empire the Commonwealth and Britain” in his programming of war as the theme of the Festival.
Now I am not denying that there are many good things in the programme that relate to war and I look forward to hearing and seeing some of them. However like many of Mr Mills’s programming it is over themed and some mediocre works are there just because they are about war. For example there are three items from Benjamin Britten that fine English composer. Incidentally last year was Britten’s centenary and I asked at the press conference why there was no Britten or indeed Verdi and Wagner (who were also having anniversary years) in his programme. I remember his reply well “by August he said everyone will be bored with Verdi, Wagner and Britten”.
War as a political reality, not a festival theme may yet intervene in Mills’s festival plans, at a time when Russia is annexing Crimea and by August who knows what the geopolitical scene will be,this could turn out to be an explosive situation.Valery Gergiev has been made an honorary president of the Edinburgh Festival by Mills.To be sure this has helped Mills bring the Mariinsky to Edinburgh on several occasions but it has its dangers.You see Gergiev is also good friends with Vladimir Putin which is why the Mariinsky is the best funded opera company in Russia,it has just had a new billion dollar opera house built next to the old one in St Petersburg. Mr Mills has form in the area of political pronouncements and not just about “Britishness”.In 2008 just before the Mariinsky were due to arrive in Edinburgh the Russian/Georgian war broke out, Mills in a statement said we should all go to support the Georgian State Ballet performing at the festival as a gesture of solidarity! I pointed out in the Scottish press at the time that Valery Gergiev came from Ossetia one of the flash points in the war and had just flown the whole Mariinsky Orchestra there to perform ( with Putin’s backing!) in a gesture of “solidarity ” with the people of Ossetia and against the Georgians who Mills was wanting us to show solidarity with! Fortunately for Mills, Gergiev was a little too busy to notice Mills’s naive political ramblings.
However Mills may be at it again introducing the programme last week he spoke about the concert on August 17th of The Culture Orchestra whose young musicians are drawn from many of the Eastern Bloc countries that surround Russia including Poland,Ukraine,Georgia etc, the orchestra is conducted by a young Ukrainian Kirill Karabits and the programme includes Shostakovich’s mighty Leningrad Symphony.Mills said “that at a time of tension in the Ukraine this concert could prove to be an important symbol of peace in the face of war” As I write I am watching Russian tanks smashing through the last Ukrainian bases in Crimea I can’t see Mills Festival president Valery Gergiev friend of President Putin and supporter of his action on Ukraine being too happy about Mills remarks if he of course ever bothered to read them.
So the 2014 Festival will be themed around war and this could break out in ideological as well as military terms in the coming months.The Festival will conclude only two weeks away from the referendum but you wouldn’t know this from the programme. Sir Jonathan Mills has been conducting an ideological war on behalf of the British State who ennobled him.
Let us hope that an independent Scotland can finally throw out the cultural cringe and with it the people who use it to impose their cultural values upon us. Of course we want an International Festival but we want a festival that acknowledges and displays the great cultural heritage and the fantastic talent that Scotland has in the arts.
We can and should do both.