An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 5

2013-08-22 10.00.00Don’t worry, I’ve still been festivalling, I just ran out of steam on the writing front…..

Day 5 might be characterised as being of Mozart, Mary and Will with Chinese Rock.

The day’s activities began with a concert at the Queen’s Hall by Nachtmusique an ensemble which specialises in using ancient instruments in their performances.  The programme was all Mozart for wind instruments, principally  basset horns and clarinets, which were, according to the notes, new technology at the time Mozart was composing.  I’d never heard of a basset horn before, let alone seen one, so given my rather visual approach to music concerts, I was fascinated to have a look at them and how they are played.  A wooden instrument with some fancy looking ironwork, with a knee bend in it in the middle, it is apparently possible to play it in one of at least positions, as two players held it to the outside of one of their thighs, while the other held in more centrally.

A varying number of performers occupied the stage for each piece, some written, according to the programme notes while Mozart was playing a game of skittles.  We also heard the overture to The Magic Flute scored for woodwind.  I like the idea that various forms of each piece might have been written so that the widest possible audience might hear the music: so you can’t get to the opera house, you can still hear a flavour of the piece from a smaller group of musicians in your drawing room.  I sat for a while wondering what a group of none musicians is called, and it turns out, that on that particular occasion it was an octet plus a double bass.

The Queens Hall is a deconsecrated Church which has been a concert hall since it was opened by the Queen in the early 1980s, but it still bears traces of its religious past.  The audience sits on velvet padded seats, but, the upper balcony, their backs are pressed against the straight wooden back of the old pews. There’s no slouching here.

Thence to the Mary Queen of Scots Exhibition at the Museum of Scotland.  In common with the notion of challenging everything we think we know about a period in history that had been so interesting at Sarah Chruchwell’s talk at the Book Festival, this exhibition sought to put Mary into her historical context, her relationships with the major political events in Western Europe of the early Renaissance, and to present her as neither saint nor sinner.

I found the exhibition fascinating, if only because I was able to answer questions I’ve had since my very fractured school girl education in Scottish history; those questions which while not an every day persistent worry, make me feel rather ignorant when I do consider them.  How exactly were Mary and Elizabeth l related?  How were the Hanoverian Kings related to the Stuart monarchy.  (I’m not going to tell you, it’s all there in the museum….)

I thought the complicated inter relationships between the Royal House of England, Scotland, France and Spain were well explained.  You could see what each monarch was trying to achieve and how they were gambling on positioning themselves; and Mary was one of the pieces in the game puzzle that kept being moved around.  When she was left in charge on her own, it seems as if she was doing fine, her education and upbringing had brought her to expect to be Queen, and then she married Darnley and it all went downhill from there on in.  She lost her what judgement she had at the sight of a pretty young man.  What irony there is in an era where, because the Church forbids divorce, murder is the only option.

Many of the artefacts are ‘thought to have been’ Mary’s, but there is one piece, a huge piece of embroidered squares and emblems that was definitely made by her,  It is an extraordinary thing to look at: she was a skilled needlewoman and had many years of confinement in which to practice it, and she fashioned her various emblems into it.  It made me pause to think of a life led half as a Queen, and half as a prisoner; by the age of 25 she had been widowed twice and been deposed.

The exhibition led to a debate over which Royal House had won the big game of cards; which dynastic line survived the best.  Elizabeth ruled successfully, but it was Mary’s son who succeeded.

From one story of rivalries and betrayals to another in the evening.  Coriolanus was performed by The Beijing People’s Art Theatre in Mandarin, as part of International Festival.  The Playhouse is a big theatre and it was full on Tuesday night; some of the audience wore their chains of office and, form my vantage point, it was clear that there was a degree of diplomacy underway.

The stage was stripped back so that the action took place against a backdrop of bare brick walls, with a huge chorus of drably dressed populace.   English surtitles had been promised, but they were largely out of step with the speed of the dialogue, so mostly I had no idea what was being said, but it did seem to be a fairly traditional interpretation of the Shakespeare, but with the startlingly anachronistic addition of two competing rock bands, complete with thrashing guitar chords, and knee length hair for swinging about in frequent head-banging interludes.

The main actor playing Coriolanus had the gravitas and stage presence that drew the eye even before it became clear of his role, but I found the rather stylised, declamatory acting manner of the cast, and especially his mother rather distancing.

The production reminded me very strongly of things I saw in Moscow in the early 1990s when artistic control was loosened and directors were trying new ‘modern’ effects, and were testing the boundaries, throwing in odd bits and pieces they hoped would be striking and controversial: my yardstick always being the rock version of Anne of a Thousand Days in which Henry Vlll and Cardinal Wolsey stripped to the waist, in black lycra leggings, fought each other with whips  over the future of the Church of England.

What would be interesting to know is how the story of Coriolanus plays in present day Chinese politics.  Is it a tale of the population let down by arrogant leaders, or one of leaders undermined by the fickleness of the mob?

One more day of EdFest to go…….

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