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Michael Coveney: Edinburgh revs up, Cape Town with canapes

This year's London launch of the Edinburgh International Festival was held last night in the Scotland Office on Whitehall, just next door to Downing Street (handy for me: the number 24 bus goes right there) and Scottish under secretary David Mundell MP announced the appointment of another inveterate bus traveller to the top job in the Vatican: Pope Francis of Argentina.

Why this should have pleased the denizens of a city that is so Scottish Presbyterian and Calvinist, and where the spirit of John Knox still walks abroad, is a minor mystery, but Mundell went on to invoke the original spirit of the festival as the flowering of the human spirit, still flourishing in the multimedia and digital age. He also pointed out that Edinburgh and Scotland benefit to the tune of £250m annually from the combined festivals in the city.

Artistic director Jonathan Mills, introducing his penultimate festival, concentrated on the art and straightaway called up seven of The Sixteen to sing a beautiful Miserere by Thomas Tallis that they will perform in concert on 21 August.

I simply don't understand why people go around saying that the Manchester International Festival (only biennial) has now superseded Edinburgh in the festival stakes; there is no contest on grounds of international range, diversity or indeed programme content.

The theatre programme alone this year contains a re-mix of the Richard Burton filmed Hamlet with a live performance by the Wooster Group starring Scott Shepherd; a Grid Iron world premiere fusing live performance, new media and digital technologies, Leaving Planet Earth; a Coriolanus from Beijing; music theatre from Meredith Monk, Philip Glass and Patti Smith; and a Beckett mini-festival without any of the stage plays (ie, radio, prose and mixed media) featuring the Gate in Dublin and also Pan Pan Theatre reprising the brilliant All That Fall I saw last year at the first Enniskillen Beckett Festival.

The concert, dance and opera programme is superb, too, on paper at least: Opera de Lyon (who did such an outstanding Porgy and Bess two years ago) with Fidelio, a Frankfurt Opera double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard's Castle, the LA Dance Project, an opening concert of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsy conducted by Valety Gergiev,  Mitsuko Uchido playing Bach and Schoenberg,  Ian Bostridge singing Ives and Brahms, a tribute to rock genius Frank Zappa, a puppet and dance version of Don Quixote.

Mills ended his speech by asking us all (and the public beyond) to send in sonic snapshots of Edinburgh - impressions, recollections, tunes - so that American composer Ted Machover (shouldn't that be Ted Make-over?) can weave them on his own web-based music apps to create a new work, Festival City, to be performed in the Usher Hall by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on 27 August. (To participate, Mills says, visit eif.co.uk/festivalcitymusic)

Directors Tim Supple and Tom Cairns were on hand, too, to sketch out future plans: Tim is working on the story of Russia, no less, over the past one hundred years, the end product a possible festival production next year; while Tom is signed up for the next Thomas Ades opera even further down the line, with the Metropolitan Opera in New York scheduled for 2018.

This completed my professional mingling for the week, though I'd already had a pleasant social surprise at the Riverside Studios on Tuesday evening. It wasn't just that my friend Richard Wilson - no, not old grumpy Victor Meldrew, aka the other Richard Wilson - was wearing a suit and tie; it was the fact that he was there at all that shook me up. 

For Richard is, like me, a proud member of the Shaymen Down South supporters club of FC Halifax Town, and I only ever expect to see him in the pub or on the terraces. But here he was, suited and booted, surrounded by a bevy of well-groomed colleagues and sipping a glass of fine South African white wine.

And that was the clue. Richard reminded me that he doesn't just follow the Shaymen all over the country. He also works for South African Airways and was, on his company's behalf, hosting the after-party for the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Capetown's stunning production of Mies Julie.

It was slightly unfortunate, therefore, that some of his guests were miffed that SAA no longer flew direct to Capetown. Richard regretted this, too, but explained that it was no longer commercial to do so. "Since when," cried the best friend of the lead actress, "has a national airline operated merely on a commercial basis?" Oh dear.

Richard had arranged the same canapes and wines that are served in First Class on SAA, delicious prawn and raw tuna dips, nuggets of succulent spicy springbok, and velvety vino, so the least I could do was introduce him to a few of the famous first-nighters he was entertaining: Janet Suzman, William Burdett-Coutts, the Riverside and Assembly, Edinburgh (where Mies Julie was seen last festival), director, Pleasance supremo Anthony Alderson, Mies Julie director Yael Farber and former Cottesloe technical boss Jason Barnes.

And, as at the Edinburgh do, I gleaned a few tasters of what's up at this year's fringe festival: Janet Suzman is doing a new South African play at Assembly, and the Pleasance will be hosting the Belarus Free Theatre in its largest space behind the Pleasance Courtyard. The torrent of information is about to commence... let's hope the snow's melted by the time we all head north.


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