Flowering Barbed Wire Means War

A round of raucous applause for my friend, Sir Jonathan Mills, who has just completed his eighth and final year as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival. I’ve attended them all. His tenure has been a success by any measure – even money. The 2014 Festival took more than £3.15m in taking sales income, making more than £3m for the first time in its history since 1947, and with 80% of the tickets sold. The overall audience is estimated at more than 415,000 from 76 countries, and the Festival presented 2,400 artists from 43 different countries. Of the dozen events I saw and heard this year, the quality was uniformly high, as was the pleasure-quota.

As it’s the centenary of the start of WWI, war itself was the theme of the 2014 Festival, signaled by the logo design of flowering barbed wire. Since his first Festival in 2007, Jonathan has programmed themes ranging from the Scottish Enlightenment to the influence of the cultures of Asia on Western artists. He has taken risks, as is proper for any EIF director, and most of them have paid off handsomely. Over the years we’ve seen a play performed backstage in a bathtub, another where the actress walked out of the theatre leaving the stunned audience to watch her walk down an Edinburgh street with a CCTV camera attached to her forehead, five-plus hours of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, the Pina Bausch dance troupe’s maniacal blonde laughing in several productions, tenor Toby Spence stark naked in one of the Britten canticles, hundreds of glorious recitals at 11.0 at the Queens Hall, a succession of concerts at the Usher Hall and, for the first time, a visual arts strand. We’ve had films, puppets and plays delivered in languages no one in the audience could understand, new music that pleased and baffled and, for the first time, a good deal of very fine old music.

Born in Australia in 1963, Jonathan is himself a composer. He has scrupulously avoided using the Festival as a platform for his own work, and not a note by him has ever been programmed until the last concert on the final night of the 2014 Festival when, at the Usher Hall, we heard his Sandakan Threnody, a lament for the large army of Allied troops, chiefly British and Australian, who were captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in February 1942, which included his own father, Frank Mills, a surgeon in the Australian army, imprisoned in Sandakan and Kuching as a prisoner-of-war between 1942 and 1945. There were atrocities and, between January and June 1945, three death marches. Six Australian soldiers escaped.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, played the piece at Usher Hall, with as large a band as for Mahler 6 the night before, plus the enormous Edinburgh Festival Chorus and tenor soloist, Andrew Staples. The piece has three parts, Psalm 130, which begins “De profundis clamavi…” , “Epilogue” from Requiem by Anna Akhmatova, and the poem “Sleep,” from Randolph Stow’s collection Outrider. It was thrilling, especially as it was paired with Janáček’s spookily wonderful Glagolitic Mass.

It was a fitting farewell for Jonathan, who tells me he is staying on in Edinburgh, with his talented textile-designer partner, Ben Divall. Jonathan is at work on an opera based on Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus, with a libretto by Meredith Oakes. It premières in Sydney in a couple of years. Perhaps by then I’ll have got over airport-phobia.

Jonathan’ successor at the EIF is Fergus Linehan, himself a former director of the Sydney Festival and of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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