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Edinburgh International Festival: Ukraine Freedom Orchestra; Counting and Cracking

12 August 2022

William Dundas attends two performances that he finds powerfully linked to current events

© Jassy Earl

The cast in Counting and Cracking

The cast in Counting and Cracking

I AM attending performances at the 75th Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), a festival founded to create a spirit of reconciliation after the end of the Second World War. Just now, we have a war where Russia has invaded Ukraine, and a civil war in Sri Lanka. This week, I have attended performances pertinent to each event.

I would urge readers to attend these events in person or in broadcast form. They are both events of significance.

The first was a concert played by the newly created Ukraine Freedom Orchestra under the inspired direction of Keri-Lynn Wilson, a Ukrainian Canadian conductor.

The orchestra played as one, but every section played peerlessly in Valentin Silvestrov’s Seventh Symphony, Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor played by Anna Fedorova, an excerpt from Verdi’s Aïda sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, and Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony (”New World”). Ukraine is hoping for a new world.

I had not originally intended to review the concert, but it had the hallmarks of world-class musicianship, a natural expression of well-being and hope. The Usher Hall audience rose to its feet in applause. It was a special moment of connection and meaning. The orchestra had at a time of national crisis come to Edinburgh to play for us as proof that their nation’s spirit is unbroken.

The orchestra stood with the audience to play the Ukrainian National Anthem. I chose to think meaningfully of everything that has happened in Ukraine since the Russian invasion. By coming to Edinburgh, the orchestra was asserting its freedom. When their tour is over, many of the players will return to Ukraine to fight for complete freedom. The BBC Prom and the EIF performances have been recorded for broadcast, and should not be missed.

The second event is a multi-generational epic drama, Counting and Cracking, by S. Shakthidharan. It was originally co-produced by Belvoir and Co-Curious. It is centred on one family, who break apart and come back together, leaving Sri Lanka for Australia.

The action begins in Sydney, where Radha and her son, Siddhartha, have gone to pour Radha’s mother’s ashes into the ocean. To them, the ritual marks a final separation between their new lives in Australia and their past in Sri Lanka; but a phone call from Colombo soon reveals that everything is not as resolved as they had thought. The play deals with issues of identity, migration, and belonging, and asks who is left out under democratic rule.

Ryan BuchananThe Ukraine Freedom Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The story shifts forwards and backwards on a timeline of personal and national events with humour and gravity. It is fictional, but it refers to real people in domestic, commercial, and political spheres. At times, the characters are impotent. Most of the characters are individual threads in the narrative. Recurring concepts are about water joining water (coming together), the neat symmetry of mathematical equations (control in society), and the political value of having one national language, and the potential friction of having two national languages.

An over-simplified analogy would be looking at the life of an Irish community over the span of the 20th century with all of the problems that exist there.

The text is serious, dense at times, and peppered with humour. It is spoken by characters in different languages with simultaneous translation by others on the stage. One is caught between absorption and contextual analysis. It is simultaneously informing and provoking the imagination. The set is simple. It is uncluttered, but uses cultural iconography to set the scenes, and music is provided by a band of three musicians.

It is well worth seeing in Edinburgh or Birmingham.

Counting and Cracking is at the Lyceum, Grindlay Street, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, until 14 August. www.eif.co.uk/events/counting-and-cracking. It is then at Birmingham Rep, 6 Centenary Square, Birmingham, from 19 to 27 August. Phone 0121 236 4455. www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

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