Great art
and innovation

For three weeks every August, we gather together the most exciting and creative artists working today, invigorating audiences with inspiring cultural experiences. Over the past 70 years we have welcomed a constellation of stars, numerous highly acclaimed productions and notable world premieres, as well as the innovative and the avant-garde. Always reflecting the cultural conversation of the day, our relationships with diverse artists and organisations have bloomed over decades, from the radicalism of the Old Vic to the psychologically raw choreography of Pina Bausch. And each August, cultures, life stories and experiences from all over the world are exchanged in Edinburgh.

Read on

Notable world
premieres

Explore some of the work which has had its world premiere at the International Festival in the last 70 year.

World Premieres
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Beyond the Fringe

When negotiations between Artistic Director Robert Ponsonby and Louis Armstrong broke down, there was space in the programme in the Lyceum's Theatre late night slot. Ponsonby had long wanted to feature a satirical show that would, in his view, out-fringe the Fringe. His assistant, John Bassett, recommended four emerging comedians: Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook. Beyond the Fringe was the result. The ‘youngsters' had carte blanche to do whatever they liked – a licence that Ponsonby regretted when he watched the dress rehearsal in disarray. The opening night was a different story. The satirical revue became a seminal show that transformed British comedy. Beyond the Fringe went on to London's West End, Broadway and toured America throughout the early 1960s.

Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook in Beyond The Fringe

Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook in Beyond The Fringe

A Constellation
of stars

Since 1947, the International Festival has brought some of the world’s greatest stars to Edinburgh. Explore some of them here.

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A Midsummer Night's
Dream

Baz Luhrmann staged his interpretation of Benjamin Britten's version of Shakespeare's tale, set in colonial India, for the Australian Opera. After successful seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, the production won the Critics' Prize at the Edinburgh International Festival. A previous incarnation of the play at the International Festival was a cross-genre collaboration in 1954 of the Old Vic, Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Scottish National Orchestra.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
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A Midsummer Night's Dream

The innovative and
avant-garde

Sometimes the work of great artists doesn’t fit in a conventional theatre, or it will be doing something traditional in an entirely new way. Find out more about some of the performances that brought something a bit different to International Festival audiences.

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and pianist Louis Kentner performing at the 1948 International Festival

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and pianist Louis Kentner performing at the 1948 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

1948: The apron
stage makes
its debut

The apron stage was introduced for the first time at the 1948 performance of The Three Estates, which was adapted by Robert Kemp and produced by Tyrone Guthrie. The radical stage design for The Assembly Hall on the Mound enabled the action to take place amongst the audience for a more dramatic performance.

The Three Estates

The Three Estates at the 1948 International Festival in the Assembly Hall
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

1953: Four Centuries
of the Violin

The theme for the 1953 International Festival, featuring work by Bach, Beethoven and Bartók, culminated in a night uniting the three great violinists Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Gioconda de Vito – an example of the entrepreneurial genius for which Artistic Director Ian Hunter became known. Performing Bach's Double Concerto and Vivaldi's Triple Concertos, the order of soloists was decided by ballot. Menuhin dedicated his performance to his friend violinist, Jacques Thibaut, killed that morning in a plane crash. No applause was requested; the whole audience rose to its feet in a spontaneous act of respect.

The Three Estates

1963: Play of
Happenings

During the Drama Conference within the 1963 International Festival, an avant-garde director from Los Angeles, Kenneth Dewey, featured a nude model on a trolley, wheeled across the organ gallery in the McEwan Hall. The press seized upon it, giving it more attention than anything else in the history of the International Festival. The Lord Provost was unhappy, “it was a tragedy that three weeks of glorious Festival should have been ruined by one squalid incident”. Prosecutions for indecency ensued. Both the model, Anna Kesseler, and publisher and organiser, John Calder, were acquitted.

Model Anna Kesselaar waiting in the wings

Model Anna Kesselaar waiting in the wings before her appearance at the Drama Conference at the McEwan Hall in 1963
Photo: Hulton

1970: Orlando Furioso

Considered the most extraordinary event at the 1970 International Festival, Teatro Libero's magnificent spectacular Orlando Furioso was an entirely new experience in theatre. Director Luca Roncini staged scenes simultaneously in different parts of the Murrayfield Ice Rink, so that the audience could move around at will. Orlando and his knights on high horses mounted on trolleys, charged through the audience at an alarming rate, scattering people in every direction to escape.

Orlando Furioso
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Orlando Furioso

Orlando Furioso changed the face of International Festival drama in 1970
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

1985: An Exploration of
the Scottish Fiddle

Violinists and fiddlers, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Edna Arthur, Aly Bain, Ron Gonnella, Alastair Hardie, Bob Hobkirk and Douglas Lawrence, joined forces at the end of their concert, together with the Whistleblinkies in the first performance of a slow air and reel specially composed for the occasion. Composed by Edward McGuire, the piece was named, “Mr Menuhin's Delight”.

1994: Mark Morris
Dance Group

Over 2,000 people were involved in an innovative project run by the Mark Morris Dance Group, on their third visit to the International Festival. Reinforcing the bond between the company and the city, for over three weeks they visited young people from Lothian Region schools, senior citizens at day centres, young choreographers and a wide range of dancers. Many participants felt deeply affected by the greater understanding of dance and movement.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a masterwork from Mark Morris with his dance company at the 1994 International Festival
Photo: Sean Hudson

1995: Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch is recognised as one of the most influential choreographers in contemporary dance. Her provocative, pioneering work has always unleashed strong reactions from audiences and critics alike. Brian McMaster first introduced her to International Festival audiences in 1992. Her production of Nelken at the 1995 International Festival, 13 years on from its premiere, became one of the most discussed, seminal moments in recent decades. As The Independent described the 1995 International Festival production, “The synesthetic impact is overwhelmingly strong. It demonstrates in microcosm how gesture can enhance meaning.”

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing Nelken

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing Nelken at the 1995 International Festival
Photo: Sean Hudson

2012: Royal
Highland Centre

Sometimes, staging an innovative production anywhere but a conventional theatre is the right thing to do. This is why the cavernous, multi-purpose Royal Highland Centre has hosted several innovative productions over the years, providing the scale and versatility that a traditional context couldn't provide. In 1993 there was the Peter Stein production of Julius Caesar. In 2012 there were three separate productions: Meine Faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor by Theater Basel; Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) by Théâtre du Soleil; and 2008: Macbeth by TR Warszawa.

Royal Highland Centre
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The cast of Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) prepare for their performance

The cast of Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) prepare for their performance at the 2012 International Festival
Photo: Sally Jubb

2012: NVA's Speed
of Light

NVA's Speed of Light was a remarkable fusion of innovative public art and sporting endeavour, with endurance runners and a walking audience lighting up Arthur’s Seat during the 2012 International Festival.

Speed of Light
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Performers getting ready for a run up Arthur’s Seat

Performers getting ready for a run up Arthur’s Seat.
Photo: Sally Jubb

2013: The Tragedy
of Coriolanus

Performed by the Beijing People's Art Theatre. Two heavy metal bands live onstage, and a cast of more than 100 actors, made this Chinese production of Shakespeare's history play feel more pertinent today.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Beijing People's Art Theatre's The Tragedy of Coriolanus. Part of the 2013 International Festival
Photo: Beijing People's Art Theatre

2014: The James
Plays

Scotland and England are at loggerheads. There's plotting and mayhem. The International Festival gave the story of the Stewart Kings a new lease of life in 2014, the year of the Scottish independence referendum.

The James Plays
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James II, part of The James Plays trilogy

James II, part of The James Plays trilogy at the 2014 International Festival
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Macbeth

As one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth (or the Scottish Play for the more superstitious among us) has been performed in many different ways over the 70 year history of the International Festival. Verdi’s operatic version was one of the first opera’s performed at the International Festival in 1947, and will performed again in 2017. Explore some of the great Macbeths over the years here.

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Continue to Chapter IV