Spirit of 47, the theme for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, refers to the inaugural festival, which imagined providing a city in the depths of post-war austerity with a sense of community and celebration, and unity with Europe. It’s also, perhaps, an unsubtle reminder of European alliances now under threat, given Brexit, which hangs like a thick fog across the United Kingdom, not least Scotland which has opposed it.

Festival guest, New York novelist and academic Paul Auster, quoted from his New York Trilogy: “Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them.” He was describing the intersections between his personal biography and his books, but the words encapsulate a perspective common to the performing arts — that we are here to tell our stories. This desire becomes problematic with a world in flux, as things become more difficult to understand, explain and retell. Works I saw in the first week of the festival had central figures attempting to re-write histories in new ways, to re-examine the ways that we tell ourselves ‘what has happened.’

Minefield, promotional image courtesy Edinburgh International Arts Festival

Lola Arias, Minefield

Minefield features three men who, in 1982, fought for Britain during the Falklands War and three who fought for Argentina during the Malvinas war. It was, of course, the same war. These men, once enemies, are now co-creators of this work directed by Lola Arias. One by one they introduce themselves, talk about their reasons for enlisting and tell their battle stories. They speak in their native tongues with alternating sets of surtitles. Standing within a white cyclorama, they film each other, provide live foley (the crunching of stones accompanies a story of hiking across dry terrain) and even form a Beatles cover band.

But the stories sit in opposition: two versions of history, two ideas of sovereignty. An Argentinian voice yells at a Brit, “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.” One calls, “Where are the British dead in this play?” The crux of the piece is archival interview footage of one of the British soldiers soon after his return to Britain. He breaks down in tears, “Have I just killed someone who was trying to surrender?”

The director has obviously cast with an eye to audience engagement and intensively coached the players — there is none of the aesthetic of the ‘amateur’ here. These men are charming, comfortable on stage and negotiate an immensely complex pattern of movement. It all makes for a dizzying theatrical experience (see a trailer). But is it too entertaining? Too neat? The performers seem able to move all too easily from “if I met a British soldier before I would slit his throat” to “and now I would buy him a beer.” It suggests that theatrical collaboration can heal all wounds. The men have found new ways to speak about a painful past, with forgiveness fitting elegantly into a theatrical denouement, but feeling too simple in such a deeply complex personal and political landscape.


Martin Creed, Words and Music

Martin Creed leaves us alone for a while with an enormous PowerPoint image flashing, “YES. NO. YES. NO.” In stark black and white, it dominates the stage. Eventually Creed clumsily makes a clumsy entrance through the auditorium. He has been sitting behind us, watching us watch. He walks centrestage, beneath the sign, looks up, gives us a devilish grin and quips that perhaps he has already begun.

What follows falls somewhere between performative lecture and rambling gig. Creed, a musician and Turner Prize-winning visual artist and no stranger to controversy, will not tell us exactly what Words and Music is all about. Personal narratives emerge — he recently received a large-scale public sculpture commission in New York, and wanted the the words “Peace, Love and Understanding” to tower over a park. However, the project was thwarted when the fund could only pay for one word. He chose “Understanding,” not least for the visual pleasure of seeing people standing beneath it.

But he doesn’t dwell on anything too long, flitting between feelings about the art world, the fences between countries, a friend’s wedding, and saying ‘yes’ but feeling ‘no.’ There are musings — “Life’s live, isn’t it?” His trousers are important — he has made them himself — improvised, not looking really like trousers are meant to look, but nonetheless doing the job. A near enough approximation. It’s like hanging out with a slightly batty uncle. There are songs, projected doodles (quite literally, with Creed showing us a dick pic he has sketched) and attempts at humour. The performance — slow and greeted icily by the late night audience I was part of — relies heavily on Creed charming us into trusting him, that associations between the sublime and the ridiculous might somehow add up to a cogent account of the quandaries of modern existence. Somewhere in Words and Music there is a warning about the dangers of binaries, the failures of language and a celebration of things that fall between definitions.

Neve Macintosh, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Meet Me at Dawn, Edinburgh International Arts Festival, photo Murdo McLeod for The Guardian UK

Zinnie Harris, Meet Me at Dawn

Onstage at Traverse Theatre is a conversation conducted by two women, lovers who have washed up from a mysterious accident onto an island in Zinnie Harris’ Meet Me at Dawn. They are in shock, piecing together the moments that led to their arrival. Their memories are slowly gaining clarity, but the realities they recall don’t always make sense. For an hour the performers perch atop a monolithic island designed by Fred Meller. Slowly, facts (or fantasies) are fed to us. We are inside a kind of fairytale which asks, what would you do if you had one wish that allowed you one day with someone you loved who had died? Would you sit in grief, mourning their imminent departure in their presence, or simply while away the time, spending your last day together as any other?

Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is spacious; a heavy atmosphere unfolds slowly across an hour. Much of the performance happens with the actors facing the audience, but not directly addressing us, as their characters ruminate philosophically about love, memory and second chances.

In a work that is poetic and deliberately repetitive, always circling back to the romance central to it, the performances are superb. A lesser director may have steered Meet Me at Dawn towards cliche or sentimentality, but the story is told with gentle sophistication. It’s a drama about grief and 10 minutes in we realise that it won’t have a happy ending, but we are held by a deeply passionate and beguiling ritual of farewelling.

What struck a chord with me in these three works was the struggle of very different individuals to fully grasp the stories they were telling or the realities they were living out, whether actual former soldier enemies seeking reconciliation and forgiveness through theatre, a famous visual artist stumblingly turning to performance to share a lateral worldview, or two characters in a play, sorting out their author’s understanding of love in the face of death. Scotland, deep in political flux about independence and Brexit, is in the process, too, of having a new and uncertain story to tell.

Lola Arias’ The Year I was Born featured in the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival and was reviewed by Jana Perkovic. Read an interview with Arias and watch a film about the making of Minefield.

Courtesy of the British Council you can watch Martin Creed’s 75-minute performance, Words and Music.

2017 Edinburgh International Festival: Minefield, writer, director Lola Arias, The Studio, 6-9 Aug; Traverse Theatre Company, Meet Me At Dawn, writer Zinnie Harris, director Orla O’Loughlin, Traverse Theatre, 4-27 Aug; Martin Creed’s Words And Music, The Studio, Edinburgh, 4-27 Aug

Top image credit: Martin Creed, Words and Music, Edinburgh International Arts Festival, photo Murdo McLeod for The Guardian UK