Hidden Door - Edinburgh

21 06 2022


Hidden Door is a festival with a clear agenda: in its more-or-less annual event (interrupted by COVID in recent years), it rediscovers a space in Edinburgh that is unused, and reanimates it with a curated selection of bands, performers and visual art installations. In the past, it has been crucial in  the reinvention of the Leith theatre: in 2022, The Royal High School, once considered for the Scottish Parliament, is given a new lease of life. With spectacular views of the city and Arthur’s Seat, a maze of rooms easily converted into mini-galleries and appropriately decaying interiors, it presents itself as a venue that could be a home for the kind of immersive performances that have made Punhdrunk internationally famous. Already, the Pianodrome – a mobile auditorium built from old pianos, has taken a residency for the next Fringe in August – and the central chamber has the appearance of a ready-made theatre in the round.

Although the music line-up is perhaps the festival’s biggest attraction (a mixture of emerging bands from Scotland with some larger names headline across the seven days), these are perhaps the least interesting performances in terms of the relationship between the space and the art: without disparaging their quality, the bands easily slip into festival mode, either indoors or out, and provide serviceable sets without bleeding into each other. The visual art, by contrast, is the most dynamic, either adapting the space to frame the work or taking a cue from the decrepit walls and cracked floors to explore how context acts on art objects. Theatrical performances and spoken word acts sit between the two, sometimes shaped by the space – again, the Pianodrome operates as an unobtrusive yet unique venue – or imposing themselves on the venue, as when the oval stage of the central chamber becomes a playground for the improvisation of Collective Endeavours, or when Mystika Glamoor pauses to bash out a few notes in the Piandrome.

The neo-classical façade of the school hides a complex architecture, of hidden rooms and oddly-shaped spaces, and in these the disused building becomes the host to human activity that, in turns, suggests histories and previous purposes. Like ghost within the shell, the procession of events speaks to the past, whether examining personal and artistic trauma – as in Texture’s hip-hop inflected meditation on catastrophe – or celebrating a potential queer revolution (Mystika Glamoor) or reflecting on the expansion of fungi with Opio’s Puppet. Beyond Hidden Door’s reclamation of lost space, the art determinedly revivifies the material.

In traditional marionette puppetry, the human acted upon the object in a direct, manipulative manner, causing limbs to move and mouths to speak. Here, the relationship is less immediate, less obvious. The walls do not shift, the floors are static and the human choreography exists within the puppetry: aside from the shadows cast on walls and screens, the familiar strategies of puppetry are absent. Yet life – or its appearance – is infused into the Royal, and while its silent demeanour remains constant, its meaning is shifted. What was once a school, and aspired to be a parliament is now a theatre and gig venue, a visible and urgent reminder of both how spaces can be reutilised and Plato’s thought that what school was for the child, art becomes for the adult.