In my family, watching the Edinburgh Tattoo on TV is something of an annual tradition, one that started with my grandmother, as I imagine has been the case for many others with a Scottish inheritance. Now, many decades since its debut in 1950, the modern Tattoo includes a great deal more than the military bands and bagpipes for which it is most famed, and has become something of a marching band and cultural performance variety show.
Regimental music groups from many different Commonwealth countries and other nations now participate, each with their own distinct uniforms, style, and support performers. Quite a lot of mainstream modern music is injected into the proceedings as well, with chart hits both new and old cropping up, not only from the marching bands, but also belted out by various singers as well.
This touring production takes that formula and tweaks it for the Australian audience. Staged on the field of Homebush’s ANZ Stadium, it is remarkably backed by an attested 1:1 replica of (the face of) Edinburgh Castle, against which the classic Tattoo is always performed. This creates a splendid if somewhat surreal effect. Beholding what looks pretty much exactly like what you see on the TV broadcasts of the real Tattoo certainly helps you buy into the illusion of attending the original event in person. The odd part is seeing it in situ with the surrounding stadium stands, giving the impression that the supposedly ancient structure had been somehow teleported out of its proper place like a scene from Doctor Who.
Indeed, the effort of erecting this impressive backdrop is emblematic of the commitment to giving this touring version high production values, comparable to the actual Edinburgh show, complete with spotlights, fireworks and other pyrotechnics.
Of course, the real drawcard is the simply terrific performers, and those which have the biggest impact will likely depend on questions of personal preference and connection. Touted as “the largest Tattoo ever”, the backbone of the show is, as would be expected, the various regimental bands, but variety is clearly also very much the watchword.
As has been the case from quite some time now, the Edinburgh Tattoo often includes significant elements of dance and indigenous cultural performances by various countries, and this touring iteration emphasises local connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait flags flying from the battlements alongside those of Australia, the UK and Scotland. The whole show kicks off with a First Nation Peoples group, whose traditional performances recur throughout the show. Various Polynesian representatives also appear in connection to the many Pacific region regimental bands, with groups such as the Solomon Islands Dancers, Te Pikikōtuku o Ngāti Rongomai, Manus Garamut Dancers, Cook Island National Art Theatre, and many others. Their contributions are varied and entertaining, and add a powerful contrast to the militaristic underpinnings of the event.
Conversely, the show’s tendency to lean into popular music for mainstream appeal felt a little forced at times, and in particular the localising choice to use a lot of Australian tunes seemed a touch pandering. It’s horses for courses in terms of what you like, naturally, and there is no doubting the impressive talents of the performers at work. Yet some may experience a little cultural cringe upon hearing the theme from Blue Hills, “Waltzing Matilda”, and “Along the Road to Gundagai” get followed up with Men at Work’s “Downunder”, and Johnny Farnham’s “You’re the Voice”. By the time (Scottish-born) John Paul Young himself appears performing “Love is in the Air’ in person, presented as something of a showstopper, one can’t help but ponder how many patrons would have really come to a Sydney staging of the Edinburgh Tattoo in the hopes of hearing quite so much locally-skewed content.
I shouldn’t exaggerate though, because as much as hearing two separate showtunes from the Hugh Jackman musical “The Greatest Showman” seemed excessive, the majority of the performance, especially in the first half, comprised some genuinely stirring and impressive military bands and bagpipes, as well as traditional Scottish Country Dancing girls with swords and all the associated pageantry.
An absolute highlight was the flashy synchronised drumming of the Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps, whose act is almost as much choreographed dance and performance art as it is music. Lining up and each frequently reaching across to strike the drum of the man next to them, one is spellbound by these amazing cascades of sound and movement. The levels of precision and fluidity are a wonder to behold, even from way up in the nosebleed seats.
Nothing will stir the spirits of Edinburgh Tattoo purists quite like the peals of “Scotland the Brave” or “Auld Lang Syne”, played towards the close of the show, or the figure of the iconic Lone Piper, spotlighted atop the replica castle battlements. They cannot recreate the pipers marching away through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh as in the television broadcasts’ conclusions, yet the sheer wall of sound as the massed bagpipes are the last to exit the arena after all the other diverse cast of performers have gone is a spine-tingling moment on which to end. This moment, more than perhaps any other, is surely the closest feeling one can get to actually being there.
A spectacular show in a suitably epic venue, all the stops have been pulled out for the Sydney recreation of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and while the balance of material may not be to everyone’s taste, it is unquestionably a hugely entertaining night out.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo Sydney 2019
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Olympic Park NSW
Dates: 17 – 19 October 2019