DEATH, the refugee crisis and climate change are not subjects that most people would immediately connect with a children’s festival.

However, while the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival boasts a range of high-energy, creative shows, it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

From intimate, immersive theatre specifically designed for babies, through to thought-provoking shows for teenagers, the festival aims to presents the gold standard of theatre for young audiences from around the world.

This year the programme features 14 shows from 12 countries in a varied programme of theatre, dance, multi-media and puppetry.

Along with well-loved Scottish companies such as Catherine Wheels, families will have the opportunity to see productions from as far away as New Zealand and Canada and – for the first time – an exciting show from South Africa partly performed in the clicking language IsiXhosa.

Mbuzeni is from Koleka Putuma, one of South Africa’s most acclaimed young black female voices. As a playwright, theatre director and poet, she is very vocal about the place of women in South Africa.

NEARLY 80% of the shows in the 2018 programme are directed by female artists, with Putuma being one of them.

Mbuzeni is the story of four orphan girls and their fixation with burials. The visually evocative journey explores tradition, burial rituals, African folklore, sisterhood and mortality.

Asked if death was a suitable subject for a young audience, Putuma told the National: “Children encounter death too, they are not exempt from it, just because they are children. And I think the people who live the subject of death more closely are orphans, because they have lost both their parents. Even though they may be young, every child has a unique relationship with death or their understanding of it. And I think this is a topic that is not explored enough with younger audiences.”

Putuma said she wanted to use IsiXhosa in the show as it is one of the 12 official languages in South Africa.

“I want to explore the story in a language that would encompass the nuances of our culture and that we as young black girls speak to and relate to each other. There are certain experiences of growing up as a black IsiXhosa speaking girl child that cannot fully be articulated or expressed in English. And so it felt obvious to make the work in IsiXhosa.”

For the Scottish run, the play will be presented in IsiXhosa and English.

PUTUMA’S work and activism centres on issues of black identity, queer identity, womanhood, mental health and religion. Her debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is a bestseller, with the poems dealing with these themes.

She said: “I think it’s important to keep reinforcing the place of women in South Africa, particularly in the creative sector, because the spaces are still very much male-dominated.

“My practice is generally centred around making work about and for black women, firstly because that is my experience and secondly because I think it is important that we keep creating narratives where young black girls/children can see themselves reflected in theatre or creative spaces.”

Festival director Noel Jordan said Putuma’s work would help make 2018 another “spectacular” year for the festival, its 29th edition.

“Where else can you share the lives of two young refugees from Syria, thrill to the rebellious curiosity of a boy made entirely of clay or delight in watching childhood toys infiltrate and disturb the lives of busy executives?” he asked. “Whilst the stories they create are incredibly unique and offer different perspectives of the world, at their core is a belief that children – no matter what their circumstances may be – deserve the best art possible.”

THE festival, which is produced by Imaginate and funded by Creative Scotland, will open with a family weekend this coming Saturday and Sunday at the National Museum of Scotland, with free drop-in events throughout the building including live music, pop-up performances, storytelling and hands-on arts activities. The event runs until June 3. As part of the celebration of the Year of Young People, Imaginate recruited six passionate and enthusiastic Young Associates aged between 17-24 years to help programme the opening weekend. They have been involved in selecting the shows and are contributing to the running of the event on the day.

“The Young Associates have been given free rein to curate a key strand of the weekend and they have done a brilliant job,” said Jordan. “Opportunities like this give young people the experience to nurture their passion for all the aspects related to theatre and performing arts and will be a stepping stone to fulfil their career objectives and dreams.”

THE festival will also go beyond Edinburgh with a three-week tour of Scotland of Baba Yaga, Imaginate’s new international co-production with Shona Reppe and Windmill Theatre Co (Australia).

A new twist on an old Russian folktale created by three female artists from across the globe, the show is set in a “retro-futuristic world” where Vaselina must achieve three impossible tasks to escape from the witch Baba Yaga.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, said: “I recognise the importance of young people engaging with the arts and the significant benefits gained by increasing access and opportunities for all our young people, particularly this year, as we celebrate the Year of Young People. The 2018 festival will deliver a high-quality programme of work in Edinburgh and beyond including Baba Yaga, which was funded through £100,000 provided by the Scottish Government EXPO fund.”

The festival will also see the culmination of a special initiative which gave a group of 10 to15-year-old children from Craigmillar the opportunity to work with the festival director. Together, they attended nine productions at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and, following heated discussions about what they had seen and liked, selected The Road That Wasn’t There to be included in the 2018 Children’s Festival programme. The project was funded by the City of Edinburgh Council.

Mbuzeni is on at the Traverse on May 30 and 31. To find out more go to www.imaginate.org.uk/festival