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Issue 10 - Festival still leads the way

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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Festival still leads the way

Roddy Martine talks...

I have had an involvement with the Edinburgh International Festival since I was a teenager, except that in those days it was not quite such a large affair.

Then it was almost entirely about classical music and drama, with a bit of visual art thrown in. Today there are really eight Edinburgh festivals: the main International Festival, the Fringe, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the others celebrating comedy, books, cinema, jazz and television. It becomes a bit too much at times but I would not have it any other way.

For the month of August every year, a great cultural, and sometimes rather silly, blanket settles over Scotland’s Capital, engulfing those of us who actually live here in an atmosphere verging on the unreal.

With the population quadrupling, traffic at a standstill, and pubs and clubs open all night, it makes our lives rather complicated, but most of us quiet living individuals have learned to love it.

Those who don’t go off on holiday and let their apartments for enormous sums of money. So everybody is happy.

That is with the exception of some of the performers on the Fringe who, unless they get positive media exposure, often have difficulty finding their audiences.

Four years ago I met a troupe of 30 clowns from Croatia who, following a sell-out tour of Canada, Japan and Germany, found themselves performing to an Edinburgh audience of two. They were naturally a tiny bit unhappy, but I had to explain to them that it was nothing personal.

There was so much going on that nobody knew they were in town. With more than 800 shows a day taking place in Scotland’s capital, it is not unusual for thespians to outnumber the theatre going public, but that surely is part of the challenge.

The “Official” Festival is a showcase for the best of the best, and invariably sells out. The Fringe is for newcomers and hopefuls, and if you can make it at the Edinburgh Festival, you can make it anywhere. Ask Rowan Atkinson, Billy Connolly, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

Fifty six years seems a long time ago, but when the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama first took place in 1947, it was an enormously courageous venture for a grey, northern European city, dominated by the dead hand of Calvinism.

The war in Europe was over. Only one bomb had dropped into Princes Street Gardens, and the concept of an international celebration dedicated to healing the wounds of conflict was Scotland’s way of putting it all behind us.

At the same time it was the making of Edinburgh, and once again I find myself revelling in the street theatre, the Saturday firework displays from the castle battlements, and the babble of different languages and accents overheard in the cobbled streets of the Old Town.

More years ago than I care to remember I hung around a stage door to catch a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich. I saw Burt Lancaster on a bus, and heard Princess Grace of Monaco read poetry. I interviewed both Yehudi Menuhin and Rudolph Nureyev, and witnessed the Polish maestro Tadeusz Kantor stage a protest in the rain about festival catering arrangements for performers.

I took photographs of Paul McCartney, and turned down a dinner invitation to meet Joan Rivers. Kurtag’s Stele and Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Wagner’s Ring, Verdi’s Macbeth, Chekhov’s Seagull, and the Cullberg Ballet. This year it was still pretty classy stuff. There were dance, theatre, orchestra companies and exhibitions from China and India, from Austria and America. And not forgetting the more traditional Scottish input. I have never been disappointed by the Selkirk-based Rowan Tree Theatre Company, which came up with an adaptation of that classic tale of Caledonian angst, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The primary purpose of that first Edinburgh Festival over half a century ago, was to bring together people from all nations for a great celebration of the arts and to encourage them to put racial and religious grievances aside.

That message is even more important today than it was then, and I am proud that,for at least the month of August, it should be my home city of Edinburgh that sets the pace.

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