Scotland Magazine Issue 34
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Sally Toms enters into the spirit of the Edinburgh festival. All of them
As this issue went to press, Edinburgh was a buzzing with festival spirit.
Every year, the city flings open its gates and welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to revel in art, music, comedy and all kinds of entertainment from around the world. The city is absolutely taken over and its population literally doubles in size.
Yes, residents complain that it’s all a bit invasive, visitors can never find a hotel room and there’s too much going on to know where to start, but it is something everyone should experience.
In fact it is not one festival, but a collection of festivals happening in the city at the same time (from late July into early September) including the Edinburgh International Festival; the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; the Edinburgh Military Tattoo; the Edinburgh International Film Festival; the Edinburgh International Book Festival; the Festival of Politics; Festival of Spirituality and Peace and so on… It matters little to the festivalgoer which events are part of which festival, except that each festival has a separate programme (and website) and sells tickets only for its own events.
It was all started with the first Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) in 1947 – a beacon of optimism in the depressing post-war years. Afew theatre groups were so optimistic they gatecrashed the festival and the Fringe was born in the same year.
Sixty years later these two festivals carry on side by side, complementing each other by each catering for different side of the arts. The EIF is a celebration of all things classical, from cabaret and composers to Voltaire and violins. There is opera, ballet, Greek tragedy and highbrow theatre, but it is modern too, you might find a famous actor performing Beowulf, or Vivaldi played by men in space suits.
I’m more of a Fringe girl myself. It has carved a niche for itself amongst performance art, music and comedy. Unlike the EIF there is no selection committee, which means anything is possible – this year there was even a musical performance of Debbie Does Dallas, which I missed unfortunately but am sure it received a standing ovation.
In recent years, comedy has been criticised for ‘taking over’ the Fringe festival, but this is not such a bad thing as it has proved to be a launch pad for many of our most famous comics. In the 1960s, various members of the Monty Python team appeared in student productions, as did Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson in later years. More recent comedy performers discovered at the Fringe include: the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Steve Coogan, Jenny Eclair, Rich Hall and the extremely bizarre League of Gentlemen.
Where it does become a problem is when the big name performers draw the crowds and eclipse upcoming talent.
Hot tips for future years include comedian Russell Kane, a twitching ball of hyperactive hilarity, performing far too briefly this year as part of the Paramount Comedy Group; and The Book Club, a comic performance where the weirdest books in the world battle it out. This year’s show even contained some tap dancing. Book Club member and Australian comedian Asher Treleaven’s readings from Mills & Boon erotic fiction is possibly one of the funniest things you can experience; the sort of funny that makes you snort and leaves you shaking.
But apart from the comics, musicians and jugglers, the city itself plays an essential part to the festival experience. The buildings, streets and landscapes of Edinburgh contribute to the overall atmosphere, and its most famous landmarks become the stage – be it a fire eater on the Royal Mile, or an opera performed in Greyfriar’s Kirk. There could be no better backdrop.