Feature by Willard Manus
The Edinburgh Festival is without question the biggest and most famous arts festival in the world, an event of Olympian proportions. This year upwards of 500,000 culture-vultures descended on the Scottish city, my wife and I among them. The experience turned out to be one of the most exhilirating--and exhausting--of our lives.
On our first day we caught "The Bite-Size Breakfast Show," which offered a cluster of short plays plus croissants and strawberries. Going to the theater at nine a.m. is a little disconcerting but, hey, that's what we came all the way from California for, to be disconcerted. Taken out of ourselves. Uplifted, Challenged. Transformed.
From the Pleasance Dome we walked to the Queen's Hall on Clerk Street for a chamber music concert: violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Nikolai Lugansky playing fiendishly difficult but rewarding works by Janacek, Brahms, Stravinksy and Respighi. The program was part of the Edinburgh International Festival, which annually presents major music, dance, opera and theatre companies and performers from around the world. That night we attended another EIF production, Gulliver's Travels, performed by the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibu, Romania. Directed by Silviu Purcarete, Gulliver's Travels attacked the Jonathan Swift classic in bold fashion. Employing an array of theatrical devices--mime, dance, spoken word, fantastical lighting, costumes and sound--Purcarete found a new and remarkable way to breathe life into a 400-year-old satirical work.
Twenty-four hours later we caught BALLET PRELJOCAL, the French dance company headed by Angelin Preljocal. The first part of the double bill, Helikopter, set to music by the avant-garde German composer, Karlheiz Stochausen, featured ear-blasting techno-music, seething, highly erotic and acrobatic dancing. The second part, Eldorado, changed gears and offered up slower and more dreamlike music and dancing. The world it created was a weird but deeply affecting one.
When in Edinburgh it's de riguer to walk the length of the Royal Mile, the festival's main drag, a wide, cobble-stoned, pedestrian-only thoroughfare which slices through the heart of the city's old town.
It was like Mardi Gras out there. The gaily-festooned street was swarming with people: tourists, pipers and other street-musicians, jugglers, performers in bizarre costumes. A fat man in a homburg with his pants rolled up was teaching an Asian woman how to tango; on a nearby stage a trio of showgirls whipped off their tops for no good reason; a clown with a bulbuous pink nose handed out fliers to his show.
"Fliering" is a way of life at Edinburgh's "other" festival, the Fringe. Because of its vast numbers of productions, most of which operate on miniscule advertising budgets, the battle to find an audience is fought out daily in the streets. Actors and staff roam the Royal Mile, proffering handbills, twofers, zeroxed reviews. "Shoe-leather promotion" is what one local newspaper called it.
We also tried to investigate a different part of Edinburgh every day. Much of the city is truly beautiful with its Edwardian and Georgian villas and squares, its catacomb-like streets and alleyways. In August just about every neighborhood nook and cranny is turned into a performance space, everything from pubs, basements, ballrooms, dance studios, tramworks, art galleries and hotels. Shows were even being offered at the Quaker Meeting Hall and the Edinburgh Theosophical Society!
We gorged ourselves round the clock on all kinds of delicious theatre: not only such wellknown plays as "Miss Julie," and "Six Degrees of Separation," but such original and irreverent works as "Lee Harvey Oswald--The Musical," "Manopause," and my personal favorite, "Treasure of the Puta Madre."
So many plays, so little time. We quickly learned that there is a right and a wrong way to do Edinburgh. The wrong way is to go about things without a plan, as we did at first, chasing from one corner of town to the other. Big mistake. Edinburgh is built on a series of hills, on the highest one of which sits its famous castle. To negotiate these bluffs takes its toll; your legs soon begin to feel as heavy as logs.
After that, we laid out a schedule the night before, concentrating on a specific area, one which was centered by a multi-plex theatrical venue with cafes and restaurants attached. If we decided to catch a show elsewhere, we always took a bus or cab (or even a pedi-cab). The more energy you save, the more plays you can see.
We also never went anywhere without our Edinburgh survival kit, a backpack filled with bottled water, a flask of brandy, sandwiches, schedules, a heavy sweater and plastic raincoat...and sunglasses. Because Edinburgh lies almost as far north as Moscow, the weather can be capricious even in August. It can be rainy, sunny, warm, windy and chilly--all in the space of half an hour.
"The festival is something of a marathon, not only for the visitors but the performers," said Angelo Tsarouchas, a Greek-Canadian comic who was doing a solo show. "Not only are you up against some tough competition, you have to perform longer than usual--an hour a day instead of the normal twenty minutes. All your techniques have to come into play and you have to make quick choices in terms of your material, make it work for an audience that might be fifty per cent foreign, and thus unfamiliar with English."
Tsarouchas was just one of three hundred and fifty stand-up comics appearing at the Fringe. "There's a reason for our popularity," he said. "Comics can deal with difficult, touchy subjects in such a way that the theatre can't."
The Fringe could even boast of a trio of Muslim comedians, including Shazia Mirza, a sardonic young woman from Birmingham (England) who introduced herself thusly, "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least that's what it says on my pilot's license." She then launched into a routine about the way Muslim women are treated as second-class citizens, both within their own community and by well-meaning liberals deferring to what they think of as a fixed and unchanging Muslim culture.
"Consequently, I'm terrified I'll die a virgin," she said. "Not because I'm obsessed with sex. I'm not. I don't think it's that big a deal. But I don't want to go to paradise and have to sleep with one of the suicide bombers."
Sometimes the best show in Edinburgh is watching the world go by, especially from a sidewalk table while nibbling on Scottish smoked salmon and sipping brown ale. Equally enjoyable is meeting people from around the world and comparing festival notes with them.
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to the castle. Rooted in ancient volcanic rock 2600 feet above sea level, the castle provides thrilling vistas of the city center, Princes Street (a shopper's valhalla), the glitzy new Parliament building, the Scott Monument, Carlton Hill, Arthur's Seat and the Firth of Forth. Looking south from the esplanade, one gazes down on George Heriot's School, which dates from 1628.
Attending Edinburghfest (the local shorthand term for the Festival) was a memorable experience for us. Although many of the visitors we met felt that crowded Edinburgh was "something of a madhouse," it is a madhouse filled with magic, wonder and laughter.
GENERAL FESTIVAL INFORMATION
Two British pounds are roughly worth one dollar today. The average Fringe ticket price is $12, but there is a Virgin Money Half Price Hut at the Mound Precinct on Princes St. Open 10am-9 pm., the Hut offers tickets for shows that day and the morning of the following day only. If no discount tickets are available, purchase tickets at the Fringe Box Office, 180 High St. Tickets can also be booked online at edfringe.com. or through Fringe Mobile Apps. Tickets to EIF events are considerably more expensive and are usually gone by May (contact eif.co.uk).
CHOOSING A SHOW
All participating festivals and main venues publish their own annual brochure (the Fringe guide costs $10; order at firstname.lastname@example.org). Festival information is also available online (see below). Reviews of shows are published daily in various local papers and can also be found at edfringe.com
OTHER FESTIVAL ATTRACTIONS
Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival
Edinburgh Military Tattoo (nightly at Edinburgh castle)
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Edinburgh International Film Festival
OTHER RELEVANT WEBSITES
GUIDEBOOKS, MAPS, ETC.