Friday, August 28, 2009

Edinburgh Festival is still the Greatest Show on Earth

I went to hell and back with the Scottish culture minister, Mike Russell, at Edinburgh this year. It was at the opening night of Silviu Puracarete’s Faust at the Royal Highland Centre in Ingliston. Half way into the most lavish production ever mounted at the Edinburgh Festival, the stage divides and the audience of 500, VIPs included, are herded by women in pig masks through the stage to take part in a kind of black mass presided over by an androgynous Mephistopheles. It’s all bare breasts and fire-eating. Crazed witches fornicating with pigs.

This is what is called “immersive” theatre, and it certainly puts you in the thick of it. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh.George Grubb, was there complete with chain of office and a train of civic dignitaries. I watched for a reaction as he was approached by a naked women covered in blood holding a real pigs head on a plate above her head. He didn’t flinch - though his chain seemed to dance a little in the firelight. I was assured that he thoroughly enjoyed it all and Mike Russell was still raving about it when I caught up with him again at the Edinburgh Book Festival two days later. “The sight of not one, but two fork lift trucks carrying flying witches really made it for me”

Going around Edinburgh at Festival time is like a road movie of contemporary culture - you’re bombarded by so many striking images, ideas and experiences it’s hard to make sense of them all. You just have to give in to it. At the McEwen Hall I witnessed a Chinese version of A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, reworked as if it were a video game, in which everyone dies in frenzy of martial arts. Not quite what the Bard intended. I went to a play called Hotel, by Mark Watson, which took place in a real hotel and in which every room was a play within a play. In another highly regarded production, Internal, the audience become participants in a kind of existential speed-dating. I spent a surreal night in the plant houses of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens watching luminous gramophones playing random sounds while electric fireflies buzzed around the trees and a kind of pipe organ belched real flame. Or maybe I was on drugs and just hallucinated it all, I sometimes wonder.

The Edinburgh Festival is an intensely physical experience, not least because of the weather: the almost constant rain and wind can really take it out of you. Then there’s the getting around. There are 2,000 different productions in Edinburgh in August in more than 250 venues. The secret is to go by bicycle because the roads are choked most of the time - plus you don’t risk being breathalised. Mind you, it pays to remember where you leave the damn thing. In week three I mislaid my wheels and suffered several days of missed appointment misery.

Edinburgh is by far the biggest arts festival in the world, a cultural feeding frenzy during which the city’s population doubles. Size isn’t everything, though, and in recent years there has been mounting anxiety about just how long this growth can can continue before the Festival collapses under its own weight. Many feared that 2009 might be the year of Peak Fringe when the whole thing started to run out of cultural energy. Last year’s ticketing fiasco, when the Fringe box office crashed, felt like it might be the beginning of the end for a morbidly obese Festival. Then there’s been the economic recession, swine flu, the tram chaos, competition from upstart festivals Manchester stealing Edinburgh’s cultural crown. But it hasn’t happened. Astonishingly, the Edinburgh Festival seems to have bounced back even more dramatically than the stock market. Ticket sales at the Fringe have been running about 20% up on 2007, which was its best year to date. All the Festivals - International, Fringe, Book, Art - have more than theld their own and are dragging Edinburgh out of recession.

Partly, this is down to the new professional organisation of the Fringe, which has reinvented itself after last year’s near death experience. It now occupies the vast concourse of Edinburgh University’s Appleton Tower (the university now provides the venues for more than half of all Fringe shows). “Fringe Central” feels a bit like an airport departure lounge: performers, administrators and journalists hang out guzzling coffee and muffins and preparing for the next flight of fancy. But while the the Fringe has been a commercial success, this Festival hasn’t really taken off artistically. There have been no “stand out” Fringe productions, like Riot Group or Aurora Nova’s physical theatre of past festivals; there’s been no “Black Watch” moment or indeed anything at all from the National Theatre of Scotland.

But the critics aren’t complaining. Aficionados like the celebrated cultural writer, Joyce MacMillan, Mark Fisher of the Guardian and Neil Cooper of the Herald all insist that the general standard has been reassuringly high, despite the absence of lofty peaks. The productions put on under the Made in Scotland label - part financed by the Scottish government’s Expo Fund - have been particularly well received, including the Year of the Horse about the late cartoonist, Harry Horse, and Nic Green’s feminist-revivalist Trilogy by Arches at St Stephens.

There has also been great excitement about the free festivals that have been springing up everywhere. The Forest Fringe in Bristo Place, an elegantly decrepit church hall owned by Edinburgh University, has turned into something like 1960’s ‘arts lab’ where experimental theatre groups put on shows for nothing. In one piece, House, people were invited to smash up the furniture in a home and recreate it. There was also a sea shanty musical about a mermaid who turns to prostitution,. Last time I passed, a guy in a top hat was playing an exploding piano mounted on bicycle wheels.

Neil Cooper believes Forest Fringe shows that the Edinburgh Festival is capable of re-inventing itself and that the “stranglehold” of the big comedy venues is being broken. “There’s a real sense of rediscovery, of excitement, applying some of the radical ideas from outside the mainstream that made the Festival Fringe so vibrant thrity years ago.” You can’t help being charmed by the improvisations and scratch productions, but free theatre can only be a marginal force since it it is incapable of mounting the kind of big budget productions that keep the International Festival in the international running.

There have been markedly fewer foreign productions on this year’s Fringe, which may be do to with the recession, or may be because the Edinburgh faces greater international competition. But Mike Russell, insists that Edinburgh is still “the cultural capital of the world in August”. To prove it the culture minister even took to the stage to the stage himself for an Edinburgh Book Festival show devoted to his favourite poetry. And no, it wasn’t all Burns. There was Pablo Neruda in there along with the Russian poet Anna Akhmetova and even a dash of Tennyson. No one can deny that Mike Russell has a cultural hinterland. And while he has no formal responsibility for the Edinburgh Festivals everyone I come across seems to think he is good news - though Joyce Macmillan, thought that his suggestion that the Fringe is getting too big showed that “he didn’t understand the first thing” about what makes the Edinburgh great.

But size is issue that simply won’t go away. It is the constant complaint of festival goers that they simply can’t find their way round Edinburgh. And even critics like Mark Fisher concede that the sheer scale of the festival makes it difficult for individual shows to achieve critical mass. Edinburgh University has become almost a Festival city within a city. A giant purple cow dominates Bristo Square, heart of the university. George Square gardens have become a multimedia fairground and you could spend easily three weeks at the Pleasance complex without exhausting its programme. Everywhere you are assaulted by people telling you that they are the funniest people on the planet, when only a few of them really are.

Joyce MacMillan says it is “absolute tosh” to say that comedy is a has overwhelmed the Fringe, and that there is more theatre than ever before. Which is true. She is right to oppose any attempt to limit the fringe, or impose overall quality control, because it would undermine its spontaneity and dynamism. No one curates the Fringe and no one subsidises it - apart from a pittance from the council. Anyone who wants to put on a show in Edinburgh can hire a venue, get on the boards and show the world what they’ve got - even if it’s just a dose of self-delusion. The Fringe is the ultimate free market in culture.

But the trouble with free markets is that money talks and those that have the most shout the loudest and get the most attention. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been colonised by a handful of big commercial comedy-oriented venues which spend a fortune on promotion . They charge ever higher rates for their one hour shows but this doesn’t guarantee quality. One critically acclaimed and allegedly four star comedy show I saw, John Gordillo’s Fxckonomics, was so excruciatingly unfunny that I was desperate to leave after five minutes.

The future of comedy must surely be more along the lines of the Stand in York place, Edinburgh’s leading year-round comedy venue. The Stand has soul - a sweaty basement reeking of beer is surely the correct atmosphere for edgy comedy. The proprietor, Tommy Sheppard - a stern critic of the big money promoters - keeps prices ticket prices low, ensures that people get value for money and that performers aren’t ripped off. Very few performers make any money in Edinburgh in August, and most leave with debts running into thousands. But they have to be here; Edinburgh is still the place you have to go if you want to make it.

Curated festivals- within- festivals, like Made in Britain, the British Council Showcase, Forest Fringe, may equally be the future for theatre in Edinburgh. The Art Festival really came in from the cold this year, or so I’m told, though the only thing I managed to catch was the RSA's Discovering Spain and a few things at the Dean Gallery. The Edinburgh Book Festival, has of course been adroitly quality controlled by director Catherine Lockerbie for the last nine years. Possibly the most emotional event on the fringe circuit was her leaving party in the tent city she has created in Charlotte Square. It was quite a send off: instead of a clock she got a poem from the poet laureatte, Carol Ann Duffy, performed live and supported by a trumpet player. I want one of those too.

There’s no doubt that Catherine Lockerbie has made the Edinburgh Book Festival what it is: one of the biggest in the world, and a great commercial success. But there is a view that, like the Edinburgh Festival as a whole, it's becoming too genteel, too old, too safe. People say that it lacks controversy and doesn’t attract any really big name authors, any show-stoppers. But I don’t advise you to say this to Ian Rankin, the Rebus author, who’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that that the EBF’s great achievement has been to hold onto its roots. It has kept celebrity culture at bay and avoided becoming, like Hay on Wye, a part of the corporate entertainment industry.

Point taken. But my own experience of fronting events at the book festival is that it has been growing older just a bit faster than I am, and that’s worrying because I’m the wrong side of fifty. There’s nothing wrong with a literary Glastonbury for the over-fifties, of course. The International Festival is similarly mature - the average age of the audience at the opening Festival concert, Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, must have been touching sixty. Older people read books and newspapers and still vote in elections and they can be very combative. As the Times columnist, David Aaronovitch, author of “Voodoo Histories” discovered at a session I chaired at the Book Festival. He was taken to task on everything from Iraq to the assassination of JFK and emerged shell-shocked but exhilarated.

But Edinburgh can’t afford to cater to only one section of the community, however well informed, and it needs young blood. Johnathan Mills is certainly doing his bit with productions like Faust which made a nonsense of the whole debate about high and low art. You could take it on so many levels: from soft porn to moral philosophy, depending upon whether you followed the surtitles or not (it was in Romanian). Or as someone in Ingliston put it: “With tits and a text from Goethe you can’t really go wrong, can you”. Increasingly, International Festival Productions, like the Traverse’s Last Witch or Michael Clark’s choreographing of David Bowie appeal to the same audience as attend the Fringe comedy factories. The old boundaries just don’t apply any more, and this cultural convergence should attract a wider audience.

And next year, for the first time, all tickets for the Edinburgh Festivals will be available from one outlet. This may seem a technical point, but it is a profound culture change. It means that from the punter’s point of view, all the Edinburgh Festivals - Art, Book, International, Fringe - will eventually be as one. This will be more convenient, but will it just lead to more gigantism? And if the Fringe already dominates by virtue of its size, will putting the other Festivals under its roof dilute their identities even further? I doubt it - not as long as the work is up to standard.

That mind-blowing Faust answered many of the questions that have been raise about where the Edinburgh Festival is going in its 63rd year. First of all, Edinburgh is still the boss: where else could you see a play involving 100 actors in a barn the size of an aircraft hanger? Faust could have been a gigantic flop, a monumental embarrassment - Adams Family Values meets Night of the Living Dead. But it wasn’t. The Australian Director of the International Festival, Johnathan Mills has a feel for the spectacular and has the self-confidence to pull of real theatrical coups. By common agreement, this is the year he finally arrived.

The Ingliston Walpurgis also confirmed that Edinburgh’s relationship to its Festivals has changed out of all recognition. Not many years ago, a production like this, featuring necromancy, bestiality, paedophilia would have caused a public outcry and had the city fathers frothing in disgust. Even I shifted uneasily in my seat when a group of eleven year old angels entered the carnival of lust, one of them to be raped by Faust. But it is almost impossible to shock anyone nowadays, even Morningside matrons. And the city no longer sees the Festival as an alien intrusion of international pornographers. Incredibly, the majority of tickets at the Fringe are sold to citizens of greater ‘Embra’.

This local identification has given the festival a secure base financial base and allowed it to sail through the recession. It doesn’t depend on a footloose international cultural elite anymore, and yet it remains the greatest show on earth. I’m absolutely, after this exhausting cultural trip, the Edinburgh Festival hasn't reached the end of the road - even if I have.

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