Wednesday, August 09, 2006

And now, the Festival.

Okay, so it's taken me longer than I expected to get back to writing here. But I'm a few restful days into my holidays now, so normal service can be resumed.

For those of you who may not be aware, August sees the annual Edinburgh Festival - or, more accurately, the cluster of Edinburgh Festivals. Once upon a time, there was just the Edinburgh International Festival, a tremendously highbrow collection of theatre, music, dance and so forth. It's the sort of festival that actually needs to specify in the programme that their performance of Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida will be in English. Some years, it isn't.

Nobody pays the slightest attention to the Edinburgh International Festival aside from those directly involved, and those deeply fascinated by the most serious of art. In 31 years, I've never heard anyone say, "Ooh, have you seen what's on at the official festival this year? We must get tickets."

But this doesn't matter, because the official festival was long since dwarfed by its siblings. Far and away the most important is the Fringe, which started back in 1947 along with the official festival. The original idea was that some companies who weren't involved in the festival at all just turned up anyway and performed their own shows, in order to take advantage of the expected crowds. In reality, the Fringe long since grew to consume its parent. Running for almost a month (officially it's three weeks, but many shows do a week of previews), it sees any halfway passable building co-opted into a theatre and literally thousands of performers descend on the city. There is no vetting procedure. If you can find a venue, and you're willing to pay for it, then you can play.

This is what really attracts the crowds, who also descend on the city in huge numbers. Purists have been complaining for decades that the Fringe has become far too corporate and well-organised. A small number of mega-venues, operating clusters of makeshift venues in buildings mostly hired from Edinburgh University, have cornered the comedy circuit, and the comedy circuit has come to dominate the Fringe. Indie music has been doing fairly well in recent years as well, ever since Tennents started pouring some serious money into sponsoring gigs. Experimental theatre and mime, on the other hand, aren't quite getting the crowds in. Mind you, they're fooling themselves if they truly believe that they'd have big audiences if it wasn't for those darned comedians.

And the Fringe remains crazily open-ended. This year's programme clocks in at over 200 pages, each show receiving around 45 words to publicise itself. (You want more than that, you can buy an advert.) Of that, roughly 65 pages is the comedy section. But venture into the Dance & Physical Theatre section and you'll still find plenty of shows for the purists to enjoy. The ultra-condensed summaries of experimental shows are always a joy to behold. ("The dancers enjoy the difficulty of their brilliant choreography. They dance at the very edge of possibility and with a fullness of being that's rare anywhere, anytime.") Other shows are just plain baffling - there's a play this year called Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 (In the Time of the Messiah). Mind you, the writer won an award here last year, so I suppose it can't possibly be as bad as that title makes it sound.

Nonetheless, it's basically true that the Fringe is a comedy festival. Stand-up comedians come here in the hope of having their big break with a successful solo show, and getting a Channel 4 series off the back of it. They all lose a fortune, but that's not the point. They're here to throw their careers on the mercy of Edinburgh's completely trustworthy, experienced and honest reviewers.

The Fringe now drives Edinburgh; the official festival is an afterthought at best. But the Fringe is so big that even more festivals have opened up to take advantage of the crowds. There's the Film Festival, which lasts a fortnight and is really very good. There's the Book Festival, which is rather low key but still tends to attract some interesting guests - although god knows who they are this year, since their programme is virtually unnavigable. There's the Jazz Festival - sorry, the Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival - which gets in early and speaks for itself. There's the Edinburgh Art Festival involving the minor galleries, plus all the year's big exhibitions from the major ones (which aren't technically part of the festival, but might as well be). There's the Edinburgh Television Festival, which isn't open to the public and is just an excuse for people who work in TV to come to Edinburgh on expenses. And there's something called the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, which has apparently been going ever since 9/11, although I can't say I've noticed it.

You get the idea. It's a busy time.

I love the festival season, which is one reason why I always book these three weeks off work. Another reason is that I work on the Royal Mile, which is presently full of jugglers and bagpipe players - both of whom are best enjoyed from a safe distance of at least five miles. So, for the next couple of weeks, I'll be mostly rambling about stuff I've seen on the festival. Comedy, music, films, art, probably some things that aren't even connected with the festival. And maybe some throwaway stuff too.

Coming up: Ron Mueck, Richard Herring, Vincent van Gogh, and possibly Cars, which has nothing to do with the festivals, but I finally got around to seeing it.