The Edinburgh Festival

By Hornby, Richard | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Edinburgh Festival


Hornby, Richard, The Hudson Review


IS LIVE THEATRE DYING? Is IT MERELY THE HANDICRAFT version of film or television, important historically and perhaps for training purposes, but obsolete as a vital art form? It is a long time since there has been a drop-everything-and-go theatrical event like the original production of Angels in America, the opening of the restored Globe Theatre in London, Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen's Brand, Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave in A Long Day's Journey into Night, or any new play equal to those of the late August Wilson. Generous grants from my university have enabled me to travel almost anywhere in search of great theatre - but where? The critic creates nothing; he or she can only respond to what already exists. Like Mr. Micawber I always used to think, "Something will turn up," and it usually did, but in recent years I more and more find myself reporting on the dearth of noteworthy theatre, whether in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, or London.

The best place for recharging one's theatrical batteries is in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival, held annually in late summer. It is easily the biggest theatrical event in the world, with literally thousands of shows; even if they all kept running indefinitely, instead of only a few times, it would take nearly four years to see them - and in the meantime a new festival would have come around again every summer. And if you got tired of playgoing, there are also festivals in Edinburgh for art, film, music, comedy (standup) , dance, books, and many other things, including an Internet Festival, though why you would actually have to go to Edinburgh for it is a good question.

The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947, in an attempt to revive European culture in the wake of World War II. At the very first gathering eight theatre groups showed up uninvited. This was the first Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the precedent for all the other events referred to above. The International Festival continues every year, inviting major theatre and dance troupes from all over the world (no longer just Europe), while the Fringe spins along on its own, inviting no one but welcoming anyone who can afford to travel and hire a venue. Last summer there were 2453 officially listed Fringe shows in theatres, churches, meeting halls, pubs, restaurants, conference rooms, tents, somebody's living room, and maybe the back of a taxi. Even this figure does not include all the street musicians, acrobats, magicians, jugglers, comedians, clowns, and actors who are drawn to Edinburgh like bees to flowers.

Of course quality on the Fringe varies enormously. I have seen wonderful new plays superbly performed by first-rate young professionals but have also found myself at high school productions full of proud parents taking flash photos. But the variety is part of the fun; since tickets are cheap, you can usually duck out with no great loss and try something else. (I used to see four or five performances a day, but now in my dotage I can only manage two or three.)

After a while you realize that, despite being wide open, the Fringe has a pecking order. At the top are permanent organizations that themselves invite theatre companies, or at least screen those that apply: The Traverse Theatre (Edinburgh's year-round professional theatre), The Assembly Rooms (former meeting place of the Scottish Parliament), and The Pleasance (part of the University of Edinburgh's student union) .Just sticking to those three could keep you busy for a week. Below them come The Gilded Balloon, a collection of nine performance spaces more known for comedy than plays, and the GVenues, the George Square Theatre, the Aurora; below them come any number of more or less transient venues. I am already probably leaving some important places out, but pedigree is no guarantee of quality for any given show anyway. A large Fringe Programme, available in print and online, with one-paragraph descriptions of every event, is a help at finding good things to see, though you may still end up at one of those aforementioned high school plays or, even worse, a one-person show subsidized by someone's indulgent parents. …

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