No one knows quite why we go. It’s not for the whisky (which is like drinking liquefied peppercorns), or for the shortbread (like eating undercooked biscuit-mix), or for the weather (like walking through a car-wash). Nor does the moaning falsetto of the bagpipes draw us north. But every year, without fail, the London media colony sets off for the Scottish capital to watch a gang of wackos and wannabes (mostly from the London media colony) making a bid for fame and glory. This is my tenth visit and here are my tips for maximising the fun.
Big question first. How to avoid being engulfed in an avalanche of pretentious tripe put on by waffling preeners and self-adoring garbage-smiths? That’s easy. Don’t see anything at the International Festival (9 August to 2 September). It came as a shock to me to discover that Edinburgh, along with other cultural fiestas, supports a deluxe caravan of theatrical fakers who enjoy a limitless remit to tour, and bore, the planet with laborious drivel. Scotland is just one stop-off on their endless mission to persecute the earth’s play-goers with highbrow tosh.
Here are some of this year’s highlights. Gulliver’s Travels in Romanian. Waiting for Orestes: Electra, by Euripides and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who was Richard Strauss’s librettist, as you knew already), performed in Korean and Japanese. Meine faire Dame — ein Sprachlabor turns out to be My Fair Lady in German set in a language laboratory. There’s a Russian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (curiously subtitled As You Like It, which is a different play), produced by Dmitry Krymov and his ‘Laboratory School of Dramatic Art Theatre Production’. There’s a version of Beckett’s novel Watt, which, in a rare lapse into intelligibility, is being performed in English. And Théâtre du Soleil has devised The Castaways of the Fol Espoir (Sunrises), which is ‘loosely based on a mysterious posthumous novel by Jules Verne’ and is ‘half-written by Hélène Cixous’.
Anything grab you? Nor me. And though I wish these artistic impersonators every success, my benevolence doesn’t extend to witnessing their atrocities, let alone writing about them. I’ve tried, believe me, to offer these nuisances a little honest criticism. I’ve even turned on the full blast furnace too. It has zero effect. Why listen to a review, after all, when your head is empty, your purse is full, your soul is uplifted and your flight is booked?
Aside from these wittering pests, there’s the Fringe. And the Fringe is now so enormous that no one can actually see it. Not all of it, anyway. If you sat through five shows a day you’d still be busy watching on Christmas Eve 2013. And it’s all but impossible to find a reliable index of quality. The performers can’t be trusted. For years, shrewd luvvies have been using Photoshop to enhance their reviews and boost their personal star tally. Every flier for every show seems to be blazoned with ‘Sheer genius, five stars — the Scotsman’ or a similar accolade. In that sense, more celestial bodies have been ‘discovered’ at Edinburgh than in any other city in the world.
Critics might object to these airbrushings but they don’t mind. They’re in vacation mood as well. They’re only human (some of them, anyway), and the party atmosphere affects their distempered souls. The dark clouds of misanthropy clear away. Even the most vitriolic reviewer seasons his outpourings with a spoonful of festive honey. It’s not like the West End, where glossy extravaganzas are staged by millionaire impresarios with squads of publicity gurus at their disposal. Edinburgh is a cottage industry, a garage sale, a pop-up market where plucky sole-traders back their own plays with their own cash. The critics meet the performers halfway and relax their standards a little.
Follow suit. There’s no need to impress yourself with your urbane and eclectic tastes. Avoid The Trojan Women (the theatre’s equivalent of a kneecapping), which is being staged in three separate venues this year. Go downmarket and you’ll find plenty of celebs waiting for you in the basement. Happy Hour with Nicholas Parsons offers a dependable mix of schmooze, cheese, puns and charm. And the festival always attracts an unexpected female stand-up. Britt Ekland wasn’t bad. A.L. Kennedy was excellent. This year’s hopeful, Virginia Ironside, honours an Edinburgh tradition by giving her show a terrible title, Growing Old Disgracefully. Blair-worshipping journalist Steve Richards salutes the same convention with Rock N Roll Politics.
Away from the festival, there are a few sights I never miss. Take a train from Waverley to Dalmeny, weave your way down to the shoreline and gaze in wonder at the greatest man-made structure in the British Isles. The Forth Bridge. It has the immensity and calmness of an Alp. Yet from some angles it looks rather ridiculous, too, like a cartoonish prototype of a giant’s plaything. Think of three pink brontosauruses, nose to tail, strolling across a prehistoric lake.
Back in the city, there’s Edinburgh Castle. The interior is a poky, overpriced relic. Better to enjoy the view from Princes Street. But bear in mind that the aesthetics are off-balance. The natural setting — a vast craggy outcrop of plunging Wagnerian cliff-faces — is one of the world’s outstanding set pieces. But the crowning edifice doesn’t quite match the location for drama or magnificence. To the north and east, the battlements are topped by dull, grey brick outhouses which look like a holiday camp built by the Stasi. Hence the truism that the castle is best seen at night, i.e. when most of it’s invisible.
Try to catch the lunchtime pyrotechnics. It’s great. Every day at 1 p.m. a whopping great cannon is fired from a turreted rampart above the city. It creates a humongous explosion like a sonic boom and makes everyone jump out of their skins. Set your watch for 12.58 and wait beneath the castle walls. Two minutes later — bang! — everyone ducks and cowers and giggles and curses, ‘Oh, that bloody cannon. I always forget about that bloody thing.’
Above all, leave your expectations at home. My guess is that the 2,695 shows this year will produce 2,694 flops and one out-and-out gem. You may see it in Edinburgh, if you’re lucky. But fear not. The precious cargo will be couriered south pretty smartly and into a West End berth. That’s the paradox of the pilgrimage. London leaves London in order to decide what should be on in London. If sanity ruled, of course, the Edinburgh Festival would be held in a big empty stadium in some benighted corner of the East End (and rumour has it that such a venue may become available in September). But madness prevails. And the hope-trek is already making its way north for another booze-fuelled month of overspending, overpromising and overacting. Not everyone loses money, however. A handful of performers manage to make a profit each year. There’s a special name for them, too. Fibbers.