Lloyd Evans on the esotericism of the Festival and the ragamuffin risk-taking of the Fringe
Here we go again. Like some vast, hairy, attention-seeking arachnid, the Edinburgh Festival has settled its gross and gorgeous shape in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. Ever since its inception in 1947 the Festival has grown steadily and spawned a rowdy litter of symbiotic events. Comedy, literature, classical music, film, ballet, modern dance, jazz and blues and even ‘spirituality and peace’. All are represented. But the Festival’s heart, its alpha and omega, is the theatre.
Whenever I flip through the International Festival brochure I’m staggered and slightly alarmed by its strenuously esoteric contents. Daring. That’s the word. It’s daring you to pack it all in. To admit you’re not high-minded enough for high art. It offers Homer in Lithuanian, Shakespeare in Catalan, Goethe in Javanese, Mozart in Martian. There’s Tasmanian melodrama, glove-puppet Chekhov, Strindberg with Esperanto subtitles, Gilbert and Sullivan sung in Old Norse by Argentinian torture victims. It stretches you in ways you never wanted to be stretched. Hamlet performed by stilt-walking nuns. Hokey-cokey dancers from Vancouver yodelling Beowulf in Croatian. Masked Guyanese polymaths with their egg-and-spoon-race version of Beyond Good and Evil. Tempted? Probably not. But the faithful Edinburghers turn out every year to support their city’s cultural jamboree. They buy tickets, they watch the shows in bemused silence, and they applaud at the end in relief and dismay, politely ignoring the fact that the International Festival has become less like an arts event and more like a holiday camp for delusional narcissists.
As for the Fringe, well that’s a different matter. While the International Festival favours multilingual confections that flatter the organisers’ intellectual pretentions and spurn the practical indignities of popular theatre, the Fringe offers a vibrant mix of commercially minded creativity.