In the beginning was the Edinburgh International Festival, a carefully curated exhibition of high culture. Then came the Fringe, in which every pub and church hall in the city became a venue for everything from student theatre to experimental dance. Now, it is mutating again — and for the better.
The real arts story of Edinburgh this year is emerging from what used to be the Royal Veterinary School. It has been renamed Summerhall, transformed inside into a world of fresh wood and glass doors and offered as a strikingly ambitious, multifaceted arts venue.
Bankrolled by the financial consultant and sometime Downing Street adviser Robert McDowell, the 2.5-acre site incorporates theatre and exhibition spaces, studios, workshops, libraries and little museums. There are two courtyards and 500 rooms. The designer Pam Hogg was persuaded to have a show there ahead of London Fashion Week purely by the lure of the venue, and the post-mortem room in particular.
She’s not alone. Summerhall’s bar, the Royal Dick (above), is becoming one of the city’s most fashionable after-hours drinking spaces. Here punters can enjoy a pint from the in-house craft brewery while perusing the enormous Summerhall festival programme — over 60 events every day — drama, dance, art, installations, workshops, lectures and more.
One show that will be hard to miss is 24h, a one-man Fringe play running from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next day. The old Dissection Room will host Rime, an acrobatic circus show born out of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ while Teatr Zar’s visceral Caesarean Section — Essays on Suicide plays out in the specially constructed Black Tent venue.
Teatr Zar are part of a strong Polish contingent, reflecting Summerhall’s defiantly non-parochial outlook. A highlight of the film programme, Boro in the Box, is also Polish in flavour, presenting a reimagining of the life of director Walerian Borowczyk and accompanied by his influential short animations.
There are 30 art exhibitions in total, including a special show dedicated to the Demarco European Art Foundation. The archive of artist, curator and cultural maestro Richard Demarco has found a deserved permanent home here. The former library is the appropriate venue for David Michalek’s hypnotic, Muybridge-influenced anatomical photographic studies Figure Studies and Slow Dancing.
The dizzying array of events at Summerhall, most of which are under £10 if they cost anything at all, bridge the gap between the high arts of the International Festival and the extravagance of the Fringe. There may be 503 stand-up acts in Edinburgh this month, but it is at Summerhall that you will find the true spirit of the Fringe.