It was seven am by the time I arrived in Edinburgh. The night of travel was mostly sleepless, but filled with momentary excursions into half lucid dreams. From these, I was usually awakened as the coach lurched and sent my head crashing into the window, knocking the oncoming dreams off course. If anything can be said for the Mega-bus, it’s that it is at least persistent in keeping you as uncomfortable as possible. Unfortunately, the time is nearing when I have to get back on this miserable bus for another 9/10 hours on my way back to London.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, surrounded by rolling hills and with its very own castle on top of a mountain, situated right in the middle of the city. It has a very rich history and is also an incredibly important cultural centre. One could be excused for saying that the city has a distinctly European feel about it. Much more so than most British cities I have been to.
Edinburgh during August though, is not just a city, but is a city-wide event in which people from all walks in life come together to celebrate art in all its varieties. Home to the Edinburgh International Festival, the city is alive with theatre, literature, dance, opera, comedy, film, music, visual arts, circus and every other art related activity known to man.
The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was first set up in 1947 and has two named beings to thank for its genesis. One is a horse called Ocean Swell. Ocean selflessly gave up its winnings from the 1944 Derby and the 1946 Ascot Gold Cup to the wife of his owner, who helped fund the first EIF. The other is Rudolf Bing, a refugee from the Nazis, who as soon as the war ended, set up the EIF as a way to connect people though our mutual love of art, after the fragmenting affect of the war.
From then, the EIF has only gone from strength to strength, and has gotten much larger. It now encompasses a number of other festivals, including the International Book Festival, the Military Tattoo and of course the Festival Fringe.
The Fringe Festival apparently began in the same year as the EIF, when a bunch of theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform. Since then, the Fringe has grown so large that most people think this is the festival. Apparently, it’s now the worlds largest arts festival. This year, there are 2,695 shows from 47 countries. These take place all over the city in 279 venues. The Fringe doesn’t disallow any performances, meaning there is a varied degree of talent, styles, genres and forms to be had.
It all sounds pretty awesome, right? But not everyone thinks so. In recent years, the number of stand-up comedy acts have dwarfed most other genres, and even though these have now become the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, many people seem to consider the Fringe bastardised. In The Arts Journal Allan Massie writes;
“Edinburgh in August has now become a place for stand-up comedy, where reputations are made and prizes are won. This is a far cry from the ideals of 1947, an expression of culture more consumerist than uplifting. But that’s how it is. That’s where we are.”
Massie certainly isn’t alone when he calls for a reassessment of the festival, looking back at the ‘why’ behind the first EIF.
Now, I’m not really a fan of stand-up comedy but I do think some stand-up comics are very smart indeed, and sometimes, just sometimes they say something that matters. I certainly wouldn’t blame them for the downfall of culture in Edinburgh. What I will say though; walking down the royal mile, one is made very aware that the whole thing is a bit of a money making machine at the moment. Art has been commercialised to an extent I’ve not encountered before. It’s also super bitchy…But maybe that’s just what happens when you put this many theatre people together…
Whether you buy into it or not, this conflict of opinions does exist, and through it, a few pockets have appeared throughout the city, which wish to keep the spirit 1947 alive. One such pocket is the Summerhall venue.
Summerhall is Edinburgh’s newest arts venue. Bought for a pretty reasonable £4 million by one Robert McDowell, the former ‘Royal Dick Veterinary University’ has been turned into a centre for the arts. With over 500 rooms, Summerhall is home to a number of performance areas, art exhibitions, an in-house printing and publishing office (where the Arts Journal came from), a brewery, its own tv station and much more. What’s beautiful about Summerhall, is that because it’s privately owned the building is being kept pretty much as is. It’s not being made up to actually look like a art gallery, but is being aloud to keep its character. McDowell says that it is still a vet school. It’s important Summerhall keeps this character because it ” is to be both a forum for interdisciplinary experimentation and a venue for research and education as well as performance”. This shows in the fact that Rose Bruford College is about to open it’s first ‘campus abroad’ at Summerhall.
I was here last year, the first year for Summerhall, and thought it was a pretty cool venue then. This year, it has come on leaps and bounds, and there’s still work to be done. Of course, what makes Summerhall stand out is the quality of the acts. I have seen some truly great shows in the last 2 weeks. So many, that it would take far too long to write about them all here – and this post is already about a week late!
Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about the Polska Arts season here.
Polska Arts is a fantastic season of – guess what? Polish Art. Put together by the Adam Mickiewics Institute in Poznan (which I visited earlier this year), Polska Arts showcases a huge variation of works at Summerhall. Here we have the likes of Teatr Tsar with their show Caesarian Section: Essays on Suicide (which was awarded a Herold Angel Award last week) and Song of the Goat with Songs of Lear and much more.There’s also some spectacular outdoor shows from Teatr Biuro Podróży and KTO theatre in the Old College Quad.
The two shows I have enjoyed the most from Plska Arts are:
Like my show Pages from the Book of…, this work was inspired by Kantor. Likening the story of The Book of Job to the life of Kantor, the show was visually stunning and incredibly dense. Perhaps too dense at times, as the narrative (if such a thing existed) was lost, twisted, ripped apart and scattered to the wind before the end of the show. Puppet: Book of Splendour is a highly visual and intelligent show. The director, a disembodied voice guides us through the production and makes light of the seriousness of the production. He also subverts what is considered to be trademarks of Polish art, in a highly intelligent and funny way. At one point he jokes saying “People have said the second part of the performance is boring. So, when you are bored you know it’s the second part.” Unfortunately, he was not joking, I did get bored. Very much so. I think the biggest problem with this show was that it was not edited well. There was so much going on, so many images and metaphors that it lost the attention of the audience. Through its flaws though, I really found the show very interesting and I’d love to connect with neTTheatre at some point.
Future Tales was absolutely mad. It tells the story of four possible futures for Sławomir Sierakowski, the most significant contemporary Polish left-wing intellectual, according to different writers/philosophers. For example, in one possible future, Sierakowski will become a Buddhist in 2019 and die in 2074, in another future according to H.G. Wells, Sierakowski will survive a Martian invasion and later be digitally immortalised. The show is highly political and very satirical. It’s an absurd lecture interspersed with bizarre punk rock songs, where what is being said doesn’t always correspond with what we are seeing. Something to note is the use of the language in this piece. Polish is a very beautiful language, and in this work I realised just how musical it can be. Just repeating a single phrase seven times becomes poetry.
It’s a great show. Utterly bonkers. But great.
The Polska Arts program is soooo good! So good in fact that I’ve been cheerfully collecting badges with the Listen, See, Touch logo’s on, pretending to be part of the program.
Other honourable mentions at this years Fringe:
Don Quixote! Don Quixote! by Panta Rei Theatre Collective.
Telling the story of Don Quixote, the show is a spectacular excursion into a world of madness and hallucination. This modest show is full of visual flare and some stunning performances. Despite being told in two different languages through the lens of a delusional mind, the story is never lost on us and is at once funny, touching and at times haunting.
Dead Memory House by Theatre Corsair.
This three woman company creates a space in which we are allowed to feel comfortable and then almost instantly make it known that we are not welcome. The show, set in a house belonging to these three girls, gives us an insight into the lives and psychology of the girls. The audience are included in the action, but are made to feel that they are witnessing the ghosts of the past, some well known, some secret. This is a cleaver and innovative character study in which we are given a brief glance into the lives memories of these girls.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour.
Well, I’m not sure…but this might be one of the most important plays I have ever seen.
I think the best justice I can do for the show is to keep quiet about what it is. Instead I will just tell you that you should go and see it. I suspect that one day, given the right circumstances, this play could change the lives of an entire audience.
Well, I hope this has given you a bit of an insight into my experience at the Edinburgh Fringe. Our show has been going well, and we have gathered a nice collection of 4* reviews. Find the links below if you’re interested and a link to a video about us.
This one is a bit special, written by the lovely Jane Frere who interviewed me about the show.
I’m feeling nice and inspired after this trip, so I’m hoping to get on this blog a bit more next week. Tomorrow is my birthday, but considering I will be performing for half the day and fighting with the Mega-Bus for the other half, I’m going to postpone it to the 25th. I plan to spend this day be at home, in bed, preferably with my beautiful girlfriend. So after this, I will attack the blog and start trying to make a dent in my book. See you next week.