Edinburgh 2017Posted: August 23, 2017
Even at 70, the Edinburgh Festival just seems to keep getting bigger. Every time I go I think surely the expansion cannot continue but it does.
One big reason for that is that I should have said festivals rather than festival: the Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947 and continues to offer a programme at the highbrow end of the spectrum; the Fringe was started the same year by eight acts who were not allowed to take part but is now far bigger than the main event; the Book Festival is a relative youngster at 34; and the Free Festival began in 2004 as an alternative to the Fringe’s market economy. That’s not including the Film Festival and the Politics Festival, which used to be in August as well but have now moved to different times in the year.*
A second reason is that there can be few other cities in the world that have so many buildings that can be transformed into good venues. On top of the full-time theatres and concert halls and back rooms of pubs, there are countless university buildings, churches, chapels and halls and university buildings that can be used.
The irony is that the legacy of centuries of Edinburgh’s devotion to learning and Protestantism is an endless selection of places to buy an over-priced pint while toasting a statue of John Knox.
The cost and availability of accommodation in the city is one big barrier to expansion but the arrival of Airbnb has made things easier for visitors, even as it generates the same problems with housing for locals as elsewhere in the world. It helps if (like me) you have generous friends with a spare room.
A third is comedy, or rather the way that comedy has become rock star entertainment. Where the Fringe was once dominated by drama, swathes of it are now bloated showcase for mainstream comics in corporate venues. For me, the original spirit of the alternative comedy of the 1980s only survives in outposts like The Stand.
If that sounds jaundiced, it is a bit, but Edinburgh in August is still an incredible experience, a beautiful city in which you can find virtually any form of culture you can think of and quite a few beyond that.
I saw some rubbish this year (a session on architecture at the book festival springs to mind) but far more shows that were very good, one that was outstanding and countless others that I didn’t have time for.
If anyone happens to be there in the next few days (it’s all over on Monday) here are the shows I enjoyed most this year with star ratings in festival style:
Luke Wright (Book Festival) ★★★★
First time I’d seen this Essex poet who is a great performer of his own work. His poems are about much more than just austerity but the one about IDS using only the vowel I was the highlight for me.
Krapp’s Last Tape (Church Hill Theatre) ★★★★
You can always rely on Beckett for a bit of loneliness and despair but this is also funny and the forerunner of countless Fringe shows in the way they use technology.
The Believers are but Brothers (Summerhall) ★★★★
As a case in point, this show uses WhatsApp in an exploration of the dark side of the internet and its role in what it sees as the related worlds of Islamic and right-wing extremism.
Meet Me at Dawn (Traverse) ★★★★
Two women swim to an island after a boating accident but what really happened? Brilliantly acted play about love and grief.
How to Act (Summerhall) ★★★★
A famous theatre director gives a masterclass demonstrating the methods he picked up in Nigeria to a young actress but there is (of course) a twist that turns things on their head.
All of those were very good but there was one show that stood out as brilliant.
The Gardener (Summerhall) ★★★★★
Summerhall is a sort of Fringe within the Fringe in the huge old School of Veterinary Studies and you could easily spend the entire festival there (there’s a brewery on site too). This is performed in an old machine room to an audience of 20 but you soon believe you are in the lounge of a care home listening to a lecture about gardening by a fellow resident. Needless to say, it’s about much more than just that and is deeply moving. If I could give this more than five stars I would and you even get a cup of tea and a biscuit.
* on top of all those, I forgot the Television Festival