Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Edinburgh Festival 2017

Last month I achieved a lifetime’s ambition, courtesy of my daughter Lynda’s initiative.  This was to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  What clinched the deal was that the 2017 jamboree in Scotland’s beautiful capital city marked the 70th anniversary of this event, the world’s biggest arts festival.

The night before I flew to Scotland, Jack Whitehall presented a television documentary programme[i] about the origin and history of the Edinburgh Festival.  
With the assistance of old film footage and photographs, he was able to illustrate that its inaugural aims in 1947 were to lift spirits and bring people together after World War 2.   
In the more prosaic official version, the stated intention was to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.”

The TV documentary also outlined the risks involved.  These included the organisation of a cultural extravaganza at a time of hardship, its location in a conservative place, and in a city which had no facilities like an opera house and no gallery of modern art.

The idea of going to Edinburgh in August had originally been planted in my head as long ago as 1971.  A group of us had produced a successful late night student Revue as part of the Belfast’s Queens University Arts Festival.  Some people suggested that we should take it to Edinburgh.  
We demurred, unfortunately in retrospect, and Scotland was spared having to watch our satirical side-swipes at Northern Ireland’s politics and student life.

A decade later when a different group of us established an arts festival in our home town of Omagh, we talked about travelling to Edinburgh to scout for talent. 
The idea behind an exploratory visit was prompted by the knowledge that several of our best acts had made their name at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Alas, limp excuses to do with family life and various irrelevant commitments deprived the Scots of our mercenary intentions.
Unintentionally, our objectives in establishing an arts festival chimed with those of Edinburgh - bringing people together and demonstrating that, despite the Troubles, creativity is what matters.  
Unknown to us at the time and also like Edinburgh when it was starting, we didn't allow a lack of dedicated arts venues to stifle our ambition.

Stepping off the train from Glasgow on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, our first engagement was not an arts event.   
Based on a recommendation from the esteemed editor of “Exploring Retirement” magazine, we headed straight for afternoon tea in the heart of the Old Town.  Located on the Royal Mile, the Signet Library at the Colonnades[ii] is as posh as its name sounds, a long-established and still functioning library which doubles up cleverly as a tea shop. 

As if to emphasise its exclusivity, the caterers operate under a warrant from the Queen.

We would need the calorific fuel to sustain the first of two day’s hunger for culture, not to mention queuing and walking to disparate venues.   
All but one of the 6 events we attended (including the Colonnades visit) had been booked on-line in advance.   
It also transpired that no two consecutive events were in the same venue, or even nearby, meaning plenty of walking back and forth.  The compensation is that Edinburgh is a stimulating and handsome place to discover on foot.

The scale of this festival is best understood by witnessing it at first hand.   
So much is happening at the Edinburgh Fringe that the programme brochure is fatter than the telephone directory for metropolitan area of Belfast, home to half a million people.  
When we were queuing for events in large buildings like the Assembly Rooms or the Gilded Balloon, we could see other lines of people waiting at different doors to get into other events taking place at the same time as ours but in other rooms; and outside the building there were lists of later events in each of these different rooms, approximately one every 90 minutes for each and every room.   
The director of the Edinburgh Fringe must be a juggler, someone with exceptional skills of organisation.

It’s no wonder that Edinburgh in August resembles Hong Kong or Barcelona with people bumping into each other in a quest to leave one performance and find their way to the next show.  En route, it is impossible to miss the street performers who, this year, numbered 1,200.  
The official figures tell the story. Take a deep breath as I avoid using words like mind-boggling, unbelievable, staggering, phenomenal and, the one I loathe most, awesome.
This year's Edinburgh Festival fringe presented 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues.

Impressive as these figures are, the spirit of festive energy generated in Edinburgh is infectious and a force for good. A record number of people attended events, with an esimated (breathe more deeply) 2.7 million tickets issued.  That statistic represents a 9% increase on last year. 

I have it on good authority that the Festival included performances in a swimming pool, a boat, a football ground, a tunnel and a racecourse.
It featured shows that addressed themes of belonging, identity, grief, Brexit, Trump, fake news, the Syrian conflict, gender and activism.

The Fringe Festival’s Chief Executive Shona McCarthy was appointed in March last year[iii].   
She hails from Northern Ireland and was the Chief Executive of the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013.[iv]   
She summarised the anniversary eloquently:

“This has been a very special year for the Fringe as we celebrated 70 years of defying the norm, 70 years of the greatest melting pot of arts and culture anywhere on the planet, and 70 years of Edinburgh as an internationally renowned festival city..... We look forward to another 70 years of championing the world’s largest platform for creative freedom.”

It’s not only the quantity, but the quality and variety of events which draws in the appreciative crowds.  
Our cultural sprint began at the Gilded Balloon with “Borders[v],” a serious thought-provoking play about migrants on the Mediterranean.   
It was written by Henry Naylor, former head writer for “Spitting Image.”

Our next stop was the Assembly Rooms to see “Alex Salmond Unleashed.[vi] 
Having no expectation what to expect from one of Scotland’s best known politicians, it was a pleasing surprise to witness him in a totally unfamiliar guise.   
His show was like a rehearsal for a prospective career as a stand-up comic and chat show host.  To complete the look, he even had a 6-piece house band for company.  
Next day, I read a newspaper report that he is “in talks” about taking the show on tour.  I needed no prompting to share this scoop with a festival promoter in Belfast.

Event number three was the anarchaic “Don’t be Lonely and Aurora Nova[vii],” a slapstick show performed with mime-artistic physicality by two flexible New Zealanders Barnie Duncan and Trygve Wakenshawe.   
For me to describe it as a skit on office life may be accurate if po-faced because this undersells the show’s humorously manic impression of life as skewed and dysfunctional.

Our final event on day one was the American stand-up comedian Reginald D Hunter’s new show “Some People[viii].”   
Being the best known and experienced of the acts we saw, it was no surprise that his performance came across as the most professional and was staged in the largest venue we visited, the Assembly Hall building.   
Only a stand-up comedian, however, could get away with the irony of performing sitting down, and extracting humour from his love-life’s details and how he came to break his leg in that pursuit.

On day two, which was the final day of the Festival, we somehow managed to make a lucky late booking for one of the year’s hot topics, America’s new President, in a show called Trumpageddon[ix].  

One thing we noticed about all six venues was that the interior temperature always felt slightly too high.  In this case, it seemed to help rather than hinder the performance of exaggerating the obnoxious caricature of a very sweaty leader of the free world.   
He was unpleasant to watch and listen to, but this was presumably all part of the art of satirising someone ad absurdum.

The final act for us was a more conventional play called "1902"[x] about Edinburgh boys, supporters of Hibernian FC, and their collective way of dealing with the challenges of life for young men (and a young lady).  
The setting was the smallest venue we attended, the appropriate Wee Red Bar, part of Edinburgh College of Art.

The human spirit does indeed flourish in Edinburgh and what a great tribute this is to the people of Scotland.  That is because, apart from the Fringe, the separate Edinburgh International Festival also celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.  Its director is Fergus Linehan[xi] who also comes from Ireland.  
The International Festival consists of theatre, opera, music, dance, visual arts and more.  Other festivals that take place in August include the Military Tattoo, the International Book Festival, the International Television Festival, and the Art Festival.

At this point my oxygen pack expires as I stand back, delighted to know that Edinburgh does indeed warrant its title of Festival City.  
I hope it doesn’t take another 70 years before I get invited back.

©Michael McSorley 2017