THE final figures on the 2003 Edinburgh Festival have yet to be announced. But it’s already obvious that this has been a record-breaking year on the Edinburgh Fringe, with ticket sales soaring through the one million mark; and that must be due, at least in part, to the huge artistic strength of the 2003 event, which has bounced back from the trauma of last winter’s Old Town fire, and the pressure of ever-soaring costs, to produce some of the finest Fringe drama of the last decade.
Among dozens of memorable shows, highlights included two terrific poetic studies of war, the Riot Group’s Pugilist Specialist at the Pleasance, and Liz Lochhead’s Thebans at Assembly; two magnificent shows about the survival in tough times of old-fashioned civic virtue, in Henry Adam’s brilliant post-9/11 farce The People Next Door, at the Traverse, and Guy Masterson’s superb hot-ticket production of Twelve Angry Men at Assembly; and two great pieces of site-specific theatre, Semper Fi of Dublin’s film noir mystery Ladies and Gents at the St James’s Place toilets, and Grid Iron’s luscious Those Eyes, That Mouth at 32 Abercromby Place.
On the official Festival, the war between Festival director Brian McMaster and some of the London press continued unabated, with the Daily Telegraph calling McMaster an "idiot" for staging Calixto Bieito’s controversial two-hour gangster version of Hamlet.
But for many other critics, and Edinburgh audiences, this English-language international season seems to have been the most exciting, accessible, and eagerly debated official Festival programme for a decade, mixing the immaculate artistry and elegance of Peter Stein’s mighty Seagull with the startling Argentinian physical theatre of The Last Night of Mankind, and a complex and heartfelt new Scottish vision of the global village in David Greig’s San Diego; and finishing off not only with that radical Hamlet, but also with a rough-edged but hugely enjoyable piece of popular theatre in Tamasha’s London-Asian musical Strictly Dandia. There’s been plenty of controversy and divided opinion, in other words; but more of a buzz around the Festival drama box office than Edinburgh has seen in years.
A GOOD Festival, everybody says, though in fact there is still that last weekend when the International Festival soldiers on forlornly by itself. But then the visual arts have not been part of that for years. They plough their own furrow. So how have they done this year? Some hits and some misses, as ever. If numbers are anything to go by, the Monet exhibition is a hit of all time. But in a way that conceals the ambition of it as a show. It is not just easy Monet as the numbers might suggest, not all sunflowers and poppies. Not all the paintings are even very good, but the best are as inventive and original as Monet ever got.
John Houston’s show at the Scottish Gallery offers a modern counterpoint and shows that the tradition lives on. The biggest miss is Schnabel. Billed as a modern master, he comes across as an ego fantasist. His cow pat paintings are as bad as they come. Boyle Family are both a hit and a miss. Impressive work, but that impression fades with repetition. Their whole project is a fascinating legacy of the 1960s, however, with its roots in the Edinburgh Festival of long ago. Some of the story is also told in the display from Demarco’s archive in the Dean. The Festival was a driving cultural force then. It even helped launch the 1960s. What a creaky old lady it seems now, in contrast.
Other good shows? Helen Frankenthaler at the RSA, Craigie Aitchison, Lucy Levine’s lost clubbers at Stills, Cindy Sherman being herself and everybody else at the same time at the Fruitmarket. But not her three companions: they are definitely a miss. So is David Sherry at the Collective.
Top marks? I suppose it must be Monet. No marks to the official Festival itself: it does nothing for the visual arts. It is time to reassess that and make sure that collectively the galleries get public support so they get proper billing next year.
THE creaking sound you could hear during August was the sound of my mind being opened, and that is what I will remember this August for: for opening my mind to the fact that comedy double acts can be good. I have, hitherto, had something of a "two legs good, four legs bad" attitude to comedy. But the impressive performances of Gavin and Gavin, the hugely improved and outrageously endearing Big Howard and Little Howard and the sheer brilliance of Laurence and Gus have converted me ... albeit there was Mel&Sue.
For opening my mind to performers to which, hitherto, it was all but closed - performers like Reginald D Hunter, whose White Woman really rocked my world, and Boothby Graffoe, who gave me a copy of his album Wot Italian? (with the stunningly talented Antonio Forcione) which is quite the loveliest thing I have heard in years. You must all follow him from Edinburgh to his gigs everywhere and buy a copy for yourself. And another, for someone you really like.
For expanding my ideas - along with everyone else’s - about what "comedy" is, with unexpectedly formatted shows like Alex Horne’s Making Fish Laugh and Demetri Martin’s astounding If I … Martin came to Edinburgh an absolute unknown and left with the Strathmore Critic’s Award, the Perrier and the satisfaction of having created a seismic shift in the ground under The Scotsman’s own Fringe First Awards. In years to come you and I will smirk smugly as we regale dinner parties with tales of how we were there when Edinburgh discovered Demetri Martin.
And for reminding me that there are still powerful comedy voices raised in anger. Dangerous, brave voices. Like that of Laurence Clark, the stand-up comic who sat down to perform his stunningly hard-hitting All Star Comedy Show at Theatre Workshop. I hope he does it again. And when he does, I hope you go.
It was a good Edinburgh. Roll on next year.
ROCK & POP
THE perennial debate about how far the Fringe engages the people of Edinburgh and how much the people of Edinburgh engage with the Fringe was just not an issue inside venue 173 this year. The Liquid Room on Victoria Street was the Fringe’s busiest popular music venue, offering a diet of cool bands - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Elbow - and international stars - Ice T - on close to a nightly basis. This was T on the Fringe headquarters and it was densely populated by local fans who would have turned out to see their favourite artists whatever the time of year.
But there’s the rub: this fest-within-the-Fest could reschedule for almost any other month and still attract much the same audience in the same numbers. There is no doubt that T on the Fringe has vastly improved the rock music content of the Fringe and it would be sorely missed if it was to fold, leaving festival-goers with a diet of Showaddywaddy tribute bands to nibble at. But it is yet to integrate to the point where it just wouldn’t be a Fringe without a serving of T, and that is a perception the organisers are working to dispel.
One group of musicians who had no trouble embodying the spirit of the Fringe were the ubiquitous Soweto Gospel Choir. Their celebratory series of concerts enriched Edinburgh but the four walls of St George’s West church could not contain them and the 24 members of the troupe regularly spilled on to the streets, gatecrashing parties and other performers’ gigs. Unlike Aaron Barschak, they always elicited a rapturous reception.
My other Fringe highlight was an a cappella troupe of a contrasting hue. The Swingle Singers tantalised with a mere two, inevitably sold out, performances of their curious scat singing-cum-interpretative choreography. The Beatles’ Lady Madonna has never sounded odder.
IT HASN’T been a typical Edinburgh Festival, musically speaking. We have Wagner’s Ring cycle to thank for that. It’s the biggest musical personality in the book - 16 hours of heady and intense opera (four of them), the power struggle of mythical gods, and music that tugs at more heartstrings than the average mortal possesses. To try and upstage its two complete runs would have been reckless. Brian McMaster’s even-keeled scheduling over the rest of the music programme - no other staged opera, a sober Queen’s Hall series and generally predictable fare at the Usher Hall - was appropriately balanced. At least for those, like me, who made Scottish Opera’s Wagner blockbuster the central experience.
Not that this Festival lacked gusto. There are big enough personalities among McMaster’s perennial stars capable of making an impression. The tireless Sir Charles Mackerras was a towering presence right from the start. He lifted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus to untypical heights in a gripping opening performance of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass in its original lengthened version. His survey of all the Brahms symphonies and piano concertos over two nights was an exhaustive and illuminating highlight. In Verdi’s Macbeth he commanded a superlative cast dominated by the mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana’s debut appearance in the role of Lady Macbeth. It’s these exclusives that put the Festival in Edinburgh.
Visiting orchestras were variable. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic fell short of expectations; the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, was by all accounts sensational. For me, Ilan Volkov’s exhilarating all-Messiaen programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including the sumptuous and rarely heard Trois Liturgies, was a glowing festival highlight.
But the overshadowing presence of Scottish Opera, in one of the most captivating productions of the Ring in modern times, is what this Festival will be remembered for. I’m still humming the tunes.
ANYONE on the lookout for quality dance and physical theatre this year could pretty much have confined their Fringe viewing to two venues. With the odd exception, anything worth watching took place either at Aurora Nova @ St Stephens or Dance Base - both of which have turned into formidable venues of late. The former delivered intense, passionate dance from international companies, Nats Nus, Deja Donne and Fabrik, all of whom took the least obvious routes choreographically and packed a punch emotionally; while Dance Base traversed the globe with work from India, Austria and our very own Freshmess and Scottish Dance Theatre.
Both of those companies delivered double bills of life-affirming movement, and proved that the Scottish dance scene is alive and kicking. The occasional half-decent Fringe show turned up elsewhere - the irrepressible Shakti at the Garage, a site-specific kitchen show at C too - but overall the standard was disappointingly low. But then both Aurora Nova and Dance Base play integral roles in their own programming, a policy which clearly pays dividends.
The International Festival also has some semblance of quality control, and treated us to a superb opening show by the Cullberg Ballet. Two unforgettable works by Mats Ek and Johan Inger illustrated just how powerful the classical/contemporary blend can be, when innovative choreography meets stunning technique. Francois Verret’s Chantier-Musil and Bordeaux Opera Ballet’s Picasso and Dance had their downsides, but both shows were unique and visually striking. Bordeaux in particular gave us a snapshot of ballet history and a whole new take on Picasso’s talent.
Most impressive of all was the faith shown by the EIF in Christopher Wheeldon. The young British choreographer has a glittering career ahead of him, and his triple bill with San Francisco Ballet proved to be the highlight of the Festival.
THIS year, as usual, most companies stuck to the safe option of adapting familiar fairy tales or popular books. Those that were more daring and original, such as Mark Penak’s Utter Nonsense, were often more satisfying. Edinburgh-based Penak tells his own stories, embellishing them with puppets and wacky home-made gadgets; his work requires some concentration but it pays off in spadefuls of imaginative fun.
Other notable shows owed much of their success to well chosen locations. For once we had perfect weather for outdoor productions such as The Enchantit Gairden, a fairy story in Scots, which made magnificent use of a lovely garden bordering Duddingston Loch. Frantic Readhead productions re-enacted the life of Greyfriars Bobby in a kirkyard. And the Botanics was overflowing with children, families and picnics for performances by Albert and Friends Instant Circus.
Children love to join in and many shows encourage them. But occasional lazy performances provided more gap than action. If they get no more than party entertainment, what’s the point of taking youngsters to a theatre? A good show should stretch them a little and stick in their minds to chew on later, or at least give them a new song to remember. Dr Palfi’s ugly clown show was little more than a shell into which he invited excitable children to perform for doting parents. James Campbell has talent, but he used too much old material and allowed half his set to be hijacked by gabby youngsters.
En Masse were the bravest company this year with their site-specific play The Echo Chamber. A totally original piece, it was written for the damp and crumbly caves of the Underbelly, where they deservedly won a Fringe First for scaring the socks off crowds of delighted families. More work of this calibre would make children’s Fringe theatre less of a gamble.
IF THIS year’s book festival had one overarching theme, it was how we think about war. Almost the first artist of modern warfare - where civilians are just as likely to be killed as the military - was Goya, and his attempts to make sense of war’s atrocities still echo across the centuries. From his biographer Julia Blackburn’s talk on the festival’s first day to Richard Holloway’s brilliant dissection of modern ethics on its last, Goya was the Charlotte Square’s presiding ghost artist.
He was everywhere: in Ariel Dorfman’s unforgettable Amnesty Lecture, in Pat Barker’s discussion of the scars war leaves behind in peacetime: most of all, in Susan Sontag’s analysis of whether war photography is (unlike Goya’s own art) just a pornography of violence.
In our times, only Picasso’s Guernica has come close to matching Goya’s Disasters of War series in its impact. When the UN was holding press conferences on the eve of the second Iraq war, as Nicolas Rankin pointed out in an excellent event with William Deedes, its full-size copy of the painting had to be discreetly veiled from the TV cameras.
Ah, the war. No book has yet come close to capturing the intensity of the rage against Tony Blair that pervaded the festival, not just from the "betrayed" Left (Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley) but from moralists such as Holloway. Most of all, though, it came from the audiences at the packed-out Spiegeltent debates with George Monbiot.
Finally, a few awards need to be handed out. Best poetry reading: Christopher Logue, for adapting Homer so compellingly that one could have listened to it for half a day. Best-behaved children: those who waited in the Debi Gliori signing queue for four and a half hours. Most literary superstars ever seen at one Edinburgh breakfast table: Sontag, Dorfman and Mario Vargas Llosa. Best non-fiction event in small tent: Adam Nicholson. And in a large one: Ariel Dorfman/Richard Holloway. Best fiction event: John Irving/Melvyn Bragg. Best discovery: Aidan Hartley/Mikael Niemi.
Best festival director, for doing most with least for three record years in a row: Catherine Lockerbie.
WAS IT a good film festival? Well, not if you look at the line-up for Venice, where most of Hollywood, from Johnny Depp to Omar Sharif, can presently be seen padding along the red carpet. But Edinburgh is a different thing, and if it felt low-key, its ten days did manage to cram in the talent.
Against all expectation, Oliver Stone turned up to support his Castro film, Sean Connery had a drink in the Cameo bar, and the likes of Samantha Morton, Iain Glen and Cillian Murphy did their bit.
It was not a great festival for American feature films, and director Shane Danielsen’s New Europe theme was hard to grasp, but there were a number of great documentaries.
Capturing the Friedmans, which examines a paedophile drama from inside the family of the accused men, is an astonishing film, and the appearance at the festival of Elaine Friedman, the ex-wife of the film’s convicted paedophile, was a remarkable tribute to the skills of the filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. Stone’s Comandante, too, is an extraordinary work, even though (because?) it is considered unscreenable in the US.
Oddly, while reviewing the feature films in the festival, I found myself using the word "misanthropic". Joy seemed to be in short supply, but Jim Sheridan’s In America was a bright and cheery hymn to America which deserves to do well in the multiplexes. Of the misanthropic films, the best surprise was Chris Cooke’s debut, One for the Road, a hilarious study of the uselessness of men. Marina de Van’s Dans Ma Peau excavated a grim furrow of femininity, and was unforgettable.
The most obvious thing about EIFF 2003 was that it would be opened by Young Adam. If it hadn’t been, that honour could have gone to 16 Years of Alcohol. Or perhaps Afterlife. At Edinburgh, Scottish film reasserted itself. It was concerned with existential misery, male violence and hurrah, the upside of terminal cancer. They don’t do that at Venice.
How was it for you?
Director, Edinburgh International Festival
I THINK the hand of God touched Edinburgh in August this year. It was just a magic place. The Fringe programme was strong, the Tattoo has had a good year, there was nowhere in the world like it.
We set ourselves various targets and I think we have just about met the lot of them. We have taken more money than ever in the history of the Festival. The Royal Bank of Scotland 5 turn-up-and-try-it scheme was a phenomenal success. At the Gateway Weekend, OK, too few turned up for Gtterdmmerung, but it’s hard to get people to turn up on impulse for something which is five and a half hours long.
I like to say there aren’t any highlights. Of course, Elliott Carter’s String Quartets were just magic and the Ring is going bananas. But then there’s also Pansori (Korean folk opera). A number of people said: "Why on earth are you presenting this, and what is it anyway?" but it gave people a really magic experience.
We’ve been presenting things in new ways to reach new audiences and we know this has been successful, but now we need to analyse the audience research we have done and out of that come up with ideas for the future.
Director, Edinburgh Fringe
IT HAS been an extraordinary year. Last year was a good year and you always wonder if you can do it again, but we’ve done it again and more.
It was a very, very strong programme, there was a very large number of good productions, not just a few stars. I think the weather has worked for us, providing an additional incentive for people to come out, especially in the evening, and do something. Also success breeds success. 2001 was a record-breaking year, 2002 was better still; it’s almost the stronger it is, the stronger it gets.
We’d like to build on that success. It has been good to see new venues doing well, like St George’s West and the Pod. We need to learn from their experiences. Now 40 per cent of our tickets are sold through internet booking, and we want to look at how to build on that even further.
For us now, the next step is to see where a lot of these shows end up. I always feel very proud when a Fringe production ends up on the West End, doing well around the country or overseas. I think there will be a large number of Fringe shows doing very well all over the place this year.
Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival
IT HAS been a very good year for all the festivals, and I don’t think that’s coincidence. In the past two or three years, all the festivals have been working more closely than ever before and I think we are now seeing the fruits of that.
We’ve had a rather exceptional year at the Book Festival. Our figures are up again, 25,000 more visitors than last year. We have had some great events, with major world names: Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa, John Irving - also, he doesn’t do book festivals and hadn’t done a signing for ten years, Ariel Dorfman, Alan Ayckbourn.
But for me what was more positive than that was the support from the public throughout the programme. People were really trying out quite unknown names, international authors or new authors in quite significant numbers.
Also, the quality of public participation in our events was higher than it has ever been. The opportunities for discussion and dialogue with George Monbiot were sold out every night. For some years I have seen the Book Festival as a unique forum for discussion, and this year this has come to powerful fruition. It seems to have taken on an unstoppable momentum which we would wish to encourage.
Director, Edinburgh International Film Festival
FROM my point of view it went extremely well this year, if one believes the notion that it’s been a difficult year for film festivals, with a lot of major films not being ready for Cannes or Venice. It forced us to be more ingenious with our programming. I didn’t want it to be a greatest hits of the big festivals but to find new things. I’m proud of the fact that US industry people kept saying there was a lot in Edinburgh they hadn’t seen. We’re going to come away with about six or seven deals for films in America and in the UK.
Apart from that, the gratifying thing as always is standing up in front of a film in which you believe completely and seeing it get a great response; there were two sold-out houses for Sky Plane Girl, a film I adore. How was the opening night? Well, Young Adam’s a terrific film. And my kilt, satisfyingly, got me more female attention than I’ve had in my life. You can’t underestimate the pulling power of a kilt.