It wasn't the best night for amateur dramatics
IT'S HALF past eight on the evening before Hogmanay, and in a light misting of rain, a huge crowd of perhaps 25,000 people is milling around between the elegant classical buildings that line Edinburgh's George Street.
Then suddenly, near the statue of King George IV, there's a rustling and heaving in the crowd; a sudden gathering of white shirts among the dark jackets and bobble-hats; a cry of "Tower! Tower!"; and the magical sight of a group of Catalan "castellers" from the town of Terrassa near Barcelona building a 30ft pillar of people, six storeys high, with its roots deep in the crowd; and, at the top, two tiny children, squirming like baby chimpanzees up the sides and backs of their parents and neighbours, until they clamber on to the summit, with a triumphant wave. This is the Night Afore International - not the big concert in Princes Street Gardens, nor yet the huge midnight firework display that has become one of the defining images of New Year, but an event that has come, over the last five years, to play an increasingly important role in the four-day carnival of Edinburgh's Hogmanay.
In the big picture of spending on culture and tourism, the Night Afore festivities - free to the public - are not expensive: at less than 200,000, the budget is equivalent to the cost of just a single day of the Edinburgh International Festival. Yet, for that, the various funding bodies - mainly Events Scotland and Edinburgh City Council - gain not only a key popular attraction in the run-up to Hogmanay, but also one of Britain's leading international street theatre events and an influx of international talent and energy that adds an extra dimension of glamour and fun to the whole four-day event.
This is exactly the effect Pete Irvine of Unique Events was seeking when he decided three years ago, in his role as producer of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations, to develop the old Night Afore Fiesta into an international party in which Edinburgh would welcome performers from one other country in a demonstration of traditional Hogmanay hospitality.
"It was when I saw those castellers in a small town in Catalonia, about four or five years ago, that I first had those thoughts about making Night Afore International into an annual celebration of our links with another culture," he says. "Those people are not professional performers at all, they're just janitors and joiners and professors who do this in their spare time. I just felt that the whole thing was so Catalan, yet would strike such a chord with people in Scotland, that the idea of us in Edinburgh welcoming another culture for Hogmanay was born. So, two years ago we had an Indian theme, then last year it was France, with that breathtaking closing image of the great pod-airship hovering over George Street; the French street theatre scene is by far the best developed in Europe.
"With 300 Catalans here, half of them just ordinary citizens, it was the first time I felt we really got that sensation of welcoming another people and another culture. So I'm very pleased."
Irvine says, though, that there are problems in continuing to develop this kind of event, not just those caused by the Scottish December climate. This year's finale, from Catalan company L'Avalot, was disappointing artistically: a prolonged pre-show procession of weird and spectacular dinosaur skeletons, followed by a dazzling firework finale, with no show in between - no development of ideas, no impressive performance skills; neither storyline nor circus.
"Well, that is the big question," acknowledges Irvine. "Whether the scene is really developing in interesting ways, and where we should go next.
"I'd say that from the whole street theatre movement, only three or four really good companies and really great shows have emerged over the last decade, and a lot of the work is a bit lazy - stuck in a hippy groove to do with cycles of nature and so forth.
"I often wonder why there isn't more of a contemporary political edge to street theatre culture, particularly here in Britain. I wonder whether, without getting into the business of actually commissioning shows - which is a bit risky for us - we couldn't do more to improve the music associated with street theatre, which is often just terrible. And I wonder whether street theatre shouldn't be looking harder at other areas of popular outdoor entertainment that haven't yet been explored very thoroughly - the fairground theme that the Amsterdam Parade began to take up a few years ago, for example.
"And, yes, we have thought about trying to give the Night Afore audience a more structured experience, a bit more information about the work they're seeing. But in the end, I think it's the nature of this art-form that it should surprise you; that it's just there with you, in the crowd, like the Catalan towers, it appears and amazes you.
"For most of the audience it just seems to work, as an immediate experience with a huge wow-factor, and a big element of fun. The audience reaction on Friday night was overwhelmingly positive, not least because after that one shower of rain, the weather was a lot better than last year.
"So long as we can keep giving people as good a time as that, I'll be happy."
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
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Wind direction: North west