One of the most entertaining things about this time of year is watching cultural commentators scrabbling around trying to tell us what the latest edition of the Edinburgh Festival is “about” – or, at least, what the main trends or themes are – as if the biggest arts happening on the planet could somehow be summed up in a few pithy lines.
The fact is, with almost 3,000 shows in the Fringe programme, in addition to the not insubstantial offerings of the International Festival, the Book Festival, the Art Festival, the Jazz Festival and the Mela, you can make the whole shebang “about” pretty much anything you like. Just think of a theme – any theme – then scan the listings until you’ve found enough examples to support your case.
To test this theory, let’s say one of the big themes of this year’s festival is the great outdoors. In fact, let’s go even further. Let’s say that, hiding within the programmes of the various Edinburgh festivals, there are enough theatre and comedy shows about mountaineering and Arctic exploration, enough readings from nature writers and adventure historians, and enough exhibitions inspired by the natural world, to create an all-new festival: the Edinburgh Outdoors Festival. And, to stretch the theory to creaking point, let’s say that if you grouped all these events together and ran them under that banner at any other time of year, you’d have one of the biggest – perhaps even one of the best – outdoors festivals in the world.
A couple of years ago in these pages, at about this time of year, I spoke to Fringe comedian Tim FitzHigham about the ticklish subject of extracting laughs from some of the more tragic tales of Arctic and Antarctic adventure. FitzHigham, who was doing a kids’ show about Sir John Franklin’s doomed attempts to locate the Northwest Passage, thought a certain amount of time had to elapse before it was OK to laugh at, for example, men having to eat their own shoes in order to stay alive. Laughing at Franklin was acceptable, he felt, but the tragic tale of Captain Scott wouldn’t be fair game for comedy for at least a few more decades. Well, evidently the members of a theatre troupe called the Cheshire Liberation Front disagree. They’ll be performing an absurdist comedy entitled Scott of the Antarctic: The Musical at Wilkie House Upstairs from 18-24 August, as part of the Fringe. Also attempting to find the funny in the often super-serious world of rugged outdoorsmen is character comedian Joe Bor. In his Fringe show Joe Bor is Casper Cromwell Jones, at the Gilded Balloon until 26 August, he plays a posh, wealthy simpleton determined to scale the world’s highest peaks, even though he isn’t a good climber. Trustafarian mountaineers may find some of his material disturbing.
No outdoors festival would be complete without an appearance from a celebrity adventurer off the telly, and Edinburgh has this box emphatically ticked: ocean rower and polar trekker Ben Fogle will be at the Assembly Rooms on 8 August with an hour of reminiscences entitled In the Name of Adventure.
It is often said that we are living through a renaissance in nature writing, and the Book Festival programme certainly seems to bear this out. Indeed, there’s an entire strand called The Lie of the Land, devoted to “our relationship with the land in which we live”. Highlights include Simon Garfield explaining How Maps Define Our World and Tim Dee and Roger Lovegrove exploring New Perspectives on Nature – both on 18 August. Also at the Book Festival, on 11 August, Harriet Tuckey will read from Conquering Mount Everest – a controversial account of how her father, the physiologist Griffith Pugh, was edited out of the official accounts of the Everest expedition of 1953, in which he played a key role. Hill runners, meanwhile, should flock to Edinburgh College of Art, before 1 September, to check out Katri Walker’s installation An Equilibrium Not of this World. Part of the Art Festival, it juxtaposes views of the Scottish landscape as experienced by a runner passing through them with microscopic timelapse images of the inner workings of the athlete’s body.
I could go on (and on), but you get the idea. Next week: why this year’s festival is really all about shoes.