As Fringe and Festival ramp up, is Edinburgh ready to embrace a resurgence of world's biggest arts event? - Liam Rudden

A degree of normality should be resumed in Edinburgh this August. That's the hope of the big-hitters in the Capital, the Fringe super-venues Underbelly, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon, all of whom are planning their first full programme of shows since 2019.

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Yes, the Festival Fringe alongside the International Festival are set to return as more recognisable editions of their pre-pandemic selves while assuring the good people of Edinburgh that lessons have been learned from the last full-scale event three years ago during which over-tourism saw the infrastructure of the Capital creak and crack, under the annual influx.

With nearly three years to address those issues, you would hope Festival, Fringe and, most importantly, the Council, have listened and that any initiatives in place to make living, working and visiting the Capital a more relaxed and enjoyable experience for all, work. Get it right and the vibrancy, energy and sheer joy of Edinburgh in August can not be beaten.

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Ian McKellen as Hamlet ahead of his return to the Edinburgh Fringe
Pic by: Alastair Muir/ShutterstockIan McKellen as Hamlet ahead of his return to the Edinburgh Fringe
Pic by: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock
Ian McKellen as Hamlet ahead of his return to the Edinburgh Fringe Pic by: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

The International Festival launched its programme last week, the last from outgoing director Fergus Linehan, and an eclectic mix it is too, but it was an announcement from St Stephen's Theatre, a new all year round venue for the city from Peter Schaufuss, that captured my imagination in the last 10 days or so; Sir Ian McKellen is coming back to the Fringe to play Hamlet.

In the 'old days', his name associated with a production of Hamlet would have been a shoo-in for the International Festival, more so as, this time, his classic Shakespearean delivery will be accompanied by acclaimed Danish ballet dancer Johan Christensen who will dance the role, joined by a corps de ballet. These days, boundaries between Fringe and Festival are no longer blurred, they're practically non-existent, even a decade or so ago, for example, who would have expected hip-hip to be part of the International programme?

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After last year's Fringe (an effort no one will convince me did the historic brand any good - audiences sitting under umbrellas in the rain is never a good look) it will be great to have the buzz of the biggest arts festival in the world back, although I'll put my money on this year's event being more compact than in the past.

A record-breaking 3841 Fringe shows were registered in 2019, consequently, like many in Edinburgh I enjoyed having ‘my’ city back in the summer of 2000; seeing it in all its breathtaking glory, while wandering through empty streets, soaking in the history. Devoid of crowds, billboards and tourists, it was an unexpected trip back in time and one unlikely to be repeated... hopefully.

However, it's now time to share the splendour of Edinburgh again and welcome back the visitors the city relies on to survive. With so many now working from home, the influx may not even have the same impact on the everyday life it once did. This week, it was revealed that so far, just less than 800 shows have registered for the Fringe. That's an indication that whatever happens, this year's event is likely to be a more manageable size and that's a good thing, not just for the folk of Edinburgh but for the companies and performers seeking audiences, accommodation and maybe even a chance of covering their costs.

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