Edinburgh Festival: A reinvented and reinvigorated city of culture is emerging from the shadows – Brian Ferguson

It’s the first Saturday in August and I’m trying to navigate my way through a packed courtyard on my way to a mid-afternoon Fringe show.

But it’s not the familiar surroundings of the Pleasance I’m in.

Instead, I've just arrived at the historic estate at Newhailes, a 17th-century country house in Musselburgh, where a dog show was being hosted in its grounds, along with the Leith-based theatre company Grid Iron.

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It has long specialised at creating new theatrical spaces out of the most unlikely spaces, including a Princes Street department store, hidden vaults beneath the City Chambers, Edinburgh Airport, and a rock climbing centre.

New show Doppler, about a man trying to live life on his own in a forest, is staged in a magically transformed wooded clearing, before an audience seated on logs and cushions.

The previous evening, most of the audience for the Traverse show Move were perched on rocks at Silverknowes Beach, where they donned headphones to experience an open-air production played out against the backdrop of the Firth of Forth, the Fife coastline and a glowering sky.

Audiences are braving the elements on top of a multi-storey car park below Edinburgh Castle. The “MultiStory” venue, jointly created by four of the Fringe's main players, the Traverse, the Gilded Balloon, Zoo and Dance Base, is one of several new sites effectively extending the city’s cultural quarter this year.

Others include Festival Square, finally living up its name by playing host to the Ladyboys of Bangkok, and Edinburgh College of Art, where the book festival will bring together authors and audiences from Saturday.

Sweet FA is being staged by This Is My Story Productions at Tynecastle Park. Picture: Simon Messer

I spent Saturday night at Tynecastle, where a temporary stage is hosting Sweet FA, a rousing musical drama inspired by the rise of women’s football during the First World War, while the week began largely surrounded by fans of a different colour, in 1902, an intensely gripping play focusing on a group of modern-day Hibs fans, performed inside century-old railway arches.

Meanwhile the Edinburgh International Festival has created two music venues bigger than the Barrowland Ballroom for its socially distanced shows, while the vast Corn Exchange at Chesser has been reinvented as a dedicated Fringe comedy venue.

The aforementioned shows and venues are, of course, a mere snapshot of the suddenly explosion of festival activity in Edinburgh in the space of a week.

Of course, there have been inevitable comparisons with the normal – and much criticised – scale of the city’s cultural bonanza in August, with some commentators dismissing the worth of this year's events before a performer had taken to the stage.

Sweet FA is being staged at Tynecastle Park football stadium.

However these not only seem premature but also misplaced.

The revival of the festivals has to be seen against the background upon which they all had to be planned. The prospect of strict social distancing restrictions easing in time did not emerge until the end of June and was not actually confirmed until mid-July.

Event organisers and venues have had to second guess how much appetite there would be for live entertainment in Edinburgh and grapple with ever-changing quarantine rules.

Yet the festivals are undergoing a remarkable rebirth and reinvention, against all the odds and doom-laden predictions.

Keith Fleming plays the lead role in Doppler, which is being staged in the woodlands at Newhailes House in Musselburgh.

And with largely-local audiences lapping up shows, a new and reinvigorated city of culture is already emerging from the shadows of Covid.

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