Edinburgh Festival: The scene is suddenly set something special this summer – Brian Ferguson

Just over 12 months from the darkest day in its history, all those with an interest in the Edinburgh Festival can now look forward with more optimism than at any other point over the last year.

News from the Edinburgh International Festival that it is bringing live events back to the city this summer was followed a few hours later by Nicola Sturgeon announcing the lifting of some of Scotland’s Covid restrictions ahead of schedule.

While the EIF was tentatively unveiling plans to stage shows before socially distanced audiences in outdoor venues, the First Minister was speaking optimistically about the reopening of venues and nightclubs this summer.

We will have to wait for nearly two months to discover exactly what the EIF has in store, but its announcement has ended the huge uncertainty about whether Edinburgh’s world-famous cultural celebration would return in any meaningful form.

With at least six outdoor spaces – three of them large enough to house roofed pavilions – lined up to host more than 200 different performances, the EIF has put down a much-needed marker that the Edinburgh Festival, in its widest sense, will be back with a bang this summer.

The city’s cultural offering may seem somewhat threadbare compared to 2019, when an audience of more than 4.4 million attended more than 5,000 events featuring an estimated 26,000 performers across the city.

But the EIF’s announcement will surely be a catalyst for the city to stage one of the most memorable and meaningful cultural celebrations since the festival’s inception in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The model the EIF is pursuing is actually similar to one tested out by Scottish Opera in Glasgow last September, shortly before Covid restrictions began to be tightened again.

Edinburgh University's Old College Quad will host performances in a temporary outdoor venue this summer.

It is understood that up to 800 people could be accommodated at the EIF’s larger outdoor venues if crowd restrictions are eased enough by then and, at the moment, all the signs are that this will be possible.

Under the Scottish government’s new route map out of lockdown, audiences of up to 2,000 will be possible at outdoor events at “level 0”, which Ms Sturgeon hopes the country will be ready to move to by the end of June.

Crucially, the guidelines also allow for the reintroduction of audiences to indoor venues, from 100 in mid-May, when the first live events are due to to be allowed, to up to 400 the following month.

However the First Minister was at pains to point out that reaching “level 0” is not the extent of the government’s ambitions over the summer, suggesting that the reopening of nightclubs could happen within months.

Those long-awaited numbers should finally persuade the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society to press the go button on this year’s event, with some of the more optimistic venues already well down the programming route.

But the EIF’s decision to take all its shows outdoors also offers the tantalising prospect of its usual venues, like the Usher Hall, the Lyceum, King’s and Leith theatres, and the Queen’s Hall being used for other festivals.

With the majority of Scotland’s performers likely to be available for work and a largely local audience which has been starved of entertainment over the last year, the scene looks set for something special. Suddenly, anything seems possible.

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