PASSING BY... Beyond the Fringe

Antony Thorncroft casts an eye from afar over this year’s Edinburgh festivals

I  did not go to Edinburgh for the festivals this year - but then I did not feel drawn to do so. For the quaint fact is that a city that every August attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to half a dozen festivals consisting of thousands of events presented by many thousands of performers stretching in ability and experience – from sixth form drama students to the greatest musicians in the world – remains remorselessly the same year after year after year. It is really remarkable that something so varied can be so similar. This was the situation when I was a regular visitor up to 2002 and from scanning the media in recent weeks, nothing seems to have changed since.

Or has it? Wirth the advantage of distance, and some imagination, I sense from conversations with regulars and reports in the media, that 2016 reflected the signs of change. After many years as the rather stuffy ignored parent of the whole caboodle, the Edinburgh International Festival seemed to have the creative edge over the Fringe. And in the Fringe the stranglehold of comedy, in particular the one man or woman stand-up routines could well be suffering from staleness.

It was the Festival which grabbed the annual shock horror nudity headlines with the Aix-en-Provence production of Cosi fan tutte, which, for no obvious gain, moved the action from the Mediterranean to Eritrea in the 1930s, with the opportunity for naked extras. It was the Festival that offered one of the leading mezzo sopranos of the day, Cecilia Bartoli,  appearing in Norma, a role which allowed comparisons with that opera’s most famous diva, Maria Callas. To complete a trio of operas which would out-stage any rival arts festival, there was the Marlinsky from Russia with Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by Gergiev.

Throw in an acclaimed production of The Glass Menagerie from Broadway, and this is just the kind of line up that the world’s leading arts festival requires to secure respect. There was even the unexpected - an intriguing appearance from Barry Humphries introducing Weimar cabaret, a reminder that it was the Festival that launched Beyond the Fringe, the real innovator of alternative comedy, almost a generation before the emergence of the Comedy Store.

OK, the leading international orchestras were thin on the ground – for many of them August is holiday month - but there is always something reassuring about a concert at the Usher Hall for classical music lovers, and even more so, a midday creative boost from a lunch time recital at the Queens. The International Festival has always too closely reflected the artistic vision of its director of the day (and the willingness of sometimes unsavoury foreign regimes to subsidise visits by their artists) but now there are fewer obscure European plays in their original language to bore that most faithful of audiences, the Morningside middle class. Record box office revenues also suggest that the Festival has finally rediscovered its mojo.

For the Fringe, it is the same old same old as it has to be, since anyone who can afford to turn up and lose their pride and their savings is admitted. This is admirable in principle but it does mean caveat emptor. This year,
the winner of the leading award for the best comedy performance was Richard Gadd, a Scot who appeared free before a tiny audience and whose act revolved around the impact on his personality of a sexual assault he had suffered. I am sure
it was a well deserved prize but it is hard to imagine a more right- on choice and it is rather a contrast to previous winners such as Frank Skinner and Al Murray.

The Fringe is, of course, anarchic in its complete lack of quality control but its organisers and the critics who report on its activities seem to nurture a terribly politically correct conformity. Virtually all the stand ups share a world view; despise the same celebrities; and go to every length to ensure that their material does not offend the minorities of their collective choosing. This puts strict limitations on their imaginations and basically makes them the mouthpiece of the liberal Establishment. It is interesting that none of the recent Fringe award winners have achieved the same popular success as the earlier generation of Skinner, Murray, Lee Evans, Steve Coogan, the League of Gentlemen, and others, who were less afraid to ruffle feathers.

Perhaps the predictability of the Fringe accounts for the fact that Edinburgh did not seem to attract as much media attention this year, apart from the BBC which, along with the other TV channels, sees stand-up comedians as cheap cannon fodder for inexpensive and interchangeable quiz shows. The other festivals too lack their old impact: there is no shortage of book festivals across the land and television has become too fragmented for arguments in Edinburgh to matter much.

Yet I did miss it really. Of course, the real unquenchable star is the city itself which manages to be both grand and sinister, with wonderful vistas towards Perthshire and dangerous looking alleys in the Old Town. There are the most elegant Georgian terraces; the most salubrious Victorian villas; and gritty reminders of the setting for Trainspotting. If you have the energy, you can wake up and have no idea of the experiences that the day will offer: you can choose to take in half a dozen Fringe shows and then splash out on a big international name appearing in the evening at the Playhouse or the Festival Theatre. And although the Festival and the visual arts have never quite managed to get it together, Edinburgh has a splendid national gallery and any number of impressive specialist galleries and museums.

Throw in the pubs, some of which have not given in to gentrification or modern technology; restaurants, which have greatly improved on the traditional life shortening Scottish diet; and a local population (those that have not rented out their homes and escaped) that is happy to indulge the incomers, and a festival visit makes for a happy experience, at least once in a lifetime. As the paper once said “All Human Life is There”, plus as much culture and fun as is good for you.

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