Edinburgh Festival Guide 2017
Britain, 1947. The country was exhausted, battered and depleted by World War II.
You might have thought that theatre, dance, music and comedy would be well down the list of priorities, but the visionary founders of the Edinburgh Festival believed that arts and culture could knit the nation back together, providing ‘a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’. After all, the great war leader Winston Churchill once said: ‘The arts are essential to any complete national life. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.’
Seventy years on, the festival has flourished and grown beyond all recognition. In fact, what we call ‘the festival’ is now a collection of several different festivals. The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) is a heavy-hitting affair which each year presents 160 performances by more than 2,500 artists to an audience of 400,000 people. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe started off as a splinter group but has now overshadowed the ‘main’ festival: last year it hosted 3,000 different shows; half were premieres of new, original work. It is the biggest arts festival in the world.
Right Up Your Street
It’s hard to describe the thrillingly vibrant atmosphere to the uninitiated. The streets are filled with buskers and leafleters drumming up business for their productions. The bars and cafés throng with visitors all breaking the unspoken British rule that one should never talk to strangers: ‘What have you seen that’s good?’ is the standard ice-breaker. And since there are nowhere near enough venues to stage all the productions, every available space is press-ganged into service, from churches to tunnels to debating halls, not to mention a giant inflatable comedy venue in the shape of a huge cow (Udderbelly) – which has been in London.
Though there are reviews and awards to inform the public, critics can’t keep up with everything. Often you have to just take pot luck on something that ‘sounds good’. Because so many of the productions are premieres, you might see something dreadful, or something extraordinary. The joy is in the discovery of unexpected gems.
From The Fringes To Fame
Previous breakthrough productions have included Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966; The Warp, a 24-hour marathon sci-fi play staged in 1979; and Stomp, which went on to conquer the world with its dustbin-lid percussion after premiering at the Fringe in 1991. Innumerable performers have made their names at the festival.
The 1960 production of Beyond the Fringe, put together by the EIF though staged in London, introduced a new, irreverent kind of satire, and the troupe of Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook all went on to enjoy glittering careers. Most of the members of Monty Python first performed at the festival as schoolboys, as did the great Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, in a sixth-form production of Hamlet. Other comedians who established their career here include Rowan Atkinson, Billy Connolly and Ben Elton. It would be shorter to name the comedians who have not played Edinburgh than those who have.
Acts To Follow
What will this year’s gems be? The Edinburgh International Festival includes the world premiere of The Divide, a dystopian sci-fi double bill by the great playwright Alan Ayckbourn; musician PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project; major opera productions including Verdi’s Macbeth and Puccini’s La Bohème; and dance ranging from hip hop (Blak Whyte Gray by Boy Blue Entertainment) to flamenco from the María Pagés Company.
As for the Fringe, you’ll just have to try it and see! Under the letter A (publicity-savvy companies often ensure their show titles begin with several As, in order to appear early in the Fringe programme), there’s AAA Batteries (Not Included) from award-winning comedian and rapper Chris Turner, back for his seventh year; #AA (Abnormal Asian) by Singaporean comedian Jinx Yeo, who won second prize at the Hong Kong Comedy Festival; and Abba A-Rival, Scotland’s top tribute act to the Swedish pop greats.
Shows run literally around the clock: you can find something to watch at any time of day or night. But you are missing out if you don’t take some time off to sample Edinburgh’s non-festival delights. Climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano, for commanding views of the city. If that is too far, there are great photo opportunities to be had atop Calton Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the top of Princes Street, or by climbing the 287 stone steps of the beautifully Gothic Scott Monument.
Free attractions include the National Museum of Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery and its sister modern art gallery; St Giles’ Cathedral, the Scottish Parliament Visitor Centre and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh Castle is also a must, especially during one of the August performances of the Military Tattoo, which puts on a display of pomp and pageantry.
Otherwise, as with the festival, some of the city’s greatest pleasures are accidental. Wander the winding, split-level streets and the Water of Leith Walkway; stop off at any café that looks interesting and admire grand houses and architecture. The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh form one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world, given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995. And, while you are there, talk to the locals – forthcoming and friendly, they are proud to show off their city.
Accommodation: The population of Edinburgh doubles during the festival, so it’s not surprising that accommodation is scarce and expensive. Book as early as you can: you will still find the odd late deal on hotel websites, but choice will be very limited. Airbnb is good if you’re happy to take a room in a local’s house.
Tickets: Many shows that aren’t sold out will start to offer two-for-one deals close to the time of opening. The Half-Price Hut, outside the Scottish National Gallery at the foot of the Mound, also offers loads of cheap tickets on the day, though queues can be long. Download the Edfringe app for the latest news on shows and ticket deals.
Food: Edinburgh is renowned for quality restaurants – there are four with Michelin stars. But there are also great little cafés and good street food to be had during the festival, from pop-up shacks and vans all over town. George Square is great for these.
Other Tips: Make sure you wear comfortable shoes: you’ll be walking a lot from show to show in a city that has steep hills. The usual British social barriers come crashing down during the Fringe, so talk to strangers in bars and cafés, and find out what they’ve seen that’s good. Finally, embrace chaos: you can only plan so much, and you need to leave yourself open to happy accidents, chance encounters and new recommendations.