Fest foot forward

This article is from 2009

High Street

Whatever your taste, Edinburgh has an August event to match. Mark Fisher explains what sets each of them apart

Nowhere does a festival quite like Edinburgh. Spend a year in the city and you can clock up more than a dozen, from horror film weekend Dead by Dawn to the internationally renowned winter Hogmanay event. And that’s before you take daytrips to catch the street theatre of Big in Falkirk and the al fresco frolics of T in the Park. But if arts jamborees are your thing, August is the month you have to be in the Scottish capital. Not only are the festivals many in number, they are awesome in scale, so much so there are even festivals within festivals, adding to the dizzying spectacle of it all. The glut of entertainment can be overwhelming, although the organisations have become better coordinated thanks to the new Festivals Edinburgh umbrella body. The best way to make sense of it all is to keep reading the special weekly August instalments of The List and use this introduction to get your bearings.

Edinburgh Art Festival

A new kid on the block, the Art Festival brings together the summer programmes of the city’s plethora of galleries, ranging from the smallest of artist-run spaces to the major institutions under the control of the National Galleries of Scotland. These galleries have always capitalised on the influx of culturally-minded visitors to the city, but it has been many years since they were name-checked in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival; it took the launch of the Art Festival in 2004 to give them all a unified voice.

The individual curators retain control of their programmes, but thanks to a major cash injection from the Scottish Government’s Expo Fund, the Festival will be helping them take their most ambitious plans further in 2010 as well as investing in audience development. With over 130 exhibitions – and nearly all of them free – the Art Festival is the biggest of its kind in Scotland.
5 Aug–5 Sep, edinburghartfestival.org

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This is the one nobody can avoid when they set foot in the city centre. From its humble beginnings in 1947 when a handful of companies that hadn’t been invited to appear in the brand new Edinburgh International Festival decided to perform anyway, the Fringe has grown into the largest arts festival in the world. It has spawned copycat events everywhere from Dublin to New York, but nowhere has quite captured the heady exuberance unique to the Scottish capital.

True to its founding spirit, the Fringe is open to anyone who can afford the journey, which means student theatre companies rub shoulders with TV celebrities, Dutch comedians mix with Polish jazz musicians and novices line up alongside seasoned pros; all of them believing they’ll find a willing audience and that their show will turn out to be one of the Fringe’s legendary runaway hits. Of course, it’s not everyone who produces a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a Stomp or a Black Watch, but the thrill of trying means they’ll be back next year for more.

The event takes place all over the city not only in established year-round venues such as the Traverse Theatre, Cabaret Voltaire and The Stand comedy club, but also in ad-hoc spaces in rooms above pubs, public parks and even moving vehicles. Some venues, such as the Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly, are big enough to constitute a festival in their own right, although the smaller, unexpected places are often where gems will be discovered. In addition to the weighty guide produced by the Fringe, detailing in excess of 30,000 performances of more than 2000 shows, many venues publish their own brochures. Others have established mini-events, such as The Edge, which brings together up-and-coming rock bands and major names, and the contentious Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which promotes comedians appearing at the bigger venues.
7–31 Aug, edfringe.com

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Amid the frenetic activity of the other festivals, this one is an oasis of calm. Talking place beneath canvas in the genteel surrounds of Charlotte Square, the Book Festival is an all-day celebration not only of the written word, but also of the big ideas that concern our times. International in outlook, eclectic in range, it features major names of world literature, debut authors, pop scientists, stand-up comedians, comic book artists, poets and leading thinkers brought together for readings and debate. With over 800 events, it is the largest festival of its kind, which isn’t to say that on a sunny day you won’t want to find a place on the lawn and while away a civilised hour or two with a good book.
15–31 Aug, edbookfest.co.uk

Edinburgh International Festival

Created in a burst of post-war optimism, the EIF is a showcase for the world’s best classical music, opera, dance and theatre. Director Jonathan Mills has drawn on the traditions of the 63-year-old event to fashion strongly themed programmes that reflect the place of Edinburgh in the world today. In 2009, he is looking at the Scottish Enlightenment, that period in the 18th century when Edinburgh set the agenda for rational thought in the fields of literature, science and philosophy. Traditionally closing with the crowd-pleasing Bank of Scotland Fireworks Concert, the EIF takes in everything from Singaporean theatre to Flanders ballet and most ports in between.
14 Aug–6 Sep, eif.co.uk

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival

The biggest of its kind in Britain, the Jazz & Blues Festival gets the month off to a swinging start with a programme of 100 shows, ranging from big band favourites to skiffle, ragtime and freeform jazz. There are outdoor extravaganzas and indoor candlelit serenading with the memories of the late and great jazz idols of the past mixing with the thrusting young avant gardists of the here and now.
31 Jul–9 Aug, edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk

Edinburgh Military Tattoo

There can be no better setting than the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle for this annual display of army-related pageantry. Each year, audiences of around 217,000 brave the night air to watch synchronised motorcycle teams, steel bands and police dogs, all the while waiting for the majestic sight of the lone piper and the atmospheric swirl of Scottish massed pipes and drums.
7–29 Aug, edintattoo.co.uk

Festival of Politics

With the Scottish Parliament celebrating a decade of devolved governing and the Homecoming events showing no sign of slowing down, there is nothing like a birthday party to unleash some heated debate. And there will be plenty of that in Holyrood over a frenetic long midweek with names in British politics and culture dropping in to face the people.
18–22 Aug, festivalofpolitics.org.uk