The world's biggest arts festival starts in earnest next weekend. Here, our critics direct you to the pick of this year's events
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The Independent Culture
Reader (Traverse, 0131 228 1404, 15 Aug to 2 Sept). Somewhere, sometime in the future. Daniel Lucas works for the Moral Resources Company as a censor. One day a novel lands on his desk that describes his own life. World premiere from the Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden has become one of the most performed plays in the world.

Lanark (Assembly Hall, 0131 225 5756, 14-19, 22-27 Aug). The Festival maintains its commitment to Scottish drama with this new adaptation of Alasdair Gray's highly regarded fable. A sexually frustrated Glasgow artist wants to paint the perfect picture, his alter ego wants to create the perfect society. Actors, musicians and singers come together in TAG Theatre Company, which scored a national hit two years ago with A Scots Quair.

The Merchant of Venice (Royal Lyceum, 0131 229 9697, 29 & 30 Aug). Peter Zadek, formerly one of three principal directors of the Berliner Ensemble, directed the company last year in a colonial version of Antony and Cleopatra. This year he uses the same leading actors but moves his cast out of top hats and into striped shirts and braces: Shylock becomes a Wall Street banker, Portia a hot-shot lawyer. In German, with supertitles.

Chasing the Moment (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Wed to 2 Sept). Jack Shepherd, better known as ITV's Cornish detective Wycliffe, plays jazz piano in his swinging new play about the racial and generational tensions within a quarrelsome south-London jazz band.

Hamlet (Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428, Sat to 2 Sept). Six Hamlets are on offer at this year's Festival, but this is the pick of the princes. A protege of Steven Berkoff, George Dillon conceives his energetic Hamlet as a challenge to the traditional view of the "refined prevaricator". His 100-minute version turns Hamlet into a man of decision (he would have to be, to get through it in the time).

Feedback (Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428, Fri to 2 Sept). The South African company Mouthpeace won Fringe Firsts in 1991 and 1993. Feedback, a brisk, cartoon-like satire on food conglomerates, was premiered at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

The Illusionist and the Dream (Kings, 0131 225 5756. 1 & 2 Sept). Swiss- born director stages France's answer to Noel Coward in German. Only at Edinburgh! Two comedies of romantic entanglement by Sacha Guitry, directed by Luc Bondy: in the first, the husband falls for the illusionist's tricks and the wife falls for the illusionist. In the second, the friend goes off with husband's wife. With English supertitles.

Chekhov Anecdotes (Moray House Union, 0131 556 0102, Sat to 27 Aug). Last year Theatre on Podol, the Kiev-based company, had a hit with Iago: Othello seen from his lieutenant's perspective. The venue was the swimming pool at the Infirmary Street Baths and Othello drowned Iago in the pool. This year Theatre on Podol present Chekhov short stories in a cabaret venue. In Russian, synopses provided.

The Holy Ground (Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428, Sat to 2 Sept). New play by the novelist/playwright Dermot Bolger. In a Dublin suburb, a newly bereaved widow tidies her husband's belongings into a black bin-bag. As she does so, the story of her marriage unfolds, from the courtship via discovery of her husband's impotence to a secret history of domestic abuse.

Phil Kay (Queen's Hall, 16-23 Aug; Gilded Balloon, 27 Aug to 2 Sept, both 0131 226 2151). One comedian who doesn't need to give his stand-up set a title in a spurious bid for theatrical kudos. Not much has been seen of this exhilaratingly unpredictable Glaswegian since his surprise triumph at the 1994 British Comedy Awards, so it will be interesting to see if success has messed with his head.

Harry Hill - Savlon 2000 (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Fri to 28 Aug). The moral victor in 1994's Perrier Award farrago returns with a new show; more traditionally stand-up in foundation than last year's very high-concept Pub Internationale, but nothing this man does is ever going to be straightforward, and those who can't do without the thrill of multi-media Hill are assured that a short film will be shown.

Bernard Chumley - Sir Bernard Chumley is Dead ... and Friends! (Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428, Fri to 2 Sept, except 15 & 31 Aug). No longer a child prodigy - he won't see 19 again - Bernard Chumley is still an arresting talent. His infectiously filthy chuckle and potentially actionable theatrical anecdotes mark him out as the anti-Ustinov, and household-name status beckons via a leading role in Shooting Stars, the imminent, breathlessly anticipated Reeves and Mortimer game show.

Scott Capurro - Love & Affection (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Thurs to 2 Sept, except 15 & 29 Aug). A worthy winner of last year's Best Newcomer award, this waspish and edgy San Franciscan is seditiously irresistible to gays and straights alike.

Richard Herring is All Man (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Wed to 2 Sept, except 15 & 31 Aug). For last year's one-man philosophical odyssey Richard Herring is Fat, the jovial Fist of Fun luminary heroically ate his way Robert De Niro-style through a burial mound of chocolate. Preparation for this promising delve into the darker recesses of the modern masculine psyche presumably entailed sitting in a high-street bookmakers reading copies of Men's Health.

Jenny Eclair - Prozac & Tantrums (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Wed to 2 Sept, except 15 & 31 Aug). With Jo Brand having left for hyper-space, unrepentant super-bitch Eclair has a firm hold on the keys to the gleaming Queen-of-the-Festival chariot. Her relentless scabrosity works more effectively over the full hour than as a novelty turn on Radio 4 panel games.

Will Durst - Myth America (Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428, Fri to 2 Sept). A superb and under-rated satirist, Durst lacks the barn-storming propensities of such illustrious Atlantic-crossing forebears as Denis Leary and Bill Hicks, but in his own quiet way he is every bit as perspicacious.

Cluub Zarathustra (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Wed to 2 Sept, except 15 & 31 Aug). For those in search of danger amid the well-rehearsed spontaneity, the "League Against Tedium" (featuring among others Alan Parker's alter ego Simon Munnery and Fist of Fun's existential pin-up Stewart Lee) threatens to over-reach itself intellectually with potentially fatal consequences.

John Shuttleworth - At a Reasonable Hour (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 26- 30 Aug). Like several former festival stalwarts, the Yamaha-organ virtuoso is making only a brief stop-over this year. The intensity of Graham Fellows' bottom-flight showbiz characterisation makes that almost a mercy.

Rich Hall (Fringe Club Studio, 0131 226 5138, Fri to 2 Sept, except 21 & 31 Aug). Emmy-award-winning erstwhile David Letterman scriptwriter gives that tired old chestnut about Americans having no grasp of irony a delicious roasting.

Land and Freedom (MGM 1, 0131 228 1638, 13 Aug). Ken Loach's latest (plus gala) starts the festival off on a thoughtful note. The tale of a young Liverpudlian (Ian Hart) who fights for the communists in the Spanish Civil War, it's stimulating and didactic in equal measure. Hart, all genial naivete, is excellent.

Burnt By the Sun (Cameo 1, 0131 228 4141, 16 Aug). Nikita Mikhalkov's tale of love and betrayal in 1930s Stalinist Russia won a deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It starts like a story by Chekhov, but ends up more like something out of Mandelstam. It also includes one of the most bewitching child performances in all film - by the director's daughter.

Singin' in the Rain (Filmhouse 1, 0131 228 2688, 14 Aug). Veteran American director Stanley Donen receives a tribute retrospective, starting with this, his greatest film. Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds sing and hoof their way to sheer bliss, in inclement weather. A 1952 take on the 1920s and its movies.

Walter Murch: Scene by Scene (Filmhouse 1, 0131 228 2688, 15 Aug). These Scene by Scene talks, in which film-makers talk audiences through their work, promise to be the most exciting innovations of this year's festival. Murch, a legendary sound designer and editor, should be riveting. Here he talks about his work on Apocalypse Now. Also appearing will be: Steve Martin, Dianne Ladd, Nic Roeg, Robert Towne (writer of Chinatown), the Coen brothers and Terence Davies.

Typically British (Filmhouse 1, 0131 228 2688, 15 Aug). And typically Frears. If you're looking for historical rigour, don't bother with Stephen Frears's documentary on British film. But it's a quirkily engaging and perceptive take on our national cinema - and character.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (Cameo 1, 0131 228 4141, 15 Aug). Thirty- year-old Benjamin Ross's stylish debut makes a black farce out of the macabre true story of a boy who poisoned his family in 1960s suburban London. It's funnier and more thoughtful than Shallow Grave.

The Neon Bible (Cameo 1, 0131 228 4141, 16 Aug). Terence Davies's slow- moving, painterly account of John Kennedy Toole's Southern Gothic should delight all his fans and infuriate others (as it did the Cannes audience, who booed).

Carrington (MGM, 0131 228 1638, 18 Aug). Christopher Hampton introduces his directorial debut, which won prizes at Cannes, but has divided viewers. Is Emma Thompson miscast as free-spirited Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington? So far everyone is agreed on the excellence of Jonathan Pryce's Lytton Strachey.

The Near Room (Glasgow [sic] Film Theatre 1, 0141 332 8128, 18 Aug). The word is hot on David Hayman's thriller about a journalist (Adrian Dunbar) tracking a prostitution scandal involving his own daughter and a dead informant. Taking place in Glasgow, it confirms Scotland's current renaissance as a prime (if grimy) cinematic setting.

The Usual Suspects (Cameo 1, 0131 228 4141, 25 Aug). Intricate, noirish thriller in which Gabriel Byrne tries to track down the Mr Big behind a highly skilled and devious bunch of criminals. Some may find it slick and empty, but nobody will be able to deny the power of its ending.

Mark Morris Mixed Bill (King's Theatre, 0131 225 5756, 14-16 Aug). Fast becoming Edinburgh regulars, Morris and his group bring a luscious programme of three recent works and one brand new one. The exhilaration of the choreography is heightened by the live accompaniment and by the breathtaking lighting designs. This feast of Morris dancing includes the duet One Charming Night, performed by Morris himself.

Mark Morris Hard Nut (Festival Theatre, 0131 225 5756, 29 Aug to 2 Sept). Morris's take on The Nutcracker is set in a 1960s apartment where Clara's parents play host to a string of groovy guests in hipster trousers in a sugar-free, low-calorie Nutcracker. The Charles Burns-inspired designs are a joy to look at - but the big problem with all updates of this Ivanov/ Tchaikovsky classic is that although we are happy to admire a stylistic rethink we still miss the old steps.

Miami City Ballet Nutcracker (Playhouse, 0131 225 5756, 14-16 Aug). London had three Nutcrackers last Christmas, Edinburgh has two this summer. Edward Villella's company make a welcome return with the UK premiere of Balanchine's sumptuous tribute to this imperial jewel.

Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co with Still/Here (Playhouse, 0131 225 5756, 25-27 Aug). The work that launched a thousand articles. In December last year the New Yorker's dance critic Arlene Croce provoked a tornado of controversy when she refused even to see this piece of "victim art" (which includes video testimony from Aids sufferers), complaining that Aids-centred work exploited both its subject and its audience: "By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable.''

Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal (Playhouse, 0131 225 5756, 31 Aug to 2 Sept). Bausch's most important piece, created in 1982, is the highlight of the Festival. Nelken is a work of magnificent scope which explores human love with the help of the entire company, sundry alsatians and 15,000 carnations.

Mark Baldwin Dance Company present Sightlines (St Brides Centre, 0131 346 1405, 21-26 Aug). A double bill comprising Out of Doors and Concerto Grosso. Baldwin's line-up includes the witty and expressive Royal Ballet escapee Lynn Bristow.

Company Pyke (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 22 Aug to 2 Sept). After successful collaborations with Siobhan Davies and Emilyn Claid, five members of the excellent CandoCo dance company are having a crack at choreographing for themselves. CandoCo is composed of able-bodied and disabled dancers including the remarkable legless virtuoso David Toole.

Mapapa Acrobats (Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, Wed to 2 Sept, 2.30pm). Seven extraordinarily agile young men from Kenya perform unexpected feats with surprising facility and abandon.

Ricochet Dance Co (St Brides Centre, 0131 346 1405, 14-19 Aug). Ricochet present Curious Seeds by Javier de Frutos (he of the Y-fronts and stilettos) and former Laurie Booth sideman Russell Maliphant.

Union Dance Company (St Brides Centre, 0131 346 1405, 14-26 Aug). Union Dance celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and the two-week stint at the Festival features choreography from gritty New Yorker Doug Elkins. A Knot Annulled is set to musical off-cuts ranging from Don Giovanni to Aretha Franklin and rap.

From London (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 0131 556 8921, to 5 Sept). Though they've little in common apart from a preference for figurative art, the painters Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Ron Kitaj and Leon Kossoff are said (by Kitaj) to form a "School of London". This show tests the theory, but really is a set of mini-retrospectives, with only Kossoff - our Venice Biennale representative this year - on a current winning streak.

Light From the Dark Room (Royal Scottish Academy, 0131 556 8921, to 15 Oct). A celebration of Scottish photography from its origins to the present day. The pioneers include Hill and Adamson; there are lots of fishing villages; Evelyn Carey's pictures of the Forth Rail Bridge and a good selection of such contemporaries as Ron O'Donnell and Calum Colvin.

Hidden Assets (National Gallery of Scotland, 0131 556 8921, to 24 Sept). Scottish paintings from 1820-1920 usually hung in the London offices of Messrs Flemings. Interesting as a sort of expatriate corporate collection. Two famous images concern the 19th-century West Highland emigration, Faed's The Last of the Clan and Lochaber No More by John Watson Nicol.

Antonio Canova: The Three Graces (National Gallery of Scotland, 0131 556 8921, Tues to 8 Oct). The celebrated sculpture will probably look better in Edinburgh than London. This show brings together drawings, prints and other marbles to shed light on Canova's British popularity at the beginning of the 19th century.

Jerwood Prize (Royal Scottish Academy, 14 Aug to 3 Sept). The richest painting prize, with pounds 30,000 to the winner. Short-listed are Stephen Buckley, Patrick Caulfield, Maggi Hambling, Callum Innes and Karl Weseke. I fancy Innes, who is also the art world's favourite, but since half of the unwieldy jury are amateurs, who can tell.

Don Giovanni (Usher Hall, 0131 228 1155, 14 Aug). Accomplished Mozartian Sir Charles Mackerras conducts a concert performance, with Felicity Lott as Donna Elvira.

The Jacobin (Festival Theatre, 0131 529 6000, 14 & 16 Aug). A Dvorak rarity: archetypal Czech romanticism staged by Scottish Opera as its festival calling card.

Yo-Yo Ma (Greyfriars Kirk, 0131 225 3626, 14 Aug). The superstar American plays all six of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites.

Sadko (Festival Theatre, 0131 529 6000, 21 & 22 Aug). More Rimsky, more Kirov, more Gergiev, and with the ravishing Galina Gorchakova in the cast.

Wolfgang Holzmair (Queens Hall, 0131 668 2019, 17 Aug). Austrian baritone of deep poetic insight singing Faure's La Bonne Chanson with Gerard Wyss, piano.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (Royal Lyceum, 0131 229 9697, 14-19 Aug). Earthquakes, love and laid-back Californians feed into the latest music-theatre piece from John (Nixon In China) Adams and director Peter Sellars.

Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Festival Theatre, 0131 529 6000, 18 & 19 Aug). Rimsky-Korsakov's spectacular fantasy opera, as done in concert by the Kirov last year at the Barbican and now staged by the same forces under Valery Gergiev.

Dvorak's Stabat Mater (Usher Hall, 0131 228 1155, 15 Aug). John Eliot Gardiner spreads his repertory net, with Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and the Philharmonia.

Peter Schreier & Andras Schiff (Usher Hall, 0131 228 1155, 23, 25 & 27 Aug). Supreme musicians in a series of the three great Schubert song cycles: Die schone Mullerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang.

NDR Symphony Orchestra (Usher Hall, 0131 228 1155, 2 Sept). The veteran but legendary Gunter Wand conducting one of the great Austro- German landmark scores that are his special province: Bruckner's Symphony No 8.

Van Morrison and the BBC Big Band (Festival Theatre, 0131 529 6000, today). Intriguing pairing of grumpy R&B genius and time-served muso's orchestra.

The Jazz Festival Gala Concert (Festival Theatre, 0131 529 6000, Wed). An old-style package-tour bill heaped full of goodies. Pianist and Woody Allen composer Dick Hyman introduces Bob Wilbur's Original Soprano Summit with Kenny Davern; the amazing octogenarian bassist and noted photographer Milt Hinton; Bucky Pizzarelli and Bobby Rosengarten; from New Orleans, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli; Marty Grosz, Topsy Chapman, Bob Bernard and the New Jungle Orchestra from, of course, Denmark.

Jazz Organ and Gospel Recital (St Giles' Cathedral, 0131 668 2019, Mon). With Dick Hyman (again) and Ben Saunders a-pedalling and a-piping on the ultra-modern St Giles' organ, with additional gospel singing from Topsy Chapman.

George Melly (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, Tues). Noted surrealist and Bessie Smith impersonator sings low-down and dirty, accompanied by John Chilton's Footwarmers.

Martin Taylor's Spirit of Django (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, Thurs). Music for Nicole and Papa, with Taylor's elegant Gallic tunes having become the sound of Renault. Jack Emblow on accordion and Dave O'Higgins on sax help create the appropriate insouciance, with support from the Claire Martin Trio.

The Cotton Club (The Cavendish, West Tollcross, 0131 228 3252, today to Thurs). Brave (or maybe just foolhardy?) attempt at re-creating a Harlem night-spot in the middle of Edinburgh, with entertainment on two stages, including "Late Nite Jam Sessions in the Harlem Room", featuring guest-spots from the Festival's main visitors, such as the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band, Dick Hyman, Martin Taylor, John Pizzarelli, with support from many local artists.

Modern Jazz at the Tron (Tron Tavern, 0131 220 1550, today to Fri). Regular Jazz Festival venue.

Carol Kidd and Annie Ross (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, 29 & 30 Aug). A classy singer of jazz in the standard vocal tradition, Carol Kidd gets lots of acclaim although, to be honest, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. With fellow Scot (by way of Hollywood, Paris and London) Annie Ross as a guest, torch-songs-a-go-go look likely to feature, and while Ross has lost much of her voice, her delivery is still impeccably hip.

Craig McMurdo (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, 31 Aug & 1 Sept). Cabaret- style jump, jive and smooth Sinatra-esque smoochers from home-town favourite vocalist and sometime dancer. The venue is to be turned into a special "Jive Cafe", with a preview of a new musical, Avenue of Dreams, among the attractions.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, 2 Sept). Extravagantly gifted young Cuban pianist, now in exile in the Dominican Republic, whose debut Blue Note album of a few years ago, recorded with the top rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, set the jazz world alight in a way that no one thought could happen anymore. Dazzlingly fast and inventive, with a full complement of Afro-Cuban rhythmic effects, Rubalcaba is also a tender ballad specialist in the quiet Bill Evans vein - and, in this solo performance, it may well be the quietude that wins out.

Jack Bruce (Queen's Hall, 0131 668 2019, 2 Sept). Fiery bassist and vocalist, ex-Cream, ex-Carla Bley, ex-just about everybody he's played with really, in Unplugged-style lo-tech setting accompanied only by Hammond organist Bernie Worrell (and if someone unplugs the Hammond we won't hear a thing), who himself is ex-Parliament and Funkadelic and a funkin' good player.

Kiki Dee (Palladium, 0131 556 6969, 19 Aug). The sporadically successful singer/actress/friend of Elton John/ British showbiz institution prepares for the release of a new album, Almost Naked (Tickety Boo), due in Sept.

Tom Robinson (The Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 17-28 Aug, no perf 22 Aug). Formerly Glad to be Gay, currently glad to be the presenter of Radio 4's The Locker Room, Robinson mixes old faves with material from last year's Love Over Rage (Cooking Vinyl).

Papa Wemba (Meadowbank Stadium, 0131 529 3153, 3 Sept). The Paris-based Zairean singer continues his invasion of the international market with his vivid and nimble Emotion (Real World) album, produced by Stephen (Pet Shop Boys) Hague.

Glenn Dakin (Music Box, 0131 220 4847, 25 Aug to 2 Sept). Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave the world Jonathan Richman; Cambridge, England, gave us Glenn Dakin. A mostly new set of fanciful acoustic songs.

Hank Wangford (Mansfield Place Church, 0131 557 8330, 18 Aug to 2 Sept). Suffolk's lovelorn country star/ gynaecologist presents Hank's Health and Happiness Show.

Hue & Cry (The Palladium, 0131 556 6969, 16 Aug). The Kane brothers take a break from journalism and campaigning to play an acoustic, piano/ vocal set of their polished wine-bar jazz-soul, a la Bitter Suite.

Margarita Pracatan (The Palladium, 0131 556 6969, 20 & 22 Aug). Excruciating singer/organist, as laughed at on The Clive James Show. The joke here seems to be that she can't sing or speak English very well (those crazy foreigners!), but each to his or her own. !