Edinburgh Festival: Let the rich cultural mix mushroom unhindered

Professor Steiner argued at Sunday's lecture that the arts feast was overgrown. David Lister says it can never be too big
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The Independent Culture
Professor George Steiner is one of the most distinguished philosophers and literary critics in the world.

But has he, I wonder, sauntered down Edinburgh's George Street at midnight bent on cramming in a late-night feminist comedy cabaret to supplement the Croatian version of Gilbert and Sullivan and the student Hamlet with, literally, two men and a dog, that would have been on offer earlier in a typical evening.

Until one has such a night, one can never appreciate the real "relevance" of the Edinburgh Festival.

Relevance was a word that figured strongly in the inaugural Edinburgh University Festival Lecture delivered last Sunday by Professor Steiner.

He argued that the festival must re-evaluate its relevance or face decline, urging that more space should be given to the sciences and for allowing the public into rehearsals and a more disciplined and focused programme overall.

"To know when to stop," he said, "is a rare but vivid mark of honesty within excellence."

Not necessarily. At least not in Edinburgh in August. The Edinburgh fringe, in particular, and the official festival to a lesser extent, is something a scientist should cherish. It is a study in experimentation. Make it smaller and you risk losing future cultural treasures.

Where should you draw the line? Do you restrict the number of student companies and risk losing a Beyond The Fringe team or an unwieldy but innovative revue, featuring students called Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry?

Do you allow the students in but restrict the number of unknown, struggling fringe outfits and maybe lose a company like Kick Theatre, which produced the now internationally celebrated theatre director Deborah Warner?

Do you say, as many have done in recent years, that there is too much stand-up comedy and chance losing late-night cult figures such as Jack Dee, Jenny Eclair, Mark Thomas and Eddie Izzard, all now national television favourites?

Out of chaos comes innovation, ideas and occasional stardom. Edinburgh is, perhaps uniquely in the arts, an instant test of market forces. Word of mouth spreads with astonishing rapidity, new talents are discovered and the lesser talents learn the consummate skills of entertaining an audience smaller than the cast.

To reduce the Edinburgh mix is to ignore the needs of the Edinburgh consumer. Visitors to the official festival are people who may never see stand-up comedy the rest of the year - never, indeed, see fringe theatre. The festival gives them their one chance to sample at random the underside of British culture, just as students up for the late-night comic turns might see their first opera and ballet in Edinburgh.

That science plays little or no part in this eclectic cultural mix does not really seem a contradiction, especially as the city hosts a science festival in March, and it is hard to see how science could be best appreciated in the context of theatrically based live shows.

Professor Steiner's urging that the festival should invite audiences into rehearsals to see how art is actually shaped has more appeal. Workshops are widely available at the television festival which starts next week, but are virtually non-existent at the main arts events.

Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, and his counterparts on the fringe, could take note of that suggestion at least. But that aside, the festival and its fringe should be allowed to mushroom as much as its market of tourists and arts junkies allows. The moment that visitors and performers stop having a good time is the moment that it will shrink of its own accord.