Edinburgh Festival: That was the Fest, that was: Clare Bayley and Mark Wareham look back on three weeks of excess, success and career-building on the Edinburgh Fringe - and three weeks of thoughtful innovation at Brian McMaster's International Festival

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The Independent Culture
When the Edinburgh Festival first began in 1947, the Fringe started alongside it. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the radical work was being done on the Fringe, and only your parents wanted to see anything at the International Festival. This is Brian McMaster's third year as director of the International Festival, and he has brought about an interesting shift.

While the Fringe continues to churn out amateurish revivals (Sartre's Huis Clos was a favourite this year) and lavatorial student revues (no less than five with scatalogical titles), it is the International Festival where the most ground-breaking, experimental work is now to be found. On the Fringe the richest pickings were excellent foreign-language productions of Shakespeare, and works drawn from contemporary literature: high-quality work, but hardly on the cutting edge of innovation. There was not a lot of new writing, with the honourable exception of the work presented by the Traverse Theatre, all of which has been of an exceptionally high standard - even when the productions have not matched the quality of the writing.

Critics didn't like Robert Lepage's new work-in-progress, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, but it was a considerable coup for McMaster to scoop its world premiere. Luc Bondy's production of Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other was controversial in just the right ways, provoking discussion about what art is. Of the classical avant-garde, Peter Stein's Russian Oresteia was a major cultural event.

On the Fringe, Richard Demarco hosted the Estonian National Youth Theatre's Romeo and Juliet, performed with such simple charm in the courtyard outside that grown men were seen to weep watching it. Another notable Eastern European version of Shakespeare was an eccentric Ukrainian version of Othello, called Iago, performed by Theatre-on-Podol in the Infirmary Street Baths, which saw Othello and Desdemona on their wedding-night cavorting in the water with the sensual grace of a pair of amorous dolphins.

The Polish company, Teatr Kana (also at Demarco's) delighted with their vodka-induced poetic ramblings, inspired by the Russian existentialist Venedikt Yerofeev ('Don't complicate the plot - let's drink]' was the cry), and with their version of Yerofeev's Moscow-Petushki. Down the road at the Traverse, Tom Courtenay was packing them in to his version of the same story, under the title Moscow Stations. The Cuban company, Teatro Buendia, dazzled with a version of the Marquez story, Innocent Erendira, and the Brazilian Denise Stoklos gave incandescent performances of her one-woman homage to Mary Stuart and political prisoners everywhere.

Comedy on the Fringe made a pronounced move away from stand-up to the 'new variety': on the one hand, traditional music- hall updated by the likes of the Right Size and the Perrier winners, Lano and Woodley; and on the other, a wave of loosely scripted sketch shows. Sean Hughes, who, with his Perrier- winning One Night Stand was the first stand-up to perform such a playlet, has a lot to answer for.

It was a relief to find the occasional comedian whose show is not awash with flip-charts, slide shows and home videos, and where the only prop is a microphone. Were it possible, traditional stand-up is turning ever more apolitical.

Only Will Durst, an American, produced anything approximating a politics-based routine, and about the most barbed piece of satire on the Fringe this year was Japan's Tokyo Shock Boys christening their pet scorpion Virginia Bottomley. The only other comedy acts to cause a stir were also foreign: Australia's Steady Eddy, for his taboo-breaking routine about life with cerebral palsy ('I do things a bit slower . . . but the women love me'), and Robert Schimmel for his shameless filthmongering (he actually notched up a few walk-outs).

An honorary mention, too, for a lone Brit, Harry Hill, whose show no one would ever leave. See his debut TV show later this month and catch a one-off original.

THE BEST AND WORST OF EDINBURGH 1994

Best merchandise: John Shuttleworth 'Hone Your Lyrics' biro.

Best use of the telephone: Eric 'I'm no son of Kirk' Douglas for his persistent self-publicising calls to newspaper offices.

Most overused comedian's line: 'It's good to talk.'

Best show title: Vampire Girlie Poofs of Sodom.

We-never-want-to-see-a-one-woman-show-about-her-again award: Virginia Woolf.

Most comfortable venue to fall asleep in: Bedlam.

Most desperate PR gambit: Mark Borkowski setting light to his chest hair.

Least popular event: a book- signing by the affable comedy critic, William Cook, before an audience of none.

Bravery award: To the Times's Dalya Alberge. For running away from the artist Damien Hirst when he shouted 'rat' and lobbed a rubber glove at her.

Most common themes for comedians: Mother interrupting masturbation; being gay; not making jokes about Islam.

(Photographs omitted)

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