Edinburgh Festival: The story so far ..: It was the wrong place, at the wrong time, and the idea was nothing exceptional. So why did Edinburgh work?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some will say it's not as good as it used to be. Some will say it was never that great in the first place. Some will say it's been taken over by television. And about 100,000 people will have a very good time. Controversies come and controversies go, but the Edinburgh Festival keeps rolling along. Much of it is predictable. There is always a crush on the Royal Mile. There is always someone putting up a poster over someone else's poster. There is always a scrum round the Sold Out board - you've got to see what you can't get in to. There is always someone somewhere playing to an audience of one. There is always someone somewhere playing to an audience of none. There are always people playing Hunt the Show. It's in a disco] No - it's in a brass-rubbing centre. There is always someone saying that this year they won't try to see too much, and then they do. Edinburgh is like drink: hard to do in moderation ('I'll just have a Perrier Award winner'). It's the same every year, and yet you never know quite what you'll find. A definitive guide to Edinburgh is a contradiction in terms. But the next seven pages should be of some use

BY RIGHTS, the Edinburgh Festival ought to have vanished years ago, a bloated dinosaur overtaken by trim young rivals. With an epidemic of festivals sweeping the land, why struggle to find a bedsit on the wrong side of Ferry Road for an underfunded, overpriced event, to spend most of your time elbowing through aimless crowds on Princes Street?

Equally, back in 1947, you could have asked what chance anyone stood of launching an international arts festival at a time of postwar exhaustion and rationing, and in Scotland of all far-flung, tight-fisted places. The man who sold this idea to the City Council, demonstrating the power of Viennese charm, was impresario Rudolf Bing; and even he came close to scuppering the enterprise with a proposal to his Presbyterian hosts to launch the festival with a High Mass in St Giles's Cathedral. Bing's associates came to his rescue by substituting a non-denominational Service of Dedication, and the band-wagon began to roll.

No one can say why some events have staying power and others have not. But they stand a better chance of surviving if they are propelled into life by an idea. Bing's idea of an Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Art was to demonstrate, in the aftermath of the war, that art has no frontiers. Drama got in on the act thanks largely to the enthusiasm of the director Tyrone Guthrie, a crusading internationalist with Scottish connections. But, once theatre arrived, nothing did more to assert the idea of artistic free exchange. The first years saw visits not only from Strehler's Piccolo Theatre from Milan, Jean Vilar from Paris, but also the Dusseldorf troupe of Gustav Grundgens, Goering's favourite actor and head of German theatre under the Nazis. From that time, to the subsequent British debuts of Tadeusz Kantor from Poland, and Ninagawa's Japanese Greek and Shakespearean productions, through to last year's appearance by the Romanian National Theatre of Craiova - whose version of Jarry's Ubu chillingly coincided with the anti-Gorbachev coup - Edinburgh has been an open door to some of the best theatre in the world.

Not all these events were on the official programme; and the fact is Edinburgh's theatre would take second place to music were it not for the Fringe - which has introduced innumerable new and foreign talents, besides being the model for London's pub stages.

As the Fringe has now become a vexed issue (last year the festival director Frank Dunlop dismissed it as a 'Tower of Babel'), it is worth recalling how it started. Alongside the official father-figures are two unofficial progenitors - the gallery-owner and avant-garde entrepreneur Richard Demarco (still going strong), and the now departed figure of Jim Haynes who settled in Edinburgh at the turn of the 1960s on demob from the American Air Force. Haynes had no interest in the elegant clientele of the Caledonian Hotel or the offerings of the King's Theatre. What did interest him was that - unnoticed by the festival authorities - Edinburgh had become the folk- song capital of Europe. A nomadic throng of guitars and bedrolls was pouring into the city. For this public Haynes opened the Paperback Bookshop (the first in Britain) where he held readings and performances which really took off when he acquired a derelict hovel in the Lawnmarket and set up the Traverse Theatre: a combined crashpad, meeting place and theatre wholly devoted to unknown work - which, in its way, had as great an impact on British theatre as the Royal Court.

Since then the creature Bing hatched has repeatedly shed its skin, growing bigger every time. What remains constant is the experience Edinburgh gives you of being simultaneously in two worlds. This is inscribed in the city's architecture, in the contrast between the rational lines of the eighteenth-century new town and the unplanned labyrinth of the old; the festival developed its own faces to match them. The two sides have become inseparable; and Beyond the Fringe, still the most successful show ever created for the official programme, would never have come into existence but for Haynes's round-the-clock operation at the Traverse. That the Fringe keeps on spreading is proof of its vitality: as former experimental venues become semi-official, and approved performance groups are taken into the protection of the Assembly Rooms or the Wildcat Studios, there will always be the chance for some unscheduled event to repeat the overnight triumph of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1966.

The latest examples are Jeremy Weller's productions for the Grassmarket Project, which began two years ago with Glad, a piece by and about down-and-outs which subsequently toured Europe; and continued last year with a similarly structured piece about young offenders. The funding fell through for the third part of the trilogy - Mad, about the experience of women in mental hospitals - and I am relieved to see that the show has been rescued for this year's festival.

To those who have emerged from Waverley Street Station to shuffle past the piper on the street corner and see the Scott Memorial still encaged in scaffolding, it may sound risible to claim Edinburgh's Scottishness as an aesthetic stronghold. But from the start, the festival has pulled into the theatre the often laceratingly self-critical Scottish intellect, from Guthrie's opening production of The Three Estates (The Thrie Estaitis) to shows like Fiona McCulloch's Trial of Heretics and James Hogg's anti- Calvinistic masterpiece, Memoirs of a Justified Sinner. And whenever Edinburgh looks like a swollen monster choking on its own output, consider the words of Hugh MacDiarmid who said that, as a genius, it was his business to produce large quantities of rubbish; only thus could a volcano be recognised. -

(Photograph omitted)