Essential Edinburgh

The world's biggest arts festival can be daunting - but fear not, expert help is at hand. First, Brian Logan argues that Edinburgh is the place to be in August. Next, our critics pick out the best of the fest. Finally, a bevy of veterans recall their greatest - and not so great - festival moments
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Most of us, on reaching 60, might expect life to get a little quieter. Pipe, potting shed, port wine on the patio... But the Edinburgh Festival, as so often in its preceding 59 years, is doing things differently. This is the 60th birthday knees-up to end them all - we're talking Hamlet in a bouncy castle, A Midsummer Night's Dream up a tree, the Goodies (two of them, at least) and a for-one-night-only gig by those other icons of Seventies comedy, the Krankies.

It hardly matters that this year's Fringe, featuring 28,000 performances of 1,800 shows, is the biggest ever. It always is. It may add spice that the 2006 International Festival is director Brian McMaster's last after 15 years in charge. And yes, those Oscars of the comedy world, the Perrier Awards, have now metamorphosed into the If.Com Eddies. But what's in a name? What matters is that the world's biggest arts jamboree will again be unmanageably huge, offering both veterans and virgins some of the best and worst experiences they'll have in this or any other year.

For the best, let's hope we unearth it somewhere unexpected. On the Royal Mile, where wannabe stars commit theatrical GBH on unsuspecting passers-by. In some hot dog kiosk in Corstorphine, hijacked by visiting Lithuanians to host their puppet version of a long-forgotten European drama classic. Among a cluster of short films screened at lunchtime, perhaps, or in a gallery converted from someone's cousin's upstairs bathroom.

Or should quality be sought in more illustrious places? This year at Edinburgh, you can see Harold Pinter and Seamus Heaney at the book festival, local hero Sean Connery in conversation at the film festival, new plays by top-drawer playwrights (Rona Munro, Anthony Neilson, Gregory Burke), and a version by one of the world's greatest conductors, Claudio Abbado, of Mozart's The Magic Flute, at the Festival Theatre.

There is a kind of "typically Edinburgh" event, meanwhile, whose quality is immaterial. This year, a succession of famous and not-so-famous names will be on stage at the Underbelly, reciting pages from the phone book in the name of entertainment. Across town, in Old St Paul's church, another public reading takes place: of The Bible, in 80 hours, over 10 days. Meanwhile, stand-up Mark Watson won't be reading, he'll be writing - an interactive novel, to be precise, composed one chapter per night in cahoots with the punters who attend his comedy show. It's gloriously pointless, and absolutely Edinburgh.

Of course, there are downsides. There's that moment when your itinerary implodes, and you realise that your first show on Sunday begins before your last show on Saturday ends. When your deep-fried Scotch pie is getting rained on and you can't find the street you're looking for (top tip: it's above your head!). When you have to head home after an exhilarating long weekend and leave behind, still barely explored, this great theatrical Babel of talent, self-promotion and the sublime.

But the sore head and the empty pockets are worth it. The Edinburgh Festival is the sassiest 60-year-old this side of Saga holidays, and you're invited to the party.

The critics' choice

Film

By Jonathan Romney

They Might Be Giants: Other Voices From the New American Cinema - Mouth-watering retrospective of the wilder side of American 1970s cinema, with work from names including George A Romero, Monte Hellman and Hal Ashby, plus blaxploitation legend Across 110th Street, and The Driver, Walter Hill's existential action movie par excellence. Filmhouse, 14 to 26 Aug

It's Winter - Iranian film with a serious difference: an existential parable about a bad-boy loner in a small town, from director Rafi Pitts. Tough, moody and probably the most atmospheric film in the festival. Cineworld, 16 & 17 Aug

Reel Life - Interviews this year include Sigourney Weaver, Charlize Theron and Steven Soderbergh. But pick of the bunch has to be a rare appearance by titan of 1960s-70s US cinema Arthur Penn, director of Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. Filmhouse, 24 Aug

The Host - A monster movie that's a scale or two above the rest, from South Korea's Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder). Cameo, 16 Aug; Cineworld, 18 Aug

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait - Artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno create a portrait - or perhaps a celluloid statue - of the football legend, in his pre- headbutt prime. Cineworld, 19 Aug, 22 Aug

Tickets for all films and talks available from Film Festival Central Box Office, 88 Lothian Road (0131 623 8030)

Comedy

By Nicholas Barber

Rusell Brand: Shame - Best known for his appearances on Big Brother's Big Mouth and in various tabloid gossip columns, comedy's dandy highwayman is actually one of the most original, charismatic and polysyllabic performers in the country. Assembly Rooms, 54 George St (0131 226 2428) 19 to 26 Aug

Harry Shearer & Judith Owen: This is So Not About the Simpsons - Who cares what it's about? An irresistible opportunity for UK audiences to see the satirical star of This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind - and, yes, The Simpsons. Assembly Rooms, to 28 Aug

Will Smith: How to be Cool - Jersey's blazer-clad uber-nerd presents a multi-media rant explaining why there's nothing uncool about being fixated on Bergerac and Dire Straits. Assembly Rooms, to 27 Aug

Reginald D Hunter: Pride and Prejudice and Niggas - America's Reginald D Hunter may make stand-up comedy seem like a walk in the park, but his mellow mood belies a fearless determination to expose other people's prejudices as well as his own. Nominated for two Perrier awards in a row. E4 Underbelly, Bristo Square (0870 745 3083) to 28 Aug

Rhod Gilbert: Knocking on Heaven's Door - Tall tales from the hilariously glum Welsh surrealist whose brother is a master of reverse origami: he can unfold a swan into a sheet of A2. Pleasance Courtyard (0131 556 6550) to 27 Aug

Theatre

By Kate Bassett

Troilus and Cressida - Peter Stein returns to the International Fest directing Shakespeare's bleakly jaded tragedy, in English. King's Theatre (0131 473 2000), 14 to 26 Aug

Long Life Virtuoso - Latvian vignettes, without words, about a community block of oldsters. The Hub (0131 473 2000), 23 Aug to 2 Sept

Black Watch - Physical and political theatre by Gregory Burke for the NT of Scotland, depicting the regiment in Iraq before their enforced amalgamation. University of Edinburgh Drill Hall (0131 228 1404) to 27 Aug

Metamorphoses - Ovid's tales of trans-formation in a candle-lit swimming pool. Sweet Grassmarket (0870 241 0136), to 27 Aug

Girl Blog From Iraq: Baghdad Burning - This blog-inspired docudrama is up-to-the-minute with comments on Israel vs Hizbollah. Pleasance Courtyard (0131 556 6550), to 28 Aug

Dance

By Clifford Bishop

Scottish Ballet - Resurgent national company performs a mixed bill designed to show off its new-found, neo-classical confidence. The Edinburgh Playhouse (0131 473 2000), 18 to 20 Aug

Telesquat - Grupo de Rua de Niterói shows off moves and attitude from the grittier, less glamorous streets of Brazil. The Hub (0131 473 2000) 14 to 19 Aug

Into the Hoods - London-based ZooNation's witty hip-hop take on Into the Woods, Sondheim's multi-fairy tale musical. E4 Udderbelly, The Pasture (0870 745 3083), to 28 Aug

Don Quixote - Balanchine's vision of the doting knight, mounted by one of the choreographer's greatest muses, Suzanne Farrell. The Edinburgh Playhouse, (0131 473 2000) 26 to 29 Aug

Nederlands Dans Theater - A triple bill by the choreographic partnership of Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. The Edinburgh Playhouse (0131 473 2000) 31 Aug to 2 Sept

Classical

By Anna Picard

The Lindbergh Flight/The Seven Deadly Sins - François Girard's stunning Opéra National de Lyon production of the Kurt Weill double-bill. Lindbergh crosses the Atlantic, while Anna I and Anna II cross America. Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 473 2000), 14 to 16 Aug

Lloyds TSB Scotland Concerts - Three concerts, three nights a week, for two weeks. Mackerras, Runnicles, Zehetmair, Fischer and Oramo conduct Beethoven, Bruckner, Bach, Mahler, Schubert, Messiaen and more. Usher Hall (0131 473 2000), 15 Aug to 1 Sept

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester - Just ahead of their Prom, the brilliant youth orchestra play Webern's 6 Orchestral Pieces, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and Berg's Sieben Frühe Lieder with French conductor Philippe Jordan and American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Usher Hall (0131 473 2000), 20 Aug

The Assassin Tree - Co-commissioned by the festival and the Royal Opera House, Scottish composer Stuart MacRae's first opera is inspired by the myth of Diana. Dance mavens Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten direct. Royal Lyceum Theatre (0131 248 4848) 25 to 27 Aug

Die Zauberflöte - Claudio Abbado conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Eric Cutler (Tamino), Georg Zeppenfeld (Sarastro), Erika Miklósa (Queen of the Night), and Julia Kleiter (Pamina), in Daniele Abbado's celebrated production. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, (0131 473 2000), 31 August and 2 Sept

Rock and pop

By Simon Price

The Dresden Dolls - Almost a fringe festival in themselves, Boston's multi-talented "Brechtian punk cabaret" duo of Amanda Palmer (piano, vocals, stripey tights) and Brian Viglione (drums, vocals, bowler hat) are perfectly suited to Edinburgh. Spiegel Garden (0131 667 8940), 21 to 24 Aug

Richard Hawley - With Coles Corner, his latest set of heartstring-tugging symphonic pop, former Pulp collaborator Hawley has been deservedly nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize. Liquid Room (0870 169 0100), 13 Aug

Plan B - Plan B, aka 23 year old East Londoner Ben Drew, combines gritty, jawdroppingly agile grime rapping with acoustic folk strumming. Liquid Room (0870 169 0100), 28 Aug

Dandy Warhols - The last album may have been a bit of a shambles, but Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Zia McCabe can still turn it on when the mood grabs them. Liquid Room (0870 169 0100), 18 Aug

Maxïmo Park - High foreheads and even higher star jumps from Paul Smith and his fellow Geordies, who will surely have some new material to try out. Corn Exchange (0870 169 0100), 24 Aug

Art

By Charles Darwent

Marijke van Warmerdam: First Drop - Customarily elegant film work from this Dutch master, here cut with witty sculptures to prove van Warmerdam can do anything she sets her mind to. The Fruitmarket Gallery (0131 225 2383), to 17 Sept

David Batchelor: Candela V + VI - Shown at the deserted Old Royal High School, Batchelor's chandeliers are made out of bleach bottles. Like their setting, they speak of a throwaway society. Think beauty in dereliction, light in dark places. Ingleby Gallery (0131 556 4441), to 9 Sept.

Robert Ryman - So very light-fingered they are hardly there at all, the dozen or so paintings by this grand old man of minimalism have an inexplicable power to haunt. Inverleith House (0131 248 2983), to 1 Oct

Tracey Moffatt: Adventures - Part film poster, part photo-roman, Moffat's dislikeable images are a soap opera of male abuse and female power. Stills (0131 622 6200) to 29 Oct

Adam Elsheimer: Devil in the Detail - Huge stories told minutely: a heart-stopping combo. This is a rare chance to see all but three of the works of the 17th century master who influenced Rembrandt and Rubens. National Gallery of Scotland (0131 247 4422), to 7 Jan 2007 m

Festival moments

Ian Rankin, author

My best-ever moment at the Edinburgh Festival: I remember my first full house. I was the third-string author on a panel including Michael Dibdin and Colin Dexter. An audience of 600: you never forget your first time... Muriel Spark was pretty special, too. I'd done my PhD on her books, but never met her face to face until the festival. We spoke for a few minutes and she signed my first edition of Miss Jean Brodie.

My worst-ever moment: My worst Book Festival memories are pretty much to do with the weather. One year, the softly-spoken Doris Lessing was drowned out by rain thudding against the roof of the tent, despite the close attendance of a microphone. Other worst memory? I chaired a session with Michael Dibdin (again), and had to leave halfway through because I was bursting for a pee - terribly unprofessional!

Ian Rankin will be at talking at The Edinburgh International Book Festival with Denise Mina on 17 Aug and Raj Persaud on 25 Aug (edbookfest.co.uk)

Jason Byrne, comedian

My best-ever moment at the Edinburgh Festival: Sometimes during my show I ask couples, "How long have you been going out?" They tell me and then I go, "Jeez, are you gonna marry her?" This one night I'm telling the guy, "Go on man, you should ask her." And then he stands up and was like, "I was gonna ask her tonight, but now you've now ruined it, you prick". I'm like, "Oh my God, have you got the ring?" I got one of the ushers to get him a taxi home, he came back with the ring, him and his girlfriend came up on stage, and he asked her right there.

My worst-ever moment: The first time I was there in 1997, the only thing I ended up eating was hot water with lemon. By the end of the festival I'd lost a stone in weight. I had to come home straight away and do a movie, The General. They had to put a pillow up me jumper and jelly on my face. It was a nightmare. In that sense Edinburgh kind of ruined my movie career!

Jason Byrne is performing 'Sheep for feet and Rams for Hands' at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh (0131 226 2428) to 28 Aug

Arthur Smith, comedian and playwright

My best-ever moment at the Edinburgh Festival: In 1989, me and Caroline Quentin took my first play Live Bedshow up to Edinburgh. Before that, we tried it out in Sudbury. I had given Caroline a monologue about masturbation and they'd never heard such stuff. On stage all we could hear was the sound tutting and seats going up. Also, I forgot my lines even though I'd written them. As I went up on stage in Edinburgh, I thought my first play is very likely going to be my last. And then I got my first laugh, a big one. Then it just flowed and I was the greatest man who ever lived!

My worst-ever moment: I was doing my alternative tour of Edinburgh with Simon Munnery in 2000 when things out of hand. There was some general shouting and nudity outside Starbucks, but then the police arrested Simon for breach of the peace. A few of us went down to the station to try to get him out and after an hour of being obnoxious, I was arrested.I was fined £100 - which I've never paid.

Arthur Smith hosts 'That Which is Not Said', the launch for a collection of comedians' poetry at Pleasance (0131 5566550) on 13 Aug

Guy Masterson, theatre director

My best-ever moment at the Edinburgh Festival: In 2002 I was due to produce Nancy Walsh's one-woman show, Cincinnati. But 20 days before the festival she collapsed - they had to do a brain operation to remove a tumour the size of a tennis ball. She was bald and could hardly talk, so the show was off. But 10 days into the festival, Nancy said she wanted to do her show - her husband John Clancy and I said that's insane. But on 17 August she gave her performance to a packed house. It was an incredibly joyful experience.

My worst-ever moment: In 1998 I put on A Soldier's Song, written by an ex-paratrooper. We were doing well at the box office, were selling out and getting standing ovations. Then The Scotsman review of the show came out, and I got this appalling review. My audience plummeted, from selling out, to half-houses, then eight people a day. I learned a big lesson, that the audience do pay attention to the reviews, and particularly The Scotsman.

'Levelland', directed by Guy Masterson and starring Rich Hall, is at Assembly @ George Street, Edinburgh (0131 226 2428), to 28 Aug

Lucy Porter, comedian

My best-ever moment at the Edinburgh Festival: When I was a 18 when I won a competition to sit on the Perrier Awards judging panel. I'd always been a good Catholic girl, and that festival opened my eyes to this hedonistic world of comedy. The panel were put up in this amazing house in New Town, with its own lift and jacuzzi. Surprise surprise, I got drunk on Guinness and threw up for the first time. Harry Hill was the best newcomer that year, and I remember seeing his gig in a tiny venue and thinking, I want to be part of this...

My worst-ever moment: In one of my first years performing, I was booked into a flat with two other male comics. But there weren't enough rooms and because they were big lads, I ended up sleeping in the pantry: single mattress, no light, sleeping with mice and tinned food. The only ventilation was into the living room, where one of my flatmates liked to have sex. I had to listen, and I was too shy to say anything. It was awful. Now, I'd demand another flat, but then, they just got me drunk and threw me in the pantry every night.

Lucy Porter is performing 'The Good Life' at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh (0131 556 6550), to 28 Aug

Comments