Last act in Edinburgh?

Even if theatre is cut from the main festival programme by a new director next year, there will still be drama in the city, says Lynne Walker
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The Independent Culture

But this year, McMaster's penultimate festival as director, work on offer has so far proved engrossing. Attracting the revered German director Peter Stein to direct a festival commission by the Scottish playwright David Harrower resulted in a memorable first airing of Blackbird. If the other festival-nurtured work, the expletive-strewn Prayer Room by Scottish-born Shan Khan didn't make quite the same impact on its premiere, it brims with original and contemporary ideas.

A mere three nights of Noh drama in Japanese and a fascinating Hungarian Seagull pointed up the official international element. However, siphoning both productions off in the festival's administrative HQ, the Hub, highlighted the venue's inaccessibility and inadequacies.

I'll shy away from lobbing more balls at Jordi Milan's Aunt Sally of a show, Nuts CocoNuts, which should have been on the Fringe, where at a ticket price of a tenner it might have won more prizes. But with the final week of the festival comes the realisation that next year's festival may well be the last in the form many of us know and love it.

After his 15th festival in 2006, McMaster, the longest-serving director, will hand over the reins. Many names of possible successors have been being bandied about during the past month but the hunt for a new boss has started a bit late. The Festival Council's search party - chaired by Edinburgh's Lord Provost and made up of eight people whose experience and credentials on the international cutting edge of artistic trends seems worryingly minimal - must be losing sleep over the timetable. An appointment made next May with the successful candidate taking up the post less than a year ahead of his or her first festival isn't going to secure those prize artists with diaries filled five years ahead. And the unthinking choice of an internal appointment or of any inadequately experienced local hopefuls isn't the solution.

Besides, there's the question of the direction in which the official festival should be going. Bill Burdett-Coutts, doing little more than trying to raise his profile as a possible director, burst into print a few weeks ago with the claim that the only way forward was for Edinburgh's festivals to turn into one organisation.

Bad idea. With the Fringe fractured into competing organisations - Burdett Coutts's Assembly empire gobbling up more and more spaces - and with a hugely successful book festival as well as politics, visual arts, film, television and jazz festivals, the official festival needs more than ever to retain its identity. But whether it should continue to present opera, ballet, classical concerts and drama under its cash-strapped umbrella, is questionable.

Setting the festival free of drama - even at the risk of leaving the city's fine, traditional theatres dark --would ease its tight financial situation and relieve the director from trawling for work that is different from and, crucially, better than anything on the Fringe. Might the Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, be persuaded to replace its Barbican home with an Edinburgh residency?

That would free up the official festival to concentrate on what it does best - morning recitals, sponsored by an enlightened Bank of Scotland in the elegant surroundings of the Queen's Hall, evening concerts in the Usher Hall, opera - in either the King's Theatre or the Festival Theatre, and dance presented anywhere except, hopefully, the dull and dingy Playhouse.

Contenders for this newly defined role could include Nicholas Kenyon, currently director of the Proms, who despite his noticeable avoidance of Edinburgh in his galley years as a critic, has all the right contacts and vision to retain the Edinburgh Festival's distinction as a provider of great concerts on a par with Salzburg. Nicholas Snowman, formerly of the South Bank Centre, briefly, at Glyndebourne, and now managing director of Strasbourg's Opéra National du Rhin, would also be an interesting choice. And unless he's sweating it out to replace Kenyon as director of the Proms, Radio 3's controller, Roger Wright, would probably jump at the chance to programme music in Edinburgh.

But if theatre is to remain an essential part of the official festival, it needs someone with enormous vision and powers of persuasion. Has the former Almeida Theatre founder, the French-Lebanese director, Pierre Audi, developed these skills since taking over the Holland Festival? He's committed to commissioning and supporting living composers, a dimension of McMaster's festivals which has always seemed weak.

In fairness, McMaster's close relationships with a handful of artists over the years have reaped artistic and budgetary benefits. Other of his associations - such as that with Calixto Bieito - have been less productive, and tedious rather than inspiring.

Neil Wallace, director of Haarlem City Theatre and Concerthall and a vital force in the success of Glasgow in its year as European City of Culture, understands more than most how to work the political system to the benefit of the cultural scene. Graham Sheffield, director of the Barbican Centre, may have ruled himself out as McMaster's successor by his blatant interest in moving back to the city in which he was a student. Former Scottish Opera chief Christopher Barron is taking his experience as an arts manager to Birmingham Royal Ballet. Another former Scottish Opera boss, Ruth Mackenzie, has probably ruled herself out by a second resignation, this time from Chichester Festival Theatre. Might Jude Kelly, with her brilliant theatre background, have just the tiniest regret at becoming the first artistic director of the South Bank Centre?

Theatre could look after itself very well during the festival, just as the visual arts have done successfully, if grumpily, for years. Burdett-Coutts, who directed Glasgow's Mayfest in the late 1980s, could spread his influence further. Or perhaps the new National Theatre of Scotland's Vicky Featherstone would like to have a go at programming a season of theatre. That, however, seems a less likely scenario, given the East-West divide across Scotland and the organisation's new premises in a cramped corner of Glasgow's Easterhouse district.

Ian McDiarmid, who along with Jonathan Kent, proved so successful at the Almeida Theatre, is probably just a little old to rise to the challenge and John Stalker, chief executive of Edinburgh's Festival City Theatres Trust, hasn't proved he has sufficient vision.

As someone whose cultural tastes were developed by exposure to the festival as well as to the Fringe, can I plead that bringing the Fringe and official festival into line again in terms of dates must top the incoming director's agenda? It's crazy that the official programme begins a week after the Fringe, just as local children go back to school.

And if it weren't eccentric enough to programme the highly popular Fireworks concert for this Sunday, the day after the official Festival has tailed off, it's even more bizarre to accompany the pyrotechnics on the Castle ramparts with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.