THEATRE / The best of the Edinburgh Festival

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IMAGINE Eartha Kitt appearing in an old church hall in a one-woman show drawn from the Molly Bloom section of James Joyce's Ulysses. Imagine the daughter of Marsha Norman, whose Night Mother tells of a desperate mother-daughter relationship ending in the daughter's suicide, putting differences behind her to direct a stage adaptation of her mother's novel Joy. Imagine a seven-and-a-half-hour version of the Oresteia performed in Russian in an old swimming-pool. At the Edinburgh Festival, truth is often stranger than fiction.

It's the world's biggest arts festival, a mix of theatre, dance, music and comedy with a film festival, a jazz festival and an array of visual arts running alongside it. The Edinburgh International Festival, established in 1947, spawned a monster of a fledgling Fringe festival which is now bigger than its parent, so huge and unruly that the nest is at breaking-point.

Now in his third year as director of the International Festival, Brian McMaster has established impeccable connections with the great and the good of world theatre, music and dance. He allows events to happen on a scale that could not be possible except in a festival, and shows a partiality for the esoteric, the discreetly dangerous and the wunderkind of the classical avant-garde: Robert Lepage, Peter Stein, Mark Morris, the Berliner Ensemble, Stephane Braunschweig, Lucinda Childs and Luc Bondy all feature in this year's festival.

The Fringe festival, meanwhile, is jubilantly anarchic, embracing the best of independent theatre and the truly experimental, as well as the infantile, the inane and the plain unprofessional. It has no selection procedure and this, its supporters say, is its strength. But with around 1200 different productions taking place in 184 performance spaces, detractors say the whole thing has got out of hand.

In this ludicrously competitive atmosphere, in which companies deprived of the oxygen of publicity gasp for survival, they resort to ever bolder ways of attracting audiences. The comic Richard Herring adopts a cheerful pragmatism promising 'CASH PRIZES' at his 11.45am show, while Allin Kempthorne attacks on two fronts with promises of 'CASH PRIZES' as well as a provocatively entitled show, Sex, Handcuffs and Rubber Chickens. Offers of free food, however, should not be sniffed at.

With performances happening roughly every 20 minutes from 10am to well past midnight, every day of the week for three weeks, time for eating is scarce. A 'culinary murder mystery' last year caused scuffles among food-deprived audiences in the third week when the chocolate mousse prepared live on stage was offered around. This year a 'slap-up meal' is the incentive to turn up at Stagefright Theatre Company's devised show; more reliable is the free cup of tea at Universal Grinding Wheel's A Celebration of the World's Teas. And don't forget that 'two drams of the finest Scotch Malt Whisky' is guaranteed in the price of a ticket for Spirit of Scotland's storytelling sessions. You may well need it.

Below, Clare Bayley selects highlights of this year's festivals, while Martin Rowson offers his survival guide. The Independent will be carrying a page of comprehensive daily coverage, including our unique hour-by-hour day planner, from 15 August.


Opening Concert

A really major event, boasting two genuine rarities: a chance to catch a rising new conducting star in Donald Runnicles, and an equally rare chance to hear Mahler's massive Eighth Symphony, the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand'. Usher Hall, 14 Aug.


Beethoven is the big news on the musical menu this year. The celebration kicks off with his ever-revolutionary cry for freedom, Fidelio, in a new Scottish Opera staging by Tim Albery. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 15/17 Aug.

European Community Youth Orchestra

The great Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini returns to the festival after a 16-year absence to conduct Brahms's Symphonies Nos 2 & 4 with the brightest musical sparks of the EU. Usher Hall, 19 Aug.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Australian Opera makes its festival debut with a reportedly enchanting production of Benjamin Britten's Shakespearian comedy, staged by down under movie director, Baz (Strictly Ballroom) Luhrmann. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 25-27 Aug.

The London Philharmonic

Franz Welser-Most, the LPO's embattled (outgoing) music director, conducts Schumann's rarely performed Scenes from Goethe's Faust. Usher Hall, 30 Aug.

Roi Malgre Lui The highlight of the festival's mini-Chabrier season. A rare staging of the French composer's romantic Ruritanian / Polish fantasy - no less a judge than Ravel once said that he would rather have written Le Roi than the whole of Wagner's Ring. King's Theatre, 1/3 Sept.


Arthur Smith

The Publicity Stunt The doyen of festival comedy, a man not averse to publicity stunts himself, has penned this comedy performed by Phil Nice. Will it be the next Evening with Gary Lineker?. Pleasance, 21-25, 29 Aug

Donna McPhail

Wry, dry, exuberant observations from the uncrowned queen of comedy. Gilded Balloon, 12-27 Aug.

Ben Moor Electricity: The Caged Pony

The man with the extraordinary lanky frame, sticking-out ears and an untrammelled imagination. Pleasance, 10 Aug-3 Sept.

John Shuttleworth

He used to be Jilted John and he single-handedly made the electric organ an object of desire. Little more recommendation needed. Pleasance, 12-28 Aug.

Lee Evans

Last year's Perrier Award-winner, a fantastically physical performer with all the technique and skills of the old school comics but the mentality of the new. Assembly Rooms, 22 Aug-3 Sept.

Dominic Holland

In the vanguard of the new generation of caring comics, he never shouts, bares his soul and still manages to be funny. Pleasance, 11 Aug-3 Sept.

Rachel Berger

Australian comedian of the knock-'em-dead variety, rude and irreverent. Pleasance, 12-29 Aug.

Kevin Day

Chummy, audience-friendly Mr Nice Guy with a hard core. Gilded Balloon, 12-27 Aug.

Women in Comedy

The best female acts compered by Lynn Ferguson. Gilded Balloon, 16 Aug-3 Sept.


Miami City Ballet with a festival of George Balanchine under the eye of artistic director Edward Villella, former star of New York City Ballet. The visit's highlight must surely be the UK premiere of Jewels, the glorious trilogy: Diamonds (with music by Tchaikovsky), Emeralds (music by Faure) and Rubies (music by Stravinsky). Playhouse Theatre, 15-20 Aug.

Mark Morris Dance Group

Another feast of Morris's exuberant ensembles with the British premiere of his signature work, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato with music by Handel. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 20-22 August.

Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault

Potentially very interesting Canadian contemporary dance company making its British debut with Perreault's La Vita with moody lighting by Jean Gervais. King's Theatre, 20-22 August.

Lucinda Childs Dance Company celebrates its 20th year with a selection of its creator's famously austere minimalist work that typically uses a powerful mix of dance, live music and film. Playhouse Theatre, 23-25 August.

Merce Cunningham Dance Co

The influential master choreographer was 75 this year. Playhouse Theatre, 27-28 August.


William Wilson

Watercolours, etchings and stained glass by an important and underrated 20th-century Scottish watercolourist. Bourne Fine Art, 4 Dundas St, 031-557 4050.

Calton Gallery

Scottish pictures, mostly 19th-century. 10 Royal Terrace, 031-556 1010.

The Edinburgh Gallery

Modern art from Scotland. 18a Dundee St, 031-557 5227.

Flying Colours

Examples of innovative contemporary art. 35 William St, 031-225 6776.

Fruitmarket Gallery

The later part of the National Gallery exhibition of German Romantic Art 1790-1990 (see below). 29 Market St, 031-225 2383.

National Gallery of Scotland

Exhibition on 'The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990'. The Mound, 031-556 8921.

Out of the Blue

Very interesting, newly opened small gallery showing mainly abstract work by young contemporary artists from around the world. 25 Blackfriars St, 031-556 5204.

Portfolio Gallery

Somewhat avant-garde photography gallery. 43 Candlemaker Row, 031-220 1911.

The Scottish Gallery

Scottish Art, mostly 19th-century. 16 Dundas St, 031-558 1200.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

William Gillies. Seminally important 20th-century Scottish watercolourist. Belford Rd, 031-556 8921.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery. 1 Queen St, 031-556 8921.

Talbot Rice Gallery

John McLean. Recent paintings by an important contemporary Scottish artist. Old College, South Bridge, 031-650 2211.


The Seven Streams of the River Ota

The first part of Robert Lepage's eagerly awaited overview of civilisation from the middle ages to Hiroshima and beyond. Meadowbank Sports Centre 13-21 Aug.

Antony and Cleopatra

Peter Zadek directs the Berliner Ensemble in a German-speaking version of Shakespeare. King's Theatre, 16-18 Aug.

The Winter's Tale

The prodigiously talented director Stephane Braunschweig directs Shakespeare in French. Royal Lyceum, 23-25 Aug.


Peter Stein surpasses even the mammoth nature of last year's Julius Caesar with this epic production of Aeschylus. Murrayfield Ice Rink, 25, 27-28 Aug.

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Peter Handke's haunting play without words, directed by Luc Bondy. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 31 Aug-3 Sept.

The Playboy of the Western World

Communicado, Scotland's top touring company, take on Synge. Traverse, 16 Aug-3 Sept.


Plain Clothes, a company with an unfailing ability to spot new writing talent, present Michael Bosworth's experimental fairy-tale. Traverse, 23 Aug-3 Sept.

Henry VIII - Diary of a Serial Killer

The Natural Theatre Company come indoors with a wild historical comedy. Assembly Rooms, 13-28 Aug.


One of two new plays by Stephen (Anorak of Fire) Dinsdale, a Fringe success story. Gilded Balloon, 13 Aug-3 Sept.



Tourist Information Centre Waverley Market, Princes Street. They no longer take bookings but will do a computer search for available accommodation: 031- 557 1700.


The International Festival programme is available from the Festival Office, 21 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1BW (031-225 5756), now open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sats 12pm-3pm.

The Fringe Festival programme is available from the Fringe Office, 180 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1QS (031-226 5257/5259), open between 10am-7pm.


The Independent publishes a unique, daily hour-by-hour guide to the Edinburgh Festival from Monday 15 August, plus a page of reviews, news, features and ticket offers every day.


The Traverse Theatre and the Independent are presenting a series of free conferences and masterclasses with major figures visiting the Festival. These stimulating, often controversial debates are held at 11am in the Traverse Theatre (031-228 1404). Details will be listed in our daily Edinburgh pages.

(Photographs omitted)