David Lister: The Week in Arts

Cutting-edge criticism - or just a job application?
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The Independent Online

In recent years, it's all got rather confusing. The Fringe was once a counterpoint and reaction to the official Festival, a genuine fringe. Now the tail seems to wag the dog. The Fringe kicks off the Festival, gets most of the headlines and probably attracts the majority of visitors.

A few years ago, the director of the Festival proper, then Frank Dunlop, could accuse the Fringe of being a "three-ring circus", anarchic, unregulated and unfocused. Now it's the Fringe that lobs accusations at the main Festival.

This week, it was William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of the Assembly Rooms, the main fringe venue, and the de facto voice of the Fringe, who launched an attack on the official Festival.

He said: "I think the Edinburgh Festival is the greatest live event in the world, but I question whether it has any direction. While the Fringe keeps growing and goes from strength to strength, the International Festival seems stuck on a backward-looking formula, which doesn't embrace the entirety of what Edinburgh is about.

"It's time the two organisations started working together; not the least to bring the dates of the festival back into conjunction, but as importantly to more effectively market the event to the world."

Now that really is breathtaking. The Fringe unilaterally changes the dates of the festival and starts a week earlier than the official Festival (with some fringe venues now trying to steal a march on others and start even earlier) and then takes the official Festival to task for the dates not being "in conjunction". And what is this "backward-looking formula"? Staging classics? Putting on symphony orchestra concerts? Bringing classical dance companies to Scotland?

The usually estimable Mr Burdett-Coutts has got it plum wrong. The one thing the two organisations should not do is work together. If the Edinburgh Fringe is to mean anything, then it must be the antithesis of the official Festival. It must be anarchic, irreverent, cutting edge and cheap - and Mr Burdett-Coutts's venue along with many other Fringe venues is in danger of forgetting that last, crucial qualification. One can happily see four Fringe shows a day at a fiver a time, less happily at £12 a time.

There is some scope for joint marketing and joint ticket sales; but it is essential that Festival and Fringe have different people running the show. A different mindset and a different age group is needed for the two very different jamborees.

I can't think why, after many years on the Fringe, Mr Burdett- Coutts should suddenly call for one person to run both Fringe and Festival. Could it be connected to the fact that the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Brian McMaster, retires this year? Could it be that Mr Burdett-Coutts's outburst is less a statement of cultural philosophy and more a job application?

A cast-iron stinker to relish

The producers of Behind The Iron Mask should not have decided after just two performances to close the show. I've always thought that when a show gets really lousy reviews the producers should see it as a marketing tool. Plaster the country with posters: "The Worst Musical Ever". Who could resist?

This is a show with lyrics such as "Why do you wear the iron mask?" "Don't ask!" You have to flaunt such moments of musical innovation. Could Cole Porter or Oscar Hammerstein have come up with that exchange, so concise, so heart-rending?

Sheila Ferguson might today be bewailing the fact that after a stellar pop career with The Three Degrees, she has failed on the West End stage. My message to her is not to worry. Most musicals come and go, attract warm reviews, but are then forgotten. This one, along with her performance, will be mentioned in newspaper articles every time a show closes early. It is in the cuttings for posterity.

Nothing guarantees lasting theatrical fame as much as a real, cast-iron stinker.

* The Stage is a journal that can usually be relied upon for theatricals to shower one another with praise. But just occasionally, they turn on one another with a delightful barb.

In this week's issue, there is a short, sharp letter from Carola Stewart, a stage actress, about her less experienced but better known fellow actress, Sienna Miller. Referring to Miss Miller missing a performance of As You Like It, following her fiancé Jude Law's infidelity, Ms Stewart writes: "If we all refused to go to work just because our boyfriends had been unfaithful, there would on occasion be very few people on stage."

Poor Sienna Miller. She probably has a low opinion of the press in general, but must have hoped that appearing in Shakespeare in the West End would guarantee her support from The Stage at least. Still, if she was not amused by the letter, she must have given a curt nod of approval to the sub editor who dreamed up the headline above the letter: "If you can't stand the cheat..."