Arthur Frommer

Edinburgh Festival features 2,400 shows

Though half of my recent visit to Britain was spent in London, the main reason for it was to attend the Edinburgh Festival, which takes place throughout August. What an exhausting and exhilarating introduction to Scotland!

To call the Edinburgh Festival a "scene" is to be timid and inhibited. It is an upheaval in the life of Britain. It is as if Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio were combined into one event and then extended for 30 days.

From about Aug. 5 to Aug. 31 each year, the population of Edinburgh rises from its normal 500,000 people to nearly 1 million. A main street of the city, the so-called Royal Mile leading to the majestic Edinburgh Castle, is blocked off from traffic and jammed throughout the day with an audience of young Brits mainly in their early 20s (but with older onlookers like me) having the time of their lives as they surge up and down from one outdoor performer to another giving previews of some of the theater events happening in scores of auditoriums (some of them makeshift conversions from meeting rooms and pubs) and conventional theaters scattered throughout the city.

During the Festival, no fewer than 2,400 shows are performed, many for periods of two weeks apiece scheduled throughout the month, and most are "shows" like you'd never see anywhere else in the world: counterculture, provocative, explorations of far-out beliefs and issues, challenges to the status quo, experiments in outrageous new sexual, political and social practices. Nothing is banned or barred.

Of the three separate "festivals" that make up the overall Edinburgh Festival, by far the largest is the so-called Fringe Festival, which is named after the famous "fringe theaters" in London, which present avant-garde plays in smaller theaters located a fair distance from the mainstream West End. Hundreds of young or aspiring playwrights are encouraged to have their shows performed at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival, and while some of them are less than talented, none of them is uninteresting. Of the several different shows I saw, only one was on the dull side. Most of the others caused the hair to stand up on my head.

Alongside the Fringe Festival (accounting for perhaps 2,000 shows) is the more standard International Festival taking place at the same time, and accounting for perhaps 80 or so shows and performances. The International Festival during the August Edinburgh Festival presents major new plays, historical pageants, operas, concerts and recitals, and while these are all high-quality presentations in major Edinburgh theaters, some also are of a provocative and novel nature. Roberta and I saw "The Gospel at Colonus," the use of traditional American gospel music to re-create the classic ancient play by Sophocles about the arrival of an aged Oedipus at the Colonus suburb of Athens. A cast of more than 60 American singers and musicians (including the Blind Boys of Alabama) presented such a soul-stirring version of that theme that a staid British (I mean, Scottish) audience stood cheering at their seats and waving their arms ecstatically to the music.

We also saw, at Edinburgh's giant King's Theatre, a historical pageant called "Caledonia" about an 18th century get-rich scheme to colonize the Isthmus of Panama, eerily similar to the financial misdeeds of our own recent past. And finally, we saw famed British actor Simon Callow in a one-man presentation of the life of Shakespeare, "The Man From Stratford," reciting speeches from Shakespearean plays as only an accomplished British thespian is able to do.

But most of our afternoons and evenings in Edinburgh were at outrageous "fringe" plays like "Penelope," recounting the efforts of those opportunistic suitors in Homer to win the affections of the loyal wife of Ulysses.

With 2,400 plays and performances vying for your attention, how does the August visitor to Edinburgh make a choice of what to see? Somehow or other, it all works out. You rely on recommendations from people you meet. Everyone has advice to offer, including the desk clerks at your hotel. Each of the daily newspapers of Edinburgh runs lengthy daily supplements on the Festival, in which their critics award from one to five stars to outstanding productions; you choose to go only to the plays receiving four and five stars. With that assistance, and recommendations from people who had preceded us in Edinburgh, we made our choices following our arrival in Edinburgh — with so many shows, it usually isn't necessary to book long in advance — and enjoyed all but one of the shows we saw.

You can see from my excitement that an August visit to the Festival is one of the big travel events. If there is any chance that you might visit Scotland next August, you might start your preparations now.