Edinburgh 2011: Culture vs comedy

Michael Coveney
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As Edinburgh’s International Festival approaches, critic Michael Coveney laments its position in the festival pecking order when, he argues, it offers so much more innovation and variety than the fringe

The other day, I was chatting with a colleague about the forthcoming Edinburgh festivals. Many of us decamp to Auld Reekie for the start of the fringe this week, although the International Festival itself doesn’t launch until nine days later. “Nothing’s reviewable on the International,” she said. “Because it just comes and goes.”

This shuddering encounter, briefly engaged over an impromptu repast arranged at a fringe preview in Peckham – the show was a wacky, but unimportant site specific event performed by two Aussies with a suitcase of props and puppets – summed it all up, really. The fringe hates “high culture”.

In Edinburgh last year, after a blitzkrieg of fringe openings and the essential new play weekend bonanza at the Traverse, I told another colleague that I was off to the opening concert in the Usher Hall: “What opening concert?”

Oh dear, only the opening concert at the most important arts gathering in Europe, one of huge political and cultural significance, the envy of the world, in the most beautiful of all British cities – yet we media metropolitans in the Sassenach South treat it with an idle scorn. On top of which, the newly trendy biennial Manchester International Festival, which has just completed its third season, has laid down a marker in collaborations with Rufus Wainwright, Punchdrunk, Damon Albarn, Victoria Wood and even a show (although, apparently, it was terrible) involving such avant-garde theatrical gurus as Robert Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Marina Abramovich.

But, even on paper, this year’s EIF theatre programme deserves an equal respect. The theme is the Asian and Middle Eastern influence on our own Western art forms. It runs through a Schumann oratorio, a Rossini opera, re-readings of Shakespeare, a Japanese epic from New York and Tim Supple’s new Arabic production of One Thousand and One Nights – performed by actors directly involved in the Arab Spring uprising.

You may read about these events eventually. But in the meantime, four star reviews will be sprayed all over town for tin pot alternative comedians, so-so monologues and cabaret charlatans – four stars, or you die on the fringe. My radical proposal for next year is that we form a moratorium on debased star reviewing – let’s get back to a proper discussion on these comedians, and let’s ditch this tweet-based thumbs-up thesaurus of supine, critical platitudes.

The Edinburgh festival, dream child of the impresario Rudolf Bing in 1947, was defined as “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” after the devastations of war, along with the other great festivals in Salzburg, Munich and Bayreuth. In practical terms, it was based on Bing’s association with Glyndebourne.

So, music was at the root. But this impetus spread into the visual arts, the theatre, the cinema, the fringe. We forget too easily that this sense of European continuation and renewal is still endemic to the EIF. Sixty-seven per cent of the audience is Scottish, 50% from Edinburgh and Lothian. Even on the fringe, the children’s morning shows sell as heavily as anything in the Pleasance or Assembly.

I’m told that the mutterings about Manchester count for nothing in Edinburgh. Review coverage is still constant. There’s an increase of coverage abroad, with a huge surge of interest in Asia and the Middle East. And this year’s programme wasn’t spurred by sponsorship – the artistic connections are made first, and then the pursuit of funding follows.

I’ve never met Jonathan Mills, the Australian composer who is preparing his fifth EIF as artistic director. But he sounds to me like a chap intrigued by global issues, great artists, big projects, and highbrow culture. He’s obviously against dumbing down and cultural fragmentation, which is fine by me. Doing great shows on the fringe is easy. Making significant international art is a bit harder.

So I relish the challenge of the EIF more than I anticipate the glories of the fringe. Fringe apologists pooh-poohed the drama programmes of Mills’ predecessors, John Drummond and Brian McMaster, even as they commissioned leading Scottish companies, major foreign directors and great European opera companies.

The EIF, not the fringe, sets the pace in international collaborations, and boundary-breaking innovation, and always has done. Drummond got the Glasgow Citizens involved when it was the best repertory theatre in Britain. He also introduced us to the Rustaveli Theatre of Georgia. McMaster brought Mark Morris to Edinburgh for five successive years and, in his farewell season, put up Anthony Neilson’s surrealist Realism against the fringe’s top show, Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, and trumped both with the Opera National de Lyon’s Kurt Weill and Brecht double bill of The Lindbergh Flight and The Seven Deadly Sins.

At my Peckham preview I asked a comedy critic, for her top tip on the fringe. Totally Tom, she said, a pair of Old Etonian wags, one of them the son of BBC broadcaster Ed Stourton. I can already see the column inches.

The locals, meanwhile, will be queuing for Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, the National Ballet of China and The Qatsi Trilogy of films with live music from the Philip Glass Ensemble.

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