Andrzej Lukowski: Six years after its launch Summerhall is my pick for venue of the fringe
What has happened at Summerhall? During my nine-day stint at Edinburgh this year more than half the shows I saw were somewhere in the venue (if you strip out the Edinburgh International Festival and the still mostly mandatory Traverse Theatre), and had I more time I would have seen many more productions there.
This may come as a shock but my two favourite shows of the Edinburgh Fringe were at Summerhall: Selina Thompson’s Salt and Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould. To add insult to all the other venues’ injury, Summerhall probably has the best food and the most reliable Wi-Fi at the fringe. On the downside it suffers from a chronic shortage of toilets.
A mere six years after it launched, it sometimes feels like the former Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies now is the fringe, or at least it is for serious theatre lovers. Summerhall hosts a gargantuan 200-plus shows per festival, with several sub-programmes, including Northern Stage, Paines Plough, Big in Belgium, Start to Finnish and CanadaHub. It’s curated enough that you feel taking a punt on an unknown performer is unlikely to waste your time, and increasingly it draws the bigger names.
But is this okay? Or is it a bit alarming to see a single entity suck up so many acts and so much critical attention?
It means I charge sweatily across Edinburgh much less than I used to, and actually I’m not convinced that means I’m overlooking heaps of great work happening elsewhere, or that Summerhall has been responsible for the closure of any other venues.
The old St Stephen’s Church is probably the most of out-of-the way destination which I never visit anymore, but that’s because it was sold to developers and its programme (notably Northern Stage) moved to Summerhall.
Summerhall is simply bigger and more stable than many interesting venues that haven’t gone the distance (anybody remember St George’s West?). Preposterously huge, it’s formed an ark for artists who may have languished in obscurity elsewhere or indeed decided that there was no home for their sort of work at the fringe.
It is noticeable that a lot of the bigger names who used to be synonymous with the Traverse now play there – Ontroerend Goed, Mark Thomas, Daniel Kitson – but it’s not my understanding that any of them were actively lured away, and it’s the Traverse’s business not to programme them.
I believe left-field artists who might once have played at the Pleasance Courtyard have now defected to Summerhall en masse, but it strikes me that Pleasance will probably survive.
It is probably the case that critics now take a little longer heading out to see comparable work at the likes of Zoo Venues than in times past.
There is also a danger Summerhall could become its own bubble that makes few overtures to the casual fringe punter – no stand-up, no overtly commercial shows and tucked slightly out of the way.
It’s definitely the case that it constitutes a lot of fringe eggs in one basket and more each passing year: it would wreak havoc if there should be any complications at the venue (not that I’m suggesting there are any).
But if Summerhall feels like a theatre hipster ghetto at times then… that’s okay, right? One thing that really struck me this year was that two of the best shows I saw there – Antler Theatre’s Lands and Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas’ Palmyra – weren’t actually in the programme, having been added too late.
This would be a death sentence pretty much anywhere else: at Summerhall word-of-mouth is such a potent force that Palmyra ended up booking in extra shows and Lands seemed to be well on its way to drawing decent crowds when I called in on it.
I think there’s a danger of getting too utopian about any venue, especially one that I have literally never visited outside of festival time. But I am pretty sure I know what it is for three weeks of the year.
Summerhall isn't just an extraordinary place to see theatre with a programme of unequalled dimension, but a village, a community, a place to feel – however fancifully – that you belong, among all the madness.