THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE
In the wake of World War II, everyone was fairly depressed, which is understandable given they were rebuilding after the bloodiest war in the history of mankind. In 1947, the United Kingdom held a festival of performing arts to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and try to cheer everybody up. Meetings were held, venues booked, and invitations sent to the premiere performances around the world. This was the beginning of the new and exciting Edinburgh International Festival.
That same year, seeking to take advantage of the crowds, eight theatre companies also turned up completely uninvited. Like a bunch of scavengers really. These companies hired smaller venues, and performed during the same three weeks. The term ‘fringe’ was coined in the local newspaper in 1948 during a review of the official festival, and the name stuck. Unknowingly, this was the birth of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and, close to sixty years later, it is now considered the largest arts festival in the world.
I didn’t take any photos of the performances, so here is Edinburgh from Carlton Hill
As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe grew in size and popularity the organisation became more structured. In August 2016, there were over 3,500 acts performing over 50,000 shows. Tickets can be purchased to many shows from the Fringe ticketing office or online. They vary greatly in price. Many are free. Probably for good reason. Some ask only for a donation at the end depending on how much you think it was worth. Huge names have starred at the Fringe. Names like Rowan Atkinson, and Eddie Izzard.
Today, in keeping with the origins of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, there is a lack of official invitations to perform and acts generally use unconventional venues. The acts vary in content and include theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals and opera. Every small space that can host a crowd is hired. Tents, halls, lecture theatres, or the back room of a pub that smells like it was once the toilet. It is impossible to see them all, or to even learn enough about them to choose which you want to see.
The Royal Mile is closed to traffic and stages are set up. Every 20-30 minutes a new act starts on each which is the perfect amount of time to walk from one end to the other, turn around and walk back. Crowds gather around each performance, laughing and clapping along. A cacophony of noise fills the air; a rambling mess of guitars, violins, Japanese drums, magicians yelling to the crowd and, over it all, the legato wailing of the ever present bagpipes.
The stage for Shitfaced Shakespeare. If you want actual photos, then head to their website.
Of course as you wander the streets, you run a continuous gauntlet of flyer wielding marketers, pushing their shows, enticing you to come along. You take ones that interest you, avoiding the others. Your polite refusals last all of an hour as they flap invitations under your nose. By lunch you’re contemplating buying one of the t-shirts with “No, I don’t want a fucking flyer” emblazoned across the chest.
In the end, you have to just pick some and go along. Some are a shot in the dark, others you will hear reviews first. My suggestion is to do a bit of everything. Organise tickets to the larger shows, but definitely go to the smaller ones too. Some of them may be shit, but you should still support the artists; you never know who you might see, or what they may become.
My favourite was Thrones! The Musical Parody. It was riotously funny. I haven’t watched Game of Thrones as religiously as the vast majority of the people I know, however between the episodes I have seen and the internet memes, I got all the jokes. The cast were crass, profane and bloody hilarious. If they’re on again next year, go and see them. Be warned there are a lot of spoilers.
I also had a fun evening watching Shitfaced Shakespeare. Basically, this is a theatre performance of Shakespeare, in our case Measure for Measure, where one of the lead actors gets…well…shitfaced. They’re then let loose on the rest of the performance. As the other actors attempt to account for the behaviour of the drunk, the play evolves with predictable consequences. This show has been performing since 2010 across the UK and parts of the US with great success. It is definitely worth checking out.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo
While organised separately, and considered a different festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo is also held during the same few weeks in August. Performed on the Esplanade it has one of the most amazing backdrops, the Edinburgh Castle. The original version of the tattoo was a signal to bar owners in the 17th century to stop serving the soldiers. It comes from the Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe” which means “turn off the taps” apparently. The modern version brings together various military bands from around the world to put on a show that is as varied as it is entertaining.
If you want to visit Edinburgh, and I recommend you do, the festival season is a great time to do it, but be prepared for crowds. Edinburgh gets busy, at least bust for Edinburgh. With a regular population of around half a million people, it more than doubles during the festival season. You can tell. If you hate crowds, then be forewarned. I also recommend booking everything well in advance, especially accommodation. Get in early, or be disappointed. Hostels, hotels and AirBnB get quite full and you don’t want to miss out.