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Neil Sowerby’s Edinburgh Festival Diary

With hot tips on what to see if you’re heading up there

Written by . Published on August 18th 2014.


Neil Sowerby’s Edinburgh Festival Diary

EDINBURGH has been good to us this summer. We were sorry to miss out on our favourite Film Festival in June (we were on location elsewhere) but when we finally made it up to the Festival in full spate it delighted more than ever before. And there’s still two weeks and more to go, if you fancy making it up there.

'It hadn’t crossed our minds before we might have fun watching spear-thrusting Zulu dancers or ranks of large ginger, freckled men busting their lungs on bagpipes… and yet we did'

Of course, the ‘Edinburgh Festival’ is made up of several festivals – ‘International, Fringe, Book, Art etcetera – so when you are trying to plan your trip it’s like grappling with a hydra-headed juggernaut of possibilities. It’s even more bewildering in situ when flyers are thrust at you en masse along the Royal Mile and the Edinburgh Fringe programme has the heft of a telephone directory.The Fringe alone is offering nearly 50,000 performances this year.

You Have To Start SomewhereWe all have to to start somewhere – Old Town streets are thronged with turns

So many different levels of talent blossom or wither in the Auld Reekie’s cultural hothouse. Weigh against the glassy-eyed enthusiasm of all those wannabes impaling themselves on the spikes of audience opprobium the sheer elation when an artist creates a real buzz out of the blue. Or an old stager comes sup with something fresh. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed!

I can’t believe there is anywhere in the world where you can step out of a sublime production of Britten’s War Requiem, as we did, and straight into a small, dark overheated (in every sense) performing space to be trapped by a hectoring egomaniac for an hour. One wrong artistic choice isn’t bad going, mind.

Britten’s harrowing masterpiece has rarely been interpreted better than in the Usher Hall performance by The Philharmonia under Sir Andrew Davies with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and soloists Albina Shagimuratova (soprano), Matthias Goerne (bass) and Toby Spence (an utterly outstanding tenor) – plus the National Youth Boys Choir of Scotland up in the gods – in this fusing of Wilfred Owen’s First World War poetry and the Latin Mass.

Floodllt Castle For The TattooEdinburgh Castle is floodlit in spectacular fashion for The Tattoo

All so pitch perfect in this Great War Centenary year with unexpected thought-provoking reverberations from our previous night’s entertainment – that old Edinburgh warhorse, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a celebration of the pomp, rather than the pity of war.

Our Festival SnackNo locals we met had ever attended the event up in the Castle grounds. It was the third question we asked in pubs after “Which way are you voting in the Referendum” and “Could we have two bags of haggis crisps please?” The more cynical punters saw it as the last tourist stop on the wee dram, shortbread and cashmere circuit. It hadn’t crossed our minds before we might have fun watching spear-thrusting Zulu dancers or ranks of large ginger, freckled men busting their lungs on bagpipes… and yet we did.

Enter The Pipers Over The DrawbridgeEnter the Pipers over the drawbridge to get the Tattoo underway

The only element I took agin was the showbizzy razzmatazz  of the Singapore section, but all was soon redeemed by the camp silliness of hornpiping sailors. And at the close the fireworks, with their echoes of long distant battles and men under fire, and the poignancy of the lone piper on the Castle ramparts shredded our cool. Requiescat in pace, the Fallen.

 Spectacular Fireworks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fringe is necessarily frantic, but obviously essential. Don’t neglect, though, the quieter pleasures of the Book Festival hub in Charlotte Square Gardens down in the New Town. It’s a large, uber-literate encampment.

Book Central In Charlotte Square Gardens

Book Festival Commisison Images Of The Visiting WritersThe Book Festival commission images of visiting writers

When it rains hard (as it did during a small tent reading by the remarkable new novelist Eimear McBride) it can almost drown out the words. The word is what is being celebrated here in this complex of pop-up bookshops, cafes, even play areas encouraging kids to read...while the roster of authors, over 900 this time, promoting their new work is remarkable. Even Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown are booked in for literary gigs. Not fortunately on the same platform – the independence wrangling is getting bloody.

Like the Book, the Art Festival similarly blew us away with its programme. It’s the latecomer among all these Festivals which date back to the 1940s, making its debut only in 2004. Central to it this year is Generation: 25 Years of Art In Scotland, spread across the major public galleries and celebrating what it says on the tin. Elsewhere the festival is anything but parochial and entry to exhibitions is generally free.

Unusual Art VenueUnusual art venue reaches out to passers-by

I liked the way it goes out to the people. Take Easter Road, busy workday street heading out to Hibs football ground. In a quarter of a mile we found three quirky shows. Yann Seznec’s Currents is in a blue police box and uses discarded computer fans to move air around the visitor, drawing on weather data from around the world (no, I still don’t get it).

World Map On A HoardingHand Made Map of the World Map sets the UK in the East Indies

Close Up On The Uk

Meanwhile, across the road a billboard hosts Tam Joseph’s Hand Made Map of The World, where he disorientingly reassigns country names to different parts of the globe (the UK inhabits Borneo).

We surveyed the third show over coffee and croissants at the Manna House Bakery and Patisserie. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place is a homage to French writer and filmmaker Georges Perec whose book of that name detailed all he saw and heard while spending three days in a Paris cafe. Alice Finbow occupied seven days doing the same, covering a wall with drawings, photographs and recorded texts of conversations she’s heard and had at the Manna.

An Attempt At Exhausting A PlaceAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place is digested by cafe regulars

A Festival-goer cannot live by croissants alone, so we repaired to Jeremiah’s Taproom on Leith Road, a former spit and sawdust relic turned craft beer bar. Pick of the beer bars at the other end of town is The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road and The Bow Bar in the Old Town. Edinburgh’s dining options are fantastic. Let me pick out one addition – The Aizle in Leonard Street, not far from the Fringe epicentre. It describes itself as a Scottish neo-bistro. There is no traditional menu, just a blackboard of ingredients for the day; both the impromptu dishes and cocktails are inspired.

Signet Library, Home To Pommery Champagne Pop-UpSignet Library, classical home foro Pommery's Champagne pop-up

Poshest Festival hang-out is the Pommery Champagne Bar, in the Signet Library just behind St Giles’ Cathedral off The Royal Mile. The rest of the year the space operates as The Gran Caffe, but Pommery's presence ups its game. Go for their champagne afternoon tea for two. Star attraction of the evening menu is whole lobster with home-made wedges, bubbly accompaniment obligatory. 

Here are the promised tips for the rest of The Festival:

Comedy
Adam Riches
‘Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Adam Riches returns with a brand new hour of phenomenal bullshit’. Recommend you don’t occupy the front rows – humiliation may await you. At The Pleasance until August 24.

 

Daniel KitsonDaniel Kitson, performing at the midnight hour

Daniel Kitson
Evergreen oddball Kitson announced his midnight shows at The Stand after the Fringe programme was printed. They immediately sold-out, but 40 are available each day. Worth the queue for this level of genius. Until August 24.

 

Laughing HorseIf you don’t fancy paying to see comedy your best option is Laughing Horse Free Pick of the Fringe, 6pm-7pm, until August 24, at Espionage, in Victoria Street. Each night Laughing Horse Comedy presents a ticketless stand-up show featuring the best comedians from across the Fringe, including top names, award winners and top up-and-coming talent. There's a different line-up at every show with four shows each day. Daily line-ups are available on www.freefestival.co.uk. Get there early.

‘Meeting their public’
Like Glastonbury accommodating Shirley Bassey or Neil Diamond, the Fringe can offer a welcome to the most unlikely of performers, This year these include Jim Davidson and Nancy Dell’Ollio. You’re on safer ground with a polished luvvie one-man, or in Diana Rigg’s case, one-woman show. Almost 50 years since she shed The Avengers catsuit, Dame Diana is presenting No Turn Unstoned, revisiting actors’ worst reviews, including one for her own nude appearance in Abelard and Heloise: “Miss Rigg is built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses”. Assembly Checkpoint until August 23. Tickets: 0131 623 3030; www.assemblyfestival.com.

Theatre
Hot ticket and offering historical insights into the Scots psyche – The James Plays at The Festival Theatre (www.eif.co.uk) until August 20. Ironically, when the Union may be teetering on  the edge of dissolution, this trilogy about three 17th century Stuart kings is a co-production by the National Theatres of Scotland and England.

 

The James PlaysThe James Plays are a hot ticket in contemporary Scotland

Art
New Delhi-based Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest is a lament for lost lives in the east Indian state of Orissa, based on a true story. This film, scored to the sound of wind and sea and shot on an epic scale, tells of a woman whose man has disappeared during industrial ravaging of the landscape. She sees him nowhere and yet everywhere – as the viewer gradually does too – in the body of a tree, in the waving grass, in the pattern of footprints in earth to be torn up for mines. It is mesmerising stuff about a divided land.

Aptly, with the independence referendum imminent, it is screened in the Old Royal High School. Originally built in 1826-29, the building was re-designed in the 1970s as New Parliament House – with the original school assembly hall forming the debating chamber for the proposed devolved Scottish Assembly. It never happened. But who knows what the future will hold.

Old Royal High School, EdinburghOld Royal High School hosts a challenging Indian artwork

Fact file

Royal Edinburgh Miitary Tattoo. Until August 23. Tickets £25-£62. 0131 225 1188. tickets@edintattoo.co.uk. www.edintattoo.co.uk.

For onformaton on the Edinburgh Festivals. Until August 31. www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk.

Visit Scotland offer their tips for Edinburgh Festival survival.

Useful general guide to Edinburgh http://thisisedinburgh.com.

Neil Sowerby stayed in the new Ibis Edinburgh Centre South Bridge. Hugely convenient for all events but as across the city, accommodation prices soar during The Festival.

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