I was at Murrayfield last Friday. The opening event of the Edinburgh International Festival was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen on stage.
A collaboration with Adelaide saw dozens of Australian circus athletes and dancers present a stunning physical display: elaborate choreography with jaw-dropping strength and skill. Bodies climbed over each other, sometimes stacked four up, to make living sculptures, amplified by precision lighting and video projection.
All throughout the National Youth Choir of Scotland vocalised a dramatic soundscape, sounding sometimes Gaelic, sometimes Arabic, always intensely human.
It was brilliant in concept and execution. But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all was that, despite what must have been a massive budget, it was free to go.
And thousands of local people went. This is the sort of thing that only happens when artistic ambition combines with public funding. We should be proud it happens here.
The international festival delivers the prestige stuff, but it’s the Fringe that fills the city. More than 3000 shows, tens of thousands of performers and crew, and hundreds of thousands of punters combine to bring Edinburgh alive. The world’s largest festival of the arts is back for its 75th year.
As ever, what makes it aren’t the names you have heard of, it’s the ones you haven’t. The city is host to a massive cultural experiment, a cauldron of creativity.
A lot works, a lot doesn’t. And from failure performers learn and improve. That’s the opportunity of the Fringe. There’s nowhere else in the world they can take an idea and perform it night after night to different audiences, refining it until it works.
It’s been three years since the city bustled like this. In the darkest days of the pandemic, it seemed like it might never again. Artists and venues were hit hard. Sheer determination brought things back to life.
This month’s festival isn’t the same as the last. 2019 broke all records. Coming back after Covid and in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, those new records were always safe. Yet the size of this year’s Fringe is on course to be more than 80 per cent of the pre-pandemic peak. That’s an amazing comeback.
Sadly, in three years many people who made shows happen have left: retiring, changing industries, or exiled by Brexit. It’s been a nightmare for many venues to recruit technical and front-of-house staff with experience. The Fringe as an entity has lost a big slice of its collective memory.
So, it saddens me when some of the bigger commercial operators attack the organisers, looking for someone to blame lower ticket sales on. Bounce-back will take more than a year and there will be bumps in the road. Success requires the myriad venues and performers that make up this amazing festival working together, not taking chunks out of each other.
Importantly we need to rebuild anew. The economic potential of this great event needs to be harnessed for all the people who live here. The festival needs closer links with the city and its communities. That’s why the rethink of values which the Fringe Society is promoting is so welcome.
Edinburgh is the world’s biggest festival. It could be the most diverse and the fairest too.