The 1998 Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts. Is there anything like it - or even close to it - in the world?
For essentially one month every year - from the second week of August through the first week in September - the picturesque and atmospheric old city of Edinburgh, Scotland, sprinkled around the hilly base of the craggy green mound where the imposing castle presides, hosts this unique and mind-boggling festival.In 200 or more locations scattered throughout the wide streets and narrow lanes of this ancient city, approximately 600 theater, music and dance companies gather from all around the world to present some 1,300 different productions. And since almost every production is presented many times, the spectators have a choice of more than 16,000 performances to attend throughout the four weeks.
As if that were not enough, the mammoth Edinburgh Book Festival, a respectable film fair and a substantial and intriguing blues and jazz festival, plus the extremely popular Military Tattoo, are also all taking place throughout the month. But it's the International Festival and the accompanying "Fringe Festival" - both in their 52nd year - that dominate this cornucopia of culture and entertainment.
The main festival - referred to as "The International" - takes place in most of the city's larger venues and features such internationally known artists as Bryn Terfel, Andras Schiff, the Kirov Symphony Orchestra and the Dutch National Ballet.
But the Fringe Festival, which has now grown to be about 100 times bigger than The International, takes over every other possible theater/concert space in town to provide as many as 700 choices of events each day, ranging from Ukrainians doing a play based on Tolstoy in St. John's Church, to Mongolian singers and instrumentalists performing musical pyrotechnics in the now gutted-out cathedral known as "Graffiti," to Hungarian dancers and Brazilian actors with life-size puppets dazzling audiences at St. Bride's, to the Gallic band Deaf Shepherd pulling in crowds at the Famous Grouse House, to amazingly comic and talented Japanese drummers raising the roof at the intimate little venue called "The Garage," to a company of 16 startlingly beautiful Thai transvestites putting on a flashy Las Vegas-style review in a huge circus-style tent known as "The Big Top on The Meadows."
There were, in fact, many other "circus-type" events going on at the Edinburgh Festival - such as Circus Ethiopia, the Russian Folk Circus and even an outrageous Circus of Horrors. But there was also Shakespeare in astounding numbers, including a "Macbeth" that was played outside at a variety of different spots along the narrow streets and in churchyards, plus three different interpretations of "The Tempest," four variations on "Hamlet" and at least six versions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
My favorite in this vein was called "Shylock." And though the actor in this one-man show inspired by "The Merchant of Venice" was not playing Shylock at all but Tubal - the friend of the famous Jewish merchant to whom Shakespeare gave only eight simple lines - it continued to be an absolutely mesmerizing tour de force, filled with humor, fascinating information and considerable insight, bringing audience after audience to its feet.
Another fascinating Shakespeare-inspired production playing to packed houses throughout the festival was "O.J./Othello," in which very capable black actor Frank Sheppard slyly slips from one persona to another as he plays the two notorious title characters, both known for their intense jealousy, and whose marriages to white women both ended in shocking tragedy.
Shakespeare was the focus in many other interesting ways as well: One troupe of 12 performers was pretending to be New York punks doing "Shakespeare - D'Good Stuff," another theater company playfully dissected the female psyche in "Shakespeare's Women," while still another narrowed in "Shakespeare's Mums."
But there were classics from many writers, many countries and many different periods being brought to life throughout the festival, from presentations like "Antigone," "Clytemnestra" and "Dr. Faustus," to more recent works like Kafka's "Metamorphosis," Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and Eugene O'Neill's "More Stately Mansions," to even more current works by David Mamet, Alan Ayckbourn, and Woody Allen.
There were even three different productions of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" running simultaneously, and three productions of Harold Pinter's "The Dumbwaiter." One of the latter, starring Andrew Dall-meyer and Paul Riley, played at the lively venue known as Gilded Balloon, and it was absolutely first-rate.
Samual Beckett and Bertolt Brecht seemed to be everywhere. Not only was The Royal Shakespeare Company presenting Edward Peth-er-bridge's highly acclaimed performance of "Krupp's Last Tape" by Beckett, but a lesser-known actor, at the popular Pleasance venue, was giving the U.K.'s premiere performance of Beckett's low-key and hypnotic "All Strange Away."
My favorite was Eva Magyar's Hungarian dance troupe known as the Shamans, which came up with a knockout production of a Beckett short story called "Rockabye" at the Continental Shifts at St. Bride's - entirely in dance and pantomime. Yet it featured some of the most haunting and memorable images of the festival. With inspired lighting, we were drawn into the shabby little house where a tall, lithe woman (the magnificently talented Eva Magyar herself) seems to live alone, with only the dummy of an older woman slumped in a rocking chair. That is, until a dashing man dressed like a soldier or horseman, perhaps from another time, climbs through her window and takes her for a thrilling, spellbinding ride on the neglected rocking horse in the corner. Then, handing her what looks almost like a crystal ball made of ice, he leaves through the window and disappears, as the ice melts slowly in her hands.
Another unforgettable highlight of this year's festival was the production at the nearly always reliable Traverse Theatre of Bertolt Brecht's "Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti." This new version of Brecht's little-known play should ensure a wonderful new life for the work, because the production by London's excellent Almeida Theatre Company is nothing short of brilliant.
Not only is the whole thing so dazzlingly staged that it seems a work of genius, but the two leads - Hamish McColl and Sean Foley (playing the capitalist master and his victimized chauffeur) - were superb. Theater like this doesn't happen every day, but when it does, you thank your lucky stars you just happened to be there to experience it.
A major production at the opera-house-like Lyceum Theater was "Life is a Dream," a play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, perhaps the greatest playwright of Spain's golden age. And the excellent King's Theater, a few minutes away, hosted a controversial production by the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow, Fredrich Schiller's "The Robbers."
Schiller's presence was felt often at this year's Festival, as was the presence of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who not only turned Schiller's play into an opera called "I Masnadieri" (given a fully staged production by England's Royal Opera at Edinburgh's recently renovated Festival Hall during the same week) but also used other Schiller dramas as the basis for his operas "Don Carlos" (also nicely staged during the festival), "Luisa Miller" and "Giovanna dArco" (Joan of Arc) - the latter two performed concert-style.
There was also a great deal of dance throughout the festival. Always a highlight anywhere they perform is the Netherlands Dance Theater - and this year it was in Edinburgh with two of its three troupes, the youngest and the oldest. And making it even more interesting was the fact that the dancers were accompanied this year by their own native Dutch National Ballet (performing its own shows on different nights) and the famous and highly influential choreographer Hans van Manen. Surprisingly enough, he choreographs for both troupes, ballet and modern, and this season's concerts paid tribute to his great talent.
One of the most memorable evenings during the festival for me was the night I stayed for four different shows in a row at the cathedral-turned-concert-venue called "Graf-fi-ti."
The velvet-jacketed Terem Quartet from St. Petersburg with its array of balalaikas, varying in size from petite to monstrous, created new sounds for the standard classical repertoire. Then came the spine-tingling rhythms and harmonies, both vocal and instrumental, of the glorious male Russian-Gypsy trio known as Loyko. Following them was the exotic and highly refreshing musical group Huun Huur, all the way from the remote area where Mongolia and Siberia meet. Similar to Tibetan monks but even more impressive, the members can sing harmonies with themselves, and they can even do a little "whistling" melody while maintaining an amazingly deep drone with their voices.
Last came a glorious Holland-based tango band (complete with strings and concertinas), a treat in itself, but made even more marvelous with accompaniment by five first-rate dancers who brought both passion and class to this midnight performance.
Memories of another show, "Hymn to Love" - Elizabeth Mansfield's stirring late-night tribute to Edith Piaf - moved us all to tears.
If you are able to choose carefully from the hundreds of events available each day throughout the Edinburgh Festival, highlights can seem almost non-stop. I managed to attend somewhere between 150 and 200 events. Not all were exciting, but it's those wonderful few (for me, about three dozen) that stand out and make me wonder how I can possibly think of not going back every single year.