Martin Hannan: On your marks for Festival fun

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So it is almost upon us, that great jamboree that is undoubtedly the biggest of its kind on the planet and makes the host city the centre of attention across the world.

No, not the Olympic Games – more about that later – but the glorious and wonderful, mighty and unique, maddening but brilliant Edinburgh 
Festival.

Yes, I know it inflicts mayhem on our city, but it is worth every minute of the traffic jams, swollen pubs and overcrowded pavements for us to have the Festival.

You can tell I’m a fan of the Festival and always have been. I have attended shows in the Festival and Fringe, the Book Festival and Tattoo for the last 27 years in a row, and once again I can feel the excitement mounting as I try to find the show which will live in my memory alongside so many others.

To many people here and elsewhere, the Festival defines Edinburgh, and I never could work out why we have taken on slogans like “Inspiring Capital” when “Festival City” says so much more about us and what we want to be.

I’m well aware that some of our citizens detest it and take their holidays at Festival time. I’m also well aware that many people have an ambivalent attitude towards the Festival and Fringe – they may not actually like what goes on at the Festival, but heaven forfend that anyone should meddle with Edinburgh’s birthright.

My own feeling is that the success of “supervenues” and the dominance of comedy on the Fringe has changed the nature of the Festival – and, like many people now, while I’m fully aware of the difference between International Festival and Fringe, I lump the whole clamjamfry under the heading “Festival”.

When I think back over the years, my memory tells me that comedy is transient, probably because of its very nature, while great theatrical experiences stick around in the old grey cells.

I remember going to see Kevin Bridges at the Pleasance before he became a star, and predicting in this column that he was going to be huge. I barely remember any of his jokes, but I do recall that my sides were literally sore with laughing.

I recall every second, however, of Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s Carmen Funebre. The Polish group was brought over initially by Richard Demarco in 1995 and I for one will forever be grateful to him as this compelling anti-war show is simply unforgettable and remains the greatest thing I’ve ever seen at the Festival.

It has since toured to 50 countries and this year it is back for one charity performance in the Old College Quad on August 14. I’ll be there, and I strongly suggest you join me.

This year, more than ever, we should be supporting the Festival, and especially the theatre. More than ever before, this world, this country, needs theatre to stimulate us, to challenge us and make us reflect on what we have become. Yes, comedians can make us think as well as laugh, and films can tell us much about ourselves, but nothing quite grips the senses or is so immediate as theatre.

I am not just saying this because I have an actor, playwright and young director in my family, but more and more I find myself turning away from the screen and going to the theatre for entertainment and inspiration. Search around and you will see some wonderful stuff out there.

We are very lucky to have the National Theatre of Scotland leading the way at the moment, but all over Scotland, in subsidised theatres or not, some outstanding work is being produced.

That is also true of Scottish Opera, which has raised the bar in this, its 50th year. It has not always been plain sailing for our national opera company, but it is on a high at the moment.

Our various orchestras are better than ever, and I’m also told there is great excitement about Scottish Ballet’s forthcoming autumn season – and this after its triumph with A Streetcar Named Desire.

Funding for national and local companies alike is very difficult, though can I make a football analogy here? The fans of every Scottish club made their feelings known about the 
Rangers scandal and, as a result, the Ibrox club – whatever it is called in its new incarnation – will play in the Third Division. That will cause serious economic hardship to many clubs and their fans must rally round and pay what they can to support their team.

So it is with the performing arts in Scotland. The diversion of Lottery funds to the Olympic Games has meant problems for the arts in Scotland, so now is the time for those who care about theatre, opera, music and dance to find some bawbees from the biscuit tin to support our performers.

There is a yearning in all age groups to get away from the internet and television-driven culture, but without live productions people will be starved of what could be life-enhancing performances.

We must do our bit to help. Precisely because the Olympics clash with the Festival this year, we should all make a point of going to one or many shows in Edinburgh. Yes, Usain Bolt winning the 100m and Mo Farah winning the 10,000m will be spectacular and shouldn’t be missed, but why not go and see a Festival play or concert as well?